There’s a story of a man watching a kid finding starfish trapped and doomed to die on the beach. One by one, the kid tosses them into the waves, saving their lives. “Kid, what are you doing?” the man asks. “There’s miles of beach, with hundreds, maybe thousands of starfish. You can’t save them all, so what does it even matter?”
The kid picks up another starfish, tosses it into the water, and says, “It mattered to that one.”
When General Welsh became the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, an official letter went out to the troops: the typical “Proud to serve, excited about the future” letter new leaders always write. This one seemed particularly chipper and upbeat in tone. I looked at it with suspicion. “We’ll see.”
Then a friend posted a video of General Welsh speaking to the Air Force Academy. His message was simple: “Everyone has a story.” He walked through several scenes of various Air Force members’ lives, taking time to paint them as the heroes worthy of attention. Deeds of valor were proclaimed, followed by ‘mundane’ details about each individual.
General Welsh turned to the soon-to-be Officers and declared, “Everyone you lead has their own story, and you better get to know it.”
It burned a bit. My friend is a former subordinate against whom I committed a glaring faux pas. It was a simple question: Are you working on your degree? I should have known before our first performance feedback session. The information was available but I failed to prepare and showed I didn’t know him as well as I ought.
But that’s not the worst part.
The next feedback session, I asked the same question again.
He hasn’t let me live it down. Rightly so. That’s a chapter in his story I should have known.
I’d like to think I’m getting better at looking past my smartphone-induced ego-bubble.
I’m in the drive-through at Sonic when I run into Jack. He looks too old to be slinging burgers and blending up shakes. “Whataya think about that snow they’re forecasting?” I don’t know. I just want my wife’s sweet tea. But I have a choice to make: ignore him, because who’s this guy anyway, just some fry cook. Or look past myself for a minute and take an interest in someone else.
One day I show up in uniform. He notes my aircrew wings. “Well those look important! Do ya fly ’em and break ’em, or catch ’em and fix ’em?” Turns out he wanted to be a Air Force flyer once. Jack even scored 95 on the ASVAB–no easy feat.
“I wanted to play football through college and skip the Academy,” he tells me while I wait for a sandwich for my kids. “Had a plan to join the Air Force, become a Navigator, maybe fly for 25 years, then go to work as a meteorologist. Yeah, I went to Michigan State to play. Broke my neck in freshman year and spent two years in recovery. None of the services were willing to touch me when they saw that stack of medical records!”
Here’s a guy who’s just as willing to go put his life on the line for his country as I ever was, a guy who takes pride in his work even if it’s passing burgers and shakes out a drive-through window. Everyone has a story.
There’s Mike at Midas. I show up for a quick look under the hood since the minivan is running rough. I find a perfect gentleman in a car repair garage. Mike goes out of his way to make sure my wife and I are comfortable. He engages in small talk, gets us water and coffee, and carefully updates us on the expected wait time.
We go to pay the bill, and I tell him our address. Turns out almost 20 years ago, he lived down the street from my house on base. He’s retired enlisted Air Force; he served twenty-plus years. And he’s taking time to thank me instead of the other way around. I suppose he could’ve been “just a grease monkey” I ignored so I could get back to mindless Facebook browsing. But everyone has a story.
On a couple of recent visits to my wife’s favorite restaurant, we had the same waitress, Jessica. She doesn’t just serve food or wait tables, she connects with customers.
“Looking at the Carmelicious? Oh man, for a week or so I had to go on strike and stop getting Carmelicious every day. They’re that good.”
“Which muffin would you like? Oh, those are good. I have to be careful when I bring those home. My puppy sees the bag and as soon as my back is turned, she steals it.”
“No whipped cream for your coffee? But that’s the best part!”
Jessica could bring food out and fake a smile, then collect her check and tip. She could be just a waitress, easily ignored. But instead she shares her stories with us.
And that speaks to me. Because, to her, we could be just customers, one more table to deal with in the way of punching the clock and going home. But she chooses to treat us differently. Maybe she thinks we have a story worth hearing.
People all around us have experiences similar enough that we could connect, different enough that we might be surprised.
Hearing a story takes humility – we have to think less of ourselves so we think enough of the other to give them attention. When we know or perceive ourselves to be above the other party in whatever social ladder or pecking order, research shows we decrease our focused attention. Daniel Goldberg’s recent book, Focus, has a great chapter explaining how this social mechanism works. It’s our cultural tendency to express empathy and compassion only when it might benefit us, and to withhold it when we see someone as beneath us.
Sure, we live in a teeming swarm of bodies, each one with their own stories, hopes and dreams. We often encounter those who can do little for us, those we might easily ignore or look down on. After all, we’re busy people with important lives.
The cynic in me shouts, “Give me a break. Look at all those people. You can’t possibly have meaningful interaction with all of them. What good is it to try? It doesn’t matter.”
The little kid in me reaches out to connect to someone else and answers, “It mattered to that one.”