Some say you need to handle world affairs, bring in the big bucks, discover a cure for cancer, champion a cause, or sing on a national network to be exceptional. Don’t misinterpret me. These are admirable, and I am in no way discounting them. Each of these examples are incredible achievements. But, each day someone is trying to do something good for someone else. I am trying to take note, and it helps mold and shape us to be fully aware of the true good that exists.
As a part of my series about the things we can do to develop serenity and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul E. Kotz.
Dr. Paul Kotz teaches and advises in the Doctorate in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s University, guiding aspiring mentors and those in their professional fields to grow and find out their authentic strengths and where they can improve competency. Paul has written two well-received books: “Profiles in Kindness” (2020) and “Something Happened Today” (2018), a CIPA Award winner, which both explore seeing the good — which includes finding inspiration, and developing as well as witnessing everyday leadership.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
Those who make an impact leave a mark on us. Hopefully, it is a positive one. The positive impact is grounded in those who bring us joy and those who inspire us and motivate us. They give us examples of how we can live our own lives and also push us to be better. I wanted to be one of these people.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Years ago, I was working at a center for the homeless in Kansas City. Each day, we would receive donations from local markets and donors to feed 120+ people in a place called the Family House.
On a beautiful sunny Tuesday morning, a man yelled at me from across the street: “Hey, you!”
It was my turn to wash windows at the family center. I would put the soapy water in the bucket, fill and rinse it out, and use a squeegee to make the windows glisten.
I turned around, and there was this guy waving at me from the dumpster — in plain sight. He had a salt-and-pepper beard. He motioned for me to come over.
I dropped my cleaning supplies and ventured across the street to see the man. “Got the time?” he asked.
He told me his name was Joe.
“Do you smoke?” he asked. I thought of my dad, who on occasion used to put away one to two packs a day of L&M’s.
“No. But I used to like to have a puff and blow rings in the air.” I thought back to my dad who had an air of confidence when he puffed away, many times driving his Thunderbird, convertible top down, and listening to his ’50s and ’60s music. In this case, Joe was smoking a Marlboro, with deep puffs, exhaling through his nose with a purpose.
His expression didn’t change, but the wrinkles around his eyes exuded wear and tear as well as his ability to smile. He was putting another item in the dumpster. “I have to make sure I get my stuff out of here before they throw me away, too.” He laughed.
I realized and fully understood what he was saying. Each Tuesday morning, early, the trash compactor would come and hoist the industrial steel dumpster into the air and empty the garbage and refuse from the past week.
I thought about what we take for granted in our great country, and how this type of life still exists. But to Joe, it was no major problem. He played the cards he was dealt. He went on to also let me know a culinary tip. He mentioned that he could not stand cauliflower.
In addition to cleaning assignments at the shelter, we would venture to the downtown markets to catch some of the produce vendors throwing out strawberries, potatoes, onions, cauliflower, and heads of lettuce with first signs of spoiling.
A Christian brother named Louis explained to us as workers that 10% — that is the top of the crate may be spoiled, but if cleared away, 90% of it is beautiful fruits and vegetables. “We waste a lot of food around here,” he told me.
Storeowners and shopkeepers were not always fond of our intercepting the crates before they were tossed in the trash. But many let us know the best times to stop by to pick up the edible food before it made its way there.
Joe continued telling me to avoid eating some of the vegetables they served at the center, because you could get sick, but that they did a good job taking care of the people who needed food and shelter. “I hate cauliflower,” he told me. I noticed that in the dumpster, he had a rickety blanket, two small kid-sized chairs, and a makeshift table.
One week, I watched him do it. The restaurant/bar would throw empty bottles and trash and fill the dumpster most of the way. But Joe would time it perfectly, waiting for the trash truck to pick up the refuse, and then he proceeded to put his chairs and table back in for another week’s worth of living.
“Want to play some cards?” I was kind of mesmerized by this man, who seemed to just go about his business of living the streets so effortlessly. But this was a home to him. A place of comfort, protection, and possible peril if he forgot to wake up on a Tuesday.
“Yeah, once I had a close call, but people check on me to make sure I get out in time.”
He hopped back in, arranged the chairs and table, and then so did I — we played part of a game of cribbage, with pegs of popcorn kernels. “Want a banana?” He pulled out what seemed like a fresh fruit, unpeeled it, and we each had a half.
Here was this guy, who barely had a place to live, sharing what he had with me…his new card-playing buddy.
It was early. Most of my colleagues were still asleep that morning. And I was thinking to myself, Why am I in a dumpster?
I eventually returned to my window-cleaning assignment.
Some of you are thinking…I will never have lunch or coffee with him again.
But for me, this was a moment of grace in my life. A wake-up call. It was an awakening to another world that I never knew nor previously wanted to see. I thought about what I would do if this were me, and how I would cope. Would I be playing cribbage, drinking to avoid the pain, or maybe dead because I didn’t have the stamina or resourcefulness of Joe?
I will never forget the generosity of that man who offered his temporary home, part of his sustenance, a game to play, his creative adaptation to life, and his daily appreciation of the moment.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take time to rest, and see your strengths. Be proud of where you are today. A full life takes time to build. Be good to yourself. Others needs us to mentor and guide them. So stay awake to opportunities to give back. This will help you thrive and avoid burnout.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Be authentic and real with your colleagues. Take time to notice what they do well and specifically let them know what it is that you admire. Also, be team oriented, but do not let go of your core inner self.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
“Bringing out the Best in People” by Alan Loy McGinnis. And a book I wrote Profiles in Kindness.
See dumpster story, above.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious just from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have only heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to develop serenity during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Some say you need to handle world affairs, bring in the big bucks, discover a cure for cancer, champion a cause, or sing on a national network to be exceptional. Don’t misinterpret me. These are admirable, and I am in no way discounting them. Each of these examples are incredible achievements.
But, each day someone is trying to do something good for someone else. I am trying to take note, and it helps mold and shape us to be fully aware of the true good that exists.
From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
- Trust is important.
- Do you know me?
- How do you treat me?
- How do you encourage me?
- How do you support me?
- How do you respond to adversity?
- All of these will determine whether I want to follow you and listen to what you have to say.
What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?
At this stage in an isolated pandemic find comforting music, take time to read, and make time to talk to others. On occasion, make yourself vulnerable to cleanse your heart. Keep your eyes and ears open for new thoughts and feelings about your new direction. Maybe, this is an opportunity time for growth and serenity.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Those who do not make mistakes, do not make anything.” I hung this in my classroom for years when teaching secondary young people. It resonated with many, and it was a good mantra for me, because I have made plenty of mistakes, which have made me better, now.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Often I have seen someone turn the corner and see their own unique abilities and potential.
Often, I have seen someone give an awe inspiring speech that changed people’s perspectives, and made just about everyone in the room see that they too could make someone’s day a little brighter, and that their own inbred cynicism dial could turn toward seeing hope and possibilities for positive change.
I have seen young and old come up with innovative ways to handle mental illness, create business startups or an invention, figure out a new way to teach students to read, critique how we as educators can use more inclusive language, and also find ways to assist in making our own organizations more effective and ethical in what we do in daily business practice. The main movement for each of us and our communities is look for ways to give back, and never give up on yourself. There is only one you.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!