About twenty years. That is, the best I can figure, the longest I have worked for a compliment. I received it just the other day and it came from a woman I don't really know. The remark containing the compliment was made in the grocery store to Polly, my wife. But to understand why it means so much to me, we have to go back twenty years …
Jerry Anderson, one of my best and longest tenured friends happened to be working in a swimming pool supply store that doubled as a package shipping service. I went in one day and filled out the paperwork necessary to ship several items, answering the questions and paying whatever it cost. I vaguely remember doing this tiny piece of business with a couple of ladies about my age. I was twenty-nine or thirty at the time.
Jerry was not inside the building as I completed my transaction, but happened to walk in that morning as I was leaving. We talked for a moment, said goodbye, and I got in my car and drove away.
Later that day, I ran into Jerry again—this time at the dry cleaners. "You okay?" he asked somewhat seriously after we had exchanged greetings.
"Yeah," I said, taken aback. "Why would you ask that?"
Jerry shrugged. "The girls at the shop said you were mad … I just wondered if they had done something wrong."
"No," I answered, confused. "They didn't do anything wrong."
"Well," Jerry said tentatively, "their exact words when you left were: What's his problem?"
I drove home in a daze. I didn't want to tell Polly what had been said. We had not been married long, but she had alluded to the same kind of thing in my demeanor before. I was stunned …
Because here's the thing: I had not been mad. I was not upset or even particularly stressed. That was how I always acted. As I drove home, I began to think about rude waitresses and sullen flight attendants. I remembered people at church who never spoke and several folks at the service station or the hardware store or in our neighborhood who sometimes refused eye contact.
And I realized … it was not them.
It was me.
Now understand, I didn't clash with everyone. Or even most folks. I never had fights or serious disagreements. It was a subtle thing really, but I began to understand that I was a person that many people would simply choose not to be around.
As I struggled with this odd feeling of unpleasant self-discovery, I knew something had to be done. It was very clear to me that a person around whom others were uncomfortable would never receive opportunities, acceptance, or even assistance to the degree that a more likeable fellow might.
To be as successful as I wanted to be—as a husband, a businessperson, and throughout life in general—I determined that I must somehow transform myself into a person other people wanted to be around!
So about twenty years ago, I began to ask myself this question every day: "Andy … what is it about you that other people would change if they could?" I often included variations on that theme. "What is it about the way you act, Andy? What is it about the way you dress? What is it about the way you eat in public … ?" I asked the question in every form imaginable.
Of course, there were many times when I would answer, "Well, I don't want to change that about myself. I am fine with the way that I am in that area … " Then I would quickly remember, that was not the question! The question was, "What would other people change about me if they could?!"
It was never my intention to live my life "according to man" or to exist only within the parameters of "the expectations of others" … But I knew that if I wanted people to listen to my opinions … to believe like I believed … to come around to my way of thinking … to ever buy what I was selling … it really would help if they liked me a little bit!
I needed to become a person other people wanted to be around.
Well, twenty years have passed and I still ask the question. Frankly, I am not as advanced in this area as I probably should be, but I am still working hard on myself.
Last week, a lady stopped Polly at the grocery store and casually asked about the boys. Polly told her they were "home with Andy".
The woman furrowed her brow. "Andy?" she asked. "Andy … is your husband?"
Polly laughed. "Yes," she assured her. "He's my husband."
The woman shook her head in amused shock. "I have seen you both in here for years, but never, I guess, together." Then, she tried again (and here comes my compliment … ) "We are," she said, "talking about the same person, right? ‘Andy' who writes books … the guy who is always in a good mood … ?"
When Polly related the story, she told me how proud of me she was and we talked about that depressing day so long ago. I was amazed, a bit relieved, and actually intended to call Jerry and tell him the story, but got busy and forgot about it until now. Oh well, Jerry will read it here and laugh.
So that's it. That is the compliment for which I worked the longest! Now just between you and me, the truth is that I am not always in a good mood. You either? That's okay. It'll be our secret.
And the lady in the grocery store will never know.