It took me many years to figure out my calling in life, and the decades of the 1980s and 1990s saw me trying to find my niche in the business world in a variety of career guises. In retrospect, I was undoubtedly a poor fit for the world of commerce, as I was much more likely to be seen reading literature penned by the likes of Fyodor Dostoevsky than to be perusing the work of a business-oriented author like Stephen Covey.
Before returning to college in 2000, my own readings via my natural curiosity influenced my understanding of history. In particular, I started reading the work of the late Daniel J. Boorstin, and books like The Americans (1973), The Discoverers (1983), The Creators (1992), and Cleopatra's Nose: Essays on the Unexpected (1994) provided me with an appreciation for history that had previously eluded me.
After I returned to college and was finishing my BA, I wrote Boorstin a letter and discussed how his writing was influential in my decision to become a historian. I mentioned how I read years earlier The Discoverers on a plane while traveling on business, and while I did not see the proverbial light of awakening that exact moment, his book opened my eyes to the possibilities that might lie ahead were I to return to school.
The letter was really an impulsive act, and I cannot remember what prompted me to dash off the note. I might have picked up one of his books again, or perhaps heard his name mentioned, but I was never the type to mail unsolicited letters to people I had never met.
I never expected a reply, figuring he was a busy man, but much to my surprise I received a handwritten letter from his wife. At the time of my letter Boorstin had been quite ill, and Mrs. Boorstin wrote that her husband was "moved to tears" by my praise; Boorstin died just a few short months later.
A lump appeared in my own throat upon reading that letter, and I tried to imagine the scene as a dying Daniel J. Boorstin, hands shaking and hooked up with IVs and electrodes, read my note. I then understood the tremendous power that a simple letter can summon, and that too often in life we wait until it is too late to thank those who have guided and shaped us.
I encourage anyone reading this blog post to stop and write a thank you letter today to someone who influenced you in a positive way. It brought my heart gladness to know that I unwittingly provided a dying man a profound sense of accomplishment for his life's work, and that I perhaps helped ease his burdens for a few minutes.
All with a short and heartfelt letter.