What To Do When You Can’t See the Staircase

“Take the first step in faith.
You don’t have to see
the whole staircase,
just take the first step.”

-The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


Yesterday we commemorated the incredible life and works of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


I won’t begin to pretend to understand the reality of the challenges faced by my African American neighbors, friends, colleagues and loved ones, whether pre-1960s or in current society.


In various aspects of life I’ve been judged based on my gender, my age, my height and weight, my nationality, my car, my clothes, and even my race from time to time… but there’s no illusion in my mind that it’s the same, so I won’t pontificate on it.


Dr. King was known for innumerable pearls of wisdom – most notably his “I have a dream” speech. But some of his less-widely known statements can be instructive in that they invoke the shared experiences of all people. His quote about faith, above, is a perfect example of this.


I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have fears, experience self-doubt, play the internal “what-if” mental game with ourselves, and hunger for approval, love, respect, opportunity, significance and self-efficacy. None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, regardless of how much we try to plan for it; we can’t see the staircase, but to move forward, we have to take that first step, in faith.


Just like everyone else, regardless of skin tone or other differences.


Hearing or reading this kind of quote makes us realize that “You feel like I feel, and we have similar fears, ambitions and needs.” When we have moments of clarity like this, it can help us realize how connected we really are, and better appreciate the inherent equality and similarities of all people.


Another favorite quote of mine from Dr. King is:


“You will change your mind;
you will change your looks;
you will change your smile,
laugh and ways but
no matter what you change,
you will always be you.”


It actually makes me smile because when I read the second line about changing your looks, I can’t help but think back on my middle and high school yearbook photos over the years. I’ve already confided in you in the past that I’m a child of the ‘80s, so shoulder pads and big hair (permed and teased galore) along with a number of other fashion atrocities were a natural part of the “uniform.”


And yes, I’m glad I changed my mind AND my looks since then!


The last two lines, however, are the most powerful: “no matter what you change, you will always be you.”


This only seems like a problem when we’re in a situation with people who seem to indicate – implicitly or explicitly – that who we are simply isn’t enough.


And while some people face those unfair biases far more often than others, it’s another one of those things that we ALL share from time to time, no matter how much we’d like to believe that some people never have to face it.


This week’s Speaking to Influence episode gives us a little peek into this reality, along with a chance to confess, “wow, someone didn’t want to do business with him because of THAT?”


In the podcast, Joseph Chott, Senior Vice President at Brown Brothers Harriman, shared the challenges in working at an extremely “old business” at a young age. Among other things, these include having prospective clients outright challenge his credibility because of his age. (Did your mental HR siren just go off?)


More importantly, he shared some strategies for how he overcame these challenges, and how he leveraged the opinions and findings of others who had more established authority and credibility to make his point.


Listen to the full conversation here or watch it on YouTube here.



So no matter what you look like or whom you work with, remember that on any given day, we all might be standing at the bottom of that staircase in the dark, trying to muster the faith and courage to take that first step. When in doubt, offer a hand (and a flashlight.) Chances are, they’ll reciprocate when it’s you who is looking blindly up the staircase.