22 July 2009

Are You Happy?

I first met Mr. Terry Little several years ago, when he was director of the Air Force's Acquisition Center of Excellence (ACE). He is a legendary project leader, an original Rogue, and a man who not only has an impressive track record, but is also a genuinely warm human being. His smile is kind - almost shy - and he is what I'd call "an insightful listener." I wouldn't mind at all being like Mr. Little when I grow up.

A few weeks ago, I ran into him again. We chatted a little about things (he's retired now), and as I told him about my job, he asked "Are you happy?"


There was something in the way he said it that was completely unobtrusive and yet firm. He wasn't just being polite - he sincerely wanted to know, he sincerely cared, even though it had been years since we'd seen each other. It was clear that this was a priority for him, but not in a checklist sort of way. More like a lifestyle kind of way.

It was a question he wanted an answer to, but it also felt a bit like a challenge, in the best possible sense of that word. There was a subtle, affectionate insistence, somehow, that I should make sure I'm doing things that make me happy. He wasn't challenging me to give a specific answer. He was challenging me to make sure I'm on the right path, for the long haul. When he asked, it felt a little bit like someone had hit a tuning fork at just the right frequency, and the question vibrated through my brain.

Yes, I said, I'm happy. I've got a good job, with a good mission and a good team. I've got a real opportunity to make a difference, and I'm having fun doing it. The house and the neighborhood we're in are very nice. The family's doing well. And I've just been taught a lesson at the foot of a Master... a lesson in humanity, leadership and, well, humanity.

I don't know how long it will take me to learn to ask questions the way Mr. Little does. I suspect it'll take a while. It's been several weeks, and I can still see that scene in my head. I can still hear the question. Here, let me try asking you: Are you happy?

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