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
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 dont
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 parents 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
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 dont have any money.
Im taking a job with IBM as a systems engineer. He said, Why
dont you go to graduate school? I said, What would I study?
and he said, Theres this field called organizational development.
So I said, Where would I go? He said, Go to Harvard, Yale
or Carnegie. You apply and well see what happens. I did and
I got accepted. Yale gave me money and I felt that was something I couldnt
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 wasnt doing anything useful
I got picked.
NFC: What did you learn at
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 didnt follow my instincts or just
didnt have more faith in myself.
NFC: Is that why you are working
with communities now?
Block: Thats 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 couldnt 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: Whats been your
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 dont
know how it happened, but I know its 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 dont think I would be good
at that, or have much interest in it. The other reason is I dont think
I could stand the exposure. Ive been thinking lately that it took
$40 million to get the goods on Clinton and for me it would have taken about
$1.50. Thats 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
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 thats 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 couldnt
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 Ive
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
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 Ive
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 Ive 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 practicalI dont
know what the real world is like.
I am also terrible at giving small group instructions.
Every presentation Ive 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 thats 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 Im a communist or an
NFC: And whats your response
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 60s, 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 theyd ask me what I did. And Id say we run groups
with 12 men sitting in a circle, talking about their feelings and it was
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 artists life,
to find words or to name what I see happening or present the argument for
a more compassionate, freer existence. I think its to develop myself
and to take advantage of the talent I was given. I dont know. Part
of me has the Grandma Moses fantasy that until Im 65 or 70 I wont
know, so this is all rehearsal.
NFC: Whats the worst
piece of advice you have ever received?
Block: Study engineering.
NFC: Who gave you that piece
Block: The Minnesota Multi-Phasic/North Dakota Null Hypothesis Brain
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 goalto
make a living. And so I dont know particularly who it was, but they
said, Why dont 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,
Dont study engineering. Theres too many engineers going
to school and most of you wont like it. That was pretty accurate
advice, but I didnt 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 doesnt mean much to me right now. I dont
have that sense. Just like when people say, Arent you proud
of your children? I always think, Why would I be proud of them?
Its their life. I dont 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
Block: Love. Compassion. Equity. Freedom. Respect. Apology. Forgiveness.
NFC: Where do you get your
ideas for your News for a Change columns?
Block: Its 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 isolationthose 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 wasnt so patriarchal I wouldnt write so
much about partnership. If I wasnt so materialistic I wouldnt
write so much about purpose and meaning. If I wasnt such an outsider
in my bones, I wouldnt 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, its 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 its my own heritage. My grandfather left Russia
at night hidden in a hay wagon. I think that is in my bloodstream. I dont
know how to join the culture as we know it, its 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 thats 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?
Ive 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: Its about citizenship. Its about when are we going
to reclaim a place, a business, a neighborhood, a building, a culture and
bring it to life. Youll see it maybe by the end of next year, I dont
know. Im not rushing. Im also revising Flawless Consulting.
I think whats popular in this culture fundamentally has a destructive
dark side that we are only mildly aware ofour 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 dont work that much,
its just that when I do work I am traveling. And the traveling is
tiring, but it doesnt bother me. I dont mind being tired. If
Im tired I sleepsometimes during my own presentations. I like
to think Ive got another 20 years left. I like the idea of burning
out in those yearsdying at the podium in the middle of a sentence
I didnt know how to finish. Ive tried golf and Ive had
fantasies of homes on the water and an easy lifestyle. I think I would be
NFC: Any tips for a frequent
Block: Protect yourself in the eveningavoid 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 walkthats how I deal with it. And if you
go to the West Coast, stay on Eastern time. It gives you three hours every
morning thats 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.