Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Gray Fedora

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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The following article first appeared on August 23, 2006.

When I’ve finished conducting a training session, it’s common for people to approach me with a series of questions about the training’s underlying philosophy. At the top of the list is: “What philosopher influenced you the most?” Sometimes people will insert a guru of their choice. “Was it Kant?” “Did you draw heavily from Rousseau?” “Were you thinking of Socrates when you . . .”

While I have a working knowledge of the icons people mention, I’d have to say that none played a very big role in my work. First, I can’t remember what most of them said, and second, none will ever displace an incident that set me on a philosophical course I continue to follow to this day. Like a lot of useful philosophy lessons, it all started with a Roy Rogers double feature.

In 1954, if you happened to be eight years old, and I did, Roy Rogers sat smack dab in the center of your universe. He was this marvelous cowboy/actor who was always chasing down the bad guys and saving the schoolmarm in the most remarkable and innovative ways. So when the newspaper announced there would be a Roy Rogers double feature showing on Saturday, I anxiously waited for the big event.

At that stage in my life, each day as I’d come home from school, I’d stop off at my Granddad’s place where I’d talk with him about Trigger, Bullet, Nelly Bell, and all of the other members of Roy Rogers’ entourage. Granddad had never seen the singing cowboy in action, but he always showed great interest in whatever caught my attention. He would patiently listen to me as I retold each tale of derring-do.

In truth, while it was Roy who had captured my eight-year-old interest, it was really Granddad who had captured my heart. At five foot four with a fireplug shape, a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth, and an amazing wit, he cut a large swath in my world. He owned and operated the local grocery store and, as far as my friends and I were concerned, that made him a celebrity. In fact, since he was the guy who stood behind the candy counter, it made him a childhood god.

Like all septuagenarians at the time, whenever Granddad visited downtown he wore a wool suit and a gray fedora. Since it was now the 1950s, the felt hat put him in a distinct minority. Most men had dropped any form of head gear at the same time women had stopped wearing gloves (in the late 40s), but Grandfather wouldn’t think of going outside without being covered. To him, you weren’t fit for public appearance if you weren’t in a suit and the suit had to have a matching hat. In Granddad’s case, it was the gray fedora.

The day of the double feature finally arrived and I stopped by Granddad’s store to let him know I’d be catching the bus that stopped in front of his establishment in order to go downtown and see Roy in action. He smiled broadly and explained that he too would be heading into the city to stock up on supplies. Maybe we’d run into each other. With the prospect of bumping into my Grandfather in mind, I headed downtown.

Later that day I merrily walked from the movie theater to the bus stop a few blocks away. While sucking on a Tootsie Pop and still musing about Roy’s latest conquest, I was confronted by an image that stopped me in my tracks. The Tootsie Pop actually fell from my mouth as I stood agape. There, at the end of the block no more that twenty yards away, lay Grandfather on the sidewalk. He appeared to be dead. His body lay askew while a withered hand clutched something bottle-shaped in a brown paper bag. What had happened? Did Granddad have a heart attack on the way to the wholesale house?

As I drew closer my fear turned to confusion and then despair. Why was nobody helping him? It was a busy Saturday afternoon and lots of people were walking right past him without even glancing. One person even stepped over him and sneered. Had the world gone mad? Were there no real heroes in Bellingham? Roy Rogers routinely shot it out with bad guys in order to right a wrong; couldn’t somebody stop and check Granddad? How hard could that be?

When I finally fell to my knees next to Granddad and moved the gray fedora that was covering his face, I discovered that it wasn’t him after all. It was a stranger—an old man who hadn’t shaved in days, smelled of wine, and who wasn’t dead, but instead was dead drunk.

Quickly I leaped to my feet. And then a warm wave of relief swept over me. It wasn’t Granddad and he wasn’t dead! It wasn’t Granddad! I stood there and cried tears of sheer joy until a kindly lady stopped and asked if I was lost. I mumbled that I was okay as I scuffled off to catch the bus.

As I rode the bus home I realized that I had equated a gray fedora with Grandfather, so when I saw a man wearing Granddad’s hat of choice, I made a logical leap that had caused me a great deal of grief. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. And then my emotions darted in another direction as my wide-eyed innocence took over. The better me couldn’t be so readily consoled. Yes, this stranger wasn’t my Grandfather, but surely he was somebody’s Grandfather. Where were his grandkids? And the strangers who passed by—why hadn’t they done anything? I sobbed for the stranger all the way home.

When I finally arrived home, I burst through the front door and told my mom how I thought Granddad was dead and how it had turned out to be somebody else. She smiled knowingly and explained that the poor fellow I had stumbled upon was known as a “wino” who was probably sleeping it off.

“But where were his grandkids?” I asked. Where was the little boy who would fall to his knees and help him home? Mom didn’t have an answer.

I was forever changed that day. First, I opened the door into the harsh part of life that my parents had protected me from. Some people become indigents who die on the street. Worse still, we don’t always know what to do about it. But the second lesson I learned was far more important and returns me to the question of the philosophy underlying our training. It’s the philosophy of the fedora. I learned that if I put Granddad’s fedora on a stranger—instantly transforming him or her into a person I loved dearly—the stranger became someone worthy of my care and attention. Putting a face on the faceless masses, assigning a name to a crime or war victim, thinking of the people who cause you grief—thinking of them as real people with children of their own—well, this humanizing act has a dramatic impact on how you first think about and then treat them.

For example, if I put the fedora on the elderly man driving the car in front of me at fifteen miles an hour in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone, my impatience and disgust transform into sympathy.

If a person at work lets me down and I can’t believe how uncaring he or she is, I place him or her under the fedora and I won’t be so quick to pass judgment and become angry. “Maybe,” I think, “he or she had a good reason for missing the deadline. Go find out.” Instantly I transform into a far better problem-solver than when I don’t assume the best of others but instead angrily wade into the discussion with hostile, and often groundless, accusations.

So, if you want to know what philosophy most influenced my training theories, remember the power of the fedora. Take it in your hands, turn it over and peer into its crown. There, somewhere between the manufacturer’s label and the hat size, you’ll find one of the most useful philosophies ever discovered by an eight-year-old.