By Steve Pemberton
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. —Matthew 5:16
It was four o’clock in the afternoon when Mike Silvia called. There had been virtually no calls that day. John Sykes didn’t know at the time that I had been in Mike’s office for most of the day, desperately looking for a miracle. Mike had perfected his plea by this time, but he knew John was my last hope. He spoke quickly and more urgently: “One of our clients needs an emergency removal from a foster home. We are having trouble placing him . . . it would only be a temporary stay . . . because it’s Christmastime, I can’t get ahold of anyone.” He rambled on, “Do you know anyone who might be able to take him . . . temporarily?”
John was quiet, trying to process all he’d just heard. “John, his name is Steve Klakowicz,” Mike said, referring to my birth name. “Do you think you can take him until the start of the new year?”
John answered right away, with no hesitation, “Yes, absolutely.”
His response changed my life.
I had found myself in the midst of a storm that was not of my creation, uncertain of the direction my journey would take me. But then suddenly, in the midst of that storm, when all seemed lost, a lighthouse appeared. What I did not know then, and did not fully realize until sometime later, was that John was in the middle of his own storm, desperately trying to find his own lighthouse.
The lighthouse effect is the idea that ordinary people, immersed in the business of their own lives, wrestling with their own struggles and imperfections, can touch the lives of others. It suggests that our lives are formed, altered, and characterized by the smallest of interactions that bend the arc of our lives. It means that we see our life experience as an opportunity to touch the life of another, to see in their life a connection to our own. It is a framework for living, learning, and leading, a way to more positively engage with one another, to build trust, to see beyond the labels that define us to the human experiences that bond us.
We all have the capacity to be a lighthouse. You may think you have to be famous, wealthy, or gifted with a once-in-a-lifetime talent to be a lighthouse. You may think you need advanced degrees or special certification. You may be of the opinion that you aren’t accomplished enough or don’t have a big enough title to be that shining light. Or that you simply don’t have the time. You’d be wrong. Everything you need to be a lighthouse you already have—your own journey, your own seemingly ordinary story, even with all its imperfections.
John understood that years of ridicule and constant criticism from the foster family had taken a toll on my self-confidence. Dumb. Ugly. Something about you is not right. Where there should have been optimism and idealism, there was nothing but uncertainty and skepticism. Watching my social worker desperately try to find me a place to stay had only furthered those emotions.
We’ve all had them or faced them—doubts about our value and our place in the world, worries that we are not enough or haven’t done enough. Perhaps it is something that was said to us or a project that did not work out the way we planned. Doubt paralyzes us into complacency and then fools us into believing that safety is found in doing nothing at all. Doubt has an accomplice: fear—fear of being rejected, fear of failing, or fear of disappointing. It thrives most on comparison, especially in the world of social media, where in a universe of edited existences and flawless filters, many lives appear to be perfect. Doubts can become a living, breathing entity that suffocates every dream we’ve ever had. It can hold us hostage. But we can erase those doubts for ourselves, and we can help others do the same. We can turn doubts into destinations.
Doubt is largely a lack of confidence in a direction, a decision, or a person. It means we aren’t entirely sure of an outcome. When we unpack doubt a bit more, we realize that doubt is fear brought on by a lack of information, experience, or preparation. It can also come from a prior setback or bad experience. To be fair, some doubt is quite beneficial, a cautious skepticism that helps us make more informed decisions. The doubt I am describing here is not healthy doubt but the paralyzing kind that freezes us in our tracks. To turn your doubts into destinations, try some of the following tips.
Remember a Time When You Were at Your Best
Think of a time when you were at your best. It might have been a presentation you delivered, a home project that went flawlessly, or a work plan that you led successfully. Do you recall the compliments and notes of congratulations for a job well done? Do you remember how that made you feel, knowing that your effort had been recognized? It’s possible you were just having a good day, but it’s more likely that you prepared differently for that situation. You looked at every detail, anticipated challenges, and had a backup plan if something did not go as expected. In other words, your success in that moment was no accident. Your confidence in the outcome came because your preparation, execution, and knowledge all lined up perfectly.
We have become adept at analyzing setbacks to the point of exhaustion. We don’t spend nearly as much time examining our successes, in part because we believe it might lead to complacency or a false sense of security. But by understanding what we did well, we create a blueprint, a foundation of strength on which future successes are built—a resilient place where future doubts will be unable to take hold. Remember we’re talking about your best, not someone else’s. I have found a line from Max Ehrmann’s poem Desiderata quite helpful:
If you compare yourself with others
you may become vain or bitter;
for always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself.
When you use comparison to define your best, you open the door wide open for doubt to walk in and wreak havoc on your life.
Take Risks and Encourage Others to Do the Same
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained” goes the old saying, and this timeless, simple mantra has remained consistently true. There is no such thing as failure, because even when a setback occurs, a lesson is learned. This was John’s lighthouse effect; though he knew I would be denied some scholarship offers, I would learn a greater lesson on the importance of advocating for oneself and being willing to take risks to do so. There is always something to be gained from taking a risk, whether it is a successful outcome or we adjust our course because of what we learned.
As the years pass, my gratitude and appreciation for what John did have only deepened. He was going about his daily life and then put that life on hold to provide me a home. One time I asked him what he was thinking the day my social worker called him. Here is what he said:
It was a shock, I can tell you that. Initially, I was just trying to understand what he was saying and who he was talking about. When I realized it was you he was talking about and that he was really asking if you could stay with me, I had a lingering moment of doubt. Not about you, because I knew you and I loved you already; the doubt was more about me. Teaching teenagers was one thing but bringing one into my home was another. As your social worker was talking to me, I was talking to God. “God,” I said, “I don’t know if I’m good enough to do this.” I guess it was an on-the-spot prayer, and what God said back to me was, “This young man is out of options and he needs you. So I’m going to need you to trust me. I need you to say yes.” And I did. From that day to this day, I never regretted it.
The opportunity to say yes appears often over the course of our lives. Sometimes it comes in the form of a quiet whisper or a silent plea. Like John, you may have your doubts as to whether you are capable, have the time, or possess the skills to help. The timing might not feel right. When you say yes, even if it is to something small, you can affect the life of another in ways you can never imagine.
Find the Source of Your Doubts
Doubt is often a quiet story we tell ourselves about why something can’t be achieved. But it has a source, a reason why it exists. To overcome doubt, we need to determine its origins. Did your doubt stem from an opinion or a criticism? A message from childhood that you’ve held on to? A time when a setback was broadcast publicly? A private struggle?
Whatever the experience, admitting that we harbor such feelings can be difficult. We are afraid to show our vulnerability or are uncertain where to turn for solutions. Suffering in silence, struggling to find a way forward, we find ourselves locked in a perpetual cycle of uncertainty. This was the place John found himself when he, who had been a lighthouse to so many others, needed one of his own.
My favorite photo of John Sykes is almost 30 years old. Hurricane Bob, one of the costliest hurricanes in New England history, barreled up the East Coast, landing in Massachusetts with destructive gale force winds. That afternoon John and a group of friends decided they would ride out the storm by gathering together at the Mattapoisett Inn, a local pub just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly there was a commotion. A group of people went sprinting past the pub’s windows, and John and his friends went out to join them, not certain where the group was going but suspecting that someone needed help. They were right; a novice sailor was desperately trying to get their boat out of the water before the hurricane arrived. He had underestimated the ferocity of the hurricane winds, and the boat had slid off the trailer and dangled precariously over the precipice of the landing dock, threatening to tip over on its side into the ocean.
John and a group of men grabbed the boat, courageously trying to pull it onto the dock. If it fell over, it would be swept out to sea. A photographer, documenting the storm’s impact in the region, snapped a picture of the men. In the photo you can see John stretching and straining against the wind and the weight of the boat. His hair is a wet mop, and his face, usually calm and placid, is contorted and twisted as he uses every bit of strength to bring the boat back onto the dock. It appears as if he is taking on a great battle, and he was. But it wasn’t just against the storm. He was also wrestling against a different kind of beast just as merciless and destructive. Unlike the storm, this battle had no end in sight: John was battling alcoholism.
It was a problem that had begun quietly in college, and while he believed he had control over his drinking, the passing years held a different truth. John did not have control over alcohol; it had control over him.
During the year and a half I lived with John before heading off to college, I sensed that he was struggling with alcohol. He wasn’t mean or angry when he drank, nor did he ever allow it to interfere with his teaching. Still, he drank to the point where I quietly wondered if he had a bigger problem. I was too young to know how to help, and at that phase in his battle, he would not have listened to me—or anyone else. While I was in college, his drinking had apparently become a much greater problem, driven by a loneliness that he couldn’t understand or overcome. One day a group of his closest friends knocked on his door and told him they needed to talk. At that point John, who had hit rock bottom, was finally willing to listen to their advice to get the help he needed.
As he went through his recovery process, he saw that part of the reason he turned toward alcohol was because of loneliness and self-doubt. Those who know him, both his friends and students, know what he means to them. But John wasn’t able to see that for himself. Still, he fully committed himself to recovery, and 25 years later, he has remained sober. No one ever declares victory over alcoholism, and so it is something he continues to work on every day.
The most difficult examinations are the ones that require us to take a hard look at ourselves and confront the things we don’t like. John’s willingness to face the disease of alcoholism, to no longer allow it to hold him hostage, was a lighthouse moment for John. He has been a tireless advocate for and supporter of Alcoholics Anonymous and is often a resource for those who are still trying to find their own path to recovery. Many years after taking a last-chance call about a desperate teenager, John Sykes remains a lighthouse.
Adapted from The Lighthouse Effect: How Ordinary People Can Have an Extraordinary Impact in the World by Steve Pemberton. Click here to learn more about this book.
In this stirring follow-up to his memoir, Steve Pemberton gives practical encouragement for how you can be a “human lighthouse” for others and through these inspiring stories will renew your hope for humanity.
Our polarized, divisive culture seems to be without heroes and role models. We are adrift in a dark sea of disillusionment and distrust and we need “human lighthouses” to give us hope and direct us back to the goodness in each other and in our own hearts.
Steve Pemberton found a lighthouse in an ordinary man named John Sykes, his former high school counselor. John gave Steve a safe harbor after Steve escaped an abusive foster home and together they navigated a new path that led to personal and professional success. Through stories of people like John and several others, you will identify how the hardships you have overcome equip you to be a “human lighthouse,” inspiring those around you.
The humble gestures of kindness that change the course of our lives can shift the course for America too. With a unique vision for building up individuals and communities and restoring trust, The Lighthouse Effect opens your eyes to those who are quietly heroic. You will reflect on the lighthouses in your own life and be reminded that the greatest heroes are alongside us—and within us.
Steve Pemberton is Chief People Officer for Workhuman, the leading online platform bringing positivity to the workplace through social recognition. Prior to assuming his role at Workhuman, Steve was a Senior Human Resources Executive at Walgreens. Steve and his wife, Tonya, are the proud parents of three children. Learn more about Steve at www.stevepemberton.io.