The Meaning of Life — Making a Positive Impact
Last summer, my youngest son nonchalantly asked me, “What is the meaning of life?”. Wasn’t expecting such a deep, expansive question from my teenager. After contemplating for a minute, I responded with, “To make a positive impact on someone’s life and be a part of their story.”
Recently, a couple of things have impacted my life that put a finer point on my response to my young son’s question.
First, I’ve decided to join a new company. As I thought about telling my team, I realized that the most challenging part of leaving a company is the people you have connected with. My team has positively impacted my life, and they are part of my story. The bittersweet emotions I feel about my departure have made me reflect on my career and the people who have positively impacted my life.
Second, we had a devastating winter storm in Texas that knocked out power for millions of people, including my family, for multiple days. Some families went without water and gas as well. During this time, I saw the best of humanity and people making a positive impact on others. I was touched that this impact happened regardless of someone’s beliefs, ethnicity, or background. Instead, people jumped into action to help however they could.
If we stop and think, we all have people who positively impacted our lives and who are the central characters in our stories. Stories that often start with, “I had a boss…”, “I had a teacher…”, “I had a friend…”, “I had a coworker…”, etc.
I want to share a few stories about some of the people who have positively impacted me. These people and experiences have helped shape who I am today as a person and a leader.
My Freshman Geometry Teacher
Teachers are incredibly impactful. The teacher that I remember most vividly was my freshman Geometry teacher. I struggled with adjusting to high school my freshman year and went to his classroom to get help with my homework, where I noticed that he had a chessboard on his desk. This chess board became an immediate topic of conversation and a common connection for us because I grew up playing chess, and I was hopeful that he could teach me a few tricks to beat my mom and sister.
Pretty soon, I would spend my lunch hour in his class playing chess, and our conversations moved from chess and math problems to conversations about my future and what I wanted to do as a career. Nobody had these discussions with me, and I always thought I would be a pro-football player.
His interest in me ignited a fire and passion for learning that has become a core part of who I am today. When I reflect on my time with him, I realize that he could have done many other things during this time each day. Instead, he opted to invest time with me and encourage me to dream bigger. He made a difference in my life and is the reason I can still hold my own against my teens, who have recently gotten into chess thanks to the Queen’s Gambit. I’m thankful for the bragging rights he provides for me today and for the lifelong love of learning.
An Early Boss
When I was 23, I had the opportunity to start my own company during the dot-com days. We hired a Chief Marketing Officer that was influential at my startup, but her real impact on me started when she hired me some years later after the dot com bubble burst.
When she initially made the job offer, she told me that I had to commit to working for her for at least two years because she knew that I was entrepreneurial, and she was concerned that I would jump ship to pursue a new idea. In exchange for my personal commitment, she agreed to teach me and help me grow as a leader. She helped me learn how to present an idea in an objective way that removes bias and lets the facts speak for themself, how to use stories to explain complex topics, and how to be more well-rounded and authentic as a leader.
As it turned out, this was one of the best professional decisions I ever made, and I ended up staying well beyond the two years. It also became the jumping-off point for my career. Coincidentally, this opportunity wasn’t just great for my professional development; this role happened to be the place where I would meet my future wife and best friend.
Those four years working for her shaped who I am as a leader today. Her lessons have become part of my story that I have shared with my teams. They all start with, “I had a boss early in my career that…” I could write entire articles on each of the lessons, and I may do that in the future.
I am thankful that she took a risk on me and invested the time and energy to help me grow as a leader and a person.
A Camper and His Family
In college, I had a summer job as a counselor at a sports camp. The first year, I had a camper who impacted me and gave me hands-on experience with servant leadership. His parents told me that he was struggling. He didn’t want to spend time with friends, was failing in school, and showed little interest in most things. I could immediately see the struggle when he arrived at camp. He was quiet and disengaged from the other kids. It was clear he needed support, guidance, and friendship.
During the two weeks with me, I spent extra time with him and encouraged him. During daily cabin activities, I would give him hard tasks and make them fun. During sports activities, I would challenge him and compliment his performance in front of the other kids. It was rewarding to watch his confidence grow.
By the end of the two weeks, he was one of the most vocal kids in the cabin, he always had a smile on his face, and you could tell in his body language that he was having a great time. He became a leader amongst his peers. He was a completely different kid when his parents arrived for pick up, and they immediately noticed.
Later that same year, I received a note in the mail from his mother. In it, she wrote that he was excelling in all facets of life. He was now a straight-A student and was starting on the football team. He had made many new friends and was on “fire” and loved life. I still have that letter because it touched me to know that in two short weeks, I helped this boy. It helped me understand that leadership is about providing the right environment for your team to thrive.
That letter is in my “happy folder,” a topic for a future article.
The Teams and People I Have Led
During my tenure as a leader, I realized what makes a company is its people and culture. Each time I have decided to pursue an external opportunity in my career, the hardest part is leaving the people behind.
During my first CIO role, we led the team through a cloud transformation using modern frameworks and tools, which required our people to learn a new way of doing application development. As we made this pivot, I was most concerned about employee turnover due to the shift in strategy. Early in the transition, I had a team member approach me and share his excitement about how easy it was to build with these new modern tools and frameworks. He was amazed that work that would have taken weeks before could now be done in hours.
Fast forward a few years. I ran into this same person at an industry conference. He thanked me for rebooting and revitalizing his career. He was now the lead architect in this new technology for one of the world’s largest auto manufacturers. I was so happy and excited for him that it brought me to tears, or as I commonly say, “It made my eyes sweat.”
Through this experience, I learned that I have the opportunity to lead people through change and open doors to what is next. I find it rewarding to know that I can shepherd them through uncertain times and help them reach the next level. I was able to complete the circle and be the leader I respected and was thankful for at the beginning of my career.
Today is my last day with my current company, and I will miss the people dearly. I was fortunate this week to have a virtual going away party where team members talked about the impact I had made on them. Talk about sweaty eyes. I leave with a profound appreciation for the things we were able to accomplish and all the ways that we were able to impact each other’s lives. The word “Thanks” doesn’t seem to cut it.
I ask each person to think about the people that have positively impacted them. Have you told those people what they have meant to your life? If not, I encourage you to do so. We need more positivity in the world today.
I would love to hear your stories about how you have made a positive impact and how it has made you feel. Let’s spread positivity!