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How the Greatest Generation approached Sept. 11th

A conversation with my grandfather on September 17, 2001 altered the way I felt about him, his generation, and what real success looks like for future generations. With all we are experiencing during the COVID-19 outbreak, we’d benefit from remembering his lesson now.

I’d just graduated college when we began our tradition of having lunch together once per week. This particular day is unforgettable as the world remained utterly distraught and confused by the 9/11 attacks that occurred just one week earlier.

We spent the majority of our time together commiserating the great sadness of what happened and the uncertainty of what might happen next. My grandfather also shared that he instructed his financial advisor to make a significant investment in two companies: Boeing and American Airlines.

Having majored in finance, interned at a financial service firm, and with the gravitas of 23 years of wisdom, I was stunned. Was he unable to see what was about to happen? The entire market would surely drop (in fact, it fell more than 7% that day and 14% by the end of the week) and no individual stocks would be more negatively impacted than airlines.

I retorted, “Grandpa, why would you do that? You’re going to lose your money.”

He calmly took a sip of his iced tea, looked back at me and asked a question: “Do you know why they refer to my generation as the Greatest Generation?”

I quietly awaited his answer.

“John, it’s not because we survived the Great Depression. All humanity attempts to survive even the most difficult of experiences. It’s also not because we served during World War II. Who wouldn’t respond and step forward if their country, their very way of life, were under attack? And it’s not because we came home and built the most highly productive society in the history of the world.

We are referred to as the Greatest Generation because we never forgot all the lessons we learned along the way. You see, the Depression taught us to value the little things, to live within our means, and to never take anything for granted. The War taught us what real evil looked like, what real sacrifice looked like and what real heroism looked like.  All of these experiences and lessons prepared us to not only work together to create the world we live in today, but to strive to ensure it benefited not just us as individuals, but our society as a whole.”

My grandfather wasn’t worried about short-term losses in a stock portfolio. His life experiences taught him to play the long game, invest in a way of life he had fought for, and rest well – confident the best days remained ahead. That conversation remains etched into my ethos, more than 20 years later.

Because his understanding of how the Greatest Generation came to be parallels many struggles we are experiencing during this pandemic, we should hope that we may somehow enjoy benefits growing out of these difficult days, too.

Their collapsing markets and soaring unemployment evolved into a deep valuing of the little things, living within their means and never taking things for granted. Likewise, we can shift into this mindset for the long-haul, instead of shifting back to an over-scheduled, over-extended, avaricious society we found ourselves in before the shelter in place orders rocked us.

Their battle against a devastating foe showed what real evil, sacrifice and heroism looked like. Today – in the midst of the pandemic – we’ve witnessed first responders and health care professionals risking their health to provide care for strangers. We’ve witnessed those on the front line of growing, transporting and stocking our food continue their work, regardless of the potential hazard, as the essential part of society they’ve in fact always been.

There has been plenty of evidence of real heroism.

Although the journey forward remains unclear, the Greatest Generation reminds us what defines a society during adversity is not only how they respond in the midst of it, but whether they apply the lessons they learn after it. [Click to tweet.]

Let’s not just get through these days together, but become far better in the days to come because of it.

This is your day. Live Inspired.

P.S. Let’s live inspired TOGETHER! Share inspiring stories of heroes in your community. Email me them at together@johnolearyinspires.com and you’ll be entered to win a copy of my forthcoming book IN AWE (publishing May 5)!

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