“The first step in the progress of a man or a nation…”
I used to be depressed. I was jealous. I had a chip on my shoulder. When I looked around, I saw people that were better than me, that had unfair advantages, that were getting what they wanted while I just couldn’t. I was miserable and at the lowest point in my life.
This was 1993 and 1994. I had worked really hard to put myself through college only to find a crappy job market that left me waiting tables. One day, a regular customer presented a credit card. I glanced down at the name and started laughing.
My customer was not amused, but I just couldn’t connect this guy – a guy I liked – to the scowling face on every bus, bench and billboard in town. So I said, “Oh COME ON, you’re Richard Mulholland?” And then he started laughing too.
For at least 20 years, Mr. Mulholland was the most visible attorney in Tampa. You literally could not get through the day without seeing or hearing his name at least five times. To me though, he was just a fun customer who liked to eat steak with his wife. I had the impression that I reminded them, perhaps, of someone they knew and cared about. We had a comfortable routine, polite banter followed by light interrogation.
“What are you still doing here?” one of them would say as I approached the table.
“Well, they won’t let me leave until you pay” I’d reply.
“Well, I’m not paying until we’ve eaten” he’d say. This would continue until I’d brought them free dessert. (Be nice to your waiters, people!) One night, he handed me his business card and told me to come visit his office.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I bought a new shirt and drove my crappy old car to the tallest building in Tampa and secretly hoped that he would offer me a job.
He didn’t. But what I learned that day was ultimately much more valuable.
I was made to feel like a visiting dignitary. We strolled marble lined hallways and politely chatted with many members of his staff. Afterward, seated across from him at his desk, we gazed out the window at the truly spectacular view of Tampa Bay. I could tell that I was about to learn why he had invited me to visit.
It was one of those rare moments, where the universe seemed willing to provide whatever I needed.
He picked up a picture frame and turned it towards me. There was a row of skinny children clinging to the running board of an old pickup truck. “I’m the tall one” he said. “I grew up working the orange groves not far from here.”
We looked at the picture together in silence. I thought about my alcoholic mother and abusive father. I thought about the fights and the screaming, the hidden bottles of scotch and the stain of embarrassment that colored everything I was.
“If you’re going to get out of your orchard, Dan” he said, “it’s up to you”.
That lesson was not instantly learned. I was confused. I wanted directions. I was fragile and frustrated and a little angry that he didn’t simply tell me how.
Seventeen years have now passed and I’ve come to regard that visit as a turning point. I still don’t know if there was another reason he invited me. Perhaps I was being considered for a position and found wanting. Maybe he did see something in me after all? I do know that he spoke four words that have made a difference in my life. They stuck to me. They shifted my perspective and helped me stop waiting for life to happen.
“It’s up to you”.
I decided to shift my focus away from my weaknesses (past) and towards my strengths (future). To stop waiting and to start happening. To recognize that my extreme discontentment was a gift that would fuel a great journey from my present reality to wherever I wanted to go.
Thank you Richard. I’ve paid it forward.
Note: I’ve been very fortunate to have known some extraordinary people. In upcoming posts, I’ll share the common trait shared by Richard Mulholland, Dallin Larsen, Joe Torre, Bob Dougherty and Rupert Lowe.