It was 5 A.M. and I was sitting in the airport. A couple of flights were between me and my final destination. I was all dressed and ready to speak at a conference in Austin, TX in the early afternoon and there was no room for error in the timing of my travel. Murphy’s law; I missed my flight and took standby on another path to get there. There I sat, in the wrong airport, running behind with my speaking time fast-approaching. I was just going with the flow, trusting the system. I was keeping my stress to a minimum and thinking it will work out if it is meant to be.   

With a stroke of luck, I was the only standby passenger, out of 24 on the list, to get on the flight after the person ahead of me never showed. Arriving in my new connecting city, Chicago, I realized my other standby flight just happened to be at the gate next door. I approached the counter inquiring if I made the standby list for the next flight, even though I was coming from Hartford and the chances would be slim. The person at the counter delightfully said: “I see you on the list and it looks like you are early on the list.” I glanced and saw my name first on the standby list and I thought to myself, “I have a chance!”

The super helpful and positive airline attendant, Jewellette, told me there was a decent chance. She eventually came over with a huge smile, ticket in hand for the flight. I couldn’t stop myself from giving her a high five. She really made a difference at that moment for me. We shared a special moment and I think we both knew it. She was happy to help and she knew that I was super appreciative of the effort. At that moment, Jewellette was a reflection of how she wanted people to treat her in this world.  

As I stood in line to get on the plane, I noticed something. It was a person with red hair. Not your typical red hair. It was very bright red hair, artificial and a statement of some kind. I thought it was very cool, actually. Such a vibrant red, like something straight out of the Trolls movie. I think it especially caught my eye because of what happened the day before. My daughter and I saw a girl with bright blue hair. My little girl said something to me out of the blue. “Hey Dad, I think she is just trying to let people know she is celebrating being different.” My heart grew a little more that day. It is so touching that my kids share these moments with me and they inspire me by seeing the beauty in all kinds of people, regardless of where we come from or what we look like. Our world seems to subconsciously teach us to be most comfortable with people that remind us of ourselves. We naturally tend to surround ourselves with people that keep us in our comfort zone. It all seems so self-serving and limiting when you think about it. If we pause and commit to seeing life through the eyes of our inner child we can open up new paths that help us welcome the differences all around us in this big and interesting world. 

Be Different to Make a Difference

 As I reflected on all of this, an older white guy, possibly nearing retirement, comes up to me and says, “need a splash of red?”. He was wearing a Texas A&M basketball shirt. I awkwardly chuckled, trying to figure out what he meant. I looked forward and again noticed the woman with the bright red hair. I was confused with what he meant and began to wonder if it was about the red hair or something else.  

He then aggressively spoke out again, “why do they have to do that?” This gentleman clearly saw me as a white businessman flying South and assumed we had the same belief system. I just couldn’t let it go. I have vowed to myself that I will not let things sit and this was an opportunity to positively impact a situation. Kind of like, “see something off, inquire about it.” I calmly asked with curiosity, “what are you referring to, sir?” He bolts back with, “the hair, that red hair up there!” I looked forward, turned back, then said “it might simply be that she is trying to show she is different or supporting something she believes in” and that might be her way of doing it. Of course, I was thinking about my daughter’s influence regarding the girl with the blue hair the day before. I also shared that I respected that and it was cool with me. He didn’t let go and said: “but she is just putting it out there as her symbol.” At this point, I am thinking to myself, “I guess I got myself into this and need to see this one through.” I replied to him, “I see this as a harmless outreach and is the least of anyone’s worries in my view.” I wasn’t sure what symbol he was referring to exactly. I thought she was just saying “this is me” and simply having fun with it. I leaned in and softly said to the gentleman, “it is no different than you standing proudly behind your Texas A&M shirt, perhaps she is a Texas Tech Red Raiders fan and despises A&M.” I saw him swallow a little pride and at that moment, we had some compassion for each other’s views. After we cleared the air, we moved on to have a wonderful conversation about business. I believe we are both better men because of this interaction.

Embracing Differences Unleashes Possibilities For Everyone

This experience jogged my memory and I thought of another person. A dear friend of mine, Sarah, once shared a Stephen Covey reference with a group of people at an “inclusion” event – “be loyal to those who are absent.” I interpreted this in my mind to “stay true to those not present” and it has stayed with me ever since. She spoke out on behalf of people being mistreated for their differences, for the way they look, their disabilities or the fact that they don’t seem to belong within the rigid paradigms many people live by. Sarah delved deeply into the bullying she had experienced growing up and how some people even today treat her as “less than” others simply because she is a person with a disability. Through these emotional stories of being “excluded,” Sarah gracefully shared tips on how to help loved ones that experience similar mistreatment. Tears came to my eyes as she vulnerably shared her pain and imparted wisdom in the spirit of helping others. I am forever grateful for her willingness to openly share and to include me in her circle of trust. Our conversations furthered and strengthened my personal purpose to help bring out the best in others, no matter what their story is, what they look like or where they come from. Her bravery inspired me to build on my own courage to speak up for others, both present and not present.

I recently read an Instagram post that said something like, “real respect is shown both in person and when not present.” Try to be inviting of others and to the differences we all have. That is true respect, basic human respect. The next step is to be curious about the beauty within each of us. Engage in the world to make it safe for people to belong and to be their best, most authentic selves. Challenge yourself to meet and engage in dialogue with others that are different than you. Genuinely explore and learn what brings them joy without passing judgment or overpowering them with your own stories. Help to bring out the best in others by making them feel safe. I have little doubt, this will be uncomfortable at first. Show genuine interest and be clear that you have positive intent. Continue for as long as you see growth in yourself and others around you. It might just surprise. It surprised me!