"the moment"


Simon Thornhill is a good friend of mine. He and his lovely wife own The Troubadour in London, the legendary restaurant and nightclub. Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan played there, back when they were still unknown. The Thornhills bought the place from the previous owners a few years ago.

Before that, Simon was an officer in The Scots Guards, a highly respected Scottish regiment in the British Army. He’s tough as nails, but a bit of a hippie, too. If you ever visit Earl’s Court, look him up. He’s terrific company.

I don’t know what we were were talking about that night in The Shackleton Room, but somehow the conversation got on to the subject of young Army officers. Some of the kids I went to high school in Edinburgh with ended up joining Regiments straight after finishing their exams, so Simon’s previous life wasn’t a world completely unknown to me. These kids sign up at age seventeen or eighteen, take their two-year training at Sandhurst, and the next thing you know, they’re in the field, armed to the teeth, and giving orders to experienced Sargeants and Corporals twice their age.

I don’t know about you, but I would find that REALLY intimidating. Those young kids must have cojones, I’ll tell you that. I was telling Simon how terrifying I thought it it must be, to be a kid barely out of school, with all the men  FAR more experienced than you under your command, holding you in the traditional squaddies’ contempt reserved for all new, young officers.

“Yes,  that certainly happens,” said Simon. “But then you finally have what they call in the Army, ‘The Moment’. The Moment when you stop trying to be your men’s new best friend, and actually start to lead them. That’s when you REALLY become an officer- not before, when you receive your commission.

“That happened to me when we were on a night exercise. I had only received my commission a few months previously. Things were going terribly wrong, nobody was doing their jobs. Everything was in shambles. Finally I had my ‘Moment’. I just pulled my finger out, and firmly said to the men, ‘I’m in command, you’re not, you will do as I say or I will have you all up on charges, Boys. Now fucking go do your jobs.’ Somehow they knew I wasn’t joking.

“And so they went off and obeyed their orders, without any fuss. A few of them were easily ten or fifteen years older than me… The thing is, they might not think much of the young kid giving them orders at first, but at the same time, soldiers do want to be led.”

As with Simon, I think we all need to have that “Moment”, eventually. That moment when we stop futzing around and actually start behaving like proper adults. That moment when we actually start acting like “Officers” commanding our own lives.

I remember mine. I didn’t think too much about it at the time, but over the years I realized just how key it ended up being.

I was a young freelance advertising creative, living in London, meeting a friend for a drink at my regular Soho watering hole, The Coach & Horses.

The bar was crowded and noisy that eve­ning. The bar­maid was a young, pretty Chi­nese lass, who’d only been in the country a short while, who spoke pretty good English, but not great.

I asked the bar­maid for a glass of wine for my friend, and for me, a gin & tonic with FOUR sli­ces of lime. I even held up four fin­gers to help make it clear to her.

So the poor bar­maid ended up bringing me back five drinks– my friend’s glass of wine, with FOUR gin & tonics, each with a SINGLE slice of lime. Oops. We’re tal­king a round that I sup­pose easily excee­ded thirty or forty dollars.

A sim­ple misun­ders­tan­ding, I guess, plus like I said, her English wasn’t very good. I told the bar­maid about the mix-up. “No, I asked for a SINGLE gin & tonic with FOUR sli­ces of lime” etc.

Up until that moment, like any young pub drin­ker, I pro­bably would then have just asked the bar­maid to take the sur­plus three drinks away, and add more lime sli­ces to the remai­ning gin. Easy. But I didn’t.

Ins­tead, I asked her, “Will this mis­take be coming out of your wages?”

“Yes,” she replied. I already knew enough about the bar’s owner to know that she wasn’t lying.

The thing is, unlike here in the US, the people working in Lon­don pubs don’t work for tips, mainly because nobody really tips there. You might get five or ten dollars a night if you’re lucky. They get paid by the hour, usually mini­mum wage, in one of the most expen­sive cities in the world. Hence Lon­don bar­ten­ders tend to be really, really poor. The mis­take the bar­maid made would be, for her, extre­mely expen­sive. Two-three hours’ wages or so, maybe even more.

“Never mind,” I said. “Just put three more limes in one of the glas­ses, and I’ll pay for the other three gins as well.” Which I did.

Then it was just a mat­ter of fin­ding three ran­dom peo­ple in the bar who were not above accep­ting free gin & tonics from a total stran­ger with an Ame­ri­can accent. This being The Coach & Hor­ses, that took all of twenty seconds. “Cheers, Mate!”

A year or two before that, I would’ve just pro­bably allo­wed the young bar­maid to take the hit. “You made the mis­take, not me, not my pro­blem” etc.

London was being kind to me at the time; life was good. Whereas this young Chinese girl was living thousands of miles away from her family, and pro­bably doing so very close to the poverty line. So I chose to take the hit ins­tead of her. I know I didn’t have to, I was per­fectly within my rights, but…

I didn’t want to be that kind of per­son any­more. I really didn’t. So that was my “Moment”.

And every enterprise I’ve ever star­ted or been invol­ved with, had its Moment as well. That moment where you finally decide not to cut cor­ners, not to make excu­ses, even if you can get away with it. Even if 99% of other busi­nes­ses wouldn’t have bothered.

These moments are gold dust, they really are.

Has your business had its “Moment” yet? If not, what can you do to make it happen sooner? Serious question.

[Update: Molly made a lovely point in the comments:]

The Moment is a con­fluence of empathy, unders­tan­ding and cla­rity that ena­bles you to ele­vate your­self to your next stage of deve­lop­ment. I have a true Moment about once a year, and it falls within a dif­fe­rent cate­gory each time (ie. Paren­ting, per­so­nal, pro­fes­sio­nal).

[Backs­tory: About Hugh. E-mail Hugh. Twit­ter. Limi­ted Edi­tion Prints. Car­toon Archive. News­let­ter. Book. Inter­viewEssen­tial Rea­ding:Everything You Always Wan­ted To Know About ‘Cube Gre­na­des’ But Were Afraid To Ask.”]


  1. My guitar player and I just had this conversation last night. Do you think you can force the “Moment” to happen or it just happens when it wants?

      • This is why, as an adult, I’ve stopped trying to give advice so much. Even when you know you’ve been through what someone else is going through and you’re sure you see the answer for them, they have to be ready to hear it. The old lament: “If I could just go back in time and tell myself…” is useless – none of us would listen to ourselves.

  2. One of my Moments was stopping the presses as a marketing consultant (ie. Sales) for a daily I worked at in the 90s. There was a typo in an ad for the largest bank in town, featuring the city atty. We re-ran the C section, unshucked the 10K copies that had already come off the press and reassembled the whole deal in time for it to hit the streets on deadline.

    The Moment is a confluence of empathy, understanding and clarity that enables you to elevate yourself to your next stage of development. I have a true Moment about once a year, and it falls within a different category each time (ie. Parenting, personal, professional). Thanks for the post.

  3. The Moment for my business was two-fold. The first came when I realized that the career I had been building for nearly 10 years was the wrong one for me. I called a meeting with my boss and quit. (Ironically, I had mentally quit months before, and he was already about to let me go.)

    The second part was walking back from dinner with come friends a few months later. While we chatted, one friend casually suggested I should start a business from my art. Something clicked, and I was filled with a loud “yes”. The next day, I began.

  4. Never fear folks. Even if you don’t have “the moment” organically, you’ll definitely get it as soon as you get your significant other pregnant (or, worst case, when the kid is born) :-)

  5. I had a moment this evening when I realised that in order for my ‘thing’ to be conceptually sound and genuine I have to make some lifestyle sacrifices and starting to practice what I preach in order to really mean it. It was a good moment even if it was sparked by an argument with my family!

  6. I think it’s something I will have to keep an eye out for. I can’t really think of a ‘moment’ I have had yet. I feel like I am constantly climbing, trying to get up that mountain. Is it something that is up the top? Or is it something that I will find along the way that will help me get to the top?
    Interesting food for thought. Thank you.
    ps. I love the cartoon too!

  7. One of my favorite moments was when I stopped myself from telling my husband that his idea, “wouldn’t work.”

    Seemed he wanted YANNI to help with a fundraiser for our Greek group (AHEPA).
    I ALMOST SAID the standard -IT WILL NEVER WORK- response and then realized that::: Nowhere :::Anywhere have I ever seen a statue in a town square– erected, “for The Person Who Thought Of All The Reasons Why You Can’t Do Something.”

    No he didn’t know Yanni. The next day he found someone who did. It might have been 2002– Yanni was on tour in Detroit and made an appearance for our group.

    A good lesson learned in a MOMENT of realization, respect, and clarity.

    (Bonus: made some serious Brownie Points with hubby 😉

  8. I had my Moment today in the decision to totally be truthful about money issues in my life. I say I want to walk my talk and live in trust in the flow: and it looks like the Universe is obliging.. immediately. It’s scary at times, but I see it for the place I have to be right now to find out what I’m really made of.

  9. Ahh, the moment. There are so many, but my business is just a fledgling – no defining moments yet.

    I do have a moment personally. I drove my car drunk. Made too tight of a turn on the road I drove 1,000 times. I flipped my car 1.5 times and landed on my roof. It was at that moment that I knew I needed to find happiness within instead of outside my body.

  10. I had my moment when my father passed away. Suddenly, I was the person who had to pay for the funeral, make the arrangements, handle the estate, make the decisions about whether family would continue to live on the property, or whether I’d be my old self, and say, not my problem. I had to step up and take on all the potential legal issues with no gain. When I stood and delivered my eulogy for my father, I pictured him standing over my shoulder proud of me. I’ve lead my life with my heart, and a little less with logic since.

  11. Hugh,
    Thanks for such an enlightening post. I had one of those moments a few years ago. I had been dating a fantastic woman for a few weeks when she said, “We need to talk” (we men know that’s never a good thing). She then started to break up with me. The more I listened, the more I was utterly confused since there was nothing in what she was saying that would warrant a break up. While I was hurt and would have been “justified” in yelling or saying all sorts of nasty things, I instead paid attention to my instincts. It occurred to me (from previous discussions) that this was not about her feelings for me, but feelings for her previous partner. It also realised that she was in denial about it to herself, so I pushed the issue to the front. The shocked look on her face as she finally acknowledged her feelings told me that I had been right on both counts. I told her that she really needed follow that relationship through. As I left that evening she thanked me for “being a what a real guy should be”. That’s one of the greatest things anyone has ever said to me.

    Oh, and last I heard they were still together.


  12. This post reminded me of the opening paragraphs of Joseph Conrad’s novella “The Shadow Line” (available on Project Gutenberg at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/451/451-h/451-h.htm )

    Only the young have such moments. I don’t mean the very young. No. The very young have, properly speaking, no moments. It is the privilege of early youth to live in advance of its days in all the beautiful continuity of hope which knows no pauses and no introspection.

    One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness—and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind had streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation—a bit of one’s own.

    One goes on recognizing the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together—the kicks and the half-pence, as the saying is—the picturesque common lot that holds so many possibilities for the deserving or perhaps for the lucky. Yes. One goes on. And the time, too, goes on—till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind.

  13. Definitely right that the “moment” cannot be forced. I have a thing when I travel, that I like to have my “moment” at each major place. For some reason (maybe the hourly cheap glitter scene), I could not get this “moment” with the Eiffel Tower. Just couldn’t do it. But I do have one all-encompassing “moment” from my first trip abroad. I’ll never forget the feeling from the London airport. I was separated from my friend during the customs check-in, a process we were instructed to lie through since we did not have student visas for our study abroad program. I did not know if my friend had been deported and all I could hear were English accents telling me to “mind the queue” as I lied to my parents and told them the trip was going great so far on a $15 call from a pay phone with tears in my eyes. But it’s one of the best “moments” of my life thus far.

  14. I do really love the post, but I think there are different kind of “moments”.

    The distinction is between moments that offer something new, externally. And then there are the moments in “ordinary” situations (such as hugh’s bar moment)that you have experienced the same way 1000 times,but made a different decision before.
    The moment is for me when you change the way you have acted before not because you have to or you are out of your depth, but because you want to.

    Be it as it may, moments are great. But they are only moments, if they are not followed by actual change. That for me is the hard part. It is not understanding that you have to lead the officers, but actually doing it. And continue to do so.

  15. Great post. I too have about one moment a year. I’m in the middle of the fallout from my last one, but ultimately I know that my Moment has set me off in a great direction. It’s that moment that we forget fear and misgivings about our own abilities and dive in.

  16. From reading the comments, I feel I have missed the point of your post. All I got is a picture of some hot Chinese chick making a mistake with your drink order. Damn.

  17. Sometimes you feel drawn to something–some project, some personal quest. It feels as if you don’t have a choice about it. This is your vocation, your calling. When you listen to your life, these “moments” happen. To put a theological spin on this, Presbyterian theologian and writer Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

  18. Hi Hugh,

    Great post.

    I´m learning a lot with, about marketing, about career, about art. And also about life.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.


    Miguel Cavalcanti, a true fan in Brazil

    PS: your book is great, do you have any deal to publish it in portuguese in Brazil?

  19. […] I’m a big fan of this GapingVoid post from October: The moment […]

  20. […] I’m a big fan of this GapingVoid post from October: The moment […]

  21. Hi, Hugh. I always enjoy it when I can call someone else by my own name.

    I was plowing through your site catching up today when I read this post. That I am writing on your site for the first time probably says as much as anything how much it struck me. I am a retired Army officer, so seeing “Black Watch” in the post caught my attention, and I went from scanning to actually reading.

    My “Moment” came in January 1970, standing ready to make a parachute jump (not my first) as part of a training exercise to conduct an airfield seizure. I don’t know what prompted the thought, but as I stood in full battle kit I suddenly realized that this was not all fun and games. Until then I must confess to being a bit of a mercenary, collecting jump pay and temporary duty pay for all the training I was undergoing, and sharing laughs with my fellow trainees. I now understood that the Army was giving me all these “opportunities” against the day I was expected to lead soldiers into harm’s way. I had been commissioned seven months earlier, but only then did I commit to the responsibilities of an officer, to being as alert as I could be at all times, to absorb as much as possible, to be as good at my trade as I could be.

    It has carried over to other walks of life as well. I see my growth as an assembly of many such moments, since it is they that come always to mind when I reflect on matters.

    I have been a lurker on your website for several years now, so I can probably call myself a fan, of sorts. I am glad for you that your life has taken the turns it has.

    Thanks again for this post, and the lessons of which it has reminded me.

    God Bless!../Hugh Donohue

  22. Also – I forgot to add: please give my high regards to Simon Thornhill, and thank him for his service.

    Best wishes…/Hugh

  23. Excellent! If I could write like this I would be well happpy. The more I see articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there could be a future for the Web. Keep it up, as it were.