A meme on James Gardner’s blog (which is a great source if you’re interested in reading about innovation) caught my attention last week: a list of the five people who’ve had the most influence on his career. I’d like to follow suit, but I make it a point not to talk about work in this forum, so I decided to alter it slightly. I’ve related it to my life, not my work, and rather than pick out the big, obvious ones (like my wedding day or the day I really nailed potty training) I’ve picked out five small, seemingly innocuous moments in my life where I realized — sometimes immediately, sometimes much later — that my life had changed for the better.
1983: Linda Babineau, my third grade teacher
All due respect to my previous three primary & elementary school teachers, Mrs. Babineau is the one who first made me realize something: I was smart. Up to that point I didn’t really feel very smart at home, with two smart parents and two smart brothers who were 5 and 6 years older than I, and in the second grade schools are just focused on teaching you how to write a cursive Q rather than helping anyone determine an identity. But Mrs. Babineau did. I think I’d done something wrong/bad one day, and she called me up to her desk. I don’t remember most of the conversation, but I distinctly remember her telling me I was smart, and that if I used my brain I could be prime minister one day. Maybe it’s something she said to every kid, but at the time it gave me a shot of confidence, something I hadn’t really felt before. I also felt she was more impressed when I knew things she hadn’t taught, or that the other kids didn’t know, and I figured that was what had me on the express path to Parliament Hill. Since that time I’ve always tried to find insight rather than just memorize or learn by rote. I feel that’s helped me.
1992: Jen Dinaut, my best friend in high school
It was the fall of my last year of high school and I was trying to figure out [cliche]what to do with my life[/cliche]. Not going to university wasn’t really presented to me as an option growing up, but I was beginning to question whether I really wanted to. I was listening to a lot of grunge and feeling predictably nihilistic…not wanting to stay on the farm, but also not understanding why I should leave. My friend Jen — academic superachiever, principal’s daughter, musical confederate and all-around cool girl — had spent time at places like Shad Valley with other nerds smart kids and therefore knew what the world outside of our little bubble was like. One night at my house, when I was probably being excessively mopey, she looked me in the eye and told me why I had to go to university: there were people like us at universities. Smart people. People unlike all the kids at our high school who made us feel like outsiders for being smart and for listening to different music. That’s why I had to go. Maybe I was just listening intently because I was a little bit in love with her, but I knew she was right. For the first time I became excited about going away to school, and might not have been if she hadn’t just laid it out for me.
1993: Jeff White, a guy on my residence floor
Speaking of university, my first few months were a little tough. I’d never lived away from home, and residence is a bizarre place for an introvert. I still had attachments at home that I wasn’t smart enough to sever, residence wasn’t always the best place to be for a non-drinker (I swore to myself I wouldn’t drink in my first year; I’d seen way too many people from my town wash out of school after one or two years ’cause all they did was drink) on the weekend, and I wasn’t really making many friends there so I often asked my parents to come pick me up for the weekend. One Friday, while I was waiting for my mother to arrive, I was walking down the hall and a guy named Jeff White called me into his room to hang out. He and some other guys were playing NHL94 on his Sega, and I joined them. It was the first time I’d played a Sega, and the first time I’d hung out with guys who liked hockey and video games and listened to cool music. Okay, it was “500 Miles” by The Proclaimers, but still. I felt like I might belong there after all. An hour later I was eating at McDonald’s with my mother. She asked me, in light of the fact that I was coming home nearly every weekend, whether university was really right for me. Had she asked me that the week before, or had Jeff not invited me to come play Sega with those other guys, I might have said no. Maybe I would’ve gone home. Maybe I would’ve switched schools. But she didn’t, and he did, and so I said that yes, it was the right place for me. From that point on I made a ton of friends in residence, some of whom I still count as friends today (though I haven’t seen Jeff since my second year) and one who had a particular impact.
1997: C. Brock Johnson, my best friend in university
There are a number of important moments I could attribute to Brock. He lived on my floor in my first year, and was in business school just like me, and had the same dark sense of humour as I, so we became friends. He probably kept my ass off academic probation in the first two years, when I was too overwhelmed or too lazy to keep my grades up. He coached me on co-op interviews. He even (and this is funny, in retrospect) told me I had to start eating more when I’d hit my all-time low weight — 146 pounds — just before Christmas because I was in the ‘underweight’ portion of the BMI index. How times change. Anyway, the big moment with Brock that stands out is this: I’d gone home one winter weekend with my then-girlfriend (now-wife) and got back Sunday afternoon. Just then I realized that I was supposed to drop off an application for a job (we were all looking for gainful employment by this point) by 10PM that night, at a building across campus. I was talking to Brock on the phone and told him that I was tired from the long drive back to the city, and that even though this job sounded interesting I couldn’t be bothered.
Anyone else might have just laughed and left it there, especially someone like Brock who already had a job lined up in finance at a major international company. But he didn’t. He told me to quit whining, get the application done and drop it off. He told me it was times like this that separate the lazy people from the ones who actually want to get somewhere. I think he knew this might be my best chance at getting a job straight out of school. So I wrote up the application and I walked across campus in a shit-ass snowstorm and I dropped it off. And then I got an interview. And then I got the job. That job has put me on a path to the job I have today, with the very same company. I moved to Toronto along with Brock and we shared an apartment for our first year, until Nellie moved here. The occasions he had to help he before and after that day are too numerous to list, but none had a more profound impact on my life’s path. To this day I hear Brock’s voice in my head when I’m fighting the urge to half-ass something.
2007: Tim Dickinson, my brother
This one’s not quite as direct, really, but in the end it’s all down to my brother being smart enough to ask his girlfriend to marry him. Of course, that in itself wasn’t enough to make my list, but it set off a chain of events that led to our families and close friends gathering in the south of France to see them married. The six days in that place was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, so that’s remarkable in itself, but there was one moment in particular that stood out. During the post-ceremony dinner one of the bride’s sisters told me I should make a speech to the bride to reciprocate for one that had just been given to my brother…or something. I wasn’t following. I was probably in a quiet panic about having to make a speech. Speeches aren’t something introverts like to do, especially at events like that. The potential for evening-ruining fuckuppery was high. I had about five minutes to make up a theme in my head and to drink enough wine to find the perfect balance between courage and slurred speech, and just dove in. I thought it went okay. I remember my voice faltering at one point…not from emotion, definitely from nerves. But I got to the end, and got my glass from the table to the toast to my mouth, and then sat down.
And then people clapped. I didn’t expect that. People seemed to like it, most importantly the bride and groom. Some people actually congratulated me. Not because it was a great speech. It wasn’t. But I don’t think anyone expected it, including me. Even people who’d just met me didn’t really expect a decent speech out of me, and why would they? My introversion is pretty much display all the time. One of the bride’s brothers-in-law called me “the dark horse” for the rest of the weekend. I’d done plenty of public speaking before, presentations, speeches to C-level executives, etc.but this gave me a shot of confidence like the one I felt in the third grade when Mrs. Babineau had me running for public office. It was hard to describe. A lot happened the rest of the night. An hour or so later I was, for some reason, playing the drums for the first time in twelve years, and I can’t imagine I would’ve done so — especially with so many other people watching me — if I hadn’t made that speech. There was, apparently, also an interpretive dance, but I suspect that had more to do with the Armagnac than bolstered courage.
It seemed a throwaway, if incredibly fun, moment in my life, but since then I’ve felt different. I’ve been different. When I got back from France work really took off for me, though that had as much to do with my incredible boss as anything else. My travel bug grew, probably because I was much less nervous about traveling after that. In fact, even in the days following my brother’s wedding I felt different…like I was moving with purpose, like I was finally a brother and not just a little brother. I think I can’t explain it very well because I think I’m still in the change, rather than looking back at it like the moments from much earlier in my life.
Again, as I think back on it, it seems like such a small, insignificant moment. But then, this whole list is about moments like that, that seem small at the time, but which helped steer and shape my life. A week removed from turkey and stuffing, it’s still easy to be incredibly thankful for those little moments, not to mention all the big ones, that shape the future. I know how lucky I am to be this happy. This post is just my small way of saying thank you to five of the people who helped me get here.