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How a 5-year-old taught me a lesson I use in my daily professional life

The CEO of Merchants Fleet says if you don’t love your answers to the questions he’s learned to ask, you can still work to be your best self, explore, and try new things.

How a 5-year-old taught me a lesson I use in my daily professional life
[Photo: Ostap Senyuk/Unsplash]
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I’m like everyone else in that I like to relax every once in a while. So, when my wife and I had the chance to go enjoy a warm, sandy beach, we took it. I settled in on my beach towel watching the ocean, taking in the sun, and just enjoying the people.

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I saw twin girls, probably about 5 years old, playing their hearts out together in the sand not far from me. Their parents kept a watchful eye but didn’t appear worried as the girls shifted between the water and their sandcastles.

I noticed a purple walker stuck in the sand about 3 feet into the water and as I watched the girls, I realized it belonged to one of the twins.

She didn’t seem bothered by having to push the walker through the sand and her sister didn’t pay it any mind, either. She went along with her sister, enjoyed herself, and lived her life. Even their parents treated the walker as though it were as natural as the water washing up over the sand. There was zero helicopter parenting—only calm watchfulness.

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As I watched the family, I started to think about how we often end up comparing ourselves to other people as we go through life. We worry about what others will think and try too hard to fit in. Or, we define ourselves entirely by how we’re different, and we don’t see anything but those differences. We think about who we’re supposed to be and what’s supposed to happen, an entire day can become an endless stream of “shoulds.”

Are you guilty of this? I know I have been. Maybe you’re upset that you don’t have more money. Or, maybe you’ve stressed out before because someone you love got sick and it wasn’t fair. Maybe you even ordered the salad instead of the burger, not for your health, but because you were scared others wouldn’t like you with a bigger waist.

When you compare yourself like this to others at work, you can lose sight of the unique contributions you bring to the business. You can become jealous, feel like you’re not advancing fast enough, or get a wicked case of impostor syndrome. All of that can create stress that pulls down your productivity and makes it hard to connect with others. When you aren’t producing well and don’t have strong relationships in the office, it’s easy to become unhappy and lose a sense of purpose.

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The girl with the disability and her family appeared to just accept their differences. I could imagine them saying, “This is who you are. This is who I am. This is how it works for us, and that’s all okay. No labels required.”

Can you imagine what the world would be like if we all did that?

I’m not naive enough to think that this mindset could be achieved immediately. Yet, you can choose to accept things as they are, too. Ask yourself:

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  • What am I expecting? Why?
  • What will accepting myself, others, or my situation bring into my life?
  • How can I hold myself accountable and keep myself from thinking in “shoulds”?
  • What alternative paths or opportunities would be available to me if I stopped applying the standards hidden in comparing myself to others?
  • What specific circumstances do I find myself making comparisons in the most, or what triggers me to do it?
  • What poor habits have comparisons created for me (e.g., I’m always taking on too many projects just to prove to other people that I can do them, or I always let so-and-so direct everything instead of speaking my mind because I feel inferior)?

If you don’t love your answers to these questions, you can still work to be your best self, explore, and try new things. That’s a choice, too. It just means that, as you walk through your journey, you appreciate how you go along. You don’t get so caught up in the dream or a single definition for yourself that you miss the moment right in front of you.

The positive change that comes from leaving comparison behind like this is huge. You’re not defining yourself by what others think or do, so you’re totally free to set bigger, more unique goals. You start working at a pace that’s reasonable for your health and circumstances. You get a better sense of self-accountability and how to self-advocate. At the same time, you don’t feel as threatened by others and can give them kudos due to them as a real team player. You have the confidence to make suggestions, fully participate, and innovate.

I’ve personally gone through this positive change. The experience on the beach brought me back to my own childhood. I remembered my older sister who had Down syndrome. My sister never complained. She was the happiest person I’ve ever met in my life, and she gave me a daily reminder to be thankful for what I had and stop making comparisons because each of us is unique, and that’s a good thing. As I watched the girl with the walker, I felt grounded to my roots again. I knew what real happiness was about, just like I had with my sister.

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As I’ve gotten grounded again, I walk into the office more thankful every day. I don’t let little things tear me down. I wake up with gratitude, and I remind myself just how fortunate I am to be able to work as I work, to have the fantastic team I do, and many other things. I can stay in the moment better, really hear people out, and see the strengths everyone brings to the table rather than their differences. I’ve stopped comparing everyone to each other, and I’ve stopped comparing myself to those around me.

I didn’t go to the beach that day expecting to learn a lesson. But, it’s a lesson I’m grateful for and won’t soon forget. I aim to apply it every day. Ditch the labels. Be fearless. Accept the life you’re given, be yourself, and let others be who they are.


Brendan P. Keegan is the CEO of Merchants Fleet.

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