My 93-year old grandmother recently transitioned out of human life.
The silent leader.
The great grandmother.
The caring “lunch lady.”
The surrogate parent.
Her many roles in life established her as a pillar in my world, and that of many others.
On the surface, her story may not sound particularly unique.
She migrated from Jackson, MS to Topeka, KS to Des Moines, IA with her three children after–amongst other abhorrent experiences–her eldest daughter, my mother, refused to obey Jim Crow water fountain laws. She didn’t want her children to “end up like Emmett Till.” Once settled in Iowa, Grandma Ruthie then went on to become a beloved cafeteria employee in the Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools for almost 40 years.
The uniqueness in my grandma’s story is in the details. From her exceedingly thoughtful behaviors to her caring philosophy about life, my grandma is still one of the best teachers of my life. She didn’t preach. Contagion was her secret sauce. Her mere presence made you want to be a better person.
Here is a small sampling of lessons she taught me and many others in my life:
1. Benevolence isn’t idealistic; it’s necessary for success. My grandma was a giver. She was generous with her school kids. She was generous to our family. She was even generous to strangers. She had this unwavering benevolence about her. She was never worried about anyone taking her “piece of the pie.” This was one of the biggest lessons I learned from her. By lifting others and assuming good intent, her life expanded beyond belief. Every leader can learn from this lesson.
2. Stop wasting time on things that do not matter. I rarely saw my grandma stressed out. She always knew in the back of her head that everything would work out and patience was the key to getting there. She didn’t try to speed things up; she just waited and let things fall into place. She rarely ruminated. She didn’t hold grudges. Whenever I was worried about something, she would recap all the setbacks that I had already endured and was insistent that I could prevail again. The significance of this lesson: when we get wrapped up in things that don’t matter, we suffer the most. From her, I learned that it’s more important spending time being in the present and preparing for the future, not dwelling on the past.
3. Don’t take yourself too seriously. My grandma loved to laugh, and she taught me how to do it magnificently. When she laughed, we all laughed. She laughed profusely at silly movies. She laughed at herself when she would forget something. She rarely judged herself. This lesson is particularly important as we tend to be our own worst critics. Instead of mulling over that mistake you might have made in a presentation or something you forgot to mention to a prospective client, remember that it’s probably not that serious…and if it was, you can’t control the past.
4. It’s not about us, it’s about our communities. There are so many of us out there trying to excel in our businesses or careers. But the truth is, the more you go at it alone, the less successful you will be. As the African proverb says:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
My grandma certainly went far. Similarly, if we practice patience and collaboration in our own careers, we will go further.
5. The key to happiness is not all what it seems. As I wrote earlier, my grandma’s life might not have been that extravagant on the outside, but she was rich with character and wisdom. She showed me that gratitude is the most prosperous attitude. One thing that always baffled me was that she was constantly content. I recently realized that her path to contentment is backed by science. Studies have shown that people that value community and relationships over materialistic things experience greater job satisfaction, overall life satisfaction, and happiness. They also engage in fewer social comparisons, and, overall, experience less stress and anxiety. So, that new job, raise, or client isn’t the key to your happiness: It’s in your relationships.
My grandma left me, and scores of others, with memories and teachings that will last many lifetimes. Now, to honor her, it’s time to share her legacy with the rest of the world. While I don’t practice these lessons perfectly, they are extremely insightful, and happen to be scientifically backed. I’m confident that these lessons will be instrumental to my future successes. I will miss my grandma immensely but I am already comforted by the wealth of memories and teachings that I will spend the rest of my life unraveling.