One of my dad’s gems of advice was, “When in doubt, go to the top.” So when I realized I needed a college education, my first call was to the president of Harvard at his home one Saturday afternoon.
“Sure,” Nathan Pusey said in response to my inquiry whether Harvard would consider talking to a 26 year-old news announcer at one of Boston’s radio/TV stations who wanted to retire and become a college freshman, “we take a number of non-traditional students.” Not wanting to test his definition of “non-traditional” until the moment was right, I didn’t mention that I’d graduated next-to-last in my high school class.
“Tell you what you do,” he said, giving me the number of the admissions’ dean, “tell him I suggested you and he have a chat.”
This was exactly what I wanted. With my tepid academic pedigree and oddball resume (including a high school seminary designed to be a gateway to priesthood followed by Special Forces to be a trained killer), I needed a face-to-face with the person who could say yes to my candidacy without asking permission.
I was on a mission. Ambition, curiosity, fear of failure and a certain innate talent were no longer enough to navigate the world in ways that would satisfy my life-long compulsion to explore “What’s going on?” in every sense of that query. Plus, in the recesses of my intuition I felt the whisper of destiny to be of service, without of course a clue as to what that service might look like.
She said,“Why don’t you think about going to college?”
I said, “I’ve never had a very positive experience with school.”
She said, “Maybe you’ve never known a good one.”
At that time, I was working with some of the nation’s most talented broadcasting professionals, many of them members of the generation that basically created television, as well as members of what might be called the last generation of distinct radio personalities. My future was limited until I developed a more disciplined mind, or at least a better sense of whatever mind I had. Thank goodness my girlfriend at the time was Marguerite, who had recently graduated from Smith. She said, “Why don’t you think about going to college?” I said, “I’ve never had a very positive experience with school.” She said, “Maybe you’ve never known a good one.” So she introduced me to a few.
Walking onto the Amherst campus, stop number one, reminded me of the first time my dad took me to Yankee Stadium when I was a ten year-old Little Leaguer. It was the deepest spiritual experience of my life at that point, and I was an altar boy and a big time God lover. Amherst wasn’t exactly that experience, but the idea of spending four years in beauty and luxury with some of the smartest people on earth was beyond intoxicating.
Soon, my strategy was to make my case to enough of the top colleges in New England until I found one or more that would open its doors while not thinking twice about my light purse.
“I’m green but I’ll work hard, find the answer to any question and never lie to you,” was my basic pitch, one that helped me learn how disarming it can be to simply tell the truth.
Right out of the Army at 20, two decades before personal computers became ubiquitous, I spent a year in a suit, white shirt and hat, driving an American-made car: the uniform required to sell accounting machines for National Cash Register. I was my branch office’s top performer, despite starting the job without knowing the difference between a debit and a credit and having never before peddled even a box of cookies. “I’m green but I’ll work hard, find the answer to any question and never lie to you,” was my basic pitch, one that helped me learn how disarming it can be to simply tell the truth.
Born in 1906, my father, in his early twenties, was so successful on Wall Street that he stashed a lot of his paychecks in a drawer. Then came the crash of ’29, and instantly his paychecks were worthless and he was unemployed. After working his way to Europe on a freighter, he traveled the Continent hand-to-mouth for a year or so. Returning to the states, the best job he could get was selling canned dog food to grocery stores. Grocery store chains were emerging: one sale stocked many stores. He wangled an appointment with the president of a chain, who said the instant they met, “I’ll give you one minute to state your case.” In that minute, my pop pulled out a can opener and spoon, opened a can, popped a dollop in his mouth, and said, “If this stuff’s good enough for me, it’s gotta be the best dog food you can sell.” After my father died at 65, my mother, a homemaker, never knew a moment’s financial insecurity over the remaining 25 years of her life.
At 23, I became sports director of the television station in Elmira, NY, despite never having been on television before, or written about sports, or shot and edited film, or directed a newscast, or been the weather man––all part of that particular job description. I had heard that their long-time sports guy was moving on. Immediately I called for an interview, at which I said with a straight face, “I’ve never done this, but I’m pretty sure I’ll do well if you audition me.” After my brief accounting career, I had been a budding broadcasting everyman: disc jockey, talk show host, creator of a daily retrospective on local history, and the creator of a weekly program for children. And not a shred of previous experience eased my way into those assignments.
That I write this a half-century later seasons the respect I hold for the professional experiences placed before me by a universe I find to be playful, loving and deep.
The Elmira TV job in 1967-68 is a good example. Virtually every piece of broadcast material the station originated (programming as well as commercials) was done live––i.e., without the benefit of video tape; e.g., without the benefit of being able to “do over,” edit to perfection, correct goofs, or even replay and learn from. This was one of the last stations in the U.S. to adopt video recording technology (and it did so after I departed). And as Neanderthal as that may have been on one level, it was part of a priceless education I didn’t realize I was receiving: a hands-on introduction to the range of skills essential to “moving picture” storytelling (which is probably all storytelling when you dig deep enough): writing, directing, lighting, shooting, editing, and not least of all being on the air. Then there’s identifying a story worth telling in the first place, and telling it as well as possible––within whatever time and space parameters are dictated––regardless of the tools at hand.
Instead of video tape there was 16 millimeter negative film, which meant black-and-white and no sound for the most part. The title Sports Director was humorous. I was the sports department. And while free to pursue any story I pleased, I had to shoot, process and edit the film myself, write the script, and fill a good five minutes of the half-hour six PM newscast Monday thru Friday. Which I did, with stories ranging from rattlesnake hunting and iceboat sailing to Formula One racing at nearby Watkins Glen; from the steady thrum of high school contests to the baseball exploits of the Triple-A Elmira Pioneers, farm team of the Baltimore Orioles. Since local sports wasn’t part of the half-hour eleven PM news block, I was the director of that broadcast for twenty-five minutes, whereupon a colleague who’d delivered the news took over as director and I became…the weatherman.
The Elmira station’s employee roster numbered no more than a dozen. I was there for roughly eighteen months when I left for WHDH in Boston, among the nation’s top echelon of radio and television outlets––350 employees at the time, unionized (which meant strict parameters of who got to do what), and producers of just about any kind of programming you could imagine from Romper Room to Red Sox baseball, to regular features with all manner of Boston newsmakers and illuminati, to impromptu sessions with whatever dignitary, performer or celebrity was passing through town.
Within days of joining WHDH in the fall of 1968, the Nixon-Humphrey presidential race came to our station. Part of Mr. Nixon’s campaign strategy was to hold a series of “town meetings” across the nation. With an audience of hand-picked “ordinary citizens,” the event in Boston took place on our big sound stage, where I was privileged to be a fly on the wall. As I was a few weeks later when we produced at Harvard Stadium (our sports director, gentleman Don Gillis, the father of television sports reporting in Boston, doing the play-by-play) the telecast of what turned out to be “the famous Harvard-Yale football game.” Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to elicit the newspaper headline that, forty years later, became the title of the 2008 documentary: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”
And so it went.
The following spring I beat out maybe 75 other candidates for a staff announcing job––not because I was more wonderful than everyone else, but because I’d purposely moved to Boston from Elmira in the fall, taking the entry-level position of TV floor director just so I would be more than a voice in the crowd when the next auditions rolled around six months later.
From this perspective I learned something invaluable. I understood on at least some rudimentary level the job of virtually every on-air and production person. Directors, sound engineers, film and video editors, camera operators, photographers, news anchors, reporters, writers, radio personalities…even the weather man. Don’t get me wrong. I couldn’t do their job. They were pros, as a group by far the most skilled colleagues I’d ever worked with––from Carroll Spinney, the amazing puppeteer who would go on to create Big Bird for Sesame Street, to Leslie Stahl, who subsequently joined CBS news, quickly made a name for herself covering Watergate, and eventually became a stalwart of “60 Minutes.” I was a beginner with a nice voice. But thanks to my hands-on radio and television experience before Boston, I was able to appreciate well enough the talent around me so that, ever since, I’ve enjoyed a reasonable nose for excellence and its requirements.
A little more than a year after landing the announcing job, I called the president of Harvard at his home.
It turned out that Amherst was indeed the college for me. When my interview with admissions dean, Ed Wall, reached the point where he asked how I did in high school and I told him, his giant laugh echoed for miles. Then he asked the perfect question.
I serve the daunting intention to respond well to any eventuality…
My answer suggests why, today, I’m privileged to help others engage their lives in a manner that honors who, in their heart of hearts, they are committed to being, and the organization or presence in the world they are committed to nurturing––or die trying. Even if they’re not quite sure of their answers when we meet.
I serve the daunting intention to respond well to any eventuality, and I do so by offering skills and understanding rooted in timeless, universal practices of health: managing fear; learning from our experience; gaining ever-deeper understanding of what we cannot live without; aligning commitments with action and action with commitments.
Moreover, I help others establish for themselves, and their colleagues, an approach to problem-solving that can effectively address any circumstance as deeply as necessary, and from as large a perspective as necessary, for healthy action––beginning, always, with the very next action one chooses.
My professional playmates are those who aspire to become ever more accomplished at answering life’s two most important questions: What’s going on, and what’s the healthiest action I can take in this moment?
I came into this world with the sense that life is this amazing playground of infinite diversity…
I came into this world with the sense that life is this amazing playground of infinite diversity; all of it––the painful, the glorious––here solely to help us grow our capacity to love. The harm we do, I’ve felt, is the result of ignorance, not our basic nature. We’re basically sacred beings who, generally, don’t realize how sacred we are. My own litany of shake-your-head choices often lives in mystifying harmony with my cellular experience that everything is a gift and life is a journey of discovering how come.
I’m in the kitchen of our home, sitting in a high chair, however old that makes me. My mother is there doing something. The sun is coming through the window above the kitchen sink illuminating what I later learn were African Violets blooming on the windowsill. In an instant, and for a period I have no way to measure, I’m consumed by (all I know and feel and experience is) unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, absolute unity with all of existence. I knew beyond thought that it was a glimpse of another realm of vibration, perhaps where my essence resided in transition between my previous life and this one, perhaps where part of me also lives while another part is having this earthly experience. Those are just ideas. Whatever it was, it wasn’t surprising, it was familiar. The best way I can put it is I was being reminded of my true self, the true self of us all.
The most meaningful thing I can say about this experience is its impact on my life since: there is this kernel of eternal fire located in the deepest fold of my heart from which I know that, no matter how delusional, insane, ill, or ignorant I might be––no matter the harm and hardship I might create for myself and others as a result––I am, as we all are, fundamentally okay, just right. My essence is divine––nothing but love––because that is the essence of the universe. Put poetically, I am a tiny bubble of laughter in the sea of mirth, as Swami Yogananda said about himself.
When it came to school as a child, tops on the things that fascinated me was why were we there.
When it came to school as a child, tops on the things that fascinated me was why were we there. Since the world was so vast, with so many endeavors and people available to learn from, why were these subjects the most meaningful way to spend our time? And who were you, the teacher, that makes your understanding of what’s what so valuable? I wasn’t being obstreperous, just curious. Actually, these questions were far from conscious. They just sort of subtly buzzed away deep inside, nettled by a perplexity at being told, in school and elsewhere, to hold as important certain ideas and beliefs that felt out of balance with the spirit of oneness I carried in my heart. My father’s racism, for instance; or its equivalent in those who preached that Catholicism was the “one true religion.” My guess is this buzzing occurs in us all and, sooner or later, whether in this lifetime or another, we start to hear it as a call to look within, rather than without, for the answers that matter most.
My passion, I explained to Ed Wall, lay in any of the many different ways one could ask: Why are things the way they are? How does the universe work? Why would anyone want to spend a great deal of their time doing something they weren’t deeply interested in? Why did so many people feel that the best way to get someone to do something was to threaten to cause them pain if they didn’t do it? What was the person thinking who designed the roadside billboard I passed on the bus to school every morning? How is it possible for a person to be superior or inferior to another? Why did a tree grow in the particular way it did? Why were some cars popular and others not? What would you learn if you looked only at shadows? When someone calls someone else evil, how do they know; can they read that person’s mind; how do they know what motivates that person’s behavior? How come I don’t dislike anybody, not really, even kids I’ve gotten in a fight with?
Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa taught, “There is no such thing as talent, only awareness.” The spark of awareness that had consumed me briefly in a high chair was, in my youth, tested by the beliefs of others, and lovingly tended by the earth. Big Mother I call her.
…my heart’s desire was unity, oneness –– not the thought of God, or the belief in God, but the “experience” of God
We lived on 30 acres overlooking one of New York’s Finger Lakes. Abundant water, fields, vineyards, woods, and stillness. My nearest chum a mile away. My mom, pop, all the extended network of adults (including the nuns of grammar school and the Franciscan monks at the seminary where I spent more than half of high school) were as well-intentioned as one could ask, I’m sure. But since my heart’s desire was unity, oneness––not the thought of God, or the belief in God, but the “experience” of God––everybody I knew took a backseat to the earth as teacher, which is to say a source of unfathomable resilience. We humans may make the planet uninhabitable to the point that our life form disappears like the dinosaurs, but the earth’s enormous power of generation remains. It is that power that was my teacher then, and is today, an always-present battery charger of sorts, the use of which requiring only that I open my body, heart and mind to its unconditional acceptance and support. As a kid, I would attempt to attune myself to the energy of things like water over stone through centuries that created the gorges that fed the lake. I would do the same with all those who had farmed and hunted and played and fought on this land for however long humans were part of its geography, including members of the Iroquois Confederacy. I was a cowboy, pirate, mountain man, explorer, dare-devil bike rider, football star, ace pitcher for the Yanks, olympic ice-skater and so forth––usually by myself and without leaving my vast backyard. I spent hours at a time just wandering, or lying on my back in a field, or floating in a rowboat watching birds, clouds, the texture of waves or tree branches blow in the breeze, open to absorb whatever universal principles of existence were occurring around me, and through me. There was a summer day when, for a few seconds, I experienced eternity.
It was as though my heart were channeling Rumi: Respond to every call that excites your spirit. Which implies let pass every call that doesn’t.
Around 5th grade or so I began to find it almost impossible to do things I wasn’t really drawn to. This was not a conscious decision. It was as though my heart were channeling Rumi: Respond to every call that excites your spirit. Which implies let pass every call that doesn’t.
Swiftly I became a good kid who wasn’t living up to his potential. That was painful. Part of me wanted approval, to do well, to fit in. So I would buckle down. Try harder. But soon I would find that I just couldn’t get over the hump of doing stuff that didn’t excite my spirit. I felt flawed, a foreigner in a culture sometimes inhospitable, but mostly just unfamiliar in its assumptions, judgments, customs and viewpoint. “Follow your bliss” wasn’t the everyday response to my dilemma, though my parents did their best. My father daydreamed that right after high school he’d be sending me, his eldest son, off to some snazzy college in a sports car––the first college student on his side of the family, I believe. Lucky for me, while he and my mother wished that my relationship with traditional learning were different, the message I remember most from them was, “You can do anything.”
At 27, a decade after finding myself on the tail end of my high school class, I entered Amherst, among the nation’s elite colleges. Word was I was the oldest freshman Amherst had ever admitted. While I had evidently done enough interesting stuff in my life to get admitted, apprehension remained: could I actually thrive here? When, at the president’s reception for freshmen, I introduced myself to president Bill Ward, he said, “Oh, you’re the old guy.” And then he said the most beautiful thing: “Welcome. You’re where you belong. Enjoy yourself.”
Six weeks later my father died of a heart attack. I graduated with honors.
I find it useful, and amusing, to view existence through the lens of no accidents.
I find it useful, and amusing, to view existence through the lens of no accidents. Being led to Amherst was the universe saying, “Pal, you have things to do, and your doubts about your intelligence are getting in your way. Amherst will show you that your mind works just fine. Only then will you be able to learn something far more important: that cultivating a peaceful heart is not about smarts; it’s about training your mind to choose love in more and more moments.”
I arrived at Amherst with zero experience writing academic papers. I was from TV news, where people can reduce the history of the world to a minute or so. When my first-ever paper, a page-and-a-half, double-spaced offering for a history course on the Enlightenment, was returned to me, I see scrawled above the title “You’re not trying!!!” I immediately head to the professor, John Ratté, a captivating teacher who later became a much respected headmaster at Loomis Chaffee School in Connecticut. “What do you mean I’m not trying?” I said. “It took me a lot of work to cut this down and get to the point.” He looked at me as if I were a talking horse. “Just what is your background?” he inquired. I told him, and he cracked up. “I hate to break it to you,” he laughed, “but brevity is not a virtue around here.”
My honors thesis was a three inch tome on why, in the early 1970s, in Amherst, Massachusetts, a community marked by a wealth of academic and professional expertise serving as ordinary citizens on town boards and committees, an attempt to create a progressive, environmentally respectful model of land development fell apart.
…my blood type is Fortune 500, the scars on my back spell “entrepreneur,” the names of my children are Vision and Strategy.
Graduate school was a five year mentoring by the husband and wife principals of a small, rarified marketing-communications firm in Rochester, NY. He was Princeton; she Bryn Mawr; they met while graduate students at Columbia: she journalism; he business. I joke that my blood type is Fortune 500, the scars on my back spell “entrepreneur,” and the names of my children are Vision and Strategy. This firm, Saphar & Associates, is where that quip got its legs.
When she and her husband, Ed, hired me, Audrey Saphar said, “Steve, you’re brilliant, but you don’t have enough discipline. I will be your discipline.” Among the things she meant was the rigor necessary to become an accomplished researcher, strategist, creative director, and writer in service of pretty much the full range of human endeavor.
Three decades later, I often serve that person who is responsible for the vision of an institution (sometimes an institution of one). We address what is essential to identify and take action on “who I will be or die trying.” A saint of my acquaintance said, “Environment is stronger than will power.” Among the reasons that wisdom resonates in me is the mentoring of this remarkable woman and her husband.
I find every situation essentially the same: an opportunity to grow resilience.
The dreams and adversities I’ve been privileged to address––both personal, and related to the men and women I serve––have been numerous, diverse, deep, heartbreaking at times, and almost always a source of unspeakable gratitude. Today, surprising as it sounds, I find every situation essentially the same: an opportunity to grow resilience.
Resilience is the ability to respond to whatever life presents with kindness, compassion and understanding. There is no finish line. Our last breath offers the same opportunity as every breath before it.
If our goal is to apply to each circumstance as much life-affirming leverage as we can muster, then our only problem is how to bring the integrated fullness of our mind and heart to here and now.
To do so isn’t a matter of talent, but awareness. Sooner or later that awareness must include the recognition of how much power each of us harbors, beginning with the power to choose where we place our attention moment by moment––our most defining choice being love or fear.
The power of choice also reveals an inspiring and sobering reality: how we define our world creates our world. This principle most determines the well-being of any individual or institution.
Helping others never lose sight of the big picture, no matter what worldly endeavor the playing field, is the joyful call of my heart.