Speaking, the Family Business
I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad, and my blessings. My mom raised me, but my livelihood is largely a function of two things:
— Luck (being born at the right place and time); and
— More luck … inheriting my father’s communications skills.
(Originally published in April 2018.)
I make my living speaking. It’s a family business.
I remember the first time I noticed my mom was depressed, and that depression was a thing. The first time I registered that my mom’s friends Karsen and Charly were cool, whatever cool was. I also remember, at the age five, people acting differently around my father. They would gaze into his eyes, nodding and then laughing. Women would touch his arm, laughing, and men, when they saw him, would yell at “Tommy,” genuinely happy to see him. He was great with a turn of phrase, funny and clever (i.e., British). The cocktail of articulate, irreverent, and smart chased with a Scottish accent made my dad attractive to women and employers.
My mother explained it to me: “Your father is charming.” At gatherings, inevitably, a semicircle forms around my dad, and he tells jokes and shares his take on things ranging from space (if it never ends, everything has already happened) to management (the key is a good job description). This charm sustained, for a decade, an upper-middle-class lifestyle for him, my mom, and me as he roamed the western United States and Canada, maintaining, in 15-minute spurts, pseudo-friendships with the managers of the outdoor and garden departments at Sears and Lowe’s. In exchange for his company, my dad’s 200 friends would over-order bags of shit … as he was selling fertilizer from O.M. Scotts, an ITT company.
In his late fifties, after the marketplace made it clear a recently laid-off middle manager from ITT was no longer welcome in the Fortune 500, he began giving seminars, open to the public, at a local community college. Cheap fluorescent lighting made the room feel like an operating room in an East German hospital. There were six rows of eight folding chairs, an overhead slide projector, transparencies with smudges, and a table at the back with half-empty two‑liter bottles of Dr Pepper, Sprite, and Tab, and lemon squares my stepmom had baked. Around 15 people, most in their fifties and sixties, would attend. My dad would speak for 90 minutes, breaking halfway through so everyone could venture to the hall and have a cigarette. I attended a few times as a teen. At that age, I found everything involving my parents lame, but this felt especially sad … depressing even. In exchange for imparting his wisdom on other mostly unemployed smokers, my dad had to pay $10–20 for gas and treats. My dad reflects on these seminars as the happiest he’s ever been. He was where he was meant to be, in front of a group of people speaking and teaching.
Charm Skips a Generation
I did not inherit my father’s charm. In fact the opposite of charm — being offensive is something I’ve developed a knack for. Not a “speak truth to power” kind of offensive, but a tone-deaf, saying exactly the wrong thing at the exact wrong moment kind of offensive. I regularly say things and write emails that make good people feel bad, and I know it. No excuse. Because I’m successful, people often recast it as honesty, or even leadership. No, it’s just being an asshole. Working on it.
However, my father did pass the ability to hold a room of people, as long as it’s a windowless boardroom or conference hall on the 55th floor of a midtown building or in the basement of a hotel. While most people become increasingly uncomfortable as the group grows, I experience the inverse. One-on-one I’m an introvert, insecure even. But as the room grows … other skills kick in. In front of dozens, crisp insights find me. In front of hundreds, humor and warmth. And thousands, a rush of adrenaline and the confidence to reach beyond my grasp and be inspiring. I may be wrong, but my heart is in the right place. I can look each person in the eye and claim I believe what I’m saying to be true. I’m blessed with not having to sell anything, and have no mercy nor malice for the firms or people referenced in my 30–60‑minute diatribes. Most people who speak at conferences are there to sell something and, most importantly, not offend anybody, as they may be selling to them the next day.
A mentor, Todd Benson, taught me that market dynamics trump individual performance. The wind of our society’s obsession with big tech is at my back, running over my vocal chords. My domain expertise, big tech, is white‑hot, and the economy is strong. These skills, coupled with proprietary data that dozens of overeducated twentysomethings at L2 collect and distill into insight, and a world-class creative team that designs imagery and charts, shot on the screen behind me, all sing like Pavarotti.
As I write this, I’m in the back of a windowless conference hall at the InterContinental Boston about to address the 600 gold-circle brokers and managers from a large real estate management firm. I haven’t seen the presentation I’m about to deliver, but am fairly certain this will be the highest-rated session of the event, and the team that booked me will feel the $3K/minute fee for 30 minutes was a great value. Last month, we were offered five times the usual fee for me to speak the the annual meeting of an Australian telco. Problem is, something about the jetlag of crossing the date line triggers something in my amygdala, and I become moderately depressed. (Note: I say “moderately,” as I’ve been around severely depressed people and don’t pretend to know the suffering they endure.) I end up pacing, unable to sleep, on the 88th floor of some six‑star Asian hotel wondering what series of bad decisions led me there. The distance from home starts to seriously fuck with me. I begin imagining I’m in a different world, unable to get back to the world where my kids live, sequestered from the only people who love me (see above: depression). In sum, we declined the offer.
To hone their craft, comedians do stand-up at clubs. For me stand-up is class, where I hone the craft of speaking every Tuesday night for three hours in front of 170 kids — second-year MBAs. I’m much more focused, and put more effort into the class, than in front of any board or gathering of gold-circle commercial real estate brokers. I make much less, about $1K, per podium hour (note: this sounds like more than it is, as you spend several hours, for each podium hour, outside of class prepping or meeting with students). In addition, the amount of bullshit you endure to get to this platform — advanced degrees, department chairs — is substantial.
My market value, like all things, will fade. People will tire of my topics, and I won’t have access to the resources that make my stuff great, vs. just good. Or more likely, my creative juices will just stop flowing. Working with young, creative people and having access to the best and brightest thinkers in business is for me what heroin was to Ray Charles. Once it’s gone, no more hits.
Off the Rails
Over the last five years I’ve given about 400 talks, and around 2% of the time, it all comes off the rails. I become anxious, start sweating, and my voice starts to shake. I begin gulping for oxygen and feel as if I am going to throw up and pass out. My talk “The Four Horsemen,” at DLD15 in Munich, went viral (for an academic anyway) and set in motion a bunch of great things for L2 — a book deal, inbound inquiries, increased awareness of the firm. I now give the opening address each year at DLD. Three years ago, out of nowhere … an attack. I came close to passing out on stage, and had to lean over with my hands on my knees for 30 seconds. The folks at DLD, uber nice, wanted to take me to the hospital, as they were convinced I was having a cardiac event. Good stuff.
This week, I was set to appear on Fox to discuss Trump’s attacks on Amazon and received an email that the president’s recently appointed chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, would be interviewing me. I started to get anxious. I then noticed my outfit. For some reason I had put everything in my closet on my person, including a hoodie, and was wearing about 11 layers.
Fight‑or‑flight set in, and I began strategizing on how to head this feeling off at the pass. “I know, I’ll have a drink … it will calm my nerves.” I’m pretty sure this is what most clinicians call alcoholism. It wasn’t my fear of digressing into full‑blown substance abuse that stopped me from shotgunning one or two Lagunitas IPAs at the nearest deli, but the prospect of somebody seeing me downing beers at 9:45 in the morning in midtown. In short, I didn’t and was ok. I took beta‑blockers for a while, which appeared to cure it. However, I don’t want to become reliant on any substance to perform. Unless, of course, it’s Lunesta, caffeine, Cialis, Chipotle, or cannabis. Or as I refer to them, the five food groups. If I wasn’t an atheist, it would be reasonable to think it’s God reminding me I’m just not that cool. However, as an atheist I’m pretty sure these are panic attacks whose source I’ll figure out … never.
My dad will only get on a plane for two things, and they aren’t to see his grandkids or spend time with friends. He will only get on a plane to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play, or watch his son teach. He sits in the back row of the classroom. At the beginning of class we ask any visitors to introduce themselves — we get half a dozen curious undergrads or applicants in almost every class. My dad waits until they’re done and then, really dialing up the accent, says:
“I’m Tom Galloway, Scott’s father.”
There’s a pause then sustained applause. I see my dad riveted on my every word and movement for the next three hours. I wonder if, at 87, he looks at me and feels disappointment he didn’t have the opportunities to reach his full potential as a speaker, or if he feels the reward of evolutionary progress, seeing himself, but version 1.1. Seeing my dad in class reminds me the difference between bribing people to listen to you with lemon squares, and being paid $2K/minute is not talent — my dad has more. The difference is being born in America, and the generosity of California taxpayers, who give the children of secretaries the chance to attend world-class universities. The mix of my dad’s talent and the confidence garnered from the abundant love of his second wife gave his son the skills and opportunity to stand in front of people, look each in the eyes, and say, “I believe this to be true.”
Epilogue, August 2020:
My father’s dementia is progressing, and he is losing his words. I hope/trust he finds comfort knowing his words have found me. His son and grandchildren have registered reward and economic security, standing on his words.
Life is so rich,
Scott, this was fabulous. I had a tiny tear in my eye @ ‘“I’m Tom Galloway, Scott’s father.” There should be a rule that parents don’t get to age at all. I hope he stays well and healthy. The rest of the post motivated to do something positive. I mean late 40s is not the end of the world is it ? 🙂 Thanks a lot for what you do Scott. We get these posts form you off and on and we agree with you…Life is rich indeed. Love from India.
I don’t know if I found this post uplifting or depressing but I couldn’t stop reading it. I’m never sure how you feel about your father when I hear you talk about him on a podcast, but I think I know now… Thank you for sharing.
Another great post. So much wisdom, honesty and growth in this post. I really wish I remember the first time I heard about you. Truly that must have been one of the luckiest days of my life. Keep up the great work Scott.
I was fortunate enough to be in your audience in 2016 at the JPM alternative investment summit where you did a version of the 4 horsemen. You (almost single-handedly) inspired my current business.
You are selling your speeches. Conference room to conference room – not fundamentally different than selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door. You being offensive is part of the performance people are paying to see. Just like Anthony Jeselnik does very well in the world overpopulated by PG-rated comedians. You think of yourself as someone way above salesmen, but to be fair, the vacuum cleaners of old had palpable utility. Your act doesn’t. The value of your insights is rather patchy: you do well with cognitive part, but usually regress when it comes to analytics. So basically it’s an observational comedy of economics.
Thank you for your honest account. I was born in Italy in 1979, I was educated on the public school system, which allowed me to attend the best grammar school in my hometown for free. I went to Ca’ Foscari University in Venice (very respectable in my field of expertise), paying 1000-1500 euros per year. I then won a scholarship from the Japanese government to study in Tokyo, which allowed me to complete a further master and an MBA. Just yesterday my dad (a plumber with amateurial passion for theatre and poetry)told me: “what a leap! Your grandma was not able to read nor write, and this undermined her self confidence, passing it onto me. You have now a PhD, your work in higher education in the UK. It is incredible how society has progressed”. I don’t think society has progressed, I was just lucky to be born in Italy and to take advantage of an amazing public education system, which makes the society perhaps not fairer, but at least with more opportunities. Now that I rub my shoulders with fellow academics in the UK and internationally, it almost looks like a miracle.
Thanks for sharing Scott. I am sure that it is not only luck but also you need to work hard. And without knowing your father I am sure being a father myself that pride about the 1.1 is something that makes him enjoy every session in the back of the class room with you.
For some reason I always feel better about humanity when I read Scott’s post. Thank you for being alive Scott.
Thanks for sharing the story. I wish my father was still alive to watch me work or at least hear my stories so he knows how grateful I am to him for my v1.1. I’m glad you have that experience.
no sure of the point…so being successful is “luck”?
Very moving confessional, Scott. Yet nowhere here do you write any recognition that you’ve inspired people in your speaking. I find that interesting because I know it to be true. But I hope you just leave it out because it’s a given in your profession, rather than because you do not recognise it. Good luck in the future.
After almost 40 years practicing law, I too thank the people of California for enabling the daughter of a secretary and a laundryman to attend a world class university and get both an undergraduate and law degree with very little student debt. I wish it were still so for the students today.
Scott- are you actually “working on it?” I’ve watched you belittle and demean young adults (your paying customers) several times (sometimes excessively, occasionally warranted, always because it makes you feel big). There’s a lot of introspection in these and I hope it isn’t for show.
Panic attacks, hypochondriasis, anxiety, body dysmorphia, alcohol abuse .. have haunted me for 15y, exacerbated since moving to America. Your honest reflection is soothing. I’m glad I’m not the only one who’d be found sweating on an 88th floor of an Asian hotel room, far from home. Thank you.
Terrific piece Scott. For me it was like looking in at a mirror as I have experienced many of the same similarities in my life. It was honest and shows that you understand why certain people impact your life without often knowing at the time. I probably would have enjoyed having a beer with your Dad.
Thanks for your transparency. It’s refreshing.
If we can ever find our way back into arenas, your Dad can have my Leafs tickets for a game. My treat. A small gesture of appreciation for this post, which made my week, if not my month.
I used to be in the ad business. Your searing reflections on speaking brought it all back. So glad I’m no longer on stage. But stay as long as you can because you’re really good. God bless.
Please review ok be more t ok me. There was “the the” in one sentence. I general for person who following you this is odd letter. With only one though “my success is result of my DNA, not me to blame”.
I liked it especially when really fave the same fears as human beings but still successful
I don’t know when and how I started feeling like I am not the only one with such thoughts. Scott, your style really turns me on (I mean that in the best of ways). I wish I could attend your classes or be with you at L2. Great to read you, even better to listen to you. Thanks.
I absolutely love that you let us see you are human and vulnerable too. thank you!
It’s not mostly luck. It never is. Candor combined with knowledge, intelligence, education and hard work. A great story, emotional yet full of rigorous insights. Thanks!
I don’t know how you do it Prof! Humble, entertaining, seriously insightful and yet so human and vulnerable as well. Thanks for teaching but more importantly for sharing.
Super moving, especially the lemon bars scene.
Like everyone who has posted before, outstanding writing with confident honesty…simply one of your best posts of all time..
Scott, I think this is the finest blog post you’ve written, not because of your insight, but because of the vulnerability you display. Well done!
Insightful, beautiful, honest – all at once. Thanks Scott.
Hi Professor, Thanks for writing this. I was very touched by the vulnerability in your words, and I appreciate it a great deal.
Life is so rich with Scott!
Such a pleasure to read this letter. Keep on, keepingon.
GREAT STUFF AS USUAL!
Just love your stuff, Scott.I so often feel inspired to be a better me by your narrative. Thanks Much.
I’m always amazed at Americans who work themselves up over a flight to Australia. That trip is my commute! Bring the family with you. Fly Qantas and bask in their awesome pyjama’s. Not now of course, but later. You’ll love it and the kids will never forget it.
We don’t pay you to navel gaze, Scott. We pay you to give us insight on the tech world. Oh wait, that’s right, we get this for free. Ok, carry on…
I think this post can also be titled: gratitude. What a nice read of something you learned
Come to Aussie next time, it’s not that uncomfortable a trip these days.
You might want to consider yourself an Entertainer among your many talents – I was reading this and laughing out loud while my family asked ‘what are you reading?’ They chucked as well. Being female, I can drop the Cy–lis and will sub in tequila!
Enjoyed every single word… hard truth, extremely entertaining.
Scott, Good stuff! Enjoy the writing and your podcast.
Thank you for always being so honest, even when it may be painful. It separates you from the rest.
A brilliant and honest post–much to chew on and savor. Thank you for sharing the humanity and richness of your story. So relatable to us all.
Dear Scott, You have much to say, you are an idealist, and you need an audience. And a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to judging your self (2 words). And when the smallest of things (when viewed in the big picture) goes off, you do, too. You will never get enough from your audience. How many times have you thought about any of these: Are you competing with your dad? (We all lose.) Did your dad afford you enough praise then and now? Whom are you performing for currently? Think about these. I’ll listen to your answers next time.
JerryK, such an insightful comment. And nice. Jc
Your Dad sounds like a familiar sole who had an impact on you and the multitudes of people who have crossed his path. It’s special to witness the impact we bring through our efforts – forward (and back) thru the ages. Thanks for sharing.
I went to The Four Horsemen video referenced in this article and watched it. You sorely missed a predication given back then in January of 2015. You said that Apple would become the first $1T company. You missed that by a factor of 100%, as they are now a $2T company. Unbelievable…..
i attended one of the Four conferences as well…his premise was which of the 4 would be the first to a trillion NOT first to 2 trillion (which is truly remarkable and terrifying at the same time)
Genius and no BS. Thanks for sharing what’s in your head. Keep it up, moderation is everything…
Damn it Galloway, quit reading my mail. Joined Toastmasters during Covidtimes to sharpen the sword as a communicator. Never met my chapter—we just Zoom, joined occasionally by awesome humans from around the world. Zoom is weird, no? More than ever, words are power. Here’s to wielding them well, brother.
Most people (men) who know they are assholes think they are entitled to be assholes and, further, entitled to a ready, receptive audience. Thank you for admitting who you are at your core and that it takes a lifetime of work to find the sweet spot between asshole and humble servant. Feels like you are on your way to becoming a Mensch.
That’s when the dog is at its best pulling at our heart strings. Your dad lived a rich life and he is the father of a brilliant man who has made a name for himself standing on the shoulders of a public education and lots of sarcasm… life is always so rich!
Thanks Prof G. As a strategy executive and adjunct prof who can one day captivate a board room or classroom and another day feel like my mind went on holiday, my voice decided to go back to puberty, and my heart just ran a marathon, thank you for sharing that the best of them aren’t immune to the vagaries of nerves and anxiety. My latest attempt at overcoming it, learned from the great Alice Cooper, is to use an alter ego…one that knows nothing except the perfect performance. It works for Alice. Me? Still working on that!
How has your mom influenced & inspired your career?
Wow, thank you for sharing. I am feeling blessed.
Great article! It reminded me a lot a professor I had in college. In the height of my juvenile arrogance, I found these guys to be charlatans, I confess. Now, I realize talent and genius. Most academics – long-winded and prolix – are so dull, and bad teachers.
“The difference is being born in America, and the generosity of California taxpayers, who give the children of secretaries the chance to attend world-class universities.” Generosity? It’s a publicly funded university, the world is filled with them. The reason we know your name is because of your startups/youtube, not your college degrees.
Thanks for the interesting post. Above all, thanks for talking about panic attacks. As a (moderately successful) lawyer, who has had to welcome panic attacks into his life, I know what you are talking about. Beta-blockers (took one once and then binned them…didn’t want to be that guy), therapy and let’s tackle this thing head on (joined Toastmasters and an improv theatre group) are all part of the armoury but the anxiety of whether or not to control the first 15 seconds is right there every time. One thing we all have in common is that we can kick off a talk like no one else can: watching someone having a public meltdown is, well, captivating. Recover from that quickly and the audience will at the very least be wide-awake. Shout out to you, Scott, and all you other fellow panickers out there.
Thank you for the reminder that we can never know for sure what goes on behind the curtain. I was at one of your talks, and totally enjoyed it!
I remember this ALL from Algebra of Happiness which I have now listened to on Audible exactly 23 times and therefore, can recite every word and nuance and story. You have a gift — your stories and filled with amazing, relatable details and your delivery is impeccable.
Loved this. Thanks. My father, like yours, was a charming, gifted salesman, but he hated speaking before groups. He was always surprised that I thrived as a public speaker. But you’re right that we’re blessed to have had the opportunities to become who we are. Thanks again for your wisdom.
Is nostalgia good for the Prof G brand?
Loved this story. Thanks for sharing Scott.
You have a gift. You manage to convey some real pearls of wisdom, kindness & insight .. all wrapped up in wit, humor & gentle cynicism. Reading you is a pleasure ..
This personal story really resonated with me. I hope to one day see you speak. And: “the five food groups”! Yes! Thank you for this generous story
Great share about the adrenaline and the sometimes doubt that comes with delivering your passion to an audience. I feel the energy you bring, and get, from sharing version 1.1 of Tom and I’m certain he’s super proud. Don’t stop sharing you.