Eliot Rosewater moments

Every once in awhile, you read something that blows your mind. Here’s today’s.

The author is Yan Anthea Zhang, a Professor of Management in Rice University’s MBA program. She’s writing about the sudden unexpected illnesses of two top CEOs – Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs, and Oscar Munoz, the new CEO of United Airlines. (Munoz just took over after his predecessor suddenly resigned in the growing Chris Christie-related NY/NJ Port Authority scandal.)

Zhang writes:

My research partners and I recently finished a study that found that after witnessing the death of an independent director on the board, a CEO became less focused on acquisitions, as reflected in reduced number and magnitude of merger and acquisition deals.

Our findings are consistent with the prediction of the post-traumatic growth theory, which suggests that the death of a social peer may increase the focal person’s awareness of death and accordingly reduce the importance of extrinsic goals such as fame and wealth in the person’s decision-making. In these two incidents, Blankfein’s and Munoz’s illnesses may make other board members and top management team members of their companies think, “This could be me.”

Such a feeling of empathy is part of human nature and should be encouraged. Companies should strive to create a working environment that allows their executives and employees to better balance work and life. However, it should be noted that if people are too concerned about their potential health issues or even death, their motivation to strive for good performance and firm growth can be hampered. Therefore, it is crucial for the firm to care for the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers in a proactive manner.

It’s fascinating to watch Zhang try to square the circle here. She is acknowledging straight up that elite executives and board members are quite likely to be motivated by “extrinsic goals such as fame and wealth.”

When someone around them suddenly dies, they are susceptible to wondering what in God’s name they’re doing with their lives.

Zhang can’t tell us that’s a bad thing. She understands it’s deeply human and represents powerfully important personal growth. But she also knows it could very easily fly out of control, hampering “their motivation to strive for good performance and firm growth.”

What can she possibly say? Only that companies ought to pay a bit more attention to work/life balance, and especially “the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers.” But really, what could she say? Criticizing her is a bit too easy.

I don’t have anything super-profound to say about this. But I am interested in what she’s left unsaid.

First, there’s no sense that any of these people might be doing anything intrinsically important; for example, solving real problems, creating products or services that help people, mentoring employees to help them grow as individuals, building an organization with a lasting legacy.

I’ve been reading a lot of business literature lately, since I’m writing my 20-page research paper on this controversy. So I’m struck by the absence of those more positive ideas here. They’re not absent in all business literature, nor in all public discourse by executives. But this does seem to be a data point in assessing what really matters in the “commanding heights of the economy” (as we lefties used to call it back in the 1970s).

Second, corporate executives and board members are human like everyone else, even if allegedly somewhat more susceptible to psychopathy. But they do have two advantages that the people who work for them often don’t have: money and control.

Even if board members don’t choose to vote themselves high-end personal counselors to help them through their Eliot Rosewater moments, they do still have the resources to walk away. Every day they don’t, that’s a choice they got to make: lower their personal financial overhead, and do something else more meaningful. Or not.

I realize that, in their shoes, it’s hard to see it that way. But it’s objectively true. And their subordinates usually don’t have those choices.

Zhang isn’t writing about Amazon’s warehouse pickers or Walmart’s greeters here, though in fairness, she does say “executives and employees.” One might reasonably ask any company that decides to worry about “the emotional and mental health of the ill CEO’s social peers” to do the same top to bottom. (Olive Garden waitresses lose close friends, too.) I don’t know if I’d hold my breath.

As I said, this isn’t super (or even marginally) profound. And it’s only advice in the very loosest sense. Such as: stay focused on those intrinsic motivations to “strive for good performance.” As you move towards the workplace, I think you are. But, of course, it gets harder.

(Maybe any advice I give you should have a disclaimer, like this generic one.)

Now that you’re just about through college, your likely career path doesn’t appear to include membership on the Goldman Sachs or United Airlines Board of Directors. (Though you never know.) I’m more concerned about you winding up with not enough money or control to have the life you want.

Ultimately, I do think you’ll be skilled enough, smart enough, hard-working enough, and focused enough to get there from where you already are.

It’ll help, though, if you generally know why you’re doing what you’re doing.

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Chandler Estate: Yes, I actually lived there

I permit myself one day of personal nostalgia a year, and (same as last year), it’s the day I go to my “Wolfstock” homecoming thingie out at Stony Brook.

I take my bike. I start out riding on campus, where I’ve evolved my own little “stations of the cross.”

First stop, student union, where I basically lived for a couple of years. There’s been lots of new construction at Stony Brook, but not here: the gum stains ground into the floor of this building are the same ones I recall from the ’70s. Wander the halls. Radio station, where I did the 3 am to 7 am shift. Cafeteria, where I ate all those $1.35 reconstituted veal parmigiana heroes (when I could scrounge together $1.35, that is.) Pick up my copies of the student newspaper.

Then, on to the Staller Arts Center, where I grab their calendar of events. You never know: might be something I could coax Mom into driving 80 miles to see. (Not this year, from the schedule I’m looking at. But they have a great summer film festival.) Then, the library, and the Barnes & Noble bookstore downstairs (unfortunately, closed until noon.) Next, the administration building: yup, here’s where we had 1,000 people crammed in when we occupied the place, there’s where our guys with the loudspeakers were. Finally, a loop around campus and into the surrounding community.

This year, rather than wandering the gorgeous back roads of Stony Brook, Poquott, and Old Field, where all the money is, I had an actual destination in mind. Seven point six miles east of Stony Brook: a place I used to live. 

In 1979, I was no longer working at Stony Brook, and money was especially tight. I needed a place to live that was dirt cheap, and I had somewhere in mind: somewhere I’d visited, somewhere friends in similar straits were living. The Chandler Estate.

Sitting in secluded woods on the edge of the gorgeous Long Island Sound in Mount Sinai, this had been a real swanky place back in the 1940s and 1950s. In the summer, you can see why. It’s not everywhere you get a beach like this. Especially on Long Island’s North Shore, where the beaches are often rocky and inhospitable. The playwright Arthur Miller took his bride Marilyn Monroe there one summer. (Photos exist. I’m looking.)

But Mr. Chandler died, leaving his widow in charge. And gradually her tenants evolved from international celebrities to… well, us.

By the late 1970s, her 100% wooden buildings were total firetraps. I can’t imagine how they survived inspection. (Well, I have my suspicions.) It didn’t help that the place was heated in large part by a giant wood stove in the middle of the first floor. Sparks everywhere!

In those last bad days of the Carter Administration, Mrs. Chandler’s rooms were full of frayed and decayed hippies… alleged musicians claiming to be one break from stardom, and trailing even more disreputable camp followers… thoroughly unsettled recent college graduates, some in graduate school (that’s what you did in ‘79 if you had no clue what else to do)… Olympic-level hypochondriacs… people working minimum wage jobs or living off unemployment and/or welfare… and folks right on the edge of total mental collapse.

So, on one hand, you had my wonderful friends Jeanne and Mark, who’d help any lost soul (like me) with a meal, a shoulder to cry on, a sofa to sleep on. Jeanne and Mark actually worked for a living. They drove an ancient, horribly unreliable Volvo. I’ll never forget Jeanne coming home with her paycheck every two weeks, walking up to her car, placing the paycheck in the front grill as if she was making an offering to the Gods, and saying: “Here! Take it! I hope it’s enough. It has to be. It’s all I have!”

But you also had folks like Richard, late 20s, often seen in the Stony Brook student union coffeehouse, fascinating freshman girls with his talk of philosophy (honest – not kidding!) and his stinky French Gauloises.

At Chandler Estate, Richard cut a slightly more sinister pose. It would’ve been OK, except for the psychotic breaks, when he’d climb a tree with his bow and arrow and threaten to shoot anyone who’d walk by.

Nowadays, middle class parents tend not to let their kids live in places like that. But my poor parents: What did they know about such things?*

And, yes, they did come out to visit. That must be how I brought our basement ping pong table out there. Which provided great amusement to me and my housemates for several months… until one morning I went downstairs and found it hacked to pieces.

That’s the kind of place it was.

As you’ve probably figured out (perhaps to your relief), like most reminiscences, this story has no particular moral, or lesson. I’m just hoping to entertain you, and share a little insight into that time of my life. That world.

I also have a slightly broader, if specialized, audience in mind. Today, the web is full of references to the legendary, mysterious old Chandler Estate:

Satan’s Trails

Devilsgate

Mary’s Grave

Matt, I recall absolutely NO Satan worship. Or even ghosts – of Marilyn, or otherwise. People exaggerate! (OK, in fairness, you did have to walk behind a very old cemetery to find the gravel trail back to Chandler’s houses. But I’m telling you: when that place was scary, no supernatural causes were ever required.

You still have to walk past that cemetery. While the surroundings have gotten a bit more suburbanized in the past 40 years, the Chandler Estate is about as abandoned as abandoned can be. The buildings are gone, bulldozed: the big one, where I lived, did in fact burn down some years after I escaped.

Suffolk County decided to buy the property to preserve it from development. That triggered a gigantic scandal alleging massive overpayments to powerful, politically connected people.

Today, the old Chandler Estate is in fact county parkland. But you wouldn’t know it. Here’s the entrance. No signage at all, except for a few small warning signs.

Jpeg

You walk the trails… and it’s beautiful. But Eli Roth level spooky. I can only imagine it at night. I took pictures, but you might as well watch this YouTube. (She added a few props: believe me, there are no windchimes on that beach. And she brought a crowd. I didn’t see a soul while I was on the property – living or dead.

People are always saying “I knew someone who lived there back in the day.” Just as I was leaving, a guy about 40 pulled up, intending to show his friend around. He’d been raised by a single mother who, when most broke, visited to see if she might live there with her baby. They decided to pursue other alternatives. 🙂

When I told him I’d lived there, I suddenly became something of a celebrity. You did? Wow!

I did.

I haven’t been there in decades. At first, I thought it’d been 30 years. Then, I thought about it some more. No, I actually remember driving Mom down that path once, either just before or after we got married. Some of the abandoned buildings were still there.

I’ve rarely seen Mom shudder like that.

Mom sometimes says she wishes she’d met me much sooner. When she says that, I think about Chandler Estate. No. It’s good she didn’t. No way we’d be here today. No way you’d exist.

*Maybe more than I imagine. Parents have lives, too! I guess this essay has a point after all.