I met Preston for the first time in 2002. I had lucked into an interview at a plant site of Eli Lilly in Lafayette, IN and he was one of three individuals interviewing me that day for a manufacturing chemist position. Freshly 23 years old, I was a tightly wound ball of many, many tensions. I don’t remember much about that day. To remember something requires noticing it in the first place, and I was too nervous to notice much outside my own head. One thing I remember, though, perhaps because I was surprised, is how much I enjoyed being interviewed by Preston. I enjoyed it because he put me at ease. I felt welcome. He spoke with me as if I were a fellow human being on equal footing, which I don’t think I expected from someone who received his Ph.D around the time I was born. (To remember something also requires a bit of imagination. I can’t recall exactly what was said, only how I imagine I felt when I remember – reimagine – that scene). I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I have the vocabulary to explain what it probably was. He was present and engaged in a conversation with me.
Preston and I have been friends pretty much from the day I started at the company. At least it seems that way. We’ve had a habit for going on long group lunches on Tuesdays with our friends from work, visiting restaurants of various cuisines and eating adventurously. Twelve years of lunches, discussion about work, politics, work-politics, events, wives, and lives is great soil to grow friendship. Reflecting on our friendship reveals many lessons on how to be a good friend.
- If you’re going to be there, be there. Preston would always apologize and excuse himself when he was distracted. Otherwise, he has always been engaged in whatever conversation we were having.
- Listen to understand the other person’s point of view, not to respond or to correct. From that first interview, he would listen to what I had to say. The simple act of listening and checking comprehension, versus hearing and making a judgement and responding, is something I continue to work on. Listening without immediately offering an answer often diffused some tension inside of me. There is a gentleness and caring in this I look to as an example.
- Apologize first, even if you don’t think you should. There have been a few occasions over the years where we have butted heads or gotten into heated arguments. Preston was always the first one to pick up the phone or stop by to apologize and make sure that we were ok. I should have been the one to apologize and reach out on more than one of those occasions. Pride is what keeps one from being the first one to reach out and mend the rift.
- Call BS. According to the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, Right Speech is communication that is truthful, factual, and beneficial. Preston is skilled at getting me to realize in certain occasions that what I was saying was perhaps not 100% factual without making me feel stupid about it. For example, he has used a truthful and factual statement like, “I don’t think any of us know what we are talking about.” On the flip side, in situations where he realized that he didn’t quite have his facts straight, he has been quick to admit it.
- Encourage. Preston has encouraged me in many ways over the years. Sometimes, it was by simply asking me for advice. I can’t think of anything more confidence boosting than someone so much more experienced asking me for my perspective. Other times, it was suggesting a move that wasn’t obvious to me, or pointing out a strength that I didn’t notice.
Preston retired yesterday. Nearly fourteen years after that interview, after years of working together and not, career moves, a lot of lunches and discussions and friendship, and after a big retirement party with lots of remarks from people from different parts of his career, it was time for him to leave. Or is it go? If you pay attention, moments like this appear: moments of transition, moments of change, moments where you should be there for another. Preston and I walked out of the big event room and down the hall to the security desk in front of the building. He turned in his cell phone and his badge. We hugged and slapped each other’s backs. He turned and walked out the door, leaving his thirty four year career with Lilly behind. It was an honor to be there with him.
Is it to leave or is it to go? Is it an end or is it a beginning? Is it destruction or is it creation? Is it death or is it birth? The answer is yes. Which word you use to describe the change of one form into another depends on your vantage point. What lay ahead for Preston? The vast unknown that people refer to as retirement, a new life. The big question of “where do I find fulfillment and meaning in life?”, which is the prerequisite for “how do I orient my life?”, which is the prerequisite for “what do I do with my time on earth?”, is easily avoided when you have a career and a family and a bunch of “supposed to’s”. Knowing him, he’ll be ok. As for me, Preston’s friendship has given me the answer. Be a good friend. Make peace. Repeat. We’ll go to lunch next Tuesday, and hopefully for many Tuesdays to come.