Before I got an office for Headbands of Hope, I’d work out of the local coffee shop every day. I’d pack my bag in the morning with my computer and a Ziploc full of Pirate’s Booty and head to the “office” of java and scones. (P.S., if you don’t know what Pirate’s Booty is, it’s heaven’s cheese puffs. If you have never had them, please feel free to take a break from reading, go buy a bag, and pick this back up where you left off . . . I’ll wait.) I loved the energy of being out in the open, working on my business, and watching people hustle in and out throughout the day, picking up the wrong mobile orders, all working on their own thing. Since I was a one- woman show in the beginning, working from coffee shops made me feel as if I was a part of something, like I had a place in the work world. It also forced me to wash my hair and look halfway decent, so there’s that too.
One day I was sitting in the coffee shop, typing away on my latest Headbands of Hope blog post for my readership of seven people, when a woman came up to me. She noticed the Headbands of Hope bumper sticker on the front of my computer.
“I saw you guys on the news last night! I love what you’re doing for the kids.”
We had been featured in a small segment on the local news the day before and this was my first “public sighting,” so I was thrilled. I won- dered when I’d get the call for my reality television show: The Headband Harem.
“Thank you! We were so excited to get our story out there . . .” to the viewership of Raleigh who happened to be watching the news from 3:07 to 3:10 p.m. the day before.
She told me to keep up the good work and I thanked her and kept typing away on my computer, but now with more pizzazz because I had just been recognized in public.
A few minutes later, she came by again and said, “You do so much for others, it’s time someone does something for you.” Then she dropped a white envelope on my computer and left before I could say anything.
Could it be tickets to a concert? A letter of encouragement? A picture of a puppy? A coffee gift card? I opened up the envelope and it was like opening an undiscovered chest from the Titanic. Inside was $1,000 cash.
No note, no anything. Just cold. Hard. Cash. My heart started racing. I couldn’t believe it. I looked for her outside in the parking lot, but she was gone. Just like in the movies. I could never find her to thank her. I know this is a long shot, but if you’re the woman who gave me that envelope six years ago and you’re reading this: thank you! As someone who was still measuring the Scotch packing tape to prevent going over budget, $1,000 was a huge push for my business at the time. However, she did something bigger than dropping $1,000 on my laptop. She inspired me to think more about what I can do for others. If optimism is about envisioning something good, then practicing small gestures of doing good is like training camp for optimism. If we get in the habit of reacting with an open heart, then we’re developing a habit of optimism.
SMALL GESTURES WITH A BIG IMPACT
But there was one problem: I was not at a point in my life where I could drop an envelope with $1,000 on someone’s desk. Shoot— I couldn’t even be the tooth fairy at that point. I was still taking home my free to- go coffee refill at the end of the day so I could heat it up the next morning. I was still riding off of anyone’s Netflix account I could get access to (including ex- boyfriends’). I was still planning my weekends based on Groupon deals. I was not in a place to drop $1K as a little warm and fuzzy on a Tuesday morning for anyone— unless it was to my landlord for rent. But believe it or not, my own company helped me find the right mind- set for giving back. Here I was giving out these small, simple acces- sories of headbands. I wasn’t going from room to room paying off hospital bills or renovating houses Extreme Makeover: Home Edition style. I was giving a small gesture that was making a big impact.
A headband was something small but powerful. The gesture behind it was bigger than the product itself. I wanted the headband to translate a message of hope, beauty, color, confidence, or anything that a patient needed a little more of at the time.
One of my favorite stories was from a nurse at one of the children’s hospitals we donate to. She told me that whenever a patient chooses to shave her head (because the hair is falling out too much due to chemo- therapy), she always puts one of our headbands on the patient before she turns her to the mirror. She says the headband softens the harshness of the immediate shock of seeing themselves without any hair. It gives them a reason to smile. Another time I went into a hospital and sat down at a patient’s bed as she picked out a headband. I saw her Mickey Mouse blanket and told her about my time working at Disney World and asked what her favorite characters were. She told me Mickey, Goofy, and Donald Duck. So nat- urally, I started quacking like Donald Duck, and she started laughing (definitely at me, not with me, but I was cool with it). I looked out her door and saw a small crowd had formed with her parents and the hospital staff, and some of them were crying.
When I walked out I said, “Is everything okay? Why are you guys crying?”
Her mom said, “We’ve been in the hospital for more than a month now and this is the first time she’s talked to anyone.”
And that’s what a simple gesture can do. I can’t give $1,000, but I can give a reason to smile and talk.
We hear a lot about the Ellen DeGeneres– style giving that involves a massive check to charity or sending a kid to college who couldn’t afford it. Or funding a new jungle for endangered species to live in. All of that is awesome, and kudos to you if you can do that. But giving back doesn’t require a big fat check; it requires a big fat heart.
When we focus on a mountain of trash, we don’t see the single piece sitting right in front of us that we could easily pick up and throw away. We’re too fixated on the impossible task of picking up all the trash, instead of the small but very possible tasks that are right in front of us.
Optimism doesn’t mean you have to revolutionize the world. Optimism is about a perception of the world that influences positive behaviors, big or small.
You know when you’re at the grocery store and you’re just trying to buy some celery (okay, they’re chocolate- covered pretzels) and the person in front of you has a cartful like they’re preparing for a hurricane, so they let you go in first? That is giving back.
You know when you’re at a restaurant and your waitress has been awesome and you bump your tip up a few extra dollars than the standard? That is giving back.
You know when your friend lost her job and you bring over dinner and watch Keeping Up with the Kardashians to help her perk up? That is giving back.
Having a heart to make the world better starts with the person right in front of you. How can you make his or her life better? How can you help just one person today? Right now, in this moment, you don’t need to focus on how to stop a meteor from hitting planet Earth. If that’s your job, then I totally want to be friends with you and learn more. But if it’s not, don’t stress about it. Just focus on finding those moments in the day where we can put ourselves second, even just briefly.
If you can’t give a rotisserie chicken, then give a chicken nugget. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
When I was a kid and someone was mean, my mom would always talk about karma— what goes around comes around. She has a rooted belief in karma. If that kid swiped your Snack Pack, then he’s destined for a life of misery. If that girl told you you’re too fat to be a cheerleader, then no one will come to her birthday party ever again. It was like an equation of the universe: be good, good will come your way. Be bad, then strap on a helmet because it’s about to go down.
To me good karma means I’m influencing the future collision points in my life to be positive ones, because I’m placing myself in positive sit- uations and around positive people.
One time I saw a story on the internet about a guy who tried to shoot an armadillo and the bullet bounced back and shot him in the leg. Someone commented, “Karmadillo,” and I haven’t been able to forget it since. Now whenever I see someone being difficult or selfish, I whisper under my breath karmadillo, and I’m just waiting for someone to hear me and ask me to explain. I’m ready.
We don’t have to go deep into beliefs in karma and hakuna matata stuff to realize that our chances of good things happening to us go up when we build our world on the principle of doing good things.
It’s like optimism on autopilot. Take for example the Starbucks pay- it- forward story in Pittsburgh. One person in the drive- through paid for the person behind them. Then, more than 130 cars later, people were still paying for the order behind them. One generous act can be a ripple effect for further good. When someone does something nice for you, do you ever walk away feeling inspired to do something nice for someone else?
The medium we choose doesn’t have to be money (or coffee); it can be making them smile, making a part of their day a little bit easier, cre- ating opportunity for them or a joke you know they’ll think is funny. It means recognizing little collision points in our lives as opportunities to create good.
I do believe we all have an innate part of us that wants to do good and help others. But society gives so much airtime to money as the only cur- rency for worthy causes. Nonmonetary ways of giving don’t receive the same amount of attention or even have the proper ecosystems to encour- age more giving. With monetary giving, there are fancy charity galas with big- ticket costs and boards ticking up with donations throughout the evening. I’ve been to these and they do amazing work for charities, but it also just focused on one medium of giving: money.
People who aren’t the coffee shop hero and can’t drop $1,000 checks onto laps of strangers feel like they can’t attend these kinds of money- driven events. And when you’re told that the way to give is through monetary donations, it feels like you can’t contribute at all if donating money isn’t an option for you.
DOESN’T HAVE TO BE DOLLARS
My friend Joey and I were discussing this concept of charity galas one day. He has a charity called The Monday Life, where you sign up to donate a dollar every Monday to enhance the lives of childhood cancer patients. Just a dollar. The idea behind his organization is that Mondays won’t be so bad if you know you’re giving back, even just a dollar.
We bonded over the fact that both of our ideas were powered by small acts of kindness generating big influence. Then we took it a step further: What if we could give this style of giving the same kind of celebration as a traditional charity gala?
So we decided to do just that: an evening where people offer acts of kindness instead of money for patients and families at the local children’s hospitals. To take it a step further, we banned money entirely. We called the event Give Gala: The Worst Fund- Raiser Ever . . . because we raised zero dollars.
The first year we did it, we had more than five hundred people get dressed up and come out to Give Gala. Thanks to great community sponsors, we were able to offer the same kind of atmosphere as the other charity galas: hors d’oeuvres, open bar, music, dancing, and even acrobats. In order to register, you had to offer an act of kindness for patients and families at the local children’s hospital. Here were some of my favorite offers:
• hand- lettering lessons,
• cooking meals for a family,
• dog walking,
• car washing,
• babysitting so the parents can have a night out,
• knitting lessons,
• a princess unicorn birthday party on their farm,
• tickets to a football game,
• family photos,
• a yoga class,
• a haircut + makeup session.
But I would say this was my favorite:
• a free, private performance of a blend of cool jazz, traditional Appalachian music, and Gypsy and Latin styles with an all- acoustic lineup from the Cool String Concept.
Hey, you never know what people are into. We compiled a list of everything offered and sent it to the patients and families at the local hospitals, then connected the people who wanted to take them up on an offer. That was where the real magic happened.
At one Give Gala, a little boy from the hospital who loved fire trucks attended. A firefighter came to the venue to pick him up in a vintage fire truck and take him on a ride. Another year there was a boy from the hos- pital who wanted to wear a tux to the Give Gala. He had never worn one before, and his mom said he wanted to go full James Bond. They went to Men’s Wearhouse to rent a tux and when his mom told the sales associate what the tux was for, he gave the boy and his dad matching tuxedos for free! At Give Gala last year, a family offered their beach house, which they use as a rental property, for a family who needed a getaway. I later learned that the family who accepted the offer is now great friends with the family who offered their place. They even spent New Year’s Eve together! This year, we had a teen patient who wanted to be a YouTube influencer, so we matched her up with someone at the event who is an influencer with a massive following. We also had a kid who wanted to start a food truck with his family’s mac and cheese recipe, and someone at the event had a food truck business and helped him get started.
Each year, Give Gala gets bigger and bigger. But my hope for Give Gala isn’t just to have one evening where people think about what they can offer. I want the concept of Give Gala to be a reminder that no act of kindness is too small, and we should never take ourselves out of the giving equation, no matter our financial status or how busy we are.
The no- money concept of Give Gala forces people to look beyond what’s in their wallets and think about what else they can offer someone. Whether that be skills, resources, talents, or even just your time.
Giving back can have the connotation of being all hearts and flowers; that if we just give instead of receive, then all will be good in the world! All of our problems will float away, like the balloons we just dropped off at the nursing home. But that’s not always the case.
IT’S NOT ALWAYS HEARTS, FLOWERS, AND FRAPPUCCINOS
Believe it or not, giving back is still something I have to actively think about. A lot of people think because of the philanthropic nature of my company that I must be the Mr. Rogers of our generation, but it’s not that easy (and puppets freak me out). Every opportunity to do something good is an active choice. And sometimes, although I hate to admit it, I make the wrong choice. Sometimes I think getting home five minutes earlier is way more important than letting someone go in front of me in line.
Here’s what people don’t say that I’m going to say anyway: giving is hard. It’s hard to think beyond your needs and put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s hard to put yourself second. It’s hard to get to a headspace where you can justify sacrificing this innate survival mode that puts you first. And it’s hard to use your time and resources for something that you may never see.
Because that’s the other thing about giving: the results of kindness have nothing to do with recognition and everything to do with intention. It was mind- blowing to me that the woman at the coffee shop could just drop $1,000 like that and not want an awards ceremony or a Frappuccino named after her. It got me thinking: if you hold the door for someone and they don’t say thank you, does it mean you shouldn’t have held the door? Or if someone’s meter is about to run out and you see they’re going to get a ticket, should you drop coins in even if they’ll never know it was you?
Once there was a homeless man outside of the grocery store that my husband and I were walking into. He asked for cash, but we told him we’d get him some groceries. We went in and got bread, peanut butter, jelly, chips, and some other food for him and put it in a bag and gave it to him outside. He looked in the bag, looked at us, and said, “I wanted wheat bread.”
You know those viral videos where someone does something nice for someone and the recipient starts crying and tells that person they’re the sole reason for their faith in humanity and good on this earth? Well, that doesn’t happen all the time. Refer to exhibit A: Wheat Bread Man. But does that mean the next person we see outside the grocery store shouldn’t get the chance to be the recipient of something good? If we base our intentions on the acknowledgement, thank- yous, or approval of others, then we won’t have any spirit to give.
I likely will never have the chance to say thank you to the woman who dropped $1,000 onto my laptop that day, but the recognition of the act didn’t influence the magnitude of the result. She changed my life, regardless of whether or not I can tell her that.
Good doesn’t have to be recognized in order for it to work or be worth it. It can just be good. We can’t expect a standing ovation every time we extend ourselves for someone else. We also can’t let that be the reason to lend a helping hand. We have to be silently fulfilled.
If we see a plastic bag in the park that the birds are trying to eat, we need to pick up the bag and walk it to the trash. There won’t be a red carpet and the birds will most likely not say thank you. But if the intent is to serve, then we need to be okay with the silence.
Recognition doesn’t change the result. Sometimes I catch myself veering off from this. With the nature of what we do at Headbands of Hope, it’s important to show our audience the impact of their purchase with pictures and video from our hospital donations. But sometimes we’re not allowed to take pictures. I catch myself having a moment where I’m frustrated, but then I realize the pictures and recognition don’t change the result. I’m still showing up and giving headbands and spending time, no matter if there are cameras there or not.
OPTIMISM INTO ACTION
If optimism is our vision of good, then what power does optimism have without action? Right now, in this moment, I’m not talking about build- ing your do- good empire. I’m talking about finding the small points of your day where you can train yourself to lead with compassion and action to make the world better. Because compassion is to optimism like a hammer is to a nail. Without a hammer, the nail doesn’t work. And without compassion, optimism can’t exist. We have to genuinely care in order to want to help.
If you’re stumped on where to give, think about the things you like doing, or the things that people thank you for. Do you like cooking? Gardening? Making crafts? Playing basketball? Whatever it is that you like doing, think about how you can use those things to serve. Can you cook for a soup kitchen? Help out in the city garden? Make crafts at a nursing home? Can you be a volunteer coach for a youth basketball league? Or drop $1,0000 on someone’s laptop? That works too.
Take It or Leave It
In the next twenty- four hours, do a silent gesture of giving. Something that no one will know you did. Whether that’s throwing coins in some- one’s parking meter, paying for another order at the drive- through, dropping flowers on someone’s doorstep, anonymously contributing to someone’s GoFundMe or Kickstarter campaign, or going to your closest teacher supply store and leaving money for the next teacher who walks in to get school supplies for his or her class.
HarperCollins Christian Publishing allows a one-time use of this excerpt from the W Publishing Group title Chasing the Bright Side by Jess Ekstrom.
Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.