His name was David Sankey.
People called him the “Penny Man,” because on the Berkeley campus, all he ever did was ask people for pennies. He was one of many homeless personalities that would walk around the campus engaging students.
I sat down with him one night as it was getting cold and I just couldn't say, “Good night, hope you stay warm” and walk away. So I invited him to stay with me and my roommates – indoors, with a sleeping bag that didn't smell like his.
David lived with us for almost two months. I remember almost every conversation we had in those two months, even though it's been over twenty years since I last saw him.
He was mentally challenged. And sick. And we must have visited doctor offices or government offices every week for 8 straight weeks, but I didn't learn much about governmental bureaucracy or mental illness.
Instead I learned a lot about the power of generosity and relationships.
All from a homeless man.
His name was Ralph. I never knew his last name.
It must have been a year or two later that I met the manager of a Carl's Jr fast food joint in North Oakland. Friends and I would hang out there, and eventually I got to know Ralph.
He was an associate manager, to be exact. At forty. Not the life he ever imagined for himself.
When you're in your early twenties, forty seems ancient. Now I look back on those days and laugh at myself, giving him career advice about managing his staff.
Mind you, I didn't just volunteer advice. I was answering his questions. But I was managing young staff at one of the country's largest YMCA's in Oakland at the time and he wanted help.
I learned a lot about being a constant learner from Ralph.
A manager at a fast food joint who was stuck in a dead-end job.
My children were born in a hospital where we knew the staff.
Eight years ago, my daughter was born in Walnut Creek, California. Two years after that, my son was born in the same hospital.
We did it there because we liked the hospital, even if it was thirty minutes away from our home. After all, that's where our friend worked in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Because she on staff, she could go where we couldn't, talk to those we couldn't, and open doors for us if we needed them.
I remember after our son was born, they were having trouble getting us into a room (from the delivery room). She picked up the phone and spoke for a minute. It's when I heard her say, “Well, are they anyone to anyone?”
She was using her trump card to get us a private room, I'm sure at the cost of someone who was less connected than we were.
I loved it. I was somebody to somebody.
Don't we all love that?
But the truth is that, in that moment, I thought of that other person we were displacing as a nobody. And to be honest, it's not the only time the thought has ever crossed my mind.
In fact, I bet there have been moments in life where I've asked the same question: “Well, are they anyone to anyone?” or “Are they a somebody?”
But here's the truth: nobody's a nobody. Ever.
Nobody's a nobody
It's easy to write off a homeless man asking for pennies.
It's easy to write off a fast food associate manager past his prime.
It's easy to write off just about anyone. But the only one you're hurting is yourself.
Because we can learn from just about anyone, if we put some energy into it.
Where's this all coming from Chris?
Some of you are wondering, at this point, what this has to do with anything.
Let me bring it around for you.
Today someone emailed me and told me they'd been inspired by me to start blogging. I was thrilled. I love it when people decide to step out of their comfort zone and give something a try.
But the rest of the short email exchange broke my heart.
See, what motivated them wasn't that I was a daily blogger, or a particularly good writer (at least that's not what we emailed about). Instead, it was the fact that I was overweight.
Stick with me here. They were inspired to write because they saw me, an overweight person, writing.
Some of you might have been offended if you got an email like that. Trust me, there was nothing offensive in the email. And I have a decent radar for people being jerks.
No, at the heart of it was something different.
They had stopped themselves from writing because they were overweight. They had bought into the lie that unless they were in shape, they couldn't have influence.
Can an overweight person have influence?
It's easy to fall into that kind of thinking, isn't it? Even if you don't struggle with being overweight.
Maybe you don't think you're photogenic enough to be in photos.
Maybe you don't think you're articulate enough to be on stage speaking.
The lie we buy into is that we need to fit into a perfect package before we can attempt to have influence in the communities we're in, and in the world around us.
So can an overweight person have influence? What about ethnic minorities? Latinos? What if you're not tall? What if you're not fast? What if you're social? What if you don't write code?
The questions could go on.
And you could come up with hundreds of reasons why you think you can't have influence.
But here's the thing.
The influence you have is something you don't control. It's something others cede to you. Others give you the right to have a voice in their lives. You don't control that.
So, right now, where you are, however you are, you can either choose to put your words and thoughts out there for the people around you, or you can go quiet. Waiting to have influence when you're packaged and perfect.
Don't wait. There will be time enough to work on all your imperfections. And the truth is, we all have them – whether they're as visible as others' issues or not.
Because you're not a nobody.
You're a somebody.