Last week, after over 6,000 shows, Dave Letterman aired his last late night show. Lots of comedians and public figures have talked and written about his unmatched influence on the late night format, on comedy and TV in general. Conan O’Brien recently wrote an article for Entertainment Weekly about Dave’s effect on him and comedy.
On Conan’s show that aired on Dave’s final night, Conan opened with a heartfelt story about Dave and how, in Conan’s perception, saved him and his show back in 1993 when Conan O’Brien was an unknown performer (having previously only been in the background as a writer).
I watched Dave say goodbye last Wednesday and I watched the DVR’ed Conan the next day. I was so moved by Conan because he reminded me of something: one person has the power to change the trajectory for someone else by making the decision to be kind.
And, maybe more interestingly, the decision to be kind is what is ultimately more important, more noteworthy than talent, genius or skill. In some ways, I think that’s what Conan was saying: of course he admired Dave and the precedent he set for so many others. Of course he was groundbreaking and creative and different. But, what Conan chose to talk about on his own (funny, creative and different) show was a profound act of kindness that Dave was generous enough to bestow upon him twenty-two years ago.
It made me think about how and why we decide to help people. Who knows why Dave decided to help Conan? Perhaps he saw that Conan was talented and in a tough spot getting beaten down by critics, TV executives, and the American TV viewers. Maybe he just saw a nice guy who he related to, who he knew probably looked up to him and even though you might argue that Dave was never fully aware (or accepting) of the adulation that people had for him, he knew that Conan admired him and he knew that he could make a difference in his morale by appearing on his show.
In my industry, coaching and personal development, I see a lot of people who are adored, admired and emulated. I also see a lot of people who are quietly and expertly helping people change their lives and perhaps not getting a ton of public recognition for it. I see people who seem to be financially successful write and talk about how to say no to people’s requests for their time: tele-summits, podcasts, interviews, or even coffee dates. It’s certainly useful to know how to say no and a lot of us don’t know how to do it, especially when we get into unknown territory where we are meeting new people and have some visibility and people want to “pick our brains” or find out how we achieved something.
But, there’s also a lot of value in not necessarily saying yes to all these requests, but giving something to someone that we know could help them… just because. Not because there’s anything we know we’ll get back from it. Not because we think they’re up and coming, or particularly talented or have done something for us. Just because – wouldn’t it be great if someone was really cool to you for no apparent reason? When I think of the times that people were really cool to me for no reason that I could determine, helped me in some way, when there was nothing to gain for them, or they seemed to not know me well at all – it makes me know undoubtedly that I want to do that for someone else.
You never know whose hero (or heroine) you are, but even if you’re not well-known, famous or don’t consider yourself particularly successful, there are people out there who you can help. How do I know this? Because I’m not yet well-known, famous and I’m not yet in the place I’d like to be financially, but I’ve been messaged by people from other parts of the world, telling me that what I’ve written or said on a call, an audio recording or a video had a deep impact on them. What I have created has helped people I don’t even know.
In Conan’s case, Dave’s seemingly random act of kindness of asking to be on Conan’s show, which he characterized as “the Beatles asking Maury Povich if they could stop by…” changed not only Conan’s outlook on what he and his show could be, but his entire staff morale, as well. While I think he was being a bit modest and underplaying his own abilities, in Conan’s words “everything turned around for me” after Dave’s appearance on his show.
I am confident that Conan would do the same type of thing for a flailing up and comer if/when he has had the chance. I am inspired to do the same for someone else when I get into a position of prominence. But even if I never do, I’m more inspired today to simply be kind to someone who needs kindness, perhaps helping them change their trajectory in some small way.