Giving Thanks 2021: Howard Prager and the Commitment to Make Someone’s Day

November 26, 2021

We all know plenty of people who spend lots of time talking about what we (rather than they) can do to change the world in positive ways. And we also—if we are extremely fortunate—know a handful of people who, through the examples they set with their own behavior, inspire us to emulate them in their diligent, well-focused, heart-felt world-changing efforts.

Howard Prager

Howard Prager, author of Make Someone’s Day: Becoming a Memorable Leader in Work and Life as well as being a cherished friend and colleague through ATD (the Association for Talent Development), consistently sets an example worth following. He incorporates into his daily actions a simple, easily replicable pattern of expressing gratitude to those who do something that makes his day. And that is the simple, powerful, transformative key to what Howard encourages us to do: by telling someone that they have made his day, he makes their day—as he did with me when we were repeatedly face to face while attending the 2021 ATD International Conference & Exposition in Salt Lake City.

At a time when we are often preoccupied by the challenges and tragic effects the spread of the coronavirus has had on work and play, Howard has found a way, through what he does and through his wonderfully inspiring book, to spread an entirely different sort of virus—one that “infects” us with joy and gratitude to combat the depression, divisiveness, and meanness that has become such a prevalent, overwhelming, and often unchallenged part of our daily lives. His story-driven book, full of examples of people who have made his and other people’s day, consistently circles back to how the simple act of telling someone that he has made their day does, in fact, make their day as well. Very much grounded in the spirit of engaging in random acts of kindness, Howard’s approach turns simple acts into an almost subversively positive way to give us one of the greatest gifts anyone can give us: a sense of joy and an overt acknowledgement of the power supportive individuals play in nurturing and sustaining the best of the organizations and communities to which we belong.

“Compliments can be thought of as little gifts of love,” Howard writes (p. 51). “They are not asked for or demanded. They tell a person they are worthy of notice. Complements are a great way to acquire and practice social interaction skills because the returns are immediate. They foster a positive atmosphere and further communication and allow for better two-way exchanges. The more specific you can be and the closer to the actual event, the more people know that they are being complimented about and makes their day.”

It’s a strong passage in a book filled with strong passages and full of advice we can adapt immediately. But what makes it—and much of the rest of the content of the book—meaningful is that it is immediately followed by an anecdote that brings the message home strongly and clearly to any reader: the story of how Howard’s brother-in-law John made a fifth-grade student’s day by telling this “amazing girl” (who was clearly lacking in self-confidence in spite of having just won an award for an essay about how “beauty comes from within and that everyone is beautiful in their own way”) that she, too, “was an amazing girl,” a “beautiful” girl (“Don’t let anyone tell you differently”), and one with “a bright future.” Her reaction, Howard tells us, was to thank John for the kind words as “tears welled in her eyes.” And the wonderful punch line to John’s action was, as he told Howard, that “I hope that in some small way I made her day, because her tears and essay certainly made mine.”

“There are many benefits in giving compliments,” Howard continues (p. 52). “First, focusing on and noticing the good qualities of the people around us gives our moods a boost. Second, a feeling of positivity is enhanced by compliments. The effects of positivity rebounds to us, creating a positive atmosphere. And third, it provides positive neurological impacts for the person doing it.”

We could spend all day sharing stories from Make Someone’s Day, but you can read them yourselves. A far more productive use of our time at this moment is to acknowledge and document how Howard himself lives and promotes his philosophy. During one of our conversations, Howard was kind enough to ask me how my own recently-released book (Change the World Using Social Media) was doing in terms of reaching its potential audience. Admitting that I am consistently looking for new ways to connect that book to readers, I was overwhelmed by how Howard immediately turned the conversation into a very fruitful half-hour impromptu workshop on how to pursue opportunities I might not otherwise have considered. And, in the spirit of adopting a Make Someone’s Day approach, I did not miss the opportunity, at the end of that particular conversation, to tell Howard that he had just made my day. Which, unsurprisingly, made Howard’s day, too!

As I think about the people in my life who inspire gratitude, I can’t help but think about how understated they often are in their approach to the transformative work they do. Howard, for example, is someone I have known through mutual friends/colleagues at ATD, as a solid, thoughtful, often-reserved participant in conversations we’ve had in group settings (in spite of his own assertion that he is an extrovert). He never consciously makes himself the center of attention when he is part of the lively, sometimes raucous conversations that take place when ATD members gather—a remarkable achievement in our training-teaching-learning environment, where all of us thrive on telling stories that inevitably cast at least a bit of a spotlight on ourselves as well as on the work we are doing. He never is overtly self-aggrandizing. The word that best describes him, for me, is the word “listener.” He listens. He reflects. He makes an occasional contribution to the conversation. And if we are particularly insightful and diligent, we take note of those gemlike observations he lightly tosses our way and we look for ways to incorporate them into our daily routines and our overall approach to the work we do. So that we spread the spirit of those wonderful colleagues, like Howard, in ways that make someone’s day. And then circle back to make ours, too.

Next: Stephen Hurley and voicEd Radio

N.B.: This is the second in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events that are helping to change the world in positive ways.


Hidden Garden Steps: Anniversaries, Community, and Gratitude

December 7, 2015

Gratitude is built into San Francisco’s Hidden Garden Steps—as it is with any community-based, volunteer-driven collaboration that transforms an eyesore into a place where neighbors and visitors from all over the world routinely meet, chat, relax, and dream. Together.

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Detail of the “Gratitude” passion flower on the Hidden Garden Steps

Anyone spending time on those ceramic-tiled steps today—the second anniversary of the formal ceremony celebrating completion of the mosaic designed and fabricated by project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District—is bound to see a wonderful intersection of gratitude, community, and cause for celebration.

The signs of gratitude begin at the foot of the Steps, where a bronze plaque reminds visitors that a group of neighborhood volunteers, along with more than 600 donors and numerous community partners, formally presented the mosaic and gardens as “a gift to the City of San Francisco.” Gratitude is overtly on display just above the largest landing on the project—at the top of the fourth set of Steps as we ascend from Kirkham toward Lawton Street—where a large ceramic passion flower expresses formal gratitude to the numerous project supporters who provided time and services to help bring the project to fruition. And gratitude is expressed nearly every day not only by those who see volunteers who continue to work together to clean the site and expand the gardens, but also by those of us in the neighborhood who have a wonderful outdoor version of what Ray Oldenburg described as a “Third Place” in The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community—that place where we can just show up and know that we’ll see members of our extended community willing to take the time to stop, talk enjoy the site, and meet numerous other people drawn by the site’s beauty and tranquility.

There are plenty of partners to acknowledge—not the least of whom are our predecessors who inspired us by creating the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps Project with the same two artists five years before we began working on the Hidden Garden Steps—as I noted during a brief presentation at the dedication ceremony on December 17, 2013.

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The Friday-morning sweepers on the Steps

And there’s plenty of cause for continuing to acknowledge, thank, and celebrate the contributions of those numerous partners in community-building. We still see a group of neighbors—including a few who served on the project organizing committee—on the Steps every Friday morning to sweep them from top to bottom so weekend visitors will see the site at its best. We also see the volunteers who work onsite from 1 – 3 pm on the second Saturday of almost every month (the exceptions are when rain prevents onsite work) to maintain and expand the gardens adjacent to the Steps—a group that has, over the past couple of years, included drop-in volunteers from other parts of the city as well as from France and Japan.

Our partners in the San Francisco Department of Public Works have returned to the site several times for continuing work including additional erosion-control retaining walls and work to resolve long-term drainage problems resulting from blocked pipes underground; they have, at times, been supported by colleagues from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

There are, furthermore, what I lovingly call the “guerilla volunteers,” those neighbors who, without prodding from anyone else, show up at various times to sweep, pick up the occasional piece of letter left on the Steps or in the gardens, or simply tidy up an area in need of attention. And there are the neighbors who, without complaint, show up to quickly remove the rare bit of graffiti left by those apparently unaware of how dedicated many of us are to keeping the site pristine and welcoming.

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Visiting photographers on the Steps

But the often unacknowledged partners in this wonderful ongoing project are those of you who visit once, twice, or many times. Your presence on the Steps and in the neighborhood overall have contributed to a sense of positive street life and community that was barely visible before the Hidden Garden Steps project began—which, more than anything else, is a tremendous cause for celebration and gratitude in a city where we have plenty worth celebrating—including a third (Flights of Fancy) and fourth (Lincoln Park Steps) set of ceramic tiled steps.

N.B.: Numerous articles documenting the Hidden Garden Steps project remain available on this Building Creative Bridges blog. Steps updates can be found on the Friends of the Hidden Garden Steps blog. Stories provided by donors to the Hidden Garden Steps project continue to be added to the project website by Steps volunteer Liz McLoughlin, and a step-by-step virtual tour created by McLoughlin and by project volunteer Gilbert Johnson also continues to grow, with 110 of the 148 individual steps currently included on that online tour. 


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