Navigating to the Finish Line
I was practically sprinting down the street. I was in a hurry. Dodging puddles left behind from the morning rain I weaved through passersby and tourists who didn’t really seem to have a particular destination in mind. I on the other hand did. It was graduation season. Everywhere I looked there were purple robes hung carelessly over the shoulders of carefree students, stuffed into their handbags, slung over their arms. The mood was carefree and celebratory. Individuals called out to one another and strangers wished anyone with the purple cape ‘congratulations!’
The address was still clutched in my hand, and every few blocks I looked up at the large brick structures to confirm that I had not yet reached my destination. Since I seemed to be swimming against the sea of purple I assumed I was going in the right direction. Balancing my coffee in one hand and my destination slip in the other, I trudged on. The Campus Activity Board had sent me in the direction of the graduation pop up, promising I would find everything I needed once I made it to this mysterious Kimmel Center. I forged on; happy I had opted for flats.
I spotted the glamorous glass structure at the exact moment I saw her.
My breath caught in my throat. She truly was a sight to behold.
She was wearing the Louboutin heels that I had taken a screenshot of 3 months ago. Stored in my archives they were on my ‘wish list’ till further notice. As she disappeared through the revolving doors of the Kimmel Center, ombre hair floating behind her like a glorious golden cloud I adjusted the strap of my handbag and followed suit. I flashed my ID at the good-looking security guard as he pointed me in the direction of the lift. “Congratulations on your graduation sweetie,” he called out to my back.
An Unlikely Encounter
I sprinted for the lift as the platinum doors closed in front of me. “Please hold it!” I yelled. A mocha hand with perfectly manicured nails peeked through the closing door, as the elevator obeyed her silent command and opened back up. Before I saw her face I knew, it was the same gorgeous lady I had been trailing behind a few minutes ago.
“Thank you,” I said as I looked up into almond shaped eyes. As expected, the rest of her face was just as symmetrical, beautiful, magnificent. I silently rolled my eyes. Perfectly shaped eyebrows, full lips, surprisingly warm eyes, and beautiful high cheekbones stared back at me.
“You’re most welcome,” she said with a deep velvety smooth voice. It was devoid of any accent. I couldn’t place where she was from. She adjusted the chain of her coffee brown Chanel bag on her shoulder and pressed the ‘close’ button on the elevator. I had never seen this bag up close, once again she had snatched something right out of my ‘screenshot wishlist archive.’ What did I expect? Of course she would be carrying my dream bag. I let out an internal sigh and watched the rising numbers on the small screen ahead.
3, 4, 5.
I was intimidated.
6, 7, 8.
I stared intently at the gap where the doors had closed as we continued to ascend to the 17th floor. Her warm voice again cut through the awkward silence. “Hi, my name is Danielle,” she said. She stuck out her perfectly manicured hand and I noticed a wedding band and engagement ring on her ring finger. I stuck out my hand to meet hers, “It is a pleasure to meet you. My name is Zeni.”
“What a beautiful name,” Danielle responded with a smile in her voice. “I’m guessing you are graduating tomorrow, Zeni?”
“Yes, Masters of Science in Professional Writing,” I responded with genuine enthusiasm and slight skepticism. Why was she so friendly I wondered. Studying her out of the corner of my eye I pegged her to be in her mid or late 30s.
12, 13, 14.
“That is amazing. What an accomplishment,” she encouraged. “The opportunities are endless. I am sure you will go on to do great things,” she concluded confidently.
“Thank you,” I responded. “It was a pleasure meeting you and I appreciate the kind words.”
15, 16, 17.
The lift finally arrived on the 17th floor. Danielle paused for a second at the door, then bid me farewell and disappeared into the crowd. As I walked over to the “Masters” robe sign I lost sight of her. However she was still on my mind. In so many ways she felt like my ‘future self.’ Her confidence, her friendliness, her dress sense, she was to a certain degree so many things I aspired to be. Even though we had only spent a few minutes together I concluded she must be intelligent and very successful – she just had that aura about her. I wondered what she did. What she had studied. My mind began to toy with various scenarios.
I scanned the room trying to see if I could find her. I was curious as to what program she was graduating from, if any. She carried herself with such ease and confidence. I almost wanted to find her and see if we could exchange contact details. On the other hand I felt a slight annoyance. Why was she so forthright and confident like the world was her playground? How did she become so well off? Why was her skin flawless? What exactly was she doing up here? Sigh. My positive impression outweighed my petty curiosity. My initial intimidation had been overridden with thoughts of what a good friend/acquaintance she might make. I regretted being so reserved when she reached out earlier.
After making it through the graduation pick-up lines, I met my friends in the lobby of the Kimmel Center and off to lunch we went. Sat at the brightly decorated Jamaican restaurant with the Bajan music flowing through the speakers and platters of delectable food set before us I soon lost track of any other thoughts. I put my musings aside and focused on the good food and good conversation in front of me.
Toss Your Tassel – It’s Graduation Day!
The following day it was a stunningly beautiful morning in New York City. As I waited in line to head into the Yankee Stadium for the graduation ceremony I subconsciously looked around to see if I would spot the same woman again. No such luck.
Commencement commenced with much fanfare. They were pulling out all the stops for us. Swept up in the celebrations and documenting it on social media time flew. It was not until about an hour later when the Dean calmed the crowd to introduce the next guest speaker that I started to pay attention to the stage. I perked up as her credentials were rolled out. She was a writer, a PhD graduate today, and the Chief Communication Officer at a Fortune 500 company. All her qualifications peeked my interest, they were in my 5 year plan. I stopped trying to squint at the stage and switched my attention to the monitor. I felt a jolt run through me as I realized she was the person whose wardrobe I had coveted from afar and whose confidence, friendliness, and poise I had admired up close as we shared the elevator. It was Danielle.
As the applause faded and she stepped up to the podium I listened keenly to her speech. Jotting down words and phrases that resonated with me. So many things did. Danielle, well Dr. Danielle now that she had her PhD in the bag, spoke about the importance of lifting one another up, encouraging one another and complimenting one another. She spoke about how the support of her family and the kindness of strangers are what had gotten her to this point today – graduating top of her class with a PhD in Organizational Behavior. She spoke about the importance of teamwork in organizations, the importance of interpersonal relationships, and the importance of caring. She spoke about how we are all one interconnected web, and leveraging on these connections takes us further and teaches us more than operating in isolation ever will.
To my shock, she spoke about an encounter with a ‘beautiful, poised, and focused young Profesional Writing graduate’ the day before. She told the crowd that this lady had reminded her of herself a very short while ago and also inspired her outfit for today. To the shock of the crowd she opened up her robe and flashed her outfit for us. This was met with wild applause. My heart skipped a beat – she was wearing something so similar to what I had on the day before that I knew her story was not just for sensational appeal. The outfit I had deemed frumpy after riding up to the 17th floor with her was a variation of what she had on. I shook my head in amazement – she looked amazing.
I was startled and encouraged. Inspired and tickled with laughter. All of a sudden I was able to identify what I was feeling the day before – I had been at a crossroad. I had seen someone that I immediately admired – from looks, to dress sense, to potential academic achievement, to personality. I was torn between putting a wall up or complimenting her (even wanting to ask for make up tips and tricks). I was torn between inexplicable envy at seeing someone living what looked like my dream and seeing her as motivation to a destination that lay ahead. Just as I zoned back in to her speech Dr. Danielle remarked – “There will always be someone ahead of you in every aspect of your life. There will be those who have attained what you are still aspiring to. Those who have achieved what you wish to accomplish. Those who own items that you hope to purchase one day. This is okay,” she paused and scanned the crowd before continuing.
“There are also those who look to where you are and what you have attained with either envy, inspiration, or a combination thereof. Herein lies the beauty of life. When we remain balanced, celebrate our successes and stay focused on our own unique goals and journey, we are able to do two very important things. One – we are able to look back to encourage those who we had the opportunity of walking ahead of. Two – we can look forward and ask questions and advice from those who are slightly further along than us.”
“Imagine having living breathing people who have walked in a pair of shoes we wish to own,” she said. “If we would all put down our defenses and take up a little courage and a little confidence, we can have conversations about those shoes. We can determine from another person’s perspective how much they cost, how comfortable they are, and if we truly want to walk a mile in them or opt for another pair. We can share tips and tricks on how to make the journey smoother and more enjoyable.”
I was stunned. It was almost as if she was speaking directly to me. Exploring all sides of the ‘emotional’ elevator ride. How did she know? Was she speaking directly to me? And then, she literally stopped addressing the crowd and spoke directly to me! I almost fainted. How was this happening?!
With a sincere smile Dr. Danielle said, “As I mentioned earlier in my speech, yesterday as I was on my way to collect my hood, cap and gown, I met a young lady on the elevator. I’m not sure whether it was all in my overactively imaginative head but it was an inspirational encounter for at least one of us – me. I recognized myself a few years earlier, but I also recognized an evolution that is yet to occur. I cannot exactly tell you why, but there are lessons that young lady and I are yet to share with one another. I was fascinated by her course of study and curious about the origin of her name. It would be hypocritical of me to stand here and advise you about connections without making this leap of faith. If you’re out there in the crowd young lady, permit me to apologize for not giving you my card yesterday,” she laughed. “I know I should have given her my card, but I hesitated. It’s very hard for women to make friends with women you know?” She let out another nervous laugh.
“So if you’re here today, please meet me in the same building on the same floor we stopped on at 4:00 p.m. Let’s have a late lunch to celebrate today’s success and share our stories with one another,” she concluded her invitation. “And to all of you out here graduating today: never stop taking advantage of opportunities. Always place value on what you can learn from others, and never make enemies of strangers. We are all connected in more ways than we know. Override your initial envy or negativity that arises when you see someone living in your future, send them positive vibes – out loud is always best, and where possible try to get to know them better. Congratulations and God bless,” she concluded. The crowd gave her a 5-minute standing ovation before we moved on to the next item on the agenda.
Lessons Learned from the Good Doctor
I honored that lunch invitation and learned even more. There is no sense in being intimated by someone that seems ahead of you. No two people are quite the same, and the fact that someone has walked a path you wish to tread should be channeled into motivation. It means it is humanly possible, it means you can potentially expand your network and knowledge base by getting to know said individual. As I did with Dr. Danielle.
Sometimes your own insecurities are your own greatest enemy, especially when one starts to silently play the comparison game. For example, the outfit I deemed ‘trash’ compared to her gorgeous designer threads ended up inspiring her keynote address attire. Insecurity can cause us to lose confidence in ourselves, and lack of confidence means lack of courageousness to take the necessary acts to get from where we are to where we are going. Also, while I had placed her years ahead of me in all progress related areas and wanted to put my guard up, I have learned so much from Danielle and have even inspired her too.
As I sat with Dr. Danielle that afternoon it ended up being a defining moment in my life; even more-so than the graduation ceremony itself. I learned that you can listen to those who have walked miles in the shoes you are saving up to buy (both literally and figuratively) and that can motivate (rather than intimidate) you in priceless ways.