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Need a friend? Be a friend

By Steve Johnson


Lean on me when you’re not strong
I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on
For it won’t be long
‘Til I’m gonna need somebody to lean on.
—Bill Withers, American singer-songwriter

You’ve heard it said. You may even have heard yourself say it. “The problem with this business is the people.” And, “the best thing about this business is the people.” 

How can these two sentiments both be true? Well, as your father used to say, they just are.

If you work with people, and most of us do, you’ll eventually understand and maybe even come to appreciate the seeming contradiction. Or you won’t, and you’ll suffer for it. On the one hand, dealing with people can be a big, hot mess. On the other hand, people can be absolutely wonderful. So, how do you reconcile that? It’s not like a balance sheet where assets always equal liabilities plus equity. No, when people are involved, there is no nice, neat accounting equation. 

Vive la différence

The answer may lie in embracing one another’s differences. Granted, this is hard. It goes against our instinct. Our natural tendency is to want other people to look like us, think like us, and act like us. Conform or be cast out. 

Well, I’m here to say that conformity is overrated. I am learning to like hanging out with all kinds of people. I enjoy spending time with, and learning as much from, the disabled veteran in the wheelchair as I do with the CEO speaking at the podium. Young, old, rich, or poor — I would submit there is always some redeeming value in almost every single human being, regardless. Do you sometimes need to dig deep to find it? Yes. Often it’s buried under layers of Facebook façades or serious scar tissue from life’s wounds. But it’s there. You just have to want to uncover it. You also have to be willing to be vulnerable enough to let some of your own scars show, and that’s probably the hardest thing to do.

So I am learning to appreciate differences. Take age differences for example. I learn new things all the time from friends and acquaintances who are 10, 20, and 30 or more years ahead of me. I also learn every day from some of my younger associates, colleagues, friends, and business partner. It’s my fervent hope and belief that I may have a thing or two to offer them, wherever they find themselves on their own journeys. Even if all I can come up with is an encouraging word, empathetic shrug, or anecdote from my own experience, that’s often enough to help a fellow traveler along their way on this crazy train called life. I don’t claim to have cornered the market on any great or powerful wisdom. But we all have seen things, experienced things, made mistakes, made amends. We all have something to share with others who may be ahead of us or behind us on the trail.

Your turn

Where are you on your journey? What do you have to share? What do you need to learn? Who can you ask to mentor you? Who can you mentor? How can you help someone who may need a little encouragement?

When you come right down to it, who can lean on you for help, and who can help you? Maybe it’s a younger friend. Or an older colleague. Maybe it’s a niece or a nephew. Maybe it’s an aging grandparent or parent, or a friend going through a rough patch. We’re all in this crazy, messy business of life together.

Despite all our well-intentioned talk of rugged individualism and pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps self-help gobbledygook, at the end of the day people need other people. In all our messiness, with all our wounds, we were put here to help each other. Not just ourselves. 

Do you know any people who could use someone to lean on right now? Why not send them a text or email. Maybe even mail them a handwritten note. Or better yet, make an actual phone call or walk down the hall to talk to them. You never know whose day you might make. It might even be yours.        

Steve Johnson is managing partner of Riger Marketing Communications in Binghamton. Contact him at

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