I was sitting in a Hamburg bookstore, hunched over one of the most famous books ever written, staring down at the first paragraph. And I was dumbfounded.
The German words reached out to me, trying to be understood:
Kritisieren, verurteilen und klagen Sie nicht.
I knew what the words meant. I could understand the German. But the significance of reading them right then, at that moment in my life, hadn’t quite sunk in.
No next of kin
An hour earlier I’d been in the cellar of my Reeperbahn apartment building, practicing my singing. It was summer 2002 and I was a singer in a band — a reggae, rap and rock band. But the problem was I couldn’t really sing very well. I couldn’t hit all the notes. I could rap well. But the melodies were tough for me.
So I spent a lot of time practicing in the cellar. I’d turn out the lights, turn on some reggae, and just sing — the same song, over and over.
The cool thing about the cellar was I could sing as loud, long, and off-key as I wanted. No one would ever hear me because no one went down there. It was just me, the American from 1A. Yes, it was cramped and cold, with low ceilings (5 inches over my head) and dust on every surface. But it was the perfect place to practice.
So there I was in the cellar, locked in my storage room, crooning into the darkness, when I heard a noise outside. I switched off my music and stuck my head out into the hallway. Light was coming from the storage room next door.
When I entered the room, I found my landlord packing up boxes. He told me that the tenant there had died and that he had no next of kin — no one to pick up his stuff. Everything would have to go. I was free to take anything.
The first thing I noticed was a pile of books. I reached out and grabbed the one on top and stared at the title. It was in Hebrew.
“Der war Jude,” said the landlord. The guy was a Jew.
I felt both curiosity and a strange sadness. This man had died alone, no one to pick up his stuff. No one to pass it all on to. No one to pass on his memory.
Then I thought about what had happened the night before, and I felt angry.
The night before, my bass player, Andrew, and I were at a friend’s place drinking beers when we’d gotten some bad news. It was an email from a prospective band manager. He was out. My latest email had offended him and he didn’t want to work with us anymore. He wished us well but he wouldn’t manage our band.
Andrew wasn’t happy. He didn’t understand why I’d written such a nasty email. It was unnecessary, he said, and counter-productive. Why did I need to use such harsh language? Why be so disrespectful? The guy was just trying to help us.
This set me off. I thought it was bullshit. The guy had talked and talked and in the end done nothing. He was full of crap, and I told him that in the email. So why was Andrew so upset? I was just telling the guy the truth.
Andrew gave me a disapproving look, which made me even more angry. I had to get out of there. I took off and rode my bike back home to the Reeperbahn.
On the ride home, I seethed inside. Our band was going nowhere, I thought. Half the members were in another city, 6 hours away. Andrew and I (as a duo) only had a few gigs a month. Our latest recording sucked (mainly because of my singing). And we couldn’t even get a decent manager. For fuck’s sake, Germany was his country. Hamburg was his city. Why couldn’t he make something happen for us? Why couldn’t he get things moving?
And why was he spending all this time practicing jazz? We didn’t even play jazz! Maybe if he spent less time practicing jazz and more time getting gigs, we’d be in a better spot.
When I got to the door of my apartment building I was livid. I took out my phone and texted Andrew.
I’m leaving this city. Fuck Hamburg. You can stay here and play your shit jazz.
He wrote back almost immediately.
That was it? “Good luck”. That was all he had to say? I was even more angry than before. I started to type a reply, and then stopped.
“Fuck it, I’m going to bed.”
The self-help guy
I thought about Andrew’s text as I stared down at the Hebrew letters on the tattered book in the dead man’s cellar. I turned the book over in my hands and looked at its spine. It was creased and broken and had the same Hebrew words as on the cover.
I cracked it open and thumbed back to the copyright page, where I saw English for the first time — the only English in the book:
How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie
The name looked familiar. I’d definitely heard of Dale Carnegie. I was pretty sure I’d gone to one of his motivational courses back in the day, with my Mom. He was some type of self-help guy for salespeople, right? But I’d never read his books.
“I’ll take this one,” I told the landlord, holding the book up in my hand. When I turned to leave, I noticed two small souvenir plates sitting on an old desk. “Mount Zion” was written across them, with paintings of the Temple Mount and Moses.
“And these,” I said, grabbing the plates.
When I got back up to my apartment, I thumbed through the Dale Carnegie book, trying to decipher the Hebrew. I noticed the book started with a series of short, numbered paragraphs. I wondered what they meant. Was my dead neighbor trying to tell me something?
I threw the book in my backpack and headed downstairs to the street. Soon I was racing along the Reeperbahn toward city center and a bookstore on Spitaler Strasse.
Moment of panic
The words sank in slowly.
Kritisieren, verurteilen und klagen Sie nicht.
I had found a German copy of the Jew’s book in the bookstore, and this was the first paragraph — the first item in the numbered list I’d seen in Hebrew. I looked down at the sentence and processed the translation in my head.
Don’t criticize, complain or condemn.
So this was it. This was what the Jew was trying to tell me. This was his advice from the grave — his message to me, his ad hoc next of kin.
And it made sense. These 3 things — criticizing, complaining and condemning — these were things I did all the time. I criticized people, often to their faces. I complained about circumstances, whenever they didn’t go my way. And I condemned people and situations and all the things that didn’t fall in line with how I thought things should be.
In fact, criticizing, complaining and condemning had become my standard way of dealing with the world over the last 3 to 4 years. It had become almost a default behavior for me, an automatic response.
And it needed to stop.
It needed to stop because it was destroying all the relationships in my life. That band manager — the guy who had quit us via email the night before, the guy Andrew and I were arguing about when I took off — that guy was just the latest in a long line of people whom I had offended, insulted, betrayed, or forsaken. This line of people reached back through college friends and girlfriends and mentors and family members and even my parents and brothers. My relationships with these people lay like rubble strewn across the years. I had broken them all, one by one, with my criticism, complaints and condemnation.
I felt a knot in my stomach, and then a chill shot up through my torso and into my throat. I felt panic, and then dread — and then sadness and profound regret.
I could see now what I’d done the night before. It seemed so obvious. I had begun the process of destroying yet another key relationship in my life: my friendship with Andrew. The email from the band manager, our argument about it, my text message — I was doing it again! I was setting in motion the destruction, just like I’d done so many times before. I was wrecking it. Everything I’d spent the last 2 years building up — I was wrecking it all.
Andrew had been everything to me during those 2 years. He was the one who had discovered me on the street, rapping alone to a CD of beats. He had taken me under his wing and taught me everything he could about music. He’d taken me into the studio and given me my first opportunity to record and feel like a real musician. He had given me a roof over my head and a couch to sleep on when I had nowhere else to stay. He’d even refused to take money from our donations when we played on the street.
“I don’t need it,” he’d say. “You take it.”
Most important of all, he had believed in me as an artist, singer and performer. He had galvanized my confidence in my art. He was a mentor, an advocate, a teacher, even a father figure to me. I loved him like a brother. I admired him, both as a man and musician.
And now, that previous night, I’d chosen to abandon him — I’d chosen to betray him, to criticize and condemn him. And for what? Because he was practicing jazz? Because he was trying to become a better musician? Because he was trying to teach me how to treat people with respect? Because he was trying to do things that would help the future of our band?
I felt sick to my stomach. The tension in my temples pressed into my eyes and pushed out tears. How had I let this happen? How had I let myself behave like this? How had I become this kind of person?
Then something strange happened. I can’t explain it exactly, but it was something I’d never experienced before — a kind of transformation of the world inside me, and also all around me. It was like a burden was being lifted, and when it was done, I was sitting there in a new phase of my life — a new act in the play.
The Jew had shown me the way, and I had walked through the door.
I went to Andrew’s apartment later that afternoon and apologized. I told him about the cellar and the Jew, about the trip to the bookstore and my moment of panic. He was resistant at first, but he became more empathetic as I spoke. I think he could sense how much I’d been affected by it all.
But I could also see that he was still hurt by what I’d done. It wasn’t something he could just forget. I had broken something between us, maybe irreparably.
But he forgave me, and we spent the next 3 years playing music together, along with our other band members, David and Jochen.
Today, 12 years later, I’m working my way through new phases in my life — currently as a husband and father, and as a CEO of startup. And honestly, I still struggle to follow Dale Carnegie’s advice. I still criticize too much, complain too often, and condemn too easily. But I think about his advice daily, if not hourly. And I remember the Jew, the man who had died alone, no one to pass on his memory. And I pass on his memory, because he taught me how to not die alone.