Ask the grumpies: Have you ever had a conversation that permanently changed your life?

CG asks:

Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life permanently? How?

I’m sure that I have, and probably lots of them, but I’ve been coming up blank which is why this question has been put off so long.  I mean, I had a conversation once that made me realize that mortgage interest wasn’t the same as credit card interest which changed things… but did it really change things that much?  I feel really bad because this is such an interesting question and I am dying to read everyone else’s answer, but I’ve just been coming up blank.  I’ve had a couple of conversations with people that lead to quick publications, which is always nice, but I’m not sure how life-changing that is, just you know, marginally.

We’ve read books that have changed our lives.  But that’s not a conversation.  I’ve had conversations with people that they claim caused them to permanently change their lives.  Apparently an off-hand comment I made to a friend about how dating without the internet was just as risky as dating using an internet service led her to meet her future husband through a dating app.  Another friend credits my saying that she didn’t need to go into the family business if she didn’t want to and she should think about what she’s interested in as jump-starting her career, but I think she would have gotten there on her own anyway.  I’ve saved a few of my colleagues hundreds of thousands of retirement dollars by explaining that they need to use TIAA-Cref or Fidelity rather than the super expensive retirement place that sends people around to get them to sign up with their program.  They don’t realize that I’ve changed their lives permanently and probably won’t ever know or remember, but I did.  A colleague credits me for introducing her to early potty training which she says was life-changing (I don’t even remember doing this!  But there was a time when I was super into explaining it.)

What does it say about my massive ego that I remember when people tell me I’ve changed their lives with random conversations but I don’t remember other people changing mine?  Nothing good!  Also it’s weird that it’s always the off-handed comments that I barely remember that seem to spark people.  Life is so random!

Grumpy Nation, please answer CG’s question!  It’s so fascinating!

50 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: Have you ever had a conversation that permanently changed your life?”

  1. First Gen American Says:

    I was about 11. One of our neighbor’s friends asked me if I wanted to go to the beach with him. In hindsight he could have been a perv or child molester but he was really not. He was just a fun dude who was getting the most out of life and saw a lonely kid and decided to give me a fun day at the lake because he could. I asked “what if I don’t go with you” he said “then I’ll go alone” and then I said “you’d go by yourself?” To which he responded “If I always waited until I had someone to do something with, I’d miss out on a lot of great experiences in life.” It was one of the most life changing things anyone’s ever told me and I wish he knew. It showed me that I was in control of my happiness and if I waited for someone else to do it for me, I’d always be disappointed. It’s about then I bought myself my first pair of jeans from babysitting money, didn’t allow my mom to bowl cut my hair anymore, I made friends. I was in control and the steps I took from that point on were mostly all in the right direction. No more “woe is me, why is my life so bad? Why is God punishing me?” I prayed a lot back then and it did didly squat. God was no different than anyone else. They weren’t going to make my life whole, that was up to me. Learning that you get back what you put out was life changing on many many levels.

    It wasn’t until my late 20’s that I learned the second part of this lesson, which was “worry about and change the things you can control, stop obsessing about the rest.” I’m sure it was one of my bosses that told me this one. Layoffs were pretty common at my company and they came every 18-24 months like clockwork. Life got better when I stopped ruminating on the what ifs that were out of my control.

    Multiple people told me to max out my 401K from my very first real job paycheck (thank you older engineer nerd friends), while I was still used to living in poverty and I wouldn’t ever miss the money if I never had it in the first place. It was not life changing right away but 25 years later, I can say it was significant.

    My godmother on true love “Don’t try to find the perfect person, because that person doesn’t exist. Find one who’s flaws you can live with.” She wasn’t telling me to settle. She was telling me that some flaws will drive you up the wall and are deal breakers and some aren’t. A fatal flaw in one person could be perfectly fine for another (like being joined at the hip or needing alone time).

    Having my chemistry teach flat out tell me that I should not become a secretary or accountant. She knew I’d be bored. She did much more than that, but she believed in me and that led me to get an engineering degree and have a much higher standard of living. She also told me not to get attached with a spouse or kids too young so it didn’t limit my life choices.

    I have no idea what I’ve said that resonated with people. Ooh, I just thought of one..I said to a friend who was going through a divorce. “Learn one new thing a year, go to one place you’ve never been before” Over a lifetime, that’s a lot of stuff. This is more about chopping big lofty goals into bite size chunks. He told me multiple times, it got him out of his funk and he would have never taken zumba classes otherwise, which he now loves and met a bunch of fun women to boot.

    Really looking forward to the answers on this one as well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      There are worse ways to live your life than following the serenity prayer! One thing that annoys me currently is how “it is what it is” is starting to take over the “give me courage to change the things I can”.

      My mom told me I couldn’t be an accountant because I’d get bored. I’m not sure that she was right though. She also told me I couldn’t be a high school teacher because I would hate hanging out with other high school teachers and she may be right about that.

      Yay your friend taking up zumba!

  2. Miser Mom Says:

    I love these questions! My high school English teacher told me (in response to a question that I’d asked her about the downsides of choosing teaching as a career) that she didn’t mind making less money than other people with similar educational backgrounds, but that the difference meant that people she intellectually liked to hang out with entertained on a different scale, and she felt like she couldn’t reciprocate. Because of that, I’ve always since tried to think about what I now might call “social capital” in addition to finances or other kinds of career metrics.

    My college math professor told me, “When you apply to grad school, let me know. I want to write you a letter of recommendation.” I hadn’t even thought about applying to grad school before then — definitely a life changer.

    I overhead a conversation in which my sister was thanking a friend of the family for getting her an organizational planner that came with a training system (this was a paper system with cassette tapes, so you know it was REALLY a long time ago). The conversation itself didn’t change me, but because I’d overheard it, I asked about it, and my sister got me the same Franklin Planner start-up box, just before I started my first job, and this particular organization system has ruled my life (or helped me rule my own life) ever since.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I did have a conversation with an econ professor at University of Arizona in which I asked what I needed to do to get into a top grad school and he told me. That did result in me retaking the math GRE (the first time I took it, a gust of wind took my sheet and flew it to the back of the room so my score didn’t meet whatever the threshhold he told me was, something ridiculous like 98%).

      The Franklin planner looks quite a bit like my current system, but there’s not enough free space for some of the items I need like my projects list or weekly goals.

      • CG Says:

        Wait, do you mean you never recovered the paper from the first GRE go-round? What a weird thing to have happen!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I did recover it– I had to raise my hand and wait for a proctor to notice and understand the problem and go back to the end of the classroom and pick it up.

        The next GRE I took was on a computer and I got a higher score– above the likely cutoff.

  3. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    I had a series of conversations with an older grad student that completely changed how I approached and dealt with conflict. They probably made me a less ‘nice’ but more effective person. I am still grateful to her.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Ooh, what was her advice?

      • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

        It boiled down to ‘you don’t have to let yourself be steamrollered’ and ‘you have to find mentoring elsewhere, here’s how’ and then a lot of specific advice on responding to scientific comments (basically, never roll over, consider what might be useful later, push back in the moment), personal comments (never let these go by in a professional setting) practicing what to say in front of a mirror, etc. (This did lead to me once telling a postdoc, “Shut the fuck up, V, I’m talking.” In public. But after that he and I were good pals. He was not offended and gentler words had not worked.) Basically a mind shift from being nice will get what you want because female-coded people are supposed to be nice, to the idea that being really not nice might or might not get you what you want but at least you’ll have less bullshit to wade through on your way there. It was highly effective advice for my tank-of-piranhas grad school.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        With my age, I’ve been working on being more prickly when senior people are out of line and it is interesting seeing people catering to me instead of the other way around with the change.

    • delagar Says:

      I like Jenny’s older grad student’s advice a lot.

      I remember reading something when I was about 25 that said women should stop smiling so much and stop being so polite. That changed my approach to the world in a similar manner. I also stopped adding polite hedging phrases to my writing — less, “I think” and “I feel” and more just stating things.

      • Jenny F. Scientist Says:

        Don’t get me wrong, I can be a real cast iron witch but by god, I will not stand by while anyone treats me as stupid or incompetent. If I don’t know something l will say so, but I will not tolerate people who question the fundamentals of my professional judgment.

        On the whole, I think being cranky has improved my life a great deal. I taught at a military school for half a decade and they would have eaten me alive otherwise.

  4. abinghammathgmailcom Says:

    Mine was a very short ‘conversation’ but it changed my life. In my sophomore year of college, my Ivy-league boyfriend, 5 years older, was waiting for me to go away for the weekend. I asked him to give me 5 minutes, because I had two proofs to do for my math class. Trully, it really only took 5 minutes — I had such a great understanding of that course, probably better than the prof. But I hadn’t noticed. I knew I liked it and it didn’t take much time. But the boyfriend said “You know, those are really difficult. ” And all of a sudden it clicked for me. I was majoring in both math and music, but I could see now that I did love doing those proofs, and if HE said I was exceptional at it, maybe I was. Ended up with a Ph.D. in Differential Geometry. (And the boyfriend was long gone by then.)

  5. EB Says:

    This was not said to me, but to my mother, who repeated it to me. It was said by my 7th grade science teacher (who was also my 6th grade Sunday school teacher — go figure). He said, of me, “She sees connections.” Which was true, but I had never seen it said so simply. And that has been a big part of my life ever since, seeing myself as one who can (and whose job it is to) see connections. This has not led specifically to occupational choices (or financial success), but it has framed a lot of situations and directions.

  6. CG Says:

    Ok, I’m going to answer my own question–thanks for posting it! Neither of these are work-related, for whatever reason.

    When I was in high school I was bored and angsty and involved in some sort of drama with my girlfriends. My family did family therapy at that time and the psychiatrist told me she thought I needed a smart boyfriend. Now, I’ve looked back on that advice and thought maybe it was not the most professional and I’m not sure anyone would say that today. However, it did cause me to look in a different way at my smartest guy friend, who is now my husband, and who has kept me challenged and not bored for the past 25 years.

    The second one is that I was trying to take up running and just could not get to a point where I didn’t feel like I was going to die while doing it. I mean I hated it. I had a conversation with a colleague at a conference who was a big runner and she said I needed to do it three times a week in order to make progress. So I started doing that and I’m still running a decade later (not very far and not very fast, but very consistently). I credit that conversation with helping me achieve vastly improved mental health, and I’m sure physical health too.

  7. delagar Says:

    When I was in the 5th grade. I was failing everything, all the time. (As it turned out, this was because I needed glasses badly, but the terrible schools in my state, Louisiana, did not do eye checks on students, so no one knew I couldn’t see.) I had retreated into a sort of daydream, non-stop, and never did any of the work for school. One day my teacher (I don’t even remember her name) asked me a question in class. I didn’t even bother trying to answer since (a) I knew I didn’t know anything and (b) I knew if I didn’t answer, teachers always got impatient and called on someone else.

    Sure enough, right away, other kids started waving their hands, saying, “I know, I know!” and “Ask me!” I waited for the teacher to ask one of them, but she didn’t. She said, “No, Kelly knows this,” with perfect confidence.

    I DIDN’T know it, mind you. But that comment, her utter certainty that I did know it, changed my life. It made me believe that I wasn’t a hopeless loser, that I did know things, that I *could* do things.

    Getting glasses the next year also helped, but that moment was the big change. It certainly affects how I talk to my students to this day.

  8. Matthew D Healy Says:

    A conversation with a fellow grad student at Duke turned into an evening, which led to other things and in August 2021 we’ll be celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary (thanks to vaccines, we’ll probably be able to celebrate our 30th somewhere other than home, whereas we had to spend our 29th anniversary at home). Which was of course life changing, but also career-changing because we both ended up doing Postdocs with somebody who had been one of her undergrad professors. Which led to many other things.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Awwww!!! That is so awesome!

      I think part of my problem is that I’m so slow to change anything that it never seems like one conversation… I remember the first time I met DH but that conversation had nothing to do with our getting together! Instead it was a long slow process of getting thrown together months later and getting to know one another. So… books are life-changing and relationships, but single conversations it’s so much harder for me to pin down the catalyst.

  9. bethh Says:

    I can think of two:
    1. was high school physics class. The teacher was in his 30s (I know this because UB40 came through town and he wrote IB<40 on the board – he still seemed old to me!) and told us that he'd gotten divorced at some point and realized that everyone needs to be able to be happy on their own. It was a total throwaway comment but hit me in the right moment.

    2. I was a year out of college and was living in New England, where I'd grown up, and I was looking for a new place to live. A friend heard my list of criteria (small city, inexpensive rent, good transit, better weather) and suggested I check out Portland Oregon, where he'd just spent a volunteer year. I visited a year later, moved two years after that, and have never regretted taking that massive leap!

  10. Dame Eleanor Hull Says:

    When I was a senior in college, I was taking a graduate course and had two conversations with the man teaching it, hereafter JD, that changed my way of thinking. The course was on literature in a dead language, and he ran informal reading groups in the language for anyone who wanted some extra help. One day I attended along with a grad student, who did a fantastic job of sight-reading (I knew from our pre-meeting conversation in the hallway that she hadn’t prepped). She had to leave early, and when JD and I finished, he complimented me on my work. I said, “But I prepared it all in advance! X was sight-reading.” JD said, “AND you prepared,” and gave me a brief pep talk on the importance of doing the work, rather than relying on off-the-cuff insight or native talent.

    Later that semester, JD suggested I go to grad school. Wide-eyed, I asked if he thought I was good enough. He said the department we were in would kill for me. I figured that was an exaggeration, and I was determined to get off the west coast (why???? why???????) and away from my family (oh, right*), but it was an immense confidence-boost.

    JD’s daughters were friends of mine. Years later, one of them told me her dad had raved about the paper I wrote for that course. That was during my not-so-well, not-accomplishing-much post-tenure period, so it was another shot in the arm to hear that, at that time.

    And, of course, the conversation in which Sir John and I decided to get married changed my life! We were already living together, so I didn’t expect things to change much, except that I really wanted the legal consequences of being each other’s next-of-kin. Marriage has deepened and strengthened our relationship, and Sir John agrees. Living together is a good way to sort out compatibility issues, but we’ve found there’s more trust, more tolerance, more support in marriage. One of the things I like about this blog is that its host and her DH seem like such a strong team. I like hearing about happy marriages in which people don’t complain about each other but rather the opposite!

    *Also I didn’t want to turn into one of those people who couldn’t stand to leave and hung around being under-employed for decades. Growing up in a flagship-U town was educational in many ways!

  11. AR Says:

    This sounds so stupid looking back…I dated a guy in college and then went away to grad school meaning we had a long distance relationship. After less than a year apart, he was basically like “we should break up for now, but I see us together in the future. Long distance is too hard, blah blah”. He was my first real bf and we had been together for 3 years which felt like forever at age 22. For many months I was sad and thinking about quitting grad school to join him because he kept telling me he saw us together in the future.

    Eventually, I had a friend ask me why I was letting him treat me like this. Like if he was the guy for me, he should be 1) supportive of my education/career and 2) excited to be with me! It turned a switch in my brain–of course I wanted to be with someone who was excited to see me all the time. I cut off contact with the ex and moved forward. Met my now DH several months later and couldn’t be happier! (almost 20 years later)

  12. Bee Says:

    My boyfriend and I had a conversation about a person in my life who repeatedly made me feel bad about myself. It included him telling me, “She is perfectly capable of not opening her mouth for the purpose of hurting you.”

    Started my mindset shift from “I’m always upsetting Person, I need to be better” to “The things upsetting Person are mostly things that don’t affect her [e.g. my laugh, my hobbies, my sense of humor], maybe the problem is not actually me?”(And then to “Maybe the fact that I don’t have a great relationship with Person isn’t my fault?”)

  13. middle_class Says:

    A friend mentioned that her psychiatrist said, “you cannot change a person. You can only change your reaction to that person.” That may be common sense for many, but up to that point, I often allowed frenemies, family, and colleagues to get under my skin. Nowadays, I still waste time dwelling about someone’s comment or action but remembering this sentence helps me refocus.

    For me, it’s rare for a single conversation to change my life. I am mostly affected by books and music, or maybe extended discussions over a period of time.

  14. revanche @ a gai shan life Says:

    I didn’t think I could remember any because sometimes it’s hard to remember the tiny details that play into pivotal moments but as I read the comments, some started to surface.
    I don’t know if you remember her but almost every conversation I’ve had with the former blogger Single Ma has had an impact on my life. She taught me so much about standing up for myself, negotiating and valuing myself in the workplace, and even seeking therapy that has been hugely instrumental in changing my mental and physical health.
    A conversation with a friend about their therapy also played into that last point, hand in hand. One without the other would not have worked.
    I had a conversation with my future SIL that seemed like a throwaway chat that resulted in my meeting and marrying PiC down the road.
    I remember a comment you made about hiring help being a good thing, either here or on my blog, really stuck with me in those earlier years when I was thinking about children.

  15. Debbie M Says:

    1) In college I spent my junior year in a local state college for financial reasons, and my intro sociology teacher said that I should major in sociology. This is after I’d gotten a 100 on a multiple-choice test. I said basically a) how can you tell from a multiple choice test? He said he could still tell that my brain could understand those kinds of concepts. And b) it took me forever to pick a major (psychology) and I liked it fine and I wasn’t going to switch at that late date. So he said that if I decided to go to grad school in sociology, he would write a recommendation letter for me.

    Well after deciding not to teach elementary school (which I liked because I’d get to teach *all* the subjects, but which I didn’t like because they might stick me with first graders), I decided I might like teaching college. And sociology was sort of like *all* the social sciences in one, plus some biology. (Anthropology has even more topics, but I wasn’t as wild about physical and ancient anthropology.) And knowing I already had someone to write a recommendation letter was pretty awesome. I still don’t know what he came up with from multiple-choice tests, but hey.

    Admittedly, I basically never used that degree, but the friends I made in grad school were some of my best friends ever.

    2) In grad school, I was playing volleyball and doing my usual strategy of seeing which of my teammates was closest to the ball and then getting out of the way so he could get to it. He told me that was my ball. For him, the game was not about winning, but about playing, and maybe even getting better. And of course that’s how it should always be when you’re not a professional or in the Olympics or whatever. (Why yes, my PE classes mostly stank.) This same person was much better than me at all sports (well, and at pretty much everything except embroidery and playing the recorder), and he enjoyed being better than people, but he also enjoyed finding ways to make things fun when people of differing skills play together. Like when you play frisbee golf, the worse players get the most turns! And you can make a house rule allowing for do-overs. I am now an adequate volleyball player (a huge improvement!) and I have a lot more fun at sports in general.

    3) On other people–once one of my friends told me she liked another of my friends, but didn’t think he was interested in her. This was right after that other friend had told me he liked her and didn’t think she was interested in him. So I passed on that information to both of them and decades later they are still happily married. (Surely they would have figured it out without my help(?), but hey, this was quicker and less stressful.)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      ROFL, I remember #3 in high school and college– I can’t decide if things were simpler or harder then. And how many romance novels would be a third of the side if people just had a friend both hero and heroine confided in?

      The guy in #2 sounds awesome.

      • Debbie M Says:

        Yep, that guy in #2 and I are still friends. In fact we’re now playing VR miniature golf online on Sundays!

  16. Leigh Says:

    You told me that saving money for no particular purpose could buy options in life! That was one of the most life financial things someone has told me.

    The teachers I had in high school that encouraged me to apply to university were probably the most life changing.

  17. omdg Says:

    I’ve had LOTS of these conversations. I suffer from semi-chronic imposter syndrome. When I was on the job market last year my mentor told me that my CV was top 10% of CVs for people at my level of training, and that any program would be lucky to have me. Those words gave me the confidence to nail the interview where I ended up landing. I wish I could get to a place where I no longer needed mini-boosts like these. Someday, I hope…

    I also remember going to a talk where the presenter said something like, “If taking your next step doesn’t scare you a little, then you aren’t challenging yourself enough.” I try to live by these words, and they have (so far) served me well.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That is a great confidence boost! Especially because it was true!

      Ohhh, you reminded me of one!!! I don’t remember who told me this initially, but:

      If your paper hasn’t been rejected, you’re not aiming high enough.

  18. Mary Says:

    A conversation that changed my life?

    Well, one day, I snuggled up to my DH and said something like, “remember when we started dating back in college? I never dreamed that we would be together 20+ years later and have built such a wonderful life together. I am so happy and so lucky”

    And he said, “Mary, there’s something that I need to tell you…”

    And, since then, my life has never been the same.

  19. mnitabach Says:

    One of my girlfriends in grad school who I really liked told me “I am breaking up with you. I really like you a lot & you are super fun & interesting, but you’ve got issues & you need therapy to work your shit out.” I immediately started therapy & did it for years & it enabled me to work my shit out.

  20. Lisa Says:

    There was an opinion piece in the NYTimes with a very similar theme recently:

    My thought from this thread and that article are that both the message and the timing are probably critical. That conversation that changes lives is probably not as deep or groundbreaking as it may seem, it might just be the right person saying the right thing at the right time.

  21. NZ Muse (@eemusings) Says:

    Oooh such an interesting post!

    I remember a certain blogger once telling me how useful she found my posts and that was so unexpected and lovely.

    Let me think.

    One pivotal one was an outsider telling me my company had been screwed without me while I was on extended leave.

    Random throwaways, like you say, from others – “Are you happy?” “You make me want to be a better person”, observations from friends/counsellors about my relationship, and one from an old friend I recently caught up with that offered me a fresh perspective on an issue relating to my parents.

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