So, His Holiness walked into a bar…

April 20, 2010

It was probably 1998. I was at a bar having a drink. I was wearing killer shoes and a suit from hell. I was quietly writing my agenda for my meeting with Charlie Rose the next day. I was an asshole.

Back then, I was employed by one of the largest communications company in the world.  The agency had been Nixon’s agency. They were mainly white. My father was probably on the Nixon List. He is white, but, he was once a pacifist anarchist. On that stool in 1998, I was stitched into that fancy suit very precariously.

It’s one of the least discussed facts about the Internet boom of the 1990’s that young people, born of hippies and beat parents, infused the internet with deep passion – then, as though flying from another planet, chunks of stock fell into our hands.  And, since our our parents had instilled the idea of changing the world into us, we saw the Internet as a way to extend our legacy. We were open platform, virtual world, save the world through connectivity activists. And, some were making a ton of money.

Oddly, although I was hardwired to write anti-imperialist pamphlets, I chose to wear Gucci and market connective tissue: the very infrastructure built to flow our e-commerce through “T1” lines.   So, at that bar, on that night in New York, I was not thinking about world peace: I was thinking about a “growth economy” and how fabulous I was.

Charlie Rose had been kind enough to meet with me a few times about a program I had been allowed to build. The program had been approved by my boss and was to be called an “influencer relations” program.  If you use the Google system of today, 70/20/10 (70% core business objectives, 20% tertiary business objectives, 10% personal innovation projects) that program was my 10%.  Yet, I had a scary combination of dyslexia and entitlement, and I was pissing off my manager by lingering in the 90% zone of Charlie and only giving 10% to the thing I was paid to do.

But, again, I didn’t give a shit. The Internet meant you were free to express yourself, and that was one of the golden rules of the 1960’s: fulfill your destiny to say want you want, speak your mind, make a difference. These excuses came in handy to me.

Ok, perhaps I’m being hard on myself. I wasn’t out partying. I didn’t have the fanciest hotel room, nor had I flown business class. I was a person on business and I was sitting in a bar.  And, all around were tourists.  One person asked me what I did and I responded, “The Internet”.  The man smiled, looked at his wife and said, “Well, I’m sure our son would understand what that means.”  I didn’t care  – I’d stopped trying to explain what I did, “Create new industry spaces”, it sounded like a mash up of interior design and NASA deep space programs. Which it was not – it was high-end Public Relations; the aim to land your technology in a quadrant of a report, stake your territorial claim in the industry –  a land grab of sorts. And, I actually liked the work and the analysts: I found them thoughtful and committed. I even recognized myself when I worked with analysts, we talked about ideas: it reminded me of my upbringing, which was thoughtful and committed.

It was then, right when I had that fleeting memory of “thoughtful” and “committed” that the bar grew quiet as a few police dogs started to sniff our feet below the bar. We all looked around, not concerned about a bomb, or anthrax, or violence: it was pre-9/11. We watched calmly as the doors around us were closed, and a slew of New York cops filed in.

Then, slowly, like in that great scene in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, very small, beautiful men in orange robes began to climb the few steps up towards us. More came through the door, and towering above them was one soul person with piercing eyes and long hair.  With an unsavory lack of etiquette, we snickered as a tall, famous crooner pushed his way politely through the throng of small men to an elevator. Then, the bartender said for all of us, “All that for Michael Bolton?”

But, as quickly as we could dismiss the moment as a faddish, spiritual parade, three more men entered up the stairs and we all suddenly shut up: the man considered to be the reincarnation of peace itself stood like a regular guy at the top of the stairs.

The Dali Lama had the clearest eyes I had ever seen.

We may have looked strange to him, all of us holding our drinks mid-air, gapping.  Expecting him to keep moving, his entourage had stepped ahead of him, yet the Dali Lama stopped; he took one step towards the bar and asked everyone and no one, “Are you enjoying your drinks?” And, then, he turned around to go to Richard Gere’s party upstairs and we never saw him again.

I sat very still. Wasn’t I supposed to have some kind of deep moment? That was the Dali Lama for Christ’s sake.  My mother and father would have been thrilled to meet him.  The years of peace marches and battles for equal pay and AIDS work that my mother was involved in would have been sweetened by such an encounter. But, I wasn’t moved. In fact, I couldn’t move because his question had stopped me flat in my life:  I could not taste my drink.

In fact, I could not taste anything. For the past six months the speed of the Internet had been giving me anxiety attacks, big ones, always during the late of night while on media tours. And, my suits were swimming on me because I couldn’t eat. And, my only friends were the people I worked with, and I was pretty sure they thought I didn’t belong in Public Relations (why did I choose it? Did I know? Was it the money? Was it…the power to influence…what was I running towards?)

I was someone brought up to be “free” and I was “professional” now. Though, I think I was acting – and I had chosen a role  that was too tight, and I did not fit. As a child of Greenwich Village and the civil rights movement, I grew up in the radical theater of downtown.  My mother was one of the first activists to demand that the doctors take their masks off at St. Vincent’s Hospital when they tended to our friends with AIDS.  I had really wanted to find a way to take all of the values of my experience and feed them into the freedom I thought was intrinsic to the Internet.  Yet, I chose to believe that e-commerce was going to help change the world. I desperately hoping that the new “connected” world was a good bet.

I was as tight as a drum, and beating to something far out of reach: peace through commerce, and peace through platforms, alone.

I’d also hedged my bet creating a, “thought leadership” program to gather together interesting people together, much like my parents had during the cultural explosion of the 1960’s. Yet, I had camouflaged my need for a Parisian Salon, and had positioned the program to my boss as an “offering” – Thought Leadership was a coined phrase in existence even when I got into the game. Even still, back then it was a term looking for context, a term I now see was turned into a very dangerous idea: one that I committed to with fervor.

Here’s the big, arrogant, whopping mistake I made: the intrinsic hierarchy of one person, or a few people being, “thought leaders” can’t be organically sustained, and more importantly, having no access to passion and feelings impedes the creation of true community.

Fancy talk – but the mistake was the belief that innovation only comes from one person at a time – and that “innovation” is “man” made.  The fundamental flaw in the construct is that although thought leadership conferences were inspiring those who could attend, ultimately they act as power brokering, networking events (even if you do a video cast, and even if you do bring to light amazing ideas and people) – it’s a moment in time for those who can afford a moment in time.

I wanted to create events with Charlie Rose leading the discussion, leading the thought leaders: leading the leaders around and around and spreading those collective ideas into wealth and that wealth of ideas into clients that went back to my employer.

I sold “Thought Leadership” as a bundled product: it was a collection of people who were smarter than others, who could see from the mountain top, and could help find “solutions” to all the world’s woes.  In essence, they were supposed to draft out immutable cultural “solutions” in concrete terms (certainly not in playful, nor ethereal ways): their job was to drive cultural change to lead the revolution of continuous growth: guides, evangelists, economic shamans for a new world.

The consequences of investing in the paradigm of thought leadership was that it set the stage for a new form of American empirical thought. And, if not thought of at the time, a comfort with those who claimed a vision that we should all cop to. It is my strong belief that promoting the concept of Thought Leadership, a kind of ecclesiastic confidence of those tapped with absolute vision – supported what was soon to emerge: the absolutist message platform of the Bush years.

The Right took the idea of Thought Leadership and “reframed the narrative” — they did the best public relations job ever: they convinced America that “thought” was for glutinous, selfish, elitist pansies – and that empirical leadership was the true evangelism: the true, safe “solution” to saving democracy through imperialist invasion.

As the economy failed in the early 2000’s, and now perhaps more permanently, we are left in the wake of the absolutist culture of consumption: though, perhaps we may have found a way to breathe. The deep breath of air, the taste of connections may now be found in the social networks, blogs, and that loopy chaos of Twitter and all the political, messy, personal, smart, poetic and dumb things we all tell each other online or through text. The chaos of culture is swirling, and no one person leads the way. Wiki is anarchy in a box – the open source of a needed chaos.

I think the chaos is the only reasonable response to Bush’s fundamentalist thinking, policy and suppression.  All of these social networks – any and all of those that are highly commercial, or remaining underground, is what I frame as the Conversation Revolution. And, though seemingly trite, I love how pissed off people get with every interface change by users from Facebook or Twitter, it’s a terrific sign that people are aware they should not be conned into thinking their ideas can be directed and controlled: that the straight line, the “right” way, or that “lead thought” means anything in a time where we are coming out of a cultural coma.

It’s 2010 and the Dali Lama has a site and a blog  http://dalailamacenter.org/about/who-we-are – not filled with just what he thinks, but the ideas of others – because let’s not forget that the guy is smart, and has been meeting with scientists and technologists for years — his thought leadership may be one of the heart (and if you believe in it or not – the deity element) he got the picture – keep the conversation open.

Anyway, my “thought leadership” program was about helping us find an elegant way to sell our services, because we were bursting at the seams with things to sell. And, in the end, that is what nailed us: our devotion to growth had morphed into a belief that making money was itself a form of innovation, and, that financial innovation could manufacture peace.

Didn’t seem to work, did it?

Yeah, so, the Charlie program never took off: wisely, he told me that the idea for the program seemed squishy.  Soon after, I didn’t need my Gucci after I lost my next job with everyone else to Pink Slips. I was soon home in San Francisco looking out at the freeway and watching 50% less cars driving south to Mountain View.  My friends and I stood stunned that perhaps, perhaps we had become what our parents had warned us against. I yearned to be an artist again, the one I was trained to be.

And, I still can’t remember the taste of that drink.

Though recently, with the help of some friends, I am starting to taste my childhood again: a time of a crowd, sourcing out peace.

One Response to “So, His Holiness walked into a bar…”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sarah kornfeld. sarah kornfeld said: I met the Dali Lama in a bar in 1998 when I was an ass. Post here http://bit.ly/cIvB1G – reflections on changing in a social age. […]


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