An exerpt from The Gift of Influence, Tommy’s newest release debuting next Tuesday, September 20th!
Fifty-one days before my fiftieth birthday, I was on a Southwest Airlines flight bound for Denver. It was a bumpy ride, and the seatbelt sign kept flashing on. As we began our descent, we hit a patch of turbulence and the plane dropped a few hundred feet. Luggage fell, drinks spilled, passengers cried out. As a lot of people do in these situations, I started praying. Except I wasn’t praying for the plane to recover— I was praying for it to crash.
I wanted to stop living. If the plane went down, my family would get a nice insurance settlement and I could have a dignified death without anyone knowing how painful my life had become. But the 737 leveled off and we landed safely in Denver. As I watched the other passengers unbuckle their seatbelts, text their loved ones, and go about their lives, I felt a terrible wave of shame. A plane crash would have solved my problems, but the other folks on the plane didn’t want to die. No one’s troubles are worth the lives of a hundred innocent people.
The truth is, by that moment I had lost all hope. I was unable to see the good in people; I saw only cynicism, deception, and hate. This was the result of a perfect storm of three awful situations that had collectively reached a fever pitch.
The first involved the ex-husband of my wife, Jill. When I met Jill nearly twenty years before, she was divorced with a three-year-old son, Anthony. I immediately fell in love with them both, and proposing to her remains the best decision I’ve ever made. When Jill and I had children of our own, I was determined that Anthony would feel equally loved. I was also determined to include his father, Mike, in our family.
At first Mike didn’t like the idea of another father figure in Anthony’s life, but he warmed up to me. Jill and I invited him over for birthdays and holidays. Mike and I went to hockey games with Anthony. We even vacationed together in Mexico as one big family. But as Anthony and I grew closer, Mike became verbally abusive toward me. When he began making serious threats, I called the police, and a judge granted a lifetime restraining order— his bullying had become that bad. But the damage was done, and the ordeal brought my family to the breaking point.
The second situation involved a woman I had partnered with to build a leadership development program for organizations. She was very talented, but after six months it became clear that our values did not align, and I pulled out of the business. A few months later, my closest family, friends, and clients gathered for the launch of my second book, The Heart-Led Leader. It was one of the happiest moments of my life— until a man walked up to me at the book- signing table to serve me papers. My former partner was coming after half of all my future book royalties and speaking fees. Her lawyer threatened to ruin me if I didn’t cave. By the time I boarded that Southwest flight, the lawsuit had cost me over a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees.
Finally, while I was battling in court, I made the worst business decision of my life: I bought a sub sandwich franchise. I had a dream of hiring disadvantaged high school kids and teaching them leadership skills in the workplace. I had everything planned out— except how to actually run a sandwich shop. My store location was awful, I was chained to a long-term lease, and before long I was losing more than $10,000 per month and careening toward bankruptcy.
I was essentially living two lives. The first was as Tommy Spaulding, bestselling author who gave inspirational speeches to capacity crowds. This Tommy Spaulding was a leadership expert with an all- American family who coached everyone from Fortune 500 CEOs to high schoolers. But when the lights dimmed and the crowd went home, when the checks cleared and the music stopped, I was Tommy Spaulding, the failed sandwich maker who lived out of a suitcase. This Tommy Spaulding was getting sued for millions of dollars and traveling for work 250 days per year so he wouldn’t have to give up his house or pull his kids out of private school. This Tommy Spaulding met new people and imagined all the terrible ways they would try to hurt and take advantage of him. This Tommy Spaulding taught leadership skills to thousands of people, then got on an airplane and prayed for it to crash.
The morning after that flight, I was lying in bed. It was the first time in weeks I had been home. I’m normally an early riser, but I felt so depressed I couldn’t get up. My mind was stewing with all the things I had to do, all the money I had to spend on lawyers, all the people who had hurt me. Then, without warning, Jill burst into the room trailed by a dozen balloons. She threw open the curtains and brilliant sunlight spilled in. My eyes barely had time to adjust before she jumped onto the bed and blasted “Birthday” by the Beatles on a Bluetooth speaker.
“It’s your birthday!” she cried as she danced on top of me. “It’s your birthday!”
Oh my God, I thought, still half asleep. I thought I was the one losing my mind.
“Honey, my birthday isn’t until August thirty-first,” I croaked.
“No, Tommy,” she said as Paul and John belted They say it’s your birthday / We’re gonna have a good time. “Today is exactly fifty days before your fiftieth birthday. And you’re getting your first present today.”
“Did you get me the Porsche?” I joked. When Jill had asked me a few months earlier what I wanted for my birthday, I’d told her a silver Porsche 911. We couldn’t afford it, but cruising through Denver with the top down was literally the only way I could imagine being happy.
“No,” Jill said, still hopping up and down on my legs. “I got you something much better.” Then she stepped off the bed and turned down the music and handed me a handwritten letter. “As I said, there are fifty days before your fiftieth birthday. I’m going to give you one of these on each of them. Here is the first.”
I felt a stone in the pit of my stomach as I recognized the elegant penmanship. It was from my mother. She and I had a good but challenging relationship when I was growing up. My mom loved me deeply, but she had a unique way of showing it. She ruled the house with an iron fist and gave me more chores than all my friends had combined. One thing I couldn’t stand was that after my birthday parties, she’d dump a stack of blank paper on the table. “Now write a thank-you note to every person who was here today,” she’d demand. I had big Italian Catholic birthdays as a child, so there were dozens and dozens of letters to write. She would proof each one, and if any seemed generic or lacked heart, I had to rewrite them.
But now, decades later, she was writing me a letter on my birthday. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever read. She told me how much she loved me. She told me how proud she was of the difference I was making in the world and all the lives I had changed. I read and reread that letter and cried harder each time. Finally, I looked up at Jill, who was crying too. “Happy birthday, sweetie,” she said.
On each of the next forty- nine days, Jill gave me another letter. My friend Byron thanked me for changing the lives of his two sons. My literary agent, Michael, told me that he is nicer to people because of my influence. My mentor Jerry told me that he loved me like a son. My HVAC technician, Russ, wrote that I’d taught him how to love deeply. And on and on and on. People telling me not just how much they loved me but how much I had influenced them. How I had helped them become better sons, daughters, parents, spouses, bosses. How I had taught them to lead and inspired them to serve others. Now, in my darkest hour, they were influencing me with their beautiful letters. And they saved my life.
With each passing day, with each letter, the fog lifted. My three terrible problems seemed more manageable. The lawyers less nasty. My depression less deep. I was no longer the man who stepped on a plane and prayed for it to crash. Jill might not have given me a silver Porsche for my fiftieth birthday, but she had given me something infinitely more important.
She gave me the gift of influence.