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Rich Cohen’s latest book is The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator.

A fourteen-year-old Rich Cohen poses for a photo with his father at the Walt Disney EPCOT Centre, Florida in 1983, while his mother, seen behind, studies a guide.COURTESY RICH COHEN

Like Jesus, my father teaches in the ancient Jewish way – via riddle, parable, commentary. He uses his hands when he talks, same as Jesus. And he too is overly fond of aphorism. Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth,” but my father went further, saying, “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not its mineral rights.” Jesus walked on the water, but my father chose not to, explaining himself by saying, “The key to walking on water is knowing where the stones are.” (My father did fall through the ice into the swift-moving current of the Des Plaines River in Illinois in February, 1973.) Jesus advised his followers to turn the other cheek. My father told his followers that, as long as you arrive before the meeting is over, you are not late. Jesus said, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” My father said, “A nose that can hear is worth two that can smell.”

That’s where the likeness ends. Though their teachings are not entirely dissimilar, their biographies are opposite. Whereas Jesus, being the incarnation of God, led a flawless, exemplary life, my father, being human, lived a life filled with shortcomings and near-misses, and, in the end, taught my siblings and me more by those shortcomings and near-misses than by the successes, though there were plenty of those, too. “Anyone can seem graceful when they win,” he told us. “Show me a person who holds up in defeat and I will show you an aristocrat.”

My father’s name is Herbert Cohen, though his friends call him Herbie. Now 89 years old, he looked, in his middle years, almost exactly like Walter Matthau as Coach Buttermaker in The Bad News Bears. This news, when shared by me, actually seemed to pain him. When I asked my mother why, she said, “In his mind, your father looks like Gregory Peck.”

Herbie’s a street kid from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Last stop on the train. Cheapest option for commuters. It was a neighbourhood of plumbers, electricians, factory workers and union reps. Herbie was the leader of a kid gang called the Warriors, a few dozen Italians and Jews who hung out under the street light at the intersection of 86th Street and Bay Parkway, a hundred yards from the Narrows. When your mother asked where you were going, you said, “the corner.” When she asked where you had been, you said, “the corner.”

Herbie went on to the military, then college and law school, then a career, first at Allstate, then at Sears, where he distinguished himself as a deal maker, negotiator and trainer of would-be deal makers and negotiators. Though he’s lectured on the art of negotiation at Harvard and Yale – it was Herbie who popularized the phrase “win-win” – most of what he knows he learned getting into and out of jams in Brooklyn with his friends Inky, Sheppo, Who Ha, Ben the Worrier, Gutter Rat, Zeek the Creek (later Larry King) and Sandy (Koufax).

By the time I was old enough to look around, Herbie was running his own business, hiring himself out as a mediator, trainer and deal closer to unions, governments and Fortune 500 companies. He said he made a living by taking “a miniscule percentage” of “an astronomical deal.” He worked for the FBI, State Department, CIA. The Carter administration hired him to advise the president during the Iran hostage crisis. The Reagan and Bush administrations made him part of the team that negotiated the START nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the Russians. Playboy headlined its 1980 profile of him, “World’s Greatest Negotiator.” Not only did that article give me a subtitle for my own book – The Adventures of Herbie Cohen: World’s Greatest Negotiator – but also a legitimate reason for having a dirty magazine in my room.

Mostly, my father is a teacher. He answers questions with questions, or questions himself aloud: “So why is it that my money is so interesting, while your money is so boring?”

A single belief animates his world view, a belief he expresses in a dozen different sayings: “The key to success is to care, but not that much”; “Approach life as if it were a game; always be willing to walk away”; “The best response is often no response; the best answer is often no answer”: “Don’t become attached to a particular outcome”; “Dumb can be better than smart”; “In the grand scheme, this is just a walnut in the batter of life, a blip on the radar screen of eternity”; “Never negotiate for yourself; you care too much”; “If you’re walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.”

I came to think of him as a Jewish Buddha, preaching engaged detachment. Care, but not that much. For a kid, it could be hard to live up to because when you’re a kid you care too much about everything. But that was okay, because, in the end, my father violated his own rules just enough to let me know that, unless you are in fact God, there can never be complete synchronicity between your life and your philosophy. In fact, as I later learned, the people who make rules and establish codes are often the people most in need of rules and codes. They’re not so much talking to us as to themselves, reminding themselves to do the right thing.

And so, my father: Start with his book You Can Negotiate Anything, which, published in 1980, sold more than a million copies and is considered a business classic. Herbie often told us to pursue everything with moderation. If we had a big task, we should break it into many small tasks and go at each slowly and calmly, piece by piece, one day at a time. But he did the opposite when he wrote his book. Descending to our basement one spring morning – it was an unfinished basement that flooded when it rained, and it rained a lot that summer – he stayed down there for months, working day and night, writing his book in the way Kerouac, high on Benzedrine, wrote On The Road – in a single rush, start till stop, can till can’t.

We forgot about him for weeks at a time, recalling his existence only when we heard a distant voice cry out, “Coffee! More coffee!” Forty pounds lighter when he emerged, he raised the pages – coffee-stained yellow legal pads covered with loopy cursive – above us as if they were the holy commandments. He did not say “behold,” but might as well have.

Herbie crossed the country in a car filled with books the following autumn, appearing at every store and on every local radio and TV show, trying to make good on his promise to turn his book into a No. 1 New York Times bestseller. You Can Negotiate Anything climbed high on that list but could never unseat Carl Sagan’s monster Cosmos. To this day, when I come across my father staring at a starry sky, I might imagine him thinking about infinity or death, but I usually catch him cursing Carl Sagan. “I got your Cosmos right here, pal.”

To see Herbie come up just short was more instructive than seeing him make it all the way. He resented his publisher and agent for their foibles, but did not give in to this resentment or suffer regret. He embraced it instead, used it, turned it into the fuel that powered the next several decades of his career. Once, when I was 15, I told him I was unhappy with myself. He thought a moment, then said, “Good. Dissatisfaction breeds progress. Happy people never really accomplish anything.”

That was the real lesson of the book and its publication. Not him saying, “Care, but not that much,” but him reacting to success as if it were a failure, honing disappointment into the edge that let him continue on with the same hunger, as if he’d never become a “famous” author.

“One kind of person looks back at their life and sees what they’ve accomplished,” he said. “Another kind looks back and sees only where they’ve fallen short. That’s the difference between being driven and being happy.”

My father is mostly the second kind of person, hence the aphorisms and the core lesson: The key is to care, but not that much. He was not talking to his reader when he said this. He was talking to and admonishing himself. Jesus had a teaching and that teaching was reinforced by his life. He said it, then lived it all the way through. Herbie had a teaching but that teaching contrasted with his life, which, oddly, made his teaching and his life especially more persuasive. It’s the power of contrast: hot and cold, chocolate and vanilla, sugar and salt. The words told you how to succeed. The life told you that complete success is impossible. It’s the contrast that sets you free.

“First you figure out how to win,” he told me, “then you realize, in the grand scheme of things, there really is no such thing as winning.”

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