I’ll never forget what my Grandmother told me on Tuesday, September 11th 2001, after the news broke and I called home just to hear her voice. She said it would be my generation’s “Pearl Harbor” — a day that completely altered the course of our country’s future.

She was right. But that day also changed the course of my future.

On Wednesday, September 12th when I arrived at the office, I opened my email and started scrolling through the subject lines.

A company-wide memo expressing sadness about 9/11.
Another one about the new HR policy.
Something about an upcoming presentation to a client.

And then an email with a subject line that was simply: “Dan”.

I am deeply saddened to inform you that our dear colleague and business partner, Dan Brandhorst, was on the 2nd plane that hit the twin towers yesterday. He was with his partner, Ronald, and their 3-year old son, David. They were originally scheduled to depart Boston on Monday night, but decided to extend their Boston trip 1 extra day before returning to Los Angeles, so they changed their flight…”

I stopped reading and went numb. I could feel my heart racing, and the screen become blurry, as I struggled to process the thought that Dan had been on that plane.

That plane, that I’d watched a thousand times over the last 24 hours. The plane I’d seen on TV, on the front page of the LA Times, on every website, everywhere. How could Dan…have been…there?

Ronald, Dan, and their 3-year old son, David

I stood up, half catatonic, and walked down the hallway toward my Manager’s office. She looked up from her screen at me with tears streaming down her face. We hugged and cried, and then sat and cried, together. Then Bob Millman, the Head Managing Partner, walked in to see what all the noise was about. When we shared the news, he walked toward us, put his hand on our shoulders, and pulled up a chair. Together we huddled for the next hour, trying to wrap our heads around the loss. Sometimes we spoke, sometimes we sat in silence, but what I remember most about that moment is that the 3 of us — the head partner, a low-level manager, and an intern in the marketing department — were there together, for each other, as humans — not “co-workers”.

Mark Twain wisely said “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. In school, we learn that being “professional” means not being a human, not having emotion, not showing weakness. But Tuesday, September 11th showed me how false that was. That day and the weeks following, in all their sadness and pain, wholly rewired my perception of what a true team looks like.

I saw company leaders, including rather tough men who were L.A.’s top litigators and hardened defense attorneys, break down and cry. I saw people speak in soft tones I’d never before heard, and look at each other with newfound empathy, as we gathered in groups and shared stories of Dan. The more stories we shared about Dan, the more we ended up learning about each other. We attended memorial services at a nearby church, and regardless of our religions or lack thereof, we held hands and closed our eyes, and prayed for Dan, Ronald, and David.

And just as pivotal — together we charted the course for a future without Dan. We found a way to carry on the programs and goals we built with Dan, a path that was certainly less joyful but worlds more meaningful.

What I personally remember most about Dan changed how I thought of my personal responsibility on a team. When we first met, I didn’t care for Dan. He seemed self-interested and aloof. But one night we worked on a group project until 2am, under pretty stressful circumstances. Dan and I became allies that evening. We were both calm under pressure and as we knocked out each problem, we also got to know each other. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Dan was not the person I’d thought — he was actually shy and sweet and kind. I remember wondering how many other team members I’d misread and misjudged, all because I didn’t even try to know them as people.

Losing Dan taught me that it is my responsibility — not anyone else’s — to go out of my way to know the people I work with. To seek them out, to build a connection, to develop empathy, to cultivate love.

In Silicon Valley where I live and work today, the importance of team is often spoken about with fluffy undertones and mantras. Words like “family” are thrown around, and perhaps deservedly so because there’s no shortage of misunderstanding, blame, and awkward meals together. But only in the rare organizations, like my current company, have I seen the kind of teamwork and empathy and love that I saw transpire in my former team the day we lost Dan.

The day we lost Dan was a day that many, many people lost loved ones. There is no way to account for the true scale of loss. There will never be a lesson worth learning on that day, or any silver lining we can cling to as comfort.

But the day we lost Dan, I learned a truth about teams at work that I believe is one of the few secrets to being happy in life.

Teams — in their highest form — are marvelous, magical things. They are collections of people who come together, by choice, in pursuit of a shared future vision. Often they are brimming with diversity — of nationality, ethnicity, gender, and thought. Often they are bursting with talent, with people who have honed their craft for decades and are wildly passionate for it. Always, they are filled with people who are going through something — good things, hard things, sad things, joyous things, life-changing things. They are a place where given the right mindset one can learn anything, grow anywhere, push back, and be pushed forward.

As I look back over the last 17 years since we lost Dan, one thing is clear to me. I owe much of my progress in life — both professional and personal — to the teams and teammates who’ve allowed me to be part of their lives, and who without knowing it have each shaped mine.

On the day the 2nd plane hit that building in New York City, as Dan took his last breath, I only hope he knew just how much he was loved by his teammates, and how much he would remain with us, forever altering the course of our future — for good.