On gratitude.

L: Zack and Nick at Nick’s wedding, 2012. R: Zack and Nick in Mesa, AZ, 2002.
“If you admire somebody you should go ’head tell ’em; people never get the flowers while they can still smell ’em.”
— Kanye West

I’ll never forgot the first time I heard that seemingly simple line. As a senior in college I was deeply moved by the lyrics. I knew then, just as I know now: my achievements are not accomplished alone. Rather, they are made possible by the support, encouragement and guidance of others. As I reflected on this in 2008, my thoughts went to one of my closest childhood friends, Zack.

At 6 Zack and I became instant friends. Though we shared many similarities — a love of snowboarding, soccer, football, laughing and friends — there were two significant differences: our health and our home life. Zack had severe asthma. He was born with diminished lung capacity and doctors did not expect him to live into his teens. But Zack was never one to be told what he couldn’t do. In addition to his health condition, Zack came from a tumultuous upbringing. With a father who was only around long enough to let him down and a mother who took her frustrations out on him both verbally and physically, Zack had the cards stacked against him.

Zack and Nick at Sunrise Ski Park, 2000.

As we grew, Zack became an inspiration and taught me about the type of person I wanted to become. He could take situations in his life that would normally bring despair and frustration and use them to become a better person. He treated everyone he met with a great deal of respect and had a profound way to connect with people from all walks. Those who knew Zack unanimously agree that he made each of them a better person. But Zack’s greatest quality was his unwavering willingness to help people. Zack’s friends could count on him for just about anything, be it a helping hand to move, a packed bag of supplies for your first camping trip or a willingness to serve as child care in order to help you make ends meet.

Kanye made me wonder — had I properly expressed my gratitude to Zack? Or to any of the people who helped me grow into the man I had become? I set a goal to ensure that those I held most dear knew what they meant to me.

With Zack, I’ll always remember two moments: my wedding and a late night in a hotel room. I made it a point to tell Zack what it meant to have him standing next to me on my wedding day, how his friendship and example had taught me about strength and loyalty. I can still remember hugging him after our ceremony and telling him I loved him. The other moment is still present and so very lucid. It was a weeknight on which I was traveling for work. I remember lying in my sterile hotel room bed, talking to Zack for almost two hours. Much as we did as childhood friends, putting off sleep because that wasn’t important. However, this night was unique. We talked about life, about the future and about each other and how thankful we were to be a part of each other’s lives. I can still remember hanging up that night, feeling joyful and whole. A month later I had to say goodbye to Zack. It was unexpected and the hardest moment of my life. I told him all the things I had told him before, uncertain if he could hear them. I was with him until his final moment, because I knew he’d have done the same for me.

People enter our lives to help us grow, change and become better humans, and the GSB has only further cemented that belief. When I cross the stage at graduation, I won’t be thinking about effective marketing strategies, capital lease accounting or venture evaluation. I will be thinking about all of the relationships, old and new, that I hold so dear. It is these relationships, the relationships with my family who will travel from Arizona to watch me cross that stage, the relationships with my friends and colleagues from my pre-MBA life, and the relationships with all of you sitting around me as we wait for our names to be called, which are at the root of my emotions.

I’m excited about the future because I get to move home and be around those who have touched me most: My mom, Patti, from whom I learned hard work and humility, and my dad, Richard, who taught me everything there is to know about kindness and commitment. My parents built the foundation, on which I was able to build a life. I am so grateful for the relationship I have with them, and I’m certain they know the depth of my love and appreciation. My wife, Jessica, has shown me what it means to provide unconditional love and support, and my sister, Lindsey, has emulated what it means to be positive and be yourself at all costs. And while I know exactly how important Jessica and Lindsey are in my life, I still have a long way to go in expressing my gratitude for all they do for me. I look forward to sitting around my parents’ table for Sunday breakfast and feeling whole, knowing that I can be there for the most important people in my life.

L to R: Richard, Jessica, Nick, Lindsey, Patti.

But there is a bittersweet sadness in saying goodbye to the transformative experience of the last two years and to the friends who have been at its core. I came to the GSB not knowing anyone and wasn’t sure what to expect. Two years later, the deep relationships I’ve formed are incredible. From Section 1 to BPL to Chile GST to Touchy Feely to GSB Show, it’s truly an unmatched group and I’m so thankful for the friendships we’ve developed. I know my wife and I have forged friendships that will last a lifetime and these two years wouldn’t have been the same without them. The GSB over delivered on relationships, and for that, I am forever grateful.

We say thank you more times in a day than we probably realize: to the stranger in front of us who holds the door open, to the barista at Coupa, to the guest speaker who takes time out of her busy schedule to share a lesson with our class, to the classmate who digs up the courage to share his most personal story. We say thank you so many times out of habit. We say it because that’s what our parents taught us.

But we don’t always take the time to say thank you for the things that matter most, for the people and experiences shaping us. In these cases, a simple “thank you” pales in comparison to taking the time to truly express to another just what your relationship means. It is finding the courage to be vulnerable and transparent about your emotions, even when it can feel frightening or uncomfortable. We’ve all been there, overcome with feelings, but uncertain how to express them. I still struggle with it at times, but I do my best to take that step, when the conversation fades, when you’re sitting in silence with those you love and admire. In split seconds our lives can change. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could bring back Zack, but I find peace knowing that he received his flowers while he could still smell them.