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Lessons Learned Roaming Through China... With 40 Other People

09/25/2013 09:28 am ET | Updated Nov 25, 2013

The last few weeks found me traveling through China. I admit it. We did it pretty comfortably, on one of those big whirlwind tours. This, of course, found us on a bus, at meals and in hotels with 40 other people.

So what happens when you spend 17 days in close quarters with 40 strangers? You learn some lessons -- about life, about relationships and, of course, yourself. And if you pay enough attention, they translate directly to the way we all live, work and play.

Here are just a few little nuggets:

#1: The Lesson Learned from Steve
Every group, circle and family has a Steve.

You know him. Nice guy (or gal, of course), who just wants to be liked, has the best of intentions, and never... shuts... up.

He's the one who turns every comment from others into a story about himself, the one who loves to answer questions posed to other people, the one who really, really believes he knows it all. And can't wait to show everyone.

Our Steve made his presence known the second he arrived. As time passed, whenever he was at a different table or away from the bus there was a knowing, collective sigh of relief that things would be a bit calmer. At least for the moment.

The lesson? Be wary of being a Steve, especially if you -- like me -- are an extrovert. We need to let others talk, ask for their opinions, and bite our tongues... no matter how fascinating we believe ourselves to be. We're not.

#2: The Lesson Learned from Paula and Frank
Just like in our offices and friendships, we've all got some favorite go-to folks. And mine led to a big surprise.

Paula and Frank were just so... nice. (Gotta love you Midwesterners!) Since our assigned bus seats were near theirs, we couldn't help but hear their conversations as they floated over the starched seats.

Unlike many others, this couple of more than 40 years together was always positive -- smiling through rainstorms, laughing at every bad joke from the tour guide, walking hand-in-hand from destination to destination. They were also super smart and clever.

I assumed they were one of those fortunate couples who always had things go their way, who had perfect careers and perfect children and got to travel to perfectly wonderful far-away places. Perfectly.

But then I learned that Paula was battling a painful blood disorder. And Frank recently had surgery that left him uncomfortable during much of the trip.

They shared this information naturally, over time -- no whining involved. Instead, they chose to recognize the good in their lives, and to celebrate it.

The lesson? You never know what other people are dealing with, so don't make assumptions. We've all got crappy stuff going on, and believing we've got it worse than others only hurts our own experiences and connections. Attitude is a choice, and some people are just better at choosing theirs than others.

#3: The Lesson Learned from... Everyone in China
Perhaps my greatest lesson of all was the one that came simply from watching the people of China.

Sure, in many ways China is a whole lot different than life here in the U.S. But in the end the bigger lesson wasn't about how different we are as countries, but how alike we are as people.

It turns out that living on the other side of the world, speaking a distinctly different language and coming from a completely different history doesn't change the fact that, in the end, we are all people.

Without understanding a word they were saying, it was actually easy to observe what was happening as families laughed together, babies cried, and couples fought. Just like what we all do each day.

As I came across these so-called foreigners, I actually found that smiling warmly at them and making a little effort to show interest/appreciation led to striking connections... something we all need to some extent.

Heck, a guy at the top of the Great Wall even handed over his special baseball cap, just because I smiled, pointed and said, "I like."

The lesson? If relating to people from such a different culture can be done fairly easily, there's no telling how much we can connect personally and professionally with those we come across everyday, with just a warm nod and a little bit of effort.

This week...
Learn from Steve, Paula, Frank and a country full of people who are just like us.

Consider how their lessons can help us all find greater connections, success and happiness.

Think of the lessons you've learned along the way from others.

And realize you're teaching people lessons of your own each day. So be careful.

Now, go do good... and do it well.