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Remembering Grayson

Posted December 15, 2018 by

This is a story about my friend, Grayson Mitchell, who died suddenly and unexpectedly this past February. I’m telling it on this blog because it’s an important part of the Inside8®  story and speaks to what Grayson hoped we’d accomplish by launching a new personality test.

A Little Backstory

I first met Grayson around 1990. I knew of him because he was highly visible in Chicago politics. He had helped elect the city’s first African American mayor and then defeated the entrenched political machine that sought to thwart the new administration. I had admired his skills just from watching the whole spectacle in the media. We both worked in communications, only he played at a much higher level.

After leaving city hall, he started a consultancy that affiliated with the global firm where I worked. We found ourselves in the same meeting and I thought he was the smartest person in the room—and the nicest person in the room. Afterward, I asked him to work with me on a crisis situation that took us to Detroit several times a week for many months. He led our team and brilliantly orchestrated a positive outcome for the client.

After that, we became business partners in a new firm that had a 14-year run before we sold it. Grayson knew how to win and liked winning—and our work benefited from his rare talents, unflappable nature and easy charm. It was the honor of my life to speak at his memorial service, where I said: “Suffice it to say that we created a lot of magic during those years—and it was Grayson who always brought the stardust.”

As a young star on a winning streak, I had various other job offers at the time we started our firm, but I never seriously considered any of them. Some things you just know in your gut.

And I was right. Grayson and I stayed close friends long after being business partners, supporting each other in our various endeavors. For his part, Grayson had invested a lot of time, energy and creativity in devising a novel way to finance new school construction. He cared about people, and issues like education quality, and worked passionately to leverage his talents into big, but achievable, ideas.

He also was quite human. His demeanor and thinking reflected the wisdom of someone who had lived fully as a son, sibling, husband, father, grandfather and friend. People felt good in his presence because he somehow managed to be both brilliant and authentically kind at the same time.

I’ll miss Grayson for as long as I live.

A Life in Transition

In 2012, I told Grayson about my plans to return to school and earn a psychology degree. He was one of my recommenders and helped me identify the hospital where I did the practical work required to complete the program. It delighted him that I had entered midlife pursuing a major personal change.

After graduation I was, well…bereft. Everything I had been doing suddenly stopped: School was over. A long-term assignment that kept me plenty busy ended because we had completed our work. And the one plan I had made for the future mercifully did not pan out.

So I did something I hadn’t done since I was 12. I took the summer off. I spent the time learning meditation so I could consider my options with an open mind. Nina, my long time yoga teacher, taught me that meditation was about letting go of attachments and showed me how to do it on my own. And it worked. The meditation cleared my head. The old attachments that threatened to keep me in the past and distract me from a better future dissipated over the course of that easy summer.

Enter Grayson.

The Grayson Sessions

One day, in the midst of my summer break, Grayson showed up at my place to talk. He seldom did this; we mostly just worked together, had lunches and talked on the phone. But he had a purpose and settled into my living room for the first of a series of conversations, where he brought everything he had to help me figure out how to make the last part of my life all it could be.

What a gift. His purpose was to help me rediscover my own potentialities.

First, he wanted to know what I learned in school and how it affected me. He found out that I wasn’t happy with the experience and that it had moved me off center. I went to Columbia University to learn change management in the context of social and organizational psychology. The underlying approach was rooted in deficit-based psychology, which focuses on our personal faults and how to fix ourselves. Oh, and this approach also says we should shape who we are based on the feedback of others and how they react to our deficiencies.

The whole program structure could not have been more opposed to my personal beliefs and value system. I believe in positive psychology, meaning we are most fulfilled and productive in life by choosing goals that align with our ideals, interests and values—a set of assets often referred to collectively as our motivations. Central to that, we run our own race and do not let the opinions of others shape who we are or stymie who we might become. And if we’re really fulfilled, our “deficiencies” will be less prominent or influential simply because we’re happy and less inclined to self-destruct.

But I was open to the Columbia approach so I could fully understand and make a fair judgment. And, well…ick.

Having graduated, my first thought was to stay in the communications profession and go through with one of the job offers I had, while simply compartmentalizing the Columbia experience. I’ll never forget Grayson’s reaction: “You’re like a man who broke out of prison wanting to tunnel back in. Why?”

The “why” was easy. Nobody wants to hire a career changer in midlife.

Then began the most intense and meaningful conversations I’ll ever have, where Grayson helped me analyze and frame all that I had learned in life, and all that I believed, in order create a new way forward.

First, he reminded me that I had been a successful entrepreneur and didn’t need anyone to hire me. That freed me to entertain the possibilities.

Then came the magic I had seen so many times before. Having processed my complaints about Columbia and ideas about positive psychology, he reframed the discussion in a way anyone could understand: “Are you telling me that a 60-year-old African American man in Chicago can share the same motivations as a 25-year-old white, female Millennial in London?”

When I said yes, he lit up. He saw all the possibilities.

For me, Inside8® is about helping people find real fulfillment in life by better understanding their deepest needs and desires, and connecting to others on that same plane.

Grayson—who spent his adult life creating social change—saw Inside8® as a way for us to look past our differences and find common ground. The research I conducted to create the test that we now use showed that we’re all bound together by at least one motivation, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, age or any other way we may identify. In an era of pronounced anger, hate and fear, Grayson saw it is a tool we can use to see ourselves in others, even though they may be outwardly very different. That’s the start of a conversation that can lead to understanding, and even friendship.

Epilogue

It’s been 10 months since Grayson passed and people still ask me if I’m feeling devastated. I’m not. Grayson would never hear of it. He thought life was precious and that we should live fully.

In the immediate wake of his death, I thought about shutting down Inside8®, in part because he promised to lend his marketing genius to the cause. His departure left our team with the task of accomplishing a big mission absent the light of our brightest star. But, after 28 years, he left his voice in my head so I use it as a filter as we figure our way forward. I know he’d be proud of every member of our team and how they’ve continued to contribute their considerable talents in ever more creative ways.

If you want to know more about Grayson Mitchell—who he was and what he gave to the world—check out his profile and interviews on The History Makers.

Photo by Ivana Cajina on Unsplash.

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Sean M

Sean Murphy is the founder of Inside8®. He has an M.A. in organizational psychology from Columbia University.

All stories by: Sean M

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