Words Changing the Odds

Having recently made a career transition, I love it hearing about others embarking on their own next chapter. I want to hear their story. And I’m happy to share the details– the inspirational and the practical– of mine.

Indeed, sharing your dream with others takes courage.

Last week, a former client from the investment industry sought to reconnect. In one hour, I learned more about her than I had in five years.

While our conversation bounced topic to topic, it was clear that Joan (not her real name) was on a focused path. She was clear on why she wanted to play on a new stage. She was actively defining what she would do in her next stage, and how she would do it.

Joan realized that writing was the favorite part of her job. She was also passionate about addressing the lack of credible, understandable writing about investing. The fact that we both struggled to name our favorite personal finance writers proved her point.

But I was most taken by one of Joan’s stories. Several years ago, a colleague had remarked, “You are a great writer. You tell stories. You explain things simply. You would be a great teacher.”

Little did this colleague know that his passing words were an igniter. Joan’s inner spark became a flame.

A compliment that is specific and shared authentically at the right time can last a lifetime.

I know this. Because I have a similar story.

In my junior year of high school, I participated in a scholarship competition. I knew I had the academic category nailed. But I remember struggling with what to do as a talent.

I decided to write and perform a monologue.

This was like choosing Mount Everest when going for a hike. Acting is not my thing. The fact that I made this choice at age 16 still humors me.

But I did love to write. And I knew the only way to demonstrate that talent in this competition was to write something and perform it.

I dressed as an elderly woman, and my character sat on a bench in a shopping mall. Watching shoppers pass, she reminisced out loud about everyday events that became her most noteworthy life moments.

I distinctly remember a conversation I had with one of the judges after the competition. I don’t know her name, I don’t remember her profession. But I do remember her words.

“You write like Erma Bombeck.”

She could have given me no greater compliment.

Erma Bombeck was a humorist popular in the 1970s and 80s. Her musings were from the vantage of a Midwestern housewife, and her popular appeal led to a twice-weekly syndicated newspaper column “At Wit’s End” and a spot on Good Morning America.

Erma dished out wisdom laced in sarcasm and witty humor. Just the way I like it.

But why do I remember the specific words of a complete stranger 30 years later?

Because she had unknowingly stumbled upon what I wanted someone to recognize me for: writing.

In high school, I’d been more generally recognized as a top student. No one had ever told me I was a good writer.

The judge’s compliment was not only specific, but she compared me to a well-known journalist. Who had a sense of sarcasm and wit that I admired. Who was an adult.

I don’t think anyone had ever compared me to an adult!

This woman’s compliment was also generous. She didn’t have to talk to me; she went out of her way to. I figured she must have meant what she said.

I wish I could say that from that day forward, I applied the lesson learned of being specific and generous with compliments.

Of course I didn’t.

But somewhere as a 30-something adult, I did. Maybe it was because I started managing people. Had nieces and nephews. Was a mentor. Naturally became that personal counsel to friends and family.

Knowing how certain conversations had become an instrumental part of my story, I vowed that I would regularly make the simple effort to say something that might positively impact someone.

Yes, my batting average would be horrendous. Most of the time, whatever I said would be interesting for a fleeting moment. It wouldn’t stick.

But every once in a while, I would unknowingly be the initiator of an influential moment that a person remembers 30 years later.

Low probability, with a high payoff. I’ll take those odds.

Just hours after my inspiring conversation with Joan, I attended a fundraising dinner.

A young woman of 17 took the stage and shared her story of being in the California foster care system. From my front row seat, I could see her nervous excitement. As an audience, we were charmed by her warm smile and self-deprecating humor. She shared childhood challenges I couldn’t even comprehend. In telling her story, her voice sometimes quivered.

We stood with her patiently.

She shared the importance of her mentor, her rock in an otherwise unstable life. She shared her triumphs of finishing high school and receiving a University of California acceptance letter. We cheered.

I wanted to talk to this young woman.

My husband asked, “What will you say?”

I wasn’t sure.

But I wanted to give her context for what she had accomplished. Did she know that most of the people in the room (including me) had never spoken in front of 500 people, let alone so intimately?

I decided the best gift I could offer was to ask her a question. “How did that just feel?”

I wanted her to pause for a moment. To take it all in. To look up one last time to see just how many people were in that room, and how she had inspired them.

I told her that she would do great things, and that I would be watching her.

And that’s it.

I’m keeping my promise of always saying what I feel compelled to say. Perhaps my 17-year old rock star has already forgotten our short conversation.

But that’s OK. There have been exchanges since, and there will be more to come.

Every once in a while one will stick, for reasons I’ll never know. It will fuel that person to do great things.

There’s no follow-up; there’s no thank you note. But that’s OK.

It’s the least I could do after they shared their dream with me.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’ “
— Erma Bombeck

One Comment

  1. Jadine Lai said:

    What a great read! I had this bookmarked for when I needed motivation and when things settled for me.

    One of my favorite Erma Bombeck books when I was young was “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?” And I know I have some of her quotes in my journals. Loved her!

    Every time you write I learn a little more about you! You’re right, simple words can change the course of things. Thanks for sharing!

    June 26, 2016
    Reply

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