We Laughed Until We Cried

Four lessons on personal leadership that we can draw from the life and death of Robin Williams, who despite being a gifted comedic entertainer on the outside, struggled deeply on the inside.

Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet Society, Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting... Robin Williams carved a special niche in our hearts not only because he made us laugh so much at the movies, but also because he combined his comedic magic with a heart-stirring way of connecting with his audience, human-to-human.

So I, like so many of us, was deeply pained at the news of his passing, and from the details that have since emerged about how he from time to time had a tortured (inner) life. There are four lessons on Personal Leadership that I draw from it.

1) Appearances are deceptive. Here was a man with a gifted sense of humor, whose comedic instincts were irrepressible. And yet, from inside, he was crying. Next time we are about to judge someone based on what we observe them to be on the outside, we may want to remind ourselves of this story, for perhaps we should seek to understand them more before we rush to judgement. Their observed self may be very different from their actual self.

2) You have to be your own best friend. Robin Williams adds to the list of doomed celebrities – Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson among others – whose rise and fall teaches us the same lesson – fame, fortune, adulation, talent & awards simply do not bring sustained happiness. As Robin Williams once reflected, “People say, ‘You have an Academy Award.’ The Academy Award lasted about a week..." He worked very, very hard to uplift our spirits, to endear himself to us, to connect with us, again and again. But the person we most deeply need to uplift the spirits of, to endear ourselves to, and to connect with, is, to paraphrase Lincoln, the one friend down inside of us. And that is a whole other game.

3) You may be far from perfect, but reach out for greatness anyway. Robin Williams was a great entertainer, so deeply admired and loved for his work, a creative force who the world will long remember. And yet, we now know that he was grappling with crippling personal liabilities. Perhaps some of his pain and loneliness gave him the inspiration to strive to transcend the human condition, the banality of everyday life. Perhaps he exercised superhuman self-discipline to prevail over his tortured spirit when he went on screen or on stage to make our own spirits soar. Perhaps he had mastered the ability to split his inner state from his outer state, so he could weep within while bubbling with mirth without. Whatever may be the path he took to reconcile his inner setbacks with his outer triumphs, he offers remarkable testimony to how we can all do great things in the world, leave our own special footsteps on the sands of time, and contribute to making it a beautiful world, even as we grapple with our own personal shortcomings. Nature doesn't deal us a perfect deck of cards, but we can still shoot for greatness in the game of life.

4) We are wired to want more – and more. Robin Williams wrestled with drug and alcohol addiction. The New Yorker wrote recently: To watch him in full spate, onstage or on a talk show, where he would shift and bounce in his seat like a young boy who wants to play outside, was to be nagged by a question, however naïve: Why in heaven’s name did this man, of all men, need extra stimulants? Wasn’t the simple fact of being Robin Williams, high on his own inventiveness, enough of a rush? Sadly, as we now know, it wasn't enough, and the path of artificial stimulants that he took for crucial parts of his life and career ended in tragic self-destruction. If indeed we will always be seeking more, if that is inherent to the human condition, then it implies that one of the most important questions life invites us to answer is: What is the right path to fulfillment, to joy, to ecstasy, ever-growing, ever-new, ever-renewing, where we are guaranteed to not tire of it or be burned by the pursuit, but where every day builds on the previous one? Material and sensory pursuits don't meet these ambitious criteria. Is there a way we can forge such a path of enduring, and intensifying? I will write more on this soon...