He’d be a tough professor. At least, that’s what I thought when I walked into “Reporting,” the first and most fundamental course of my journalism school program, and was thoroughly intimidated. But it turned out that he was also far kinder than he let on—and as my teacher and later unofficial mentor, he taught me too many things to list right here.
In one of the most memorable conversations we had in his little office on the eighth floor, he asked me what I wanted to do and where I imagined myself a few years down the line. I started to answer—talking about deep dive reporting and narrative feature writing—as he listened intently.
And then he asked if I was thinking about leadership roles. He encouraged me to consider it, not-so-subtly pushing me to think of it as a real possibility—one he believed I was capable of.
It’s not that I hadn’t already set ambitious goals for myself. But I was entering a new field that was and remains not only competitive, but also embroiled in an existential struggle (the kind where people ask out loud whether you’ll ever be able to get a good—and decently paying—job). To hear this from someone I respected, whose opinion I held in such high regard, was huge.
Inspire People to Think Bigger
This memory sprang to mind recently when I read a blog post by Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University.
“At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind,” Cowen writes. “It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, may be enormous.”
Looking back, I believe my professor, like Cowen, was making a deliberate point. He was telling me he saw potential that I wasn’t confident enough to acknowledge, let alone own.
The conversation didn’t make me immediately and irrevocably fearless, and I didn’t become an editor-in-chief the next day, or even a few years later, as a result of it. But I’ve thought back to that talk frequently—often at moments when I wondered if I was on the right path or whether I’d ever be able to reach the goals I’d set out for myself. And it’s always been comforting and fiercely motivating to remember that teacher’s faith in me and my future.
Pay it Forward
I hope to be able to do the same for someone else one day, and you should too. You can raise the aspirations of younger co-workers and professional contacts you think are talented and hardworking and who you imagine will do great things, perhaps even greater than they currently have in mind.
While it’s especially wonderful if you can offer them a concrete step up, all you really have to do is give them a vote of confidence and lift their sights a little higher. It’s no sweat on your part, and it’ll probably feel pretty great. Most importantly, it could make a huge difference in their career. And maybe at some point, they’ll pay it forward, too.