My Last Pandemic
It was the early 80s. My first partner and I had just moved in together. He had just passed the California State Bar and gone to work for a big law firm. I was making good money in the staffing industry and getting concert dates in jazz clubs. We got a puppy. Our future was bright.
One of my best friends called and invited us to a community event regarding an emerging health crisis. He practically ordered us to come. There were hundreds of people in the grand ballroom of a hotel where the world came crashing down on top of us.
At the podium was a physician named Michael Gottlieb. A renowned immunologist, he had identified the HIV virus. The medical community had not yet determined how it spread, but the impact was horrific. People were coming down with fatal pneumonia, aggressive forms of cancer, mental deterioration, and more. There was no cure, and most patients were gone in blindingly short periods.
I looked around the room as hundreds of faces looked back. Terror and grief were etched on their faces. Several of them appeared to critically ill. I leaned over to a friend and whispered, “Do you know anyone with this illness?”
He whispered back that his partner of ten years had it and was actually dying.
In the coming months, I watched countless members of our community disappear. Insurance companies began bearing down on employers to get rid of anyone who tested positive for the virus. For some gay men that became critically ill, it was the first time their families learned their son was gay. There were families that refused to visit them.
By grace or by luck, we did not have the virus. But, it became one of those non-negotiable influences on our lives. For a while, I turned into someone that I didn’t want to be. Looking back, I could never count the times that I felt disloyal. I could not bring myself to be physically close to someone who was ill. All of that changed when I accepted a new job.
The company was founded and run by women. On the day that I joined them, my boss took me to various offices to meet staff members and managers. One of the offices was a few floors down from their headquarters. There was a young man I will call Jonathan for the sake of privacy. He had just returned to work after spending a couple of weeks in the hospital fighting AIDs induced pneumonia. He was handsome, friendly, gracious, and gaunt. The young man quickly stood up, walked over, and shook my hand.
He said, “I’ve heard a lot about you. We’re excited you have decided to join us.”
I smiled and thanked him. Inside? Panic. How could I get out the door quickly enough to go and wash my hands? I turned to my boss and said, “Excuse me for just a moment, I need a quick bathroom break.”
I scrubbed my hands with the energy of a surgeon. But, when I returned my outlook and unreasonable fear quickly changed. My boss, the office manager, and another owner were in Jonathan’s office hugging him, touching his hand, and giving him affection.
In one instant, my entire mindset changed.
Today, every time I see a nurse or doctor in a spacesuit, I think back to Jonathan. He passed away just a few weeks after we met. Whenever I see relatives looking through the glass towards sick loved ones, I think of the thousands of men who died alone.
In the years since I’ve come to realize that connectedness is perhaps the single most important need for human health. During our current health crisis, I’ve been quite moved by the mindfulness most people are using to stay connected with others.
My colleague Dr. Robert Maurer has studied the behavior of people who are succeeding in every important area of their life. There are four behaviors these fortunate individuals have in common and each one is learnable. He tells us that humans are the single most dependent species on the face of the earth. Successful people are fully OK with that dependence. On a professional level, they reach out to get help from the right people. On a personal level, they are constantly praising others and accepting praise with graciousness. Bob often shows longevity tables for people who are married, in a relationship, or isolated. He even has a column for single people with pets. Of course, isolated individuals have the highest mortality rate.
Right now, we are in a world where connecting with others will help them survive and thrive. Encouraging friends and family members to reach out is one of the healthiest ways to get through this. If we have sent employees home, stay in touch with them. If we have a friend that is alone, this is the time to reach out.
Mortality has become one of my greatest sources of growth. About six months before we delivered the first Inspired Work Program, I sublet an office in Century City. As I worked on our curriculum, I used it with individuals who wanted and needed help. Friends began making referrals.
One of my first clients was a man in his forties. I had asked him over the phone what he hoped to accomplish, and he asked if that could wait until we sat down together. He was in his early forties, and he looked as if what he was about to tell me was strikingly awkward.
Once again, I asked, “What would you like to accomplish if we work together?”‘
He said, “I am dying from AIDs. I’ve been in the hospital twice, and it is not going to get better. I told a friend of mine that what I would want to feel before I leave is to help as many people as possible. He suggested that I meet with you. Can you help me?”
The man that sent him was the friend sitting next to us at that terrible event with Dr. Gottleib.
I smiled and said, “I will help you.”
I had no idea how that was going to happen, but I made one of those internal contracts to do whatever it would take to establish more meaning and fulfillment.
We worked together for about nine months. One day, his mother called to tell me he was gone. She thanked me for bringing so much joy into his life. I stopped her and said, “Your son taught me more about life than anyone.”
He did. Working with him taught me more about just how precious time really is. When we treat time like junk food we lose our appetite for life. That gentleman had the courage to reach out and elevate all that remained of his time.
This is a momentous time. All of us are being given choices in how we respond to the pandemic. Many of us will seek comfort rather than taking action. Others will recognize that the world of work is changing so quickly this is the time to reinvent and retool our future.
My life is devoted to helping people find their place in the future of work. That future will not respond well to ambivalence about our work. I’m finding that those of us who love our work are willing to change ourselves. That will always require courage. Time and time again, I find the results are surprising and moving.
We have been developing a digital platform that will deliver all that we do in a brand new way. Some of our fans view me as one of the most willing to changes people they know. I respond that it has taken almost 30 years for me to make this change.
Much of our learning programs are ready to move onto the new platform.
The Inspired Work Program has been the one that routinely changes people’s lives. It is the environment where I learn the most and am emotionally moved all of the time. I was never emotionally ready to move the program out of nice hotels and universities to the Internet.
Then, the world changed. It has been clear to me that our nation’s workers need to retool, to let go of old ideas and replace them with a new mindset. Technology isn’t taking away work, it is offering us freedom from mind-numbing tasks. However, with no adequate leadership from either political party, we find that half of America’s workers are now underemployed.
I am a perfectionist but the pandemic changed that. This past weekend, I delivered the first Inspired Work Program on the Internet. I was actually terrified. The program has been effective because it harnesses logic, emotions, and intuition to produce profound deliverables. What if that did not happen? There has always been a bonding that takes place between our participants. What if they lost that value?
The thing is, it was just as powerful as the programs we have delivered in live settings. That is a turning point. I had clung to this old model for so long that when we were finished, I was ready to ask valet parking to bring my car around. Instead, I opened the door to my office and our two dachshunds rushed in to welcome me to the rest of the house.
Last year, I had lunch with my former boss. We hadn’t seen each other in 25 years. I suggested having lunch by the pool at the Avalon Hotel. As she walked through the door, I felt an urge to check the date because she looked the same as when we had that first interview. She sold that company and became a renowned artist. What a role model she was to me.
Before I could say a word, she asked, “I just want to hear one thing first. What is it like to wake up in the morning, and be you?”
I chuckled, “You have always beat me to asking the most disarming question.”
She smiled, “David, I’m dead serious. You moved on, and you have helped thousands of people transform their work. What does that feel like?”
The years, the observations, engaging with angels and devils, the extraordinary lessons I have learned from thousands of amazing people, all of that rushed through my system, and I smiled back.
“It feels like redemption.”
Brought to you by David Harder, President – Inspired Work, Inc.
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