A long time ago, I was sitting in the lobby of a company, waiting for my interview there. A man younger than I was, early 20’s at the oldest, was also there waiting for a different person to interview him for a different position within the company.
He looked like he was about to pass out from stress and nervousness, so I chatted with him a little. He was a good lad, but he was woefully unprepared for the interview. He wasn’t wearing appropriate interview clothes, he hadn’t brought anything like a notebook or copies of his resume, etc. The thing was, none of this seemed due to lack of care – just lack of knowledge.
He was called into his interview and it was over so quickly I was still in the lobby (as was my habit, I was pretty early for my interview) when he came out. The outcome was clear, and he dejectedly called who I overheard to be his grandmother to pick him up. He then sat to wait, and I chatted with him again.
I tried to offer some words of both support and encouragement, but mostly what I did was listen. In times of pain some people get very open, and this young man was one such. He told me he’d been striking out a lot on the job front, and while he really appreciated my advice, he also just felt even more lost. He said there was so much he didn’t know. Neither of his parents were in the picture; he was raised by his grandmother, who was already a widow when she took him in at a young age and had grown up in an era where she didn’t work a full time job at any point in her life. As a result, he didn’t grow up around any role models that had jobs, let alone went on interviews.
He was a good guy, but he had no pattern to emulate.
Learning by instruction works a little. Learning by experience works a little better, in my opinion. But both are absolutely dwarfed by how most of us learn most things – by observation. We are blank slates, and from the second our eyes open the world pours information into them. The moments of your life that contain deliberate instruction by well-meaning and intelligent mentors will be the tiniest fraction of the overall time your sponge-like brain is absorbing the sequences of the world around you.
A really fantastic manager once told me, “Your people will have 80% of your good habits, 120% of your bad habits, and retain roughly 5% of what you actually tell them. You have to just always be the kind of person you want to employ.”
It’s true with my kids, too. I often tell my oldest: “You’re always going to have it a little different than your younger brother and sister. You’ll get more freedoms earlier, you’ll get to set a lot of the rules, you’ll get to be the commanding officer a lot of the time. But you also have more responsibility, because they idolize you, and they will emulate you. You have to be a good person, because you’re being good or bad for three people.”
Of course, that lesson applies to me even more.
And there’s the heart of the lesson – “be the change you want to see in the world” is really fantastic advice, because in conducting your affairs according to honor and principle you do more to teach others than you ever will by instruction. I’m reminded of the time earlier this year when I saw a man show kindness and support to a young child he didn’t know, and even though that man had no intention of teaching anyone anything, what he really did was scream at the top of his lungs “be kind, be kind, be kind.”
Live well, and live out loud. Be kind, be good. Show the evils and despairs of the world that they are no match for honor and principle. If someone else isn’t living that way, don’t admonish them – just live your life even better, even harder, even louder. Drown out the bad in a chorus of excellence.
They will see. And they will do.