"Lessons Earned" by John Sanderson: Put Others First

by John Sanderson, CPA, CIMA® Mar 30, 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.



When I was growing up, my Grandma Woodward taught me to be afraid of three things: dogs, water, and heights. I took these lessons to heart, although it wasn’t easy living near the Erie Canal, where I often had to walk across rusty old bridges, desperately trying not to glance at the dark, murky water looming far, far below. Perhaps that’s why I became an accountant, since I figured the only workplace hazard would be the occasional paper cut.

When I started at Ernst & Young, one of my first assignments was to perform an audit at a plastic plant in upstate New York, where one of the world’s most well-known oil companies manufactured plastic bags. My job was to go to the plant, inspect the facility, and take inventory of their materials. I would be joined by a junior colleague who started just a few months after I did.

As we toured the factory, what quickly caught my attention were the towering silos where they stored the polypropylene, a type of plastic used to make bags, containers, and other items. The silos holding the polypropylene were easily 50 or 60 feet tall—their imposing walls rising the height of a small apartment building straight up.

As part of the inventory, we had to climb a ladder to the top of the tank, drop a measuring device inside, and then see how far down it went. This would show us exactly how much polypropylene the tank held at the time.

With my Grandmother’s cautionary words about heights ringing in my ears, I turned to my colleague to ask him to go up the ladder instead of me. There was only one problem, as I could clearly see from his shaking hands and ghost-white face: he was even more afraid of heights than I was, if you can imagine that.

For a brief moment, I considered just guessing at the amount of polypropylene in the tank and reporting back to my bosses. But the only thing that scared me more than heights was the prospect of losing my job. So I took a deep breath, and lifted my foot up onto the first rung. It was time to gut it out and face my worst fear.

One terrifying step at a time, I made my way to the top—likely the slowest person in the history of that plant to ever to climb that ladder, but that was the least of my worries. I didn’t dare look down the entire time, except to quickly lower the measuring device into the tank and then hoist it back up.

Fortunately, I didn’t fall in. But that only meant I had to make the equally terrifying trip back down the ladder. At least I would be greeted by the wonderful safety of the firm ground below.

That day, I realized an important lesson: sometimes you must conquer your fear to save others from an even worse fear. The job had to be done, my colleague was terrified, so I did the job. I was senior to him, so theoretically I could have forced him to make the climb. But my colleague, who I’m still friends with to this day, was clearly more scared than I was, and has never forgotten what I did for him.

To this day, I still could not tell you how I made it up 65 feet on a metal ladder to peer down into those tanks. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to do—but also one of the easiest choices I’ve ever made.


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.