At the end of August 1988, my parents dropped me off for my freshman year at East Carolina University, handed me a Walmart bag full of school supplies and snacks, and drove eight hours back to New York. When I shut the door to my dorm room, I suddenly realized that I was completely alone.
I had never felt that way before. I had been one of the popular kids in high school. After I graduated, I traveled the world with the international educational and cultural organization Up with People. I helped build bridges of understanding among the world’s people through the power of music, making hundreds of new friends in the process. Except now I was one of 36,000 students at East Carolina University, and I didn’t know a single soul.
I began to panic. What if I couldn’t make any friends? To calm myself down, I dashed to the vending machine to grab a soda. When I turned the corner, I quite literally ran into another freshman. His name was Garry Dudley, and before I knew it, we became best friends. For five years we were inseparable. We did everything together. In fact, more than thirty years later, Garry is still one of my best friends in the world.
Our junior year, Garry started dating a girl named Monica. Before long he fell head-over-heels in love with her. I could see why: Monica was beautiful, kind, and intelligent. One day during our final semester, I was heading to my bartending job at Cameron’s Restaurant when Garry ran up to me.
“Tommy,” he said excitedly. “Take a look at this!” He pulled a little box out of his pocket. Inside it was a diamond ring. Garry must have spent forever saving up to buy it. “I’m going to propose to Monica tonight! When she says ‘yes,’ we’re going straight to Cameron’s to see you and pop some champagne.”
“Garry, maybe you should think this through.”
“I have thought this through,” he replied, a little hurt.
Then I took a deep breath and told my best friend that he was making a mistake. Monica was great, I said, but she was young and immature. She wasn’t ready to make a major commitment. Garry was a popular guy around campus. He was friends with everybody, and I saw how Monica got jealous whenever other girls said ‘hello’ to him. I thought she wanted Garry all to herself at the expense of his friendships.
When I got done telling all of this to Garry, he looked me in the eye and said, “Tommy, I’m not marrying Monica for the person she is today. I am marrying her for the person I know she will grow to become.” And then he put the ring back in his pocket and walked off.
Later that night, Garry and Monica pulled up to the bar at Cameron’s Restaurant. She was wearing the ring, and they were both bursting with joy. I took out a bottle of champagne and poured each of us a glass. I was genuinely happy for my friend, so I bit my lip and never mentioned my doubts about Monica again. Well, fast-forward thirty years, and all I can say is this:
Thank God that Garry didn’t listen to me.
I’ve never been more wrong about a person in my life. Today, Garry and Monica have perhaps the best marriage of any couple I know, and Monica has become one of my dearest friends. They have two beautiful, smart daughters. Garry was 100 percent right about the person Monica would become, and I was 100 percent wrong. He had chosen to see the best in her, and I had chosen not to. It’s as simple as that.
I’ve come to realize that the very best heart-led leaders out there are like my friend Garry. They don’t just see the good in people; they see their potential greatness. I owe my life to leaders like my high school marketing teacher, Mrs. Singer, who believed I had potential despite my 2.0 GPA. Because of her, I became a national DECA champion.
My high school football coach, Bob Veltidi, trusted me to kick a thirty-six-yard field goal with the game on the line, even though I had never made a field goal before.
My insurance agent, Jerry Middel, believed in my potential so much that he co-signed the mortgage on my first home, even though I had mediocre credit.
When I was barely eighteen years old, the founder and CEO of Up with People believed I would be running his organization one day, and seventeen years later, he was right.
One day my mentor Steve Farber introduced me to a man named Michael Palgon, who was a top executive at Random House, the No. 1 publisher in the world. I told Michael about my idea for a book, even though I had never written one before. I had no literary agent. I wasn’t on the speaker’s circuit. I had no platform. I had no followers to speak of. No publisher in their right mind would take a chance on me. Here’s what Michael said: “I think you’ve got something here, Tommy. We should do a book together.” That book, It’s Not Just Who You Know, came out in 2010, became a New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today national bestseller, and the rest is history.
Remember that heart-led leaders don’t just see goodness in others; they see untapped potential. What leader gave you a shot when you were immature and inexperienced? What mentor took a bold chance on you when no one else would? Who are the visionaries that saw five, ten, fifteen years ahead and challenged you to become the best version of yourself? Remember their names, but more importantly, pay their support forward by choosing to see potential in another person when others see failure.
I’ve been blessed to meet a lot of wise people in my fifty-two years on this planet. But the wisest words of all came from my dear friend Garry Dudley: “I’m not marrying Monica for the person she is today. I am marrying her for the person I know she will grow to become.” Garry and Monica are celebrating their twenty-eighth wedding anniversary on June 18. Thank God my friend did not listen to my young, immature, and inexperienced advice. I want to become more like Garry. Perhaps you do, too.