Pay It Backward

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Disclaimers:
**This post is long.  I’m sorry, but I have something important to say and I thought it was worth it.  The last 6 days of my life have been very different, and I hope my story moves you to new ways of thinking and acting.

**Sharing the details of the last week violates the intention behind my actions, but for the purposes of sharing my experiences so that you can learn from them is paramount.  Going forward, my actions will remain silent.

Let’s Tarantino this story and start from the end.  This story ends with a Flight Attendant yelling at me across the terminal.

And here are the lessons I learned in the last 6 days.

Lessons Learned

  1. The world does not ‘happen to you.’  The world, and everything in it, just happens.  The world doesn’t happen to anyone else either.  It just is.  Things happen, neither good nor bad.  How you engage and react to it is completely up to you.
  2. Doing something nice for someone else has an immediate effect on your mood.  It’s like a drug.  Don’t believe me?  Try doing something extraordinarily nice for someone when you’re upset or mad.  It’s hard to remain in negativity and not shift your energy to a positive place when being generous with your time and kindness.
  3. Particularly in America, we’ve been trained to be independent and guarded.  It’s awkward to be really nice to people you don’t know.  Fight through it and give it a try…you’ll get the hang of it!
  4. The level of niceness you demonstrate is completely up to you.  Do what you are comfortable with, however I encourage you to step beyond your typical boundaries.  For me, if the person doesn’t look at me with curiosity and confusion, I’m not acting bold enough.
  5. Give of yourself with a humble heart, and when you can, with anonymity.  While feeling good is a natural result of ‘paying it backward, ‘ it is not the primary purpose.  The primary purpose?  To change the world, of course!

Many of us are familiar with the popular phrase of ‘pay it forward,’ particularly after the Hollywood hit by the same name starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, based on Catherine Ryan Hyde’s bestselling book.

 

Essentially, the idea is that when someone does something nice for you, you have an obligation to do something equally as nice for three other people (in fact, I wrote about here). The purpose? To change the world, of course!

But something happened to me last week that got me thinking about tweaking this concept that will have an even greater impact on the world.

What if we were to pay it backward?

 
 

You see, last week, I got tangled up in a mess of inefficient business operations, poor communication, and disengaged, uninterested customer service.

Here’s what happened:
Last Wednesday morning I woke up at 5:50am, showered, kissed my wife good-bye and left my house for the airport at 6:45am. I parked my car in the daily parking garage at National Airport in Arlington, VA at 7:15am, right on time to go through security and waited to board my 8:15am flight to Dallas, TX en route to my final destination of Austin, TX.

At around 7:50am, an airline representative gets on the PA system and announces that there’s some “traffic on the runway” and the plane is slightly delayed arriving to the gate. At 8:05am, the representative gets back on to announce that the plane is in need of a repair and the part won’t be available until the evening. She tells us that the flight has been canceled and that she will not be doing any re-bookings at the gate. To get rebooked, we are instructed to go back out through security and speak with other representatives at the ticketing counter.  As you can imagine, 150 people then dart down the terminal toward the ticketing counter.

After a number of advanced ninja travel moves, I was able to get rebooked by connecting through New York City, however my flight didn’t depart until 12:55pm and wouldn’t arrive in Austin until 6:25pm, 5 minutes before my business dinner. Not only would I be late for dinner, but I was wearing shorts and flip-flops.

I sensed a darkness within me.

I thought about how terrible this is. I thought about how one little thing can go wrong at the airport and your whole day/trip is ruined. I started saying, “I can’t believe this is happening to me…what the hell is wrong with these people.”  (For those that remember what we’ve written about energy levels, I was in Level 1 & 2 – victim and anger energy.)

But within a few minutes, I caught myself.  I wasn’t any less frustrated, but I recognized what thoughts I was having.  I thought of our clients, our blog readers (i.e. you!), my business partner (Jaime), and my family and friends.  I thought of how I preach positivity and optimism all the time, and that I should listen to myself and try to think my way around this.

I needed to speak with someone to help me reframe my circumstance.  So I did what I always do.  I called my wife, Yu Jin.  I said, “Babe, here’s what’s going on. How can I make the best of this?”

Her advice was to not do work or think about any responsibilities, but to go outside, find a bench, sit down, and read, reflect, or write.  “Just do something enjoyable,” she said.  She’s a smart woman.

As I was walking down the long ticketing corridor, headed toward a bench outside, I had an overwhelming desire to be positive and generous. I had a great desire to be of service to someone else.  I began thinking…what better way to be defiant in the face of adversity and negativity?

Instead of me being negatively consumed with annoyance at the airline and my circumstance, I could be filled with positivity having done something unexpectedly nice for someone, and perhaps fill that someone with positivity.  So, instead of being at negative 1 on the positivity scale, I’d be at plus 2. That’s a 3-point swing!

Rather than act generously when something good happens to me (e.g. pay it forward), I’m going to act generously when something bad happens to me. I’ll help someone out when I receive crappy news, or someone is rude to me, or when I am inconvenienced in some way.

I will Pay it Backward.

And much like the movie, I felt like it had to be substantial enough for people to look at me funny.  Seriously, they should find it strange.  In fact, it is strange.  In today’s fast-paced world, random acts of kindness are especially rare.

What happened to me immediately was very interesting.  I was at complete peace with the frustrating situation before me.  I was scanning the airport, looking for nice things to do for people.  It was quite amazing.  In fact, it completed shifted the energy around negative things that appeared to be ‘happening to me.’  Now things weren’t happening to me…they were just happening.  How I engaged and reacted to them was completely within my control.

What was surprising though was how difficult it was for me to randomly do something nice for someone.  It felt strange and awkward.  I was hesitant to approach people or ‘cause a scene.’   How silly!  But the feeling was real and had to be acknowledged.  So I forced myself to at least try.

As I waited for my flight, I noticed a young woman near me who had two small children in tow.  One child was strapped to her back and the other was walking in circles with a Spiderman backpack.  She must have had 4 bags and despite the obvious stress of this situation, I thought she was handling herself quite well, while being very attentive to her children.  I went up to her and said that I thought she was doing a great job, and asked her if she would like a cup of coffee.  She seemed puzzled, shyly said no, and I awkwardly went off and got myself a coffee before my flight.

I was not deterred though…

My travel woes had just begun.  We ended up boarding the 12:55pm flight to NYC about 15 minutes late, and then waited on the runway for 40 minutes.  I was beginning to think I would not make my connecting flight to Austin.  We took off and landed right at 3:00pm, just in time for me to run to my gate and catch my 3:30pm flight.  I grabbed my bags and ran down the terminal at JFK, arriving at my gate right on time.

The good news is that I didn’t miss my connection. The bad news is that I didn’t miss my connection because the 3:30pm flight was delayed until 5:20pm arriving in Austin at 9:19pm. I literally laughed out loud!

I was actually not upset at all.  I was going to miss my dinner, but there was nothing I could do about it.  I still had this incredible sense of peace about helping someone else.  I found myself being much nicer to random people and I had a smile on my face.

I waited patiently for a couple hours, got a bite to eat, and finally boarded a Texas bound flight.  By the time we were all boarded, it was a few minutes after the departure time. Unfortunately, we sat on the runway for about 45 minutes. I checked my flight app on my phone just before take-off to find out that our scheduled arrival time in Austin was now 10:10pm.

I still hadn’t been able to pay it backward, but I decided not to put too much pressure on myself.  I acknowledged that the right time would come and I would seize it.  My senses were heightened and I was prepared to act.

After arriving in Austin and checking into the hotel, I met my associate down at the lobby bar for what surprisingly turned out to be a club soda.  As we were sitting there, a very energetic and pleasant floor manager appeared to check in on us to be sure we were having a pleasant evening.  She seemed to genuinely enjoy her job and the hospitality industry seemed to be her passion.  After some chit-chat she went on her way to serve other guests.

Later, as I walked to the elevator on my way to my room, I made a detour to the front desk and asked them for the contact information of the General Manager of the property. They looked concerned, but I assured them that everything was just fine.  I just thought the GM would like to know how much I appreciated his manager’s positive personality after a long day of travel.

Judging by the quizzical looks of the front desk staff, I was getting close, but had yet to find the right opportunity.

Flash forward a day and half later to my return flight home on Friday morning from Austin to DC, connecting in Dallas.  I had had a bit of fun the night before with some locals, so if I’m being honest, I wasn’t feeling perfectly clear and steady.  I connected in Dallas without issue, and after boarding the plane and grabbing my seat, I waited for the main cabin door to close to begin my journey home.

Just before the door closed, a gentleman boarded the flight in quite a hurry.  You could tell that he had been running, possibly quite a distance, to make the flight.  He was sweating and couldn’t seem to find a space in the overhead compartment for his luggage.  He finally situated his carry-on baggage, and as it turned out, was the owner of the empty window seat in my row.

As I stood to let him in, I noticed that he was a short guy, maybe 5 ft. 5 in. on a good day.  He wore a Havana style shirt and spoke with a New York accent.  But more than anything else, I noticed his energy.  Without even saying much, he just seemed to be a happy guy…particularly happy that he made his flight.

His name was Alan, which I quickly learned because he was eager to chat me up (and the nice woman between us).  He let us know that if he had missed the flight, it would have been trouble as the next flight to DC would make him late for something.  I asked where he was headed and he said somewhere on U Street.

What I said next surprised even me, as I just blurted it out.

“Do you need a lift?”

His reaction said it all.  He was genuinely shocked.  In fact, the woman between us also looked surprised, but had a smile on her face.  Alan asked me what most of us would ask if someone did something unexpectedly nice for us.  He asked, “seriously?”

I said, “Yeah, seriously!  It would be a pleasure.”

Again, Alan’s response reminded me of what my response would be. “Wow man…thanks. That would really help me out.”

Side note:
How sad is it that our first gut reaction to someone doing something nice for us is shock and amazement?  I guess that kind of thing doesn’t happen often for Alan.  Heck, it doesn’t happen often to me. What about you?

I asked him where exactly he was going. He told me that he was going to Bohemian Caverns at 11th and U Street. After inquiring further, we discovered that Alan is actually Alan Palmer of Alan Palmer’s New Soil, a fairly established jazz pianist of over 20 years, formerly mentored by the great Jackie McLean and former musical director for Common, the hip-hop artist, while on tour in Europe. He was playing two sets that night and the next night at Bohemian Caverns, one of DC’s oldest and most storied jazz and blues clubs.

“How about that?” I thought. You just never know who you are going to meet.

Alan engaged the woman between us in conversation and I got lost in a book. We didn’t talk much more throughout the flight.

After landing in DC, we found our way to my car in the parking garage.  As we got in the car, for the 4th or 5th time, he thanked me again for the lift.  I said, “Listen Alan, I have a story to tell you.”  I recounted my travel experience the other day and shared with him my new concept of ‘pay it backward.’

I said, “and that’s why you’re in my car right now, Alan.  You don’t need to thank me.  Instead, next time something negative happens to you, do me the favor of going out of your way to do something nice for someone you don’t know.”

As only a veteran jazz musician could, he replied, “you’re an interesting dude, Matt. I’m digging what you’re saying.”

And as only a less cool, white boy could, I chuckled and said “thanks.”

As we pulled up to the jazz club, just in time for his sound check, Alan invited me and my wife to come to one of his performances as his guests. I thought about it and told him that my wife really loves jazz and we would love to see him perform.

The next evening turned into a date night.  My wife and I had a spectacular dinner, enjoyed some drinks, and headed over to the Caverns.  Alan welcomed us in like he’d known us for years.  That evening we got to watch a magician on the piano.  Alan’s fingers danced like lightening on the keys and I couldn’t stop tapping my foot.  I won’t soon forget that experience.

Less than 36 hours later, I find myself on the way to the airport again, this time headed for New Orleans. No flight cancellations. No delays.

I am in good spirits. And taking a cue from Jaime, who will randomly pay for the coffee of the person behind her at Starbucks without their knowledge, I decided to do something on the spur of the moment.

In line behind me for a breakfast sandwich at Potbelly was a Flight Attendant. I had no idea who she was, but something struck me.  Upon checking out, I leaned over to the cashier and said that I would like to pay for what she’s having as well.  He said, “really?”  I tried not to laugh.  I said, “Yes, really.”

After having secretly paid for it, she walked up next to me, cash in hand, and asked the cashier how much her meal was.  He said that it was taken care of and motioned to me.  She looked at me, and I said, “My treat. Have a nice day.”  She chuckled, and said something like, “Yeah right…I wish all my meals were paid for.”

As I walked away, a few moments later, I heard her say to the cashier, “wait, seriously?”

Then she wheeled around and shouted after me, “But WHY?”

It’s as if I had given her a million dollars and changed her life.

I turned around and simply said, “I’m having a great morning…and hope you have a great day.”  With that I walked off, remembering the funny expression she had on her face.

As I waited for my flight and thought of my encounter, I couldn’t help but smile and think of the lucky man or woman that that Flight Attendant might be extra nice to today because I bought her breakfast.

It was all worth it.

Lessons Learned

  1. The world does not ‘happen to you.’  The world, and everything in it, just happens.  The world doesn’t happen to anyone.  It just is.  How you engage and react to it is completely up to you.
  2. Doing something nice for someone else has an immediate effect on your mood.  It’s like a drug.  Don’t believe me?  Try doing something extraordinarily nice for someone when you’re upset or mad.  It’s hard to not shift your energy to a positive place when being generous with your time and kindness.
  3. Particularly in America, we’ve been trained to be independent and guarded.  It’s awkward to be really nice to people you don’t know.  Fight through it and give it a try…you’ll get the hang of it!
  4. The level of niceness you demonstrate is completely up to you.  Do what you are comfortable with, however I encourage you to step beyond your typical boundaries.  For me, if the person doesn’t look at me with curiosity and confusion, I’m not acting bold enough.
  5. Give of yourself with a humble heart, and when you can, with anonymity.  While feeling good is a natural result of ‘paying it backward, ‘ it is not the primary purpose.  The primary purpose?  To change the world, of course!

Believe it or not, I now welcome inconvenient or annoying circumstances because I get to think how I can creatively help someone else.  Talk about a ‘thought pattern interrupt.’  I’ve completely shifted my energy around negative situations.  I see things differently now.  And so can you.

(Jaime found this image online. Someone lost their wallet at Walmart. When they retrieved it from Lost & Found, they received this.)

8 thoughts on “Pay It Backward

  1. This is not only inspiring but a true testament of the person you are Matt! I'm looking forward to "paying it backward" today.

  2. good story. i hate to admit it, but mine would have gone like this:
    so i looked for the nearest bar, the end.

    yours is better.

  3. This is a great story Matt! I try to "pay it backward" with my friends as much as possible, but forget about the stranger next to me who may need their day to be a little brighter as well. This is a nice reminder to channel negative energy into something positive. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I love it! What a great reminder that just being positive, nice and genuine to everyone and everything around us makes the whole world a better place and reaps such abundance. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. One of my goals in life is to do somehting nice and unexpected for someone every day. I like this story becuase it reminds us that we need to be self reflective and get ourselves out of a rut. Then we need to look for the unexpected and that takes time and energy and is a lot of fun and gratifying. Great story and I got to hear it in person with all Matt's animation. Way to lead by example Matt!!!!!

  6. I do this all the time and especially in airports. I'm old enough to remember the Bob Newhart Show and his schtick was to be the only "normal" guy in the room when everyone else was crazy. It was a comedy show but the point remained. Stay calm, stay focused and help as much as you can during difficulty.

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