There’s a new Geico commercial that features Pinocchio as a motivational speaker. And it really pisses me off.
It begins with a father and son hanging out on the couch playing video games. Then the obligatory reference to “15 minutes could save you 15% on car insurance” and responsive “Everybody knows that.” Then dad says “Well, did you know that Pinocchio was a bad motivational speaker?” We next see Pinocchio giving a motivational speech to a group of people. “I look around this room, and I see nothing but untapped potential.” As he is looking around the room, he addresses individual members of the audience. “You have potential!” Pinocchio points out a man in the crowd “You have potential!” And then Pinocchio’s nose starts to grow. Noticing his very public misalignment, he says, resignedly, “You have… oh boy.” The man he pointed to dejectedly bows his head, now having confirmed the awful truth, that he has no potential.
Those who only know that I’m a professional keynote speaker may think my outrage is because this commercial pokes fun at motivational speakers, that it makes me look bad. Anyone who really knows me will immediately tell you that nothing could be further from the truth, that I am perfectly comfortable looking like a complete idiot! And besides, I’m not only a professional speaker, I’ve been a lawyer for two decades, so I’m used to being the butt of jokes. (If you haven’t heard any good lawyer jokes lately, tweet me @DarrenKavinoky and I’m happy to share.)
What really breaks my heart is when Pinocchio points to one of his audience members, and says “you have potential” and his nose grows. The look on the man’s face, seeing that Pinocchio has confirmed what he himself has suspected (and fears), that while he’d like to have the potential to change he really doesn’t, that he is a fixed object that has no hope of getting better; that is what absolutely breaks my heart. Because it is a lie.
I know that this is a lie. I don’t suspect it’s a lie, or hope it’s a lie, or wish that this were a lie. I know it. I know it because I’ve seen it happen in others, and because I’ve lived it myself.
As a criminal defense lawyer, people would only get to my office when something unexpectedly bad happened: they got caught. Although I knew from my own experience (including my experience of needing criminal defense lawyers!) that the seemingly worst events in our lives, like getting arrested, could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to us if we chose it, they weren’t always so keen on hearing that message.
Sometimes there would be someone that would hear that message, and the results were amazing. One of my favorite clients came to me after he had been arrested twice, in the same week, for possession of drugs. He was shaking like a pet Chihuahua, eyes darting suspiciously, sucked up and paranoid. His best thinking in that moment was to flee the state, and his request of me was that I appear in court for him just to buy him time to get further away. Instead, because I was able to help him see that he had potential, that there was hope of a future life for him that exceeded his current ability to see, he stuck around. I convinced the judge and prosecutor that he should have the opportunity to earn a dismissal of the charges with an extended stay in treatment, and that’s how the case ended. Years later, I ran into this person and barely recognized. Highly functional, fit, healthy, married with two delightful kids, employed, happy, and best of all, comfortable in his own skin.
I wasn’t just his criminal defense lawyer. I was the defender of his authentic self. I was the defender of the person that he was capable of being, that was inside of him all along, but that he (in that moment) couldn’t see.
Isn’t that what speakers really do? (That’s rhetorical! Of course that’s what we do!!)
And I hope you want to hear my story. Mine is entitled Be The Billboard, and it’s a keynote speech that I deliver to any audience, anywhere. Remember that scene in the classic movie Animal House? When Dean Wormer says “Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son?” That was me. If you would have run into me in the 90s, you would have found me 50 lbs. overweight and desperately out of shape, thoroughly addicted and totally bankrupt. None of those things apply to me today. I know that massive transformations can happen, and I can show you precisely how to have one yourself. That’s what Be The Billboard is all about.
The only reason I get so “ranty” about this is because of Derek. Derek was a client of my law firm, charged with DUI and possession of drugs. Against all odds, I beat Derek’s case because it started with an illegal traffic stop. I got all the evidence against Derek tossed out, case dismissed. Five months later, I got the call from Derek’s parents. It was to let me know about the funeral arrangements. Derek had overdosed and died.
Some say that I shouldn’t judge myself too harshly for Derek’s death, that it was a product of Derek’s own “free will” to take those drugs and kill himself. I’m not so sure. For someone with an addiction issue, once they are no longer abstinent, there is no free will. Derek could not resist those drugs any more than a drowning man could resist a gulp of air. For someone who is hooked on anything (and I really don’t think it matters whether it is drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, food, whatever), taking that first “hit” of anything lets the monster out of the cage and free will is gone. It’s like having sex with a gorilla. It ain’t over until the gorilla says it’s over.
So what’s all of this have to do with a Geico commercial? Listen and believe me when I tell you that “You’ve got potential… and you’ve got potential… and you’ve got potential.” Derek had potential. If we are drawing breath, we have potential. And I just know this: as long as I’m drawing breath, I don’t want any more Derek’s. Not on my watch.