A favorite habit of mine is making an effort to connect with folks I consider heroes. Brilliant minds and artists of industry—typically fussy folks who don’t seem to understand what “no” means and have put their stamp on the world in a delightfully unapologetic way.
These encounters are always hit or miss. I’ve sat across from magnificent typographers whose lack of punctuality could down a prize horse. Brilliant art directors cum designers who have been tepid pals, silently racing one another, as we jockeyed the muddy tracks of the industry. Inconvenienced advisors whose lack of warmth conjured up memories of a youthful ignorance where a winter coat was an optional accessory.
This past weekend, though, was host to a rare synchronicity. On a whim, I decided to reach out to the CEO of a company whose output I’ve studied and admired for the better part of the last three years (conveniently located just an hour north of my home town). Predictably to character, he responded positively to my ask to meet: “everyone will know where i am :) at the back table most likely.”
On cue, upon arrival, asking a bank of cooks and servers near the kitchen, a quick consensus among them prompted a guided tour of the grounds, leading directly to his perch at the back table of the adjacent coffee house. Almost perfectly, looking up from a book by an oft-quoted agrarian in his own writing, he asked if I’d like coffee and then gestured to the front counter.
Sitting down to chat, he spoke with the gentle confidence of a man who had a pistol cocked underneath the table, albeit with the safety engaged and an empty magazine; his eyes speaking experience with a calming intensity devoid of aggression. We awkwardly got acquainted as I asked questions whose answers I knew were in his books—partly to hear the ideas articulated in person, partly out of those hate-to-have jitters when meeting someone you admire—to which he answered some and skirted others (citing the bibliographies in his books for the de facto “what books do you recommend?”).
While speaking, as if it was planned, another man came and joined us with an almond-encrusted pastry, introducing himself as the founder and owner of a local community garden effort. He was getting help outlining the guiding principles for the business underlying the garden—a process that was encouraged and practiced by the man we both sat across from. He audibly outlined a few ideas, one of which really stuck: “you have to have good soil,” referring to both the literal soil that the garden occupies as well as the theoretical foundations of whatever it is that you do.
After speaking a bit longer, we all shook hands and parted ways. Before I left the restaurant, I ordered a couple of sandwiches (one of the company’s many calling cards) and picked up a set of his books for a friend. Charmingly, as I stood at the checkout he rounded the corner and from across the room shouted “hey Ryan, you want me to sign those?” A simple gesture that confirmed that the character embodied in those books was as authentic as the portrait I’d envisioned.
We shook hands once more after he left a few personalized autographs in the books for my friend. Like a rockstar, scarf-clad he lowered his glasses and exited through the side door of the restaurant with a kind “stay in touch.” It was one of those rare moments where you realize that the advice to never meet your heroes is only really accurate if you have no point of reference for the person’s character (or you’re in denial about them being a prick). Fortunately, the cadence and contents of his writing were a one-hundred percent accurate portrayal of the person penning them.
Later in the day, as if our meeting wasn’t enough, the impression was finalized when I checked my email to find a “nice to meet you” from him, accompanied with a book recommendation. The ribbon was tied. His approach was so good you’d think it was rehearsed, however, I quickly realized that this is just who this guy is. It’s not an act; he really is a genuine, caring, intelligent person whose happy to give his time to anyone (he even instinctively offered to bus my empty mug to the wash bin). While we sat together he explained this: “I treat everyone the same; you, the guy outside—everyone.” It’s a sentiment I share and one that made me realize I’d correctly identified a kindred spirit.
As our brief conversation gestated throughout the day, I realized just how important authenticity is. To not spend your life bullshitting people, to just be yourself, and let others take it as they will (whether good or bad). So much in our world is manufactured—unfortunately, even some folks personalities depending on company—that the power of just being you, sans facade, is truly undervalued. It can really turn someone’s impression of you from dismissible to unforgettable. I can only hope that we keep an active thread between us moving forward. Something tells me he warmly welcomes that idea.