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Getting Better

I love to read. And right now, I love reading Ann Patchett. I have been on a deep dive of her books and have either read or re-read her entire catalogue (save one) over the last couple of years.

I love her novels, her short stories, her commencement address which she published as a book, her magazine articles, and most of her interviews. I love it all.

I love her unapologetic candor. She says things that I want to say but my version would be far too harsh … plus I would add superlatives that would make many people blush.

I love the agency she maintains over her thoughts and life and decisions, and I love her smart-ass independent streak.

Mostly though, I love the way she takes ordinary, seemingly banal events and experiences, and turns them into important universal truths. She does this in ways that I do not have the ability to describe well – only that to me, it is breathtaking!

Her first collection of short stories is entitled “This is the Story of a Happy Marriage” and the eponymous story in the book may be the best thing I‘ve ever read.

But that’s not the story I want to discuss today – the one I want to bring your attention to is called “The Getaway Car”.

This story is primarily about how she realized in her late 20’s that while she had spent the better part of her educational career learning how to write short stories, the only way she was going to escape waiting tables for a living was to write a successful novel and she describes this as her “getaway car”.

I had never thought about it in that way but as I reflected on the concept, I realized that my career as a financial advisor was 100% my getaway car.

I wanted independence more than anything in the world, and for me that meant financial independence, which would then lead to independence in every other way.

I threw myself into that endeavor with a focus and ferocity that was beyond anything I had ever done before.

In “The Getaway Car”, Ann Patchett talks about her failures and her good luck, and she gives credit to the mentors in her life who made a lasting impact.

One  notable excerpt below, captures her clear-headed assessment of the impact a particular professor had on her.

              “My last fiction teacher in college was Russell Banks, and the lessons I got from him came in a single conversation that changed everything I did from that day on. He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along on the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by. “You have to ask yourself,” he said to me,” if you want to write great literature or great television.”

In our current societal moment, it would be rare indeed for a professor or mentor to have the temerity to deliver such candor and truth and thus let people move on with their lives never knowing the truth that could help them be better! Better is all I have ever really cared about and the desire to grow and improve is so hard-wired into my DNA that I would not know what anything else felt like. But to “get better”, we must be willing to embrace feedback in whatever form it comes.

My story, my crack of lightning moment, was one of the most impactful learning opportunities of my life, but it was certainly not pleasant and if you are offended by strong language then be forewarned.

During the late 90’s my career was in full swing, and I was beginning to get speaking opportunities on some bigger stages. My partner, Riley, was far ahead of me and had already been speaking at many big events, but we were both gaining some notoriety and getting more opportunities. We had developed a curriculum for advisors and we each taught about half of the content. Riley had been asked to speak at our Financial Advisor Training Center in Princeton on one of his topics -Liability Management.

The day before he was to fly to Princeton and speak, he caught the flu and could not attend.  Not wanting to disrupt the program, he called Sherry Lucas, the program manager, and assured her that “Perry can do it.”  She agreed and said for me to be up there the next day.

I had never given the talk, but I had heard Riley do it at least 50 times so I grabbed his notes, worked on it the whole way up there and showed up to deliver the talk next morning.

The Training Center had a 500-person auditorium for the keynote talks with the stage at the bottom of the auditorium and a big control booth at the top. Sherry, who I had known for 15 years  (she had been my trainer when I started in 1982 in NYC ) was waiting for me. After giving me a lovely introduction, off I went for the next 75 minutes.

The audience could not have been more generous or kind , and many of them came and shook my hand when it was over and said thank you for your time.

As the last few people trickled out, Sherry came out of the control booth and made her way down to the stage where I was gathering my notes. She asked me, “How do you think that went?” I was like – it was ok, not really my best work… She cuts me off in mid-sentence, “It was fucking terrible”

She said “You tried to give Riley’s talk – I needed you to give your talk. You are funny – Riley is not funny – use your strengths and don’t ever try and give someone else’s talk!” Then she turned around and left.

It was and continues to be one of the defining moments in my career. I love Sherry Lucas for having the courage to tell me the truth. I love her for caring about her program enough that if I ever got invited back – which I did many times – it was going to be exponentially better. Sherry cared enough about me and my career to give me the feedback I needed in a way that I would certainly understand… and it changed. my. life!

Now back to Ann Patchett.

“There are in life a few miraculous moments when the right person is there to tell you what you need to hear and you are still open enough, impressionable enough, to take it in. When I thought about the writer I had wanted to be when I was a child, the one who was noble and hungry and lived for art, that person was not shallow. I would go back to being my better, deeper self.” 

All of us need a Russell Banks or a Sherry Lucas to tell us hard truths.  

But its then our responsibility to accept it and learn from it.

That’s how we get better!

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