“I already told you who I am, this afternoon at the diner,” protested Cam.
“No. You told me what you’ve done. I’m asking you who you are.” She paused for a moment and then relented. “Okay,” she said. “We’ll come back to you—if you want your watch back, that is.”
Just then, Mary Ellen returned from the kitchen with four elegant plates of petite filets, small, perfect lobster tails, and lemon rice pilaf. She refilled our wine glasses, settled back in her chair, and placed her napkin on her lap.
“What did I miss?” she lilted, clearly knowing.
“I think you’ll go first,” said Agnes. “If you don’t mind.”
“I’m game,” Mary Ellen laughed. “What am I going first with?”
“I think you’re supposed to answer the who are you question,” I said cutting into my steak. “And I’m pretty sure we don’t want to hear your biography,” I guessed.
“I’m all about service,” she said without hesitation. “Everything I do comes from my desire to add more than I take from my relationships. Service fuels the way I work and the way I live my personal life, and it’s the basis for all my choices. It’s how I decide how I’m going to invest my precious time on this earth.”
She’d obviously thought this through before, and I was impressed with her conviction and clarity in the way she delivered it.
Agnes said, “I made Mary Ellen my business partner because of the way she served our customers from the very first minute she started at The Wake-Up Call. And she cofounded the foundation with me for the same reason: she wanted to serve the needs of young women who, in turn, want to serve their communities. She served her marriage up until the minute her late husband—God rest his gentle soul—passed from cancer, and she still serves her children even though they’re no longer living under the same roof.”
“And,” said Mary Ellen, looking at Agnes with gratitude in her eyes, “I serve my mentor here as her caretaker, though it doesn’t really look like she needs one, does she?”
They raised their glasses to each other and sipped. It was a touching toast to deep camaraderie and friendship which couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed by our boy, Cam.
“So service is one of your core values,” I said, trying to put it into a familiar language.
“If you like,” said Mary Ellen. “But I prefer to think of it as,” she pointed to the radio, “my frequency. It took me a while to find it, to tune in, as it were. There are a lot of values I hold dear: respect, integrity, honesty, love, and family, to name a few. But, for me, it all plays on the radio station called service.” She clearly delighted in the metaphor. “Every value that I… well… value rolls up into service: service is the way I show respect; integrity and honesty characterize the kind of service I give to others. And if I’m really serving from my heart, I see everyone as family, not just my genetic relatives. That’s the way it works for me, and the moment I got clear on that, the moment I tuned in, I committed to it with all my being.”
“She turned up the volume,” added Agnes.
“You amped your life,” I said, catching the thread. “And simultaneously stoked my business. Look at my career at the dinner. I’m the boss, for goodness sakes!” she exclaimed with delight and a charming hint of self-deprecation. “And the foundation is one way I’m trying to change the world. I don’t know how much of that I could have accomplished if I hadn’t gotten clear on my frequency.”
Cam ate in silence, never taking his eyes off the plate.
I was enjoying Mary Ellen’s dissertation immensely, but I couldn’t wait for Cam’s turn which, I suspected, was coming next. I admit that I was looking forward to hearing him confront such a personal revelation.
“Now,” said Agnes, just as I’d hoped. “What about you?”
I looked at Cam with near sadistic anticipation, practically licking my chops at the prospect of watching him try to tune into his station.
“So?” she said again. “What about it, Steve?”
Cam’s gaze shot suddenly up from his plate and over to me, and I felt myself recoil. First, he looked surprised, then relieved, and then amused at this little turn of events.
Now who’s the sadist? I mused.
“Okay, I think I can do this,” I said, nervously rubbing my hands together. “I’ve done a lot of values clarification exercises with my clients over the years, and I think I’ve got it narrowed down to a few things that are really important to me, you know, values wise, but as far as my frequency, my one overriding value or principle goes, well, that I’m not too sure about, but I’ll sure give it a try.” I was blabbering.
“I’m, well, I’m a Capricorn, for starters.” I laughed the worst kind of laugh, the kind where no one joins in. “Umm… okay… I… I value family too, just like Mary Ellen said. And integrity, of course, I mean, who doesn’t, right?” They all looked at me while I verbally thrashed about. “But, really, I’m all about, well… man,” I interrupted myself. “I’m surprised this is so hard.”
“What’s hard about it, sugar?” asked Agnes with genuine compassion for my predicament.
“Narrowing it down to just one thing; there’s so much more to it than that. It reminds me of that character in the movie City Slickers who said the key was to find the one thing in your life. I always thought that was a little silly. Human beings are much more complicated than that.”
“Yes, we are, but it’s not about finding your frequency by ruling out everything else; on the contrary, it’s about finding the frequency that includes all those other important values and ideals. The very act of trying to wrap it all together is what’s really important because in order to do so, you have to get very clear on what you mean by each value and principle. You have to define them, think them through, understand them to their core, and evaluate your life against each one. The clearer you get, the closer you get to the frequency that pulsates through your life and characterizes who you really are. So, Steve, just try. Off the top of your head, now, answer me one question.”
“Okay, I’ll try,”
“What’s most important to you in the way you live your life?”
“A lot of things are important,” I said.
“Let’s try that again,” Agnes chuckled. “Say the first thing that comes to mind. What,” she repeated, “is most important to you in the way you live your life?”
“Freedom,” I said, almost without thinking. “For me, I guess, it’s all about freedom.”
I’d never thought about it that way before, and the word surprised me. What was most shocking about it, though, wasn’t the spontaneity of my utterance, and it wasn’t the forceful way the word flew out of my mouth. It was the joy I felt in the act of saying it. And the sudden comprehension that it was true.
“Well,” said Agnes. “That sounds just lovely. Freedom. Now, what does that mean, Steve? Can you make that clearer for us? Can you turn it up a bit?”
“It’s what I’ve always wanted for myself, I guess, and for others.”
“In what way?” coaxed Mary Ellen.
“The freedom to say what I think. The freedom to spend my time doing the things that bring me joy. Freedom of creative expression, the freedom to love without judgment. I think that’s accurate.” I was thinking out loud. Freely, I might add. “I think that’s why I’m pulled to the field of leadership development, to help others experience that sense of freedom that comes from accomplishing extraordinary things in life. I mean, unleashing the potential in others is really the act of liberation, isn’t it? Freeing the human spirit?”
“Makes sense to me,” said Mary Ellen, and Agnes nodded in agreement.
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Makes sense to me, too.”
“That’s a terrific start, baby,” encouraged Agnes. “Now, here’s what I want you to do.” She leaned forward, and so did I. “Where’s your WUP?”
“My WUP?” I said, patting my pants pockets.
“Don’t tell me you don’t have one. I know you left the diner with my order pad, Steve,” said Mary Ellen. “I saw you take it.” She wagged her finger at me. “I don’t miss much, you know.”
A wave of guilt settled over my head like a soft cloud. “I left it at home, I think. I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz.”
My intention was not to be funny, but it sure got a guffaw out of Cam. “Yeah, neither did I,” he said. I guess he didn’t bring his, either.
“There’s always a quiz,” corrected Agnes in all seriousness. “That’s why you have to carry it with you all the time. I want you to write freedom in your WUP the second you get home, and then spend at least thirty minutes writing down what the word means to you.”
“And then do what I did when I first tuned in to service,” added Mary Ellen. “Start to list all the ways you can think of to bring more freedom into your life and the lives of others. And then, if freedom really is your frequency, as you do more of those things, your energy will kick up to levels that you’ve never experienced before.”
“And if it isn’t the right one?”
“Start over,” she said. “And keep going until you find the one that is.”
“It could take a while,” said Agnes. “From the time I was a little girl in Chicago, I knew I wanted to have a restaurant. I was positively in love with the idea. I went to med school to please my parents, but I could never shake the fantasy. When I finally opened my first Agnes’s Real Chicago Hot Dog and Chili Palace, I thought I’d arrived. But it wasn’t until a few years later when I was about your age, young Mr. Cam, that I finally got clear on and tuned into who I really was beyond the labels of chef, or entrepreneur.”
“And who was that?” I asked.
“I was and am and evermore will be devoted to human growth. When I realized that, I devoted more and more time and energy to the education and development of each and every one of my employees. Now, these were fry cooks, mind you: cooks and cashiers and sweepers and cleaners who all started at the minimum wage, but I sought out opportunities for them to take on more challenge and responsibility. My business started to grow as well, and my employees took management jobs in my new locations. They became businesspeople in their own right, and some went on to start places of their own.
“Everything I do—everything—is with the intention to bring out the full capacity of those around me. And that’s how I continue to grow, too, and will until the day I shuffle off to that Hot Dog Palace in the sky.”
“I’m only one of many examples of what Agnes is talking about,” Mary Ellen said, resting her hand on Agnes’s shoulder. “I am living evidence that this woman’s growth frequency is not only crystal-clear; her volume is turned all the way up to ten.”
“So amping your life on the growth frequency helped you to stoke your business, as well,” I commented.
“And change the world. Don’t forget about that, baby. But we’ll get to that.”
Cam cleared his throat and all heads swiveled to him. “Dinner was great; I wish I could stay for dessert, but,” he tapped his naked wrist. “I gotta bolt. I’m sure you don’t need to pawn my watch, ladies, so if I could have it back, please, I’ll get out of your way and you all can continue with… ah… group, or whatever you call it.”
“Not until you’ve earned it,” Agnes sang. “A deal’s a deal, sugar. I believe it’s your turn to answer the question.”
“You mean, who am I?”
“That’s the one,” I said, relieved that the focus had shifted to Cam.
“My name is Cam Summerfield. My rank is senior vice president. My employee number is 135. My frequency is impatience and my time is now up. Watch, please.” He held out his hand.
I’m a pretty laid-back, find-the-humor-in-the-situation kind of a guy. Most folks will tell you that I’m easygoing, quick to forgive, and slow to anger. But the people who know me well—my family, some close friends, for example—know something about me that others do not: I have a low aggravation threshold. When that threshold is crossed; when the dam is breached, if you prefer, it’s not a pretty sight. I have been known to blow like Moby, and, although I don’t see what the big deal is, I’ve been told that I scare the living hell out of those on the receiving end. Cam did not know this about me, nor did anyone else in our little dinner party. My new little buddy of the day, however, was dangerously close to igniting my inner Hulk. I felt a familiar, David Banner-like tremor building somewhere deep in my chest.
I think Agnes must have sensed something because she asked Mary Ellen to retrieve the watch and told Cam that she understood, and that it was just fine, sugar, it was a pleasure to have his company if even for a short while. It was hard to hear through the thunder raging in my ears, but that was the gist of it.
I breathed, took another breath, and said, “Just one moment, please.”
Then I waited for Mary Ellen to sit back down before I continued. “Cam, if you’ve listened at all to anything that these wonderful women have shared with us this evening,” I was really trying not to hiss, “then you know that they didn’t invite us here for their own good. They’re doing just fine, thank you very much.”
So far, so calm. I paused for a gulp of water.
“Now, I’ve learned a lot tonight, and I’m very grateful for that,” I felt myself calming a little. Gratitude will do that to you. “But we’re here for your benefit, Cam. Don’t you get that? They invited us here to help you, and I think it would be the honorable, right thing for you to try, at least. “So,” I spoke into his silence, “how about really trying to answer the question, okay? Cam? Would you do that, please?”
“Okay,” he started sweetly enough, “How about this? How about it’s none of your flippin’ business who I am or what my freeeeeeequency is.” He made his voice warble like the Outer Limits. “I’ve answered the damn question. I’m a moneymaker. I’m a hard worker. I’ve earned my stripes and that’s all you need to know. You wanna know my story? Fine. Here it is: I grew up poor. When I was little, I slept in a drawer in my mother’s bedroom. I fought my way through high school and swept floors at the 7-Eleven for money because I never had an allowance. Is that what you want to know? Boo-hoo, poor me. Is that what you want to hear?”
“You wanna know my frequency, Agnes?” he snarled. “It’s get mine. That’s it. Nobody’s gonna give it to me, so I’m going to get it myself. Okay, now?” he shouted. “Everybody happy? Is that amped enough for you?”
“Enough!” I shouted back. “You don’t get it, do you, you ungrateful, self-centered little punk? Because of you, I got the chance to meet and learn from these remarkable people, and I’m glad for that, but you, Cam, are not worth another nanosecond of effort from me or anyone else. That’s… that’s it for me; I’m done with you. I’ll call Rich in the morning and tell him you’re on your own. And good flippin’ luck to you.”
I got up and left to find the bathroom. I closed the door behind me and rested my forehead against it. I turned on the tap in the sink, splashed cold water on my face, and looked at myself in the mirror. Already the waves of regret and failure were rolling over me.
Here I was, supposed to be a leadership coach, but I couldn’t find it in myself to work with this kid who undoubtedly needed help more than anyone I’d ever worked with before. What could I do, though? He didn’t want it or he was just too proud to admit that he did. Either way, I had to let it go and chalk it up to experience. Maybe this failure would make me a better coach for others that I’d meet down the road.
What had I learned from this? That’s another question to work out on my WUP, I figured. I dried my face on a soft, cotton towel embroidered with small, purple flowers, took a few more deep breaths, and headed back to the dining room.
Cam was gone, and Mary Ellen was clearing the table in silence.
“Feel better?” Agnes asked with a knitted brow.
“Well, that’s that,” I sighed as I sat and poured myself a cup of dark, rich coffee. “I really botched that one all to hell, didn’t I?”
“If it makes you feel any better, baby,” she said, “he did thank us for dinner before he left.” Her laughter that followed did make me feel better.
The three of us moved to the living room and sat facing each other in soft, upholstered brown and green loveseats. I set my cup down on the coffee table and leaned back into the comforting little sofa.
“I’m really sorry, ladies,” I said. “That was totally unprofessional and uncalled for. I wish I could call a do-over.”
“Don’t worry about it, Steve,” said Mary Ellen on behalf of the both of them. “We all lose it from time to time. I know I have.”
“Oh, yes,” agreed Agnes. “My blowouts make yours look like a delicate spring shower.” They both had a good laugh at that from a shared history, no doubt.
“I was really impatient with him all day, you know? Tonight pushed me over the edge, but I was already teetering on it. What else could I have done?” I pleaded.
“Why are you so worried about it, sugar?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I said. “I’m supposed to help people like Cam, not chase them away.”
“The modern malady, Steve, is people living lives of quiet desperation. The three of us here, and many others like us, the ones who want to use their gifts to change the world for the better, prefer to live lives of amplified exuberance. That’s how we move mountains, baby. Cam isn’t ready to look deep enough into himself to find that clear, inspiring voice. So, even though it’s in there somewhere, he’s got nothing to amplify. Not yet, anyway.”
“Besides, what makes you think you didn’t?” asked Mary Ellen.
“Were we all at the same dinner?” I looked at each of them. “That was a complete, total, and utterly miserable failure.”
They each looked at me.
“Wasn’t it?” I said.
“No, baby, it wasn’t,” said Agnes the Wise. “You helped him more than you know. We all did.”
[Note: I’m excited to share my second book, The Radical Edge, in serial fashion here on SteveFarber.com! We’ll post one installment a week until the very end of the book. You can go back and read from the beginning here. If you ever get impatient and want to scarf the whole thing down at once, you can always just pop over to Amazon and satiate yourself.]