This Thursday many of us will gather with family and friends, filling up on stuffing and stories, perhaps overlooking the real sense of gratitude hidden in the name of the holiday. As I approach an inevitably crowded flight east to be with loved ones of my own, I am reminded of an experience for which I am truly grateful.
It was November 1979. My first book, Skills for Success, had just been published and I was setting off on a seven-city book tour. A book tour! I hoped that going out into the world to talk about my discoveries could launch my next career. After my friend threw me a book party to celebrate my efforts, I bought three new suits and blouses and a rust-colored suitcase and flew off to Chicago, my first city.
A classic type-A, I had wished I had a plan in hand, but my publicist assured me that a media itinerary would be waiting for me at the hotel and advised patience for last minute details. But when I arrived, there was no schedule. I called her several times that night and in the morning until she finally admitted that she hadn't been able book me at all. No one wanted to hear about career success at Thanksgiving time. She refused to acknowledge that I had been right when I had implored her not to schedule the tour for late November when everyone is just trying to survive the holidays, instead suggesting January with the lift of a new decade and the spirit of New Year's resolutions. I proposed postponement and her answer was more awful than I could imagine: "No postponement; we are canceling your tour. You're finished. We have you booked on the next plane back to Los Angeles."
Stunned, I packed my unworn clothes and fled to O'Hare. With no other seat left on the plane, I found myself seated next to an elderly man -- heavy, sick-looking, asthmatic. Humiliated at the failure of my book tour, I could hardly breathe myself. After about fifteen minutes I asked my seat mate about his work, desperate for a way to escape the silence. Slowly, over dense cumulus clouds, he began to reveal his odyssey. Starting out delivering milk on a horse-drawn wagon, he realized the need to join forces with other drivers to negotiate a fairer living wage. As one of the early Teamsters, he began to work for the union and his interest shifted to helping it grow. I was fascinated, for even though I had spent a short time as a labor negotiator for the AFL-CIO, I didn't know much -- or at least much good-- about the Teamsters.
As he told me in detail about his work, decade-by-decade, he grew more animated and I was hooked. But, he confessed, he was retired now and grieving for his wife who had recently died. Gone were their dreams to travel and enjoy this uncharted leisure. Listening intently, I realized that he had a second chance to share a yet untold story of the American labor movement. I took out a pen and my hotel stationery and began to write out a plan for him to do just that, advising him to contact high schools, community colleges and civic groups to hire him as a lecturer.
When our plane landed, we exchanged business cards and hugged each other. I thanked him and explained that he made it possible for me to come home and continue my own work. Without knowing it, he had fueled my determination to find a way to schedule my own book tour in January when I knew the time would be right, publisher or not.
A few days later, I received a thank you card from him sharing a piece of his story I could not have known. When we met, he had been flying to LA to see his son for the last time before returning home to his planned suicide. But our conversation in the heavenly skies had stirred him and awakened a passionate pursuit for the next part of his life. Mine too -- Skills for Success went on to sell almost a million copies and led to media engagements all over the world.
We are alive in the work that we craft. This Thanksgiving, over goblets and giblets and before the inevitable pies, I invite you to reveal to one another moments of your own gratitude. Through the sharing of these sweet stories, we will find that our real job is to save each other.
Cheers to a happy holiday.