Steve Pemberton: Why Recognition Moments Matter

By Lauren Brown

We all have a first picture people see of us and we see of others, but it’s the moments of recognition in our lives that expand that picture and illuminate our true potential.

Among Monday’s pre-conference keynotes, Steve Pemberton, chief human resources officer at Globoforce, wove a story of how distinct moments of recognition helped him overcome the labels that defined his childhood – turning adversity into new beginnings.

Steve’s recent memoir, “A Chance in the World,” soon to be a major motion picture, was inspired by his journey, but began with a question from his then 6-year-old son who asked him if he’d had a daddy when he was a boy. Steve’s answer was no. His son followed up with another question. A mommy? Again, no.

“He became confused because he was asking me to a degree that a 6-year-old boy could, ‘What is this world without a mommy and a daddy?’ The truth is that you don’t get through life without facing some form of adversity.”

As a ward of the state of Massachusetts, Steve was shuffled through foster homes in his early years, and it was during this time when he learned his first lesson in diversity. “We don’t know whether you belong with a white family or a black family,” a social worker explained to him.

“This was an opportunity to see me as a young boy who needed a home, but the labels got in the way. We ought to be less concerned with what someone is, and more with who they are.”

Despite landing in a toxic situation with people who tried to break his spirit, Steve had other plans. Determined to defy the words he’d seen written in his case file – that he didn’t have a chance in the world – he harnessed his love of reading and key moments of recognition to lift himself up. From Ruby Dottin, a smiling judge at an elementary school spelling bee, to Claire Levin, a neighbor who gave him books, to John Sykes, a kind mentor who helped him apply to colleges, these seemingly small gestures had life-defining impact.

“Every kindness matters – who smiles at you, who uses your name when they talk to you, who sees that you are a little more than what the rest of the world sees you as.”

And those who predicted that he didn’t have a chance got it wrong because they hadn’t seen the entire picture of him. “They didn’t see all these people around me who cared, who recognized there was a possibility here that I was a lot more than the circumstances I had been born into.”

For Steve, recognition means that we’re all in this together, and we need our collective experiences to truly thrive.

“The first picture of someone is rarely the full picture,” he said. “There’s a lot we can learn from one another when we learn from experiences over labels.”

He ended by referencing an old Greek proverb – plant trees in whose shade you know you’ll never sit. “Recognition is the seed, and we are the planters. You have common experiences and recognizing that can bend the arc of lives and future generations. We’re at our best when we are of value, of service, of impact to someone.”

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Lauren Brown is a senior copywriter for Globoforce.