Airport Conversations and The Secret Sauce of Success

Every once in awhile someone will ask me what I do for a living. These conversations usually occur in the kinds of places where strangers feel compelled to carry on polite chitchat. In line at the grocery store. Doctor’s office waiting rooms. Airplanes waiting to be cleared for take-off. When I tell people I am a writer, they often respond in the same way I imagine I would respond if someone told me they traveled with the circus or roadied for Def Leppard in the 80s. An incredulous mix of shock and awe, with undertones of questioning my sanity.

“That’s…brave,” they say. What they mean to say is, “How do creative people sleep at night knowing they could be one dry-spell away from the unemployment line?” I don’t have an answer for that question. If you asked a thousand different creatives, you’d get a thousand different answers. I just know this is what I was meant to do.

I was born with an innate love for language – and all the power that came with it. My childhood scrapbook, a chronicle of tidbits from my early years stealthily pilfered and loving preserved by my mother’s hand, can attest to this.

As so often tends to be the case with keepsakes, many of these artifacts are truly terrible. In many instances, what once seemed like an staggering work of genius, now seems more like the literary equivalent of those coconut monkeys souvenirs people pick on on vacation in Cabo. Given a few decades to marinate (and fester) my early works now leave me awash in a nostalgic sea of horror and delight, reveling in the absurdity and purity of first love-inspired poems, drama-laden high school notes and even the occasional elementary school valentine.

Among the written wreckage, you will find classic hits such as: a third grade essay I wrote about my teacher’s best quality (her red fingernails), as well as a pillow-side plea asking “Molly” (the tooth fairy) to keep the pocket change and leave me a unicorn. There are cleverly written scripts starring my sister and I. Staged in the living room, those performances were a relentless negotiation (with an occasional musical number thrown in for good measure) as we tried to persuade our parents to get us puppies, ponies and, when we aimed our sights slightly lower, pizza.

Perhaps my favorite relic, however, is the neatly folded copy of a letter I sent to former Ohio governor George V. Voinovich. In the letter, I implore the governor to help me save the environment (and future of the world) by becoming a partner in my third grade fight against the formidable styrofoam lunch trays used in my elementary school cafeteria. Apparently Governor George was busy with other things, because he never did stop by to rally against lunch trays and the certain doom they would bring upon the world. He did, however, send me an autographed headshot and a letter encouraging me to “keep it up”. The day I received that piece of mail was one of the most thrilling afternoons of my young life.

When I was in high school, a college admissions counselor asked me what I wanted to do. “Write,” I said. She looked at me, laughed and said, “Write? You might as well go into philosophy. Writing is a useless degree.” I spent much of my early college experience fighting what I really wanted to do – and what I was good at – as a result of that single conversation.

While on delay in Charlotte over Christmas, I had one of the airport conversations I mentioned in the beginning of this post. I took a seat next to an older gentleman. In a sea of earbuds, laptops and ipads, he was the last of a dying breed, perusing the newspaper with a quiet sort of page-flipping dignity. We exchanged the usual pleasantries of strangers who are temporarily forced, more by inadequate airport seating than by choice, into each other’s lives and personal space. After a a few minutes of smalltalk, he asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a writer, expecting the usual reaction.

Instead, he looked at me, smiled and said: “A writer is who you are. Writing is what you do. Never confuse the two.”

Brain Pickings recently featured a letter sent to a 16-year old Jackson Pollock by his father in 1928. In the excerpt, Pollock’s father writes, “[The secret to success is] to be fully awake to everything about you.”

It’s a tidbit of wisdom that holds true for all of us. Whether a brand or an entrepreneur, a leader or a wandering soul. Whether a marketer trying to create powerful change for a client or a non-profit trying to powerful change in the world, a retiree closing one chapter or a college applicant just about to open a new one…it is by becoming fully awake to who we are that we are able to become courageous in what we do.



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