“Thank you for saying that"

It was such a simple exchange and yet it left an impression on me. I was sitting in a crowded food court, working on my laptop. It was lunchtime, and there was the usual din of people eating, laughing, shuffling chairs.. Amidst all the office workers, I noticed someone on the maintenance staff wiping down tables after people left, getting them ready for the next group.

When he cleaned the table next to me, I offered my appreciation for what he was doing. He nodded, smiled awkwardly, and kept wiping the table. A few seconds later, he walked by me, leaned in, eyes averted, and quietly said "Thank you for saying that."

I think it was the earnestness in his voice that struck me. It was as if my simple comment was something especially valuable to him, something rare.

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

Hudson Eats: A local food hall & my sometimes office 

A simple test (and the worst blog title ever)

Almost two years ago, I wrote a blog post with the odd title of “The Corporate Bathroom Test.” I wanted to describe how exchanges like the one I had in the food court could be part of your Working Out Loud practice, helping you “gradually build a capability and a mindset of deepening relationships through generosity.”

“Some of the most powerful gifts you have to offer - contributions that are universally valued - are recognition and appreciation. The point of this post is that even mundane interactions are opportunities to practice offering these gifts…Each time you do it you gain subtle insights into your motivations and reactions.
Today, as you meet someone you might normally pass by, say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’ Be mindful of how that makes you feel. Watch how it makes the other person feel.”

Sparks of joy

Since I wrote that, I've continued practicing offering appreciation to people throughout the day. I’m careful to do it without expectations of a reply, and I try to be mindful that they’re busy and may not be in the mood to talk. (After all, I’ve taken The Generosity Test too.) Usually, it's people I notice working - restaurant workers, landscapers, crossing guards. It's a way of saying “I see you and I appreciate what you're doing.”

A woman serving food at a corporate event whispered, “You are very kind” simply because I thanked her and offered to help her move a table. When I asked a flight attendant how she was doing, she was genuinely surprised at the question. “Thank you for asking,” she said. “That’s very nice of you.” A taxi driver and I had a long talk about his home country of the Dominican Republic, and we shook hands after the ride.

The truth is I’m not especially kind or generous. I just practice paying attention to people around me, putting myself in their shoes for a moment, and offering sincere appreciation. Many people are hungry for such a gift, and in return I get sparks of human connection - even joy - throughout my day. “The Corporate Bathroom Test” is now an additional exercise in Week 2 of the WOL Circle Guides. I hope you’ll try it.

“The more you practice, the more comfortable you become offering small gifts in a variety of circumstances till, over time, it becomes a habit that makes you happier and more effective.”

 

The Appreciation Test

I thought this one would be easy, but I was wrong. Try it for yourself.

Imagine someone just paid you a compliment on something you did, perhaps a presentation at work or something else that evoked a “Nice job!”

What would you do?

  1. Wonder if the person was being sarcastic.
  2. Reject it. “Oh it was nothing.”
  3. Smile awkwardly.
  4. Graciously accept the compliment.

You might think the answer is obvious. But it has taken me decades to get to a comfortable answer, and that’s only after working  through all of the possible responses.

The M&Ms Incident

I was about 5 years old when this happened, maybe younger. It was such a trivial incident and yet it stuck with me.

My mother, older siblings, and I visited a neighbor up the block. Her home seemed so neat and orderly. To my mind they were rich, though it was just a one-bedroom home in the Bronx. The woman had M&Ms in a glass bowl, something extraordinary for me because a) in my house the M&Ms would be devoured immediately, and b) we would inevitably break the glass bowl.

She held the bowl out to me. “Would you like some?” My mother gave me a look and shook her head. Afterwards, she explained (or this is how I remember it), that even if people offered something, I wasn’t supposed to take it. My young mind interpreted it as somehow impolite to accept what was offered. Perhaps the person didn’t really mean it, or I didn’t deserve it, or both.

Of course, it’s nice to receive compliments. And yet, for most of my life, each compliment is like that bowl of M&Ms being offered to me. I look at it awkwardly, wondering whether I’m allowed to accept it.

The Appreciation Test

“You look nice today!”

I much prefer to give compliments than to receive them. “You look nice today!” “What a great outfit!” I thought offering such genuine praise was an unambiguously nice thing to do. One day, though, a woman I knew responded with, “So I don’t look so nice on the other days?”

I never expected that. I guess she focused on the word “today” more than “nice” and interpreted it as a kind of insult. It taught me two lessons: to be more thoughtful of how I offer a compliment, and to realize that other people, like me, may not be comfortable when they get one.

I still offer positive feedback to people, but I try and practice empathy before I do it. How would I receive this if I were them? It makes me more mindful of what I say and how I say it.

How accepting a gift can be a contribution

Last week, I gave a talk at a conference and there were well over a thousand people in the audience. As I walked off stage, I wasn’t sure how it went. I had a sense of how well I did or didn’t do, but now how it was received. Then, some people came up and congratulated me, and over the course of the day different people would come up to me and say something nice about my presentation.

I thought about this appreciation test. My instinct was to respond with disbelief or some other form of rejection. “Really?” “Oh, it wasn’t my best effort.”

This time, though, I practiced just accepting it. Sometimes it was as simple as “Thank you. I really appreciate it.” Sometimes we would start a conversation and exchange contact information, or even get to know each other a bit.

If a person had gone through the trouble of walking up to me to say something nice, then the least I could do in return would be to graciously accept it. Now, instead of responding with my usual self-defenses, I practice reciprocating with my attention, appreciation, and vulnerability. As the write Stephen Donaldson has said, “In accepting the gift, you honor the giver.”

Practicing Gratitude

It’s Thanksgiving Day tomorrow in the US, and some people will invariably point out that we should give thanks every day, not just on the one day reserved for it. They’re right. At work, we don’t even have the one day, so I introduced  “Thank you Thursdays.” a campaign encouraging people to post a short update on our social network to show appreciation. Again, someone asked why we needed to designate a day. “Why can’t we just offer appreciation spontaneously?”

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 6.49.17 AM

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 6.49.17 AM

The answer, of course, is that we can - but we don’t. For most of us, we simply don’t have the habit of offering thanks and showing appreciation as much as we would like to. In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie described appreciation as something we all “hunger for” and that “all souls enjoy,” and he decried the lack of it in everyday life.

“One of the most neglected virtues of our daily existence is appreciation.”

The good news is that you can develop the habit of offering appreciation with practice.

Try it now. Before you put down your laptop, tablet, or phone, think of at least one person you would like to thank or whose efforts you appreciate. Send a short message by text or email, or post it on Twitter. If you need help, I included simple exercises below from Working Out Loud. If you were in a Working Out Loud circle, this is something you would practice.

Do it now, and see how easy it is and how it makes you feel. When you develop the habit of gratitude, every day is an opportunity to make someone else feel good, to feel better yourself, and to deepen a relationship.

Happy Thanksgiving.

***

Something you can do in less than a minute

Show public appreciation on Twitter for someone’s work. Don’t expect to get a reply, but do it just because it’s a nice thing to do. When someone does reply, it’s an extra bonus. For example, I shared how much I was enjoying the work of Austin Kleon, a bestselling author whose work has influenced me..

Austin Kleon tweet

Austin Kleon tweet

Public feedback isn’t intimate (it’s public, after all), but it’s still a lovely gift. It shows you want others to know someone has done something worth your gratitude. Just make sure the gift is pure and really about the recipient, not about you.

Something you can do in less than 5 minutes

E-mail someone now to say “thank you.” Then send a LinkedIn message to someone else to say “I’ve been thinking of you and hope you’re well.”

These are private messages and thus more personal. Notes like these are simple, universal gifts that anyone would like to receive. You can add other details if you like, but keep these notes to no more than a few sentences.

"Before all of this happened, I was about to give up."

I remember when the first part of the story unfolded. There was a Humans of NY (HONY) photo of a young boy, and Brandon Stanton asked who influenced him the most.

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

“That’s nice,” I thought. “I wonder what that woman is like.”

Over the next few weeks, I found out.

The school

Brandon photographed other teachers and administrators at the school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy, “a middle school in the under-served neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.”

They all seemed like such strong people. People who were committed to their students and their community, to helping them excel, to making a difference. HONY fans got to meet Ms. Lopez.

A couple days back, I posted the portrait of a young man who described an influential principal in his life by the name of Ms. Lopez. Yesterday I was fortunate to meet Ms. Lopez at her school, Mott Hall Bridges Academy.

“This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’ Our color is purple. Our scholars wear purple and so do our staff. Because purple is the color of royalty. I want my scholars to know that even if they live in a housing project, they are part of a royal lineage going back to great African kings and queens. They belong to a group of individuals who invented astronomy and math. And they belong to a group of individuals who have endured so much history and still overcome. When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

The power of community

Humans of NY launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise money for the school. One particular program was to send 6th-graders to visit Harvard, to show them where they could be if they wanted to be. The initial goal was $100,000.

The HONY community responded and contributed. Fans even sent flowers to Ms. Lopez.

The current total is $1.4 million. Ms. Lopez announced it at a school assembly.

"As a result of this fundraiser, the entire school will be going to visit Harvard. We’re all going to Harvard!"

The kids went nuts.

In addition to the Harvard program, all funds over $700,000 are going to a scholarship fund available to graduates of Motts Hall Bridges Academy. The fund is named after Vidal, the young boy whose voice started it all. He’s also going to be the first recipient.

"I have something to admit to all of you."

It’s such a beautiful story. Poor kids. Hardworking, committed teachers. Later on, the story inspired TV appearances and a visit with the President. But there was a poignant moment in Ms. Lopez’ talk at the school assembly.

“I have something to admit to all of you. Before all of this happened, I was about to give up. I was broken. I felt like typing my resignation. I told my mother: ‘Mom, I don’t think I can do it anymore. Because I don’t think my scholars care. And I don’t think they believe in themselves enough to care. I’m afraid they don’t think they’re good enough.’ And she told me to pray on it. But I told her, ‘I might be too angry to pray.’ And I know this is hard to believe, because you guys have never seen me break. But I was broken. It’s just like when you see your mom break down. You only see your mom cry when she’s been fighting so hard for you and she doesn’t think you care. That’s how I felt.

But then a couple nights later I was with my daughter at a Broadway show, and we were waiting for the show to start, and I started to get all these text messages from my teachers and former students. And then I saw Vidal’s face pop up on my screen. And my first thought was that something bad had happened. Because that’s normally the case around here when someone’s photo shows up unexpectedly. And the moment I realized that Vidal had said something nice about me, the usher came over and made me turn off my phone. When intermission came, my daughter said: ‘Mom, we’ve got to find out what’s happening.’ So we went and sat in the car. And I read what Vidal said, and I began to read the comments. And tears started coming down my face. Because even though I always tell you that you matter, up until that moment, I didn’t feel like I mattered.”

Who’s your Ms. Lopez? Your Vidal?

Her speech reminded me how little we know about the people who inspire and influence us. From a distance, they may seem happy and strong. Really, though, we have no idea.

But we all have doubts and fears. I certainly do. And a single voice can make a difference. Just this week, as I was thinking about giving up writing for a while, I got a lovely note from someone I don't know well but who said how much she appreciates this blog each Saturday. I was surprised and gratified, and her note made me think of all the people who influence me, and all the notes I could send to tell them that.

Is someone doing work that has influenced you? Let them know. Your voice can make a difference.

The best gift my mother ever gave me

Growing up, my mother’s lack of education and limited worldview were infuriating and embarrassing. Though she raised me, she seemed so different from me. That led to a sense of detachment and indifference. There were times, when she had moved to another state, that months would go by before I’d think to call, usually prompted by a reproof from my older sister. I didn’t seem to have anything to say.

Yet today, more than ten years after my mother died, I think of her almost every day. All because of a gift she gave me.

How I saw her

My mother, born Fiorentina (“Flo”) Bruno, was the youngest of 7 children all raised in New York City. She didn’t graduate high school and she married a man, my father Joseph, who didn’t make it past the 8th grade. “The 13th Joe,” she reminded us, hinting at her bad luck. Her life seemed tinged with disappointment and regret, a lingering sense that things should have been different.

Even at age 76, lying in a hospital bed with a broken hip she’d never recover from, she was still reminiscing about her best years as a single woman working in the gloves department at Macy’s.

Belated love and respect

Mom and me at my sister's weddingIt was only when I was older and my mother was into her 70s that I started appreciating her. I started noticing how other people loved and respected her. I saw I’d taken for granted the qualities that made my mother special.

Despite having little money, for example - our family car was purchased for $25 - she was extraordinarily generous, always handing out small gifts for people. “Just a little something,” she’d say.

And the food! My best memories of my mother are of her in the kitchen, cooking and baking. We may not have had much but we always had good food and guests to share it with. On Thanksgivings, we could sit at the table for 3-4 hours as she presented course after course. Every holiday, she’d make special trips to deliver her homemade cookies, cakes, and breads to family and friends. She’d stay up into the night till her hands would ache from rolling dough. One Easter she made 40 loaves of bread.

She was fun, too. How could I not love that? She’d tell jokes, dress up for Halloween, host parties. The very things that embarrassed me then are the things I admire about her now.

Yes, she had regrets. But they stemmed from simply having a thirst for life and wanting more from it. As I entered my 40s, my condescension turned into empathy.

The best gift she gave me

There was one other quality she had, her best gift, that she somehow passed down to me: my mother was genuinely interested in other people.

“Are you a Gemini?” she’d ask a complete stranger while I rolled my eyes and skulked away. Though not everyone engaged her in conversation, many did. She was charming, genuinely curious about people, and could talk to anyone. As a result, she had an extraordinary social network of people who cared for her.

When I was a child, I was too shy to even answer the phone. But, as my mom would say, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and through her actions she influenced me, instilling in me her interest in other people. Now, I’m just like my mother, talking, talking, talking simply because I like people and like getting to know them better. And now it’s my own children’s turn to be embarrassed.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

I regret the missed opportunities. I did too little, too late. But there’s still a way I can show my appreciation for what you gave me. There’s an opportunity, with every person I meet, to share your wonderful gift. Each time I do that my life becomes a little richer and my bond with you becomes a little stronger.

Now, although you’re gone, you’re with me every day.