This is a story about the (surprising) gestures of others, and their lasting impact.
When I first got out of college, I worked at CNN, as the assistant to a very visible VP. While he was away at a European bureau, my (new) used car caught fire while I was driving it, melting the gasket. I was new to Atlanta, to my job and company, with no real friends yet – working with a limited budget – and had to quickly solve how to get to and from work every day. In 1994, you bought a car through classified ads, so most of these negotiations took place on the phone.
One day, as I zigzagged between mechanics reports on the fax machine, printing insurance documents, my busy phone bank, and a mess of papers accumulating on my desk, a nearby manager – who also reported to my boss – came by my office. She admonished my use of work hours for “personal calls” and informed me that she’d be taking it up with the boss. I was distraught, embarrassed, and unsure of what side of “right” I was on. If I was out of line, I wanted to volunteer that information myself, rather than get reported by Lady Blah Blah.
When the VP called from London later that day – back when long distance calls sounded crackling and distant – I relayed what had happened (and was so nervous that I started to cry). The first thing he told me to do was go into his office and shut the door. Saving me from office humiliation with this gesture was my first surprise.
Next, after hearing me out, and having actually already gotten an email from the ambitious manager, he said, “I got her email, but I trust your judgment. Take care of your situation, do your best job, and let me know how I can help you when I get back.”
This guy – in the midst of the Gulf War news crises – could have fired me, or at least leveled me before moving onto more pressing tasks. But he gave me the benefit of the doubt – an unproven 22-year old, and definitely the least important person there. I’ll never forget how that felt, and how it changed how I trusted myself.
We likely don’t realize how our (re)actions or words impact people for years to come, and how impressions make a lifelong mark. I could have shared a negative story to illustrate this same point – because there are some (juicy ones) that stand out. But I wanted to share this one because we all have a choice when we react, and inside the hours of any given day, get unexpected opportunities to make one.
It doesn’t seem we can lose by choosing generosity.