A bit of off-the-cuff praise can literally change someone's day. Try it.
It only takes a second to make another person feel valued, yet the effect can last a lifetime.
Sometimes in the summer while I was in college I would go to Godwin Hall at James Madison University to play basketball. One evening I was idly shooting jumpers on an open basket when I heard someone whistle. I turned and a guy said, “Hey, we need one more. Run with us.”
My heart sank. That guy was Linton Townes. He went on to play in the NBA and Europe. Standing behind him were Charles Fisher and Derek Steele, two other players from the JMU squad that in the 1982 NCAA Tournament almost beat a North Carolina team that included future NBA All-Stars like James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Michael Jordan.
Standing behind them was Ralph Sampson, three-time college National Player of the Year and future four-time NBA All-Star.
And I hadn’t been good enough to make my high school basketball team. Great...
The etiquette of pickup ball meant I had to say yes, but saying yes also meant the teams were nowhere near even: We had Linton and Derek and they had Charles, but we had me and they had Ralph.
Soon into the first game Linton got frustrated. Exceptional athletes hate to lose, pickup game or not, and even though he didn’t say anything I knew he was especially frustrated with me. I was the shortest guy on the court and had to play two-guard and was struggling to make decent passes inside. Worse, I couldn’t defend my man, which meant Linton had to rotate and leave Ralph open, which meant Linton had to watch Ralph dunk.
Then I noticed something. Whenever I made an entry pass the player guarding me knew I wouldn’t shoot so he sagged and forced our forward to the baseline as Ralph rotated across. The next time I had the ball on the wing I faked the same entry pass and saw Ralph start to shift over. I threw a lob to Linton who soared, caught the ball one-handed, and dunked over a late arriving Ralph.
First and last lob of my life, and coolest moment ever.
As Linton jogged back up court he caught my eye and said, “Good pass.”
New coolest moment ever.
Have you ever been completely out of your depth? If so, you understand the overwhelming sense of isolation and futility. That feeling faded away. To him those two words were nothing, but to me, in that situation, they were everything.
If my life was an 80s Tom Cruise movie I could say we went on to win after I caught fire and discovered a talent long buried. But we didn’t, and I certainly didn’t. I just stayed within myself the rest of the evening, only shooting once (and missing), making simple passes, and doing my best to make up for a lack of ability with effort and hustle.
What I can say is that I no longer felt self-conscious or insecure. I was still nowhere near as good as anyone on the court—or even as good as anyone watching—but that no longer mattered, at least not to me. Two simple, sincere words of praise me me feel like I belonged.
Later as I was leaving Linton said, “Hey, we’ll probably be here tomorrow night. If you want a run, swing by.”
I smiled and nodded, not in agreement but as silent thanks. Of course I didn’t go back.
JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business. @jeff_haden