We all have someone whose words of wisdom stand out for us, and whose ideas we leverage at work and in our personal life. For me, it was my maternal grandfather, DeWitt Calamari, who passed away many years ago after 93 years of gathering life experiences. Grandpa was a man of very few words. He had a grumpy demeanor, and three dents in his bald skull from where he had endured brain surgery in the 1950’s. I was usually petrified when in his presence. It probably worked well for both of us that he only said three things to me my entire life. In retrospect, each provides a great life lesson conveyed in clear language.
“Whiney, whiney, whiney! You’re such a whiney kid!”
He was right; I was a very whiney kid. I complained about everything. (I’m only a moderately whiney adult.) Grandpa was the youngest of eight children, and the only one of his siblings to live past the age of 12. He never met his father, who became ill before Grandpa was born and went back to Italy for treatment, but never returned. Grandpa’s mother became a dietitian at a New York City hospital to support the family. Once it was just her and Grandpa, she took a job as a housekeeper to a cruel and abusive farmer in upstate New York. In the early years of the 20th Century, life was tough for many people, and the typical approach was to deal with your problems quietly and privately. You didn’t whine, in part, because of a sense of self-reliance, and in part because no one wanted to hear it; they were dealing with their own problems.
Grandpa had no patience for whiners. You could ask him a thousand questions about his garden, his photography, and the various contraptions he built around his house in the Bronx. He was always eager to explain things to you if you showed interest. He was always open to suggestions. But he didn’t want to hear complaints. I’ve learned over the years that neither does anyone else.
- “What do you mean you won’t eat it? That’s the best part!”
Whether it was the burnt part of the toast, the crusty part of the pasta, or, God forbid, the moldy part of the cheese, Grandpa elevated the dregs to the icing on the cake. A life of modest means had taught him how to be grateful. Gratitude isn’t about accepting less-than with reluctance or resignation. True gratitude is about finding joy in what’s in front of you. I’m not talking about injustice, against which we should all rebel at work and in life. I’m talking about the little disappointments that happen each day, the small inconveniences that occur and have the potential to mount as the day progresses and throw us off our game. If instead of allowing those moments to irritate us, we found a way to shrug them off or appreciate them for what they are, we’d make each day that much easier for ourselves and for those around us.
Grandpa had a tough and lonely start to life. But he and my grandmother managed through The Great Depression, putting food on the table and providing a healthy start to life for their growing family. When he was diagnosed with cancer in his early fifties, he underwent experimental surgery to remove a brain tumor. He had to quit his job with the City of New York, but managed to live another forty years, puttering around the house working on various projects. He treated every day as a gift. He reveled in the smallest signs of beauty, like new shoots on the dogwood tree in his yard, or the slightest of accomplishments, like teaching his Toy Fox Terrier, Dukie, a new trick. Simple gratitude for the small things in life, and turning the little disappointments into opportunities, might go a long way to take the edge off the day. I can’t advocate that you should eat the moldy part of the cheese, because I know I won’t. But, the next time your coffee order gets screwed up, instead of thinking of it as a failure, think of it as an adventure. I’ve never tried my Tall Flat White with caramel before. Let’s give it a whirl.
Grandpa had a gruff demeanor, but I have no doubt he genuinely wanted his six children and twenty-two grandchildren to be happy. He didn’t always know how to achieve that, so sometimes he just demanded it. From his early twenties he was an avid photographer. He took thousands of posed and spontaneous pictures of all of us. As I say, I was afraid of him, so when he said, “Smile,” I smiled. Smiling, like being grateful, can sometimes accomplish what complaining cannot. Smiling projects positivity into the world, and usually elicits a smile in return. It softens each interaction. When I coach professionals on their communication skills, I sometimes need to help them understand when and how to soften their tone. Part of that process often involves getting them to smile more. Who knew Grandpa was on to something?
I didn’t know it at the time, but the man who intimidated me the most as a child, taught me to avoid complaining, appreciate whatever good you can find in a moment, and present a positive face to the world. Who in your life gave you words of wisdom?
Originally published on Forbes.com.