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October 22, 2012 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Leadership

I had a leadership class at Columbia with a famous professor. He wrote a bestselling book after working as a high-level executive at one of the world’s most valuable companies.

His class at Columbia was among the school’s most popular ones. People knew he taught well and cared about his students but he could be intimidating. You knew to do the work and never slack.

Once I spoke to him after class. Since I had kept up with all the readings — mostly his book — and participated in class I figured I was in good shape. I just wanted to ask a question.

I mentioned to him in passing that I was reading his book from the library.

“What? From the library?”

“I went to buy it from the bookstore and they told me it was coming out in paperback soon.”

I didn’t consider this relevant to anything. I was doing the classwork and participating in class. How I did so didn’t seem important. His response shocked me. He said it loud enough for others to hear.

“You’re too fucking cheap to buy my book?!?”

His cursing shocked me. I couldn’t fathom an Ivy League professor cursing at a student over something so trivial.

Emotionally I felt wronged and insulted. I wanted to get him back. I knew arguing then and there would go nowhere. I decided to talk to other people in his department and see if I could start some disciplinary action. Today I would look at going behind his back as totally backward and counterproductive.

Actually, this interaction probably taught me the counterproductivity of that strategy more than anything else. Only I didn’t learn doing so was wrong or counterproductive. I learned another approach that worked better.

I decided to view his cursing not as offensive, insulting, or unprofessional.

I decided to view his cursing as friendly instead of offensive, treating me as a peer instead of insulting, and casual instead of unprofessional. I decided to go to his office and speak to him comfortably as someone he decided to treat as a peer instead of just a student. Did I have any basis for this interpretation — for interpreting everything positively? No, but I had no reason not to interpret things this way and I couldn’t think of an interpretation more likely to create a better outcome for me.

Whether he intended that or not, we spoke casually, more friendly than how I normally spoke with Professors. We’ve kept in touch since, and he’s always remained friendly.

At first I wanted to get back at him. I’d feel right, but what would I achieve? If I succeeded I’d make an enemy and divide a department against itself. If I failed I’d feel defeated and still have an enemy and a department that didn’t like me.

Instead I gained a friend and mentor. I learned again the value of always interpreting everything positively.

EDIT: since I got a question about why I didn’t just get the book, I wanted to read it but not get stuck with a physical copy, as this page about freedom from stuff describes.

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