What’s Your One Thing?

Dialogue between Mitch (Billy Crystal), and Cowpoke Curly (Jack Palance) from City Slickers
Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? This. [holds up one finger]
Mitch: Your finger?
Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean shit.
Mitch: But, what is the “one thing?”
Curly: [smiles] That’s what you have to find out.

We all have that One Thing that gives our existence special meaning. Some people just haven’t taken time to look for it yet. I’ve given it plenty of thought and am certain my One Thing is to connect. It is relevant to me personally, socially and professionally and it’s driven by my vision and values as it should be.

Connecting is the essence of being human, of real relationships. I’ve experienced the impact of personally connecting, and the satisfaction that comes from helping others connect—in the classroom and in more personal one-on-one encounters, spontaneous but deeply meaningful conversations. Opportunities are everywhere.

Connecting also sets the stage for internal conflict. It can be a stressor if empathy crosses over into compassion, but how do you prevent that? A seasoned educator once told me that teaching—and life—is all about choosing your battles wisely, about being able to deal with the reality of not winning them all, and dealing with the consequences if you choose not to fight a particular battle.

Connecting with others is high-reward. But it’s also high-risk. When you are driven to connect, you set yourself up as the great problem solver and wise counselor for others. Can you accept the failures you’re bound to incur?

Broken Connection
I’ve had one particularly painful broken connection. It’s hard to share even years later. I replay it in my mind quite often, it’s a harsh reminder that I need to take time—genuine, caring time—with others.

One part of my job I get a lot of satisfaction from is to simply visit with people on the floor. I must be good to talk with because people have really opened up quite often. I allow myself to take some pride in that.

High reward = high risk.

I can get pretty swamped at work, and this was one of those days. The last couple of times I ran into him, John (not his real name) really unloaded some heavy personal issues on me. A lot was going on with him and he needed to talk. John had tons of charisma, he was well-liked and I liked him, so I listened as much as time would allow, which this time was not much. Not enough.

A couple of days later, John hit that incredibly low point where he ended his own life.

Survivor syndrome smacked me hard. Did I take enough time to listen when he desperately needed someone to talk to? Did he know that I was truly listening and that I cared deeply about him and what he was going through? Would it have made a difference if I had taken more time, if I had made it more clear to him how much I cared?

I obviously can’t get answers to those questions but that doesn’t stop me from asking them.

Today I was talking to someone who, out of the blue, poured his heart out to me in great detail about the things going on at home. I was once again in time-deprived urgent mission mode, and I was teetering on the edge of letting myself get stressed about it. But vivid images of John came rushing in. Then, other failed connections. Powerful, high-impact personal drivers all rushing in at once-that’s what drivers can do to you.

I let him talk, and talk some more. He had my absolute attention until he was damn sure good and done, to hell with my urgencies and stress level. And I’ll go back tomorrow to check in with him, and the next day too.

I pray you found peace, John.

The Bigger Stage
(Originally from December 17, 2012 triggered by the school slaughter in Newtown, CT)

One more addition to the one-is-too-many list of incredibly tragic events….can’t solve it here, can’t find a root cause. Can only reflect and grieve and let it out a little. This is a feeble personal attempt at coping with senselessness.

Things happen that can rudely point out the need for perspective. All that I’m trying to accomplish to promote values-based leadership and engagement pales in the glaring light of something like Newtown. But there is actually a connection in all of this.

What does “social engagement” look like? What does it mean to be a fully engaged member of a community, a good citizen, a good neighbor, a high contributor?

Workplace engagement hinges on up-close-and-personal work relationships. It’s not possible to be fully engaged without a high level of emotional connection to your work environment and those who share it with you. Social engagement also depends on deep personal relationships, even more than workplace engagement. But our fast-food lifestyle prohibits real relationship-building in the communities and neighborhoods where we live, sometimes even at home with our families.

What is the first thing the Newtown community did after the tragedy? They rushed together outside the school, at the fire house, at community churches. They needed to be close to each other. People need people.

What strikes me about Newtown and other senseless tragedies is that someone did not see some kind of warning sign and act. But modern social norms include staying isolated, keeping people at arms’ length, not allowing yourself to care where you don’t “need to”… not getting involved where it’s none of your business possibly because it could be emotionally, or physically, dangerous to do so. The result of all that…we’re a “society” of total strangers.

Did someone not seeing or choosing not to do something cost 26 innocent, beautiful lives in Newtown? This is so overwhelming that I simply need a little gonzo let-it-out time. I know I have a lot of good company in that one.

The news ran the 26 victims’ pictures online the next morning. I read only some of the short tributes to each. While I wanted to remember and pray for all of them, I couldn’t continue reading. I have a picture of my four young grand kids on my desktop, the oldest is the same age as many of the victims. I can’t put myself in that dark place, it’s beyond comprehension. I can’t imagine. How could someone…? But someone did, and it’s not the first time. And God help us, probably not the last.

While norms can be reinforced through laws, policy and peers you cannot effectively legislate values. What’s wrong with society? How could this happen? Was it due to a breakdown of values and norms? How could someone do this? Normal people cannot fathom the whys. But there were mental issues involved with the Newtown shooter, which pretty much takes values and norms out of the picture. “Normal” people cannot do these things.

There is still a good deal of grieving and there are still a lot of questions being asked. There were surely many Sunday sermons immediately after that addressed the Newtown tragedy and I’m sure some of those sermons will put the spotlight on eroding family and social values.

I can only hope the message from the pulpit and the politicians and activists hasn’t been cheapened into yet another platform for general politicizing about which side is more right or less wrong. Same-sex marriage, right-to-life, legalized pot, senseless slayings…they don’t belong on the same page.

“I’d love to change the world…but I don’t know what to do”. One tiny little pebble I can drop into this ocean is simply to connect with other people. Care enough to invest some of my precious personal time in others. Is it possible that something as simple as connecting could somehow keep someone from going over the edge?


I wish writing this made me feel better. But not yet. Or, maybe it’s best that we don’t get to the point of “feeling better”? Remember.


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