The first time I met Jerry, I thought he was an IT guy.
It was an honest mistake, seeing as his title was Senior Manager of Enterprise Systems at the Met Museum in New York. I was meeting with him to start planning a museum-wide implementation of Tessitura, and Jerry was friendly but all business. His written agenda, project plan, and speaking style were all succinct and direct.
Over lunch we exchanged biographies, as one does with a new business acquaintance. It was the classic first date of the professional world. He learned about my experience with data conversions; I learned about his extensive corporate project management background prior to the Met.
As the implementation rolled ahead, I visited Jerry frequently. Over months of lunches in the Met’s staff cafeteria, the conversation gingerly moved onto less dry topics. We learned we had both lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. I heard stories of his years working at Chanel. We shared pictures of our kids. All great and interesting stuff. And Jerry was still an IT guy.
We were finishing up a meeting in the windowless IT conference room one afternoon when Jerry surprised me with a question. “Do you like photography?” he asked. “Sure,” I replied, unsure of where this was going. “You really should try to check out the Garry Winogrand exhibit before it closes — it’s amazing.” I remember the moment causing me minor cognitive dissonance. I had long since put Jerry in the Corporate IT Guy compartment in my brain, and I didn’t entirely expect that compartment to include Garry Winogrand.
“How often do you go see stuff here?” I suavely asked this employee of one of the world’s greatest art museums. Jerry replied, “All the time. Most days in fact.” I nodded appreciatively. “Usually after lunch, I try to go see something I haven’t seen before. Just for ten or fifteen minutes. Even just one painting or sculpture. Sometimes it takes me weeks to get through a single exhibit!” And then he regaled me about five or six other not-to-miss exhibits and more or less made me promise to check out at least one of them before I left the building for the day.
And just like that, the compartment in my head changed. IT Guy Jerry became IT Guy Who Loves Art Jerry. I was so inspired by his disciplined approach to appreciating the great art behind his daily work that I spoke about him at the Tessitura Conference speech I gave that year. Jerry was my original inspiration to “Live in the Culture” of our organizations.
And just like that, IT Guy Jerry became IT Guy Who Loves Art Jerry.
The first time I saw Jerry after that talk, we joked about how he was “Tessitura famous” now. He had shared the YouTube video with a few friends, and one of his closest childhood friends had taken some mock umbrage in the fact that I refer in the talk to “my friend Jerry.” I think his friend’s exact words were, “Who the eff is this guy who says he’s your friend? He doesn’t really know you!” Jerry laughed as he related the story and promised that his friend had just been joking around. But I realized he wasn’t wrong. Not so long ago, Jerry had been in the IT Guy compartment of my brain after all. I didn’t actually know him that well.
Imagine my surprise, for instance, at the 2015 Tessitura Conference when I saw Jerry playing the trumpet in the horn section of the Tessitura rock band, the Tessiturians. IT Guy Who Loves Art And Plays A Mean Horn. Or when a co-worker tipped me off to the fact that Jerry had recently been recognized at his Temple for leading their volunteer Social Action Team. IT Guy Who Loves Art And Plays A Mean Horn And Is A Total Mensch. I realized his friend was right. Who the eff was I to say I knew this guy?
Jerry playing in the Tessiturians at TLCC2018
We all have a tendency to fall into this trap — the compartment trap. How can we not? We meet so many people that it is natural, sometimes even unavoidable, to put them all into buckets. Our brain creates these compartments as shorthand to organize our relationships. There’s nothing nefarious in it. It is a social survival skill. “He’s an IT Guy. I can talk to him about data conversions. That will be our common ground. Check.”
When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, we met with a nurse-midwife who would be our guide through the pregnancy. At the first appointment, the midwife asked my profession. I launched in about technology and non-profits and the business of arts and culture and all of it. She furrowed her brow and nodded and scribbled something on the clipboard. “What did you write?” I asked. “IT Guy,” she answered with a little smile. We all do it.
And the fact is, we do it to ourselves. When I’m asked to give a printed bio for a speaking engagement, it may as well be my professional résumé. On the last line perhaps you learn that I live in Oregon and have a wife and daughter. But you don’t learn that Gershwin is my favorite composer, my favorite activity is day-long walks around the City of Portland, or that I’ve read the entire oeuvre of Bill Bryson. So we really can’t be sore at others who call us IT Guy, when we so often do it ourselves.
And yet, it’s a shame. It’s a shame that for a year I thought Jerry was IT Guy Jerry. And it’s a shame that our midwife thought I was IT Guy Andrew.
I’ve been thinking that perhaps we can change this, to help us all become that “segment of one” that we all truly are. Maybe we can start to see each other in our multidimensional glory. To begin this change, we need to start with ourselves.
As a thought experiment, here’s a short exercise for your next lunch break. Write your one-page biography. Not your professional bio, not your résumé, but your Real Biography. Rather than establishing business credibility, tell the world who you actually are. Your essence. You may surprise yourself with what you find most important to share and not share.
And you may surprise others who thought they knew you. The epitaph that Thomas Jefferson wrote for himself lists that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and the father of the University of Virginia. That’s it. What didn’t rise to the level of “tombstone important” for Thomas Jefferson were such interesting factoids as:
- He was President of the United States for eight years
- He was the Ambassador to France during the American Revolution, a war that the US would never have won without the French
- He was the guy who inked the Louisiana Purchase — the largest land acquisition in the history of the US.
TJ’s Real Bio just didn’t find those bits as important. How might your Real Bio surprise us?
Thomas Jefferson’s personal epitaph is quite a bit different from history’s.
And if you don’t have time to write a one-page bio, why not start with a list of important things about you? What would your epitaph be? Or if you find that too creepy, why not rewrite your Twitter or LinkedIn “headline” bio? Don’t be content to put yourself in the compartment of IT Person or Database Person, or Fundraiser, Marketer or Arts Administrator Person. And the next time you have a “first date” professional encounter, find a way to weave the Real Bio in there too. Tell your bigger story, express your full, rich life.
Speaking of bigger stories, Jerry’s just continues to get more interesting. A few years back, Jerry gave a TED Talk as part of the TEDx Met event. A TED Talk. Who the eff does this guy think he is??
Jerry has a TEDx talk!
He was one of two Met Museum employees (out of 2,000) selected to give a talk. As usual, he hadn’t really told people about it. I only heard about it after a co-worker of his posted about it on Facebook. His TEDx talk was not about Project Management. It was not about IT. Not about trumpet or even the Met. It was a story about a guy with a mundane-sounding day job, an extraordinary back-story and an unsung impact on the arts world. But he wasn’t talking about himself. It is a story about his dad. I’ll let him tell it.
You see, Jerry isn’t an IT Guy and he never was. He’s an Art Loving, Trumpet Playing, TED Talk Giving, Soft-Spoken, Big-Hearted Family Man from Queens — who happens to work in IT.
What is your real bio?
P.S. Seriously, take 10 minutes and watch Jerry’s talk. It’s one of the best TED Talks I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s my friend.