If I had to stand in front of a jury today and be judged on how well I’ve lived my life and served others, I’m afraid of what the verdict may be. While I’ve accomplished things I’m proud of, I know I’ve missed opportunities to enrich the lives of people around me. I hope that, by writing this article, I will be able to help at least one person avoid making the same mistakes.
Earlier this year, we started the YMC Next Level Book Club. Our first selection out of the gate was It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Basecamp CEO, Jason Fried. This book opened my eyes and gave me a new perspective on leadership and culture. While the work we do for our credit unions is important, it means absolutely nothing if that work comes at the expense of the YMC team members doing that work. If I demand so much from my team that they lack the time and energy to be present with their friends and family during off-hours, I’m doing it wrong.
While the majority of the books we’ve read this year have focused on business and leadership growth, we took a break and read something different in October: A Life Through Letters by Ashley Davis. I learned about this book several months ago at a credit union strategic planning session. During this session, the board chair was talking about a book written by one of his relatives, a relative who turned out to be Mr. Davis. We’ve read many books this year that have helped me become a better business owner, a better marketer, and a better leader, but this one turned my world upside down.
A Life Through Letters is a compilation of letters the author’s father, Robert Davis, wrote when he was coming to the end of his life. He composed these letters to family and friends — and even some inanimate objects — that shaped his world. (Bet you’ve never read a letter written to a pain pill, have you?) These deeply personal letters caused me to reflect on my own life in a way I hadn’t before. I asked myself what I’ve done over the last ten years, and many of the answers were difficult to face. I’ve found myself working long hours. I’ve missed funerals and celebrations. I’ve missed vacations and milestones. I’ve lost contact with family and built walls to protect my time. While the work has yielded a wonderful business, I can’t help but wonder if I should have done some things differently.
While all of the letters in the book contained valuable insights, one, in particular, stood out. It was a letter that Robert penned to Claude Murphy, a member of his former church who passed away after battling cancer. He spent many days at Claude’s side, sometimes just sitting in silence to be present with him during his suffering. In his letter to Claude, Mr. Davis recalled one day in particular.
“I remember so vividly the day I visited you, and in conversation, you made the statement, ‘I wish I did not have to die now. I wish I could get better for a little while.’ You began to weep. I had the feeling that this was not just a wish to live a little longer but that you had something else in mind. After a few moments, I asked, ‘What would you do if you could get well?’ “
As I read those words, I put myself in Claude’s position. What if that was me? What if I was on that death bed? What would I wish for? As I thought about what my answer would be, I was struck with a simple, yet powerful, realization: I’m not on that death bed. I don’t have to wish for a little while longer. I need to take the time I have and spend it more wisely. I need to infuse more life into each day. I need to tear down the walls I’ve built. I need to re-establish those relationships with friends and family that I’ve put on the back burner.
Throughout A Life Through Letters, Davis asks the question, “Who do you need to write a letter to?” Not an email. Not a tweet. Not a text message. An old-fashioned letter with paper, ink, and a stamp.
My first letter was to my uncle, who has been battling pancreatic cancer for the past year. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve seen him in person, mainly because I’ve been “too busy.” In my letter, I reminisced about how, as a child, I spent many Thanksgivings at his house enjoying his famous stuffing recipe and riding up and down the street on his moped. I also reminded him of the many hot summer days we spent together at his pool. While it felt good to take a walk down memory lane, the power of personal connection truly hit home when my uncle responded, “Your letter was better medicine than any treatment I’ve had to take in the past year.”
In his letter to Claude, Mr. Davis shared a thought about empathy. “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You are not alone.’” After reading that, I realized I need to be more empathetic with my team members and allow them the same opportunity.
Instead of squeezing every ounce of work I can from them, I want to do my best to help them avoid making the mistakes I’ve made. I want them to do their work with passion during the day, but I also want them to have time and energy left to create lasting memories with their families. I don’t want them looking back years from now, wishing they had attended that wedding or birthday party. I don’t want them regretting the fact that they missed that funeral, that get-together, or that football game when their kid scored the winning touchdown.
What about you, credit union leader? Take a moment and reflect on your work and your life. Are you growing your credit union at someone else’s expense? Is something missing from your life? Can you find a way to get the most from your team and still allow them to enjoy life with fewer regrets? If you see things that need to change, now is the perfect time to start doing things differently.
You’ve probably heard people say, “Don’t get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” There’s a lot of wisdom in that statement. If you want to be the kind of leader that helps your team succeed at work and in life, it’s going to take intentional effort. Show empathy. Care about your people. Be present for life’s little moments. And last, but certainly not least, write a letter to someone who needs to hear from you. It’ll be good for you both.