Uncomfortable lessons

Things I have learned from my (awkward) interactions with famous people

I have had the pleasure of meeting several very influential, powerful and intriguing people over my career, and each occasion left me with a very valuable, though maybe a little embarrassing, lesson.

On one occasion, I was invited to a small dinner party for former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and I was to be seated next to him at the dinner table. In preparation for the engagement, I read his biography written by famed author Walter Isaacson. It was more than 900 pages and took me more than three months to get through it.

When the moment came, I told Kissinger that I read his biography and had some questions for him. He asked me, “Which one?” I was taken aback. Which question? No, he wanted to know which biography I had read. I told him the one written by Isaacson. There was a pause as he got visibly upset, telling me the book was “terrible” and that “Isaacson didn’t do a very good job.” I had no idea that there were multiple biographies and that I had read the worst of them. My questions became inane.

It still was a great dinner hearing his stories and such, but the lesson learned was that even the best intentions and preparation may not be successful.

On another occasion I was fortunate to meet President Bill Clinton. As I watched him being introduced to several people before me, I was captivated with how he looked at and engaged with each person, his eyes never straying around the room. Forget about your political affiliation or opinion, it’s hard to describe the aura and charisma that he effused. He had it and knew how to use it.

My interaction with the president was memorable not because of the depth and meaningfulness of our conversation, but more for the embarrassing sounds emitted from my mouth in an attempt to be clever, entertaining and interesting. I said something about muffins on Air Force One and blah, blah, blah. If there were more people in the room, it would have easily made my top 10 list of most embarrassing moments.

The lesson I learned from meeting Clinton is don’t try to match magnetism and witty banter with someone who does it effortlessly and extraordinarily well.

With each of these encounters I got a bird’s eye view of how these amazingly accomplished individuals interact and how revered they can be. I learned that I should try to stay in the moment and see in each interaction its potential importance. It’s not likely that these lessons will be found in any business book, but these encounters had important and positive life-changing effects on me.

Steven L. Marks is co-founder and co-CEO of Main Street Gourmet, a manufacturer of frozen bakery products with distribution throughout the U.S.