We Are, After All, Professionals

When the late, inimitable Hunter S. Thompson would pull of some act of outrageous, drug-fueled lunacy, he’d frequently follow it by writing, “We are, after all, professionals.”

I thought of that the other day when I was recalling an incident that took place in my last corporate job. I was working for one of the country’s leading insurance and financial service companies. That’s what it called itself. Even then, I thought it a hilarious way to characterize a company for which a colleague of mine said its mascot should be a blindfolded porcupine. But I’m already digressing.

It was 1989. One of my responsibilities was to create a closing presentation for the Employee Benefits Department’s Annual Conference. I decided it should be a live-action video. And I wrote a script that was a comedic take on Mission: Impossible.

At the time, the company was in the midst of trying to convince itself and its prospective customers that it had a managed care offering. What that meant in those days was that it sold health-insurance plans that were purported to include — singly or in combination — traditional indemnity policies, PPOs, and HMOs. It had no such things. But it wasn’t about to let the truth stand in the way of a good story.

In the video, James G. Batterson, the company’s founder, came back to life in the late 20th century to try to figure out what the hell managed care plans were and what had happened to the indemnity coverage he’d helped to bring to the mass market. (We found an actor bearded and suitably portly to play the part. Believe it or not, he later did this.) In scene after scene, he’d make wryly anachronistic observations and express wonder at what he was witnessing. (In one scene, he watches curiously as a man swims laps in an Olympic-size pool. Then he looks at the camera and says, “We used to think swimming was a way to keep from drowning. It turns out there are other benefits, as well.”)

In the climactic final scene, the actor playing Batterson says, “I’ve been dying to do my Martin Landau schtick from the beginning of this thing,” and peels off his make-up, revealing the president of the department. The president looks at the camera and says, “That’s show business!”

On Site

The conference happened to be in Palm Springs that year. The final night of the conference featured a black-tie dinner, preceded by any number of cocktail parties hosted by various senior vice presidents and other corporate hitters in their executive suites (of course).

At one such party, I was quietly slurping a martini and trying my level best to be inconspicuous or to look, at the very least, as if I fit in. (I didn’t.) At one point, a particularly dimwitted vice president sashayed over to where I was standing. Judging from his attire, he was either expecting a flood, was particularly proud of his socks, or had rented his tux from a criminally inept tailor. Decorum being the better part of valor in that context (for the moment anyway), I decided to zip my sarcastic Irish lip.

“Hey Mark,” quoth the VP. “Somebody told me you wrote and co-directed that video we saw today.”

“I did,” I replied guardedly.

“Wow,” he said. “That was really good. I thought some professional did it.”

At that moment, the Devil, seated on one shoulder, said to me, “You gotta get the hell out, dude. You have no business being here, working in this company, or talking with this stooge.”

God, seated on the other shoulder said, “Oh, God. Wait. That’s me. Ya know, I hate to admit this, but Beelzebub’s right this time.”

Taking that as my cue, I suggested to the VP that he should shave his legs. And citing my tardiness for emergency surgery, I excused myself. The Devil, God, and I moved on to another party.

We are, after all, professionals.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. This post made me laugh. It reminded me of the moment I left a position after a holiday party. I was speaking to a “dimwitted” high ranking hi-tech official who to be kind, couldn’t find his backside with both hands. He told me if I stayed on course I could be at his level in 10 years. My immediate thought was I could have a frontal lobotomy and be better than this guy right now. I left the major corporate world and never regretted it for a minute.

    • Thank you, Frank. Sometimes we find our defining moments. Sometimes they find us. Either way, it’s our job to act on them.

      I had two kisses of death in the job: One of my bosses said, “O’Brien’s a wordsmith.” Another boss said, “O’Brien’s a project guy.” I knew it was only a matter of time.

      Congratulations for reading the tea leaves and getting out of Dodge.

  2. Mark, if I didn’t know better I would think you might be taking some mind-altering substances! This left me laughing and shaking my head in disbelief! I always know that when I read a Mark O’Brien piece it’s going to be a carefully crafted, mind-bending journey, and this time you outdid yourself! Glad you found your way out!

    • Thank you, Kimberly. I’ll tell you two things: (1) Every word of that story is true. (2) Had I known you back then, you’d have told me I was finding my brave. I used to be highly mindful of the fact that, to others, as the 30-something dude I was, dressed to the nines in a suit and tie every day, I must have appeared to have the world on a string. I did not. I was miserable

      What I didn’t know then is that I was honing my distaste for bureaucracy, for political one-upmanship, for superficiality and phoniness, for duplicity and sycophancy, for an absence of meaningful activity disguised as busyness, and for valuing output over outcomes. At the same time, I was yearning to exercise my imagination and ingenuity, to contribute everything I could to the best of my ability, and to be judged by what I did and said, not by the asses I kissed. I didn’t know it then, but the only way I’d find all that would be to create it.

      If you don’t think you’re a positive influence, think about what you just compelled me to share with you. Thank you for that influence. Thank you for your comments here. Thank you for being you. And thank you for being a friend.

      I don’t take any of that lightly.

    • Okay, two things: Now you’ve got me crying in the dark in my pjs. Secondly, I was thinking, before you wrote that super nice thing, how grateful I am that you’ve had the courage to grow into the man I’ve come to know. You make my world better, Mark.

    • Thank you, Kimberly. My own sense is that I didn’t have the courage NOT to do it. When I started my business at 50, the only thing that scared me more than doing it was the idea of waking up at 60 if I hadn’t done it and wondering, “What if …?”

      I hope you were able to get your PJs in the dryer. And I want you to see the trouble you’ve started … or at least encouraged: 😉

      You make my world better, too. I love knowing you’re out there somewhere — thinking, writing, caring.

      Life is good. Thank you for being part of mine.

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