ASQ - Team and Workplace Excellence Forum

December 1998

Once Around The Block

A Better Place To Live

Chevron Fuels-Up For The Future

Imagine What Creativity Can Lead To

Lessons Learned At The Water Cooler

by Maryann Brennan
Brief Cases
Business News Briefs

Views for a Change

The Quality Tool I Never Use

Sites Unseen

Book Review


Once Around The Block

NFC: What kind of influence did your parents have on you?
Block: I got an enormous amount of compassion and care for the vulnerable parts of people and society from both of them. When you grow up a Jew you identify with the underdog and you are always an outsider.

NFC: What did your parents do?
Block: My father studied medicine. The day he got out of medical school and finished his residency he went into business with his brothers making steel kitchen cabinets. He was in charge of finance and sales. He had worked as an accountant on the south side of Chicago to support his family and get through school. But this was in the early 30s and I don’t think he ever liked medicine, I think he was more interested in business and this is where he spent his life.

My mother was a pianist and a housewife. She was ten years younger than my father and filled the house with music. I think she had children because everyone was doing it. I was the child that she disliked the least. There were three kids in our family so that made me a favorite. I was the oldest son and the middle child. It was a scattered family. My father spent nine months in the hospital in his late 40s, my sister had polio and my brother came late in my parent’s life. He was 10 years younger, so he grew up in a different world than I did.

NFC: Your father finished medical school and did something totally different?
Block: I think he was a good son. I think he went to medical school until his mother died and then did what he wanted.

NFC: In a way, you did the same thing.
Block: I studied engineering and finance because I was worried about making a living. In my senior year an organizational behavior professor, named Jack Steele, caught me in a stairwell and asked me if I was going to graduate school. I said, “Heavens no. I don’t have any money. I’m taking a job with IBM as a systems engineer.” He said, “Why don’t you go to graduate school?” I said, “What would I study?” and he said, “There’s this field called organizational development.” So I said, “Where would I go?” He said, “Go to Harvard, Yale or Carnegie. You apply and we’ll see what happens.” I did and I got accepted. Yale gave me money and I felt that was something I couldn’t refuse so I went to New Haven.

NFC: When you finished graduate school where did you work?
Block: I got three job offers. One with the telephone company in New Haven where I had worked summers and Christmas. One with the Equitable Life Insurance which was going to pay me $2.50 an hour to live in Manhattan. And one with Exxon which had a decent salary that got me to New Jersey.

NFC: How long were you at Exxon?
Block: Full-time for four years. The first year I spent designing a single performance appraisal form for Exxon engineering that had 164 items upon which each person would be evaluated. So I guess it dawned on them that perhaps I was underemployed.

A year after I got there they hired about a dozen organizational development consultants to work with their management and they decided to train someone internally. And since I wasn’t doing anything useful I got picked.

NFC: What did you learn at Exxon?
Block: A lot. First of all, I was exposed to a group of consultants who were young and inventing the field of organizational development. It was really exciting. The field then was about personal development. We were running sensitivity training groups and it was the perfect entry-level job. All you had to do was start off the session with a sentence, keep your mouth shut and absorb anger. I learned a lot about group process. I learned that after awhile and a lot of turmoil, people want to make contact with each other. They want to be more honest about themselves and their lives. I learned to trust that regardless of the storm raging at the moment.

NFC: What has been your biggest disappointment in life?
Block: This conversation.

NFC: Aside from that.
Block: I think the hardest thing, looking back, is how I chose money over meaning. I chose to work in the corporate setting where I could make good money. In the beginning I worked in communities, like the city of Newark. I loved the diversity, the texture. It was like a flea market. And I moved away from that. I regret that I didn’t follow my instincts or just didn’t have more faith in myself.

NFC: Is that why you are working with communities now?
Block: That’s why now that time is running out I am much more focused on where I work. Really the biggest disappointment in life was the failure of my first marriage and that I couldn’t give my kids a home that I had wanted. I had committed myself to providing them with a safe and loving home. I failed. That has been the hardest.

NFC: What’s been your greatest joy?
Block: Giving birth to two daughters. The miracle of being with them as they have grown up and seeing that they ultimately forgive you. They create lives of their own that you can be proud of, enjoy and realize something good was created in the lives they have chosen.

NFC: If I asked them what kind of influence you had on them, what do you think they would say?
Block: They would say that they spent their lives being broken into small groups. And they were asked how they felt about 1,500 times too often. They have been impacted by my own living on the margin of society and the attitudes I have about that, I think, is unsettling for them. I think it has made them more wary of life than I would have wished. I also think they have a very deep compassion for the world and a strong sense of values. They also have a really good relationship with their father, which, I don’t know how it happened, but I know it’s important.

NFC: Have you ever thought about running for political office?
Block: In the last few years I have thought about that, but I think it would be more for the platform than for the work. The whole legislative process is the real work of politics I don’t think I would be good at that, or have much interest in it. The other reason is I don’t think I could stand the exposure. I’ve been thinking lately that it took $40 million to get the goods on Clinton and for me it would have taken about $1.50. That’s because only two phone calls would have to be made.

NFC: You took piano lessons later in life?
Block: Age 36. I had my mid-life crisis at age 36 and I am 22 years into it. I love music and I love the piano. I loved the repetition of the practicing. I learned a song called “I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free” before I even took a lesson. I marked off, like an engineer, each note and where it belonged on the keyboard. And night after night I would just muscle my way through that song until I eventually memorized it.

NFC: And this is before you took any lessons?
Block: Before I took any lessons. I just found middle C. I would count, “OK, ‘C, D, E’ now that’s three,” and I would just play that cord for 20 minutes. I liked the determination in that. I would have wished for some talent.

NFC: Were there frustrations? I remember after my first lesson, at age 5, being angry because I couldn’t play. I thought it would take one lesson.
Block: I feel that way about all art. I use to think it took a real artist four minutes to do a painting, and it takes me forever. But I’ve become more patient. I took lessons for a couple of years and then I took them again in my 40s. I wished I could really play the piano. Same with art. I love drawing and painting. I go in spurts where I get into things for two or three years and then I either have to really get serious or I just put it in the background.

NFC: Is it because you like to learn?
Block: I love learning. I love being surprised. Sometimes I think I do the same thing with relationships. I make really great contact with people and then never see them again. There are hundreds of people I’ve cared about that have fallen like sands through my fingers.

NFC: Do you have any critics? What do they say?
Block: Other than wives and children? I get away with a lot. I think for the majority of the people I’ve become a court jester. The things that make sense to me are the things I talk about and these make sense to them. The biggest criticism is that I am not practical—I don’t know what the real world is like.

I am also terrible at giving small group instructions. Every presentation I’ve ever given they say, “These ideas are fine and we like his sense of humor, but his instructions stink and the overheads are poor.” I think that’s really about how much energy I have to deal with the question of “How” and “What are the steps?” And then some people just think I’m a communist or an anarchist.

NFC: And what’s your response to that?
Block: Well, I thought it was democracy. I thought people connecting, getting together, having control over their lives is what democracy is about. People confuse political systems with economic systems. If you work together and are communal or collective in your actions then somehow you are not a capitalist. And I get a lot of heat about that.

The culture has changed. When I started doing groups in the 60’s, it was really on the fringe and it was unexplainable. I would go to parties in my little suburban neighborhood, which I had sought out for safety, and they’d ask me what I did. And I’d say we run groups with 12 men sitting in a circle, talking about their feelings and it was incomprehensible.

NFC: What was the best piece of advice you ever received?
Block: Go to graduate school. That would be one. Peter Koestenbaum told me I ought to figure out what my destiny was.

NFC: Did you figure it out?
Block: I am getting closer. Oh, there are different dimensions to it. I have found my voice and am more willing to live an artist’s life, to find words or to name what I see happening or present the argument for a more compassionate, freer existence. I think it’s to develop myself and to take advantage of the talent I was given. I don’t know. Part of me has the Grandma Moses fantasy that until I’m 65 or 70 I won’t know, so this is all rehearsal.

NFC: What’s the worst piece of advice you have ever received?
Block: Study engineering.

NFC: Who gave you that piece of advice?
Block: The Minnesota Multi-Phasic/North Dakota Null Hypothesis Brain Damage Test.

NFC: Is that really true? From that test they said to be an engineer?
Block: From that test they said I could study anything I wanted. And in 1957 engineers were making a living and that was my goal—to make a living. And so I don’t know particularly who it was, but they said, “Why don’t you do something practical by studying petroleum engineering?” I was lost. When I went to engineering school they had an interview with a professor as part of orientation and his advice was, “Don’t study engineering. There’s too many engineers going to school and most of you won’t like it.” That was pretty accurate advice, but I didn’t take it.

NFC: How would you like your epitaph to read?
Block: Well, I can tell you what I used to think it was. “Here lies Peter Block, he gave a lot and promised much more.” The truth is, being remembered doesn’t mean much to me right now. I don’t have that sense. Just like when people say, “Aren’t you proud of your children?” I always think, “Why would I be proud of them? It’s their life.” I don’t think in terms of a legacy.

NFC: Finish this sentence for me: Americans place too much emphasis on…
Block: Money. Materialism. Goods. Stuff. Cash. Dominance. Controlling the world. Pride.

NFC: What should they place emphasis on?
Block: Love. Compassion. Equity. Freedom. Respect. Apology. Forgiveness.

NFC: Where do you get your ideas for your News for a Change columns?
Block: It’s a mixture of anger and experience. I love the details of things that happen to me and when things strike me as strange, I have to make sense out of them. There are things that bother me and I have to give voice to them. Themes around freedom and materialism and the lack of community, passivity and isolation—those are just themes right now that race around in my mind all the time. Most of the ideas for the writing are projections. If I wasn’t so patriarchal I wouldn’t write so much about partnership. If I wasn’t so materialistic I wouldn’t write so much about purpose and meaning. If I wasn’t such an outsider in my bones, I wouldn’t long so much for community.
When I wrote “The Empowered Manager” a friend of mine said, “Peter, this is all projection.” And I think he was right, it’s just that the projections are useful.

NFC: You talk about yourself as an outsider in your bones, where does that come from?
Block: I think it’s my own heritage. My grandfather left Russia at night hidden in a hay wagon. I think that is in my bloodstream. I don’t know how to join the culture as we know it, it’s so unreal to me. I have to stay outside of it or on the edge of it in order to make my way. I also think that’s where I have something to offer.
I see some people who are members of clubs who make friends easily, like to meet new people and I think, “God, what would it be like to have that kind of a body, mind and spirit where you felt a part of the world?” I’ve found comfort in the groups that are on the fringe or a subculture. But the problem now is that my subculture has become part of the main culture, and that always starts a crisis for me when something I do becomes popular.

NFC: I know you are working on another book. What is it about?
Block: It’s about citizenship. It’s about when are we going to reclaim a place, a business, a neighborhood, a building, a culture and bring it to life. You’ll see it maybe by the end of next year, I don’t know. I’m not rushing. I’m also revising “Flawless Consulting.”
I think what’s popular in this culture fundamentally has a destructive dark side that we are only mildly aware of—our fascination with technology, the love of dominance and competition, the will to shop, the ideas about ambition. All those things have a dark shadow side that attracts me. Most of my personal work the last few years has been trying to understand the darkness or the shadow side of my own self and learning to accept that.

NFC: I know you travel a lot, how do you relax?
Block: Well, I feel at home in hotel rooms. The thing is I live in a small town so to do my work I am on the road. I don’t work that much, it’s just that when I do work I am traveling. And the traveling is tiring, but it doesn’t bother me. I don’t mind being tired. If I’m tired I sleep—sometimes during my own presentations. I like to think I’ve got another 20 years left. I like the idea of burning out in those years—dying at the podium in the middle of a sentence I didn’t know how to finish. I’ve tried golf and I’ve had fantasies of homes on the water and an easy lifestyle. I think I would be miserable.

NFC: Any tips for a frequent traveler?
Block: Protect yourself in the evening—avoid human contact if possible. Go back to your room at 5:30 p.m., take a nap, read, have room service or go for a walk—that’s how I deal with it. And if you go to the West Coast, stay on Eastern time. It gives you three hours every morning that’s yours.
Also avoid the Holiday Inn in Jackson, Mich. The soap is so thin, you can see through it. The towels are worn down so that all that is left is a barely discernible H and I. The tub is so narrow that when you shower the vinyl curtain sticks to one side of your body. Also you know you are in trouble as you walk down the hall to your room, you notice the other guests are chilling their Thunderbird wine on the floor outside their door.

December '98 News for a Change | Email Editor
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