Michael is one of my childhood friends. Someone I’ve known since I was in Primary 1 in Malaysia and who, like me, immigrated to Australia. He is someone I admire greatly and one I am blessed to have in my close circle of friends – a self-made highly successful entrepreneur who’s grown a company largely through the school of hard knocks and most significantly, a man of exemplary faith, values, a family man and just a great all-round human being.

He shared this story with me earlier this year.

Visiting Kuala Lumpur on vacation with his family (wife and three children), he took them out to a special restaurant to celebrate his wife and his 25th wedding anniversary. Apart from great food and ambience, a special feature of this joint was a decorative table ornament that patrons could put together from a package of blocks and tools – something that would create a great experience whilst they were waiting for their order to arrive. Michael’s table was the only one in the restaurant without this ornament. Being a typical bloke, this did not cause undue concern to Michael. Noticing that his wife and daughter were expressing some unhappiness about this, he called a waiter for an explanation. The waiter was apologetic, explaining that the restaurant was fully booked and that it was an oversight on their part to not have catered for sufficient ornaments. Though not completely satisfied with this explanation, Michael and his family decided to shrug off the incident.

As their meals were being served, they noticed new patrons arriving to occupy vacated tables. To their surprise and indignance, each new group was presented with an ornament package. Their previous misgivings about being left out arose. Sensing his family’s displeasure and his hopes of a memorable evening evaporating, Michael’s protective instincts kicked in and he gestured to a waiter again. He castigated the attendant for being untruthful to them that they did not have enough ornaments and shared what he’d witnessed. The waiter was apologetic explaining that there were indeed insufficient packages and that because previous patrons had not taken their ornaments with them, the restaurant had simply recycled those and offered them to the new patrons. Unsatisfied with this explanation, Michael became more assertive about his displeasure, raising his voice. As he was doing this, he noticed out of the corner of his eye that his teenage son was gesturing to him to “tone it down and let it go”. The situation was evidently drawing the unwelcome attention of other patrons and the waiter was in obvious discomfort over the situation. His social awareness made him conclude his attack and he turned his attention back to his family and the meal.

His son pointed out to his father that he did not have to be “so mean” to the waiter, who was clearly embarrassed and apologetic over a genuine mistake. Drawing a deep breath, Michael looked at his son and family and apologised sincerely to them for losing his cool and spoiling the occasion. His family were rather taken aback by this gesture – his wife actually remarking that she felt bemused, suggesting that he took his children’s feedback far better than he accepted hers.

That night, as he was about to put out the lights in his vacation apartment, his son walked up to him and thanked him. He said to his father that he was really moved by his magnanimous gesture of humility, for apologising to him in front of his family (it is not common in the traditional “Asian” family, firstly for children to offer such feedback to their elders and certainly not for parents to apologise to their children – “the parents are always right” syndrome) and that in his eyes, his father would always be his hero.

Michael’s story moved me. It reminded me that trust is fostered through vulnerability. Admitting mistakes takes courage and humility and we trust those who do even more. During the course of the evening, the level of emotional trust between son and father declined at one stage and then was significantly strengthened.

It’s not about what happens; it’s what we do with what happens that matters. It reminds me also that improving our communication, empathy, self-awareness, social awareness, transparency and relationship skills is a lifelong journey. And that we can continue to grow these skills no matter how old we are. This knowledge gives me hope, it gives me confidence and it increases my personal sense of humility. It makes me determined even more to keep learning, to not be afraid to take the hits and to know that with hunger for learning, things in fact can and do get even better.

To your awesomeness,