I'd dropped by Peter's home to offer some advice on a book he was thinking about writing. In his living room, surrounded by memorabilia from Peter's movies–the actual Batman suit from Batman, and the gleaming awards he'd brought home for producing such hits as Midnight Express and Rain Man–I was rattling away, giving him feedback on the book idea, when all of a sudden Peter sat back in the sofa and started to shake his head softly.
"Keith," he said, "I think you need to consider being a little more elegant."
I was dumbfounded. Elegant? Was my advice too direct? That was impossible with Peter. Elegant? Few words in the English language were more loaded for me. I instantly flashed back to the fancy private grade school that I'd attended as a kid on scholarship. My working-class parents in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, couldn't afford the school uniforms, so we had to buy them as hand-me-downs from the "nearly new" shop. I hated going into that store and would hide in the racks for fear I'd be discovered by a classmate–which of course I eventually was. "Hey, Ferrazzi," the kids would say, "whose name is written in your jacket today?" From my clothes to my "Pittsburgh-ese," I was made painfully aware at an early age just how inelegant I was.
Peter noticed the expression on my face and shook his head affectionately. His smile reminded me we were friends and this was a man who cared about me, not some high school classmate out to give me a hard time.
"Keith ... that look on your face. I'm not talking about your clothes or your poise," he went on. "I'm talking about elegance of purpose and activity. Keith, elegance is the art of exerting the minimum amount of effort for the maximum effect, the maximum amount of power and achievement in our life. You work so hard, Keith. There's nothing wrong with that, but I see you scramble constantly. I get e-mails from you at all hours. You're among the smartest people I know, but you're working so frenetically. With all that effort, and given your talents, you should be a lot further than you are now."
He paused, looked me in the eye, and leaned his head in.
"Keith, let's walk through this together. Do you know where you're going and how your business is going to help you get there? Because it's not clear to me. Can you say that your almost superhuman efforts are aligned and focused on whatever that place is?" Noticing my astonished expression, he added, "Keith–am I the first person ever to say this to you?"
I knew that Peter's insight and wisdom were dead on. But no one had ever put it to me so directly. I also knew that Peter's candor, while tough to swallow, was as strong a sign as any that he was invested in my welfare. It was as if he'd seen me flailing around in that pool and taken the time to toss out a rope.
For some reason, I felt completely safe and respected, hearing what Peter had to say–I wasn't embarrassed or defensive, even with Batman staring me down from the corner. I was grateful, touched, and relieved. I'd spent most of my life trying to be so much for so many other people–I wasn't good at admitting my weaknesses. Yet sitting here, alone with Peter, it was all so easy. He wasn't implying I was weak. Just human. That I had strengths I wasn't utilizing and behaviors I had to address.