Say it forward

A close friend visited recently. He worked for me almost ten years ago when he was an undergraduate. His late father had been my professor when I was an undergraduate.

I told him the story of how his father continues to influence me. He was a well respected professor, and I ended up taking two or three of his classes. I never sought him out to build a genuine friendship with him. I, regrettably, never did that with any of my instructors, not wanting to seem like I was sucking up and not wanting to be a bother.

(College students: Don’t do as I did. Get to know your teachers. Seek out the good ones, and find a mentor or two each year you’re in school.)

However, as I told my friend, I wrote an essay for an assignment in his father’s class. He later returned it to me with a big red “A” at the top. Always a nice sight. And he wrote a note on it that said something like “You should consider becoming a writer. You’ve got some talent.”

Twain said, “I can live for two months off a good compliment.” Twain understates. That compliment and encouragement from my professor still motivates me, almost three decades later. Writing has been a part of my career from day one of my first job. And when I lose focus and am feeling a bit lost in my work, that short line of encouragement written on a college homework assignment reminds me of a skill I need to return to and nurture.

After sharing this story with my professor’s son, he told me that he is now pursuing comedy and improv on the side and remembers me encouraging him when he was a student to stick with his talent for comedy. I had paid forward the father’s gift without being conscious of it.

Never underestimate the power of a genuine compliment, an acknowledgement of someone’s talent, even if, especially if, that talent is unrefined or just barely glimmering. Don’t hold back when you see something in someone that ought to be nurtured. Master the art of giving encouragement. Be specific and clear. Write a note. Seek them out in person. Just say it.

I need to be more intentional about this with my own family and with the people I work with. I’m surrounded by such big-hearted, talented people, and they need to be told regularly not only how awesome they are in general but specifically what I see that is remarkable in them.

Hopefully, receiving that kind of encouragement will spark the desire to pass it along to others. Appreciate when you receive words of encouragement, and then say it forward.