I Owe My Thick Skin to My Thick Skin

It’s said that to succeed in business you have to have thick skin.

After more than 30 years as a creative person in advertising, a vocation for which having thick skin is the cost of entry, it dawned on me that my ability to take criticism on a daily basis probably wasn’t developed in those grueling, often cruel portfolio classes designed to break down art directors’ and copywriters’ egos like military boot camp.

Rather, it was something that happened to me long before. And has stayed with me ever since.

Ironically, it was the discovery of a patch of thick skin. I was 8 or 9 when my grandparents took the washcloth to my neck. They were convinced it was filthy and I guess were trying to do my parents a favor by scrubbing me clean. But the more they scrubbed, the more they realized that the streaky discoloration on my neck was the result of something other than dirt.

So off I went to the dermatologist’s office, where the doctor performed a biopsy. The results showed I had morphea, a localized type of the connective tissue disease, scleroderma. Oddly, young girls are usually the targets of this disease versus boys by a ratio of 4 to 1. I was the rare exception. While not life threatening, the thickening streaks of discolored skin were continuing to extend up my neck towards my face and the goal was to stop them before they crossed my jawline.

The prescribed treatment was multiple monthly injections of cortisone as well as twice daily applications of a steroidal cream. This being the early 1970s, I’m not sure if the medical community was all that aware yet of the hazards of steroids.

Fortunately, the treatments did their job and the thickening and discoloration was thwarted just as it reached my face.

Unfortunately, the areas that had been scarred by the disease were and still remain thicker and darker than the skin on the rest of my body. So I grew up as The Kid With the Dirty Neck. Even in college, I remember some older classmates telling me that a favorite professor had commented that I was very talented, but didn’t I ever wash my neck?

Later, when I could grow a beard, I did so I could cover as much of the scar tissue as possible. And I kept that beard for over 25 years. This year, I took it off, and now each week when I shave my neck, the scar tissue gets very red and raw for a day or two. But I’ve finally come to terms with it.

During the course of my career, I’ve always understood that it’s good to have thick skin, but have tried to treat people in a way that they themselves wouldn’t need it.

Now it’s finally dawned on me why.