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, 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 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.
N.B.: This is the second in a series of year-end reflections inspired by the people, organizations, and events in my life.