On the day I graduated from college in 1982, a fellow graduate, who for two years had been very generous with her steady supply of cocaine, threw a party with her housemates. We were all friends. She told us her father would be there. We had never met him, but somehow we knew him as “a shipping magnate.” And then there he was. Dave, Jon, Jonathan, Cal, and I stood and stared at him, this WASP Onassis who had flown into Denver on his jet and, for all we knew, been chauffeured up to Boulder. The party had just started, but he was already looking at his watch. The five of us decided that we had to come up with an unintelligible way to thank him for the funds his daughter had diverted to the cause of arts and leisure. We couldn’t. “I’ll introduce myself,” I said. In short order, he had me backed up against the central column in the playroom. “So,” he said, “what do you do?” That was the problem, what “do” meant. I went for broke. “I’m a poet,” I answered. This—according to notes I seem to have made at the time and then lost the originals of after typing them up—is what he said to that:
Okay, you’re a poet. You gotta have no ego. You cannot have an ego. Worrying is worthless. You can’t worry about the megaton bomb. It’s useless. I couldn’t be effective if I did. You have to be effective. Everyone in business is a climber. But you have to climb the right mountain, be a Hillary, climb the Everests. If someone says no more three–drawer filing cabinets, you have to think, how about a two–drawer? Change is good. We accept change. You get an A. Today is your day to begin to become the best in the business. Tell them to go screw themselves. Stocks and bonds don’t interest me. I know all the heads of the airlines. Braniff’s wife decorated their planes and they went belly-up. The goal is infinity. Goal and change are of a different order. Change means new ways to maximize profit. It’s a byproduct of the way to the goal itself. The mountain is not to sit on but to climb. You get an A. Money means nothing unless you do what makes you happy. But if you have this opportunity, and every uncommon person does, you have to work in your happiness until you’re the best in the business—poetry, plumbing parts, or shipping, I don’t care. As long as you’re the best. The best damned poet in the business.