What are 4 lessons I learned from a shoe shiner?

“Everyone needs a little encouragement.”

-Mr. Alphonso Young-Shoe Shiner

It was March 2012, I just landed in Louisville, KY. Like most airports you will eventually walk past a tradition hundreds of years old. The old fashioned shoe shine stand.

Chris was his name. I can remember like it was yesterday. “Sir, it looks like you need a shine to make a good impression today. Let’s get some of that salt out of those shoes.” (How did he know I just came from Wisconsin)? It was that enthusiastic southern charm that persuaded me to take a seat and he was right I did need a shoeshine.

We went through the normal niceties as he shined my shoes. Where was I from? How long had he been shining shoes? But something struck me about this shoe shiner. He was different. He had a skip to his step. A great outlook on life and it wasn’t until asked him this simple question. Why are you so happy? Then I began to unwrap the story of Mr. Young.

“Sir, I have to be, if it wasn’t for Mr. Young, I don’t know where I would be. He took a second chance on me when no one else would.”

I was curious. What did he mean? Second chance? This Mr. Young sounded like quite the guy. I have to meet him.

“Where can I find Mr. Young?” I asked “You are in luck he is actually working today at the front shoe shine stand. If you feel that I did a good job shining your shoes today, would you mind telling him I did a good job?” I agreed and set off on my mission to meet this man, called Mr. Young.

As I passed the security check point and looked around the corner, I saw Mr. Young.

He was quite the popular guy. Short and stout. There was a line of people waiting to get their shoes shined by him and one of his staff. You can tell this wasn’t any shoe shine stand. It was hopping. This was Mr. Young’s stand. Had to be. He fit the description. Chris was right. People greeted him like long lost friends. Big hugs. Big thank yous. You can tell a lot of his customers have become friends with him over the years!

I stood in debate. The line was long. Mr. Young seemed busy. What do I do? I did make a promise to Chris. I waited. The minutes ticked by and finally my turn came to meet and talk to Mr. Young.

Mr. Young was about 5 ‘6’ and I would come to learn was in his 70s. He had a certain glow to him.

To be honest I was somewhat nervous to approach him for some reason.

“Are you the famous Mr. Young”, I asked. “I don’t know about famous, but yes I am, and who I might ask is asking.” “Tony, Sir. I promised Chris that I would tell you that he did a great job. I also must add you really foster a culture of great attitudes around here. How do you do it?” (This was supposed to be a quick hello and goodbye).

“That’s pretty simple Tony, we don’t just shine shoes here we encourage people,” Mr. Young said.

Then he stopped and looked me with his gentle eyes and said to me “What else would you like to know?” I was taken aback by his question. I fumbled for words, the only words that came to my lips were, “I really don’t know.” … He chuckled… “Don’t worry. That happens a lot. But, everyone comes here for a reason.” What did he mean by that?

“How long have you been doing this?” I asked. “A long time, 25 years!” Mr. Young said. “ That is a long time. How have you been be able to be in business for so long?”

Mr. Young motioned me away from his shoe shine stand for a moment to the side. I sensed a lesson was about to happen.

He said to me, “I am very fortunate to have been in this business for 25 years. However, there was a moment I almost lost everything. I was all about the mighty dollar. Then I had a stroke and almost died. It’s why I talk a bit slower to this day. It was then I realized what does it profit a man to gain the world if you lose who you are in the process.” He stopped for a moment to let it sink in as if he knew something about me that I didn’t.

I stood there just thinking about what he just said. He continued, “You see there was a time before the stroke. I was judgmental. Didn’t give many people chances. From employees to even customers. I was about getting that shoe shine done as fast as I could. Next! Was my saying. But, the stroke slapped me across the head. All things work together you know. The stroke made me realize my opportunity was more than just to shine shoes. Alot of people need something more. For staff it was a second chance because a lot of them, society had given up on. I must say, my staff, boy they do drive me crazy some days, but if there is tip for you. Here you go. It takes a while for some to take a hold of what you are teaching.”

“We are also a safe haven for customers. That’s when I really realized that I represent more than shoe polish. My shoeshine stands are a place people look forward to stopping by. Why? For just a little bit of encouragement believe it or not. Does it make sense to what I am telling you?”

“You see you keep doing what you have been doing and you’ll keep getting what you got. The stroke made me stop what I was doing and it made me start putting customers and staff first”

“Mr. Young. I can tell you are respected by your staff and customers. I stood over in that aisle watching you interact with people. That’s pretty special if you ask me.”

“Tony, I am extremely grateful and humble for all the opportunities given to me. I am just a little guy from Louisville, KY, Who has flown around the country shining shoes? I believe the reason I started this business is to encourage and uplift people. I was lucky to survive that stroke. You don’t get do overs. So in whatever you do be diligent, be faithful, be the best you can be…

Mr. Young was right. His shoeshine stands are a stand for encouragement. That day I received 35 minutes of encouragement, a great shoe shine and 4 powerful lessons.

  1. Don’t be so judgmental. Every one of us has a story and history. Give people an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and grow.
  2. Know who you are.-Nothing is so important. No title. No dollar is so big that you should lose yourself in the process. Figure out what you value most and use that as your filter in making your decisions.
  3. Find a greater purpose to what you do-. No matter what you do. It always serves a greater purpose than you think it does. It’s up to you to find it. For Mr. Young can be called Mr. Encourager,
  4. Don’t wait for something outside of you to make change happen. Decide to make the change from within today.

If you are ever in Louisville, KY at the airport, please do me a favor. Stop by the shoe stands and look for Mr. Young. Tell him I say hi. I hope you have the same opportunity I did and get some encouragement, oh and of course a great shoe shine… (Smile)

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