Life Lessons

Note: I have been fortunate in my life that very wise people have shown up or presented themselves with perfect timing. Enjoy. (Previous installments of all of my blogs can be found on my website at

Looking back now on my early days in consulting I realize how fortunate I was to have an office directly behind the Pike Place Market in Seattle. A truly unique place in the country and possibly even in the world, it is a thriving indoor/outdoor marketplace, intensely alive with sights, aromas, tasty varieties of food, and colorful people from every walk of life.

My daily routine was to park at the office early and walk through the Market as it was just opening for the day’s business. My two stops were the French Bakery for a café au lait and a croissant and then the shoe shine stand. No, I did not have that many shoes not did they need that much attention, but rather, I dropped by to chat with “Doc”, an elderly man that worked the stand. His wisdom was amazing, considering he was raised in Mississippi, and never finished 8th grade. He had, however, been an astute observer of human behavior in his 80+ years on the planet. He gave me three pearls – really – three rules to live by in my professional life. (He had a fourth, too; although more appropriate for one’s personal life, it still rang true for our workday life, too. More to come on that one later).

His three rules were as follows (paraphrased by me):

  1. “You can’t control other people; you can only control yourself”;
  2. “Know the difference between doing the right thing and doing the thing right";
  3. “Do what you say you're going to do.”

As a young, aspiring professional in my 30’s, I actually didn’t fully appreciate these three concepts as much as I do now, but they are very true. How do I know that? Because whenever I have strayed from following these tenets, I have gone off the tracks.

Here is how I have adapted and translated these pearls for me:

#1 – I know now that the only person that I can control is me. Accordingly; I have abandoned expending a lot of energy on trying to change other people’s behavior that is irritating or makes me angry. Rather, I have come to the conclusion that I probably need to identify why I even want to change their behavior. There is a great saying that is attributed to a Buddhist teacher, Perma Chodron; “Suppressing anger at another person is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”

#2 – Quite naturally, when I was younger, I tended to look at things in black or white, yes or no, and right or wrong. So, I tended to translate “Doc’s” wisdom on this one as fairly singular and overly simplistic. In truth, I have come to understand that this really describes every decision one makes throughout the day and there is no right or wrong. Instead, it is more like a seesaw on the kids’ playground – the fulcrum moves back and forth constantly as different forces are exerted on either end of the seesaw in terms of more or less load and effort. Real life story. I once hired a major gifts officer for the American Cancer Society; actually I “stole” him away from the University of Washington where he was renowned for raising more money than any other single person at UW tasked with raising funds. His first few days were consumed with running him through the administrative mill, meeting people, getting him set up with a computer, phone, etc. I then sat back and waited for the magic to happen! Nothing – he was planted behind his desk and in his office every day. After two weeks, I just had to go in and ask him how it was going. He replied, “Fine, just getting my bearings, organizing the office, and creating a plan of action.” I suddenly had a flash of inspiration (maybe desperation?) and I asked him to help me look for something in his office. To his amazement, I started opening drawers, file cabinets and moving furniture around in a frenetic fashion, until he finally stopped me with, “What are you looking for?” I responded, “Money. And there is none here.” He smiled and said, “I got it.” Today, he is a Senior Vice President for Planned Giving and Major Gifts for the NW Region of the United States for the ACS.

#3 – If you are a human being with a normal curiosity, it is sometimes difficult to stay focused on your objectives. If you are also a person of conscience and commitment, though, conflict can arise between these two characteristics. I found, once again, that “Doc’s” wisdom really meant that accountability is telling people what you are going to do and doing it does three things:

  • It helps you to stay focused and moving forward to your goals;
  • It will help you with your reputation and standing in the work world, because you want to be known as a person of your word; and, serendipitously,
  • Who knows? You may also pick up others along the way that want to assist you in reaching those published goals!

#4 – Okay, now for “Doc’s” 4th goal – a pretty good one. “Never live on a (shoe)string” is what he said. How prescient of him; long before the crash of 2001 and the housing boom crash of 2008 when all of the strings snapped.

Next Week: More life lessons