March 31, 2016: Meet Malcolm Gladwell

In early 2009 my company won the "Young Professionals Choice Award". The timing of this award corresponded with a life-changing time for me. I was just a few raw months into my divorce.

The particular day of receiving word of the award started with an e-mail blast to our office proudly announcing our company's recognition of this honor. It gave me a bit of a smile and some added pep on a bleak Nebraska winter morning. As I went about my day during the busyness of tax season, one of my partners popped his head into my office.

“Hey, do you think you could give our acceptance speech at the award luncheon next week?”

"Hmmm,” I thought. I sure didn’t see this coming.

As he looked at me while asking the question, there was no doubt what I saw in his eyes. It was a look I had become quite accustomed to seeing during that time in my life. It was the look of sympathy.

I have never understood the value of a palm reading when you can see everything in a person’s eyes. And I have seen all kinds of sentiments looking back at me over my years…admiration, fear, dislike, affection, envy, loyalty, distrust. But this time is was definitely sympathy.

Self-consciously, I wondered what he saw in my eyes as I looked back at him. I concluded it was probably vulnerability. A look that my partners weren’t accustomed to seeing from me during our prior twenty years working together. My head felt foggy and I felt a bit lost, so I was sure my eyes reflected this same emotion.

“Sure,” was my answer.

“They will have you sit at the head table,” he went on to explain, “and you'll have two minutes to give our acceptance speech.”

I wondered if there was a plan behind the scenes of using this as an opportunity to encourage me back to my prior pre-divorce self. Engaged. Game on. No fog. But since speculation served no purpose, sympathy or no sympathy, I accepted the honor of serving as firm representative. It was time for me to reacquaint myself with the outside world again anyway.

I saw it as the nudge I needed. With my love of public speaking, the prospect of this acceptance speech was invigorating. I have always seen it as a strange anomaly in life when a person (me) who is petrified of missing a fly ball in little league softball doesn’t have a bit of heart palpitation over giving an impromptu speech to hundreds. Figure that one out.

The day quickly came for my coming-out party. I put on my favorite dress, jacket, and boots in anticipation of stepping out into the world again. With the luncheon downtown and an 11:00 departure time, at about 10:00 I thought I better write my speech. The negative on being a writer is the innate belief that you can get away with waiting until the last minute to write little things like an acceptance speech.

Do know that I had thoughtfully reflected on what I wanted to say for days. But with a two minute window, my biggest challenge was reducing my thoughts to the few words to nail my intended message. And this speech meant something to me. I loved my work family. Not only had I been blessed to work with so many great people, but I felt completely surrounded by great love and support by them during this very rough spot in my life.

With completed speech stuffed into my jacket pocket, my boots hit the ground. I was en route to take the podium. Envisioning a small crowd made up mostly of my 16 attending co-workers, I walked into the convention center to see that my estimations were clearly off. To my shock, I was in the company of over 1,000 award ceremony attendees.

It just so happened that our award was a mere smaller portion of a bigger Chamber event featuring a national keynote speaker. Still a bit shell shocked with the mounds of people filling the room, I was guided to the head table. Having a brief panic attack, I  began second guessing my choice of spending a mere twenty minutes to write the speech. And I certainly knew I didn't rehearse giving it enough.

My seat at the head table was in the company of local news personalities and corporate sponsors. After exchanging pleasantries, I looked around trying to locate the nearest bathroom. I surmised that I had ten minutes to hole up in a bathroom stall to reread and possibly rewrite my speech. I gave this strategy about five seconds of consideration before determining that I was golden as is. No bathroom run for me. If I wasn't picking up the words correctly from my paper in hand, I would just improvise by speaking from the heart. Final answer.

Meet Malcolm Gladwell
Perusing the program placed on my seat, I noticed a strange looking man who just joined our table. Many people were chatting with him as he stood seemingly uncomfortable in an ill-fitting jacket. He was also sporting a shocking dark Afro with fair skin and a receding hairline. His sullen expression with little excitement made his mannerisms appear slow.

I got up to introduce myself to this interesting individual, having no clue who he was or why he was at the head table. Walking toward him, I noticed a small mechanism attached to his jacket with wiring that worked its way up to his ear. I quickly concluded that he was disabled and wore a hearing aid (some form of a cochlear implant device). I also surmised that he must be receiving a Chamber award for people with disabilities in the workforce.

In an effort to make sure he felt comfortable and accepted, and so he could clearly understand me, I stood directly in front of him with my hand extended.

And then I  VERY loudly and VERY slowly said, "HELLO, MY NAME IS SANDY LANE.  WHAT IS YOUR NAME?"

As my brother, Matt, often says...I was in his grill.

Then the peculiar man calmly answered me.

"Nice to meet you. I am Malcolm Gladwell."

Wow, he didn't seem peculiar. He spoke perfectly normal. Not what I expected from a person with a hearing disability. He then just looked at me with a funny, almost annoyed, expression and offered no small talk. So I gave him a smile (he didn't smile back) and went back to my seat.

The ceremony began with my company's award at the top of the list. With a quick introduction of our firm and a write up on why we were chosen as "Young Professionals Choice Award", I was introduced on stage.

I remember loosely following my written speech, but after connecting eyes with some of my co-workers, not wanting to look back down at the paper. It was way too mesmerizing to look at the crowd and share with them the honest sediments that were nestled in my heart.

And the people smiled back at me. Both with their mouths and with their eyes. I saw acceptance. It was exhilarating.  It just felt like all was right in my world again. The response from the crowd and my co-workers filled me with a warm calm. I was suddenly grateful to my partners for their vote of sympathy. It was exactly what I needed.

Sitting down while the applause was still vibrating and filling my spirit, the ceremony emcee moved on to introduce the featured keynote speaker. His introduction included a long list of top-selling books and accolades on his publishing milestones. Obviously Malcolm Gladwell is one accomplished writer. And the keynote speaker.

Now obvious was the wire I had originally observed on Mr. Gladwell. It was his clip-on microphone.

His speech was amazing.

Malcolm finished to resounding applause, waving to the crowd as he walked back to his seat. My dream was for our eyes to lock as we shared a moment. Just a look between the two of us; the beginning of a friendship that could always revert back to chuckling over our awkward initial introduction.

Wanting my speech to have resonated with him with new found commonalities, I did not get my wish. Instead he glared at me on his way back to his seat.

We never spoke again. No laughter was shared nor did we exchange contact information. Although I do believe we would have gotten on smashingly, it was not meant to be.

But what did matter on that day were my colleagues sitting in front of me. If I were to choose a friendship of choice, my fellow accounting warriors trumped the celebrity of Mr Gladwell. With this acknowledgement,  I deemed my coming-out party a success. With an amazing guest list of 16 co-workers, I couldn't have scripted it better.

I did eventually buy Malcolm Gladwell's book, "The Outliers". It was my goodwill gesture and passive apology to the acclaimed author. It was also a fascinating read that I would highly recommend. Just don't ask me to get you a signed copy.


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