A small child struggled against the tide. He was thrashing, gasping and treading water to keep his head above the surface. A rip current had pulled him out to sea and now he was tired. It was time to literarily sink or swim. Quitting would have been easy. All he had to do was silently slip beneath the waves. But something inside of him wouldn’t allow him to do that. He slowly began to kick his legs as he moved his arms. Everything fell into synch. Movement that was once frantic became purposeful. Stroke, kick and breath. Stroke, kick and breath. He felt strength return to his body. Fear was replaced with hope. He swam parallel to the shoreline, pulled himself out of the rip current and slowly headed to safety.
Peter woke up from his nightmare with a start. Thirty years ago, he was the small child who nearly drowned at the beach. But this was the first time he had revisited that frightening day.
Sweat drenched his sheets. He looked at the alarm clock. It as 3:30 a.m.
Peter’s wife Ann snored gently next to him and their dog Bob rolled over, snoring as well. Neither realized Peter was awake. Like so many years ago, he was struggling. He was at another breaking point. And he felt alone.
He was thrashing around in the water once again. The past year had been a struggle. He remembered the day he had been downsized. He had gone to the office like every other morning. Sure, there had been layoffs, but he was too important. He was his job. But his own pride blinded him to the train headed his way.
“I’m sorry Peter, we’re going to have to let you go.”
When he lost his job, he lost a part of himself. He was back to being the small child thrashing around in the water. As he looked at blurry numbers on the alarm clock, he knew it was once again time to learn to swim. The next morning, he would take action.
“I’m surprised to see you, Peter.” The professor leaned back in her chair. Tenure meant she had a magnificent view. Just outside of her window, hazy mountains loomed over the university’s campus. A warn sunbeam illuminated floating dust.
“I’m surprised to be here, Dr. Guardian. In fact, I thought I’d be somewhere else today.”
“Like at work?”
Both sat silently. Peter nodded.
Dr. Guardian rubbed her chin. She had been an executive at a Fortune 500 firm and a marketing guru before she decided to enter academics. And she was the one professor in five years who had challenged Peter. She made him do better. She saw his ability. That’s why Peter had returned. All because of five words:
“You can do better Peter.”
Peter remembered that’s what the professor had said when she laid the first test down on his desk. Peter had scored a 95.
“You can do better Peter.”
Peter looked up at his mentor as she said it again and asked, “But how? I’ve lost all respect for myself.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Ah, RESPECT. I feel like busting in to a little Aretha Franklin.”
“Please don’t,” Peter said half jokingly.
“Seriously. You need a little RESPECT. R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” The professor sang it off-key.
Peter knew his mentor was going somewhere with this, but just wasn’t sure where.
“Come with me.” The professor beckoned as she headed out to the door. ”If I am going to be your teacher again, let’s do it in a classroom.”
G-2 was an underground bunker of an auditorium that normally sat 300 students. Peter remembered how many good naps he had taken in that room. But today, he knew he’d learn a lesson of a lifetime. He looked up at the screen where the professor began to write.
“Now, what is R.E.S.P.E.C.T.? Simple. Let’s break it down this way.” The professor began to write on the screen as she talked. “I really miss chalkboards, by the way.”
“R — Reliable. You have to become reliable. Do what you say when you say when you are going to do it. That will give you an edge in this world. Honesty has to be your foundation.It will make you different. And better.”
Peter began to feverishly take notes.
“E – Effort. This is the secret sauce. You are going to have to work your butt off. I know you are capable of it. Of course, it has to be purposeful effort. But we’ll get to that in a minute. The bottom line, though, is that if you stop, you sink.”
Peter nodded. The professor’s example hit close to home.
“S- Service. You have to provide and be a service to others. QUIT thinking about yourself all the time. It’s OK to take care of yourself. Zig Ziglar said it best, “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”
“P – Planning. Which leads to purpose. Peter, this is your weakness. If it hadn’t been for me, you would have never gotten out of college. YOU must have a plan. You HAVE to set goals. There are a thousand great books on goal setting out there but let me sum it up to you this way — goal setting is the purposeful strokes you made when you started swimming when you were a child. You have to have a REASON to do what you’re doing.”
Peter remembered that day at the beach and underlined “Planning.”
“E – Enthusiasm. Energy. Excitement. There are enough Eeyores in the world. Trust me — I know I’m sick of complainers. Yes, times are hard. But the goal here is to be different. To stand out. A smile and a little enthusiasm will make you special.”
Peter thought about how many times he had complained and gossiped at this old job. What if he had been different?
“C – Contentment. This one is a little confusing for some, but trust me, you have to have peace with who you are. It’s OK to want more. But if you don’t have contentment, you will never find happiness. Life’s too short, son. Trust me.”
The professor looked at her wrinkled hand and then continued.
“T – Trying new things.”
Peter said, “You couldn’t come up with just one word?”
“No,” the professor said, “because this is too important! Peter, you got comfortable at your job. You stopped trying new things. You sat down in your comfort zone and took a nap. YOU have to keep changing. I loved being an executive and was well compensated for it. But I woke up one day and realized I wanted to teach. And it has brought me rewards beyond imagination.”
Peter had thought about all of the honors the professor had received. She was one of the toughest and most popular instructors on campus.
“Peter, you have constantly reinvent yourself. The world won’t stop changing because you won’t. You said you had lost respect. Well, there you go. ”
Peter looked at his notepad. He had also recorded the professor’s lesson on his phone.
He felt his strength returning. He shook his mentor’s hand and charged out of the auditorium and into a new life.
One year later, the professor heard a knock at the door. Peter stuck his head in and said, “You got time to see an old student?”
“More like a successful author,” the professor glowed. “I hope you are bringing me a book.”
Peter smiled. ”Of course. First edition. And I was thinking about what my second book will be about. But I need a co-author. ”
“Oh,” the professor said, “if you are looking for a brilliant and modest one, I’m your gal. What are you thinking about calling this book?”
Peter smiled. “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.”
The professor smiled and said, “Peter, I’m proud of you. You’ve gone from treading water to swimming with purpose. I knew you could do better. And you did.”
And at that moment, Peter swam toward shore — with respect.