Asking The Really Big Questions

Making the rounds in my world this week is an essay by Linds Redding: “A Short Lesson in Perspective.” Linds, a former ad exec who passed away last month from esophageal cancer, spent at least some of the time during his illness looking back on how he had spent his life. And, as is so dismayingly often the case, he was distinctly ungratified by what he saw. Here’s an excerpt (consider yourself warned about the grown-up language):

It turns out I didn’t actually like my old life nearly as much as I thought I did. I know this now because I occasionally catch up with my old colleagues and work-mates. They fall over each other to enthusiastically show me the latest project they’re working on. Ask my opinion. Proudly show off their technical prowess (which is not inconsiderable.) I find myself glazing over but politely listen as they brag about who’s had the least sleep and the most takeaway food. "I haven’t seen my wife since January, I can’t feel my legs any more and I think I have scurvy but another three weeks and we’ll be done. It’s got to be done by then. The client’s going on holiday. What do [you] think?"

What do I think?

I think you’re all fucking mad. Deranged. So disengaged from reality it’s not even funny. It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody gives a shit.

This has come as quite a shock I can tell you… I’ve come to the conclusion that the whole thing was a bit of a con. A scam. An elaborate hoax.

Countless late nights and weekends, holidays, birthdays, school recitals and anniversary dinners were willingly sacrificed at the altar of some intangible but infinitely worthy higher cause. It would all be worth it in the long run…

This was the con. Convincing myself that there was nowhere I’d rather be was just a coping mechanism. I can see that now. It wasn't really important. Or of any consequence at all really. How could it be. We were just shifting product. Our product, and the client’s. Just meeting the quota. Feeding the beast as I called it on my more cynical days.

So was it worth it?

Well of course not. It turns out it was just advertising. There was no higher calling.

Linds is not the first to ask questions about the value of his time on earth, nor is he the first to come to the conclusion that he could have used it more fruitfully. Nor is advertising the only industry to generate this sort of regret. But his is a moving, evocative piece, one that can well be used to prompt our own reflection -- which, as it turns out, it did for my friend Christian Long:

“…[I]t is so tempting to see his rant about 'art' vs 'commerce' as being the final point. But I'm not sure it is… You see, when you apply your greatest talents in the service of ‘doing good’ -- really focusing on social-driven innovation + creativity and legit human-centered service -- there is no break with moral purpose later in life/on the verge of death… [T]oday's students -- esp. the ones who truly see what a remarkable moment in time they live in and want to make a truly positive impact on the world right now (not just 'one day') -- do not see it as either/or. They see it as and/and. And expect the 'art' and 'commerce' sides of their internal selves to merge and synthesize into one laser beam of possibility over the course of their life.”

I love writing for Online Spin. And my hope is always that, in our exploration of the latest FaceTubeGramoSoft acquisition, we retain the perspective urged on us by Linds. It is so easy, so extraordinarily easy, to be lulled into a false sense of importance with the work that we do. But it is magical to remember what is truly important.

How do you feel about your job?

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8 comments about "Asking The Really Big Questions".
  1. John Montgomery from GroupM Interaction , December 7, 2012 at 1:49 p.m.
    Kaila. I like your column - it is all really much bigger than advertising. I still have your Steve Jobs eulogy on my wall as reminder.. I guess all of us will find a time when we will reflect on the contribution we have made and whether the sweat and frustration have been worth it. And when I do, I hope I never concur with Linds. Whilst advertising will never compete with the great philanthropies, its the same for most commercial endeavors. In my career (so far) I have been lucky to work with some of the smartest people, most of them nice, learned a huge amount about a huge amount of things (from toilet tissue to telephony), experienced just about every human state except boredom and all the while, I have been able to contribute to putting food on the family table. I know that we cant aspire to compete with Mother Teresa for the good that we have brought to the world, but advertising has changed cultures, built amazing brands, stimulated economies and entertained millions (the good ads anyway). Sometimes we work unreasonably hard for seemingly ungrateful clients. But thats part of the game (its not a con). Human beings like to be challenged, to push themselves - it gives us something to tell stories about, to exaggerate the challenges and to complain to each other. Its what we do - everyone in every industry has it tough. Its never to late to get out and do something else. I think, with respect, that's what Linds should have done before he was overwhelmed.
  2. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link , December 7, 2012 at 2:06 p.m.
    Hi John, thank you so much for this comment. From reading his essay, I think Linds would agree with you that he should have done something else. And I also feel that asking these questions -- whether you're in advertising or any other industry -- is a big step towards not arriving at that moment of "Oh no, what have I done?!?"
  3. Walter Sabo from SABO media , December 7, 2012 at 8:48 p.m.
    The issue isn't 'advertising" or working. It's that most people in advertising have chosen to work for understaffed companies and accept unreasonable deadlines from their sources of income. Fix that. Take your vacations. Go home. Play.
  4. Mike Patterson from WIP, Inc. , December 9, 2012 at 9:54 p.m.
    Kaila, what a refreshing perspective. It's blatantly clear that you're not an American! I always appreciate your perspective as a lighter one focused on a more integrated, holistic approach. We are so lazer-focused in this country on achievement, accumulation and success that we forget the big picture, namely, that we're all going to die and none of that will matter! Thanks for sharing this, it DOES put it all in perspective and judging from the small amount of comments on this article, a perspective that scares the s**t out of most of your readers!!
  5. Matt Straz from Namely , December 10, 2012 at 2:04 p.m.
    It's striking to consider this sad piece vs. how Steve Jobs handled his own mortality and lessons learned. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1R-jKKp3NA
  6. Anne Peterson from Idaho Public Televsion , December 10, 2012 at 9:09 p.m.
    So why am I sitting here reading this — a very thought-provoking piece by the way — instead of standing up and going home where I should be now.
  7. Joseph Pych from NextMark, Inc. , December 15, 2012 at 11:12 a.m.
    Kaila - thanks for this discussion. "Does my contribution really matter?" Unless you are a saint, the answer won't be crystal clear. It will drive you crazy if you think about it too much. As John observes, "human beings like to be challenged." It's working with other people to achieve a difficult and worthy goal that seems to matter the most in life, right? Triumph or not, the hard times are the most memorable. As Steve Jobs says in the speech Matt shared "Follow your heart. Stay hungry. Stay foolish."
  8. Kaila Colbin from Missing Link , December 15, 2012 at 5:44 p.m.
    Thanks, everyone! Mike, I actually am an American, but I live in New Zealand :) Joseph, I agree the answer isn't always crystal clear... but it's often far clearer than we allow ourselves to acknowledge.