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What I’ve Learned: Clifton Lemon

Chief Executive Officer, Clifton Lemon Associates
President, IES San Francisco Section

Clifton Lemon

My grandpa always told me, ‘If you want to catch a fish, think like a fish.’ As we fished, I thought---how do you think like a fish? Do fish even think? [laughs] I’ve decided that the Zen challenge lies in finding out what others really want---thinking like a fish---getting outside yourself and really experiencing others’ feelings. I’ve certainly succeeded in catching fish in my life. But thinking like a fish? I’ll be working on that forever [laughs].

Every day I realize that I am blessed to count among my friends, clients, associates and collaborators some of the most interesting and talented people on the planet. Another very important thing I’ve learned about [the lighting design community] is that it’s very diverse.

Life breaks everyone, but maybe we grow stronger in the broken places…maybe. I’ve learned that pretty much everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. We all bear the scars of our past lives in different ways, but often when I encounter adversity in other people, I’ve learned to look for explanations beyond our own immediate interactions---there’s always a deeper story somewhere.

In my career in the design and building industries I have found that it’s the lighting people who are by far the most curious, creative, technically proficient, crazy, fun, loving (and fun loving) people. If I had to put one word to it, I would say ‘engaged’---pretty much everyone I know in lighting is fully engaged in life, in their profession, art, technology, and with their colleagues, friends and family.

In the early 2000’s I had a business with a lot of tech clients. Then the tech crash hit. I brought in a consultantto help, but ended up losing more money and closing the practice. I had put my whole heart and soul in it for a good part of my life. In lighting we’re all very passionate about our work, but then I learned not to let my job be the whole meaning of my existence---I learned to let go of a loss.

I’ve learned that the ‘Platinum Rule’ is the improved version of the ‘Golden Rule’. We think we’re fine and noble if we treat others like we want to be treated----but isn’t it better to treat others as they wish to be treated?

We’re all kind of hardwired to forget all about the fact that each of our lives has a limit. As an organism, I generally want to survive and to do things that immediately contribute to that effort [laughs], but I recently had some medical issues that gave me the opportunity to contemplate death more deliberately. I’ve found that thinking about what happens when I’m gone and how will I leave the planet for my grandkids gives me perspective when I’m doing something really small---and it connects me to something much bigger.

I’ve worked with so many different kinds of people in many different relationships and roles [in lighting]. Over the years, I’ve become increasingly aware of the fact that the person I’m working with now in a certain role could very easily be in a completely different role in a few years ---and I could, too! I’ve learned to be circumspect and to value personal relationships before work roles. Work roles change quite often while personal relationships frequently remain constant and improve over time if I respect the valuable individuals in my network and their unique contributions to my life.

I’ve learned that good things can always be just around the corner. I was on a boat fishing with a very good old friend of mine. We were talking, and he asked, ‘What was the biggest disappointment you ever had in your life?’ Just then, I hooked the biggest fish I’d ever landed! I told him, “I’ll have to get back to you on that [laughs].”



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