Can One Conversation Change Your Life?

Being cooped up has given me more time to reflect on the people who have impacted my life. Usually, they’re the family and friends that stood with me for a long time, sharing experiences and support when I needed it. Without them, who knows how things would have turned out. It’s one of life’s greatest mysteries.

Meanwhile, there are others who are placed in our lives for a fleeting moment. Maybe someone you befriended or who gave you a pearl of wisdom when you faced a pivotal decision. Or, in the case of Jan, someone who was both to me.

It was 1978, and I was 24 and on the fast track at General Electric in Milwaukee. Their Financial Management Program fit me like a glove, to the point where they took me off this two-year program early to manage a department I had joined eighteen months earlier as a trainee! (Now that was a challenge!)

One day, my supervisor called me into his office and shut the door behind him. Naturally a little nervous, I was nonetheless comforted by his demeanor. “Dennis,” he said, “you’ve been nominated by senior management to join General Electric’s corporate audit staff.” Unaware of the meaning of all of this, I learned that the audit staff was the ticket to top financial management at the company. It would involve a four-year commitment to conduct quarterly audits at GE locations around the country. At the end of the term, your perspective was unmatched and the opportunities endless. It was clearly an honor to be chosen, and on the surface, it sounded like a slam dunk decision—one I would need to make in two weeks.

About two months earlier, I was introduced to Jan. She had just joined the Financial Management Program from an elite East Coast university and relocated to the Milwaukee area. Having just experienced this move myself a few years before, I had great empathy toward her transition, and we became fast friends. I could tell this move wasn’t easy for her and that she was experiencing some culture shock in her relocation to the Midwest. I could help with that.

Now, back to my decision. For the next week, I grappled with this audit staff decision unlike any other. From a career standpoint, it seemed like a slam dunk. The “prize” was obvious. And, because this was a by-appointment-only opportunity, I was haunted by how a “No” decision would be perceived. An affirmative decision appeared to be the logical choice.

And, yet, I remained surprisingly and persistently unsettled about it. Knowing myself, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would enjoy spending the next four years in three-month stints in industrial locations around the country. Despite the obvious benefits, I questioned whether this was me and whether I was willing to pay the social price at such a pivotal time in my life. Needless to say, I kept going back and forth in my thinking. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

With a week remaining, I finally decided to bite the bullet. Enough agonizing. Enough vacillation. I would accept and tell my boss that afternoon in a meeting we just arranged.

I entered my supervisor’s office ready to announce my decision. But, inexplicably and much to my consternation, I simply couldn’t get the words out. It was as if there was a muzzle placed on my mouth. Embarrassed, I changed the subject and left some five minutes later. I was utterly frustrated and disappointed in myself.

Within an hour, I was at the copy machine and my aggravation must have been apparent. Jan needed to make a copy of her own and noticed something was wrong. Curious, she asked what happened. Little did I know that the next minute would completely change my life.

I explained to her that I’d been vacillating about this decision and completely choked with my supervisor. This wasn’t like me and time was of the essence. Jan looked at me and in her delightfully direct way, asked, “Well, what do you want to do?” I paused and replied, “If I had my way, I’d be an investment manager. I love picking stocks! But, GE doesn’t offer that.”

In an instant, and with a hint of “duh,” Jan responded with her $10,000, life-altering question:
“Well, why don’t you?!?

 Her words hit me like a ton of bricks. I left work that night committed to doing crash research on what it would require to become an investment manager. A call to my broker. A visit the following day to my undergraduate finance professor who also worked for an investment firm in Madison. Thursday night, on the eve of my deadline, I finally made my decision with total peace and conviction. I would respectfully decline the audit staff offer and prepare to attend graduate school in the fall to earn an MBA in Finance and pursue my dream as an investment manager. And, that’s what I did. All courtesy of Jan’s pivotal questions at just the right time.

Jan didn’t last much longer at GE. She hated the corporate environment and moved back east to pursue a different course. Although we completely lost touch, I often think of her and our conversation at the copier. Clearly, she was placed in my life for this fleeting moment for a reason. In a way, I’ve always felt that I honored her questions with the decision I made. All because she challenged me to consider what I would truly love.

We never know at the time the impact that specific people will have on our life. Or, the people whose lives we affected by our words and deeds. Sometimes the effect is immediate and other times down the road—perhaps when a key decision needs to be made with the benefit of a nugget of wisdom.

And, when it does happen, it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it?

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