By Jennifer Lawhead
When I was 16-years-old, I gave a friend a piece of advice that I don’t remember.
How do I know it actually happened, you may ask, since I can’t recall it? I know because, 20 years later, sitting at brunch, the same friend told me something I said in a fleeting moment, for me, was something she’s carried with her, for years.
At the time, my outgoing and full-of-personality friend was dating a shy, semi-self conscious guy who happened to also be my friend. She was fed up. Every time they went on a date, she carried the conversation and ended the evening feeling like she wasn’t any closer in getting to know him.
“He never talks!” she threw her hands up, bursting at the seams with frustration. “I ask him questions and he just stares back at me. I can’t be with a guy who never talks.”
At 16-years-old, giving advice is like throwing a dart across the room with a blindfold. You’re stunned if you get even remotely close to a target.
The advice I gave was, “when you want him to respond to you, count to five in your head before you say anything again. I bet he’ll speak if you give him a few seconds.”
It was a game-changer for this young love, and to her surprise, the guy had very thoughtful and intelligent contributions to add to the conversation once she gave him a moment to think.
Fast forward 20 years later, her high school boyfriend didn’t stick but my advice apparently did. She thought about the words every time she got into a new relationship or was attempting to relate to someone whose style was different than hers. My chatty friend realized that by pausing for certain people, she gave them room to hear things she normally wouldn’t have heard.
“I still think about it today,” she tells me as she cuts into her Eggs Benedict. “It completely changed my relationships and how I talk to other people.”
Her story got me to thinking about the things we say that feel trivial, mundane or ordinary but touch someone else.
As a person who is lucky enough to regularly hear stories from all different types of individuals from all different backgrounds, I know that many big decisions trace back to a tiny moment – a comment from a stranger, an act of generosity from a friend or an off-hand remark from someone we love We pivot, shift, reflect and change course as a result.
When I think about my own story, and peel back its layers, I can pinpoint turning points that happened from such micro-moments. Just like we all can. For me, and my career, they came in the form of:
- My high school guidance counselor who convinced me to stay in the journalism program after I wanted to drop the course because I didn’t want to be perceived as a nerd. “I can’t let you do this,” he said. And he didn’t.
- The older customer who came into the smoothie shop I was working and asked me what my major was. “Sociology,” I said. I wanted to be a social worker and join the Peace Corps. “But my minor is in Journalism.” After a short discussion, he said, “you light up when you talk about Journalism. That’s what your major should be.” I changed up my entire college curriculum based on that conversation. He was right.
- A co-worker, who later became a dear friend, who seven years told me I was a leader even if I didn’t consider myself to be one. The conversation gave me permission to be a leader in my own quiet and subtle way, and it permanently changed the way I viewed myself.
And a thousand other small moments. The individuals who have impacted my life likely wouldn’t have remembered the conversation or the chain of events that they set off for me.
But the value of each have been priceless and profound beyond words.
As marketers, what if we strived to have the same impact? After all, when it comes down to it, we’re in the business of influencing decisions. Strip away the desire to sell someone a product or service and what we really want to do is impact someone’s life for the better.
The dilemma is it’s hard to see this kind of impact in the short term. So we get caught up in metrics that help us try to understand – website visits, engagement, likes, etc. When we are trying to impact lives, these metrics give us — at best — an educated guess into what we really want to know: we’re making a difference.
Impact is the only metric that really matters, but it’s not tangible. I imagine this imaginary metric to be a tangled, always-moving web of connections, ripple effects and triggered chains of events. It’s messy, just like life.
If our purpose is to change lives, we won’t even see a sliver of that full story.
But maybe we don’t need to. Maybe that’s not the point.
Maybe the point is to just continue to be helpful, honest and generous in sharing what we know whenever we can. To share our hearts, our truth and our wisdom as abundantly as possible. Then, it’s having faith that the impact we want to have will inevitably happen, even if we don’t know it.
Jennifer Lawhead has been an integral part of the Root + River team since 2016 and serves as the Root + River Chief of Story.