Today I shared with a writer one of the pivotal moments in my life. We all have them – those times when someone, usually more senior, says something that causes us to reflect and to change. For me it was when I went to a professor’s office to pick up the first paper I’d written for her class. I’d graduated early from college, so I was a young graduate student. The class was Ph.D. candidates, all male, except a woman who had been one of my undergraduate professors, and myself, a lowly master’s degree student. I’d been quiet in class, learning the lay of the land. I entered the professor’s office hoping for a good grade on my first paper. She handed it to me without saying a word. Her expression was, at best, noncommittal. On the front page was the grade – an A. “Thank you,” I said smiling. “Don’t thank me,” she said with annoyance, “and don’t come to class on Monday.” Needless to say, I was floored. “Excuse me?” I said. “If you can write like that and won’t say anything in class, then you might as well not bother coming. Maybe you’re intimidated. Maybe you want to date those guys. Whatever the reason, there’s no use coming Monday if you aren’t going to speak up. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen. Otherwise you’re wasting your time and mine.”
From some professors this might have seemed a display of power. From others it might have seemed a way to act superior. But she was brilliant and I wanted to learn from her. I stood there for a moment, my knees locked. “I can take the heat,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. “And I’ll talk in class.” She nodded. “On Monday?” she confirmed. “Yes,” I said. “I guess we’ll see on Monday,” she said and returned to what she’d been reading before I’d entered her office. I departed quietly – never to be quite the same.
I talked on Monday and all the Mondays after that. Pivotal moments in our lives provide opportunities to change. They shake us up, revise our priorities and, if we’re lucky, they cause us to grow. Some of the most harrowing moments are often the ones we most need to become better versions or ourselves. It’s worth thinking about so you’ll be ready when one of those events happens. They happen fast. But the effects last a lifetime.