The way we think about things in our brain shapes the way we interact with them in the world. Words (and our definitions of them) shape nearly everything we do. I think our world has done the word “Kindness” an unintentional disservice. It is something we collectively say we believe in and yet, as we look around, something we are actually rather bad at. Why? The way we talk about it dismisses how hard it really is to practice. We’ve painted a narrative in our culture that we should just “be kind” because it is free! “Sprinkle that stuff everywhere” or “throw Kindness around like confetti” are some of the posters and postings I’ve seen in schools and on my social media.
I am my number one obstacle to overcome when it comes to practicing Kindness. Kindness, then, is often about getting ourselves out of the way. Deep Kindness (the book’s title and how I want to reframe the word) requires the messiest type of work — the kind that acknowledges that I am both the root of the problem and the potential source of the solution. I think that this is the only way we begin to see meaningful change in our politics, our families, our racist systems, and in the day-to-day suffering that we experience both internal and external.
As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Houston Kraft, a speaker, author, and Kindness advocate. He just published his debut book, Deep Kindness (Simon & Schuster, Tiller Press), has spoken at over 600 schools, and co-founded CharacterStrong which works with nearly 3,000 schools globally to help change the way education approaches social and emotional skills.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My life was shifted when I went to a summer leadership camp in Washington State. I’d been elected student body president in high school going into my senior year and I wanted to make a meaningful difference, but didn’t necessarily feel like I had all the tools to do so. I listened to a guy on stage one night named John Norlin who told a simple, but profound story about showing up for 182 straight school days an hour early to hold the door open for his classmates. He talked about how leadership wasn’t about a position or a title, but about our willingness to show up in compassion for others. When we serve others intentionally, we build influence with them over time — and that’s what true leadership is about.
I went back to my high school and started a club that met every week where we talked about and practiced Kindness. These perspectives shaped what I did and studied in college and, as I finished up at university, I began speaking right away in schools. The first person to ever hire me to speak? John Norlin. 600 schools later, we came together as co-founders of Character Strong which now works with over 2,500 schools across all 50 states and 9 countries to help better teach things like Kindness, Empathy, and Leadership.
Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I’ve spoken at schools that have a graduating class of 1000 and a graduating class of 3. I’ve had a middle schooler vomit on the back of another student’s head in the middle of my talk. On more than one occasion, a student has confided in me about some of the scariest secrets of their life and it’s my job to hold space for them, listen carefully, and provide them with some comfort and a long hug.
Working in schools is a mini-preview of the world to come. You get to see, across all different sorts of communities, how young people are thinking about the world and the things they are being taught. You get insight into their fears and their wisdom.
I spoke at a school in Texas a few years back. At the end of the assembly, a swaggering senior boy walked up to me. “Hey man, I realized while I was listening today that I’m a really nice person.”
I thought he was messing with me. He wasn’t.
“I’m nice, but I don’t think I’m kind. Most of my school says they’re kind, but they’re nice. They’re helpful when it’s convenient. They’ll show up for someone if they like ’em or agree with them. Nice is reactive, yeah know?”
I encouraged him to keep going.
“Nice is reactive, but the way you talked about kindness today…it’s proactive. I have to practice it even when it’s messy and uncomfortable. I realized that it requires a lot of work…and I think I have a lot of work to do.”
While I’ve objectively had a lot more “interesting” moments in my career, it is these small insights that help shape my work and my world. It reminds me of the power of paradigm shifts and that’s what I want my career to be about: changing how people think about a thing with the hopes that it changes the way we act with it.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
My dad’s earliest life lesson was, “Girls like a guy who can dance.” My mom’s was, “Hug like you mean it.”
Those both have played a role in how I live my life.
I think one of the most important ideas that guides my world is 1) every relationship only functions because of Trust, 2) we are human beings and human “becomings,” 3) success doesn’t have to be measured in the ways our world tells us it should.
My friend Kyle Scheele says that his definition of success is the number of nights he comes home smelling like campfire. I like that and I am always thinking about more meaningful ways to measure achievement in my life and my work.
Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
The way we think about things in our brain shapes the way we interact with them in the world. Words (and our definitions of them) shape nearly everything we do.
I think our world has done the word “Kindness” an unintentional disservice. It is something we collectively say we believe in and yet, as we look around, something we are actually rather bad at. Why? The way we talk about it dismisses how hard it really is to practice. We’ve painted a narrative in our culture that we should just “be kind” because it is free! “Sprinkle that stuff everywhere” or “throw Kindness around like confetti” are some of the posters and postings I’ve seen in schools and on my social media.
The problem is that when we think of something as free, we don’t accurately allocate the proper resources to improve at that thing. People tell us all the time to work hard if we want to get into a good school or make a good living. We know that consistent exercise over time is the pathway to a better body and mind. But somehow we’ve dismissed Kindness as this fluffy thing and, as a result, I don’t think we give it the proper discipline, time, and sacrifice to truly improve at it.
The gap between what we say is good and what we are good at is really wide. And I think we need to revolutionize the way we talk about, teach about, and act in Kindness in our world if we are going to heal as a culture and as a world.
How do you think this will change the world?
There’s a popular story about the London publication of The Times. It is said they printed an open question to their readers: “What is wrong with the world?”
It’s a question I’m sure we all have many answers for in our current reality. In the early 1900s, however, the prolific writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton had a much more direct approach.
He wrote back simply, “I am. Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.”
I am my number one obstacle to overcome when it comes to practicing Kindness. Kindness, then, is often about getting ourselves out of the way.
Deep Kindness (the book’s title and how I want to reframe the word) requires the messiest type of work — the kind that acknowledges that I am both the root of the problem and the potential source of the solution. I think that this is the only way we begin to see meaningful change in our politics, our families, our racist systems, and in the day-to-day suffering that we experience both internal and external.
When you take an abstract, lofty, and almost spiritual ideal like Kindness and try to make it practical or measurable, you always risk that thing becoming less pure or authentic. How do you hold yourself to a disciplined daily exercise of Kindness without it losing its realness or impact? If a culture were to reorient its expectations of us — its metrics of “success” — to be more about compassion and connectedness instead of productivity, do we lose the magic of the generosity that Kindness currently requires?
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
10 years and 600 schools in, I realized that no matter how many good ideas I offered to practice Kindness or how earnestly I told inspirational stories of Kindness in action, it didn’t really guarantee long-term behavior change at scale.
The story of the shift starts 3 years ago when I was speaking at a student leadership conference with 5,000 people in attendance. My time slot was third in the day and I was supposed to follow Noémi Ban, a ninety-four-year-old Holocaust survivor.
She was brilliant. At the age of twenty-two, Ban was sent to Auschwitz alongside eleven of her relatives who did not make it out of that horrific camp alive. Ban was later sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where she intentionally constructed faulty bombs to save future, unknown lives. She escaped during a death march and found her way back home to Hungary. During the entirety of her talk, she had a glass of water in front of her. She shared stories of how the Nazis would taunt their captives with water after dehydrating them for days. They wanted the Jews to attack each other, proving that they were “animals.”
At the end of her talk, she held the glass aloft, took a sip, and spoke her final line: “Freedom.”
She made her way slowly off the stage. Listening to Noémi, I realized that I’d been selling answers when what I needed to do was ask better questions. Perhaps the more meaningful and challenging call to action about Kindness had less to do with its implied morality and more to do with our willingness (and ability) to ask ourselves the question, “What gets in the way?”
The exploration of that answer for myself and the desire to create frameworks and curriculum to help others unpack that concept is what led me to write the book.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
I think we need the cultural courage to confront those things that prevent us from exercising real compassion. We are watching friction rise to the surface in ways that feel more palpable, consequential, and ubiquitous than perhaps ever before (with thanks/frustrations to how accessible social media makes information and conflict). But friction is a precursor to change. We need to revolutionize the way we talk about Kindness and then teach the skills necessary to bring it to life in our schools, our homes, and our organizations.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Everything can lead to something. I’ve learned along the way that most of my “failed” experiments have led to some of the best new connections, new ideas, and repurposable content for whatever comes next. When we cling on to the narrative that things need to “work” in order for us to feel good about them, we can easily miss the growth amidst the groans.
2. The most compassionate people have the most boundaries. Saying “no” often helps you say a more authentic, generous “yes.” Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to make everything happen for everyone. Even though you’re attempting to be Kind, you’re actually burning yourself out and giving a less than ideal version of yourself in lots of directions.
3. Time = Priority. There’s an amazing article from the Wall Street Journal called “Are You As Busy As You Think?” It asks us to reframe how we view time. Instead of saying, “I don’t have time!” trying saying, “This is not my priority.” It’ll change the way you see the value of things.
4. “Self-Made” doesn’t exist. Find a partner or team quickly who can support the things you’re not so excited or skilled at. The entrepreneurial culture touts independence but rarely talks about how lonely solo success feels. Do meaningful work alongside people.
5. Do what you love and you’ll work harder than ever. I think it’s a silly narrative to tell young people that if they do what they love they’ll never “work” a day in their life. When we discover something purposeful, we want to work hard for it. And that thing will require lots of work — both the kind you love and lots of moments where it is truly just work. Let’s reframe what it means to create harmony between work and passion in a way that honors both.
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
The biggest self-check will always be, “What does success look like?” With a lot of projects, my metrics of success have to do with the number of amazing people I can bring into the creative process or the number of powerful voices I can help amplify. With some projects, that success is when a student says, “This really helped me. Thank you.” Or the educator who says, “This just made my job 100x easier and more meaningful.
If I were to pinpoint a habit that helps me bring forward work I love, it’d be protecting time for the necessary playful conversations, unstructured dreaming, and dot connecting that can happen when we give ourselves the space to stew on an idea before we force productivity out of ourselves. It’s usually in the weeks leading up to a true full powerhouse work sprint that the dots are connecting in the background. When we are constantly in deadline mode, creativity deadens.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If you believe that education is the pathway to a better world and that we can better equip the next generation with the sorts of skills that help a person live a successful and meaningful life, then I’d love your support and wisdom.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Find me anywhere at @houstonkraft and check out the book at www.deepkindness.com!
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.