He was a student of people and life. In his twenties, he’d sat alone in a cemetery thinking about what his epitaph would be. The phrase he came up with was, “He stretched others.” And then he set out to do just that. He liked to say that our gifts are God’s plan for our lives, and whether it was a corporate boardroom, or sitting across from a young man like me, his gift was to size up the person and the problem and provide levers for options and opportunity.
He was a kind of man I never expected to know. We ran in different circles. He was the wise, distinguished speaker, writer, and successful businessman. I was the young dreamer, searching for purpose and meaning. In him I saw things I longed for, and lacked.
We met after I’d written a letter telling him how much I liked one of his books, and he invited me to come see him. We spent an hour together, and I left his nondescript office that day, 26 years ago, with the realization that something in me had shifted. In him, I’d seen an example example of wisdom, accomplishment, and authenticity that made me want to play a bigger game.
Why did he do it? It would have been perfectly understandable for him to simply respond to my letter. Instead he extended the invitation - he chose to take the harder, longer way.
He did it because he was generous.
Though he wasn’t a particularly affectionate man. “Not a hugger.” He was generous enough to tell me and others the truth we didn’t think we wanted to hear. To share his hard won experience. To study and work to become the kind of person who could provide the right word in the right way at the right time. To give away his time and his gift. To extend invitations instead of responses. He was generous enough to take the long way.
I’m now mindful of this kind of generosity when I see it in others. Like the beloved friend who has this uncanny ability to keep the topic of conversation on the other person instead of himself. It’s so much easier to share our own perspective rather than do the work of empathy.
Generosity - true generosity - is a willingness to take the long way with others, whether in business or in life, to help them find what they’re after. It’s much easier to say, “it’s over there.” It’s harder and takes longer to say, “walk with me and I’ll show you.”
We’re often immersed in the immediate, but on some level we’re conscious of a bigger, longer game. Our impulse is to focus on what we want, and the sacred irony is that our most gratifying moments will come when we help others find what they want.
One day I was on my way to a meeting with a client and found myself near the cemetery. I decided I needed to stop and take a look. It took some time, but I finally located the spot where, there, next to his wife’s headstone is his, and on it those words he had formulated some 70 years before: “He stretched others.”
I remembered how he'd said “our network is like a river of blessing” and it made me think of all the people who'd come alongside because he had chosen to come alongside. I thought about the others who were willing to take the long way with me. People like “the man” who showed me a bigger game to play.
I didn’t have to think long before I wondered how I might be more that kind of person for others. Maybe the long way is the only way to truly make things better, and make them better for good.
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