There are days in your life that far exceed your expectations, experiences that pay dividends beyond your dreams, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
When I was a kid, I loved my Scooby Doo and GI Joe, but I also was fascinated with World War II. I might have been the only 10 year old who had seen and enjoyed the very long movie D-Day. My dad was in the Army and died when I was two years old. My grandfather was in the Army and at Utah Beach in Normandy. They both were my heroes, and John Wayne reminded me of them. I don't think there is a single war movie with John Wayne in it that I haven't seen. I read Ann Frank's Diary several times and history books about WWII. It bordered on obsession really.
A few years ago, we went to Paris, and we took a day trip to Normandy to see the beaches. It was astounding. I said then that if there was a place this side of heaven more peaceful or beautiful I couldn't imagine it. We walked from the beach up to the first Nazi pill box. It was a clear day. I was not carrying a 60lb. pack or a gun. I wasn't running or being shot at. There weren't dead bodies every where. Surviving that hill in those conditions isn't something I can imagine either.
The soldiers from WWII, overseas and stateside, and the families left behind that carried on sacrificed in a way few of us can imagine. As a generation, they are so unassuming and humble. They just say they did what they had to do. They didn't ask for recognition and they didn't make a fuss that they didn't have a monument to their war. The memorial finally built in DC is an amazing tribute to them, and last year, I found out about the Honor Flight Network, which provides the opportunity for WWII veterans to come to DC to see their memorial. In early May, a group from Nashville was coming in, and I took the day off to volunteer with the Honor Flight group at Reagan National Airport.
We met 101 veterans and about 30 guardians (volunteer caretakers for the day) at the airport. We stood outside security -- I'd made a sign welcoming them -- and shook their hands and cheered. I was planning to take my own car to the monument to help out there, too, but they had an extra seat on one of the buses, so I went with them for the day.
In early October, I took another day off to help with a slightly larger flight from Knoxville. Their flight was delayed three hours, but they were still able to see the Korean War and WWII Memorials and the changing of the guard at Arlington. I got to ride on the bus again to help out.
On both days, I took my camera, thinking I could share the shots I took
with everyone later. Helping them on and off the buses and giving them a
few pictures seemed like a small contribution to make. I wanted to give
them something to say thank you, to honor them. I had no idea what I'd
be getting in return. The men I helped thanked me repeatedly for pushing their wheelchair or just hanging out. I told them again and again they were more than welcome. And I really meant it.
To hear their stories first hand and watch them throughout the day gave me new perspective on the most monumental global event in modern time and forever burned into my memory the faces of courage and sacrifice. It was my honor to make their trip easier, more comfortable, more memorable. I hope I'm able to do it many more times.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
I believe it was in the late 60's that the hunger crisis in India was so bad that the U.S. decided to send over someone to help the Indian government look for solutions. The U.S. representative got off the plane in India and the first thing he saw was cows everywhere. Immediately he thought he knew the solution to the hunger crisis and started preparations to slaughter the cows to feed the people of India. Of course when this grand plan was shared with the Indian government, they put the representative right back on a plane to the U.S. with a thanks for his troubles.
The man from the U.S. didn't even try to understand the root of the Indian hunger crisis. He didn't talk to the people there about what they'd tried to do, nor did he ask why all the cows hadn't been considered as a food source. A simple conversation could have averted a huge embarrassment.
How often do we fail to ask enough questions and listen? No one knows when they walk into a new situation, whether it's a new job or a new social group, what sacred cows others have. Some people can't seem to help themselves. Open mouth, insert foot. It's happened to everyone at some point. I've had some colossal instances myself.
The thing is we're supposed to learn as we get older that our ears serve us better than our mouths. It's not just a matter of social conduct, but of survival at the basest level. Watch hunters or soldiers. It's not the guy gabbing his way through the woods or the soldier broadcasting his prowess on the battlefield who catches his game or survives. It's the guy who is listening and recording all the details of his environment before he moves that has the greatest success.
If the best soldiers and hunters listen, why isn't this same principle applied more liberally in the business world? The answer, in my humble opinion, is ego. It's ego that makes people fear being wrong, assume they are beyond failure or need to hear one's own voice. It's ego that keeps a mouth open and ears closed.
To someone who is all talk, few things are as intimidating as someone who listens.
I don't claim for a moment to have my ego mastered, but I'm mindful of it. I work incredibly hard at putting it to practice every day. (Some days I'm better than others.) I speak with confidence, not because I'm always right, but because I listen. That confidence gets mistaken for ego, when it couldn't be further from reality. It's a lack of ego (or one that is in check) that makes me all the more confident because I'm not afraid of being wrong.
When I was young I was so shy I felt like fainting in the spotlight, but no one would have ever guessed it. I defied my insecurities by doing the exact opposite of my nature. The process was painful and wasn't always pretty. It took years for me to overcome my shyness and get comfortable in my own skin. I understood listening, but I had to get comfortable using my voice. That's when the real fun starts.
Life would be easier if we only had to master ourselves, but once you start using your voice -- participating in the conversation of life, new conflicts arise. If solving the hunger crises in India had been a simple question of finding new food sources, our friend from the story wouldn't have made such a big misstep. You are hungry; here is food. It's the circumstances, the other people involved, their sacred cows, that create the curve balls.
Unfortunately, life's lessons take longer than a middle school history class. I didn't learn to hit a curve ball for a long while, and no one can bat a .1000 in this game. But Mr. Brown showed me what a curve ball looked like.