My ride on the 'Soul Train'

I was a Soul Train junkie when I was a kid.

I was a Soul Train junkie when I was a kid. I could not wait for Saturday afternoon so I could tune in to hear the latest songs, watch the Soul Train Line, and catch a hot performance by such luminaries as Kool & the Gang or Marvin Gaye.

My favorite part was at the end of every show when iconic host Don Cornelius would say in his booming baritone voice: "As always in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul."

As far as I was concerned, Don Cornelius was the epitome of cool. He was tall. He was handsome. He had a huge 'fro. And he dressed like a player. Even more impressive, he appeared to have a life of wealth and glamour. And man, could he dance.

It's why I was so saddened and shocked when he took his own life earlier this year.

Of course, I don't know what demons Cornelius had or what the course of his life was really like, but his suicide shook me up nonetheless. It made me rethink assumptions I made about him and, more important, assumptions I've made about wealth, fame, and happiness.

The shock of his death was an awful reminder that we can't assume anything about other people's lives or how they appear on the surface. And, oh yeah, money doesn't buy happiness. They keep telling me that.

Shortly after starting my first job in New York, I went to Vermont for a long weekend with three friends. We rented a car and split the cost four ways. One of the travelers was an attorney at a big law firm and I distinctly remember that he was making $45,000 a year. I was jealous that he was earning three times as much as me and I was resentful that we had to split the cost evenly, even though he was clearly so much richer.

It seemed to me that my lawyer friend had it all. It made me wish I had gone to law school and I felt like a loser who had made a very bad career choice. I thought then that if I could ever earn $45,000 a year, I'd be happy.

Without revealing too much personal information, I did finally earn $45,000. But guess what - it didn't make me any happier.

This is not a new theme and it's been conveyed pretty powerfully over the years.

In 1897, Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote a poem called Richard Cory that tells the story of a rich man whom everyone envies, but ends up taking his own life. Seventy years after Robinson wrote this poem, Simon & Garfunkel turned it into a folk song. Almost 45 years after that, the tragedy of losing Don Cornelius has made the message all too relevant.

What surprises me most is how attached I am to my image of Cornelius from childhood and how unsettling it is to square that image with the reality of his life and death.

As an adult, I'm old enough to know better, but I still want to believe that money and fame protect us from the hard realities of life. If Cornelius wasn't immune to loneliness and despair, who is? We already know the answer to that question, but it's seldom the answer we hope for.

So I'll wrestle with this reality for a while and I'll revisit the wisdoms about living life one day at a time, focusing on the small things, and being content with what I have.

But honestly, I'll continue to believe that if I could just dance like Don Cornelius, I'd truly be happy. 

Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.

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