A Near-Miss With Greatness

Written by Chris Ivey on October 12th, 2011. Posted in Uncategorized

My wife and I went to see Kevin O’Leary speak at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival at the National Arts Center. Ordinarily, I try very hard to avoid the sort of lefty-loon, quasi-intellectual bumpf that is the lifeblood of this kind of event, but hey – it was Kevin O’Leary.

There was the usual welcome and introduction from the festival chair, and a further introduction by the CBC “personality” Adrian Harewood, followed by Mr. O’Leary’s presentation.

I regret to report that he uses a Mac, and something that looks suspiciously like PowerPoint, but I enjoyed his talk very much. I drew the ire of some of my neighbours when I agreed to a point Mr. O’Leary was making about our responsibility for personal, rather than corporate charity with a loud “amen”. An “outrageously right-wing perspective” is an acceptable if slightly rouĂ© eccentricity when it’s coming from a celebrity billionaire; but in Ottawa one doesn’t tolerate it in the hoi-polloi.

Mr. O’Leary finished his talk and announced that he would take questions from the audience, but he was quickly and smoothly silenced by the organizers, who had arranged for an interview to be conducted onstage by Adrian Harewood.

What followed was a forty-minute harangue interspersed with loaded questions by an obviously hostile socialist drone. I was irritated, but completely unsurprised by the usual leftist talking points about “the growing disparity between the 98% and the 2% elite”, (meaning that Harewood disapproved of O’Leary’s disproportionate wealth), and “the responsibility for ethical investing”, (by which Harewood implied that perhaps O’Leary wasn’t sufficiently aware of how unethical he was). There were several questions obviously intended to bait Mr. O’Leary on the topic of the Occupy Wall Street Protesters.

However, Kevin O’Leary is an old hand with the CBC, and simply deflected the questions with disarming or innocuous replies. He knew who his audience was and obviously didn’t feel inclined to perform as Darth Vader to Mr. Harewood’s anemic Luke Skywalker.

What did surprise me was the sustained and strident reaction to Mr. O’Leary’s assertion that a successful entrepreneur has to be willing to subjugate every other part of their life to their business. Mr. Harewood addressed the topic three or four times: “Surely, Mr. O’Leary, you can’t be saying that an entrepreneur has to sacrifice balance in their relationships to having a successful business? That’s not a healthy perspective.”

“You can have a balanced life as an employee”, said Mr. O’Leary, “That’s what you are, isn’t it?”

“I prefer to think of myself as an ‘entrepreneur of ideas’”, replied Harewood. (At this moment I desperately wanted to slap the man).

After a while, I became so frustrated I was tempted to leap out of my chair and shout “Enough already!”.

This issue really seemed to preoccupy the audience, with several other people asking variations on the same question when it came time for questions from the audience. It was as if people wanted to be reassured that they could get rich without having to work hard and make sacrifices. I thought it was silly, given the fact that Mr. O’Leary was promoting a book called “The Cold, Hard Truth”.

The floor was never really thrown open to questions. The event organizers limited the questions by carefully selecting from the audience. Frankly, I figure the first half-dozen speakers were ringers; they certainly had a uniform outlook and they all took time to complement Mr. Harewood on his “penetrating questions”.

I was the first person with a hand up, and I actually stood up so I could be seen. I was studiously ignored until questions were closed. This may or may not have had something to do with my audible “amen”.

A young man sitting in front of me had the fevered look of a first-time entrepreneur, (I confirmed this by talking to him later on). He was fun to watch because he was in an agony of frustration, trying to catch the eye of the guy with the microphone and bouncing in his chair as if he might wet himself. The organizers bypassed him as well – he was too eager I suppose. In the end, seven people were allowed to ask questions. Most of them asked the sort of “question” that involves making a little speech before graciously allowing your interlocutor to respond. It drove me nuts.

I wanted to ask what Mr. O’Leary thought about the possible opportunities for people who want to invest in domestic manufacturing, because I’m pretty sure that in a few years we’ll no longer be able to simply offload all our manufacturing in China. But I figured it was probably a pretty pointless question anyway, since I’m in no position to do anything about it even if I am right.

The evening ended with a book signing, so about fifty people lined up clutching copies of Mr. O’Leary’s book. This is perhaps the first time I’ve waited in line to meet someone famous, so I had no idea what to expect.

I had gone to the event nurturing vague fantasies of somehow passing the great man my business card, and I was curious to see if anyone else at the event would try to do something like that. A couple of eager young Indian business students did try to make a desperate, fly-by pitch as they waited to have their books signed, but nothing much came of it. Everyone was “handled” by a couple of officiously polite publicists, but there wasn’t any sign of, or obvious need for a genuine chucker-out.

I found myself trying desperately to think of something witty or clever to say so I could leave an indelible mark on a titan. There’s something about a larger-than-life personality that stimulates a “me too” instinct in all of us, yapping away like a terrier in the forebrain.

What did happen was that I told Mr. O’Leary my name so he could sign my book, and asked to shake his hand. He shook my hand gravely and thanked me for buying two copies of his book. Ten seconds later I ceased to exist.

Chris Ivey

Christopher Ivey is the CEO of ShareThink Ltd., a technology innovation company located in Almonte, ON, just outside Ottawa.

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