That’s me with my broken car in the old-school selfie (tripod and SLR camera). I was on my way to meet up with my friend Kenny who, at a young age, taught me a lot about life lessons.
A Little Background
I grew up in a blue-collar, post-war-era cracker box with a brick façade that looked like all the others on the surrounding blocks. The neighborhood was nice and clean and full of kids that, for the most part, were all friends.
We went to a seafoam green grade school one block away from my house that was hastily built out of cinder blocks with concrete floors and huge windows along the walls of each classroom. Our school was fun; I liked it. I just talked too much. It says so on each of my report cards!
Kindergarten and first grade were uneventful. Not really any memorable moments. Except when it came time to use crayons to color stuff – between the lines, please! The other kids followed the teacher’s directions; green here, blue here, etc. I liked choosing my own colors, adding elements, and making stripes to jazz up the picture. And it was okay!
Then came second grade. With the luck of the draw, I was put in Mrs. Mound’s class – my favorite teacher of all time (next to Mary Kay, my wife, and the best teacher ever). The second stroke of luck was I met who would become my best childhood friend, Kenny.
Right from the beginning, Kenny and I were inseparable. We did everything together. Even our families did things together; camping, boating, fishing, and that great American pastime, bowling.
I was good at sports; Kenny was better at making friends. He had a great smile and an easy-going personality that made most kids want to be friends. Several of us would meet at the playground on Saturdays to play on the equipment, talk, and have a great time being out of our parents’ hair. Every kid should get to grow up this way, but that’s another story.
Kenny and I moved on to junior high, and our circle of friends got much bigger, so we didn’t hang out as much as we did in grade school. I participated in most sports, and Kenny hung out with friends, so we started drifting apart, but we remained best friends and always had each other’s back.
The Bad News
As we entered our high school years, we drifted farther apart, mainly because we were in different high school districts and partly because we developed different interests. And then there were girls and cars. We would still see each other at parties or Friday night football games and occasionally talk on the phone.
Then one morning, on the school bus, a mutual friend told me Kenny was sick and in the hospital. She said, “They think it might be leukemia.” Even with my limited medical knowledge and no internet to Google, I knew this wasn’t good. I later learned that not only did Kenny have leukemia, but he also had acute leukemia.
Kenny immediately started chemotherapy, which isn’t pleasant, but 35 years ago, it was downright brutal. We wondered if he would make it. We were 15 years old, living this Ozzie and Harriet life, when bam – reality kicked in hard. Fortunately, the chemo worked, and Kenny got better. It took a while, but he was finally back.
Fast forward five years, Kenny and I are both 20 going on 30. I had started my first business and was having some success (since it was proven I couldn’t work for anyone). Having gone out of remission again, Kenny moved out of state for specialized care and did another round of chemo and other treatments along the way.
The Worst News
Kenny moved back into town, so I called him to meet for lunch to catch up on the latest news. I didn’t know it, but Kenny was out of remission for the third time when we met for lunch to catch up.
I was excited to tell Kenny all about my business and find out what he had been up to since we hadn’t talked in a few months. After arriving at the diner, it was clear that Kenny wasn’t feeling good. I went from excited to concerned.
We sat down in a booth and just looked at each other for what seemed like 5 minutes. It was probably only 10 seconds, but it was long enough to know some heavy news was coming.
Then it came. “Ron, the cancer is back.”
“What are you going to do?” I asked with a lump in my throat. Then another round hit.
“Nothing,” he said. Silence. Long, awkward silence.
“I’ve done chemo twice, and I’m not doing it again.”
“What does that mean?”
And there it was. “I am going to die in a few weeks.”
Whew, now my eyes are watering, and for a guy who never cries, I was close. I could hardly talk, but Kenny was cool, calm, and collected.
“WHY?” was all I could get out.
“I’ve found a church and a minister, and I have planned my funeral.”
Stunned silence. Then the life lesson I’ll never forget.
“It’s okay, Ron – it is what it is.”
“What do you mean? Why aren’t you fighting it?”
“That’s what I’ve been doing for the last five years, and it is no way to live, and chemo usually doesn’t work a third time.”
Finality. We are mortal. A few weeks later, Kenny, my best friend, was gone.
Since that day, I’ve come to understand the true meaning of it is what it is. I don’t know about you, but I hear the phrase “it is what it is” casually used by people at least once or twice a day.
It is a coping mechanism that helps each of us as leaders “own it” instead of blaming or getting out of sorts. In our Ultimate Leader Success course, we call it “being above the line” vs. “below the line.”
What Kenny Taught Me About Life Lessons
- Be responsible for your actions and your decisions.
- Have the courage to do the right thing and stay true to yourself.
- Hold yourself accountable for your successes and your failings.
- Above all, understand how lucky you are to have the choice.
Over the years, I’ve thought of Kenny often and how wise he became in his short life. And how lucky I am to get the time to marry the woman of my dreams, have a family, build a few businesses, and experience a lot of happiness.
Why am I so Lucky?
What Life Has Taught Me About Life Lessons
Be Fearless. Stand up and speak out and lead by example for what you believe in. This is easy when what you believe in is the current trend. If the truth you believe in is unpopular or goes against the mainstream, being fearless becomes fairly difficult. Standing up for truth is rarely easy, and doing so sets you apart from the herd. You can probably think of five fearless people right now. Counting you, that makes six!
Think For Yourself. Be a seeker of truth. Do your own search for truth rather than be a blind follower of other peoples’ or groups’ beliefs or agendas. Make a list of your life-defining beliefs and objectively research whether your current beliefs are, in fact, true. I promise the answers you find may surprise and challenge you. Have the courage to find the truth and carry your own water! This takes Be Fearless courage.
Do The Right Thing. If only this were as easy as it sounds. Doing the right thing when no one is watching or when you have to say no to money, prestige, or comfort can be difficult. Everyone likes money, prestige, and comfort, right? Many people in today’s society find it much easier to slant a report to make reality better than it really is, pretends that a deal is beneficial to everyone when it is not, or obfuscate the truth for profit. But not you! Life is much more fulfilling when you do the right thing.
What Have You Learned About Life Lessons?
If you have ideas about life lessons that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!
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This is a powerful! Leaders are courageous and understand the power of conscience decisions. Through the lens of your experience and after reading this profound example of humility, Kenny will teach each reader many significant leadership lessons. I know that I’ve discovered a few.
Thanks for sharing.
F. E. Starks
Thanks for the kind words, Florida.
Wow. Powerful. I will use Kenny’s story with my kids who are just starting their careers and my teams.
Thank you so much for this moving story Ron. My mom died of cancer two years ago and I couldn’t hold back the tears as I remembered when she told us the same words Kenny told you. This is the kind of story that helps us all put things in perspective and go above the line to stop our role in conflict and heal relationships. The one lesson I would add:
Any day above ground is a good day, no matter what!
Thank you so much for sharing this and for the great work you and Mary Kay are doing with AboutLeaders.
Thanks, Dave. Sounds like you have some great kids!
Al, thank you for being a big part of the About Leaders community.
Thanks, very nice tribute to those strong silent types. The lessons I learned enabled my children and I to walk my husband to heavens gates.