Attention Must Be Paid

As I think about the passing of a dear friend, David Hall, somehow I keep hearing these words ringing through my mind.  For the literary minded, the quote is of course, the final words of Arthur Miller’s famous play, “Death of a Salesman” where the protagonist Willy Loman’s wife, Linda, is mourning the death of her husband.

“Attention must be paid.”

Why these words as I think about David?  I’ve struggled with that.  David was certainly no Willy Loman.  Certainly not a salesman. But he could have been, I suppose.  David had qualities that any salesman would love to have.  He had that affability, that charm — a warmth.  When you met him, he was impossible to dislike.  And easy to like.

I remember the first time we met at his cubicle in the IT department at Inco — back in the days when it was a Canadian company.  That was back before someone decided that you could make a few more bucks on the stock if this icon of Canada was sold to the highest bidder — a Brazilian firm who have gradually phased out the Inco name.  Does it matter?  Who knows.  But companies, like people are mortal — they too fade from view.  One day, they are prominent in your life.  The next, they are a faded memory.  Some remnant mining operations.   A shell of the former company.   A big nickel and a huge smokestack on the Sudbury skyline.

But I digress.  I was talking about David.

That first day we met, he welcomed me into his cubicle with a warmth and openness that I will always remember.  I wasn’t expecting that kind of welcome.  I had come to start on the replacement of a system that David had built and implemented — a system that he had put together with an amazing ingenuity, no budget to speak of — but one that was surprisingly ingenious and functional.

My job was to introduce the replacement to this system — before David’s system really had time to achieve what it might have.  The reasons don’t matter at this point.  What matters is how open to change he was.  How “non-territorial” he was.  How welcoming to this person he didn’t know, who had come to take down what he had built.

Although I run a technology company and we help build, find and implement solutions, these days it seems I deal more with resistance to change than technology issues.  This project would be no exception.  We would encounter all kinds of resistance to this new web based application, this Software as a Service app.  Looking back, from our Web 2.0, SaaS based world a scant few years later, that resistance might seem laughable.  At the time, we were on the leading edge.  Resistance was to be expected.

But not from David.  He became my biggest ally, a real champion of the new.  I still marvel at that.  A lot of people might have let their egos get in the way.  They might have seen the new system as a personal slight.  Not David.  He wasn’t a guy whose ego got in the way.

As we went through the project, I constantly marvelled at how well liked he was.  How credible he was. What an asset he was.

If that was all there was to it, David would still be a remarkable memory for me.  But as I got to know him better, I was constantly amazed by him.  That unassuming, friendly, down to earth and “low ego” guy would always surprise you.

His intelligence was awesome.  David was a repository of information.  Mention a topic and he knew something about, could quote you something — an article, a source — something. That intelligence was mixed with a genuine curiosity — he was constantly digging, learning and diving into subjects with enthusiasm, relish and what must have been a dogged determination.   Every time we would talk, he would have some new thing, new idea, new application — and not just a passing knowledge.  I’ve met people with what I call the “bright shiny syndrome”.  Those are the folks that flit from topic to topic, never fully absorbing it, skimming the surface.  They are, as my mother once so eloquently put it, “as thin as piss on a plate.”   David was disciplined and the depth of his knowledge was incredible given how he made it seem effortless.  If you sat down for one of David’s impromptu demos or lectures, you had to be prepared to experience the topic in depth.

Funny, though.  It never once felt like he was showing off.  One reason that I’m sure of is that David was usually riffing on a topic that was of interest to the person he was talking with at the time.  This was a true benefit of his encyclopedic knowledge and the eclecticism of his intellectual pursuits.  Interested in software?  David had a story.  Interested in politics?  David had just read something about that.

And unlike those who show what they know rather than share what they know, David never made you feel like you were less intelligent.  In fact, quite the opposite — David would listen attentively and give you that feeling of truly being heard.   He might gently nudge you in a new direction, but you never felt that he said you were wrong — only that you might consider, or you probably knew….

Whatever you were interested in, David knew something fascinating, something that he shared with you like a gift from a friend.  A gift he would delight in sharing with you.  He’d grin that grin — and engage you, so you’d both feel like kids sneaking in to the Christmas presents in your parent’s closet.  Prepare to be surprised!

It wasn’t only his knowledge that surprised you.

It was also his courage.

I remember when he told me about the return of his cancer.  It was crushing.  I had just gotten to know him once again.  He came to work with us in our company.  He was instantly liked by employees and clients.  He was an instant asset to all of us.  And he was a great friend.

I’ll never forget the day he started with us.  I met him for breakfast in my favourite diner.  It’s a bit of a dive called the “Bus Depot” with an all day breakfast and waitresses straight out of the 1950’s.  David handed me his card for his consulting business.  Vandelay Consulting.  Now some of you might get the reference immediately.  Some may not. For those of you, I’ll remind you as gently and as kindly as David did for me.  Remember when Seinfeld’s friend, George had to explain his unemployment?  He said he worked for a firm — Vandelay Consulting.  As a gentle tweak, David had adopted that corporate name.  An inside joke.  One he loved to share. I loved to see that smile.

He segued into the story of his health with the same humour, declaring that he was now a “semi-colon”.

We’re a virtual company —  in person meetings are rare.  For a company of our size we have systems that rival anything that large companies have.  So of that is what David was helping us build. We have chat open and all talk on Skype constantly. Funny, although I work in my own office, I sometimes feel like I’m interrupted more frequently than when I worked in an office full of people.   I’ve turned into a cranky old bugger.  I’m often annoyed when I get interrupted.  Never by David.  I enjoyed talking to him every time.

He told me about the re-occurrence of his cancer at the end of one of these chats.  I knew he’d been ill.   He had been hospitalized with a problem that kept him from eating for an incredible amount of time.  He had also had a minor re-occurrence and needed to do some chemo.  Sadly, I have had a number of friends who’ve needed treatment.  But this was different.  The way he said “palliative” made it sound so matter of fact.

It was only then that I realized the depth of David’s courage.  He was telling me he was going to die — but he sounded more like he was trying to make it easy for me to get the news. I didn’t know what to say.

I saw David before he died.  On one of what Nicky his wife described as “a good day”.  And in case anyone needs a lesson in courage – you don’t have to look any further than David’s wife Nicky.  The way she cared for him was nothing short of heroic.  Her ability to be his nurse as well as his wife meant that David could have relative comfort on some days.  This was one.

We sat in his living room, facing onto what would soon be another season of Nicky’s award winning garden that would transform their back yard into garden paradise in the middle of the city.  We talked about the squirrels in the back yard.  We talked about politics.  And we talked about life.

It wasn’t the first serious talk we’d had.  We’d spend time together before and I’d seen the “personal side of David”.  We’d talked about our struggles to be parents, but he was clearly and wonderfully content with his life.  We talked about how much he loved his wife and family.  We talked about how lucky we were.

On that last day, we talked seriously — but in that same matter of fact way.  As always, he had some surprises.  As he walked me through the family art collection, he once again amazed me with his in depth knowledge, his attention to small details, and his passion for the beauty of the art and the creativity of the maker.  We talked of politics – in Canada and in the world.  We talked of the plans for his daughter’s wedding and joked about how the father of the bride doesn’t have to be articulate when he makes his toast.

And we talked about the spiritual side of our lives.  Perhaps a little more deeply.   Perhaps a little more poignantly.  But once again, David was a thoughtful teacher – someone who shared his knowledge.  I’m thankful for that day.  I wish there could have been more.  But life is transitory.  We can’t change that.  We can’t make time stand still.  If I could, on that few hours we had, I would make time stand still.  I’d freeze it so I could go back to it, time and time again.  But we can’t.  All we can do is — pay attention when it’s happening.

As this is my blog about change, I do want to tie this back to why it’s so important that “attention be paid”.   It occured to me that one thing I could be doing with this blog is celebrating remarkable people.

But I also wanted to make a point.  Working in companies does something to us.   We go through the days, wishing that it were Friday.  Looking forward to that vacation.  Wanting that promotion.  Wishing for that raise.

Companies go on.  Looking for that higher stock price.  Those increased profits.  We talk about quarter ends.

Where do we celebrate the qualities of a David?   Openness? Intelligence? Desire to make things better? Warmth?  Humour?  Courage?

My suspicion?  In many companies, the “Davids”  go unnoticed.   We miss their potential.  We never maximize their contribution.

But the lesson in this is not only for companies.  There is business and there is busy-ness.  If in our business, we miss the “Davids” of this world the company loses.  In our busy-ness  if we miss the “Davids” of this world we lose as people.   We are all so busy.  But if we miss that afternoon sitting in his living room – with the promise of a summer garden so imminent.  If we fail to live life in that moment — then we miss moments that will never be here again.

I heard the title of a book recently — “The Last Year of Your Life”.  And I thought – what if we did live like that.  What if we paid attention.  What if we lived each moment fully, at home and at work.  What would lives be like?  What would companies be like?  Could you imagine going to work at a company where you felt that what you were doing had purpose?  Where people like David were celebrated?

They say “nice guys finish last”.   If that were true, David would be living on now.  The reality is – once again, he’s out there ahead of me.  But he’s still teaching me.  At work and after — stay open to new things.  Don’t let your ego get in the way.  Be fascinated.  Have the courage to welcome others — even when you aren’t sure.  Smile and laugh.  Above all – pay attention.

My hope is that when my days or years come to a close that I will learn one more lesson from David.  I hope I’ll learn some small portion of his courage. I hope that I was paying attention.


Filed under People

3 responses to “Attention Must Be Paid

  1. Vajitha

    Such a lovely and brief memoir… I wish I had a chance to meet your wonderful friend.

  2. Beautifully said, Jim. I recently went through a similar experience with a very close friend who had similar intellectual gifts and eclectic tastes. He was a physician who knew all of the stages and challenges, and was also a spiritual being who knew all of the opportunities and merits. He called to tell me of his illness one year ago, and passed away two months ago. In the interval, we had an amazing exchange of thoughts and emotions, twice in person, the balance in a virtual environment that we shared with some others. I miss him and am blessed by him daily. Your post reminded me how much.
    Take care,

  3. Alex Resnick

    Hi Jim
    I hope that one day someone will take the time to write something that special about me.
    Be well,

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