What I Learned from Mr. Rogers

The other day, I was organizing my bookshelf, trying to do the impossible task of winnowing down the collection, (for some reason, it’s just so hard to get rid of a book!) when I came across a cutesy little novelty, The World According to Mr. Rogers: Important Things To Remember. I love Mr. Rogers and have since childhood. I took a moment to skim the book, and there was a quotation in there that leapt out at me.

“If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.” – Fred Rogers

As is often the case when you’re unexpectedly confronted with a profound truth, this brief quote instantly reminded me of specific moments in my life – of people who had made an impact on me and people I had impacted.  

Early in my career, I was in a challenging, developmental role. I was much less experienced than most of my peer group and felt intimidated in the role. At off-site meetings, leaders would usually scatter and make conversation with the people under them during breaks and in the evenings.

During one of these evenings, a leader who was a company favorite asked if I’d like to catch up with him. I was incredibly excited about the prospect of a 10 minute chat with this man, as I found him unusually wise and inspirational. Instead of a few minutes, he spent several hours with me, discussing not only my immediate concerns and job duties, but my fears and hopes and dreams. It was the first time someone had ever asked me about these things directly in this setting.

He encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone and find and develop my unique voice. He told me story after story to demonstrate how it could be done. This conversation started a shift in how I viewed myself and what I could accomplish.

I’m sure to him, this was one of many mentoring conversations he had during that period, but I still remember it years later.

That conversation was fundamental in how I treated others when I was in a position similar to his. (In fact, I found myself in almost his exact shoes a decade later.)

Recently, I received three separate communications from three different people, all expressing gratitude for something I’d done without even realizing it and inviting me to share in their happiness.

The first was a young man from Slovakia who had wanted to grow as a leader and improve his life by attending a prestigious MBA program. In order to get in, he needed a recommendation and a sponsorship, which I was happy to provide. A few weeks ago, he emailed me to tell me that attending the program had changed his life and what I had done was helping him achieve his dreams. Of course, he’s the one that did all of the hard work and made the sacrifices to get where he is now, but it shows how our small actions can make a profound positive difference on those around us.

The second was a female leader whom I had managed years ago, when she was just coming off maternity leave. She told me about how difficult it was to not only leave her baby and come back to work, but to return to work with a new manager and an organization where everything had changed. She told me that I made her feel understood and accepted in a way she never expected, and that, as the years have gone by, she’s had the opportunity to manage dozens of other leaders in the same situation and values the opportunity to pay that acceptance and understanding forward. When we show kindness to others, they spread that kindness around!

The final message was from a man I’d met only once. I was in New York and the president was in town, which meant traffic was at a crawl. He was my driver, and as we made the slow drive from JFK to Manhattan, we chatted about his life. It turns out that he was a highly successful businessperson who had been caught in the negative ripple effects of the recession. Not only had the downturn taken a toll on his finances, it had caused him to doubt his sense of self, his ambition and his abilities. Unable to resist doing a little impromptu coaching, I gave him a little advice and encouragement.

Years later, he emailed me out of the blue to tell me that our trip had been his first and only as a driver. (I didn’t know it was his first drive, but his trouble getting out the parking garage should have been a clue.) After our conversation, he went back to pursuing what he really wanted to do.

In his message, he said that he wanted to let me know that after all this time, he still remembers this one drive on this one night and this one meeting. Because I had seen him, listened to him, talked to him, encouraged him and given him the courage to take a new direction, he was now in a great situation in his life. He even said, “I feel somehow that you were an angel that was delivered so perfectly and so timely that I couldn’t sleep that night.”

Now, I’m no angel, but that message was deeply moving, and speaks to the power that we all have to make the world better for those around us. Every day presents a new opportunity to be a positive force in someone’s life – even if we don’t realize it.

I feel like Fred Rogers understood and shared this better than just about anyone. He dedicated his entire life to sharing the simple truth of the power of human kindness – that every encounter matters in small and sometimes larger ways.

So I’ll cede the last bit of this blog to that wonderful man. If you haven’t seen this video before (or even if you have), I highly encourage you to watch it. It’s Fred Rogers’ acceptance speech for his lifetime achievement Emmy award and tremendous reminder of his inspirational thoughtfulness, gentleness and humility.