Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about gratitude, empathy, and especially kindness. These so-called “soft skills” aren’t actually soft at all. To me, the way you move through the world is a hardcore essential predictor of personal and professional success.
And by “success,” I mean making a positive, memorable impact on people. This is something I often consider as someone who designs demand for brands. How do you reach people at just the right time with the right message that helps alleviate their pain, frustration, and fear? What’s the best way to do well by doing good?
Sometimes you get answers to big questions in ways that you never asked for, expected, or wanted. For me, it came on a beautiful spring day full of promise and beauty. I was headed back from a great workout about to dive into a work project I was psyched about when I got a scary text message from my wife. It didn’t make much sense, so I hurried home to find her having major vision issues. I didn’t realize it yet, but a storm was brewing for my family.
Before I knew it, we were in the ER. Forty-eight hours later, my wife was operated on to have a brain tumor removed. The journey to her recovery is still unclear, but we’re facing it with courage, compassion, and curiosity.
I look forward to writing a happy ending to this crazy situation that has overtaken my personal life, so stay tuned.
For now, though, I’m writing this because life has a way of surprising us. One day we’ve got a pep in our step, about to have an amazing weekend, and then BOOM — life changes in an instant.
But this story isn’t a story about hardship. It’s about how to put more kindness into the world. Connected kindness is good for our souls. It’s good for our planet. And it’s even good for business, which is why I’m writing this post for a business publication.
A Case of the Kindness of Strangers
My wife and I are lucky to have kind and loving family members who live nearby and have jumped in to help out. I don’t take their thoughtfulness for granted. However, this is one of those “it takes a village” moments. Honestly, it always takes a village.
Feeling support from others — especially when you don’t know them — can be a significant game-changer. It was for me.
I’m at the hospital, and my wife just got out of surgery. She’s not in good shape, hooked up to a ton of wires, groggy — you can imagine. We’re terrified, naturally. I step into the hallway to make a call to check in on my 10-month-old son just as a custodian comes in to empty the trash.
Even though we’re all wearing masks, I realize I know the guy from the gym where I was working out when I got my wife’s text. I co-own the creative community, District New Haven, where the fitness center is located. Now I can picture him clearly, as he and I both work out pretty much every day. We’ve nodded and said hi in the locker room, but we certainly don’t know each other.
I pull down my mask and say, “Hey man, how ya doing?” to the guy I now know is named Clarence.
“Do you work here?” he replies.
“No, I’m with her,” I say, motioning into the room.
Clarence walks in and says to us, “It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down; it matters how many times you get back up.”
Then he looks at my wife, and she smiles. He turns to me, and I smile, too.
“Keep your chin up,” Clarence instructs. He puts his hand on his own chin, smiles, and adds, “You’ve got this.”
I’m tearing up even as I write this. It sounds so simple, right? And it’s not like we’ve been alone through this — friends and family have been sending prayers, loving vibes, flowers, and food.
Not to downgrade anyone else, but truly, it was the generosity of Clarence’s spirit that changed everything. To think, I’d seen him countless times, existing in the same space, working out on the same machines, and never given him a thought.
He gave us a gift, one I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. I think about his advice every day; something tells me he knows about being knocked down and getting back up.
Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan famously said, “the medium is the message.” That’s something I keep top of mind as part of my job. The word we use is “touchpoint” — as in we consider how the message is delivered and received at every touchpoint.
Clarence’s message was a touchpoint in a class of its own — as in genuinely touching. It was exactly what my wife and I needed at that moment. His message gave us an invaluable present: hope.
The Heart of Every Matter
Kindness and gratitude together are a potent combination. That’s because they embody so much positive action: integrity, trust, transparency, respect, confidence, and supportiveness.
In other words, they’re the key ingredients in improving the world. This is essential to our core purpose for many of us, as Mark Twain says in one of my all-time favorite quotes:
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”
Whether you are facing a life crisis or just shifting to something new in your life or work, I think this can help. I know this sense of mission and purpose helps me — perhaps now more than ever before.
So, for example, Clarence isn’t merely a custodian; for us, he swept the room of doom and gloom and brought in a much-needed fresh take on how we can move forward.
I’m with Clarence. In my daily life, I love supporting people in their endeavors. That’s because my “intersect” or Ikigai (a Japanese concept that essentially means your reason for getting out of bed in the morning) is:
There’s nothing like a reminder of our finite time on this spinning marble to get in touch with the importance of finding your Ikigai — this goes for businesses, too.
For example, I recently heard from someone I had a conversation with years ago at a community event my company hosted. They shared how a conversation we had during a portfolio review changed the trajectory of their career and life.
Back in December, I wrote about how to build a 7-figure business in 7 simple steps. I recently heard from the small business owner that inspired this post, and she shared how much her business is thriving coming out of a single conversation we had. I got just as much value from our talk because there’s no such thing as “throwaway advice.” I believe that the universe puts situations in front of us with reason and purpose, even if we aren’t aware of why.
As Maya Angelou is attributed as saying:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
In other words, the holy grail of brand marketing. Well, that and just being an all-around excellent human.
Lead With Love & Kindness
Have you ever heard of the “8 C’s of self-leadership?” It’s a fantastic framework for mental health, made famous by Dr. Richard Schwartz in the therapy modality Internal Family Systems. Essentially, it talks about the 8 “c” words that comprise a healthy sense of Self. I’ve used this method to help me start where I am and lead both others and myself with heart.
- Confidence: A sense of inner steadiness and centeredness
- Calmness: Peacefulness, along with the ability to go with the flow
- Creativity: Feeling inspired and intuitive
- Clarity: Able to see things for what they are without unwarranted fear
- Curiosity: Inquisitiveness, openness, and a “Beginner’s Mind”
- Courage: Tapping into inner strength and feeling capable
- Compassion: A sense of connection, empathy, and understanding
- Connectedness: Feeling seen and accepted
That sense of Self is something that not only people can experience, but businesses can, too. After all, human beings run businesses and are served by businesses. I came up with the 4 Green Lights Framework for my own company, which reflects our core values AND measures how well we’re doing.
Here’s #1 on the framework:
Team satisfaction: Is everyone on our team happy and healthy? Are they able to prioritize the things in life that truly matter, like family? If the answer is no for any reason — up to and including an unreasonable client — then it’s a red light, and we make changes. Happy teams lead to better work, which, in most situations, leads to happy clients thrilled with stellar results.
Notice that all 8 aspects of a healthy sense of self are reflected in that first “green light.” And I can report firsthand that my team has gone to great lengths to ensure I am focused on my family at this challenging time. This incredible act of kindness from the people I work with has actually energized me and helped me use the time I have to work to be more productive, creative, and innovative. It’s truly been a saving grace.
The Kindness Mindset
It might seem trite to say, but remember that everyone is always battling something. It could be a tough test in school, a sick family member, or a toxic work environment. You never know what someone is going through. Hardship is relative. However, you’ve got to be careful never to minimize or marginalize someone else’s struggle.
The kindness mindset is human-centric, period. And no surprise — it ends up being a profitable path. As the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation reports, there is a load of empirical evidence that says kindness pays in myriad ways, from fostering organizational trust and employee engagement and commitment to fueling talent recruitment, continuous learning, innovation, and brand loyalty. Naturally, business performance is improved, too — up to 80% better, according to a Deloitte University study that looked at companies with high levels of diversity and inclusion.
The key is that kindness needs to be a natural expression of your core values. It can’t be contrived. Here’s how I look at it:
Kindness is a boomerang that’ll smack you in the face when you throw it out there and truly expect nothing in return.
A final example: I get a ton of spam from companies trying to sell me things every day. Right now, I’m especially not interested in inauthentic interactions. But the other day, I got an email that made it through my well-oiled filtering system. The note was from someone I didn’t remember, but I’d met once, and it started like this:
“I’m writing to you today about X, but first, I want to say your son is so cute. I remember when mine was ten months, and that’s the best age.”
The note continued, asking if I’d mind connecting him with someone who might have use for his product.
Now, you might be thinking I’m just a sucker for a nice word about my kid, and anybody could take a two-second look at my Instagram feed to see my son. You would be correct on all counts.
However, this person bothered to take a good look at what I was up to and found a point of connection. He noticed a story, which is ephemeral. This told me that he bothered to look closely at what I cared about most recently — not something I did ten years ago when I probably saw him last. That is an act of kindness. One I was happy to reward by forwarding the email to a friend who I believe can use the product my thoughtful acquaintance was selling.
Kindness isn’t just a virtue; it’s a way of life. It’s about moving through the world in a relational way — not transactional. And it’s about playing the long game. Because in the end, the best thing we can hope for is days full of kindness, gratitude, and grace. Give people a reason to smile, and you’re providing something invaluable. Isn’t that the point?
I would love to hear how random acts of kindness have shifted your world, so give me a shout here or on Twitter — DMs are open @petesena