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…