The few words that change everything


Some thoughts about the things that count


I turned 60 this year. It gave me reason to pause and reflect on my life and my career. I did not remember days, I did not remember months, I did not remember years; I remembered select moments within them. What flashed across my mind were the faces of those I have known and worked with. I remembered times when people told me in either word or deed that I mattered. I found myself writing letters of thanks for those simple words spoken to me, for the simple things people did that made an impression on me.  

The things that stick

We spend more time at work than anywhere else. In our world of science and medicine, we busy ourselves with clinical programs, advanced degrees, research accomplishments, continuous quality improvement, successful marketing, and all the rest. In the final analysis, how much does all that matter? From my vantage point I can assure you that as you near the end of your career, it is the people you met along the way that you will value, not the things you did.

There is a world of difference between saying to a colleague, “That was good work” and saying, “You matter to me.” Which would you rather hear? Which will you remember decades from today?

View from the passenger seat

I recall looking out the side window of the car when I was young. The images of light and dark and shadow and color would flash by so quickly that I could not interpret what I was seeing. Day-to-day life is like that. So many things happen every day. Most of them fade into glimpses and blurs of forgotteness. A few last. A few stay with us for our entire lives.

When you arrive at the later decades of life, you will be able to list the times this happened to you. You too will marvel at the simplicity of events that turned out to be life-changing. You too will remember those few words that changed everything.

A few little words

The next things that came to mind as my thoughts unfolded were the times I had missed my chance to say something. I can remember each one all too clearly. We all have memories colored by regret, when we say to ourselves, “I wish I had said something.”   

How many stories have you heard of death-bed expressions of lost opportunity? How many times have you listened to the sad tale of parents and children who never spoke words of love? I cannot count the times I have heard the painful words, ”I know my dad loved me, but he never told me.”

We never know which conversation with a person will be our very last. Unexpected things happen every day. Our world is full of tragic and dramatic reminders that life is fragile and time is short. What will happen if your miss your chance? What if you don’t initiate that moment? What happens if you do not take that risk?

I can truthfully tell you that you will never forget it. It will haunt you. It will follow you all of your days.

It’s your decision

When you reach the end of your career, I assure you, you look back and care more about the people you encountered than about your professional accomplishments. You will value most the people you touched along the way. The moments of human contact and compassion are what you will treasure.

Every day you get to decide how you will use your time at work. If you alter your course ever so slightly, you will forever change those you encounter. If you initiate a sincere, truthful word of affirmation just once a day, it will completely change the content of your memories on that last day, when you walk out the door.

Make the opportunity. Take the initiative. Be sure to tell the people you care about how important they are to you.

Get busy; you don’t have as much time as you think.

Mike Lahris a critical care specialist with Salem Hospital in Salem, Ore. Contact him at

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