How to Change A Life – Listen

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A man approached me at an airport. I was thousands of miles away from my home.  He introduced himself and asked, “You don’t remember me do you?” I didn’t.

He went on, “Funny how it is, you changed my life and you don’t even remember me. Don’t feel bad. You shouldn’t remember me, but I remember you.” He was at the airport to pick up one of his children. It was just a coincidence that I was arriving.

He told me the story of how we sat next to each other years ago on an airplane from Chicago to San Francisco. I was going home, he was going away. As usual, there was a delay, this time so the plane could be de-iced. What was an already long flight became longer. My seatmate wanted to talk. I didn’t. He was unhappy with his life. I wasn’t. But sometimes a stranger is a good someone to talk to about life topics. The only person who might be better is the friend that knew you when. That friend who remembers who you were when you were twenty-two and can call you on who you are now. Sometimes intimacies are best exchanged with a stranger or that old friend.

So I broke my cardinal rule (at the time) of talking to people on airplanes. Really, I didn’t talk, I only listened. His career was going nowhere. He was in sales for a company that sold industrial kitchen gear. Think pots and pans. He was on the road all the time. His wife was always mad at him and his kids hardly knew him. It took him all of the five-hour flight to tell me all the details of his boss and career and family and I listened.

As we were landing I said, “Sounds like you have two choices: one is to keep at it and be miserable. The other is to make big changes. The second option is more difficult, but if I were you, that is the one I would give serious consideration.” Not rocket science and I am not a counselor but I listened and boiled things down for him. Although we exchanged cards I never expected to connect with him again.

Three months later, a huge box was delivered to my office. A small refrigerator could have been inside. It was a complete set of industrial pots and pans with a note. “Thanks for listening. New, better job and renewed family.”

Now, back in Chicago, years later, I reminded him that I still use the pots and pans he sent years ago. He reminded me that just listening to him and helping him with his options was all it took to change his life.

Sometimes a good listen, even in business, is the way to change a life and maybe an organization.

Author’s Note: For those channeling the movie “Airplanes, Trains, Automobiles” with John Candy and Steve Martin, it’s my favorite movie.

Richard is the author of the new book The Thing About Work: Showing Up and Other Important Matters [A Worker’s Manual]. You can follow his writing on TwitterFacebook, or at his website at

Richard is President of Menlo College in Atherton, CA. He is a noted San Francisco based business leader, best-selling author, speaker, and venture capitalist.

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