December 12, 2023
By Keith Sones
I have two questions for you.
First, how many people do you think you’ll meet in your life?
It’s not that hard to determine, quite frankly. Yes, it requires a lot of assumptions to represent the “average” person, but it is possible.
Before giving you the number, I should clarify one thing. When I say “meet”, I’m talking about everyone from the clerk in the grocery store, all those kids on your first day of school and your neighbours to the bystander who helped pull your car out of the ditch on that snowy afternoon. All of them. But for the sake of the total number, you can only meet them once, even if you see them everyday.
So, any guesses?
OK, I’ll save you some time.
That’s a lot of people, but if you consider a bit less than three new faces a day for 29,000 days, which is about 80 years of life expectancy, the math adds up. Sure, some days you’ll meet very few if any, but then you see your favourite band at the concert and have to add a few dozen new people. Like I said, a lot of assumptions.
Now for the second question. How many of those tens of thousands of other humans will have a lasting impact on your life? I’m not just talking about the great ones, your best friends and family members, although they are certainly included. I mean the people that literally change your life.
Whether you know it or not, you have people in your life that have provided you with lessons that are unfathomably important, so key to your success that boatloads of money couldn’t give you better training. But you may not know it. Because often these crucial lessons are disguised as something else or hidden altogether. Like a hidden immunity idol on the TV show “Survivor”, it’s there all the time but useless until it’s discovered and used. You have to look for them, and sometimes look hard. There have been times in my life that I’ve seen the lesson right away. In other cases, it’s been years in the making.
I offer four stories of those people, life teachers that found me when I needed them and whose impact has been huge. There are many other people and “training sessions” that I could list, but I’ll stick to these for now.
Before I continue, one other notable mention. My biggest fan, most valuable instructor and best friend is and always has been my wife Rosanne. Well, at least since I met her on day 7,522 of my life. People who know us would vehemently agree.
The names herein haven’t been changed. If you see yourself, and you’ll know if it’s you, thank you.
I had very average talent for sports when I was a kid, good enough for a game of neighbourhood baseball or soccer but not much beyond that. As a kid in northern Canada you might guess that strapping on a pair of ice skates and grabbing a hockey stick might have been my number one choice, but I was never much good at skating and being slammed onto the ice by kids that were faster and stronger than me was never my idea of fun, so I stuck with sports where being mediocre didn’t cause broken bones and shattered confidence.
At 15 years old I grew taller and stronger but still viewed the world of sports as I always had. Not much for skill, best suited for hanging out in left field. Then at the end of that school year, I met Mel.
He was a new teacher so of course I called him Mr. _____, but he was really Mel. A quick wit, athletically gifted and smart, the kind of person I admired, usually from a crowd in the bleachers, and could never identify with. Late in the year, he asked if I played basketball. The conversation went something like this.
“You play basketball?”
“No, I don’t.”
“You should, you have the right build.”
“You should try out for the team next year.”
“I’ve never played, so I probably won’t.”
“I’ll help you.”
Mel didn’t take “no” for an answer. He cajoled me into coming into the gym ands taught me the basics of the game. All summer he worked with me, even when I was reluctant show up. He spent so much of his time to help me, drill me, push me, make me sweat. His dedication continued through the next year, moving from sunny summer Saturdays to dark and cold January mornings. He was relentless in his drive to help. And it worked. I got pretty good at a game I hadn’t even considered playing. All because of Mel.
What did I learn? With a lot of hard work and good guidance and coaching, I could increase my level of personal achievement.
I was in my mid thirties and working as a safety manager at a small electric utility. An engineer by training and experience, Dennis had been hired on at a senior level to manage and oversee a significant part of the company operations. He was one of those guys that always seemed to know so much and be equally comfortable diving into a complex spreadsheet or helping fix your lawn mower. Confident, logical, talented, a “no BS” manager who was tough when he had to be yet easy to be around. The kind of guy who got things done.
One day, he and his colleague who directed the engineering function of the company pulled me into a room and asked if I’d be interested in an operations role. I’d never done anything like that, overseeing a good sized budget as well as dozens of employees, but was flattered they would even ask. I was surprised but happy when I got the job.
For the next few years, I was immersed in a daily grind of people problems, money shortages and customer complaints. There was a strike by the union. Budget cuts. Equipment problems. Unsure at times of how to deal with things, I found myself in Dennis’ office on a regular basis. He would dispense his advice on the topic and always did something remarkable before our discussion ended. He let me know he was confident I’d figure things out. Then he stood back and let me deal with it.
What did I learn? That even when I was sure I was an imposter, in over my head, it was in me to find solutions and work with the team to make progress in a “people leading” position.
Ray was also an engineer with extensive experience in a public sector electric utility but a very different person than Dennis. Working at a new company for a few months and back in the role of senior safety manager, I had been transferred to work under Ray. He was an inherently nervous person who was at ease when discussing his area of technical expertise but out of sorts when thrust into a conversation about other topics for which he was responsible but not experienced. He relied heavily on academics when pragmatic operations experience was often preferable. My attempts at practical application often collided with his dogmatic approach. Suffice it to say we frequently didn’t see eye to eye.
It took a couple of years until he opted to shuffle me aside. It was a public demotion for me, moving from a high profile job to one where I was shoved into a corner in a satellite office to be forgotten. When a head-hunter called about a job in the private sector, it didn’t take a lot for me to leave.
I’m glad I did, as it led to years of new and wonderful experiences, I could never have imagined had I still been working for Ray.
What did I learn? I can survive a lot but ultimately, it’s best to listen to the signals life sends you. Bad behaviour on the part of others might close one door but a far better one is opening at the same time. He wasn’t trying to help me, but he ended up doing a far better job at building a better future for me than I’d been doing.
Although I’d known Mike for a few years it was mainly in a social context. He was full of energy, a good businessman and never shied away from having a good time. We shared a few hangovers and drifted in and out of each other’s lives, always looking for a stronger business connection but never quite finding it.
Mike was and is astonishingly honest about his views of the world, people and himself. He was passionate about his business and continually looking for avenues of expansion. As a moth is drawn to a flame, his freewheeling ways and sincere personality have always been appealing, particularly at times when I was dealing with some business folks that would stab you in the back while smiling at you. Mike was the Energizer Bunny, Mick Jagger and the local Chamber of Commerce all rolled into one.
So when I stumbled into a bad time in my life, when my habits and behaviour got the best of me, the first person I contacted at four o’clock in the morning was… Mike. I just knew it was the right call, that he would be there for me when I needed it the most. And in fine Mike style, he was, in ways that others simply couldn’t be. And he still is.
There is a time tested adage in the sports coaching community that clarifies how to open an athlete’s mind. It’s simple and clear. “Before they care how much you know, they want to know how much you care.” It’s intended to describe young competitors but applies equally well employees, managers, colleagues and friends.
What did I learn? It takes a team to help you succeed, but the team members are often not who you’d choose when sitting in a stuffy boardroom or sterile classroom. The ones that will really help you might be packaged differently.
For me, these are lessons in leadership that I couldn’t get elsewhere. If you Google the phrase “attributes of leadership”, you will find thousands of websites and articles all saying something similar. Most read like a recipe with the ingredients being sincerity, focus, empathy, respect, courage, integrity and humility. I agree with all of that. But there’s more. I’ve followed plenty of recipes in the kitchen and you wouldn’t want to eat what I cook. There’s one thing missing.
Life is personal. We all experience living but sometimes we need to stand back and think about what it means and how it helps us. The people who gave you insight, strength and self-awareness are there, woven into your everyday life. They might be disguised as co-workers, friends or even enemies, but look for them. They have given you a unique gift, ready to be unwrapped and used. Experience arms you with knowledge about the world and yourself, giving you a high degree of respect for your capabilities, fears and concerns without letting them obstruct you. Rather, they will inform you and let you be the strong, skilled person you really are.
As I write this, I’m part way through day 21,687. Like you, I don’t know what comes next. But thanks to the unlikely team of life coaches I’ve been blessed with, I’m ready.