"Lessons Earned" by John Sanderson: Be Empathetic

by John Sanderson, CPA, CIMA® Feb 22, 2023 Lessons Earned

In this series, we share some of John Sanderson's favorite insights and anecdotes from his book, “Lessons Earned.” Throughout the book, John shares dozens of lessons he has learned, starting as a young boy and culminating with his leadership as founder and chairman of Sanderson Wealth Management.


Lessons-Earned_Be-Empathetic_iconI gripped the armrests as tightly as I could, worried that I might actually rip them off the seats if I pulled any harder.

“Just take deep breaths,” I told myself, over and over again, wondering how I would get through the next few hours.

It was my first business trip—my first time in an airplane—and I was scared as hell.

I was 21 years old, had just graduated at the top of my class, and was working in my dream job at Arthur Young & Company. But nothing had prepared me for strapping into a metal tube, rocketing down a runway, then soaring into the skies—watching everything I knew and loved get smaller and smaller until it all disappeared in a cloudy haze.

Fortunately, I wasn’t alone on the flight. One of the Arthur Young managers on the trip quickly noticed my white knuckles and rapid breathing and took the empty seat next to me. His wife was a stewardess, and he patiently explained exactly what would happen on the flight—the captain’s announcements, the rush of acceleration down the runway, the front of the plane pulling up and slowly tilting us back as we climbed up to 35,000 feet, and so on, until we would finally touch down on solid ground.

I don’t think he actually held my hand, but he did everything he could to put me at ease. More than four decades (and hundreds of flights) later, his kindness still brings a tear to my eye.

I’ve always been exceptionally empathetic. It’s my natural inclination, in part from watching my Grandpa Woodward. But even if you’re not naturally empathetic, empathy is a skill you can practice—and it starts with the simple act of observing.

Look at the people around you. Does someone look uncomfortable? Anxious? Scared? Pay attention to their body language. Listen— really listen—to what they’re saying. Watch how they’re interacting with others.

Once you’ve noticed them, think about what you can do to take away some of their discomfort or fear. My manager couldn’t change the fact that we were on an airplane—but he could listen to my concerns, tell me what to expect, and just be there, right next to me, sharing the experience. Nobody wants to feel like they’re alone. Whether you’re sitting in a conference room or soaring six miles above the earth, we’re all in this together.


Reprinted with permission from "Lessons Earned: Stories from a Lifetime Spent Fully Invested," copyright © 2022 John R. Sanderson.

This story reflects the author’s present recollections of people and experiences over time. Some identifying details have been changed and some dialogue has been recreated. While the author has made a concerted effort to provide accurate information, neither the publisher nor the author shall have any liability or responsibility for any adverse effects or loss caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly, by any information included in this story.