A Life of Service: A Conversation with Shep Gordon
This essay also appears on Hey Sigmund asa featured article.
Why am I kicking off my Compassionate Gladiator series with a Shep Gordon interview?
I met with Shep over two months ago and I purposely let the experience settle in before attempting this piece. I wanted to really snuggle into the essence of what Shep shared with me that morning on Maui, which is really just a haze to me now because I was so nervous. I had the foresight to know that because of my nerves, I needed time to let this one marinate. Let it evolve.
So here it is…
Shep is tall with gentle mischievous eyes, deep set within a prominent and solitary brow line. His eyes are an interesting mix of blues and greens with some hazel textured throughout to create the effect of different moods. There’s a depth to his eyes that reveals a man who is still very much evolving. Shep had, during the hour I spent with him, the emotional dexterity that comes with age, if you work hard enough at it.
We call it wisdom, I suppose. Wisdom doesn’t just come with the passage of time though. You don’t “age in” to being wise. It takes decades to achieve that type of interior transformative perspective on life.
It’s that ability to reflect on yourself and the world around you with a type of emotional and philosophical dexterity that often eludes us when we are navigating our younger years. This achievement allows Shep to sway between and within the polarities of life, without bracing too sharply for impact. He’s not rigid in his thinking at all. He can float between topics with ease, as he discussed everything from his thoughts about our current sociopolitical evolution, to his early childhood of isolation and solitude, to his emphasis and focus on a life of service.
In case there are readers who don’t know who Shep Gordon is and haven’t Googled him yet, let me give you a brief synopsis. Shep is the original puppeteer behind some of the greatest musical legends spanning three decades of time. Think Alice Cooper. Teddy Pendergrass. Luther Vandross. Blondie. The Gypsy Kings. Additionally, he is responsible for the creation of the celebrity chef movement, and thus reality TV in its original incarnation as the live cooking shows. The list goes on and on. I have, quite literally, only scratched the surface.
That alone is noteworthy. Shep has mastered what only an elite group of talent managers have been able to do. He seems able to read and intuit social trends with such nuance that he can catch the wave as it begins to crest, always leading the pack as others hurry to catch up. When discussing this ability Shep reflects, “ Yeah I didn’t want to wait for history to happen, I wanted to go out and make history. You have to be willing to fail or you are not going to go to your edge. If you are always safe you are never going to create anything exciting.” When asked about where that type of confidence or conviction came from Shep reflected on two converging factors that empowered him in his early twenties.
"A few things came together at the same time. For the first time in my life I could make decisions that impacted my life. The right decision could be great. The wrong decision could be horrible. I also had a peyote experience which made me feel like I knew everything in the universe. I felt like I knew everything, which of course wasn’t true, but it empowered me in a way. It taught me the power that anything is possible and to be open to it."
Shep speaks freely about his own experimentation with drugs but is clear that he isn’t advocating for drug use as a way to expand your mind. He is merely reflecting on his journey. So before anyone who is reading this starts rolling your eyes and assuming Shep is just another one of those Hollywood guys endorsing drug use as a way to enhance your mind, he addresses this outright.
"Sometime I think the movie and the book make it sound like I am a proponent of drug use, which I am not. But I know that I am someone who needs crutches to be the happiest I can possibly be. For me, I try to use the crutches that have the least amount of consequences. For me, Marijuana is a crutch. I’d rather use that than some other thing, whatever it would be as an attention relaxer, you know? I think the best is if you can go through life without crutches. That’s the real achievement."
In the time I sat with Shep his approach to drug use seemed much less about excess and escape and more about achieving a sense of being grounded in his consciousness. Awareness, unfiltered through the prefrontal cortex. Void of critique. Scientists refer to this state as Non-Ordinary States of Consciousness (NOSC). Be it through prayer, meditation, drug use, micro dosing, chanting, hiking, EDM, or creating art, these NOSC are psychologically transformative. The way Shep spoke about and reflected on some of his experiences appeared to be more congruent with the data that is emerging from the scientific community exploring how to extract peak performance from our brain, especially when trying to problem solve complex and creative “problems”. There’s a growing body of research out there now about the neurobiology behind this brain phenomenon, including hard science that reveals the neurotransmitter cocktail released during times of NOSC. Turns out, by tuning out, we really can change our neurobiology and our mind.
All of this is simply to highlight that Shep’s discussion of his drug use reflects a much more nuanced and possibly scientifically based neurobiological gain behind what could otherwise be dismissed as “just another Hollywood guy using drugs to enhance his mind.” In an interview with Tim Ferriss on his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, Tim asks him about his routines or rituals. While Shep noted that he wasn’t someone who had a formal meditation practice and doesn’t consider himself a practicing Buddhist, he talked about some routines which help him “get inside" his mind. Soaking in his hot tub, cooking for someone, or taking a long solitary walk were other rituals he expressed using to help achieve NOSC. (Click this link if you want to hear the entire podcast from Tim Ferriss. It’s excellent.). Professionally, these rituals allowed Shep to tap into different aspects of his brain and come forth with creative, novel, and complex branding concepts that have been enormously successful for his clients and created social phenomenon’s that have shaped our shared history. It turns out that this type of neurobiology is also highly profitable.
Leveraging the solitude of his childhood Shep is someone who can tolerate (indeed requires) long stretches of solitude where he can roam the hallways and crevices of his own mind, sourcing pieces of creativity that he weaves into the tapestry of our social coconsciousness. He is reflective and open about the complicated and distant relationship he had with his mother, including her capacity to be emotionally and verbally cruel to the young Shep. As he beautifully reflected in his memoir, Shep “learned solitude.” That capacity to be alone in his own mind has been re-mastered in his professional life to be one of his greatest assets and most fascinating aspects of his personality. Psychologist call this ability sublimation, when you are able to turn a trauma or pain into a strength and leverage the upside such that it no longer operates as a primary deficit or emotional liability. The ability to sublimate our trauma into victory, like wisdom, does not just come with age. It must be worked at and massaged in order to soften the edges of what could otherwise be Shep’s greatest liability. There is the very real possibility that Shep’s childhood and the circumstances that he found himself navigating could have been too much to bare. Solitude can quickly turn into alienation and that is usually an ingredient that doesn’t mesh well with the emotional demands required of pack animals, like the human mammal. This ability to tweak and source an upside to what is otherwise an emotional and psychological blow to the face is at the core of what we refer to as resilience. When the chips are down, when you have no good reason to keep on evolving, when life has given you lemons, are you able to extract the sweetness? In his 7th decade, it is safe to say Shep has mastered that art.
Shep is a modern day philosopher who uses people and social trends as his canvas. But if you look closely, if you read between the lines, you can learn a lot about his core philosophical beliefs. You can discern that behind the genius of his sizable career success is a man who believes deeply in a life of service, is wedded to the idea that there is a “right way” to treat people, and to whom the notion of loyalty still means something. It has currency and weight, which in the entertainment industry is a relic of time gone by. For example, Shep never had a single contract with any one of the clients he represented. He made sure they had secure and lucrative contracts within the music industry but he did not have contract between he and his talent.
Let that sink in for a minute.
He ran one of the most successful talent management portfolios in the history of the entertainment industry on the power of a handshake. Consider if you would have the psychological fortitude to surrender to that much risk and exposure in your professional career?
This philosophy spills over to how he conducts himself in multiple domains of his life, business ethics being only one slice of the overall pie. This style of compassionate business is founded on a guiding principle that the best-case scenario is when we can choreograph a win/win situation for all the players involved.
"We live in a society where it seems like it has to be winner and losers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Especially in what I did as a manager. It’s a long game. So not only doesn’t it make any sense to try and take someone down, it’s the right way to live your life. It doesn’t have to be winners and losers. I know plenty of guys who put in the extra effort. You can’t do it every time, but you try. And part of that is paying back people who allowed you to win when they didn’t have to."
The last few sentences strikes me as particularly topical given that I am sitting conducting this interview through the kindness of his heart. Shep was letting me “win” when he didn’t need to. There aren’t many people at his level of success and accomplishment who would do this. When I say I am a nobody in the world of writing, that is not false modesty and I have no ego attached with acknowledging this. It’s true. I had a connection through a dear friend (Thank you Sean Hehir) and emailed Shep directly. I don’t work for a paper or magazine. I don’t have my own show. I am a middle-aged Psychologist running a successful private practice in Honolulu trying to make a go at a new path of curiosity. Shep didn’t need to say yes andI wouldn’t have thought any less of him if he had shrugged me off. No one would. But he did it anyway.
That quality is rare.
And it’s come wrapped as a gift. A gesture of kindness. It’s an outstretched palm.
But it’s also an invitation.
Shep’s gesture of kindness towards me has provoked me to be much more mindful of how I can let other people win when I technically don’t need to. It’s the embodiment of the “pass it on” theory of generosity. And the lesson wasn’t lost on me.
He’s got none of the pomp and circumstance that can often accompany this type noble lifestyle ethic. None. He’s not trying to teach lessons or preach about life. He is busy living his own life with integrity, consistency and through acts of service. He talks a lot about this notion of a life of service and how trying to be of service has become increasingly transformative for him. His book, “They Call Me Super Mensch” reads like a thank you note to his life. Almost half way through his 7th decade Shep has, through his own transformative journey, revealed the next big social wave. It’s the dawn of the gratitude activist and Shep is at the epicenter of this movement. Again. The Shep I met was willing to talk about the past, happily even, but he had his vision locked on the future.
Can compassion live side by side with ambition, success, and capitalism or are the very tenants of what allows someone to be compassionate, to have integrity, to be a mensch in opposition to the forces of personal advancement. After spending time with Shep I am more convinced than ever that there is a space for compassionate gladiators. There are people, who through gestures and deeds are propagating the seeds of kindness.
Shep is one of those people.
Thank you, Shep. Thank you.
**Please click here if you are interested in learning more about NOSC and the science behind this area of study. The book in the link will not disappoint. But there are tons of other references as well.**