Everything I know about being sincere, I learned in equal parts from my grandfathers, hip-hop, and old friends on the wrong side of things.
My mom’s dad, Kenneth, was about the nicest guy you’d ever meet. He never talked shit, I never heard him curse, and even late in his life, he never particularly complained much about his health, which was frequently less than optimal. Grandpa Ken had a really slight way about him. He could be in a place without insisting that anyone pay particular attention to him, but he wasn’t timid. On the contrary, he was a wise man, who knew that he could learn more from listening and observing, than he could from speaking. If you had a question about anything, he would always graciously provide an answer. Not surprisingly, I grew up thinking that he knew everything. When I was young, I asked him typical stumpers like, “Why is the sky blue?” He could give a reasonable answer to pretty much everything, which I would learn after my own research, was usually pretty close to being scientifically correct.
As I got older, it occurred to me that more than likely, he didn’t know everything, but he did know enough about most things to give a considered answer to any question I had. Grandpa Ken was a gentleman, a scholar, and practiced a sort of patience with everyone and every situation that he came into contact with. If he needed to let you know something, he said it in a deliberate but gentle way, and was the most considerate guy I’ve ever met.
My dad’s dad, Moses, is the exact opposite of Grandpa Ken. I think of him to this day as the flip-side of the Grandpa coin. He is imposing, rough, and generally not a guy children want to hang out with. He’s not by any account a bad man, he’s just not someone to trifle with. When in his company, one perceives his authority immediately. He expects the best from everyone all the time, and if the best is not delivered, he lets you know quickly, critically, and harshly. Grandpa Moses doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He grew up rough, and it shows in his demeanor and mood.
Moses lives in Tampa, Florida, and despite having two adult children, four grandkids, and multiple great-grandkids, he’s never been to Disney World, Bush Gardens, or Sea World. He’s the type of guy who, were he asked what he thought of dolphins, would say he doesn’t care for them. Or Santa. Or chocolate. Yeah, he’s that guy.
My grandfathers, for me, represent two sides of personal character. One is wise and compassionate. The other is authoritative and stern. Where these two seemingly opposite men meet, is their shared trait of and value for sincerity. Grandpa Ken, during his life, and Grandpa Moses, to this day, equal each other at keeping it real. They both have obviously, and sometimes bitterly palpable, different ways of expressing that realness, but they both accomplish it with grace. I learned from both, in two different ways, to speak the truth when talking, to behave in a way that is appropriate to the setting, and to generally walk softly. I do what I can.
Growing up on hip-hop, some might think that braggadocio and vanity would be the biggest character examples laid down for me. It’s quite the opposite. My formative years were certainly spent listening to all sorts of songs about money, hoes, and clothes, but there were countless hours spent listening to records praising the craft of hip-hop, the artistry of the emcee, and the trials and tribulations of youth. What I took from these records, was not that the pursuit of money was the most important thing in life; instead, the ideals of being true to oneself were reinforced in me. For all the criminal posturing, and grandiose portraits of materialism, I found a common thread of sincere discourse. Real rap cats, well, kept it real. They weren’t the ones screaming about keeping it real on their records; they just did. I appreciated that about hip-hop and still do. I can say with some confidence, real hip-hop will always be real. It fairly and sincerely mirrors the communities from where it’s birthed.
As an adolescent, I spent quite a bit of time involved with kids most parents warned their kids about. I don’t know if I was ever one of the people who wasn’t to be associated with, but I know I was in the wrong place at the wrong time more than once. I never got into any real trouble, but most of my best friends did at some point or another. Those days flew by, and in the midst of those tumultuous times, the one principle that remained constant, was to be sincere. No one called it “being sincere,” but it was an unwritten rule. If someone was talking bigger than they should have, or was bragging when they should have been humble, there would eventually be a problem. I saw people I was close to make mistakes that cost them their lives. I saw people destroy their own lives and others’ around them. I learned and relearned, time and again, don’t talk about shit you don’t know about, and to take people on their word, unless they give you reason not to. I’ve got only a few friends left from back then, but I’ve made some new ones along the way. The rule remains; be sincere.
My pursuit of sincerity isn’t just lip-service. My upbringing instilled the value of it early on. It’s one of the few things I can say is sacred to me. It ironic that as a designer, I would spend so much, nearly all of my time in advertising, the least sincere of any industry. I spent a good chunk of my life constantly at odds with the work I was doing, the people I was doing it with, the people I was doing for, and ashamed of the insincere messages I was helping to communicate to various markets. I’m done with that.
You can see from my new rules, that it’s pretty hard for me to slap together some pretty designs with misleading images and copy, and stay within the guidelines I’ve laid out for myself. No doubt, my income has suffered as a result of my self-imposed sanctions on bullshittery, but I’m cool with that. I don’t need much, but more on point; I’d rather have less, if it means keeping the respect of my grandfathers, my hip-hop heartbeat, and friends as loyal as the day is long. Those things are just more important to me. For real.