Warning: this is a no-edit zone….
I came across the following quote this morning:
“A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.” –Walter Bagehot
It made me smile. Why? Because it sent me back in time. Not literally, of course, but in my mind. I thought of the first job I had in a legal office. The senior partner was a state representative named Dempsey. I well remember our first meeting.
I had started work there and he’d been away; congress had been in session. So I’m at my desk, and this strange man walks into my office. He has a bright, sunny smile, a welcome and “I’m glad to be here” attitude. “Hi,” he says. “And who are you?”
“I’m Vicki Hinze,” I said. “And who are you?”
“Dempsey,” he said. “And what are your qualifications?”
I didn’t recognize the senior partner’s name. Didn’t expect to see him there, and the name just didn’t connect. “I don’t have any,” I said, thinking this visitor was certainly impertinent, asking me a question like that. The horrible thing was that it was true. I didn’t have any qualifications for doing the job I’d been hired to do. But I’d told them that if they’d take a shot on me, I’d work hard and learn; they had my promise on that.
Dempsey clearly hadn’t been alerted to that promise. He gave me the strangest look and a long, pregnant moment passed. “Well,” he said. “That’s blunt.”
“Unfortunately, it’s true, too.”
“Do you want to learn?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. The light bulb had finally clicked on, and I realized I was talking to the head honcho, and I was nearly certain he was going to show me the door.
We talked for a few minutes more, and then he looked me in the eye and said, “Never again are you going to have to tell anyone you have no qualifications.”
I didn’t know what to say. What can you say to a man who makes you that kind of promise?
Dempsey put me in the office law library and for the next six weeks, he paid me to study. At the end of the day, we’d talk about what I’d studied, and he–and the other partners and associates–would answer my questions. They had a project: me. And the firm’s objective was to educate Vicki.
I learned. Boy, did I learn. And eventually I taught other attorneys how to handle real estate property closings, escrows, trusts, title challenges. I acted as an agent for a corporate computer giant in an acquisition it made, and for the U.S. in its acquisition of property for the environmental protection of an endangered species. Commercial transactions and personal injury, liability cases–all manner of things once alien to me.
They brought in a CPA to teach me accounting, so I could audit the books. They brought in insurance underwriters to teach me the significance of their rules and regulations. And then Dempsey asked me to read proposed legislation that came through to him for consideration and to do a one-page opinion report, pro or con on the proposition.
I was in heaven. It had to be heaven. Me, a political junkie, with a congressman’s ear and he would hear my opinions? Not just hear, but listen? Picture me elated.
When I told Dempsey I was expecting a baby, he said, “Well, we’ll build a nursery and get a nanny and you can be with her as much as you like.”
No one was doing that in those days. No one. But, as surely you’ve noticed, Dempsey didn’t follow the pack. He did things his way, and his way helped people to become better, wiser, and stronger. He didn’t give you a fish. He taught you how to fish–and gave you the bait to put on your hook.
I would have worked there until he or I died of old age. But my husband was active duty military and he got orders. Dempsey offered me law school, to fly my husband home on weekends–all manner of things–but in the end, we knew it had to be family first.
I’ve seen Dempsey many times since then, and thought of him many, many times more. His determination to help a young woman get qualified literally changed my life.
He was a wonderful mentor–not just in terms of work but in terms of being a good human being. I learned a lot from him. Helping others. The power of having faith in someone, in investing in them. How that seed of faith can spur them to tackle other challenges. Like college. Like writing books. Like any of the thousand other things I’ve done that without the confidence to try I might never have done.
My father taught me not to fear failure; it’s a natural part of growth, like exhaling when you breathe. Can’t inhale without exhaling, too; your lungs would explode. (See the balance? Can’t have success without failure. Doesn’t work.)
Dempsey taught me to define specific objectives and then aggressively pursue them.
Both men looked out to others and in to themselves. They lived by strong codes of ethics–their own–and with integrity, doing what they felt was right and important in their daily lives.
Both men had good hearts. And that’s why Walter Bagehot’s quote triggered memories in me and I’m for the millionth time sitting here feeling a bit awestricken and incredibly humble.
It is a great pleasure in life to do that which others say you cannot. Not for the mere sake of defiance–there’s no glory in being outside the box for the mere sake of being outside the box–but for the sake of greater purpose. Because greater purpose is served in the accomplishment that can only be reached by being outside the box.
At one time, Dempsey, who’d had polio as a kid and carried the challenges from it, had been told what he couldn’t do. He could never qualify. He disputed it, and did it anyway. He failed his way to success. And then he extended a hand to others, and I was so lucky to be one of them.
He never mentioned to me that he’d learned the lessons he taught firsthand. I learned that from his partner, and that there were others like me, that he’d taken on to help get qualified in one way or another.
If I’d thought about it, I would have realized that. His insights were too perceptive for an outsider, so to speak. I did once ask him why he was doing all this for me. He just smiled.
As time passed and I matured, I realized why Dempsey did all he did. Many times, I’ve imagined him looking at me with a knowing twinkle in his eye and that cocky pitch in his voice. “Why am I doing this?” He softly chuckles. “Because I can.”
I’ve never again had to tell anyone that I have no qualifications. I have Dempsey to thank for that. He kept his promise.
I’ve tried to play it forward. In the years since, I’ve tackled many things that were new to me (and will continue to do so, I expect, until I die). The thing that makes people (or characters) frigid and afraid to try new things is fear. They feel inadequate, inferior–unqualified.
But what Dempsey taught me that they might not know is this: When we first try something new, we are ALL unqualified. and the only way to get qualified is by doing it.
So why worry and why wait? Jump in and get started. If you screw up, well, you’re exhaling. Learn from it, take your next breath and press on. Get qualified as you go.
And if someone should ask, “What are your qualifications?” Tell them the truth: “I don’t have any . . . yet.”
You might be talking to a Dempsey.
Or if you’re the one asking the question?
Consider becoming a Dempsey.
Reshaping a life is no small thing. Your immortal mark is made in the hearts of those you help. And so inspired by you, through them, your ripple goes on.
And that’s what’s on my mind this morning…
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