Four of us sat on the floor in the one room of the castle with reliable Internet access, our “wireless” network mocked by 16-inch 13th century stone walls.
Our &yet team had rented Petritoli’s sprawling village castle for a month, working and living there together with our families, staying in this tiny medieval town made up of tinier stone streets and buildings stacked and scrunched together on a hilltop within sight of the eastern coast of Italy.
Until we hired an electrician to string miles of cable, the only other room with a visible wifi SSID was a tiny nook with a pellet stove which we sincerely feared might kill someone. (We frightfully imagined a Flickr-uploading coworker peacefully stranged by carbon monoxide in those close, unvented quarters.)
I turned left-right-center and quickly snapped these goofy shots of the three who joined me that night—Nate, Henrik, James—my brothers. (I could not then nor now call them much different.)
I grinned with giddy joy, full of assuredness that we (and the rest of our team who joined us on that trip) would work and play together for years—perhaps even decades.
My once glad heart is wrenched as I look through photos like these of our trip and spot Nate, James, and Angela—each one no longer part of our team, but who each elicit warmth in my chest and wet in my eyes when I think of them while nostalging.
It was a special team, formed of people who all recognized the magic of that time.
So very rare to have a team of people who all knew and cared a great deal about each other, and who were each in their work together in a seemingly constant state of Czikszentmihalyi’s definition of “flow”, doing the most inventive, enjoyable, and stretching work of their careers—to that point.
Though I would never have said it out loud, I knew something so special and perfect and beautiful could not last in that way for all time. In fact, this was the underlying reason I so very much wanted us to take the Italy trip, and was willing to tap a significant portion (read: “pretty much all”) of our financial reserves to make it happen.
I did not want something so special to be marked by work, but by something that was impossible to forget.
These were precious people, working together in a truly rare way—and the inarguable depth of that inaugural team’s connectedness pled to be recognized with something of more lasting significance than sizeable bonuses or a company barbecue or a goddamn card.
I pray they see that trip the way I do. (And not just regarding the one thing I know about which we’re in unanimous agreement, which is that Petritoli’s Tre Archi cafe serves The World’s Best Cappuccini.)
Many years ago, when &yet was still an army of one, I read a line on the site of a web company who I respected a great deal. It said, “Everyone who has ever become a part of our team has remained part of our team to this day.” You could feel the joy and pride in those words.
I remember the day I revisited the same page and saw that line was gone—an epitaph marking a new lack of a once felt presence.
In my naivete and arrogance, I felt that meant they had failed and vowed I would at least fight to do better.
And, oh, I fought it.
The naivete which led me to hope that everyone who was part of our team would always be also deluded me into thinking it was my job to maintain that fact—and that doing otherwise was a failure on my part.
It was indeed very, very wrong thinking—and unfair to the people who trusted me to lead them.
I’m convinced that people need the right situation to grow and pursue their passions. Sometimes you’re a student and then a teacher, only to again be a student. Sometimes a company is the right fit for you to do the growing you need and the pursuing of dreams you can, and sometimes it just isn’t any longer.
As much as I’d love to always work with every single talented person I’ve ever gotten to, it’d be absolutely wrong and selfish of me to try to.
As Dee Hock put it, “People are not ‘things’ to be manipulated, labeled, boxed, bought, and sold. Above all else, they are not “human resources.” We are entire human beings, containing the whole of the evolving universe, limitless until we are limited, whether by self or others.”
I pray I may never limit what someone else could do, but always have the wisdom and courage to do everything I can to help people tear through their limits, even (and especially) when it’s me.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal,” said C.S. Lewis. “Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
Regardless of their ambition, the products, the companies, the things we build are as ephemeral and eventually meaningless as the wifi signals bouncing uselessly within the stones of those castle rooms.
Lewis goes on: “This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
It is possible to hold on so tightly to one another that we smother each other’s potential in our own fears and insecurities. I pray we take each other so seriously we refuse every temptation to do so.
Our last evening in Petritoli, we ate one of the best and most memorable meals of my life in a tiny restaurant at which we were the only patrons.
The permanence of that place rung out loudly.
The stones around us were hundreds and hundreds of years old, the wooden table we were seated at seemed nearly as ancient, and the restaurant menu was so fixed that it was stitched into a piece of cloth that hung, worn and charred, over the fireplace.
As we dug into the giant pan of hot polenta, I looked around the table and took in the moment, slowly. I knew this was both forever and fleeting. No matter what might come, I knew I would go to my grave remembering these people and this time.
I know now I will—not just because of what a wonderful time that was and how great the people, but just as much how deep were the lessons.