Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
- Leo Buscaglia

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

How Do They Do It?

     Back in January, I talked about a large non-profit social service agency that helps to take care of our region's most needy population (See Groceries for Those in Need).  At that time, I bought groceries for families in transitional housing.  Today I decided to help out another of their consumer segments - teenage mothers.
     Teenage mothers (and their children) face so many seemingly insurmountable challenges as they try to manage the basic necessities of their daily lives.  It's hard enough for many of them to deal with their own needs, let alone being responsible for infants and small children.  Most lack the maturity, the support, and the resources to be successful.  It's not my place to pass judgment on their predicament though -- only to help.   
     Armed with a shopping list provided by my agency contact, I headed to our local Target.  I felt like such a novice as I tried to pick out various personal care items and baby supplies.  I bought shampoo, conditioner, soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, diapers, wipes, lotion, bottles, formula, and baby food.  It's been so long since our kids were that age that I could hardly remember what to get.  I was also astounded at the cost of these items and can hardly imagine how young mothers make ends meet.
     As I delivered the bags of stuff I bought to the agency, I tried to imagine what life must be like for the recipients of my purchases.  Do they live in constant worry, wondering how they'll make it through the next week?  Can they imagine a world beyond just meeting their basic needs?  Is their image of the future mostly colored with fear, or with hope?  My life is filled with so many blessings, and such good fortune, that it's impossible for me to truly understand the overwhelming challenges they face.  The least I can do is to care, and to help out.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Supporting a Friend

     Today I went to a high school basketball game!  You see, a good friend of mine has a son whose life has been devoted to basketball since he was very little.  Between school ball, AAU, rec leagues and every other type of play, the family has spent countless hours in the car and in gyms over the past 10 or more years, bringing him to all sorts of practices and watching all sorts of games.  This phase is almost over though, as he's a senior in high school and his team is playing in the state tournament where any loss means the season (and his high school career!) is over.
     I had actually been intending to get to a game or two earlier this season to show my support, but one thing led to another and the season disappeared.  I figured I better get there now, before it's too late.  I sat with my friend and her family and her basketball friends (parents who've all been through the same experiences).  It was a fun game.  Her son's team won and he scored 18 points and grabbed at least 15 rebounds.  I was glad I made the effort to be there.
      This is another one of those places where reversing roles helps me to better understand the meaning of my support.  When my children were that age, it meant a lot for a friend to come to see my daughter dance or to see my son run in a track meet.  Whether the kids even knew my friends were there didn't really matter.  They were there for me as much as for my kids and I appreciated their show of support.  
     I suppose, at a certain level, we all want to know that others are thinking about us and are "in our corner."  While we often think of this when we're dealing with major life challenges (e.g., illness, injury, death of a family member,  loss of a job), it's just as meaningful when people share our joys with us (births, graduations, promotions, major accomplishments).  Sharing these experiences with friends and family help us to feel more connected.  It's what community is really all about.  I need to do this type of thing more often.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sharing Expertise Freely

     I had lunch today with a senior leader from a local non-profit organization.  He had heard me present a talk recently and the organization's CEO had read my book.  They wanted my input on some challenges they're currently having around their organizational culture and I said that I'd be glad to listen and see if I could be of value.
     As my contact related their story over lunch, he shared his frustration at their current state and their lack of progress.  More significantly, he expressed a lack of clarity about just how to change things.  Thankfully, one of my strengths is to see order where others often see chaos and confusion.  I was able to use that strength, together with my knowledge and experience, to help him see their issues in entirely new and useful ways.  By the end of our lunch, he seemed relieved to finally have a clearer picture of what needs to happen.  He asked if I'd be willing to meet with their senior leadership team to help get everyone "on the same page," which, of course, I agreed to.
     As I thought about the meeting later, it occurred to me that there are so many different ways of being kind and helping others.  Sometimes, it's a small gesture of courtesy or lending a helping hand.  Sometimes it's being a good listener.  Sometimes it involves offering a compliment or a gift.  Sometimes it's performing a physical act (like giving someone a ride or shoveling a driveway).  And other times, like today, it's a purely intellectual gift.  Each has its own kind of impact and its own unique ability to spread.  Today's conversation has the power to generate new thinking that potentially impacts many hundreds, and even thousands, of people.  That's pretty fun.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spreading a Little Cheer

     Today presented a simple chance for a kind gesture.  I needed to fill up my car with gas so I stopped at the gas station in the center of our town.  I prefer to go there whenever possible because the people who work there are actually friendly and they act like they appreciate my business.  I also like to support local businesses as much as I can.  
     After the attendant had completed filling my car (yes, NJ is one of the few states where it's illegal to have self-service?!), I paid him and then gave him one of my Dunkin' Donuts gift cards and told him to enjoy it.  He looked a little surprised, but thanked me cheerfully.
     It wasn't any big deal, but that's the nature of most kind gestures.  It was just a chance to spread a little good cheer on a Sunday evening in February.  Hopefully it made his day just a little bit better.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Fallacy of "Should"

     Today I did a few things that I "shouldn't" have to do, which led to some interesting thoughts.  Here's what happened:
     I went out to do a few errands this afternoon, including dropping something off for a neighbor and then doing some grocery shopping.  As I got out of my car at the neighbor's house, I noticed an empty cigarette pack laying in the middle of the street.  I picked it up and saved it to throw into a trash can later.
     When I got to the grocery store, I also noticed various pieces of trash in the parking lot.  I suppose in the past I might have left them for someone else to pick up, perhaps even the infamous "they"; but these days, I'm more conscious than ever before to do whatever I can to help, so I picked up the trash and threw it out.  After I was done shopping and loading my groceries into my car, I returned my cart to one of the holding areas.  It was a very windy day so it was particularly important to return all carts lest they blow around and bang into cars.  I noticed several carts that hadn't been returned so I went ahead and took care of them.
     As I got back into my car I was thinking about the tendency to say that I shouldn't have to do these things.  People should throw away their own trash and they should return their carts to the proper place.  It's easy to get up on our soapbox about what others should do and what I shouldn't have to do for them.  Though I might be correct about it all, do these thoughts really get me anything?  It doesn't change anything and only leads to aggravation and negativity.  It's far better to simply smile, have a positive attitude, and do whatever I can to make our shared world a little better place.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Supporting our Soldiers

     Today was my day to send a monthly care package to my adopted soldier in Afghanistan.  It was also time for my weekly letter as well.
     For the care package, I decided to once again use one of the pre-made packages that are available through the Soldiers' Angels website.  Last time I had sent a variety of food items so this time I decided to send what they call their "male hygiene" package.  It includes things like a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, mouthwash, nail clippers, and a few other things.  Hopefully he'll find it refreshing to get new stuff like this.  By the way, you don't have to have adopted a soldier in order to send a care package.  Just go to the site and you can send one to any soldier.  It's quick and easy to do, and no doubt, much appreciated.
     I also sent another letter to my soldier today.  Who knows how long these take to get to him or what the time separation is between a letter and a package?  I figure the more mail he gets, the better.  I still have not heard a thing from him.  While I know this is sometimes the case, I must admit that it's difficult to keep the one-way conversation going.  It would be a lot easier to respond to his questions or comments or to send him things that he requests.  Oh well.  I'll keep the faith and trust that my letters are really getting to him and that they're meaningful for him.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Kindness of Listening

     Today I was reminded of how kind it can be to simply be a good listener.  I have someone who I've worked with for a number of years and through that relationship we've become friends.  He's had many ups and downs over those years and faced many difficult challenges.  As a friend and supporter, I've played a variety of roles, depending upon what's most needed at any particular time.
     Sometimes, like today, what's needed is simply to listen.  We spent almost 2 hours together and I offered almost no advice, no brilliant suggestions, no pearls of wisdom.  To be sure, there are times when that can be helpful.  This wasn't one of them.  It was a time to allow another person to empty his mind and to talk through all the various issues going on.  I could tell that it was therapeutic for him to have that opportunity, and it was my pleasure to be able to play my part.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Little Gestures Go A Long Way

     Today's act of kindness was really the completion of something I started last night. I mentioned yesterday that I was consulting with a company regarding their corporate culture. Part of the process involved a large number of individual meetings with various members of their staff. The meetings were scheduled at 30 minute intervals and, as you might imagine, it was difficult to keep everyone on schedule all day long. It took a great deal of coordination and plenty of adjustments on the part of my administrative contact at the client. She did a fabulous job keeping us on track and I wanted to show her my appreciation.                       
     Though I certainly let her know verbally, I thought that a small extra gesture would be meaningful. Of course, I was at my hotel thinking about this at 8:30 last night! I decided to get her a small bouquet of flowers that I could deliver first thing today when I would be resuming my work. It required a little help and a bit of driving to eventually find a place where I could buy fresh flowers at 9:00 on a weekday night, but I did it. When I arrived at the client's office at 8:00 this morning, I gave her the flowers. She was certainly surprised, and quite appreciative. I know the extra effort I went through to make it happen was well worth it. While I didn't do it for this reason, I also know that she'll work that much harder to help me out in the future as well.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Kinder Approach to Workers

     I was in Chicago today doing some work with a company that wanted to improve its organizational culture.  The first part of my job was to assess the current state and I did this by meeting individually with a cross section of employees to understand their various perspectives on the topic.  As I sat with one senior manager, he explained to me some of the issues they had around communication.  To help me understand, he gave me an example of a typical problem situation and how he would handle it with an employee.
     After listening to the manager's approach, I asked if he was open to considering another way of responding.  Seeing that he was, I suggested a much kinder way of dealing with the problem.  It was a way that showed more respect for the employee and had a far greater probability of achieving the manager's objective.  As I explained this approach, the manager's eyes lit up and he was quick to acknowledge that he could see how my approach would be way better for him - he just had never thought of it before.  He had been so conditioned to work from an authoritative, command and control mentality that it never occurred to him there was another way.  More importantly, he could readily see how a kinder approach could actually achieve better results.
     It was fun to help someone see entirely new possibilities for interpersonal relationships based on kindness and respect rather than fear and intimidation.  Hopefully there will be just a little more kindness at that company tomorrow than there was yesterday.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Courteous Traveling

     Today was another travel day and another good chance to simply look for opportunities to be courteous and helpful to those around me.  As I've noted before, traveling often includes a certain amount of stress and hassle for most people - from getting through security to struggling with bags to trying to make connections, to all the other logistical challenges that have to be negotiated.  When I just relax about it all and focus on being kind, the stress seems to literally melt away.
     None of my kindnesses were earth-shattering and, in fact, they might more readily be called simply being courteous.  I let someone go in front of me through security.  I was friendly to the TSA person even when they decided to open up my bag for closer screening.  I helped someone get their carryon luggage into the overhead bin.  I let someone go in front of me at the car rental office.  I slowed down to let a car that had started on the wrong road reverse direction and get onto the right road - without honking or cursing or thinking negatively of them . . . after all, it could easily have been me in that situation.
     To be honest, when I think about the times in the past when I've allowed myself to get more annoyed at people and situations when traveling, I'm embarrassed.  It's both stress-producing and unproductive.  It's amazing how a healthy dose of kindness just seems to make everything go more smoothly - like a lubricant in the gears of our daily lives.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

It Had To Happen

     I knew that sooner or later this would happen.  I spent the better part of the day in bed with a fever and therefore had little opportunity to be among people where I could do an act of kindness.  Fortunately, in times like these I can fall back upon some old standbys that I can do from home.  This one was essentially a repeat of one I did last month, though it's a good one nonetheless.
    I decided to put my gift cards to good use by anonymously sending them to strangers in the mail.  Like before, I typed out a note on a blank sheet of paper that said, "Please enjoy this small gift from an anonymous stranger wishing you a wonderful day!"  Then I added, "What can you do today to make someone else's day just a little bit brighter?"  I made two copies, putting each in a blank envelope, one with a Starbucks gift card and one with a Dunkin' Donuts card.  I picked two random addresses out of the phone book, addressed the envelopes accordingly (with no return address), and put them in the mail.
     This is definitely one of those acts where I wish I could see the face of the recipients as they open up the mail.  Hopefully it brings a smile to their face and prompts them to pay it forward in some way.  I'll probably never know.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

We Can All Be Heroes

     A few years ago, a couple of friends of mine created a truly amazing website to help facilitate connections between people who had needs and people who were willing to help.  The site is called Wish Upon A Hero (  Amazingly, in that short amount of time, over 88,000 wishes have been granted!  Today I registered on the site and granted my first wish.
     The site lists thousands of wishes from people all over the world with needs from as small as baby formula or used clothing to as large as a car.  You can search by type of need, dollar amount, geographic region, age of recipient, and a host of other criteria to select a wish that fits your desire or ability to help.  The site then enables you to connect directly with the person in need and to grant the wish.  Those who grant wishes are called Heroes.  
     As I looked through the wishes and read comments from wishers and Heroes, I was struck by how much generosity exists in the world.  Too often we hear about all the bad stuff when, in fact, all around us there are so many people with so much compassion and willingness to help others.  The internet, and a site like this in particular, enables people to find each other more easily so that this generosity can play out on a broad scale.  Taking a moment to check out the site will renew your faith in humankind.  I'll definitely be going back often.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Driving Miss Daisy?

     One of the things I've wanted to do this year is to volunteer to drive senior citizens (or others in need) to doctor's appointments or wherever else is necessary.  I knew there must be programs like this that I could work through, but didn't quite know where, so I had to do some research.  I finally made some significant progress on that front today.
     It took some phone calls and some digging, but I found that The American Cancer Society has what sounds like a well-organized program called Road to Recovery.  The program takes requests from patients who need help getting to appointments and matches them with volunteer drivers.  I've now submitted all the required paperwork for participation and am scheduled for my official training a week from Monday. After that, assuming my drivers' license check is clean (!), I'll be on the schedule as an available driver.  I'm really looking forward to it as I know how vital a service it is for people in need.  I'm sure I'll meet some interesting people as well.  I'll post more about this after I do my first "assignment." 
     So far this year, virtually all of my acts of kindness have been solo efforts of my own creation, as opposed to volunteering within a specific program or organization.  While these will likely still represent the vast majority of my acts, participating in an organized program does present some outstanding opportunities for kindness.  There are several more like these that I have in mind, though they require some work - research, applications, training, scheduling, etc. - to get started.  I'll be working on moving those forward over the next few weeks so that they can become a more regular part of my schedule.  Stay tuned for more on this . . .

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lunch With A Friend

     This one is a little tricky for me to write, and it brings up some interesting thoughts/questions about the nature of an act of kindness.  Let me tell you what happened first, and then explain why it's a little delicate.
     Several weeks ago, I was thinking about a man I've known for some 25+ years and with whom I occasionally have breakfast or lunch.  I hadn't seen him in some time and knew that he was struggling with some health issues, so I decided it would be nice to take him to lunch and spend some time together.  Our schedules didn't quite match, so today was our first chance to finally connect.  We had a good lunch, enjoyed some great conversation, and I know he appreciated that I had reached out to him to make it happen.  It was my pleasure to extend that kindness.
     The reason I say this is tricky to write about is that I don't want him (or any other subject of my kindess) to feel somehow "used" - as if the only reason I called is to be able to "cross it off my list" and write about it.  And that concern got me thinking about this whole issue of whether it in any way diminishes a kindness if we make a "task" of it; or whether the only thing that matters is that the kindness was genuine in its intent.
     On the one hand, one could argue that it's the spirit that matters most.  As long as the act of kindness is done willingly, and with a spirit of generosity rather than begrudgingly or out of obligation, then it's a meaningful act.  On the other hand, one could also argue that if the act was helpful to another, then does it really matter what was behind the act?  It's the impact that matters most.  If I shovel someone's driveway, the person will likely never know what was in my mind as I was doing it - but they'll have a clear driveway regardless.
     To be honest, I'm not sure where I fall on this question.  I do know that making a commitment to do an act of kindness every single day is a big commitment, and that it helps to have it on my list of things to do each day.  While the list may help me to accomplish my goal, I try to be very "present" to each act of kindness, focusing on the recipient and approaching each situation with as much authenticity and genuineness as I can.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Giving Directions and More?

     Today I was presented with one of those easy opportunities to be kind, but I missed out on a chance to do more.  Let me explain.
     I was heading to our local YMCA this afternoon where I was to have lunch and give a talk at 12:15.  As I parked and got out of my car, I noticed a woman driving around the lot looking confused.  When I stopped to ask if I could help, I learned that she needed directions to a nearby store.  I explained to her what she needed to do but, to be honest, she still seemed a bit confused.  I tried to repeat the directions for her as clearly as I could (several times!), and I'm hopeful that she was able to get there.  Unfortunately, it was about 12:10, so I didn't have time to do more without being late. 
     If I had had just a few extra minutes, I would have gotten back into my car and told her to simply follow me since the store was quite close.  That would have made it really easy for her and reduced her stress level.  In this case, though, my desire to provide more help bumped up against my value for punctuality.  As the invited speaker, it felt wrong to me to show up late.
     This experience led me to a couple of thoughts.  First, it got me thinking about time.  As I mentioned a few days ago, having more time allows me to go that extra mile to provide more help to someone.  I want to be careful to make the distinction between "arbitrary" time constraints and "real" ones.   Sometimes I set goals for myself as to when I want to accomplish a list of errands and I arbitrarily create time constraints.  When I relax these and realize that there's usually no harm in slowing down, it frees me up to be more helpful to others. 
     Real time constraints are those times in which I have limited flexibility because I made a specific commitment to be somewhere at a particular time and others are counting on me.  To be truthful, sometimes even these can become more flexible, as long as I have the chance to call and check with the other person.  I may have made a commitment that really isn't critical to that person, though I can't assume that without checking.
     The other thought I had from today's experience is that there is often an extra step we can take that can make a bigger difference.  Having the person follow me to her destination is much more helpful than simply offering directions.  Perhaps I could have at least written them down or drawn a simple map for her as I did have the time for that.  Over the coming days, I'm going to try to notice if there is a further step I can take to make a bigger difference for people, rather than just being satisfied at the initial level of help.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Kindness and Gratitude

     In yesterday's post, I mentioned the research that a friend e-mailed me about indicating that the top two things we can do to increase our happiness are to cultivate gratitude and to do acts of kindness.  Today I decided to work on the first one by writing another of my handwritten thank you notes.  I'll be doing this throughout this year (and hopefully beyond!).  I try to pick someone who has either had an important influence on me personally, or else someone who has made an impact on our community.  There are many people who devote their time, talents, and even money to make our communities better places.  So often they do this with little fanfare or acknowledgement; in fact, they're sometimes subject to petty criticism.  It's nice to let these people know that their efforts are appreciated. 
     In my hometown, a vibrant running community has sprouted over the past several years.  There are scores of runners, of varying ages and abilities, all working toward their own goals.  They share workouts, personal struggles and triumphs, laughs, training tips and advice, and, of course, comraderie.  You can find them meeting early in the morning and later in the evening, on weekdays and on weekends for long runs.  The central gathering spot for all this activity is our local Main Street running store - The Moorestown Running Company. 
    The store, but more importantly, the very real running community it has created, was mostly the product of one person's dream.  He put lots of personal financial capital into making it happen, and he continues to devote significant energy, enthusiasm, and creativity into helping to promote running.  While he does it out of a love for all things related to running, it's nonetheless important to recognize those efforts.  That's where my thank you note went today.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Help at the Grocery Store

     Today provided another opportunity to help people in small, but kind, ways at the grocery store.  My sister and I were on our way home after an afternoon out and needed to stop to pick up a few items for dinner.  When we were done shopping, we loaded the groceries into her car and I returned the cart to the front of the store.  As I was going back to our car, I saw an elderly man just finishing putting his purchases into his car.  I offered to return his cart for him to save him the effort.  Smiling, he said "Thanks", and then added, "That's very kind."
      When I was done and was about to get into our car, I noticed another elderly man struggling to move some things around in the trunk of his car so that he could get his bags in.  He seemed pretty frail and so I went over to offer my help and to return his shopping cart as well.  He gave me a big smile and said, "Oh, bless your heart.  You're a good man."  Then he offered a fist pump and said "Give me five!"
     Interestingly, when I was returning to our car one last time I passed a man sitting in his car with his window down.  As I went by he said, "That was a real nice thing for you to do."
    One of the things I've noticed about doing some of these small things is that the less I'm in a hurry, the easier it is to notice opportunities to help people and the easier it is to act upon them.  When I'm rushing to get things accomplished, I get annoyed at people getting in my way and I don't want to take the extra time to help people (in fact, I usually don't even notice the opportunities).  The fascinating thing to notice is that, more often than not, the sense of rushing around is often self-imposed, and even habitual.  We can get so used to rushing around that we maintain that mindset, even when we really don't need to.  As I work to let go of that mindset, everything becomes more relaxed, less stressful, and more pleasant.  I begin to notice more chances to help people, and as I do so, my world simply becomes a happier place.
     One other interesting note:  A friend of mine e-mailed me today and mentioned that she had seen a screening of a movie promoting happiness.  Apparently, the movie noted that the top two things you can do to create more happiness in your life is to cultivate gratitude and to perform acts of kindness!  This certainly matches my experience so far this year.

Thinking Abundance

     As many people know, last year I published my first book, Fundamentally Different, based on the lessons I learned and taught during my business leadership career.  It represents my best thinking and writing on building a high performance organizational culture . . . but it's much more than that.  It's also a book about living a life based upon a set of governing values.  It's been my pleasure to share the book with so many people and to hear about how much they've enjoyed it and learned from it.
     Today I had the chance to speak with one of the book's recipients and to provide additional insight and advice.  This person actually received my book as a gift from another person.  He was so excited about its applicability to his organization and had already begun to implement some of my ideas.  He was eager to talk with me to learn more.  It was a pleasure to be able to add to his thinking.  He was so appreciative that I would take the time to talk with him, especially when he learned that I was on vacation with my family.  
     I've always been willing to freely share the things that I've learned, without concern for how or if I'll be compensated.  I'm confident that we what give away in our lives somehow always comes back to us.  Generosity has an interesting way of spreading.  I think it's related to having an "abundance" attitude vs. a "scarcity" attitude.  When we approach life from a perspective of scarcity, we hoard things for fear we'll run out.  But when we think from a perspective of abundance, it's easier to give things away because we know there's an unlimited amount of good to be spread.  I choose to think from abundance.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Expanding My Space

     Today was one of those days where my act of kindness was small and probably went largely unnoticed.  Yet, in some ways, it's an important part of what this year is about.  Let me explain what happened and then why it's important.
    I went out to dinner this evening with my sister, her husband, and her mother-in-law.  When we arrived at the restaurant we learned that it would be a 35-40 minute wait, so we stood outside enjoying the pleasant evening.  People kept pulling up to the curb in front of the restaurant where valets would take their keys and park their cars. At one point, I saw the valet pull out and run over a parking cone, which then got stuck on the car's front bumper. Rather than having him stop, get out of the car, and "unstuck" the cone, I ran out and took care of it for him.  He gave me a "thank you" wave, and went on to park the car.
     While this was an admittedly small and inconsequential act, it was important for me because it was an indicator that I'm beginning to notice (and act on) things that are happening around me.  In the past, I would have let the valet take care of it himself; after all, he's the one who ran over the cone.  Now, I'm actively looking for opportunities to be of assistance.  I think the difference is mostly one of degree.  Before, I would act on situations that were clearly in my personal space.  For example, if a person dropped something right in front of me, I'd certainly stop to pick it up for them.  However, if I saw something that was further from my space, I might have left it alone.  Either I'm expanding the definition of what's in "my space" or I'm just becoming more comfortable with extending myself outside of my previous boundaries.  Either way, it's a good thing.

Surprise Dessert . . . With a Note

     As I complete the 44th day of my project, I notice that each act of kindness has its own lessons; and that I can vary one or more aspects of the situation to generate a new and different experience.  Today I revisited an act from last month, but made a couple of small "improvements."  Here's what happened.
     I was meeting an old friend and his wife for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant.  We had lots to catch up on since we hadn't seen each other since I was in Arizona a year ago at this time.  After we had been there for some time, I noticed a young couple sitting in a booth behind my friends; and I decided that it would be a good night to surprise this unsuspecting couple with dessert from a stranger.  You may recall that when I did this one night in Chicago, the couple never said a thing to the waiter, and I suspect may even have thought that the restaurant was including dessert as part of their meal.  This time I was going to make it a little more interesting.
     When our waiter brought me the check, I pointed out the couple and told the waiter that I wanted him to deliver a dessert to them along with a note that I handed him.  I had brought a blank piece of paper with me for this purpose.  This is what I penned on the note: "Please enjoy this dessert courtesy of an anonymous stranger wanting to wish you a great day."  Then I added, "What can you do today to make someone else's day just a little bit brighter?" 
     I figured that the first part of my note would at least let them know that the dessert was a gift from a stranger.  The second part was my chance to subtely suggest a "pay it forward" possibility.  As we left the restaurant, I saw the couple enjoying what appeared to be some type of strawberry shortcake.  It looked pretty darn good! 
     Of course, I have no way of knowing what went through their minds as they received the dessert and read my note.  Hopefully it made them smile and appreciate that people can be kind to each other - even to complete strangers.  And hopefully my prompt will cause them to do something kind for someone else.  And who knows?  Maybe it starts a chain reaction of kindness.  It's a little weird to think that I'll never know what happenend.  I just have to be satisfied that I did something kind for them, and in so doing, at least set in motion a small ripple of kindess in the world.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Starbucks for the Stressed

     Airports are such interesting places to observe people, and they're certainly filled with opportunities to offer assistance or to make someone's day.  I was flying from San Francisco to Phoenix and I decided to check my bags to make it easier to negotiate my way through the airport.  When I arrived in Phoenix I made my way to baggage claim to retrieve my bags.  As I was doing so, I noticed the US Airways baggage office was a bit crowded with people trying to locate missing bags and make arrangements to have them delivered. 
     The 2 women who were behind the counter looked stressed, but seemed to be handling the frustrated passengers as effectively as possible.  It occurred to me that that must be a tough job  - spending the entire day dealing with people for whom a mishap had occurred, and people who were usually tired and cranky.  So when the room eventually cleared, I went up to the counter and offered a Starbucks gift card to one of the women as a way of brightening her day.  She seemed really touched and couldn't thank me enough.
     It was nice to make a small and unexpected difference for someone today.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Supporting Our Troops

     Today was my regular day to write to my adopted soldier in Afghanistan.  Knowing that I'd be doing some traveling, I brought paper and an already-addressed envelope with me on my vacation.  As usual, my note was filled mostly of small talk - news from the US, sports talk, etc.  To be honest, I feel a little "lame" writing such trivial things, but carrying on a totally one-sided conversation is proving to be somewhat of a challenge.  Hopefully I'll hear from him soon so that we can begin to engage in some back and forth dialogue.  If not, I'll have to keep reminding myself that any mail he receives is definitely better than no mail.
     The process of writing these weekly letters to an unknown and unseen person, with no feedback, has me thinking about the importance of discipline.  I think of discipline as the ability to get myself to do what I know I should do, even when I don't feel like doing it.  It requires a strong focus on the value of the goal.  In this case, I have total belief in the importance of our soldiers receiving mail to keep their spirits up and to know that they're appreciated.  I also believe strongly in the importance of honoring commitments.  As a condition of adopting a soldier, I made a commitment to write a letter every week throughout the rest of his deployment.  Even though I don't necessarily feel like writing, especially with no feedback, I'll continue to be steadfast in following through because it's important and becasue I said I would.  That's what discipline is all about.

Making the Effort for Friends

     Given the busy lives that most of us lead, it's easy to lose touch with friends.  It takes energy and effort to carve out time to connect with people, whether by phone, in writing, or in person.  Today I made the effort to expand upon my relationship with two different old and special friends.
     Back in 1995, I participated in an Outward Bound wilderness adventure in the mountains of Montana.  It was an amazing trip and I got to know a great group of people from around the country.  One of those people was a guy who I've spoken with by phone every few years since then but have never again seen.  We recently reconnected through LinkedIn, and when I learned that he had moved to the San Franscisco area, I agreed to visit him on my travels.  Since I was on a vacation in the western part of the country, I did just that.  Though we haven't seen each other in nearly 17 years, it's been great to be together.  Certainly it would have been much easier to stay in my normal routines and let the relationship fade away; but I'm continually reminded of how enriching these relationships are . . . if I make the time to cultivate and nurture them.
     The second half of this story is about another old friend who I met in 1989.  That summer, our local YMCA was bringing in a group of international students to be camp counselors and they needed housing.  My wife and I agreed to be a host family and we had the pleasure of getting to know a great 18-year old kid from Sweden.  He ended up coming back to be with us again the next summer, and we've been good friends since then, even taking a family vacation to visit him in Stockholm a number of years ago.
     This morning, I noticed that this friend had a Facebook post noting that he was in San Francisco at a conference.  Amazed at the coincidence that we were both in the same city, I found a way to contact him and then arranged to meet him at his hotel.  It was so good to be with him again and to rekindle our long friendship.
     These relationships, and others like them do take effort.  Taking the time to call an old college friend, tracking down someone I haven't seen in years, or arranging the logistics to visit someone, takes work.  It's always easier not to make the effort.  Yet, my life is better for having friends like these, and I'd like to think that theirs is as well. 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Extending Kindness Across the Globe

     As some may know, my son Ben is currently in the 7th month of an 11-month mission trip to 11 different countries. This month he's in Uganda teaching in a small school in a tiny rural village. Beyond Ben's daily display of caring and compassion, today he's invited us to join him in a tremendous opportunity for kindness. Here's a link to his blog post.  I assure you that it's worth taking the time to read it.
     When I read Ben’s blog, I couldn’t help but think that this is what kindness is all about – seeing a distinctly human need and responding to it, wherever it may be.  In this case, Ben not only responded personally, but he also took steps to help spread the kindness in a much more significant way.  After reading what he was doing, it certainly didn’t take long for my wife and I to join with Ben to make a difference for several children. 
     While I definitely don’t want to turn this blog into a vehicle for solicitation, from time to time I will make readers aware of a particular opportunity for kindness (Adopting a Soldier, e.g.) that I think is worth noting.  I’m trusting that you’ll hear it in the spirit in which it’s intended, and respond in whatever way is appropriate for you.  If it makes sense for you, I'd encourage you to consider supporting a child in Uganda and sharing Ben's post with others you think might value the chance to make a difference.


     When I set up my "rules" for this project, I noted that I wanted the vast majority of my intentional acts of kindness to be for strangers rather than my friends and family.  This was not because I didn't want to be nice to people close to me, but simply because I wanted to extend myself beyond my normal comfort zone.  That being said, being kind to those closest to me is obviously important and will sometimes constitute my intentional act for the day.  Today was one of those days.
     I attended the Super Bowl party today that my sister and her husband host each year for friends and family.  As with any party, the host/hostess shoulder the bulk of the load for pulling things together, though help from others can make a big difference.  I made sure to get there a couple of hours early so that I could take care of a few "assigned" tasks and help out with anything else that was needed.  As importantly, when the party was over, I made sure to stick around (with some others, as well) to pitch in and help clean everything up.  Sure enough, with everyone's help, we had the entire house back to "normal" in short order once the party was done.
     It was interesting to observe how a number of people seemed to pitch in to clean up, without needing to be asked.  People saw things that needed to be done and just took care of it.  That type of seamless teamwork is fun to behold and to be a part of.  It makes me wonder what causes that to happen in some situations while it doesn't happen in others.  I suppose it's probably a combination of circumstance and the personalities (and upbringing?) of those involved.  It's certainly true, though, that a great team is more than the sum of its parts.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Contributing to Group Knowledge

     One of the most striking ways in which the internet has changed our lives is the way in which we can engage in conversation with "strangers" from literally anywhere in the world.  While some conversations, of course, can be inappropriate or even dangerous, I'm referring here to the way in which we're able to share information and build collective knowledge.  If you've ever read posts in a "help forum" or even commented on a blog, you know what I mean.  As just one small example of this, last year I was frustrated trying to solve a setup problem with a Sony Blu-Ray player.  The Sony website provided minimal technical support, but it did have a help forum where users posted their own questions and other users responded with their experiences and solutions.  I found many people who had the exact same problem that I had, and I found several great ways to solve it.
     This type of community sharing requires a certain kind of mindset where people are freely willing to give and take for no other reason than it benefits us all.  As I thought about this recently, it occurred to me that I have only been a "taker" in this exchange, and have never been a "giver."  Today I decided to change that.
     I thought about a particular topic with which I had some personal experience and even some expertise. When I googled this topic I saw lots of articles and blogposts related to it, and so I picked out a few of the most relevant ones to read.  Paying particular attention to the comment threads that followed the articles, I joined in the conversations and contributed my own thoughts and experiences.  Hopefully, some who read my comments will be able to benefit from what I had to say.
     A teacher of mine says that the internet has changed from being the "information superhighway" to being more of a place where people "engage" with each other.  While some of that engagement is little more than social conversation, much of it involves the building and spreading of group knowledge.  I want to be a better "digital citizen" in the future by contributing knowledge and not just taking it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Donating to Friends and Causes

     I'm sure I'm not alone in sometimes wishing I didn't get so many solicitations from every non-profit under the sun asking me to make a contribution.  Trying to figure out what to give and to whom is always a challenge.  And it gets complicated by so many different factors from who's doing the asking, what the cause is, the degree of "obligation" I may feel based on either my relationship with the asker or whether they've given to one of my causes before, and to be honest, even my mood.  I still haven't found any good way to make these decisions, and I may never.  That being said, today I at least acted upon one of those requests.
     A friend of mine is challenged by a particular disease and is taking part in a walk to raise money for research.  While I don't have any other connection to this cause, and wonder how much of an impact my donation is going to have on actual research, I do have great respect for this friend.  I think of my donation  more as a statement of personal support for him than I do a contribution to the research effort.  It's my way of saying, "I respect, support, and care about you."  

Follow-up from yesterday:  This morning I happened to come across the woman to whom I had given flowers yesterday.  She once again thanked me and told me that they really cheered her up after a long day of work. Mission definitely accomplished.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Flowers Get A Smile

     As I've quickly learned, on some days opportunities to perform an act of kindness present themselves quite readily while on other days they simply don't.  On those occasions, it's always good to be able to rely upon some standard (but still kind) acts that have worked before - like flowers or Starbucks gift cards, etc.  Today was one of those days where I needed to pull out an old idea.
     I was visiting my parents today and was not out "in public" that much, so had limited opportunity to scope out a good chance to be kind to someone.  When I went to a local grocery store to pick up a prescription I thought I might see a chance.  (I've found that grocery stores are great because there are lots of people and many of them can use some assistance.)  As I was entering the store, I spotted an older gentleman walking slowly with a cane.  Thinking that I might be able to help him carry bags to his car later, I kept an eye out for him in the store; but he ended up emerging with only one small package.  Not seeing any other appropriate opportunities, I went to an old stalwart - the flowers.
     I picked out a small bouquet of colorful flowers, bought them, and then tried to decide who I should give them to.  My first thought was to find someone in the parking lot, but I just didn't see the right situation to do it, so I got into my car and headed back to my parents' neighborhood, looking for just the right recipient.  Not seeing anyone on the street, I decided to stop in at the community center where there's an office and information desk.  
     As I walked in I saw a woman at the desk handling a phone call.  When she was done and asked if she could help me, I explained to her that I had bought these flowers wanting to give them to someone to wish them a nice day, and asked if I could give them to her.  She smiled and responded that she "never turns down flowers."  She wanted to know who I was.  While my flowers are typically given namelessly, she asked me directly so I told her my name.  "Oh, are you Stan's son?" she asked.  "He's such a doll.  We all love him here!" she continued.  With my mission accomplished, I wished her a great day and left.
     It will probably take me most of this year to discern the patterns of who is comfortable accepting a gift from a stranger and who isn't, as I'm sure it's affected by the circumstances, the nature of the gift, and the way in which I approach them, to name just a few factors.  Clearly approaching someone sitting behind a desk is much less threatening than when I walk up to a stranger, especially a woman, in a parking lot.  Either way, it was nice to make someone smile.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tracking Down An Important Influence

     Over the past 25+ years, I've been involved with a large number of  non-profit community organizations, volunteering, raising money, and serving on Boards - often in a leadership capacity.  Being such an active community volunteer is not something that I grew up seeing.  Rather, it was something I learned only after getting "drafted" into the fold by others who were already actively engaged.  In particular, I'll always remember one specific man who saw potential in me as a 24-year old new business person in our town and invited me to join an organization of which he was a part.
     This man retired and moved away from our town 10 or 15 years ago.  I've often thought about him and wished I had the opportunity to thank him and let him know how much he influenced the course of my community life.  Yesterday I decided it was time for me to track him down somehow and thank him personally.  I began making calls to those I thought might know where he went and/or might have his current contact info.  Before long, I had a phone number for him in Florida.
     This morning, I called this man and we had a great time recalling the past events and people.  He was so appreciative that I would call to let him know the influence he had, and he seemed truly touched.  I'm so glad I made the effort to find him and connect with him.
     I imagine that many of us have people in our lives who may have even unwittingly played an important role in our development, and for that matter, we have each probably significantly influenced others in ways that we may not be aware.  How great it would be to hear from people like these.  And maybe more importantly, it reminds me that we never know who we may be influencing and how.  That thought keeps me more focused on making sure that I'm as positive an influence on all those around me as I can be.