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When I was 20 years old, I learned a lesson which has served me well over the years, both personally and in my business career.

My sophomore year at a New England college was drawing to a close, and I was suffering from an acute case of sophomore-itis. I was disillusioned with people, the world in general, and almost everything I saw and heard – and my academic scholarship was in jeopardy. So when classes finally ended, I scraped up $50, stuck out my thumb and hitchhiked to California, where I had never been before. The ensuing 7,000-mile road trip across the U.S. heartland and throughout the West was probably more educational than my previous two years of higher education.

When I finally returned home, I was a different person. I discovered that I actually liked people, and that I had gained more respect for those who were not like me. The basic lesson learned was this: In order to truly understand what is going on, a person must talk and listen carefully to different people in all walks of life.

My educational experiences that summer (some good, some bad) were with the elderly lady who drove 20 miles around Wichita in her old car to leave me in a good place to catch a ride, the three friendly hippies who picked me up in their stolen car in Wyoming, the 90-mile-per-hour dash through small towns in Indiana and Illinois (versus the 5-mph ride on a highway steamroller in Missouri), crossing the searing desert on Route 66 in the back seat of an open car with a crying baby, and self-disgust from having gambled all night in Las Vegas and ending up exactly where I had begun. But the most valuable lessons I learned were from the interesting conversations with the many people I met.

These days, my wife and I usually make two or three auto trips a year from one coast to another or points between. We visit kids on the way, as all parents do, but we also talk to a lot of people whom weve never met before. We talk to everyone. And we learn a lot.

I cant help thinking that Ron Johnson, the former CEO of J.C. Penney Co., might have learned more about his new company if he had stayed around Dallas and talked to people instead of jetting off to his California home after his usual four-day workweek. Maybe some of our representatives in Washington could also learn a thing or two if they talked to new people – not just the usual close advisers and party stalwarts when they return home to meet their constituents. Some top business executives and national politicians seem to go from one sheltered cocoon to another, never making the effort on the way to receive fresh input which might prove helpful to them later.

Jack Goodhue, management coach, may be contacted by e-mail at

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