By Kristin van Ogtrop
Updated January 22, 2015
Marcus Nilsson

Have you ever had a conversation that changed your life? Maybe you didn’t notice it in the moment, or even the following day. But later you realized that that one exchange fundamentally altered who you are and how you look at yourself or the world.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this; we all have. Here is mine: I had just finished my freshman year of college, and my grades arrived in the mail. I got a D+ in economics, a class I hated that apparently hated me back. I used the phone in my parents’ bedroom to call my mother, who was at work at the time. I was looking for consolation, but she gave me something much more valuable. “You can get any kind of grades you want in college and your father and I will pay for your education,” she said evenly. “But once you graduate, you’re on your own.”

I’m not sure my mother even knows how much that brief afternoon conversation changed my life. First of all, it convinced me to become an English major ASAP. But it also showed me, for the very first time, that my fate really was in my hands. For better or for worse.

Beginning on page 128, five writers each share a conversation that changed their lives, inspiring them to think differently about family, career, even human dignity. The stories in “The Conversation That Changed Me” are all thank-you notes, in a way, for the gift of unexpected enlightenment.

And so your assignment this month is to thank the person who gave you a bit of enlightenment. Here’s a start:

Dear [Mom/neighbor/random stranger on the subway],

I’ve been thinking about the conversation we had [last week/month/decade], and I realized I never thanked you. Through your [perspective/empathy/scolding], I came to understand that [clearly only you can fill in this part]. And I have changed for the better. All because of you.

Think about the way most of us communicate today. Yes, text messages and status updates are efficient and convenient. So was the telegram, once upon a time. But just like the telegram, a text message lacks a certain, shall we say, nuance. And often it’s the nuance—the message beneath the actual words—that lingers, and eventually changes us.

Last night I was on the phone with my parents and said to them, “I really don’t have much news to report.” My husband added drily, “And still you manage to be on the phone for half an hour.” This morning I barely remember what we talked about. But who knows? Someday that conversation might change my life.