John Clark is an author and speechwriter. His first book Who’s Got You? reached #1 in the Amazon Kindle “Fatherhood” category and his new book How to Be a Superman Dad in a Kryptonite World, Even When You Can’t Afford A Decent Cape was just released by Guiding Light Books. He has written hundreds of articles and blogs about Catholic family life and apologetics in such places as Seton Magazine, Catholic Digest, and Homiletic and Pastoral Review. A graduate of Christendom College, John and his wife Lisa have nine children and live in Virginia.
In a recent interview with the The New York Times, Charles Schwab CEO Walt Bettinger tells the story of the most impactful test he ever took. It was the final exam, for which he had studied diligently and felt prepared to ace. Yet, the business course test contained a question that he was not expecting. In fact, the test contained only one single question:
The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, ‘Go ahead and turn it over.’ Both sides were blank.
And the professor said, ‘I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?’
Bettinger had no idea.
He recounts, “Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name.” In failing the test, Bettinger learned an important lesson: “I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”
As I thought about this story, I kept coming back to my own economics professor in college. In the first class of the semester, he asked each one of us about our personal goals in life. And I, all of eighteen years old with the wisdom to match those years, proudly told him, “I don’t know, but I know I want to make a lot of money.” By the last class of the semester, I would have been ashamed to give that same answer. He had taught me too well for me to stick by my short-sighted response.
Our professor taught us about markets and marketing and supply and demand and the like. But mostly, he taught us about life and those who live it. He taught us that capitalism was a wonderful thing, but somehow, his classes had very little to do with making money. Rather, they were about how we can help others to share in God’s work in the world.
Bettinger’s professor seemed to realize the same thing. You can know all the math, charts, and graphs, but as important as such knowledge is, it leaves out the most essential lesson of all.
And, economist or not, business tycoon or not, all of us should start thinking about this question once posed to Bettinger: “What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”
Our question might find a different form. It might be:
Where did your barista just go on vacation?
When is the last time you played catch with your teenage son?
What can I do to thank my parish priest, who has heard my confessions for years?
Can I find a better way to share my love of Jesus with my atheist friend?
How can I help my daughter more with her art projects?
Why doesn’t my brother smile much anymore?
I think it’s fair to say that we live in a world of questioning, but far too rarely do we ask the questions we should be asking. These are questions motivated by love.
There’s no way around it: we all must take a final exam the moment after we close our eyes for the last time on Earth. And though we have our whole lives to cram, we often focus on the things that are unlikely to appear on that test. But we must begin to realize that the answers we provide in that test in the future are formed by the questions we ask today.