Last Updated: January 27th, 2019
When I finally joined Young & Rubicam, directly out of Stanford, I joined the workforce full of hope, confidence, and thriving ambition. All of my extraordinary good fortune, as a result of some key people who gave me breaks, simply proved to me that I’d been drawn into the fold of the good, at last. I may have even begun to take for granted the amazingly fortunate sequence of events that paved my way. Yet it didn’t take long, now that I was immersed in the world of business, before clouds of doubt began to shadow my euphoric fantasy.
Little by little, in the corporate office, the darker side of human nature emerged in the behaviour of good people—people I liked, trusted, and admired. Compared to what I’d endured in Romania, my first disillusionment will sound absurdly run-of-the-mill. A close friend, I will call him Art, was passed over for promotion. That’s all. But I was discerning enough to see the prejudice behind what he suffered and realized, at least subconsciously, how Art’s misfortune threatened my entire vision of the world. This worldview had sustained me through seven years of captivity and child labour and illness, but one faint breath of this unfamiliar evil darkened my view and shook me in ways I’d never felt.
Ginger-haired and friendly as an older brother, Art was competent and kind and a crucial mentor for me. He taught me fundamental lessons about business: how to work in an office, how to interact with others at meetings, how to behave in a professional setting.
His boss, Charlie Geffroy, moved on. Charlie had become another good friend and mentor to me, but he was promoted to run Y&R in Canada. His position was crucial, so someone had to move into the spot he’d vacated, and Art was, by far, the most qualified for it. We all, down to the last employee, simply assumed Art would be promoted into that role. He’d earned and deserved the promotion. He had the right age, tremendous experience, and a superb track record. Yet more important than all these factors, he wasn’t Ivy League. He wasn’t part of the elite club that ran Y&R. Art came from a modest background and made it through public schools and state college on the merits of his intelligence and work ethic. That made him even more admirable in many eyes. But that, it seemed, would also be his Achilles’ heel. His promotion was not to be. He wasn’t one of the boys.
Our new supervisor, Richard, entered the picture, and he fit in perfectly with the privileged crew who promoted him. He wore dapper blue suits, white shirts, and a coloured kerchief in his breast pocket. He was an Ivy League alum who smoked a pipe. Unlike Art, who would work late into the night with the rest of us, Richard almost never missed the 5:08 train to Connecticut. He was a nice enough man, well-bred and easy to serve, but he didn’t have half of Art’s grasp of the business in specific terms, or of the advertising business in general.
Ironically, it all turned out well for everybody. Art’s work became the foundation for one of the most famous campaigns in the history of advertising: the Excedrin headache. Art went on to a successful career elsewhere in the agency. Yet, even knowing that Art had emerged from that episode without much harm, it still turns my stomach. My wife, Barbara, and I knew Art’s wife and his children. He was a wonderful father and a fanatical worker. To me, he was the ultimate role model—good to his people, supportive, an educator, a mentor, and a man who drove the client’s business forward. To have a person like that not simply ignored but almost put down raised some of the most fundamental questions about life. I recognized it as a personal threat. And behind my reaction lurked all my suppressed experiences in Romania.
Until I saw this happen to Art, I believed I could apply myself, do my homework, come in on weekends, and all would be well. Now, none of this held up. Art was good, America was good, but he didn’t prevail. So a hairline crack appeared in my protective shell, in my deepest beliefs about how evil worked. My experience of it in Europe was heroic and cinematic. The sort of evil I faced there seemed nowhere in evidence here in my new home. The darker side of human nature in America slipped into my awareness the way it does in a stage play: a quiet entrance from the left, as light falling on a drawing room dims almost imperceptibly. A few words are spoken, and although someone’s life has been diminished, no one is dying. Something has taken place, and it doesn’t seem quite right, and yet everyone keeps smiling.
I remember coming home that day to our little apartment, choked up, and emotional. Barbara consoled me by saying that this happens all the time in business: “I know about this sort of thing from stories my father has told me throughout his career.” It wasn’t personal. Her words meant nothing to me because my world, my whole ability to motivate myself as a human being, depended on my basic faith that hard work gets rewarded and good people win.
For much too long, I didn’t realize how, in America, every blow I felt at work contained within it a hidden, Romanian fist. Buried under my anxieties about Art, I realize now, was the sense of being cast aside when I had earned the right to represent my class in Romania but was unable to fulfill it because of my family’s political and economic heritage. To someone else, this little setback, like the blockage in Art’s career, might seem slight; but psychologically, I desperately needed the world to operate in a certain way. This faith in moral cause and effect was, spiritually, the root of my survival in Romania, and I had believed it would serve me the same way in America. I had expected rewards for hard work, advancement for the good guys, and a God who intervened on my behalf. To be told that I couldn’t represent my class, or to see Art passed over for a new job, shook the deepest foundations of my beliefs and perceptions, as well as my own sense of self. The way evil erupted as repugnant behaviour in the lives of otherwise good people made no sense to me, as a Christian.
image: Martin Hricko (Creative Commons BY-ND)