Every blunder behind us is giving a cheer for us...
-Carl Sandburg

In hindsight, I should have known better. 

"Clueless."

"Stupid."

My eyes start to blur; oh NO, I've touched a nerve.

"Irresponsible". 

"Disrespectful."

The angry words leap off the page. I'm holding a thick stack of papers and am painfully reading note after note of complaint.

"Insensitive."

"Wasteful."

I am numb. A rushing sound begins to build behind my ears and I feel lightheaded. 

"Jerk."

Page after page of negative comments. Later, I would know I've caused one of the lowest points in my career. And, in that moment, I also don't know that before the week is out it will get worse. 

I'd determined to take a risk. For many years the company I worked for ran internal trimester campaigns. Designed to focus the firm's employees on seasonal activities, the campaigns traditionally outlined a set of activities to drive business, such as hold x number of client appointments during a specific timeframe.

High profile, the campaigns were an engine to zero in on specific goals and to generate business. For as long as anyone could remember, they'd always been headed up by a firm partner.

Earlier that year I'd politicked hard to get the chance to run a campaign. Ambitiously, I saw the opportunity to increase my visibility and so solicited sponsors to support my request. I get the ask: I would be the first non-partner entrusted with a trimester campaign. 

Months in advance and with dozens of others we set to work to brainstorm and to design the strategy.

The theme we choose is "Tool Time"; it reflects a focus to encourage adoption of the firm's new financial planning software tools. The seasonal timing is good because the software's customized reports could help both financial advisors and clients, especially in the important financial decisions investors make at year-end.

I present the campaign ideas to the powers-that-be and it's approved. Yay! Now all we need is to snag our busy financial advisors' attention with some clever, attention-grabbing communication. 

At that time, before the broad use of electronic communication, the headquarters mailed a bundle of information to our branch offices twice a week. So, we decide to design a creative packet to mail. 

The clever design looks like a toolbox. As it's opened, and different panels are unfolded, new information pops out as though pulling tools out of a toolbox. And -- icing on the cake -- thanks to our design team and print buyers working together -- the kit cost much less than prior mailers. Yet,  it had a polished, professional look versus previous campaigns’ plain printed folders full of collated inserts.

The kits are produced; we circulate a few internally, then they're in the mail and off!

I can't WAIT for the response!

...

So, there is such a thing as being too creative. 

A few negative comments come in and then an avalanche. It feels like an onslaught. They carry a common theme. Headquarters is wasting hard-earned revenue on expensive, frivolous internal mailers. As the mail arrives at different times across the country, the complaints roll in like waves thundering again and again onto shore.

I meet with upper management. A week later a senior executive publishes a national internal apology to the branch offices across the country. Though I am not named, I am admonished. He states that the mailer is a mistake and that it was "too creative."  I am unknown to the field, but humiliated at headquarters. Worse than this disgrace is feeling the disappointment of the creative team that had worked so hard. 

What did I learn? 

What I should have known as a marketer: Know your audience. Perceptions matter. Get an outsider's opinion -- we loved the design, and I believe that simply asking for feedback would have helped steer us to a more acceptable solution. 

That event was many years ago. Eventually, the negative comments stopped, and the campaign ran successfully. People moved on to new things; the focus shifted and, some years later, I did become a partner. 

I gave this account a few weeks ago on a panel alongside other retiring partners when asked to share a story about failure. The recollection fit; retirement is a natural vantage point for reflection on a career's ups and downs. With 20/20 hindsight I see lots of missteps right next to the successes.

On the retirement panel I shared an analogy I've been thinking about - that a career is like a musical score. Across the measures there are individual exhilarating high notes and disappointing low ones but, over time, they blend together as each measure is played. The point is to play the next measure. A melody is unfolding. Whatever the low note, play the next measure. Harmony reveals itself.  

How I'm Writing the Book
Killer Sentence: Two weeks ago, I listed six killer sentences (one-line descriptions of my book). I've been trying them out to see which ones are most effective. So far, the one that seems to be working is No. 4: "It's the untold true story of the loss of Van Gogh's work and a young woman's journey to resurrect it." I inserted the word "true" since the plot is based on true events. This has piqued interest.  

Books I'm Reading I finished Dan Brown's Origin. As in Brown's other books (The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons) Professor Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks in the movie versions) finds himself gripped by a perplexing mystery and unraveling clues alongside a lovely smart woman all while being chased by hidden villains. Brown is a fantastic storyteller who inserts lots of cliff-hanger moments to keep the reader turning the page. 

Well, speaking of true, here’s a confession. I've neglected my writing these past few weeks other than journaling in the morning. This retirement countdown has piled on extra events, a final clearing out of the last office clutter and lots of sweet moments -- lunches and conversations and even a girlfriend trip to Chicago. (This past week's blog got hung up in the hotel's Internet plumbing and, so I apologize for missing last Monday's in-box.)

I'm trying to savor this special time. 

In that spirit, here's writer Carl Sandburg again:

Let a joy keep you. Reach out your hands and keep it when it runs by.

Reach!

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