This little lesson occurred 10 years ago, in 2008. I share it today to honor my father, Bill and my friend, Tim. Saturday, October 27, 2018, would have been my father’s 94th birthday, and next month represents the one-year anniversary of Tim’s passing. I think of them often.
Recently, my father was telling a story about his boyhood. He and his brother had walked 5 miles to the next town to listen to the radio broadcast of President Roosevelt’s inaugural address. That’s Franklin Roosevelt, not Theodore Roosevelt (my father’s not that old).
The way he remembered the event made it sound like a great adventure. The importance of the shared experience with his brother. The inspiration of the president’s voice. The hint of mischievousness. Because he hadn’t asked permission from his parents.
What impressed me about the story, and most of my father’s stories, is what memories he chooses to focus on. When Roosevelt was inaugurated, the country was in the midst of the Great Depression. My grandfather worked in a small produce store, so my father knew first-hand about the terrible impact the economy had on families in his hometown. But that’s not what he chooses to remember about the past.
That doesn’t mean my father has forgotten the unpleasantness in his personal history. We’ve talked about friends he lost in World War II, the challenges of being a parent, and his health struggles for the past 20 years. But even then, he manages to focus on something positive.
For example, one summer, my oldest brother went on vacation with friends of the family, the Sullivans. My brother hit his head while swimming, and nearly drowned. He was rushed to the hospital, and my parents were contacted. My father spent a nervous night at the hospital. In the morning, came the good news, my brother would be alright.
When my father tells this story, he always emphasizes one point – Mr. Sullivan stayed by his side that night in the hospital. Mr. Sullivan felt responsible, and wanted to provide whatever support he could. For my father, that act of friendship, not his own fears, is the important memory.
Similarly, this year marks the 20th anniversary of an accident that shattered my father’s elbow, limiting the use of his left hand. The injury meant several operations and painful therapy. But my father will tell you how lucky he was to be the patient of one of the foremost experts on repairing nerve damage. His elbow is even in a medical textbook!
The decision to focus on the positive is one we can all choose to make every day. There will be many events, in our personal and professional lives, that we won’t be able to control. We can control how we react to the event, and how we remember the event.
For example, several years ago, I was managing a print-mail department at a company in Boston. My lead person, Tim, asked to leave early to pick up his new truck. He told me everything was under control, so I told him that I looked forward to seeing the new truck in the morning.
A half hour later, the Vice President of Human Resources was in my office. The new payroll checks weren’t printing correctly for some employees. The salary amounts could be seen in the address window of the envelopes. Tim had handled the testing of these checks, and approved the move to production.
I called in the machine operators and we brainstormed for a while. One operator determined that we could adjust the fold to solve the problem. The pieces wouldn’t be as easy to read for the sorting machines. But it was an internal office delivery, so hand sorting could handle the rejects. More work for our department, but the payroll would be completed on time.
Then I called Tim, and told him about the problem. He was signing the paperwork for his truck, but would be back at work within an hour.
When Tim came into my office, he explained how the error occurred, how testing missed it, how it would be fixed, and then gave me an update on the progress of the interim solution. It was obvious he had spent the drive back talking on the phone to the programmers and the operators. We talked a little longer about the problem, and then I asked to see his new truck.
Tim and I no longer work at that company, but we’re still good friends. Sometimes, when reminiscing, the story of the “new truck and payroll” will come up. For me, the most important memory isn’t the mistake, but the way Tim responded. No excuses, no whining. Just accepting responsibility and creating a solution.
Of course, you also must learn from the past. My father enrolled us all in swimming lessons at the local pond. He must be extra careful about his left arm. Tim and I developed more stringent testing procedures at our company.
And you must learn from the positive lessons. The benefits of good friendship. The importance of having an expert doctor providing treatment. The value of a co-worker who’ll take responsibility for his actions.
Consider how you reflect on the past. There will be negative and positive memories that vie for attention. Choose where you’ll place your focus and what you learned from the situation.