Dave Kerpen, CEO, Likeable Local, NY Times Best-Selling Author & Keynote Speaker
I have a story to share, about a short flight that changed my life, which I've never written publicly about. Before I tell you the story, I'll warn you – my last lesson learned may be a controversial one for some people.
Anyway, two years ago, one rainy morning in New York, I had a flight to catch to Boston. My first two scheduled flights were canceled, and I almost decided not to go, but I gave it one more shot, and the third flight went out as planned. I was sitting in the front row of coach, and just before the flight took off, a much older man got up from first class, which was actually a lot more crowded, and sat down in my row, just across the aisle.
As the plane went into the air, I had a rare moment when I couldn't stare at my electronic device of choice, and so I peered to my right, and say the older man reading some paper, with large print typed on it. I couldn't help but notice the words on the page: "My dear friend, the late Ted Kennedy…"
Intrigued, I read on, and saw the following words soon thereafter:
"When I wrote the new GI Bill…"
I was sitting next to a Congressman! Excited, but still not knowing who he was, I put out my hand and said to him, "Excuse me. Sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to say it's an honor to meet you. I'm Dave Kerpen."
"Great to meet you, Dave. I'm Senator Frank Lautenberg," he replied.
We proceeded to talk for the next 45 minutes – the entire flight up to Boston. It turned out that he was on his way to give a speech at his grandson's school – and having nearly run for political office myself, I was anxious to learn from him. I did learn a great deal about the Senator – over his illustrious career, the oldest living senator (at 89!) had authored the legislation to ban smoking on airlines – legislation that has affected us all, in a positive way. He also authored the Ryan White Care Act, serving AIDS patients, and fought for stiffer drunk-driving penalties. He has had what anyone of any political party would argue is a great career in government – and he had gotten it all started late in his life, at 58 years old.
But the incredible thing I learned was that before politics, Lautenberg had had another career – in business – as the first salesperson and long time CEO of a payroll company you may have heard of – ADP. Today, Automatic Data Processing (ADP) is a $10 Billion company on the Fortune 500 – but Senator Lautenberg shared stories from its start, in 1949, when he had just graduated from college, and from 1961, when he took the company public.
We talked about business, and politics, and social media, and family. I told him how interested I was in growing our social media business, and then perhaps going into politics, as he had done. I also told him my wife and I were considering having a third child, but we weren't sure, because we were both so busy with work and other priorities. It was great conversation, or at least I thought so. Of course, the flight from NYC to Boston doesn't last long, and the flight landed almost as quickly as it took off.
Senator Lautenberg gave me his business card, told me he really enjoyed meeting me and learned a lot from me about social media, and said he'd love to get together again. I wasn't sure I'd see him again, but I thanked him profusely, and told him he'd given me a lot to think about in terms of creating a legacy as he had done.
"One more thing, Dave," Senator Lautenberg said, as the flight attendant welcomed us to Boston. "I want to show you a picture of my greatest legacy."
As he reached into his pocket, I wondered what he'd show me –a leader so accomplished in two totally different careers. A piece of paper with the idea for ADP? A section of a law he'd written? A picture of him with a President?
Senator Lautenberg pulled his phone out of his pocket, and proceeded to show me a picture with a whole bunch of people.
"These are my four kids, and seven grandchildren, Dave. This is my greatest legacy."
What I Learned From That Flight
1) You can learn from anyone. Start up a conversation whenever possible.Life gives us so many opportunities to strike up a conversation with a stranger – on a flight, waiting in line at the supermarket, and on the train to work, to name a few. We can keep to ourselves, or say hello with a smile and meet someone, and maybe even learn from them. I learned so much from Frank Lautenberg in just 45 minutes – and the crazy thing is, he actually said he learned from me.
2) It's never too early – or too late – to pursue a dream. Frank Lautenberg built one of the largest companies in the world – ADP – and began when he was just 25. Then he became a United States Senator – at 58 years old – and will have served for over 30 years. Whatever our dreams are, it's always the right time to go for it.
3) Our ultimate, most important legacy is our children. The end of my conversation with Frank Lautenberg had a profound impact on me, and eventually helped my wife and me make the decision to try to have a third child. If a man so accomplished in both business and government could argue that his greatest legacy is his family, how could I not?
I know those of you who do not have children and are not planning on having children may not like my last lesson here. But I really, strongly believe that it was an important one for me to learn. I'll close with one more thing Senator Lautenberg shared at the end of our conversation, that I think about nearly every day today:
"ADP, and the US Senate won't be on my tombstone. My kids' names all will be."