The Cost of Withholding Gratitude

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One of the most clear patterns I see when coaching CEOs is this.

They all had one or more people who have significantly and positively changed the trajectory of their lives.

When I hear them talk about these people, I see their eyes light up with admiration and exuberance. It’s clear to me how much of an impact these people have had on their lives.

What’s interesting is that alongside these expressions of admiration and exuberance, I sometimes hear their expressions of shame or regret as well.

For example, one CEO told me that his mentor went through a major bankruptcy and has since become impossible to locate. He regrets that he never had the chance to fully pay him back for the help he has received. Another CEO told me that he is making steady progress toward paying his mentor back. At the same time, he feels ashamed to admit that he’s yet to achieve enough success to do so.

These are painfully familiar feelings for me.

In college, I studied under a professor named Dr. Randy Pasuch. You may have heard of his famous talk titled “The Last Lecture.”

Dr. Pausch was a computer science professor and a virtual reality researcher. He once gave an inspiring and uplifting talk titled “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” The talk was remarkable not only for its positive message, but also for being delivered while he was suffering from pancreatic cancer with 3 to 6 months left to live. The talk went on to become a viral sensation on Youtube.

In college, Dr. Pausch significantly and positively changed the trajectory of my life by giving me a reason to study computer science. Some may find it strange to think that one needs a reason to study. But to be completely honest, without a clear reason, or a sense of purpose, retaining interest in computer science was a struggle. All that kept me going was a sense of pride and duty. The school I was attending was best known for its computer science program and I had promised my parents I would be studying computer science.

That was, until I took Dr. Pausch’s class.

What I learned from Dr. Pausch’s was that I didn’t have to be interested in computers to learn computer science. According to him, all I had to be interested in was connecting with other people through shared experiences. Experiences that may include such feelings as joy, sorrow, surprise, or even fear. For him, the computer was nothing more than a means to that end. It was a medium to facilitate the realization of our empathy.

And that resonated with me. Profoundly.

And just like that, I had finally found a reason to study computer science.

But then I lost touch with Dr. Pausch.

For 8 years.

As a matter of fact, a month before “The Last Lecture,” I sent him the following e-mail:

I don’t know if you remember me. My name is Slim from your BVW class from way back in 1999. I worked on the Van Gogh project. I’ve been working at MAYA design for the past eight years!

I now serve as the assistant director of engineering here, and we’re looking to hire some hardcore thinkers who are also genius makers.

I thought ETC would be full of such people! Are you the right person to talk to if I want to figure out how to lure that talent over? Are there protocols for doing such a thing? (i.e., hold an informal info session at ETC)

Any advice would be awesome.

Thanks!

Slim

To which he responded:

Slim, Good to hear from you, and *of course* I remember you — things like the Van Gogh world leave long memories!

I’m sure the ETC would love to have MAYA come and recruit — and there are definitely venues for that. Unfortunately, I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day of the ETC, so I’ve CC’d Drew Davidson, who can help you out with things.

Best wishes,

Randy

I don’t know if it’s obvious, but I had no idea he was ill. In fact, the subtext of my e-mail was me showing off to him that I had made significant advancements in my career since graduation.

Why was I showing off to Dr. Pausch? Because I wanted him to be proud of me.

I’ve come to learn that this is one of those silly things we do to those whom we love and admire.

Instead of just telling them that we love them or that they mean a great deal to us, we try to gain their recognition by bragging to them about something that is utterly meaningless in the grand scheme of things like status, fame, or fortune. And because we get so blinded by our desires to be recognized by the other person, we fail to tell them what it is that we really mean to tell them, which is that we are grateful.

A couple weeks after “The Last Lecture,” I found out that he was terminally ill.

Guess how I found out?

By watching “The Last Lecture” on Youtube.

On Youtube.

A talk held just a few miles from where I worked.

How could have I been so poor at keeping in touch with someone I considered my hero? I tried blaming it on my shyness. I tried blaming it on my busy life. I tried all sorts of excuses before giving up, and quickly writing him a long e-mail pouring my heart out.

But upon hitting the “send” button, I realized that his inbox was probably overflowing with e-mails in response to “The Last Lecture.” It was unlikely that he would ever read my e-mail. He may never know how he changed my life.

Staring into the computer screen, I couldn’t help but ask “Why?” Why couldn’t I have told him sooner? How stupid does one have to be, to wait so long to say something so simple?

If your life was significantly and positively changed by someone, the question need not start with “How can I pay them back?” The question can start with something much simpler. “How can I communicate my gratitude?” You do not have to wait until you achieve “success” to do this. Let them know what it is they did or said that you appreciated. Let them know how that made you feel. Let them know why this was significant to you. Do it for them. Do it for yourself.

Thank you Randy. I cannot say enough how much I appreciated your honesty. When I heard you say that your interest in computer lies not in the computer itself, but in its ability to facilitate empathy among people, I felt a profound sense of resonance. You made me realize that I’m not the only person who feels that way. You gave me the permission to be who I am. To realize that it is ok to feel the way I felt. Once I felt comfortable being who I am, it completely reframed my relationship to my subject matter of study. To this day, my interest in computer science is strong. All because it helps me facilitate empathy among people.

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Photo credit: Gabriel Robins