Anyone who’s read my books or seen my speeches knows that I was not a good student in high school; I went to summer school more times than I care to admit. As I limped to the finish line my senior year, I found myself at a crossroads. No major universities would accept me, and my dreams of going to law school were all but crushed, so my guidance counselor suggested that I start looking at trade schools. One day I was wandering the halls of Suffern High School when I heard loud music in the auditorium. I poked my head inside and saw the global youth musical organization Up with People rehearsing. At the time, they were touring high schools across the globe, bringing together young people from different mindsets, cultures, and races through the power of song and dance.
As I watched the rehearsal from the doorway, a member of the Up with People cast noticed me in my Suffern High School football jersey. “Hey, number one!” he called out, “come over here!”
He was a handsome guy in his early twenties with brown hair and piercing blue eyes. His strong athletic hand instantly shook mine. “Hi, I’m Brian Kanter. I’m from Kinston, North Carolina,” he said warmly. We got talking about Up with People’s mission, and he invited me to the show the following evening. And the rest, of course, is history. I would end up touring the world with Up with People and, twenty years later, become its president and CEO. Everything I am today I owe to that organization.
Brian, meanwhile, became like an older brother to me. He oversaw technical lighting for Up with People, and I got to know him as we bounced around from the U.S. to Mexico to Europe and countless other countries. Brian was the kind of person I would never have met anywhere else. He was from the Deep South, and I was from New York. He was Jewish and I was Catholic. He was full of self-confidence, while I couldn’t even pass basic algebra. Even though Brian was a handful of years older than me—which can seem like decades when you’re just out of high school—he treated me like an equal. He even helped me get into East Carolina University, the only major university in the country that would accept me.
Years later, when I got married to Jill, Brian was at my wedding in Beaver Creek, Colorado. On the way there, his car broke down on the side of the highway. He hitched a ride to the local Greyhound station, and then the bus broke down, too. But somehow, Brian made it to the biggest day of my life, because that’s what your best friends do.
Now, here’s a story I’ve never told anyone. Just as my second book, The Heart-Led Leader, was coming out, Brian called me up. We chatted for a few minutes, but I could tell something was very wrong.
“Tommy,” he said solemnly. “I have a favor to ask you.”
“The answer is yes. What’s the question?” I said reflexively. Whenever someone I love asks for a favor, that is my response.
“I need a piece of your liver.”
Yeah—I wasn’t expecting that. I thought Brian needed to borrow some money, or maybe he wanted me to accept a scholarship student into our National Leadership Academy. But my liver? Brian explained that he had severe ulcerative colitis that had led to liver failure. According to his doctors, he needed a transplant. His only brother, Steve, was not a match. The good news is that you can donate a piece of your liver and it will regenerate into a full-sized, healthy one in the recipient. But it’s major surgery and there are often complications. While you can donate a kidney and return to work in a week or so, it can take months to recuperate from a liver transplant. It would mean canceling my book tour among countless other engagements.
I was scared. I hate needles and hospitals. But I knew that Brian would be the first in line to give me his liver if our situations were reversed, so I made an appointment with my doctor to see if I was a match. It turned out I was not. I admit I was relieved, but I also felt ashamed: Brian had done so much for me over the years, and I was not able to help him in his hour of need.
Fortunately, Brian’s doctors were ultimately able to put him on an extremely strict diet that has kept his liver function stable. But the whole experience got me thinking: How far will we go for the people we love most? When it comes to my family—Jill, Anthony, Caroline, and Tate—I would give up every single organ in my body to keep them healthy. But to give up part of yourself for a friend… they must be damn special.
Think how many times you’ve said to someone going through a rough patch: “If you ever need something, let me know.” You say it all the time without thinking. You’ll probably say “yes” if they ask for a ride to the airport or to babysit their kids for an evening. But what if they ask for a chunk of your liver?
In my first book, It’s Not Just Who You Know, I talked about building deep, meaningful relationships. First Floor relationships are transactional, Second Floor relationships are NSW (news, sports, weather) conversations, and so forth, all the way up to Fifth Floor relationships, which require vulnerability, love, authenticity, and trust. But after my experience with Brian, I got thinking that maybe there is a sixth floor for those special folks you would do anything for—even give them an organ.
Think long and hard about who is on your sixth floor. There are probably very few people that high up. For me, besides my family, it’s my mentor Jerry Middel, who has invested more into me in the past two decades than anyone else. It’s Andy Newland, my best friend in Denver, who has changed my life with his kindness and stoicism. They’re my friends Lisa Haselden, Bobby Creighton, and Brian Flegel, who inspire me to be a better person every day. On the sixth floor are people like my best friend from high school, Corey Turer. My best friend from college, Gary Dudley. And, of course, Brian Kanter. Making this list reminds me that relationships are what matter most in life—not how much money you make, where you went to college, or what your GPA was.
In a time when social media has cheapened the definition of “friend,” when so much of our day takes place online, it’s easy to lose sight of the most important people in our lives. But here’s my promise: The more work you put into creating deep and meaningful relationships, the more people you will have on that sixth floor. And one day, when your luck runs out, you will have a dozen Brian Kanters standing in line ready to give you a chunk of their liver!