Breathing Easy

Today (1 March 2016) is a special day for me. It marks the one-year anniversary since I left the World Health Organization—where I worked as an in-house lawyer—to become a full-time professional speaker, trainer and coach. Here is the post that I wrote just as I was preparing to leave the WHO.

The past year has been exciting and illuminating. I have spoken to thousands of people in companies and organizations and communities in several countries. I have collaborated with great friends who are also professional speakers. I have learned a lot about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I have also learned that I still have a lot more to learn.

I will write more about the life of a professional speaker in the future. But the focus of this post is something that I did quite recently that happened to coincide almost to the day with my one-year anniversary: I turned down an opportunity from a company that could have become one of my most lucrative clients.

The company is a leader in its field. It generates billions of dollars in revenue every year and it pays its consultants very well. One of the company’s global brand managers saw my TEDx Talk in 2014 and told his people to contact me to see if I could help them promote one of their new products in TED style to make the pitches more intriguing.

The company has one of its major global offices close to my home. If I did a good job on the contract—and I always do a good job for my clients—this contract could have mushroomed into a number of interesting projects. Great opportunity, right? Yes, except for one thing …

CigaretteThe company in question is one of the world’s major tobacco companies. They wanted help promoting their electronic cigarettes.

I had a long phone call with them to hear their proposal. If they valued my skills enough to reach out, I had no problem hearing what they had to say. We talked at length and they invited me to meet with them in person. I told them that I needed to think about it and that I did not want them to go to the trouble of setting up a meeting if I was not going to accept the offer.

After the call, I spent some time reading about tobacco companies, cigarettes and electronic cigarettes. I looked at a variety of sites including those from cigarette companies, the World Health Organization and other institutions. I even watched Thank You for Smoking which, coincidentally, had been recommended to me the week before. (Great film, by the way.)

To make a long story short, I said no. Given the harmful effects of tobacco smoking and the uncertainty about the long-term effects of electronic cigarettes, I did not want to be involved in helping with their promotion.

Some people have questioned my decision; others have praised it. But I didn’t make my decision based on what other people might think.

I don’t believe that every person who works in the tobacco industry is “evil”; I have friends who work for tobacco companies and they are great people. I also realize that for some people, working in the industry—and by “industry”, I mean from tobacco farming all the way up to the distribution of cigarettes—is the only way to make a decent living for themselves and their families.

I made my decision because I am in the fortunate position of being able to choose. For me, smoking is a pernicious habit and one that I cannot support regardless of the amount of money offered.

Here is part of what I wrote in my email to the company:

I have given the matter a lot of thought and have come to the conclusion that I must respectfully decline the opportunity. Given what is known about electronic cigarettes at this stage, I would not be comfortable helping with their promotion. And if I am not comfortable with a contract, I will not do it just for the money because I will not give the client my best and that is just not acceptable for the client or me.

The company was gracious in its reply and said that it “truly appreciated the honest response”.

If you are going to take on a new speaking opportunity, you need to be 100% committed to it. Anything less is not fair for the client or the audience. Your audience’s time is extremely valuable, so if you are not 100% behind the speaking opportunity (and assuming that you are not desperate for the paycheque) let someone else take it.

(I realize that sometimes this is not always possible. When your boss tells you that you have to speak about something that you do not support, it is a difficult situation. I will come back to this subject in a future post.)

The life of an entrepreneur is an uncertain one because you can never be sure when your next paid opportunity will come along. Turning down a big client has risks. But regardless of what comes next, I’m breathing easy.

About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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21 Responses to Breathing Easy

  1. Thank you for writing this. Is is certainly great to be in a position such as yours and I applaud you for sticking to your values.

    However, we’ll have to agree to disagree with the following statement: “I also realize that for some people, working in the industry—and by “industry”, I mean from tobacco farming all the way up to the distribution of cigarettes—is the only way to make a decent living for themselves and their families.”. You see, to me, making a living doing something I know is so deleterious for others’ health (and not just the smoker but also those around them) doesn’t qualify as “decent” to me. I know I may very well be alone in my thinking but that’s how I see it. I also know there are many shades of “decent”. There’s selling adulterated alcohol that will make you blind not decent and then there’s working in the tobacco industry not decent, for example. I know that. But in the end, if I work for the latter, I know that millions will get sick and even die because of what I am helping to deliver.

    Again, I know many will disagree. Many will ask, but where do you draw the line, then? But at least for me, that line is very clear, not thin at all, and I know exactly where to draw it. If any of the products, whether byproducts or end products are harmful to humans OR the environment, then it is not a decent way to make a living for themselves and their families.

    But, like you, I am in a very privileged position where I can say that and stand by it.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Great comment. It is a very personal issue and different people will draw the line in different places.

      As far as the industry is concerned — and to take an extreme (but valid) example — I see a difference between an educated non-smoker who works on a campaign to encourage people to start smoking and an uneducated smoker who grows tobacco in a developing country so as to be able to support his family. And, like I said in response to Mel Kelly’s comment on this post, if I were in a situation where I had tried to make a living elsewhere and nothing worked and I was now worried about providing the very basics for my family (food, housing), I might well compromise on my principles for the sake of my family. I would hope not, but when it comes to family, people will often do things that they would rather not.

      The whole issue of e-cigarettes is interesting. When I was doing my research, which I admit was quick and certainly not thorough, I kept came across several papers and commentaries from respected experts who all say that there are health benefits if one is a cigarette smoker who switches to “vaping”. Yes, there is still nicotine, but there is no longer the tar or some other chemicals.

      My problem is that (a) it is still addictive; (b) compared to not smoking at all, it is still not good for you; (c) we still don’t know the long-term effects; and (d) more and more kids are starting with vaping because they think it is cool and not harmful. So for me, the decision to turn down the extra money was not difficult. It is still a disgusting and unhealthy habit.

      But now it is my turn to disagree with one of your statements: “If any of the products, whether byproducts or end products are harmful to humans OR the environment, then it is not a decent way to make a living for themselves and their families.” This opens up a much wider field. It could include oil companies, fast-food companies, beer / wine / alcohol companies and many more. I have no problem working for any of those industries.

      When I was working as a lawyer in Toronto in one of Canada’s biggest law firms, I did a lot of environment law. I worked for mining companies, pulp and paper companies, chemical companies and many others. A lot of these kinds of companies take a bad rap in the press. Now, there is no doubt that these companies do stupid (and illegal) things from time to time. When that happens, they should be brought before the justice system and, if convicted, made to pay the penalty. (And I don’t just mean the companies, but real people as well, if warranted. Just think of the recent banking scandals. The banks had to pay billions but I don’t recall any senior executives being held accountable. But that’s a whole other discussion.)

      Returning to my point, I regularly benefit from the products of these companies. Take oil. I drive a car, I fly frequently and I use the local bus system. None of that would be possible without oil. So it would be hypocritical of me to benefit from this product and, at the same time, point the finger at people who work for those companies because there is pollution as a by-product of what they do. The good news is that these companies are working to be more environmentally sustainable and as technologies improve, there will be fewer adverse effects. I’d be more than happy to buy a Tesla is the price comes down. That’s why I specifically mention Tesla in the blurb just above the donation button on the blog! 😉

      Or take food. We have significantly reduced our consumption of meat at home. In fact, I am the only one who eats meat but I now might eat it once a week. And it is usually chicken. I eat very little red meat, both because it is healthier for you and because the production of red meat has a big impact on the environment. Still, I do enjoy a McDonald’s hamburger every now and then. Say, two or three times a year. If you ate at McDonald’s every week, it would be bad for you, but at some point, people have to take responsibility for their actions.

      As I said at the beginning of this comment, it is a very personal issue. I doubt that you are alone in your views. But if we brought a thousand people into this conversation, the opinions would get sliced very fine indeed.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  2. Julie Zimmer says:

    Reblogged this on Health Continuum and commented:
    Your values represent who you are. They help you make decisions that are ethically sound and authentic for you. They are your internal compass.

    Living in alignment with your values is essential to good health. People who are true to their values, both at work and in their personal lives, experience less stress-induced illnesses, less anxiety, more happiness and more inner peace.

    Last week, my husband John declined an offer to do some consultancy work with a tobacco company. The company would have payed John a good sum of money, but John declined. Here is his story.

  3. Mel Kelly says:

    Hi John,

    Good article and good example for us all.

    But it does beg the questions:

    At what price would one not stick to their principles?
    Or how desperate should one be before not having the choice to stick to your principles?


    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks, Mel. Appreciate it. You raise good questions. There is no definitive answer because desperation is a very subjective thing.

      Like I said in the post, I am in the fortunate position of being able to choose. Now, that doesn’t mean that the extra money would not have been helpful; it would have! But I don’t want it at the cost of my principles and piece of mind. If I were in a situation where I had tried to make a living elsewhere and nothing worked and I was now worried about providing the very basics for my family (food, housing), I might well compromise on my principles for the sake of my family. In fact, I probably would.

      That is why I am loathe to point the finger at someone without knowing more about that person’s backstory. Also, I have less of an issue with people who smoke and work for a tobacco company than those who don’t smoke and work for big tobacco. All things being equal, in the case of the latter, it strikes me as a double standard, but that’s my opinion.

      My hope is that the science reveals that electronic cigarettes are actually good for your health and that we should all be “vaping”. When that day arrives, I will be only too pleased to work with the tobacco companies. But I’m not holding my breath …

  4. Katarina says:

    I find it very inspiring. Thanks for sharing, John, and I hope to see you again sometime soon.

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks very much, Katarina. I am glad that you enjoyed it and hope that you are keeping well. I too hope that our paths cross again soon.

  5. Phyllis Zimmer says:

    Hi John,

    Congratulations on celebrating your one year anniversary. It took a lot of courage and self confidence to leave a secure well paying job to venture out on your own. Enjoyed your article.


  6. Stephanie says:

    Dear John, great article.
    Congratulations on your first year as an entrepreneur. Isn’t that the beauty of being self employed to be able to decide for yourself? Imagine you did this, being employed by a corporation.
    Although authenticity in corporations would be a more sustainable approach than a momentary share holder value! Keep doing what you do and you’ll be very sucessful!

  7. Philip Selby says:


    Congratulations on your decision! As a former Executive Director of the International Union Against Cancer, which had an active programme against smoking, I refuse to attend Toastmasters meetings at JTI. A smaller decision than yours, but I fully sympathise with you.

    Best wishes,


  8. Good post, John, on something not just for professional speakers to keep in mind. It’s something I struggle with regularly: what type of work do I accept just because I have to make some money and what do I do because it’s what I believe in and why I started working independently. Good to be reminded of this lesson 🙂

    And congrats on a successful first year!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thank you, Mathilde. Of course, you are right. The idea applies to many aspects of our lives. Good luck with your own work and with the decisions you have to make. You are most definitely not alone!

  9. Principles. Principled. Rock solid.

  10. Hi John, congratulations on your one-year anniversary! Second, congrats on taking a stand. While it’s never easy to turn clients away, it’s important to feel confident about commitment to subject matter. It’s a good lesson for any freelancer (a good lesson for anybody considering a job as well). Thanks!

    • John Zimmer says:

      Thanks for the comment and good wishes, Brent. By the way, I loved your podcast How To Avoid A Speech Deadline Nightmare. The story of you speaking to your daughter’s kindergarten class is hilarious.


  11. Hi John

    I am impressed with the sincerity and clarity with which you turned down the offer. Probably it is the best thing you could have done. Thinking about your clients’ and your own values, about their products and your work seems to be crucial for anybody who is self-employed.

    I remember feeling really badly about a small company who wanted me to write texts for their website. In the end I agreed because I thought (!) I needed the money. However, it was extremely difficult to work with that client, and probably vice versa. We stopped our cooperation after I guess two thirds of the project. I lost energy, and at the end of the day I even lost money. And so did they.

    My conclusion: Trust your feelings, then check where they come from, and then be clear and open with you clients. That’s not easy, but it will pay off.


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