Kindness

I expected to hear from a number of people last week after announcing that I was stepping down from my position at the National Trust for Historic Preservation at the end of March. In this day and age, twenty-two years is a long time to stay with any organization. In my case those two decades gave me innumerable opportunities to connect and work with people across the country and around the world.  I wasn’t quite ready, however, for the nature of the notes, emails, phone calls, hallway conversations, and comments that have come my way.  I feel a bit like a man who wakes up in the casket at his own funeral and decides to lie there for a while just to hear people say nice things about him.

A colleague asked what was the most surprising response I received to the news, and while I didn’t have a good answer for her at the time I would say now that it was the overwhelming kindness of the remarks. It truly caught me off guard. That led me to think about the nature and effects of kindness.  Naturally, the internet has about 175,000,000 results when one Googles the word kindness.  And there are quotes — sappy, inspirational, nonsensical, insightful, and more — for every occasion.  After looking at more than a hundred, I think my favorite is from the poet Mary Oliver, who (allegedly…this IS the internet) said, “I believe in kindness. Also in mischief. Also in singing, especially when singing is not necessarily prescribed.” Kindness—like mischief and spontaneous singing—can touch our souls in unexpected ways.

My colleague’s question also led me to think not just about the nature of these notes, but also about the different types of responses I received.  While all the comments came from personal and often deep places of connection, there were several categories that I intend to file away for future use when I want to reach out to someone else.  These include:

  • The “pithy and poignant” note.  A new friend who prepares copy for our appeal letters sent an 11-word note that spoke volumes . . . just what I would expect from a writer of his talent.  It also reminded me of the quote, often used when a long report is completed, that “I didn’t have time to make it short.”  Messages of kindness can be very short and to the point while carrying extraordinary power.
  • The “playing against type” note.  One famously cranky preservationist sent me a very gracious and thoughtful note.  In my response I told this long-time friend that it was clear that his email account had been hacked and that the hacker was saying nice things about me.  I suggested that if he didn’t regain control of his account quickly, I was afraid his curmudgeonly reputation would soon be in tatters.
  • The “voice from the past” note.  People that I’ve known professionally over the past four decades reached out to me, some of whom I have not heard from in years.  I was reminded that you can never lose touch, and a voice from the past can add context and richness to a time that can be bittersweet at best.

There is a whole inspirational industry built up around “small acts of kindness,” but I’ve come to believe that there is no such thing.  Small acts have ripple effects that we can’t even imagine. As an example, no matter who you are there are people watching you and—perhaps—looking up to you.  I had one individual tell me that I had been a mentor, which surprised me because at the time I was maybe 28 years old, leading a new start-up preservation group, and I had a staff that I could count on one finger (i.e., me).  You never know who is watching and where the ripples will reach.

Kindness often gets a bad rap for being soft. My experience is that it is possible to be kind and yet make the very difficult decisions required as we move through work and life.  Unfortunately, many people value so-called leaders who are never kind, granting a type of permission to bully those with whom they disagree.  These folks may not want to wake up at their funerals.  John Steinbeck noted these contradictions when he said,

“It has always seemed strange to me… the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.”

As we deal with turbulent times, I am reminded that history has leaders who can show us a better way forward.  Through the Great Depression and World War II, few dealt with more challenges than Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Yet he recognized what mattered when he said, “Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

I am very grateful for the many kindnesses shown to me over the past week and years.  Looking forward, I encourage you to be kind to one another. Having been the recipient of extraordinary kindness this past week, I know the positive effect kind words and gestures can have on an individual.

And now it is time to climb out of the casket and get back to work.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Cynicism vs. Hope

Call Them by Their True Name

“Call Them by Their True Name” by Rebecca Solnit

Cynics.  We’ve all encountered them.  They make pronouncements with great certainty and take pride in not appearing foolish. Those who disagree with them are instantly branded, in the eyes of the cynic, as naïve.

Thankfully, there are ways to combat cynicism. Over the holidays I finished reading author Rebecca Solnit’s most recent book, Call Them by Their True Names:  American Crises (and Essays)Solnit includes an essay—Naive Cynicism—that flips the idea of cynicism and naivete on its head.

“Naïve cynics shoot down possibilities, including the possibility of exploring the full complexity of any situation. They take aim at the less cynical, so that cynicism becomes a defensive posture and an avoidance of dissent. They recruit through brutality. If you set purity and perfection as your goals, you have an almost foolproof system according to which everything will necessarily fall short. . . . Cynics are often disappointed idealists and upholders of unrealistic standards.  They are uncomfortable with victories, because victories are almost always temporary, incomplete, and compromised.”

Change and progress require hard work, and cynics often want to avoid the responsibility of that work. They have a “relentless pursuit of certainty and clarity in a world which generally offers neither.”  Change and progress also require hope, and as I’ve written before, “hope demands things that despair does not.” Hope is risky. But hope is also in love with success.

When you hear news that affects you, what is your first reaction? Does your mind move to cynical inevitabilities, or to hopeful possibilities?  Do you act upon “bad data and worse analysis” to reach your conclusion? As Solnit says in her book The Faraway Nearby, “Difficulty is always a school, though learning is optional.”  Life isn’t easy, but as Stephen Covey has written, we have the ability and freedom as humans to respond. “External forces act as stimuli that we respond to. Between the stimulus and the response is your greatest power — you have the freedom to choose your response.”

“It is the nature of reactive people to absolve themselves of responsibility,” says Covey.  However, “proactive people work on the things they can do something about.” In the same vein Robert Glazer speaks of improving our emotional capacity. “Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.”

Nats Rainbow

Nothing says hope better than a rainbow at a baseball stadium

In times of uncertainty or difficulty, think about your response and consider choosing the proactive option of learning. Of possibilities. Of hope.

Have a good week.

More to come…

DJB

Use Your New Year’s Resolutions to Give Up Stuff That Doesn’t Matter

This is the time of year when our thoughts turn to resolutions for the next twelve months.  This year I also considered what to give up for New Year’s. Two articles drove my thinking, the first being 13 Things You Should Give Up If You Want to be Successful. I realize that the title is designed to pull you in…and I took the (click) bait.  Nonetheless, there were some interesting suggestions (and corresponding quotes), including;

  • Give up your perfectionism (“Shipping beats perfection.”)
  • Give up your need to control everything (“Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us.”)
  • Give up the toxic people (“Stay away from negative people. They have a problem for every solution.”)
  • Give up your need to be liked (“You can be the juiciest, ripest peach in the world, and there’s still going to be people who hate peaches.”)

The second article was from Robert Glazer’s Friday Forward blog entitled Why You Need a Stop Doing ListHe notes that, “The most successful people and businesses know how to focus on what needs to get done and what they need to stop doing to make that happen.”  Glazer is especially focused on the excuse of being too busy to get the right things done.

DJB Fly Fishing and casting

Say Yes to Things That Matter

Saying no to something allows you to say yes to things that matter.  Author Rebecca Solnit, in her book The Faraway Nearby, describes how she finally said no to the inner voice of her mother in order to get to the yes of living her own life.

“That yes (to accept a spur-of-the-moment trip down the Grand Canyon) was a huge landmark in my life, a dividing point.  I’d wrestled against the inner voice of my mother, the voice of caution, of duty, of fear of the unknown, the voice that said the world was dangerous and safety was always the first measure and that often confused pleasure with danger…(the voice that) feared mistakes even when the consequences were minor.  Why go to Paradise when the dishes weren’t done?  What if the dirty dishes clamor more loudly than Paradise?”

Figure out what to give up that is wasting your time, as if you think you have time.  Which dirty dishes in your life are clamoring more loudly than Paradise?  As that great American philosopher Mae West said, “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”

Have a great week and a 2019 where you say “yes” to the things that matter.

More to come…

DJB