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

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Follow-up and Continuation

     Today's story is sort of a follow-up from a story I wrote last week, and is also a continuation of it in a way.  Let me explain:
     Last weekend, I wrote about going through the drive-thru line at the bank and giving the teller a Chick-Fil-A gift card.  It certainly surprised and delighted her, and she readily agreed to my request that she "pay it forward."  Well, in this week's mail, I found a card hand-addressed to me from the bank.  I couldn't think what it could be.  It turns out that the teller thought to look up my home address and she wrote me a beautiful thank-you note, once again assuring me that she will pay it forward.  That was pretty cool.
     Today, I needed to make a deposit at the bank so I decided to do something similar, but with a twist.  I first stopped at our Philadelphia Soft Pretzel shop on Main Street and I bought a bag of pretzels.  They were literally steaming hot.  Resisting the temptation to eat a few, I drove to the bank (a different branch this time) and headed for the drive-thru window.  I had to make sure it was the lane closest to the building where you get the sliding drawer, because I didn't think I could squeeze the pretzels into that small vacuum tube!
     Anyway, I pulled up to the window and placed my deposit along with the bag of hot pretzels into the drawer, eager to watch for the reaction of the teller.  She looked at me quizzically, not sure what was going on.  I told her they were for her to enjoy and then she smiled and laughed and revealed that she wasn't sure at first what was in the bag, and if it was some kind of trick or joke.  I assured her that it wasn't.  When she finished the transaction and asked if there was anything else she could do for me, I told her there was.  I explained that I needed her to pay it forward by doing something nice for someone else. To that she happily agreed.
     Sometimes when I do things like this I feel like I'm doing an episode from  the old show, Candid Camera.  The only trick to it is that there is no trick.  And that's the most fun part.  Making someone smile just for the sake of it, with the only strings attached being a request that they pay it forward.  Simple and pure.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Visiting an Old Coach

     I was in the Palm Beach, Florida area working with a client yesterday.  Knowing that I'd be in the region, a couple of weeks ago I reached out to my former college XC and track coach who lives in West Palm Beach and offered to take he and his wife out to dinner.  I've only seen him once or twice in the past 25-30 years, and I know how much he appreciates seeing his former athletes, so I particularly wanted to make the effort.
     I got to his home around 6:30, and after seeing his "monument room" with pictures and mementos of his 50 years of coaching, we all went out to dinner.  After dinner, we hung out at his house for a few hours and enjoyed some of his homemade chocolate pudding.  We shared stories of old times, people we each knew and remembered, as well as stories that were new to each of us.  It was fun to be with him, and I know the visit meant a lot to him.  I'll try to make it happen again the next time I'm in town.
     I continue to be reminded about how much these various relationships do enrich my own life at the same time as they hopefully impact others.  And I'll continue to make that effort to make connections wherever I happen to find myself.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Little Kindness at the Bank

     I swung by the bank this afternoon because I needed to cash a check.  Noticing that the drive-through lines were completely empty, I figured I'd go that route rather than parking and going inside.  As I pulled up to the window, I decided it might be a good day to surprise the teller with a gift.
     When the teller slid the drawer open for me to place my banking items, I put the check I wanted to cash in there, but I also added a gift card from Chick-Fil-A.  Curiously, the teller made no reaction as I watched her efficiently handle the transaction and count out my cash for accuracy.  Then she placed the money back into the drawer and told me that she was giving me back the card because I must have accidentally left it in there.  When I explained that it was for her, she smiled, almost in an embarrassed way, and asked me "Why?" I responded that I wanted her to have a nice day.  "That's SO nice of you!" she exclaimed, to which I responded that it was my pleasure and asked that she do something nice for someone else.  She assured me that she would definitely "pay it forward" and I left, knowing that she'd be smiling the rest of the day and telling her family and friends about the strange thing that happened at work today.
     What could be better than making someone smile like that?  To be honest, I don't think she was necessarily the friendliest teller I've ever seen.  She wasn't bad, but she also wasn't great.  Her whole demeanor certainly changed after our exchange, and I'd like to think she had a little extra spring in her step and smile in her voice after that.  Hopefully, it even rubbed off on those who were around her, or those customers she handled the rest of the afternoon.

Friday, January 18, 2013


     I had lunch today with an old friend/business colleague who I've known now for almost 30 years.  Over these many years, we've fallen out of touch for long stretches at a time, but then always seem to find each other and reconnect again.  Over the past year or two, we've tried to meet for lunch every 6 months or so; and it's amazing how easy it is to pick up right where we left off.
     I had reached out to her a few weeks ago to schedule today's lunch as it had been a number of months since we had spoken.  While it seems like I'm the one doing most of the "reaching out" for so many of my friends, the effort proves to be well worth it every single time.  As I've written about many times, these get-togethers are where relationships are really deepened.
     During today's lunch, I also had the opportunity to provide some useful feedback to my friend regarding some opportunities she was exploring.  I enjoy playing the role of "sounding board" and seem to have a knack for helping people sort out issues in a way that provides them with some important insight and clarity.  It's a pleasure to use that skill to help people.
     I've often wished that I had a more tangible skill that I could employ on behalf of people.  I hear about doctors going overseas and donating time to treat sick children on humanitarian mission trips.  Or I hear about people who help their friends and neighbors build an addition or fix a leak.  To be honest, I'm pretty useless on most of these tasks and doing virtually anything with my hands.  My biggest skill tends to be my ability to bring clarity of thought to situations, a skill not often identified as critical to help people in developing nations.  Nonetheless, I do take pleasure in being able to help someone like I did today.  I suppose we all tend to overlook or under-appreciate the things that come most easily to us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A Few More

     I got home from Orlando this evening and this is the first chance I've had to blog about a few acts of kindness over the past day or two.  In no particular order, I'll write about them here.
     When I got to Orlando yesterday, after successfully retrieving my bags from baggage claim, I went to the US Airways baggage office down there and let them know that I wanted to report that I had no problems at all.  There were three or four people working behind the counter and they not only smiled, but they all gave me a big ovation.  They laughed and were appreciative to hear some good comments for a change.
     After dinner last night I went for a walk in the area surrounding the hotel.  It was a nice night and I found a frozen yogurt place where I could get a late night treat.  On my way back, a young man approached me and haltingly explained that he was from Puerto Rico, wasn't a beggar, but things hadn't worked out for him and he hadn't eaten all day.  He asked if there was anything I could do to help.  My first thought was to give him my Subway card from the other day, but I didn't see any Subway shops anywhere in the vicinity.  I went ahead and gave him $10.  Here again, who knows if he was just scamming me, but I don't think so.  Either way, he clearly needed some help and I could certainly afford to at least do something.
     When I got home to Philly this evening, I once again thanked the people in the baggage office after I had gotten my bags without issue.  I'm starting to like making that a habit.  It's such a simple thing, but it's sort of like reporting good news - so often overlooked, but worth telling.
     Lastly, when I was giving a talk this morning, there was a person in the audience who had a very cool company that helped create ways for families to spend more time communicating with each other, specifically around the dinner table.  I remembered that someone I spoke to when I was in Virginia recently was struggling with this issue in her family.  This evening I sent her an e-mail with a link to the site.  She'll likely be surprised that I even remembered, let alone took the time to reach out to her.  And by the way, here's a link to the site.  It's well worth checking out.
     OK - that's it for me tonight!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Three Examples

     I've been on the road today, having worked with one client in Pittsburgh this morning and then on my way to Orlando where I'll be giving a talk in the morning, but that didn't keep me from capitalizing on three opportunities to spread some kindness and demonstrate some compassion.  Here's what happened:
     During the morning, I was leading a class where we were working on two communication skills:  speaking straight and listening generously.  During the session, one of the employees of the company for which I was working demonstrated a strong intuitive sense for the material.  Though she was "just" a receptionist/administrative assistant, she really took on the training wholeheartedly and clearly demonstrated some leadership in the process.  As I was sitting in the airport later, I made a point to send her an e-mail acknowledging the specific contributions she made to the group.  I've already heard back from her letting me know how much the "pat on the back" meant to her.
     There was another person in this company whose story presented an entirely different challenge.  Without going into too much detail, let me just say that this person suffered a serious personal tragedy in the last year and that attending this session was particularly challenging because of certain reminders it created for her.  It took an amazing amount of personal courage for her to be there.  I also sent her an e-mail today, letting her know how much I respected and admired the courage she demonstrated and letting her know how much I was for her success and available to help.  
     Lastly, I'm doing some coaching for the CEO of another client whose company was doing a layoff yesterday.  When I was there last week, we spent considerable time planning the communication to the organization, part of which was going to take place this evening in a company meeting.  I reached out to the CEO by text multiple times over the past 2 days - first to see if he needed any last-minute help, and second to give him a few reminders and wish him luck.  I know he appreciated my offer, and more importantly, the way that I demonstrated my personal care and interest in him.
     As is so often the case, none of these instances cost any money at all.  Instead, what they required was a few key things:
  • Paying attention to people and their needs
  • Taking a personal interest in them and their success
  • Taking the initiative to act on that concern by reaching out to them with a very specific message.
     Here's something else I noticed today.  I felt great, knowing that I had made a real difference for all three of these people.  Of course, I did it for them, and not for how it would make me feel.  But I felt better nonetheless.  It's definitely a recurring theme that the more we do for others, the more we feel good ourselves.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Advice for Another Friend

     A few nights ago, I wrote about how a friend had reached out to me because her brother had recently written a book and was looking for some guidance on publishing and marketing the book.  Well, believe it or not, I also got a similar e-mail from the husband of a different friend.  And of course, I was happy to oblige this person as well.
     I spent about 40 minutes on the phone this evening explaining what I had learned about the various ways of getting a book published, and the associated advantages and disadvantages of each.  Like most, he was confused by the overwhelming amount of information out there and unsure of what to believe.  I was able to provide him with some clarity about how the field works so that he can move forward on his project with more confidence. 
     As I noted the other night, I often think of these types of acts of kindness mostly as playing my part in the huge, complex, chain of networked people.  Just as I'm willing to share my knowledge, experience, and contacts with this person, others have done the same for me, and still others have done the same for those who helped them.  And that's what networking is really all about.  We each do our part, not knowing how or when or where it comes back to us, but still knowing that it ultimately does in one form or another.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Airport Kindness

     I flew to Pittsburgh this evening and three things of note happened along the way.  Let me tell you about them and what I noticed.
     The first thing that happened was that when I first arrived at the airport in Philly, I noticed an older woman sitting in the area where the ticket counters were.  She must have thought I looked like I knew what I was doing because she stopped me and asked if she was allowed to have a water bottle in that part of the airport.  I explained to her how she could have it anywhere, just not as she went through security.  It occurred to me that an airport can feel pretty intimidating when you don't know the routines.  As a matter of fact, so can many other places.  I remember when I first joined the country club to which I belong, my friend who "sponsored" me did a great job of explaining the various unstated rules, routines, and procedures that "regulars" know as if it's second nature.  But when we're new, it can feel overwhelming as we try to avoid doing the "wrong" thing.  It sure is nice when people can anticipate this and take the time to demystify the situation and explain all those little things.
     The second thing that happened was subtle, but I think important.  When we were getting ready to deplane, the woman who was sitting next to me (I was in the window seat) asked if I'd like her to reach my backpack which was stowed in the overhead bin from which she was getting her own things.  I overheard multiple other conversations around me where people were being so helpful to each other and polite as well.  It was another reminder to me that most people really are kind and helpful to each other.  We're so quick to notice, talk about, and complain about the exception, that we fail to notice the kindness that surrounds us everyday.
     The third thing that happened was that I followed up on the commitment I noted the other day with regard to baggage claim.  When I got my bag with no problem, I went into the baggage office and let them know that I was there to report that I had no problem at all.  Once again, the person behind the counter smiled and said he appreciated getting good news for once.  I'll continue to do this as often as possible throughout the year.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Sharing My Experience

     A friend of mine recently asked me if it would be OK for her brother to contact me to pick my brain about book publishing and marketing.  Naturally I responded that it would be my pleasure to help in any way that I could.  It took a few attempts back and forth to finally coordinate a phone call, but we were able to connect this afternoon.
     I spent about an hour sharing my experiences with this new author and, more importantly, sharing what I had learned in the process.  Like with most things, if you've never done it before it can be hard to understand the ins and outs of a new field.  While I'm certainly lightyears from being an expert in this area, I still know more than a novice, and I was able to provide him with some thoughts that were helpful.
     When I finished the call, I was thinking about the whole nature of networking.  This person got connected to me through his sister who was a friend of mine.  In a similar way, I have many times reached out to my network of connections to find a particular thing, be it knowledge or some assistance or even another name.  Networking like this presupposes that each person is willing to help another person knowing that in the big picture others will similarly help you.  It's a great example of the simple benefits of kindness for everyone.  I'm always glad to play my part in that chain.

Friday, January 11, 2013

No Baggage Issue

     I flew home from Ft. Lauderdale this evening and it was uneventful.  Now that sounds like a silly statement because normally we only make a comment if there was a problem.  We complain about flight delays, poor service, cramped seats, lost or damaged baggage, and any number of other things that can happen when we travel.  But when everything goes smoothly, we rarely make note of it.  With all the travel I'm doing this year, I'm going to try to change that.
     When I arrived back home in Philadelphia I went to the baggage claim area to await the arrival of my bags.  Within a reasonable amount of time, they arrived, and with no apparent damage or problems.  Noting this, I grabbed them and headed for the baggage service office.  This is the office where people go to track down lost bags and make arrangements for delivery.  I can only imagine what it must be like to deal with frustrated, even angry, passengers all day long.  So I went to the counter and announced to the three people working there that I had no issues at all and just wanted to let them know that all was good and that I appreciated it.  They were predictably surprised and unquestionably pleased to hear some good news for a change.  They thanked me and gave me a big thumbs up sign.
     This gets me thinking about all the other places where it might be nice to report that there are no problems.  I'm going to try to speak up as often as possible when I notice this.  Wouldn't that be a welcome change?!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

I Tried

     I was in Fort Lauderdale this evening and didn't get to my hotel until around 7:30 or so.  Since this was one of those rare nights on the road that I was not able to arrange to meet a friend (he wasn't available!), soon after I checked in I got back in my car to look for someplace to get a bite to eat.  As I pulled up to an intersection and the light turned red, I noticed a disheveled looking man standing on the side of the road holding a sign that had some sort of plea for help.  He was walking among the cars looking for handouts.  I was in the middle lane, so he didn't come past my car, but as I sat there I kept thinking that I ought to at least give him something.  I rolled down my window to try to get his attention, but the light changed before he ever saw me.
     As I pulled away, I kept thinking about this man.  "Beggars" like this always present an interesting dilemma.  On the one hand, the man could simply be a scam artist.  And who knows what decisions led him to this place?  On the other hand, does it really matter?  At some level, he certainly needed help or he wouldn't be there.  And while I'm not in any position to solve whatever his life problems may be, I can certainly at least make today a little better.
     So after I got something to eat, I noticed that there was a Subway sandwich shop across the street from where I had originally seen the man.  I stopped in and bought a $10 gift card to give to the man so he could get something to eat.  The problem, however, was that I he was no longer on the street corner where I had previously seen him!  I drove up and down the road a bit in each direction to see if I could catch him, but he was nowhere to be found.
     So now I have a Subway gift card that I'll carry in my wallet, looking for just the right recipient.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Deepening Relationships

     Last night I had a wonderful dinner in Virginia with a college friend who I hadn't seen in nearly 30 years.  Tonight I had dinner in North Carolina with a relatively new friend who I only met several months ago.  What was similar about these visits and why were they important?  Let me try to explain.
     Another relatively new friend asked me in an e-mail the other day if I would share my perspective on keeping in touch with people long-term, as it appeared to her that I put forth a good deal of effort in this regard.  This got me thinking more about why I do this, and why I enjoy and value it.
     Over the years, I've found that I'm not very good at, nor do I enjoy, the mostly meaningless idle chit chat that so often gets passed off as a relationship.  Seeing people at a large party where it's too loud or uncomfortable to do much more than exchange pleasantries is never very satisfying for me.  I'm not even very patient about the silly conversations when people ask things like, "All ready for the holidays?", or "How was your weekend?", or "It's not the heat, it's the humidity."  Even when they ask about the kids, they're usually not listening and more often seem to be saying something just to say something.
     I much prefer to spend what I would consider to be "quality time" with someone, typically one-on-one.  This gives me a chance to ask more probing, insightful questions, and to really listen to and understand their answers, and similarly, it gives me a chance to share much more of myself with them on a far deeper level.  I find the best way to do this is typically over lunch or dinner, not with a large group of people.  When it's just me and the other person, sitting directly across from each other, it's almost hard not to engage in more meaningful dialogue since there's nothing to distract us.  And as we share more and more of ourselves with each other, and we really get to know about each other, the relationship naturally deepens.
     Since most of us tend to fill our days with busy-ness and there's hardly a free moment, it takes intentional effort in order to schedule meaningful time with each other.  Unfortunately, most people don't seem to take on that challenge.  They let inertia take over and one day simply flows into the next, mostly filled with cursory exchanges, all the while proclaiming that relationships are what matter the most in life.
     In contrast, I try to make that effort to break out of the inertia of my "normal" routine and I make specific arrangements to connect with people one-on-one.  I have some friends at home who I will call from time to time and go to lunch with them.  We have such rich and meaningful conversations and so enjoy each other's company.  I've done several of these just in the last few weeks and have several more coming up in the next few weeks.  As I've written about in many blogs, it seems like I know people in most major cities.  When I'm going to be in their area, I make the effort to call or write to them and suggest we get together, even if I haven't seen them in 30 years (that just makes it even more fun!)  Just in the past year I've spent quality time with new and old friends in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Houston, Birmingham, Tampa, Northern Virginia, Chicago, Atlanta, Williamsburg, and Cleveland, just to name a few.  And in the next 2-3 months I've already arranged to meet friends I know in Palm Beach, Detroit, Columbia, Charleston, Phoenix, Buffalo, Tampa, and Northern Virginia again.
     I get such satisfaction and enjoyment from these relationships (and hopefully these people do as well!).  I find them enriching, nourishing, and thought-provoking.  But here's the thing:  Virtually none of them would happen if I didn't make the effort.  And this is as true for old friends as it is for new ones.  Old friends can easily disappear from our lives if we don't make the effort to see each other.  And new friends don't happen much if we don't go out on a limb and invest in each other.  I can think of a number of new friends I have, whose relationship I treasure, that wouldn't have happened if I didn't reach out and choose to visit them, even when we didn't yet know each other that well.  
     In a world of short attention spans, where superficiality rules, and where we become obsessed with our iPads and smartphones, I'm intentionally choosing to invest in relationships.  In creating meaningful new ones, and in renewing and deepening old ones.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Scarcity or Abundance?

     This evening, I find myself coming back to a topic I think I wrote about at some point earlier last year, and it's the notion of whether we have a scarcity mentality or an abundance mentality.  Let me explain what happened today that led to those thoughts.
     I was giving a talk this morning to a group of CEOs to whom I had previously spoken last summer.  This was a chance to find out how much they had implemented of what I taught them, what obstacles they still faced, and what additional help they needed.  After the meeting, a woman asked me if I could send her some examples of material I had written for others as it would help to give her some ideas.  Another CEO asked if I could give him some feedback on some of the things he had recently written.  
     As I thought about their requests, I found myself caught in a tricky spot.  From a professional standpoint, the nature of these talks is that I get paid (though not a ton) to provide value for the audience, but the meaningful compensation comes when they engage me separately as a consultant to work with them on implementing my ideas.  To simply "give away" too much of my intellectual property without them engaging me is a bit foolhardy.  And yet, a part of me intuitively feels that it's better to err on the side of giving away too much than giving away too little.  And that's what had me thinking about scarcity vs. abundance.
     When we think from a scarcity mentality, we have a general point of view that the good things in life, whether they be tangible resources like food or money or less tangible things like intellectual capital or even love, are limited in quantity.  The  natural implication of this thinking is that we should dole them our carefully, for these things exist in limited supply, and there may not be enough to go around.  
     The opposite approach is to have an abundance mentality.  This point of view is founded on a belief that we generally have a more than ample supply of the good things in life and that whatever we give away tends to get replenished anyway.  When we subscribe to this approach, it's easier to give freely to others because we're not worried about "running out" of whatever we're giving.
     As it relates specifically to the example from today, I chose to think from abundance and to err on the side of giving away too much.  I reminded myself that the more I give away, the more comes back to me in one form or another.  I've accumulated a tremendous amount of knowledge, experience, and wisdom about certain topics over the years.  That wisdom does little good when it's saved and stored away like money in a bank account.  It's not like I should be saving wisdom to be used on a rainy day when I don't have enough. No, the point in accumulating wisdom is to give it back to others who can benefit from it.
     I'm learning to realize that the more I share "my stuff", the more it spreads out into the world far and wide, the greater is my contribution to others.  Sometimes that's done in one-on-one conversations; other times it's done in my speaking and consulting; and still other times it's done in my writing in blogs and other places, not to mention in the example I try to set.  In the end, I try to trust in the world that I ultimately get what I need.  Financially, I do end up getting compensated handsomely, and well beyond my needs, from a variety of sources, regardless of what I've given away.  And just as importantly, my compensation takes a variety of forms.  It's not just money.  The satisfaction I get from seeing and knowing the impact I've been able to have for others is itself a significant form of compensation or payback for my effort.  And the old adage that you reap what you sow seems clearly to be true.  The size of our reward tends to be in direct proportion to the size of our contribution, in all its various forms.
     I see the world as abundant, and I'll continue to remind myself to give from that perspective.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nice or Kind?

     I had an interesting phone call today that reminded me of the difference between being "nice" and being "kind".  Let me tell you what happened first, and then explain why this difference is important.
     I was invited by a friend to attend an event she was hosting last night, and I readily agreed.  As it turned out, the evening ended up being more of a marketing event that I had expected.  For a variety of reasons, it made me very uncomfortable and I thought there were many ways it could have been handled much better.  Though I didn't think it was the time and place to express my feelings, I let my friend know that if she wanted some candid feedback I'd be happy to talk more the next day (today). 
     My friend and I have enough respect for each other that I could be quite candid without fear of hurting her feelings or damaging our relationship.  And I was.  In a constructive way, I was honest about how I was feeling during the meeting and offered many suggestions for how it could be improved in the future.  My friend was able to hear my comments in the spirit in which they were intended and was quite appreciative of my candor, as it seems many of my thoughts mirrored her own.  Our conversation was productive and useful.
     I certainly could have been "nice", like most people often are, and either not said anything or told her that it was a great meeting.  But would that be kind?  I don't think so.  While we don't always think of it this way, being kind is very demanding.  It requires us to really look out for the interests of another.  Sometimes that means having difficult or awkward conversations, not simply to get something off our chest, but rather to be helpful to another person.  Being kind to our children might mean expecting more of them than they're currently showing, or holding them accountable for being the best they can be.  This may not look like we're being "nice", but it's infinitely more kind.
     I was glad that I cared enough to be kind to my friend and respected her enough to be honest.  I think she was glad as well.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Back By Popular Demand

     Well, it seems that more people than I realized look forward to reading these kindness stories regularly, and more importantly, draw some inspiration from them.  So . . . I'll keep on writing, though not quite every day.  In this post, I'll recount a story from yesterday as well as one from today.
     The other day I received a text from a friend who asked if she could meet with me to get my thoughts and insights on some business ideas she was very excited about.  It had some urgency for her so I agreed to meet with her quickly (which meant yesterday - Jan 1st).  We spent several hours together and hopefully I was able to provide some of the insight she was looking for.  
     We each have networks we've built of friends, family members, work associates, church members, etc.  These people are a great source of information, resources, and connections.  And it's all based on a loose sense of "quid pro quo."  A notion that if I help people in my network, there will be a time at some point where I need help and they will be there for me.  I don't think of it like any type of IOU; rather it's a more generalized sense of people helping each other out knowing, in a vague kind of way, that "what goes around comes around."  I was glad to play my part in this interconnected chain.

     Today presented another simple opportunity to be kind to a stranger.  I went to the post office this afternoon to mail a book and an audio book to a client.  For some strange reason, the line was longer than I've ever seen there - even longer than right before Christmas.  There were literally at least 15-20 people in line in our small post office, and there were only 1 or 2 clerks working the desk. I settled in for a long wait, not really minding too terribly since I wasn't in a hurry and I saw a few people I knew who I could talk to.
     Right in front of me was an older woman with a package she needed to send off and it had a postage paid label on it.  I suggested to her that rather than having her wait in that long line, I'd be happy to take it to the counter with me when my turn came up.  She was quite thankful as I saved her quite a bit of time.
     Interestingly, a bit later, another woman in front of me, who I guess had seen what I was doing, asked if the older woman was a friend of mine.  When I explained that I didn't know who she was but just thought it would be nice to do her a favor, the woman was touched.  
     One of the things I've noticed is that there are certain acts of kindness that virtually all of us would naturally do.  For example, if someone right in front of you drops their books, most of us would likely be quick to help pick them up.  However, other acts of kindness require a different level of initiative.  They require us to reach beyond our normal sphere and proactively do something kind for another.  Those are the things I really tried to look for last year and that's the habit I tried to cultivate.  The fact that I so easily saw the opportunity at the post office today suggests to me that my effort to create a kindness habit is working.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Thoughts and Observations After a Year of Practicing Kindness

     It really is hard for me to believe that a year has gone by since I began my "kindness project."  I remember "leaking" the idea to a few close friends and family members as I was contemplating it.  While I knew it was a great idea, I was candidly frightened by the magnitude of the commitment.  I take commitments pretty seriously, and I knew that once I made the project public, I would have "boxed myself in" for the year . . . and a year is a lot of days.  I didn't want to go for it unless I was really prepared to honor my commitment for that length of time.  Of course, I also recognized that it was the public accountability that would ultimately help me to stay with it, which is obviously what happened.
Some Background

     Throughout the year, a number of people asked me what caused me to take this project on.  To be honest, it was a bit of an experiment.  I've always been motivated (and fascinated) by self-improvement.  I like to assess my strengths and weaknesses and to see how I can be better.  After noticing a number of incidents in 2011 in which my first instinct wasn't always rooted in kindness, I began to wonder if it was possible for me to cultivate more kindness as a habit.  Could I make kindness a more habitual response as a part of my personality?  Knowing what I do about creating sustained behavioral change, I realized that it would be imperative that I build structure and accountability into what I was attempting.  This project seemed as good a way to do that as I could think of.
     In addition to injecting an important element of accountability, I created this website/blog as a way of recording my thoughts, observations, and learning along the way.  I didn't start with any hypothesis or have any point to prove.  I simply wanted to do kind things, and then report on what happened and what I noticed or learned, absent any judgment.  And that's exactly what I did for 369 consecutive days.  Let me try to summarize here a few of the basic facts and then the key things that I learned.
Just the Facts, Ma'am

     In total, I did an act of kindness every day for 369 days.  I started three days early, on December 29, 2011, mostly because I wanted to experiment a little before the year got started.  I wanted to see how things would go, how to write my blog, etc.  On that first day, I gave a bag of soft pretzels to a man sitting at a bus stop; and I learned plenty right from the beginning.
     I tried to make sure that not everything I did cost money.  In fact, it turns out that 64% of the acts involved no cost at all.  For example, one day I helped a woman with a baby load groceries into her car.  I took family pictures for strangers at a college graduation.  Many times I drove patients to their doctor appointments as part of the American Cancer Society's Road to Recovery program.  I wrote letters to soldiers, I wrote thank you notes to longtime friends, I wrote cards to sick children, and I visited my old high school principal who now lives in Virginia.  One morning I helped a stranger in Atlanta pick up garbage that was flying around in front of the townhouse community at which she worked.  Fundamentally, I wanted to demonstrate to myself and to others that it doesn't cost anything to be kind.
     Sometimes the acts were totally anonymous.  Several times I bought dessert for a stranger in a restaurant.  I've anonymously sent gift cards in the mail to random addresses and I've surreptitiously shoveled a neighbor's driveway.  
     Other times I've done things for strangers, but they weren't anonymous.  I cooked and delivered a meal for a family who had suffered a tragedy.  Multiple times I delivered flowers to a stranger.  I've given bottled water to a homeless man and I've baked cookies for police officers.  I've delivered hot chocolate to school crossing guards on a cold winter day, and I've made loans to farmers in 3rd world nations.
My Favorites

     When I think about my favorite stories from the year, I probably have three.  I say "probably" because there were so many wonderful things that happened, as you can get a sense for from the many things I mentioned in the preceding paragraphs.  But if I had to choose three, they would be these:

  • My adopted soldier, Logan.  Back in January, I adopted a soldier in Afghanistan to whom I wrote letters every week and sent a care package at least once each month.  Over the course of the year, we became great friends, sharing stories of our families and sharing our love of sports.  In November, at the end of his deployment, I had the opportunity to fly Logan here to spend a weekend with me and to attend an Eagles' game.  Then in December, my wife and I flew out to Kentucky and attended his wedding.  He's become a great friend, and one I never would have known were in not for this program.
  • Sending a woman and her mother for their first ever flight.  I met a woman in late October and after discovering in conversation that she had never before been on an airplane, I offered to use some of my frequent flier miles to remedy that situation.  Eventually, this led to sending the woman and her mother (who also had never flown) on a dream trip to Vegas.  It was a thrill to be able to make this happen for the two of them, and it was an unforgettable experience they were able to share.
  • Road to Recovery Rides.  This is a program sponsored through the American Cancer Society through which volunteers drive patients to their doctor appointments.  I probably drove 8-10 different patients throughout the year, and every one of them was memorable.  I think what I enjoyed most about them was the real sense of impact.  These people desperately needed their treatments, and yet many of them had no transportation at all.  I was making a profound difference for them and they were always so appreciative.

So What Did I Learn?

     One of the unintended, and wonderful, consequences of this project has been the impact it's had on others; and by "others" I'm not referring to the people for whom I've performed acts of kindness.  Rather, I'm referring to those who've been following my blog throughout the year.  Amazingly, between visits to my site and those who are on my daily e-mail feed, my stories have been read more than 100,000 times this year!  What has struck me, in particular, is the feedback I've received from so many people in terms of how it has affected them.
     What I've heard repeatedly is that reading my stories every day has increased their own consciousness about the opportunities for kindness that are all around them.  And more importantly, they are finding themselves doing things for others that they acknowledge they wouldn't have done before. That's pretty cool, though it certainly wasn't my plan.  I was really just doing my own personal experiment and writing mostly to hold myself accountable.  But it ended up going so much further than that.
     Let me share some other observations I've picked up along the way:
  • Kindness is an amazing stress reduction technique.  Throughout the year I've noticed that kindness has this incredible ability to ease tensions and reduce stress, both personally and in groups.  On a personal level, when I focus on just being kind, I notice that I worry less, I feel more relaxed, I don't rush around as much.  Everything just gets easier and more gentle.  In the context of the community, kindness is like a lubricant that makes everything work more easily.  Think of the contrast between a group of people who are pushing and shoving, are fighting for position, or are battling each other versus a group who are polite, kind, and helpful to each other.  The latter simply work better and with less stress.  
  • Kindness and happiness are closely linked.  In nearly all of the literature about the most common practices of happy people, you'll see doing acts of kindness high on the list.  I have certainly found this to be true.  There's something about doing a good deed for another that causes us to feel good ourselves.  Maybe we're biologically designed that way.  Maybe it's simply that when we focus on serving others we stop focusing on our own problems or our own worries.  Whatever it is, it sure seems to work.
  • The world is kinder than we've been led to believe.  Everywhere I went throughout the year I saw lots of examples of basic human decency and kindness.  This was true both in small, simple acts, as well as in response to crisis.  Because the media believes that horror stories sell, they tend to be focused much more on isolated stories of crime and violence and cruelty.  This can lead to a misperception of its prevalence.  It's not very exciting to report that a man helped an old lady across the street today, but it's happening every day all around us.  I've also found that you tend to see whatever you're looking for.  I was looking for kindness, and I saw it everywhere.
  • Kindness is contagious.  It's amazing how one kind act can lead to another.  Just watch someone hold the door open for a few people and you'll see others doing the same.  The cool thing about this fact is that it means we each can have an enormous impact on the world.  Simply by being kind, we begin a ripple that can easily spread further than we could ever have imagined.  I often tried to jumpstart this a bit by suggesting that people "pay it forward."  But either way, I do believe it tends to spread.
  • Kindness is a choice.  I'm not sure it' so much that some people are kind and some aren't.  I think that kindness is more of an action, and most importantly, it's a choice.  Every moment of every day we each have a choice about how to be, how to respond, and what to put out into the world.  And here's the most important thing:  regardless of whatever choices we may have made in the past, we can make a new choice right now to be kind.

How Have I Been Affected and What's Next?

     To be honest, it's a little hard to say just how I've been affected.  I think this is because changes happen so gradually that it can be difficult to notice or delineate them.  I suppose you'd have to ask those around me if they see a difference.  
     I do think that my goal of developing more of a habitual kindness response has been achieved.  After a year of looking for things to do, it's hard for me not to notice them.  Everywhere I look, I see things I can do and am motivated to act on them.  I guess I've really taught myself to notice kindness opportunities that I would never have seen before.  And that's a good thing.
     As to what's next, I hadn't originally planned on going beyond one year, and I have to be honest in saying that it will be nice not to feel the pressure of having to make sure I do something and write about it every single day.  There were certainly days where I felt that pressure and it wasn't always welcome.  Because it's become such a habit though, I expect that I'll continue to do acts of kindness on most days, even if I occasionally miss a day.
     Given how many people have told me the impact that reading my daily stories has had on them, and how they look forward to reading them each day, I'll probably continue to write, just not with the same frequency.  I'm anticipating that it will likely be a few times each week, though we'll see how it all unfolds.
     So here are my final thoughts (well, maybe final):
  • It's been an absolutely fabulous year and a most worthwhile project.
  • I'm proud that I had the courage to take it on, proud that I had the discipline to stay with it, proud to have impacted so many people, and proud to be continuing to work on myself.
  • I'm thankful to all those who encouraged me along the way, and to those who shared your own stories, observations, and reflections.  We're all learning from each other.
I'll close with the Leo Buscaglia quote that's on the masthead of my site:

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.