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John O’Leary shares the important lesson he learned decades ago from his manager’s simple response to an insult.


“Were you born stupid? Or have you just become stupid over time?”

As a 20-year old college finance major, I had an amazing opportunity to work at a world-class financial service firm. Although at that age, my ability to balance my personal checking account was in serious question, this organization placed me in a position to support their most successful financial advisers.

Truth be told, the majority of my job consisted of making copies, printing spreadsheets and assembling mailing packets.

On the few occasions my phone actually rang, I’d answer excitedly only to be greeted by the voice of college friends pranking me or my mother asking how the day was going.

There was, however, one unforgettable phone call. As the phone rang, I cleared my throat and answered in my most professional voice, “Managed Products, this is John O’Leary. How may I help you?”

A deep, grumpy voiced barked back into the line, “Good, John, I got you. Have a question for you: Were you born stupid? Or have you just become stupid over time?”

Startled, I looked at the phone to make sure it wasn’t a number from a college friend. Seeing it was coming from our office in Chicago, I responded,

“I’m sorry. Excuse me?”

This manager’s advice after his employee received a cutting insult is something we all need to hear.

To which the successful advisor replied sarcastically, “Oh no, I am the one who is sorry. I forgot who I called. Let me slow this question down for you: Were. You. Born. Stupid? Or. Have. You. Just. Become. Stupid. Over. Time?” There was a long pause before he added, “Did I slow it down enough for you?”

Without going into the details, the cause of the problem this man had wasn’t actually me, or even our department. It was a filing issue elsewhere that kept him from closing a contract. And it was an issue easily remedied.

Although the conversation rattled me as an intern, the reason I am rehashing the story is less about my hurt feelings or someone’s assessment of my intelligence, and much more about my manager’s response and what it means for all of us today.

As a leader, Don Embree was quiet and humble, but also fierce and resolute. He became highly successful professionally by investing himself fully into his team. Whereas we have many examples of leaders today who quickly blame others for mistakes while earnestly taking credit for successes, Don worked in the opposite manner. His wisdom imparted that day remains with me 25 years later.

“John, never listen to anyone who is only able to tell you what you do poorly. Their hostility toward you is just a reflection of hatred toward themselves. They don’t feel good about themselves, they don’t have strong self-esteem and they most certainly don’t have your best interest in mind.”

This is so good.

Anger is frequently a reflection of self-loathing. It almost always reveals lack of self-esteem. And those who show it almost never have the best interest of others in mind.

It’s a beautiful sentiment but how do we live this each day?

The challenge today is two-fold:

This is what you should read into others’ attitudes and insults.

The first is to recognize when someone belittles you, is negative toward you, or treats you poorly, that their attitude reflects not your self-wroth, but theirs. Too frequently we give our power to someone who doesn’t even have our best interest in mind. Let’s take our power back!

The second aspect is even more important. In the divisive, quick to anger world we find ourselves navigating today we can choose to be a model that connects, lifts up, and provides hope.

Any fool can raise their voice or degrade an idea or another human being. It’s popular, trends on social and is the currency of the day.

Truly remarkable leaders and ordinary heroes, however, choose instead to faithfully serve, selflessly strive, continuously encourage, and humbly work to make the world a better place. They have high self esteem and have the best interest of others in mind.

My friends, 25 years ago a self-centered individual asked me if I was born stupid or just became that way over time.

Today, let’s share a very different message with those we encounter. Let’s ask if they realize they were born enough. Let’s ask if they’re embracing the wonderful opportunity to become even more brilliant in time.

And let’s begin this conversation with a person probably longing for the reminder: The reflection in the mirror.

This is your day.  Live Inspired.

2 replies on “Were you Born Stupid, or…”

Wow! That was rude. Sounds like something our present leadership says and does. I feel exactly like your leader says , they have no self respect and think bullying is how to deal with others.

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