Dinner with Marshall: An Interview

Columbia Business School

July 28, 2003

by Joshua Klenoff

Columbia Business School, The Summer Bottom Line, July 28, 2003

Marshall and I had chatted briefly on the phone and he told me he’d be in New York the following week. “Hey, Josh, can you give me a lift from the airport” he asked. “Sure” I told him. It seemed like as good a way as any to finally meet him.

I hopped in my Jeep, drove to JFK and waited. I’d seen his picture and spotted him standing in the International Arrivals pick-up area—right on time. We hopped in the Jeep, got onto the LIE and began what would be a memorable ride. I asked Marshall some questions about business, politics and spirituality. Marshall responded with some penetrating insights into global culture, the good life, and—most cutting of all—me. I found myself opening up to him like I had with few others.

As we approached his hotel on East 57th Street, we decided not to depart, but rather to keep driving around the city as we continued our colloquy. In the small space of 10 minutes, he offered advice that turned out later that day to repair one of my dear relationships that had for 10 years been in a seeming state of disrepair. There was more to come. The party didn’t start for another hour.

At about noon we finally parked and went back to my small studio apartment. Before long my classmates began to arrive. Of course, like any group of Columbia Business School graduates, we spoke our our coursework, careers and summer plans. But before this party’s end, we would also learn some valuable lessons from Marshall.

As we sat in a circle on my studio floor and noshed on pita bread with humus and baba ganoush, Marshall served up his philosophy. “Be happy now” he entreated us. “Not next week, not next month, not somewhere else—now.” Too many people, he explained, suffer from “Western When” syndrome (i.e., I’ll just be happy end …) But he views that as a sucker’s choice, because we need not defer our happiness. He continued, “If you find yourself saying, “But I just need this much money, or as soon as I get that, or when I resolve my differences with them,’ you’re squandering your happiness and setting yourself up for suffering. Take money, for instance. Suppose you wish you could have a seasoned CEO’s money. Right now, that CEO is most surely wishing he or she could have your youth.. Don’t wait until you’re 80 and loaded to appreciate what you have now.”

Marshall continued, reminding us that we live in a wondrous world. “Be aware of the world around you,” he chided us. Too often we’re not attuned to the nuances and the beauty in the world around us. To demonstrate how we can miss things right below our noses—literally—he quizzed us on the roman numerals of a watch face. “How many ‘IV’ symbols will you find on a watch face” he asked. After some thought, we unanimously concluded the answer was one. In fact, almost universally, the answer is none. You’ll notice IIII instead of IV—a tradition borne of respect for the Roman God Jupiter, whose name, in Latin, begins IV (the V being the U we now use, the I being the J, sort of an abbreviation).

Next, Marshall took us on an imaginary journey—seventy years into the future. “Take a deep breath” he directed. “Imagine that you’re 95 years old on your deathbed. Here comes your last breath. But right before you take that breath, you’re given a wonderful gift—the ability to go back in time and visit yourself right here,right now, the ability to help this person be a better person, have a better life. What advice would the wise 95-year-oldwho knows what was really important, what wasn’t what mattered, what didn’t—have for you if he or she were here now …” And as we took this imaginary journey—into the future and back—we came to see how easily we sometimes fait to keep our problems and concerns in perspective. It made me wonder if we live in a society that frames our expectations and concerns in a way that leads us to magnify the importance of relatively small problems and always leaves us wanting a bit more. How liberating it could be to sweep aside these flawed dogmas, spoon-fed to use in ways we don’t even realize, and focus on what was really important in our lives …

Finally, he counseled “If you have a dream, go for it!” Without a dream, we fall into a pattern of compromise. If you don’t go for it when you’re 25, do you really expect to when you’re 35, 45, 55 or 65? It doesn’t have to be a big dream. It can be small: learn Spanish, play guitar, get a sports car. Other people may think your dream is stupid. Who cares? It’s not their dream. Most people who try and achieve their dreams are happier with their lives …”

Marshall Goldsmith is respected as the leading authority on helping leaders to achieve positive, measurable change in behavior. His client list is filled with a panoply of Fortune 500 clients, such as AT&T, Chase, Coca-Cola, IBM and Pfizer. But on Sunday, June 1, 2003, he found a few hours to kick back with 15 Columbia Business School students in a small upper west side studio apartment—no fees, no agendas and no chairs. Marshall taught us some valuable lessons. But most importantly, he reminded us not to forget: Life is good! Thanks Marshall.