I had an interesting conversation on Facebook yesterday with Joey DeVilla. It was actually kind of an argument, but it reached a satisfying conclusion, and I think the story includes an important lesson on how to interpret art.
I had written a piece that I knew would be controversial when I wrote it. That's okay, that's one of the things that makes a story good.
It was a story of when I was a CEO of a tech startup, a long time ago. We had an employee sue us for wrongful termination.
It was probably a setup. The guy had sued previous employers, it turns out, though I didn't know it at the time. It never showed up in the reference checks we did, probably because lawyers advise against telling future prospective employers about these things, thus provoking a new lawsuit. And often settlements include mutual non-disclosure agreements.
We didn't terminate him because he was older, he was fired because he wasn't doing any work. We were a small company, and struggling, and this was before VCs gave startups lots of runway. Once we got our initial investment, that was it, we were on our own to either make it or not. We couldn't afford to have any developers on staff who weren't producing.
I told the story because most CEOs don't blog, and when they do, they are subject to legal and PR constraints that make it unlikely that anyone will ever tell this kind of story publicly.
My CEO days are behind me, so I can afford to tell the story of how CEOs make these kinds of decisions. I wanted to provide that point of view, add it to the mix, so people could understand one simple idea. That not all complaints by employees are valid. Sometimes the employees are scammers.
Joey thought I was saying that employers should age-discriminate! Oy. Nothing could be further from the truth. He said this was bad because I myself was 58 at the time (I'm now 59). I said to him, yesterday, that should have been a clue that he had drawn a conclusion about my thinking that was incorrect. Since he's not a CEO himself, and he does not think like one (a good thing, imho) I guess this wasn't obvious.
This makes it good art, because it caused a strong reaction from which we both could learn about ourselves and each other. Unfortunately his complaint came at a time when I was in the middle of a mob of assholes, and I could have used a friend, instead of yet another person who made me out to be evil when I was just telling my story, which is what I do, as a blogger.
Art is about what you see when you look in the mirror. A good work of art causes you to see something about yourself that you didn't see before. Anything that causes a reaction is art. Even if the reaction is "That's not art."
I love Joey. I really do. He's funny and smart, and he plays the accordion. And the thing that makes our friendship strong is that we're both willing to admit when we made a mistake. I remembered, incorrectly, that he had written a whole post excoriating me, when it was just a sentence. It was a sentence that hurt, but it was just a sentence.