Being There

Phrases become clichés for a reason, that they somehow capsulize a thought that would otherwise require a lot more words to convey. Each generation comes up with clichés of its own, and also repeats those from its elders.

My wife and I will sometimes catch each other using our parents’ expressions, even though we have no idea where they came from originally. One of us will say something like “I went all the way around Robin Hood’s Barn,” and the other will ask what exactly that saying even means.

Our own generation tends to go in for pithy advice from the movies, like “If you build it, they will come,” or “Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” We also like folksy rephrasing of conventional wisdom, like “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”

Once in a great while though, someone coins an authentic new phrase which is so on-point that it becomes an instant classic. Among my favorites in that category is a line from Woody Allen that has been repeated in many different forms. According to Allen himself, his original remark was, “80 percent of success is showing up.”

I’ve known people in business who had very little going for them other than their willingness to jump on an airplane at the drop of a hat (there’s another of my parents’ expressions that doesn’t make a lot of sense). Whenever there was a business opportunity anywhere in the country, regardless of how improbable the enterprise was, they were on it. Those people always did very well.

In looking back at my own career, with the benefit of hindsight I can see that there were times when I answered the bell and times when I didn’t. Being a glass-half-empty type of person, it’s those missed opportunities that bother me, and I often find myself wondering what would have happened had I saddled up.

I am not the only person to harbor regrets about not showing up. When asked about his presidency, George W. Bush doesn’t second-guess his decision to invade Iraq, nor does he lose sleep over the financial crisis that led to the most severe recession of the past 70 years. No, if you gave him a do-over he would use it to visit New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

His rationale for not going was that the presidential entourage would have gotten in the way of first responders and diverted resources away from the rescue efforts, but in retrospect he thinks he should have gone anyway. Apparently the public thought so too, because the ensuing controversy caused a greater drop in Bush’s approval rating than any other event in his term.

Coincidentally, the same basic problem, flooding in Louisiana, caused a similar dilemma for President Obama, this time in the middle of the race to elect his successor. Like Bush, Obama was enjoying an August vacation when the waters rose, and like Bush he decided to wait a week before visiting the devastation.

Donald Trump sensed an opportunity to upstage his opposition and embarass the administration, so he promptly flew down to Baton Rouge with his running mate. The two of them helped unload toys off the back of a truck. I don’t know whether or not the stunt will help them with the electorate (ask me on November 9th), but they did show up.

Of course there are degrees of not showing up. Maybe you don’t go to a wedding, for example, but you send a gift, or maybe you don’t visit a sick friend, but at least you call. The worst no-show is when you leave someone waiting for you somewhere and you make no effort to communicate or apologize. To borrow another inexplicable expression from the past, that’s called standing somebody up.

When I was 18, a girl stood me up on what would have been our first date. I’ve never seen her since, but I still remember her name, and as you can see it left a mark. As far as I recall, I never did a similar thing to anyone else.

I know I never stood anyone up on a business appointment, and until recently no one ever did it to me. Sure, people have canceled or postponed for one reason or another, but never without a phone call, an email, a text or whatever.

Then last spring, a company contacted me, via email, with a business proposition. It was right up our alley (okay, enough with the clichés), so we responded favorably and began a back and forth that went on for a couple of weeks. Finally they suggested a personal meeting and offered to come to our office.

We were pretty psyched about the whole thing, so when the big morning arrived we were all ready to sign a contract. The appointed hour came and went, and nothing happened. After a half-hour or so we began to ask each other questions. Could they be lost? Why wouldn’t they call? Could they have been in an accident?

Later that day we emailed them, asking if we had gotten the day wrong or if something else had happened, and did they want to reschedule. We did not hear anything back, and five months later we still haven’t.

That was a unique experience in my professional life, which spans 40 years, but it wouldn’t be unique for very long. This past summer, we conducted a search for a new employee, interviewed a number of people, and selected one that we thought was a perfect fit.

We had her come back for a second interview, checked her references (which were glowing), negotiated a compensation package, and offered her the job. She accepted and agreed to a start date, on which she simply didn’t show up. No phone call, nothing.

Once again we followed up. Did we miscommunicate? Do you still want this job? Are you okay?… Crickets.

At this point, I began to wonder if there was something wrong with us, something so horrible that when people discovered it they ran away screaming, afraid to pause even for the 10 seconds it would take to send a text. I also found myself reflecting on my own days on the road, back in the Dark Ages.

Back then, when you got lost or stuck in traffic, you had to find a phone somewhere and call all your appointments to let them know you were running late. It was not an easy thing to do, but it would never even occur to you to just let it slide.

It makes me wonder whether the vast proliferation of communication alternatives, each quicker, easier and cheaper than the last, has made communication itself seem more trivial and dispensable. As Thomas Paine put it, “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.”

Or worse, perhaps the constant stream of electronic interaction has given people the impression that face-to-face meetings don’t matter anymore. It’s easy to blow off something that has no real value.

Don’t believe it. You will only regret the times you didn’t show up.

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