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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Gray Fedora

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.

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Kerrying On

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The following article first appeared on August 23, 2006.


When I’ve finished conducting a training session, it’s common for people to approach me with a series of questions about the training’s underlying philosophy. At the top of the list is: “What philosopher influenced you the most?” Sometimes people will insert a guru of their choice. “Was it Kant?” “Did you draw heavily from Rousseau?” “Were you thinking of Socrates when you . . .”

While I have a working knowledge of the icons people mention, I’d have to say that none played a very big role in my work. First, I can’t remember what most of them said, and second, none will ever displace an incident that set me on a philosophical course I continue to follow to this day. Like a lot of useful philosophy lessons, it all started with a Roy Rogers double feature.

In 1954, if you happened to be eight years old, and I did, Roy Rogers sat smack dab in the center of your universe. He was this marvelous cowboy/actor who was always chasing down the bad guys and saving the schoolmarm in the most remarkable and innovative ways. So when the newspaper announced there would be a Roy Rogers double feature showing on Saturday, I anxiously waited for the big event.

At that stage in my life, each day as I’d come home from school, I’d stop off at my Granddad’s place where I’d talk with him about Trigger, Bullet, Nelly Bell, and all of the other members of Roy Rogers’ entourage. Granddad had never seen the singing cowboy in action, but he always showed great interest in whatever caught my attention. He would patiently listen to me as I retold each tale of derring-do.

In truth, while it was Roy who had captured my eight-year-old interest, it was really Granddad who had captured my heart. At five foot four with a fireplug shape, a cigar stub in the corner of his mouth, and an amazing wit, he cut a large swath in my world. He owned and operated the local grocery store and, as far as my friends and I were concerned, that made him a celebrity. In fact, since he was the guy who stood behind the candy counter, it made him a childhood god.

Like all septuagenarians at the time, whenever Granddad visited downtown he wore a wool suit and a gray fedora. Since it was now the 1950s, the felt hat put him in a distinct minority. Most men had dropped any form of head gear at the same time women had stopped wearing gloves (in the late 40s), but Grandfather wouldn’t think of going outside without being covered. To him, you weren’t fit for public appearance if you weren’t in a suit and the suit had to have a matching hat. In Granddad’s case, it was the gray fedora.

The day of the double feature finally arrived and I stopped by Granddad’s store to let him know I’d be catching the bus that stopped in front of his establishment in order to go downtown and see Roy in action. He smiled broadly and explained that he too would be heading into the city to stock up on supplies. Maybe we’d run into each other. With the prospect of bumping into my Grandfather in mind, I headed downtown.

Later that day I merrily walked from the movie theater to the bus stop a few blocks away. While sucking on a Tootsie Pop and still musing about Roy’s latest conquest, I was confronted by an image that stopped me in my tracks. The Tootsie Pop actually fell from my mouth as I stood agape. There, at the end of the block no more that twenty yards away, lay Grandfather on the sidewalk. He appeared to be dead. His body lay askew while a withered hand clutched something bottle-shaped in a brown paper bag. What had happened? Did Granddad have a heart attack on the way to the wholesale house?

As I drew closer my fear turned to confusion and then despair. Why was nobody helping him? It was a busy Saturday afternoon and lots of people were walking right past him without even glancing. One person even stepped over him and sneered. Had the world gone mad? Were there no real heroes in Bellingham? Roy Rogers routinely shot it out with bad guys in order to right a wrong; couldn’t somebody stop and check Granddad? How hard could that be?

When I finally fell to my knees next to Granddad and moved the gray fedora that was covering his face, I discovered that it wasn’t him after all. It was a stranger—an old man who hadn’t shaved in days, smelled of wine, and who wasn’t dead, but instead was dead drunk.

Quickly I leaped to my feet. And then a warm wave of relief swept over me. It wasn’t Granddad and he wasn’t dead! It wasn’t Granddad! I stood there and cried tears of sheer joy until a kindly lady stopped and asked if I was lost. I mumbled that I was okay as I scuffled off to catch the bus.

As I rode the bus home I realized that I had equated a gray fedora with Grandfather, so when I saw a man wearing Granddad’s hat of choice, I made a logical leap that had caused me a great deal of grief. I wouldn’t make that mistake again. And then my emotions darted in another direction as my wide-eyed innocence took over. The better me couldn’t be so readily consoled. Yes, this stranger wasn’t my Grandfather, but surely he was somebody’s Grandfather. Where were his grandkids? And the strangers who passed by—why hadn’t they done anything? I sobbed for the stranger all the way home.

When I finally arrived home, I burst through the front door and told my mom how I thought Granddad was dead and how it had turned out to be somebody else. She smiled knowingly and explained that the poor fellow I had stumbled upon was known as a “wino” who was probably sleeping it off.

“But where were his grandkids?” I asked. Where was the little boy who would fall to his knees and help him home? Mom didn’t have an answer.

I was forever changed that day. First, I opened the door into the harsh part of life that my parents had protected me from. Some people become indigents who die on the street. Worse still, we don’t always know what to do about it. But the second lesson I learned was far more important and returns me to the question of the philosophy underlying our training. It’s the philosophy of the fedora. I learned that if I put Granddad’s fedora on a stranger—instantly transforming him or her into a person I loved dearly—the stranger became someone worthy of my care and attention. Putting a face on the faceless masses, assigning a name to a crime or war victim, thinking of the people who cause you grief—thinking of them as real people with children of their own—well, this humanizing act has a dramatic impact on how you first think about and then treat them.

For example, if I put the fedora on the elderly man driving the car in front of me at fifteen miles an hour in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone, my impatience and disgust transform into sympathy.

If a person at work lets me down and I can’t believe how uncaring he or she is, I place him or her under the fedora and I won’t be so quick to pass judgment and become angry. “Maybe,” I think, “he or she had a good reason for missing the deadline. Go find out.” Instantly I transform into a far better problem-solver than when I don’t assume the best of others but instead angrily wade into the discussion with hostile, and often groundless, accusations.

So, if you want to know what philosophy most influenced my training theories, remember the power of the fedora. Take it in your hands, turn it over and peer into its crown. There, somewhere between the manufacturer’s label and the hat size, you’ll find one of the most useful philosophies ever discovered by an eight-year-old.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

35 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Gray Fedora”

  1. How absolutely excellent! I appreciate the very ‘visual’ example of how to immediately empathize with a person. This is a real example of how to remove a predisposition that you have about a person and just be a servant. Thank you.

  2. As a MASTER storyteller, you drew me in so completely that my heart is STILL beating quickly from my reaction to your seeing “grandfather” lying on the sidewalk. You make your point well, for it’s a matter of the heart where the best relationships reside and where the deepest meaning of life is lived. Thank you for the many times you’ve given me insights that lead to my being a better person – or at least thinking twice before speaking. “Fedoras” off to you!

  3. This is one of the most touching stories I have read in a long time and I will take your message to heart (as I sit here with tears in my eyes). Sometimes I try all of my “tricks” and, when nothing works, I will now have one more (non-trick) in my pocket. Thank you so much for this.

  4. Your column really hit home when you gave the example of the person driving slow. It is so easy to be judgemental with a “faceless” person. And easy to jump to conclusions, even with those who are close to us.

  5. Unfortunately it isn’t always my “first” reaction. For some reason I feel the need to layer another level of abstraction on it. I have grumbled to myself about “the elderly man driving the car in front of me at fifteen miles an hour in a thirty-five-mile-an-hour zone”, yet when I have heard my thoughts put to voice by my passenger… I took pause. Sometimes we allow ourselves the luxury of a private life without self-recrimination, but having it said aloud changes it for at least some of us. Maybe we should start blurting it out and deal with it in an environment that could very well judge us… as we should be judging ourselves. Eventually we might get to the point where we hear the nasty little voice in our heads and just shut it down without having to inflict it on others… or ourselves. Time to put on our own fedoras.

  6. Wonderful article Kerry – thank you, really drives home the concept in crucial conversations of detaching from the emotion > and inspecting the person under the lense of a good person and try to figure out why they would say x they way they did.. I like the analogy of the fedora – very easy to remember and apply!

  7. It is the lack of “humanizing” others that differentiates the criminal from the non-criminal. I watched a program where psychologists were working with a person who murdered a jogger in Central Park. While performing a role-play reinactment of the crime, the murderer broke down and cried,”I didn’t know he was a real person!”. Put the fedora on everyone………we are ALL real people.

  8. Kerry,
    “The Gray Fedora” brought a tear to my eye the first time I read it, and it did again today. What a beautiful story, and a reminder for us to always look for the humanity of those around us.

    Please be sure to let us know when you publish your book of personal essays and remembrances. I will be first in line to buy a copy.

  9. I,too, am sitting here with tears in my eyes after reading your wonderful story. It is certainly amazing how one’s perspective (and heart)can change when we make that human connection. Let us not forget that we are all our brother’s keeper.

    I shall be sure to share your words of wisdom with my family and incorporate it into future classes I facilitate. If but one heart is softened, I’ll be overjoyed.

    Thank you, Kerry, for sharing your story. I wish you all the best.

  10. Kerry,

    The story touches my spirit. We should think of others as people, someone with a soul, family and a life, someone who may need some understanding some love.

    We have a story and they have a story. Listen! WOW what a great life lesson.

  11. Kerry,
    this was such a moving story, I could hardly read it quickly and absorb
    all the feelings you projected. your tales are so familiar as they seem to a mirror of my own childhood. Thank you for your timely reminder of noticing the good in folks.

  12. Great story. Question: you mentioned growing up in Bellingham – was that Bellingham, Washington? I was also a great fan of Roy Rogers and was 8 years old in 1954 in Bellingham, WA. I remember a few “winos” and other odd characters in town too, although not one with a fedora. My appreciation for the fact we are all members of one human family whether each “wore a fedora” or not came on more gradually, but it is so true in a world that needs that reminder.

  13. Roy would be proud of you… and “shooting the bad guy” often doesn’t solve the real problem! Quakers speak of “answering that of God” which resides in each person. The fedora will help me remember to do this.

  14. Mr. Patterson,

    I couldn’t help but make this first-time comment.

    Each of us have a gray fedora, and He goes by the initials of J.C.

    Paul said it was his plan from before the foundation of the world to adopt us into his humanity, and he did that nearly 2000 years ago by virtue of his incarnation.

    As a result of that adoption, Scripture tells us that when He died, we died, when He rose, we rose and are now seated at his right hand. All of us are included, but most of us don’t have a clue about that inclusion. And as a result, every stanger we pass by on the street is our brother, sister, because All of humanity is included in relationship with the gray fedora. When we judge the man next to us, we’re literally judging our brother.

    Great story…I intend to use it as an illustration of Trinitarian Theology, my friend.

    Warm regards.

  15. Hope you don’t mind me making a second comment on this website, but once again you have touched my heart. The other 4 partners are very good, but for whatever reason your words, experiences, internalization of and use of your life lessons speak to my head and heart. I also learned similar lessons in life but am grateful for your reminder. A co-worker recently said “It doesn’t cost a penny to be kind.” You’ve taken that idea to a much higher level by recognizing each persons humanity. I love the way you express things! And I have to tell you, Roy Rogers was also my hero as a child and still is to this day because of the decent human being he was. Thank you for being one of my heroes!

  16. Thank you for sharing this great story. From now on, I will carry the equivalent of a gray fedora in my mind to place on the heads of other folks to transform the way I may be thinking about them and their situations.

  17. This definitely goes in the “Keepers from Kerry” folder, along with your stories about rescuing your friend from the sharks and leaving your kid in the department store. I’m going to apply today’s story to my teenage children when I get home tonight.

  18. Dear Mr. Patterson,
    I have been trying to find the words to respond to someone who recently questioned and ridiculed me for helping a friend who has been recently not as kind and responsible as they had once been to her loved ones due to an addiction. Your story, and remembering all the wonderful deeds that my friend was once known for have inspired me to respond now.
    Thank you for sharing your story and reminding us all that we are responsible for each other.

  19. My Friend,
    I’m so glad your article reveals to so many the heart we know so well. Though your beautifully crafted story does a marvelous job of teaching a powerful principle, we who know you well have always thought your most poignant sermons to us have been taught by the loving life you live.
    Ron McMillan

  20. Kerry – this is exactly message I needed to guide me through the next few weeks of work and life. We’re all under the Fedora at one time or another, right? I’m inspired by you to connect and engage with the people I come into contact with instead of just gliding by grateful I’m not the one in the ditch.

  21. Okay, Kerry, you hooked me in again!I had a recent experience close to this. Here in Olympia, I live close to downtown, in a “forties” neighborhood with all sorts of old trees, young and old, houses in transition from good to bad. Several months ago, my husband came running into the house to tell me of a man down on the sidewalk. As a nurse, he thought I could help and he would dial 911. I ran (as much as I can at 57!) to the gent’s side and noticed he is one of the local “bicycle bums” or “burnouts” recognized regularly in our hood. I remember my calling–“…this could be me; I was luckier than him”. This is tough stuff for me, as my first marriage I bailed out of–he was a “functional” alcoholic. I digress. I tried my best to assess him, to see if he had a head injury, if he was on medication, if he had a seizure disorder. I could smell the alcohol, even though it was 1 p.m. Once the fire department arrived (yes, with a hook and ladder in tow, much to the concern of this taxpayer!), they informed me they were familiar with the fellow. They spoke to him in a condencending manner and were basically content to let him stay on the cold sidewalk. I advocated for the guy, reiterating his request to go to the hospital. I found my attitude had changed; this could have been my first husband, loved by many but tolerated by few. I have since seen him bicycling about several times since this happened. That’s okay by me. I don’t mind that my taxes helped him back on his bike. So be it. As the saying goes, the only person I have control over is me. By the way, I remember my dad and grandfather’s fedora’s, too. I think they were functional alcoholics as well but the 1950’s was a time of this being the norm rather than the exception so who knows? Thanks again for another great read.

  22. I love your stories. What an important lesson to humanize a member of the masses, especially one that needs help, or is causing a problem.

  23. Kerry,

    I hope you don’t mind my using this story as a way to talk about forgiveness to a co-worker who was struggling with a man she knew who had served time as a child molester. While his actions were deplorable, he has paid his debt to society, and is no longer involved in those kinds of activities. Those are hard things to deal with, but for someone who has overcome serious problems, most only ask an opportunity to prove themselves. God bless you for your stories and the lessons they teach us all. The Gray Fedora will remain as one of my icons.

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