Thank you notes unsent

March 1, 2008


Gratitude is a fickle feeling. We feel it genuinely in a rush, but in truth, it usually fades quickly. In order to capture the moment of gratitude before it vanishes, we often take the formal step of writing a thank you note to the person or entity that inspired it. Beyond the social etiquette requirement, actually writing a quick note of thanks for a deed done on one’s behalf is a way to mitigate the fleeting nature of gratitude.

                In full disclosure, I was rather lousy at it as a child. Christmas and birthday gifts were gratefully received, but the response was usually a hasty thank-you phone call I honestly saw only as a temporary impediment to full enjoyment of the gift. High school graduation was very much a turning point in many respects, and it was at this time that social maturity began to force my hand… quite literally. People were not merely giving gifts, they were giving their true best wishes, their goodwill, and, quite frankly, a pile of cash that would have taken me weeks to earn at the job I had at the time (bagging groceries).

                So now I’m a committed thank you note writer. As I left the Army and prepared to enter Darden last summer, I reflected on those who had helped me get to this point. I realized that a number of very important teachers in my life, particularly those who made a very important impact during my primary and secondary education, had heretofore been thankless for their efforts. After some research into contact information, I wrote my notes. In the replies I received, I found a sincere note of interest and a sense of happiness that things were going well.

As the summer internship recruiting season has wrapped up, I have found myself with the good fortune of choosing between several appealing offers. After some research and careful consideration, I chose to join McKinsey this summer. It’s worth noting that I am not alone at Darden with an offer from a top quality consulting firm. This recruiting season was a banner one for Darden students interested in consulting. Primarily, I think it’s appropriate to credit the dedication of Darden alumni, second year students, members of the consulting club, and the Darden Career Development Center. But some of the credit must go to my fellow students in the first year class. We practiced and drilled together extensively prior to interview season, and we shared tips and tactics we learned along the way. This broadening of knowledge isn’t really surprising though… it’s really inherent to Darden’s collegial culture. True, the selectiveness and practical constraints of the firms in question meant that some of my friends and classmates didn’t receive a consulting offer. But we as a cohort collectively share the result of this inevitable outcome as if it happened not to one of us, but, rather, to all of us a group. Of course, we look forward to helping everyone find a fitting offer next year.

                With multiple offers, I had to share some bad news with companies and firms that I really liked. I had to tell them I had decided to go a different direction this summer. I made a few select phone calls, and then I sat down with a stack of thank you cards. The time and money invested in the recruiting process by these companies, in many cases motivated by the best intentions of dedicated Darden alumni, certainly called for a few moments of my time to capture and display my gratitude before it faded in the light of my excitement for this summer’s opportunities.

                This deed done, I looked forward to a scheduled visit to the office where I’ll spend the summer. I was scheduled to make the trip last weekend, but weather intervened and the trip was postponed to this weekend. I rescheduled the flight for Friday morning, departing from Charlottesville at 6:45 AM. Cognizant that this was a reading day (meaning I normally would have no classes and would probably sleep in a bit), I set two alarms to pull myself out of bed by 5 AM to make the flight.

                I woke to no alarms, and my watch read 6:40 AM. Panicked, I leapt from bed. Now what? I had obviously missed the flight… I considered my options in a flash, and decided I would pay for a ticket at my own expense on the next available flight, and that I would probably have to travel to Richmond (a 1.5 hour drive away) to make it to the office in time to make the trip worthwhile. I went to my computer to look up the phone number for the airline. My browser was still open from the night before, showing the flight status. I refreshed the screen. The 6:45 AM flight that I had missed… was cancelled. I hadn’t missed it after all. A small miracle, given that the weather was fine outside and was also fine in New York. I called the airline, and they scheduled me (at no expense… the flight was cancelled, after all!) on the next flight from Richmond. I would have to hustle to make it, however, given the drive.

                The drive was torturous. Construction, an accident, and the accompanying heavy traffic in Richmond put me at the airport only 30 minutes before departure. After checking in, I ran to security, and was stopped cold. The line was long and barely moving. It seemed everyone else had flights leaving soon too, and the frustration in the air was palpable. I took a deep breath. A monitor nearby indicated that the flight was delayed by 15 minutes. I realized that it would be close, but that I would probably make it.

                After pulling my belongings from the belt (coat, jacket, backpack, luggage, belt, shoes, wallet, boarding pass, laptop, and baggie with liquids and gels) and shuffling them into their respective places, I dashed off to the gate. I boarded the flight just in time. As the flight crew prepared to separate from the jetway, I began to relax. I might actually make this weekend happen, after all. And then, a flight attendant at the front of the plane called my name.

                “Michael Murphy?” she called.

                “Yes, here,” I called back, a sinking feeling in my stomach. What else could go wrong? Was I being bumped at the last minute? Would they pull me off the plane?

                “You forgot your computer. You left it at security,” she said as she strolled to my seat and handed me the worn Darden bundle laptop.

                “Oh… oh,” I stuttered, “th-th-thanks. THANK YOU!” The realization of how bad my weekend could have been dawned on me. Exams are next week, and all my old casework is on my laptop. And I never back anything up.

                I don’t know the name of the person at security that found the laptop sitting on the belt, unclaimed. I don’t know who it was that decided to open it, boot it up, and see my name on the login screen (I don’t have it listed anywhere physically on the machine). I don’t know who the ticket counter person was who looked up my name (frankly, quite a common name) and found which flight I was on. And I don’t know who brought the computer to the plane and gave it to the flight attendant. But they all saved me from a very, very bad weekend and probably a bad week as well. Also, Darden bundle laptops ($~2000) carry a warranty that covers everything… spills, drops, meteors. But they don’t cover theft or loss.  

                Sometimes the greatest measures of gratitude go to those we don’t know… those who go above and beyond their everyday duties to keep the world a better place for all of us, and especially for the absent-minded among us. For these people, the thank you notes go unsent. But our collective human commitment is to do the same for others when given the opportunity. In a way, I suppose that’s even better.


3 Responses to “Thank you notes unsent”

  1. Vika said

    Excellent post! Hope FMP final went well and good luck on all the rest!

  2. JulyDream said

    Wow! I was impressed as I started reading about thank yous, but as you concluded with random acts of kindness, I can only smile. You’re dead on! 😀 Good luck on finals and I hope all goes well this summer!

    ~ Paige =o)

  3. And thank you! Another really nice piece. Following on from what JulyDream just said, compared with a lot of blogs I’d say just reading something so well-written qualifies as a random act of kindness in itself.

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