The Afghani Cab Driver and the $250 Million Dollar Salty Snack Food
I am getting into the back seat of a yellow cab, as I've done a thousand times before, having just tipped the too-smiling bellboy too much for holding open the door and inviting me, as he had been trained to do just last week, to "have a nice day."
Here, 1,500 miles from home, at 6:30 am in front of yet another nameless business hotel, I settle into position, careful not to spill my coffee on my free copy of USA Today.
In 20 minutes, I will be arriving at the international headquarters of General Mills, creators of Cheerios, Wheaties, and the totally fictional 50's icon of American motherhood, Bette Crocker.
My mission? To help their product development team come up with a new $250 million dollar salty snack food.
It's too dark to read and I'm too caffeinated to nap, so I glance at the dashboard and see a fuzzy photo of my driver, his last name next to it -- an extremely long and unpronounceable last name -- as if a crazed bingo master had thrown all the letters of the alphabet into a brown paper bag, shook, and randomly pulled them out in between shots of cheap tequila.
Where he was from I had no clue.
"Hello," I manage to say, nervous that my driver with the long last name would end up getting us completely lost. "I'm on my way to General Mills. Do you... know where that is?"
"Oh yes," my driver replies with an accent I assume to be mid-eastern. "I know."
Small talk out of the way, I now had three choices -- the same three choices I have every time I get into the back seat of a cab.
I could check my email. I could review my agenda. Or I could continue the conversation with my driver -- always a risky proposition, especially with cabbies from foreign lands who were often difficult to understand, tired, or, seemingly angry at Americans, which, I am not proud to say, often led me to become way too polite, overcompensating for who knows how many years of my government's pre-emptive strikes -- a response, I'm sure (mine, not the government's), which even the least sophisticated cab driver could see through in a heart beat.
"Where are you from?" my driver asks.
"Woodstock," I reply. "Woodstock, New York. And you?"
Deep as we were in the middle of that war, I am stunned, my own backseat brand of battlefield fatigue now gathering itself for the appropriate response.
"Afghanistan?" I reply. "What brought you here?"
I could tell by his pause -- his long, pregnant pause, that things, in this taxi, were just about to change.
"Well..." my driver says, looking at me in the rearview mirror, "I was out for a walk with my 10-year old daughter when she stepped on a land mine."
I look out the window. Starbucks. MacDonalds. Pier 1 Imports.
"So I ripped off my shirt and tied it around her leg to stop the bleeding. Then I went running for a doctor. But there was no doctor."
For the next 20 minutes, he goes on to tell me about his three-day journey through the mountains of Afghanistan, his bleeding daughter on his back, slipping in and out of consciousness.
Villagers took them in, gave them food, applied centuries worth of home remedies, but no one knew of a doctor.
And then... a break. A man on horseback told him of some nurses from the Mayo Clinic who had just set up an outpost just a little way up the road.
With his last bit of energy, he got there and collapsed -- the nurses managing to keep his daughter alive and flying her, the next day, to the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, where, three days later, he and his wife were flown to be by her side to enter into a year long rehabilitation process with her, so she could learn to walk with her new prosthetic leg.
"That will be $27.55", my driver announces, checking the meter.
Somehow, I find my wallet, pay, and hug my driver, lingering with him as long as I could in that early morning light.
I enter the well-appointed lobby of General Mills, get my security pass, and make my way to the room where I am supposed to set things up for today's salty snack food brainstorming session.
An hour later, fifteen 30-somethings walk in, checking Blackberries.
I have a choice to make.
Do I dismiss my journey from hotel to headquarters as a surreal preamble to the day -- one that has nothing to do with the work at hand?
Or do I realize that my journey here this morning is the work at hand -- a story not only for me, but for everyone in the room that day?
To be continued in my new book: Wisdom at Work
PS: If you are an agent or publisher and are interested in publishing my book, contact me.December 15, 2012
I'm from Woodstock. I Am.
I'm from Woodstock. Yes, that Woodstock, the famous Woodstock -- the most famous small town in the world, some people say.
Former home to Bob Dylan.
Jimi Hendrix lived here for a summer in the house right across the street from where I live now. John Sebastian still lives here, as do a ton of other musicians, artists, writers, healers, therapists, car mechanics, plumbers, electricians, and just about anyone else you'd expect to live in a small town.
Other than winter lasting six weeks too long, I love Woodstock. I've been a resident for 18 years and I'm proud to call it my home.
That being said, in the early days of starting up my consulting business, I noticed a curious phenomenon about Woodstock, or at least my relationship to it, whenever a client or prospective client asked me where I was from.
If I declared myself to be resident of Woodstock, I ran the risk of not only being stereotyped as a counter culture whack job, but being in cahoots with an entire generation of freaks for whom the word "corporation" was second only to "military industrial complex" on the list of buzz kills -- a moment fully capable of leaving my inquisitor with the impression that I was either dangerous, highly unqualified to be of value to their company, or a candidate to be paid in 100 pound bags of chickpeas.
So, I decided to take the low road.
With a big mortgage and a family to support, I saw no reason to scare away potential clients -- especially potential clients who, when push came to shove, were asking where I lived just to break the ice.
"Two hours north of Manhattan" was my standard response. "Upstate New York" was my backup, followed by "The Hudson Valley", "65 miles south of Albany", and the always dependable "Foothills of the Catskill Mountains".
So there I was in Munich at the International Headquarters of Allianz, one of the world's leading financial services institutions, with 142,000 employees and billions in sales.
My task? To lead a workshop, the next day, for the company's hard driving senior leadership team in an effort to jump start the launch of a company-wide effort to "gain a competitive edge through increased innovation".
Corporate speak? Of course it was. But it didn't matter to me. I didn't care what euphemisms my clients used to frame their business challenges. If I sensed even the smallest willingness on their part to become more innovative, I was there.
There, in this case, was the well-appointed, pre-dinner reception for Allianz' Senior Team and a handful of outside, consultants, like me, who had been flown in from God knows where to help the company reach its ambitious business goals.
The dress code? Business casual. The bar? Open. The client? Dutifully introducing me to anyone he could collar.
And so it went, the small talk, the head nods, the firm handshakes -- me patiently waiting for the waiter with the pizza puffs and the inevitable moment when the "Where do you live?" question would head its ugly rear.
Somewhere, in between my first and second glass of chilled 1987 Riesling, standing next to three large German men I had just been introduced to -- Guenther, Heinrich, and Hans -- the question was asked.
I opened my mouth to say "Two hours north of Manhattan", but out came "Woodstock".
Maybe it was the wine or maybe it was the cumulative affect of the past ten years of mouthing geographical euphemisms. I don't know. But whatever it was, I knew this was going to be an interesting moment.
For three very long seconds, no one said a thing. The word just hovered in the air like some kind of Superbowl Blimp.
Guenther was the first to speak.
"Wow!" he announced. "Did you actually go to the festival?"
Hans smiled broadly. "My older cousin went. Lucky bastard. I was too young."
Heinrich just stood there, expressionless, saying nothing. Then he raised his right hand and gave me a rousing high five.
"I love Joe Cocker!" he announced.
Somehow, I got the feeling that tomorrow's innovation workshop was going to be just fine.
Excerpted from my forthcoming book, WISDOM AT WORK: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life.