During my final month of college, I wrote thank-you notes to dozens of professors, coaches, mentors, and friends who have deeply influenced my life.
Arguably the most meaningful card I composed, however, was one for a person I have met only once. It read:
Dear Liz Williams,
I don't know if you remember me, but I want to thank you for changing my life. Indeed, you have altered the course of my life more than almost anyone else at USC.
My name is Greg Woodburn, and two and a half years ago you reached out to me because you had heard about my shoe-donation initiative and wanted to get your running club involved. And from there, you told me about the USC Africa Health Initiative's alternative winter break trip to Mali, which I never would have applied for (or even heard of) if not for you.
Those two and a half weeks in Mali forever changed my life in ways I can't express in words, but I wanted to tell you about the new direction of my life that grew in large part out of the Malian soil and sun.
My shoe-distribution endeavor is now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called Give Running (www.giverunning.org) which promotes a love for running and positive character traits like goal-setting and teamwork along with the gift of shoes.
I am now graduating summa cum laud from USC and will be leading Give Running full-time!
I also travelled to Ghana this past winter break (here are two short videos highlighting our running camp and other memorable moments) and received USC's Global Scholar designation, due largely to you opening the door to one of the greatest opportunities of my life.
I apologize for getting caught up in other things and not telling you all this sooner -- it is one of the lessons from Mali that I have had to re-learn looking back.
This long-overdue thanks is to let you know that you have taught me the greatest lesson of all: that we can profoundly change the lives of anyone we come in contact with, and while we may not always know if we do, I wanted you to know that in this case you have made a world of difference.
When I went to the USC Study Abroad Office for the second time ever to drop off my note, I learned that Ms. Williams - who insisted to me from our first email exchange that I call her Liz - no longer worked at USC, but had left more than a year earlier to start her own business.
This led me on a Google and LinkedIn hunt to find Liz's new company and email address. Then I typed up my hand-written words and emailed Liz at 3:12 on a Tuesday afternoon.
Several weeks later, I received this response:
Great to hear from you again and thank you for reaching out!
Wow, I am truly overwhelmed by the kindness of your words. It made my day (maybe even my year) to hear that you are doing so well and have such a bright future ahead. If there is anything I can do to help your organization please let me know. It would be an honor to contribute to such a noble cause and I'd happy to donate my time or refer you to other people I know who may be able to help.
As you know I left USC a couple of years ago to pursue my own business. I am getting it off the ground and I'm sure that this is going to be my breakthrough year!
You've also inspired me to contact some of the people who have made a big difference in my life. Having a spirit of appreciation is so important in life, and I think it also helps to ensure that future blessings continue to flow!
Wishing you all the best,
The course of our life has the potential to fundamentally alter the course of other people's lives. Liz Williams changed mine. While I can never thank her adequately for the gift of opening my life to the world, I still have to try. And it starts with the simple yet significant act of giving thanks.
I regret not reaching out to Liz sooner and am very lucky that a thin thread of information still held intact so that my good intention could become a reconnection.
Don't wait until it's too late to thank your Liz Williams.
While we at times regret spoken words that can't be unsaid, it is also true that holding back a kind word, caring deed, and thoughtful gift can be a source of deep regret.
If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything at all - but if you have something nice to say, then say it!