“Her Name Was Dottie”: Life’s Final Exam is Not About Net Worth but About Treating Others as People of Worth

It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others. – John Andrew Holmes, US congressman and senator in the early 1800s

Managing our money wisely is a necessary ingredient to a happy life, but certainly not the most important ingredient.  I was reminded of this again last month when reading an article  about an interview with an important American business leader.  But first, a little background information: 

Years ago I heard a story I have never forgotten. It was about a college student who had studied hard to prepare for a final exam.  When the exam was passed out he noticed it consisted only of a single sheet of paper which was blank on both sides. 

After the exam was passed out the professor got up and said, “I’ve taught you everything I can about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

The student didn’t know the answer and failed the exam.

When I heard the story I had no idea who the student was. I wasn’t even sure if the story was true.  However, the story stuck with me and it has been a good reminder over the years that everyone is important and worthy of respect. 

Therefore, I was surprised last month to read in an interview of Walt Bettinger, CEO of the Charles Schwab Corporation, by Adam Bryant of the New York Times that the story was absolutely true, and that Bettinger was the student.

Bettinger recalls that he was a senior and had a perfect 4.0 grade point average prior to that fateful test. Remembering the day Bettinger says, “Her name was Dottie.  I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name.” 

Bettinger could have been bitter losing his perfect academic record in such a fashion, and I am sure he was disappointed. Instead he chose to learn from the experience, stating “It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved…I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”

Bettinger now sometimes uses a twist on the only exam he failed to test potential hires at Charles Schwab. As part of the interview process he will take the job candidate out for breakfast.  Unknown to the candidate Bettinger has arranged in advance to have the server mess up the interviewee’s order.  He just wants to see how he or she will treat “Dottie” in a real life situation.

I have had a brokerage account at Schwab for many years. Their service is great, their website is easy to use, their fees are low, and I have always been happy with the experience. The small amount of money I have invested there makes me much more insignificant to a company the size of Schwab than the people who clean their building.  To them I am just another “Dottie”.  In spite of that I have always been treated with respect.  Now I know why.

How are you treating the Dottie’s in your life?

Our Final Exam

One of my favorite books is a little story by Carol Lynn Pearson called The Lesson: A Fable for Our Times. It is a picture book, but definitely not just for kids.  The book follows a little boy named Robert through his life, comparing life’s problems to tests we take in school.

The book ends like this:

“One day when Robert was a very old man and sometimes dozed off in the classroom, the teacher startled him by saying, ‘Robert, if your body had three heart attacks and one missing kidney and you got weaker and weaker until you could hardly breathe, how much would you have loved and who would remember you after you were gone?’

Robert swallowed hard and sat up straight at his desk and worked on it.

Suddenly he realized that all the lessons he had been learning all his life had really only been one lesson, that all the problems he had been working on all his life had really been only one problem – this problem:

‘Robert, how much do you love?’

Finally he leaned back and sighed and smiled.

And the teacher smiled. 

And Robert moved up to the next grade.” 

Remember, your final exam will not be about your net worth, but about whether or not you treated others as people of worth. 

Are you doing enough to prepare? 

  14 comments for ““Her Name Was Dottie”: Life’s Final Exam is Not About Net Worth but About Treating Others as People of Worth

  1. Shirley Sanchez
    March 23, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Such a delightful post. It’s a reminder of how short life is, and how yes, money is important, but it isn’t everything! When I pass, I won’t be thinking about how I should have made more money, but rather I’ll hope I will have created powerful relationships and treated everyone with respect and love.

    Thanks for the share.


    • Brent Esplin
      March 23, 2016 at 8:25 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the feedback.

  2. Andrew - Family Money Plan
    April 15, 2016 at 5:39 am

    Brent this is a great post! This is such a good example of how life is just about the dollars and sense, but the people that make it up. I’ve always made a point to talk to anyone I can and treat everyone equally. After all we are all in this together. Thank you for this great post!

    • Brent Esplin
      April 15, 2016 at 6:25 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Andrew. And thanks for the feedback.

  3. Sundeep
    April 15, 2016 at 9:18 am

    I’m just reading this today, and I have to say it’s a great way to start a weekend. Thanks for that inspirational post/story…it made me smile.

    • Brent Esplin
      April 15, 2016 at 11:26 am

      I consider it a very successful day if I can make someone smile, and help them get the weekend off to a good start. Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Wilkop
    April 15, 2016 at 1:12 pm

    Today, like most mornings, I stopped for drip coffee at the big name coffee shop in my building. A particular hard working and efficient barista gave me a friendly greeting and big smile. We both remember her first day in the shop a year or so ago when she was hunched over the register listening to her trainer and trying to learn the job. She was slow. She looked up nervously after she finished the transaction and handed my card back. Right then I looked her in the eye and said “this must be your first day”. She nodded a little sheepishly. Then I said “don’t worry, everyone working in this store was new once and they all figured it out. You are going to do great.” She reminded me of that encounter a few weeks ago and said I was “the first customer who was nice to her.” It was a brief encounter that cost me nothing. But it gave her real encouragement and provided me with a lot of smiles.

    • Brent Esplin
      April 15, 2016 at 1:21 pm

      That is a great story. Thanks for sharing it. It is amazing how much good we can do just by remembering to be kind.

  5. April 15, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    Beautiful, just beautiful. Everyone deserves kindness and respect. A simple smile or hello may be taken as a pleasantry in one situation, or a lifesaver in another. It’s interesting to observe how a person treats those they assume are insignificant. It speaks volumes about their character.

    • Brent Esplin
      April 16, 2016 at 9:29 am

      Very true. Thanks for the feedback.

  6. April 16, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I’m the Dottie at work and people treat me very well. They know my name, invite me to their potlucks, and let me take a crack at Wii bowling at the Christmas party.

    • Brent Esplin
      April 16, 2016 at 9:28 am

      Glad to hear it, and good luck with the writing career. Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert Comic Strip, in his book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” says that the path you are taking is similar to his and numerous other successful people in history. That is, find a low stress job that pays the bills and doesn’t consume all your time, and then try different things on the side until you figure out what you were meant to do. If you haven’t read “The War of Art” or “Do the Work” by Steven Pressfield you should. You would really like them and they would give you a lot of motivation and inspiration for your writing career. Keep cleaning, keep writing, and keep enjoying life.

  7. April 16, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    Love, love, love this post!

  8. April 17, 2016 at 8:14 am

    Great article! I love it. Keeping the big picture in perspective, and not getting so caught up in things. This is a great reminder, and a very timely post. Thanks for taking the time to write this one up. I enjoyed the interviewee approach. good stuff

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