What I’ve Learned: Clifton Lemon

What I’ve Learned: Clifton Lemon

Posted 5/12/2020


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

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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