I DOUBT MY INTRODUCTION WILL HELP MUCH, AS YOU’LL EITHER READ FIRESIDE OR NOT (REGARDLESS WHAT I SAY HERE AND NOW), BUT MAYBE FOR THE SAKE OF POSTERITY I’LL TAKE A POKE AT CONTEXTUALIZING THIS TINY CREATION BY RECOUNTING ITS FOUR ORIGINS.
Fireside began smoking around three years ago when, for what felt like the umpteenth time in a matter of weeks, someone asked for a resource recommendation. “I have an employee who’s struggling with the leap from Manager to Leader. Could you point me to some articles, tools, etc. that I could share with him?” I teased Ralph that his request was akin to asking the dental hygienist whether she had any toothbrushes in the drawer. Of course she does! Too many, in fact. Maybe we could narrow things down by starting with firmness and color?
Internally, our Group has kicked an idea around, a bigger and broader one that I imagine will go to market in the years ahead. But Fireside, a subset of it, crystallized when a second thing happened: a client died. I hadn’t seen him in a couple years, but he’d been a client for nearly twenty. It was a terrible passing, the sort that comes too early and, frankly, had come on the heels of one of his employees passing away suddenly, too. It really got me thinking, because I had intended to interview him for the bigger and broader project that remains unbirthed.
Third, however, I was visiting with one of the CEO’s surviving friends who is, himself, a lion (a larger than life man, and one whom I shall treasure ‘til the end of my days). He reached out to me after I’d embarked on something meaningful to me and inquired, “How’s it going, Blake? What are the highlights for you?” I subsequently engaged him in dialogue about it and he casually remarked, “I wish I would have learned earlier in my career that I am here to help others reach their potential by supporting, coaching, and challenging them to do things they never thought possible. I also wish I would have learned to ‘listen to learn rather than rebut’ at a much earlier point in my career.”
His comments stopped me in my tracks, coming as they did just a few weeks after another client wrote to me saying, “My dad and I have spent a lot of time together this year. At nearly ninety, I get to know him differently often, and miss chatting with my mother and [hearing] her insights. We enjoy working on the farm together and it is an activity that is always looking forward. Looking forward to what we will plant, what equipment we need to repair, what equipment we need to make work more efficiently or cost-effectively, debating watering intensity and treatment value, but always looking forward. I enjoy his pleasure of farming and wonder how to continue it once he is gone. We plan to build a home on the farm and start with a barn this year. I will farm for a while and spend time doing many of my other hobbies. They all seem to share in common creating something tangible.”
Wow, that’s powerful, right?
I thought so. And frankly, encouraging and peace-inducing and rather virtuous, too, especially in a world that sometimes feels like a divisive throatpunch.
Bruce Lee once wrote, “Before I learned the art [kung fu], a punch was just a punch and a kick just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick."
My career began twenty-five years ago. Some days, 1992 feels like a quarter century ago. Others, like it was yesterday. When I began, it was the accumulation of knowledge and skill. Today, it’s the distillation. I find (not unlike the elders whom I snickered about as a boy, always grumbling about “kids these days”) that I, too, am grumbling more and more. For all its advancements, much of commerce appears to have devolved, not evolved, becoming as it is about Followers and Phones, not relationships and simplicity and excellence and outcomes. For all our “friends,” more people feel isolated and alone than at any time in history. In his beautiful, haunting book, The Vanishing American Adult, Senator Ben Sasse writes that the average American had 3.4 friends in 1990, and today has 1.8 deep friendships. That’s a halving in 27 years. To that point, 40% of American adults say they have zero confidantes in their life.
I am an introvert, literally scoring 29 on a 30-point scale, so isolation in a dark room is my cup of tea, but I do feel and see evidence of what Sasse describes, hearing it regularly from clients, students, colleagues and, yes, those few friends who make it to my inner sanctum and wonder where everyone else is.
But I digress.
Back to the punch, the farming, the three aforementioned reasons for Fireside, and the thinning, graying crown around my shrinking head. If provocative client questions (“struggling with the leap…could you point?”), unexpected deaths (two, suddenly, and in a very compressed period of time), and a client who thought aloud, “I wish I would have learned earlier in my career” weren’t sufficient signals for this dunce to commence Fireside, a fourth occurrence unequivocally sealed the deal.
Several of us were visiting with a nonagenarian who remarked, “For whatever I’ve accomplished in my ninety years, you have one advantage over me: your youth. I’m definitely in the twilight of my life [understatement]. If I could visit my 45-year-old self, oh the things I’d tell him.” And so began a long and beautiful conversation, but also a sobering one. At 47 (I turn 48 this November) and not in some mid-life crisis, I am all the more reflective and ruminative, as the future surely holds fewer days than the past.
Though I continue to strive for excellence however and wherever I can, I also find myself at peace and content. I don’t know that my 95-year-old self would have many admonishments, but among them would likely be reminders to enjoy and relish the here and now, for it is fleeting and tomorrow is simply an idea, not a promise.
I cannot afford to let my remaining days be accidental, or whiled away haphazardly. They must be intentional, just as they were when I was 23, 24, or 25 and working judiciously to create something of value.
I see around me an increasing number of clients retired, and some no longer above ground. Some of the deciders who hired me lo those many years ago were twenty to thirty years my senior then, putting them now at 65 to 75. They slide through life's fingers like sand, victims of cancer, heart attacks, aneurysms, or whatever befalls us in our final days.
We shall all slide through Mighty fingers eventually. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
And so begins Fireside, which is very much what you’d expect it to be: a series of ruminative conversations with seasoned leaders who reflect on the bulk of their life’s work and weigh it aloud. Ladies and gentlemen nearer the epilogue of life than the prologue, be they forty years old or ninety. What have they learned? Distilled? What would they add to or subtract from the ledger of their life or career? Would they do anything differently? What theme or pearl of wisdom do they wish to convey? Having surely come to ‘understand their art,’ what’s the punch and kick, and what’s the waste and excess and overcomplication thereof?
When I was a boy, my father found a beautiful piece of land at the end of a long, quiet road. From 8 through 18 it was my heaven, the terra firma over which I rode my horse, go-kart, minibikes and motorcycles. I hiked the woods, shot the snakes, retrieved arrows from distant trees, and camped in a tiny pup tent whilst noshing on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches stuffed into tiny bags by the kind hands of my loving mother.
Every autumn on this property, in a grassy bowl perhaps thirty yards across in both directions, my father and I would gather fallen limbs and—together with leaves raked 3-4’ high and 15’ across—create an enormous bonfire to which every youth and parent in our church would congregate, typically on a Saturday evening, and usually the day after a high school football game.
The smell of a bonfire takes me back there in an instant, to a time when kids and parents would squat on 2’x2’ stumps and logs gathered in a circle, make s’mores, laugh, joke, pray, and tell ghost stories. In my mind’s eye, I can see the sun setting, the stars popping, and the early black plumes rising to cover the sky. In its own sweet time, smoke would yield to a crackling, roaring fire six to ten feet high, so hot we had to move our stumps back. When we didn’t, Sunday felt like sunburn.
Eventually, strangers became acquaintances, and acquaintances became friends. Emotional shields dropped, eyes would twinkle in the glow, and hopes, dreams, and stories untold would come alive, everyone become one in this newfound community in the bowl along the banks of the meandering river at the end of Timbercreek Trail.
I suppose that’s the way it’s always been, for millennia. From cave to tribe to pilgrim to rustler to homeless around a trash can. One generation after another, the fireside has magic in it.
Gosh, don’t get me started about how much I love winter lodges.
Calgon, take me away!
I love technology, treasure it, and do not take it for granted.
But there is a time for putting technology away and squatting simply on a nice, stable stump and staring into the dancing, transfixing flames and telling tales.
For lore. For wisdom from elders. For oral traditions. For community without pretense.
At the end of my days, I will care not one iota about much of what consumes the here and now and everyday. I shall care most, I surmise, about my family, my true friends, and my testimony. About the life I lived, or did not, and the difference I made in the lives of others, or failed to.
I trust you feel the same, and hunger for something so authentic, so real, so true.
To that end, allow me then just one final indulgence: to conclude my introduction of Fireside with a few lines from Shawshank Redemption, which always gets me in the proper journeying mood. Our protagonist, Mr. Dufresne, writes,
If you're reading this, you've gotten out. And if you've come this far, maybe you're willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don't you? I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I'll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well.
Your friend, Andy.”
Subsequently aboard the bus barreling southwestward, Red describes what I feel today with any number of projects, Fireside among them:
“I find I'm so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.”
l l l
If you’ll join me, I’ve reserved the perfect spot for you.
Fireside begins in a couple weeks. God willing, I aim to share one interview each week through December 26th. We’ll learn about Generosity, Perspective & Perseverance, Ethics & Morality, Social Emotional Health, Vision, Employee Development, Culture Creation, Trust, Humility, Listening, and so much more. Whatever it is these fine men and women choose to share.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I will, and find a few tasty morsels to sustain you on your own journey.
Light ‘r up.