That moment when you realize it’s not all about you

Please pardon the eye-rolling earnestness of this post, but when you vividly remember a “teachable moment” that happened 30+ years ago – and you still try to apply the lessons learned — it really should be shared. My memorable teachable moment came courtesy of just four words: “I’m not your photographer.”

It’s July 31, 1988, and I’m a 22 year-old “contributing reporter” at the Boston Globe, the newspaper I grew up reading and have dreamed of working at since I was 10.  I’ve been given a very exciting assignment for an intern: drive a company car down to Newport, Rhode Island, and write about the return of a badly-damaged US Navy frigate that hit a mine in the Persian Gulf a few months earlier.  A number of sailors were injured in the attack, and war with Iran and/or Iraq seems inevitable.  This could be a Page One story, I’m thinking.

I somehow find my way to Newport – this is a few years before GPS would become widely available, so I was using one of those foldable map books – and I get to the Navy Yard just in time to see the USS Samuel B. Roberts arrive.  Its back broken and its skin scarred, the Roberts is being carried into port atop a massive salvage ship called the Mighty Servant 2.  It’s quite a sight.

Somehow (and believe me, the word “somehow” comes up a lot when I reflect back on my two years writing for the Globe) I find the photographer who the City Desk has sent to cover the story with me.  Weighed down with her cool camera gear, Janet Knott is already talking with the Navy’s PR guy near the waters’ edge when I approach them.  

I introduce myself to the PR guy, and then I say: “I see you met my photographer already.” 

After a moment of extremely awkward silence that I don’t understand at the time, the PR guy leaves us to our work.  I interview some people, take some notes.  Janet gets her pictures and the info she needs for the photo captions.  And as we get ready to head back to the paper, Janet gently pulls me aside and says just four words:  “I’m not your photographer.”  

And that’s all she says.  She’s not angry, hateful, snotty or mean.  She just states it as a plain fact.  And of course, she’s 100 percent correct.  At the time, Janet was an incredibly talented photographer on assignment for the Boston Globe, not “my” photographer.  

I can’t remember what I said in reply, but I probably looked down at my sneakers and muttered a weak “sorry.”

Ugh, I was the very definition of a callow 22 year-old.  (Sexist and self-important, too.)

I’ve been reflecting on this brief but enormously-instructive, decades-old exchange with Janet quite a bit lately. Why? Because the nature of my work — speaking on stage at large industry conferences, hosting well-publicized webinars and podcasts, bylining white papers and articles that people I respect share online — means I often get a disproportionate amount of kudos for efforts that actually involved a lot of talented people working behind the scenes. My teammates don’t always get enough of the praise or the credit for work-product I happen to be delivering.  (That TED Talk I gave a few years ago would never have have gone viral had it not been for the critical input of an amazing coach, Brian Carson.)

So now, if someone is kind enough to offer me effusive praise for a particularly successful event that I emceed, or for a well-received presentation I make on stage, I do my absolute best to say: “I’m lucky to be part of an exceptional team that makes things like this possible.”  And I mean it when I say it. And when I forget to say it, I’m that clueless 22 year-old who thinks the team is “mine” all over again.  

(Again – please pardon the eye-rolling earnestness of this post. It’s that time of year.)

I found award-winning photographer Janet Knott online this week – our paths never crossed much after the Newport assignment, so we don’t know each other in real life — and via email I recounted the story of our little chat in 1988.  Her response was quick, cheerful and forgiving.

“Your recollection of that story cracks me up!” Janet wrote back. “Working as a photographer for the esteemed Boston Globe was an amazing experience, especially on a Sunday in August, 1988 in Newport, RI.
Always eager to scoop the Boston Herald or any other news media for that matter, I most likely showed up early to start the PR dance…In 1988, the Boston Globe was known for WORDS rather than images, and usually the PR person would ask ‘where’s the reporter?’ before laying down the lay of the land…in hindsight it was all team effort, even if possession of my being by using the phrase ‘my photographer’ slipped out during the dance!”

Janet’s being too kind today, but I’m grateful that 32 years ago she was direct enough to call out my self-centered worldview. (And now that I’ve written this, I can finally stop cringing at the memory!)

I recently shared this lesson-learned with my three kids, each of whom is just starting out in the workforce. I hope they remember it.  Someday soon, they’re likely to find themselves in the roles that Janet and I played that day in 1988: the inexperienced, entitled new hire, and the young person confident enough to address behavior that needs correcting.  

I hope my kids will know which type of person they want to be remembered as when the time comes.

“Globe staff photo by Janet Knott.” Words by David Grady, “Contributing Reporter.” Check out Janet Knott’s website here.

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