Want a Life Lesson? Just Listen

By: Steven L. Athey

For those of you who know me it might come as surprise to learn that I am mostly an introvert. If I am in a crowd of people I don’t know I might spend the evening quietly avoiding conversations of any kind. I really like people and human interaction but sometime I “shut down” and just become a hermit. You can miss a lot when you close yourself off to the world around you – I don’t recommend it. But I guess with the everyday stressors we all face sometimes shutting down a little can be an escape from a bad work week or a period of high stress. Recently, I was in one of the “those moods” and yet was taught a lesson about confidence, job satisfaction, customer service and humility – all in one brief conversation…because I just listened. I wonder how many life lessons would come my way if I paid closer attention all the time?

I was in Dallas at a healthcare conference being held in a large hotel and was headed to the opening cocktail party in the exhibit hall. This wasn’t an EMS Conference and I knew I wasn’t going to know many people there. I was in one of my moods, deep in thought and with a million problems on my mind; I know I wasn’t projecting the friendliest demeanor. It was close to 7 o’clock as I entered the hotel lobby and I headed to the conference area. I spotted a shoe shine stand on my way to the exhibit hall, and since I was a little early and needed a shine I stopped and climbed into the chair.

Without speaking I nodded to the man, William according to his name tag and I immediately stuck my nose into the conference brochure I was carrying in a not-so-subtle attempt to avoid any conversation. As I glanced through the brochure I watched the man work on my shoes with the confidence and care of a skilled technician. Big, sturdy, with old but intelligent eyes, the 70’ish year old man smiled and hummed quietly while he worked. Staying on task, he was neither hurried nor slow. I was now studying him while he worked, wearing a freshly pressed tuxedo, surrounded by the tools of his trade; brushes, polish and a single picture of him and his granddaughter, smiling and laughing, tacked on the wall.

He noticed my interest in the picture and spoke quietly while he smiled, “That’s my daughter” he said, “I’m old enough to be her grandfather, but I’m still young enough to be her father”. Now in a conversation I had originally hoped to avoid, we talk about my work and I learn of his now 12 year old daughter, and his struggles with a wife who had illegally abducted the girl and remained “missing” in a foreign country for three years. Tonight, it seems his daughter was with another woman who wanted to get “their girls” together for a play date and she was watching them for the day. He continues, “I’m a little nervous, my baby is still scared she will lose me again…she doesn’t like it when I’m away”.

He sighs and continues, “Since I was free for the evening I thought I would just stay on here at work. I love my job; I have been doing this for 40 years, and have been at this hotel for over 15.” I recoil a little inside at that thought that he could really “love” his job. Bending at the feet of people all day who are most likely younger and better off than him, I manage a smile, not knowing exactly what to say. “I have been here longer than anyone, and I have held this job longer than any other shoe shine person I know,” he adds, “but I am also the only one I know that wears a tuxedo every day, it’s all about service,” he says.

“A long time ago”, he continues as he starts the buff, “a group of men were sitting under a tree arguing about who was the greatest among them. Silently, one of the men picked up a rag and a bucket and began to wash the feet of the others. Proclaiming as he washed, “One cannot consider himself great, until he has bowed and served at the feet of others”. As he looked up at me he said, “My friend, the Lord has put us all in the same line of business… the business of service. I’ll put a shine on your shoes that will make you feel good as you leave here and you will pass that feeling along to someone else down the line tonight”. Tapping the bottom of my soles and maybe touching my soul a little at the same time, he says, “You’re done”.

I’m sure I stepped down from the chair with the look of a man who just received a lesson he wasn’t expecting, and probably didn’t deserve, I pay my new friend and headed to the conference in a far better mood than I was in 10 minutes ago, hoping someday for the confident serenity and wisdom I had just witnessed.

Steven Athey is the President of the EMS consulting firm, Health Care Visions. Steve has worked in the ambulance industry since 1971 and has managed large and small EMS organizations across the country. Steve holds his undergraduate degree and his MBA from Texas Wesleyan University where he holds an adjunct faculty position in the School of Business. He is going to try and keep his eyes and ears “open” more frequently.

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