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The deeply flawed David Carr’s lessons in mentorship

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Those of us who never knew or interacted with the late David Carr can do little to add to the tributes from the past few days.

By Ian Linkletter (Own work), CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Those of us in media can try to be better editors, reporters and writers in his vein, but we’re not likely to be that good. Not me, or most of us. And most of my readers here and in the Leadership newsletter don’t work in media.

So why am I writing about him? Because of the profound legacy he has left as a mentor and developer of talent. Because he was also an addict and a dealer, violent toward women, deep into some of the darkest pits of despair and desperate and despicable behavior one can imagine, endangering not only himself but his children.

Because, improbably, he emerged from that, became a success, even a minor celebrity, and yet did not let himself forget what he was, why he got there and how lucky — unfairly lucky, perhaps — he was. As he wrote in his 2008 memoir (excerpt here):

Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death.

Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses.

There’s an argument to be made that Carr should have never gotten another chance. The choices he made, the violence against women and neglect toward his children documented in his memoir certainly would justify Carr spending his days doing something other than the increasingly glamorous life he lived. His rehab held, but not without relapses into alcohol. And yet the jobs kept coming. Maybe Carr’s life is proof-positive that if you’re talented and charming (among other things), you can get away with a lot. Jack Shafer’s remembrance in Politico inadvertently says so in this line meant to be about Carr’s writing abilities: “No matter how badly he abused her, the muse would always serve him.”

And maybe his countless and deep friendships, his work at the alt-weekly Washington City Paper in hiring and encouraging young black writers, maybe that was just a side product of trying to make up for all he’d messed up. Maybe his unofficial role as New York Times’ ambassador was driven in part by a desire to defend journalists who always tried to do good work and didn’t take years off to be addicted and hurtful and self-destructive.

Or maybe that was someone doing the best with the days he had left despite mistakes that could not be erased.

The debate on that is now a matter of theory and belief. He’s dead, and he got that second chance (and third and fourth). And despite all the “maybes,” many people do nothing to atone for what they did or to move on and better themselves and others. Something is better than nothing. Whether it can measure up against his past, I don’t know. But the positive, living aspects of his legacy are real. There are countless people who are better today because of Carr being a colleague, friend and an ass-kicker, sometimes within the same conversation.

Let’s go there — what matters about someone who is there for others, who challenges and cajoles, who strives to make them better as employees and as people?

We all need, at one time or another, someone who will teach us, someone who will remind us, someone who will guide us, someone who will correct us — and ensure that we learn the damn lesson because such mercy will not grace us again. We all need someone who can lead but also trade stories, or simply listen when needed. Professionally, we always benefit for excellent bosses and mentors who strive to make us excellent without doing the work for us and — and this is difficult — without demanding that we be exactly like them.

Those guideposts matter most for those who are inexperienced, especially when such people screw up. As Jelani Cobb wrote for The New Yorker:

I came out of one of Carr’s legendarily scalding critiques, of a story in which I’d gotten facts wrong, wanting to pack my byline into a lead-lined case and slip out the back door. But a few days later he was offering helpful suggestions for my next story. With him, this truth was implicit: writing is a craft, none of us is beyond making mistakes, and certainly none of us is above being called on it.

Being such a person requires listening and relationship-building, demanding hard work and expectations, and it requires time. When Carr was editing City Paper, he hired Ta-Nehisi Coates, who now writes for The Atlantic. That alone meant something. But when Coates tells The New Republic, “He changed my life. He changed my life. There’s no one, no man who had more of an effect on me than David Carr,” he’s not saying that because Carr hired Coates, said, “Do good work,” and then patted himself on the back for finding a young talent. Or, for hiring for diversity.

Indeed, if Carr had thought of himself as a hiring manager and not a mentor and developer of talent, he would have failed the publication and Coates. As Carr said in 2013 to the New York Observer: “He needed work. He was not a great speller. He wasn’t terrific with names. And he wasn’t all that ambitious.”

Again, developing talented, thoughtful people requires engagement and time. Ability counts, but so does effort. And so does the leader’s effort in inspiring others. Sometimes, what is remembered most is when you’re there for someone and it has nothing at all to do with work. Nick Bilton, a fellow Times writer, wrote on Medium of lamenting to Carr about the unraveling of his marriage:

“He explained that everything — every relationship, every person, every job — has its time in life, and then, as he noted, all of a sudden it doesn’t. He told me I could feel sorry for myself that something was ending, or be excited and appreciative that it had ever even existed.”

Not every work relationship can be that open. But do we have any idea what our people are going through, or how work can affect the personal, or vice versa? Do we penalize people by firing them because we don’t care to know about what they’re going through? Or by letting them drift rather than try to understand their problems? Does our fear overcome our curiosity and humanity?

Curiosity. It doesn’t mean snooping or being a creep. Simply, do you give a damn about anything outside of yourself, outside of what gets you through the day or what affects you? This isn’t just a reportorial skill, or a business skill. Do you care? As professional friend and foe Brian Lambert wrote of Carr:

“Carr’s greatest talent was unchecked curiosity. He asked questions. Lots of questions. Constant questions. He truly wanted to know, as he often said, ‘What’s your story?’ As anyone who has ever been courted can tell you, the magic of someone’s focused curiosity in you is a powerful, disarming force. To the point you’re surprised at what you hear yourself saying in response, things personal enough to create a substantial bond.”

The best bosses and co-workers and friends and family we know, they almost assuredly care about what’s going on, what’s new, what they can learn and appreciate. They are curious about us and about life, even if perhaps not in the gargantuan way with which Carr devoured life.

If you want to make yourself better, you’ll be curious about what you do not know. If you want to make others better, you’ll be curious about them and help them be curious themselves. The struggles of organizations and business won’t disappear, and office politics will always be eating away, and life will interrupt, but you’ll be better prepared and eager to take on these challenges. So will those around you. The details will be up to you, but you’ll be able to see the path forward.

David Carr was a lot of things. One thing he remains, in the present tense, is a force in the lives of people he touched, and for most of the past 25-plus years, that’s been a good thing.

What do we want to be for others? And when are we going to get started? Today’s as good a day as any.

James daSilva is a senior editor at SmartBrief and manages SmartBlog on Leadership. He edits SmartBrief’s newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship, among others. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in upstate New York. You can find him on Twitter discussing leadership and management issues @SBLeaders.

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