It’s not personal

In the 1998 film, You’ve Got Mail, the Tom Hanks character says to the Meg Ryan character, It’s business; it’s not personal. This comment was derived from the fact that Hanks’ character was opening up a fancy multi-leveled mega bookstore within walking distance of the Ryan character’s quaint, popular, with a very personal-touch-to-it neighborhood bookstore, and like in the sitcom Cheers, everyone knew your name. When the Hanks character told the Ryan character that it was in the cost of doing business, and his opening up a colossal bookstore that would eventually lead her to close her small bookstore wasn’t personal, Ryan’s character said everything is personal.

I began to reflect on this whole idea of business being personal, or naught, more so because someone dear to me recently ended a business that was undoubtedly a painful decision to make. It likewise included having to let go of staff, and among her staff there was a close friend. Because it got personal, that added to the angst of having to close the business. I’ve not done business with her, but having known this person over the span of her lifetime, my confidence is unwavering: she made every effort (both professionally and personally) to be fair to her employee/friend. Closing a business naturally comes with anxiety, and at the edges of one’s self-esteem there’s the potential to experience I-have-failed feelings. Business, equally so like friendship, is amazingly complicated.

Many years ago I went into a writing partnership that I would not have considered classifying as a business deal; not at that age. We had met our first semester of college; we were good friends; we were both writers; through both of us creative concepts flowed effortlessly and we acquired an unstoppable ambition in the process of our youthful enthusiasm. So, we decided to try to write a sitcom treatment and to pitch it to Hollywood. She knew people, and we had a good shot of at least getting it eyeballed. It went south due to a bitter misunderstanding. That experience taught me several things: I wasn’t good at being in business with a friend; to put business-related expectations, etc. in writing; and not to personalize whatever the outcome of any business situation turned out to be.

Over two decades later another friend approached me with a similar idea: to create a reality TV concept. We sat in Chipotle, both of us having just moved back to L.A. from our respective other cities. It was in the midst of the Great Recession. I was subtle as well as I know how to be subtle, and advised her that I wasn’t comfortable in doing “this” (with a friend). She was persistent and confident that our collaborating on a project together would work out. Because I was two decades older than the first attempt at a business-like relationship with a friend, I softened though cautiously reluctant. Still, something in my core didn’t feel good about it, and I said it wasn’t the right thing for me. And besides, because I wasn’t big on reality TV my heart wouldn’t be in it. The idea, the concept of doing it, was dropped.

A year or so later, we each having left L.A. and moved to different cities and primarily because of the downturn, she brought another idea she had to my attention; this being a TV drama. She further explained that we would then pitch it at a Hollywood pitch fest. I was as firm the second time as I was the first: it was not good for me to do business with a friend. Eventually, I agreed to assist in the shaping of the concept. I consider myself more a storyteller than a writer, so I could offer advice on structure, character development, arching. I was more like a consultant. After several years of working with her on this “idea,” in an e-mail she advised me of her thoughts about my having gone as far as I could with her on the project and that she was on to a “new” project. That was that.

My mouth agape, I stared at the impersonal e-mail for–it was a while, attempting to ascertain the nuances that were decoded in the brief, to-the-point language. I didn’t see this project as “our project”; my investment was almost entirely based upon friendship. And because I’d invested quite a bit of time on it, I was struck by her nonchalance when it came to my commitment to something that she was more committed to than me. At least I thought so at the time. I understood that she had no clue as to the amount of time I had given to the project; and that was on me, not on her. In her cryptic e-mail, there wasn’t one word about appreciation. Not a “Thank you for taking this journey with me.” Not so much as “Even though I’m moving on, your ideas and input was valuable to me.” Not. One. Word.

For over two decades my tax returns have listed my occupation as “writer,” yet it never even crossed my mind to charge her. I consult with novice writers and charge them for my time and talent. As someone who has struggled for most of her adult life to be taken seriously as a writer, my friend’s indifferent tone in the e-mail came across flippant and like an intentional diss. A visceral melancholy slowly began to rest in my heart; I sensed a friendship was losing its center. I personalized her decision–at least how she informed me of her decision.

The afternoon I read that e-mail, two aloof lines, was a deeply poignant reminder of how friendship and business unquestionably make strange bedfellows. There’s a brutally silent expectation, and an infelicitous assumption between friends when it comes to business. If the professional relationship goes on long enough, the parties involved will be different people from the people who went into it initially. Purpose and passion change. And people either devolve or evolve, because nothing on a human level is static. But I think more importantly, going into business with a friend comes, not just with risks, but tests. A test of friendship; a test of loyalty; a test of maturity; a test of honor. And while business within a friendship shouldn’t be personal, how can it not be?


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