They put themselves first, but not in the way you think.
Most folks relish the opportunity to say to their boss, “I quit.” To me, it felt like a crime of betrayal.
Three years earlier, Brandon took me, a 23-year-old idiot, into his organization. He questioned at the time whether I had what it took to succeed in the hospitality industry. I proved myself early on, and he groomed me for a management role. But I had been lying to him and myself, and I couldn’t keep it up any longer.
Brandon’s hunch proved right on that first day he interviewed me. I hated the job and felt no passion for the industry.
In December 1997, companies of all types were desperate for computer programmers, and I found one willing to train me and pay me in a new career.
But first, I’d have to deliver the news of my betrayal. When I sat across the desk from Brandon, we said nothing for what felt like an eternity but must have only been a second or two. He wasn’t much of a talker, like me, which made it all the more awkward.
“I found a job in tech,” I said. “The company’s going to train me.”
Brandon smiled and nodded. “Congratulations. I remember from your interview a few years ago that it was an interest of yours.”
We made small talk for a few minutes, and then I returned to my duties. He let me go without making me feel guilty, but I still sulked at having disappointed someone I had grown to respect.
The next day, I received a call from his assistant instructing me to pick something up from her desk. I figured she’d left a form related to my resignation. But instead, I picked up a thin envelope. I pulled out the paper and read Brandon’s thank you note. In it, he expressed his gratitude for my service, a recap of one of my employment highlights, and a promise for a letter of recommendation if I needed it.
What a class act, I thought. I couldn’t but help admire the graciousness expressed in his words. Now, it hadn’t occurred to me until years later that maybe I had been given a personalized form letter — something he gave all of his departing people. Still, the demonstration proved this guy not only talked about his values; his actions showed he lived by them. It’s one of the many virtues of everyday people we admire.
The next morning, I came into work and found an envelope waiting for me. A customer had left me the $50 with a note stating I had given her an extra $50 bill when I cashed her check. She didn’t have to do that, but she was honest, and she demonstrated that value by her action.
The everyday people you admire may talk about their values, or they may not. Regardless, you can surmise what they stand for by the way they act. What sets them apart from their less admirable counterparts is that they stick to their principles when it’s easy to ignore them.
In life, we tend to brush off people with vast resources no matter their achievements. We expect those people to do well. But we look up to folks who achieve great things when their most significant asset is their wit, determination, and ingenuity.
A while later, he texted me from the hospital. Ted had gotten dehydrated and needed medical assistance. Another runner noticed him hunched on the side of the road, flagged down a bystander, and went with him by ambulance to the hospital. This hero gave up his race to help a fellow human in trouble. Dozens of runners must have passed my friend without doing anything, figuring someone else would help out.
The people we admire most always do the right thing without prompting and without complaining.
No matter the threat or danger, in times of distress, we yearn for everyday people who can provide reassurance, hope, and reasons to remain optimistic.
This reassurance cannot be false hope. While we may admire that in the short term, we resent it when we later discover the truth. But when someone steps up and volunteers to lead or assist in challenging times, we come to admire that person.
A friend of mine would never accept that. “I’m only fooling myself,” he’d say. As a result, we’d always root for him extra hard to get a good score. We admired his refusal to cut corners.
When you cheat, even when it doesn’t matter, it signals a lack of integrity. While we might forgive it in a friendly game with low stakes, we revere people who hold themselves to a higher standard.
Real-life is no different. Everyone loves the story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team. Even those who hate Steve Jobs can’t help but admire how he revitalized Apple years after the board fired him from the same company.
These stories remind us of the kind of character we’d like to exhibit ourselves in similar challenges. Sure, few people would blame you for giving up after a devastating failure. But those with the grit and work ethic to run uphill on one leg after getting kicked in the kneecap. Damn, it’s hard not to admire them, even if they come up short in the end.
Be first when it hurts. We look up to those who are first to speak up on behalf of others because we know it requires inner-strength. All it takes is situational awareness and a spark of courage. Others tend to follow you, but they need that leader — someone with enough courage to go first.
It’s not that we resent successful people, but we do despise hubris and vanity. The sense that our hero thinks they’re too smart, too pretty, too whatever for the rest of us mortals. And so we tolerate them until they screw up. And then we pounce. Yup, envy is as ugly as hubris.
Yet, when that same person exhibits sincere contriteness, we drop our weapons, spread our arms wide, and embrace them with all our might.
The ones we admire, however, avoid that rollercoaster ride. They stay humble no matter how much money they make or how many accolades they receive. They never boast of their accomplishments and always fess up to their mistakes and shortcomings.
There’s a common view that we admire people for the wrong reasons. The cynical one sees it as a popularity contest or a display of fake charm. Though, like the former exec who mentored me, you need neither charm nor popularity to win the admiration of others. It’s something everyday people earn by virtue of these eight actions.