As she lay dying, my 90-year-old mother and I discussed death and its aftermath. An avowed Atomist, she believed we are born of and return to dust. She recommended I read Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a nonfiction paean to the Epicurean philosophical poet Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things. It is the story of the man who rediscovered Lucretius’s poem centuries after all copies were thought to have been destroyed. Its protagonist, Poggio Bracciolini, chose to live his dream—the austere life of a book hunter—rather than pursue more lucrative options available to him. The sentence summarizing his reasoning rose from the page like a taunt. “The pattern of dreaming, deferral and compromise is an altogether familiar one; it is the epitome of a failed life.” I was living just such a life when Trevor Bezdek called my bluff.
I wasn’t lying. Not really. More like pretending, projecting enough competence to remain employed, bringing just enough bravado and bluster to a meeting to suggest value. I was never sine quo non of any organization to which I sold myself, so expectations were manageable. If I never achieved anything of note, neither did I do any significant harm. Mine were never particularly demanding roles and my directors were never particularly demanding masters. That is, not until Trevor.
He was 33 years old when I met him. He was a millionaire who drove a BMW with golf clubs kept opportunely in the trunk. Thirteen years earlier, he had graduated with honors from my alma mater, Stanford University. His degrees were in Biological Sciences and Computer Science. He had received the Fox Award for the most outstanding undergraduate in Biology.
A quick aside to dial up the contrast between the two characters who are about to meet: I had graduated by the skin of my teeth. When I received my BA in Communications three years before Trevor was born, my diploma cover was empty. My instructor was late reporting my passing grade in Fencing—I had finished second in the final class tournament to a crafty female lefty—so I was one credit shy of the minimum requirement for graduation. I would unceremoniously pick up my sheepskin from the administrative office.
Back to Trevor at 33. He had already founded and sold two technology companies, the latest having been one of the largest private IT service providers in California. We were meeting because the company I worked for had been bought by the same Japanese firm that had scooped up his company. In the billion-dollar merger of several now Japanese-owned North American companies, my paltry application design team was being absorbed by his department. He was taking stock of what he had inherited. We met in a Los Angeles coffee house.
At this point I should add that, clever me, I had not looked up Trevor Bezdek before I met him. All I knew at the time was that he was much younger and would be my new boss. I’d pretended my way into a comfortable position and was feeling fairly secure about my post-merger prospects. I was not so concerned about what my role would be going forward as I was about where my team would end up. I wanted Trevor to know that as insignificant as we were from a financial perspective, my team led with strategy. We were champions of the people using the technology, not the technology itself. Mine was the language of human experience design, or rather a subset of the discipline that I had cribbed from design thinker Tim Brown and his ilk so that I could pretend I knew what I was talking about. I would later surmise that Trevor’s unspoken response to my grandiose description of my fiscally anemic group was, That’s cute.
A couple of months after our coffee house conversation, when the transition period was about to be declared complete and new work assignments formalized, Trevor and I had our last conversation. After the opening niceties, he asked me one question, “What do you do?”
I call it my Office Space moment. Trevor’s question stumped me. Not because I couldn’t have cobbled together some sort of defense of my position—I had a job description, after all; I was a UXDer—but because I knew Trevor would see through it. I knew, as a manager of a team, I provided nothing that Trevor valued. I didn’t code, or create graphical interfaces, or even sell. I preached strategic design and managed a team that could deliver on my sermon. Trevor was not asking me to defend myself, he was saying, Go away. Go actually do something.
We announced my departure over a conference room speakerphone and I left midday. I had not even reached the parking lot when I realized Trevor had done me a tremendous favor. He had stripped away my delusion of value, revealing what I had been hiding from myself for more years than Trevor had been wearing big boy pants: that I didn’t want to pretend anymore; I wanted to write.
Today, Trevor Bezdek and I reside in worlds even farther apart than the decade of distance between then and now. He was named one of the 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs by Goldman Sachs in 2017 and 2019, and his current venture made the 2019 Fortune Change the World list. I “retired,” went back to school, earned my MFA in 2017, published a few short stories, and then my first novel in the fall of 2021. And I have Trevor to thank.
Esteemed author George Saunders wrote an essay titled “Thank You, Ester Forbes,” a tribute to the author of Johnny Tremain. Ms. Forbes’ prose triggered a perturbation in the life of ten-year-old George after which nothing would be the same. Adult George’s essay expressed his gratitude to Ms. Forbes for awakening his “love of sentences.” This much less eloquent article is my thank you to Trevor Bezdek. Sitting alone in my writing room overlooking the avifauna playground that is my backyard, I have discovered the personal enrichment and intrinsic purpose of stories, those we tell and those we choose to believe. Trevor, I believe you are the crux of my story, that point of perturbation after which nothing could be the same, and I am eternally grateful. To paraphrase Mr. Saunders, I believe immersion in language and storytelling will enrich and bring purpose to what otherwise would have been the epitome of a failed life.