The year I turned 55, I wrote a series of blog posts on 55 things I’ve learned in 55 years. I’ve probably learned more than three things since, but one particular lesson has come back to me over and over the past few years.
People are more than their accomplishments – sometimes for better and sometimes worse.
This is one of those lessons that should be obvious and we’ve all probably given lip service to it at one time or another. “The janitor in the building deserves just as much respect as the university president.” As far as I can see, most people don’t really believe that. They go to major effort to attend any event where billionaires or celebrities are present, and despite all of the talk about ‘supporting our troops’, they really wouldn’t bother to go to a barbecue for the guy who came home from Afghanistan a few years ago.
Maybe it’s because as people get older they get tired of maintaining barriers and let you see more who they really are. Maybe I’ve just gotten better at paying attention.
I used to think I was smarter, more motivated, harder working and braver than the average person because I had overcome a lot of hurdles to accomplish at a high level in sports, academics and business. That’s embarrassing to admit because I now realize how completely wrong I was, and how I let the opportunity slip through my fingers to get to know better some really amazing people.
I’ve come to know people who came thousands of miles, hopping freight trains, hiding in the back of tractor-trailers, to escape civil war and violence, who worked 14 hour days at minimum wage to give their children a better shot in life. I’ve learned the university president has been in rehab three times for alcoholism. I’ve found out that the mid-level manager for the medium-sized company is far from mediocre, having spent 20 years in the military, first in combat zones and then training recruits how to survive. I’ve learned that the old guy who retired from the factory had been in some of the bloodiest battles in World War II.
It’s not just surviving wars or escaping from them. There are people who at first seem like the most staid, judgemental bureaucrats you’d ever meet, who would never lift a finger to do anything outside of the box, and then you find they are raising their five grandchildren after their child overdosed on methamphetamine or they spend their evenings volunteering at the prison to teach literacy classes. That really quiet guy that works at the library? Yeah, he spent nine years working for start-ups in Africa ‘because I wanted to understand more of the world than where I grew up’.
There is the flip side, too, the people who seemed to have it all together who turn out to have no real moral standing. Someone can be financially successful, well-educated and hit the gym at 5 am every morning, yet that person will still do business with someone known to have molested children and then bribed officials to get out of being prosecuted because, “Well, it’s just business.”
People with absolutely stellar credentials will lie to your face and it won’t bother them at all. On the other hand, people with equally stellar credentials will work another two hours on top of the 18 hours they already worked because they promised they would come to your fundraiser and they always keep a promise.
Whoever is up may be down next year and whoever is down might be up
Some people work for one company, volunteer for one organization or live in one community until they are doddering up to get the lifetime achievement award for fifty years of service. I’m the opposite of that, and so I’ve had the experience many times of running across someone I had not seen for 10, 20 or 40 years. People I was so angry with because they made an unethical decision a decade or two ago, I look at now and they are lonely, pathetic old people who have to live with themselves. Other people, I was a complete idiot to not pay enough attention to because they were ‘not important enough’ or ‘not interesting enough’ or ‘not smart enough’ and they have led fascinating, productive lives that I admire.
So, my biggest lesson I have learned is to take more time to listen to people and get to know them. Sometimes, getting to know them means I head in the opposite direction as far and fast as possible. More often, though, it means I learn more about the world than my little place in it.