I recently attended my kids’ school’s annual gala. The Principal gave what I thought to be an absolutely wonderful short speech. It revolved around the philosophy of the school to instill a culture of kindness. You could tell that she truly and authentically believed in it. After hearing the speech I felt tremendously proud and fortunate that we are able to send our kids to such an awesome school. (If you’re in or coming to Hong Kong and are interested in giving your kids an excellent independent, innovative and progressive education, reach out to me, I’d be happy to have a chat.)
The speech also made me reflect historically on some of my own values and behaviour. I began to look back and recall where did kindness rank as a virtue for me? Not that I think I am unkind or place little value on kindness, but I have to be honest and say I don’t think it was ever something I consciously strived to achieve. For the longest time, it was always about being the smartest one in the room; or the one with the most toys; or frequent flyer points. In large part that came, like many of us, I’m sure, from receiving an education in a purely competitive environment. Stuff like kindness simply wasn’t particularly valued or emphasized.
So it continued into professional life. Kindness has little part to play in meeting your numbers, closing deals or winning trials. So again, it’s de-emphasized. There’s not many places for kindness in the cut and thrust of climbing the ladder and doing “the business”. After banging away at it for years, I began to realise (well, with the help of some really great therapists) that in large measure, success in these realms is out of my control. You cannot control whether or not you are the smartest person in the room and there is little point driving yourself harder and harder trying to win battles the outcomes of which you have no control. The lesson being you should never get too caught up or worried about things you can’t control.
If you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control; then what should you be worried about; or what are the “things” you can control. For the answer, I turn to TV and in particular a TV show that had a short-lived run called “American Muscle”. If you haven’t seen it, it was a documentary style show about a strength and conditioning trainer in the US called Mike Barwis. I was totally into the show and Mike seemed to me to be an awesome bloke. I loved his commitment to excellence and the fact that he worked just as much with differently abled people as he did with elite athletes. The show uplifted the spirit. All very good and nice — but what does Mike and the Barwis Method have to do with kindness or things we can control? Well, Mike had a kind of credo that resonated with me then and even more so now:
There are only two things in this world you can control: attitude and effort.
Mike’s view was that by maximising those two things because they are really the only things you have any control over, one can achieve incredible stuff without having to waste time and energy on stuff over which you have no control. I absolutely believe that. We all have limitations on our innate talents and skills. None of us can possibly know everything (and trust me, I’ve tried…). But insofar as kindness is an attitude, we have total control over it. We can choose to be kind.
Kindness has no downside, or at least I’m not aware of any. It has no cost and generally produces only positive results. I don’t see how it can do anything but make the world a better and happier place. That does not mean you have to be a doormat or lose your edge or stop hustling. Kindness and competing are not mutually exclusive. But even though you may have reached your natural limit as far as being smart is concerned; and you may never be smarter than Jenkins sitting two cubicles down from you-you can still control whether and the degree to which you treat Jenkins with kindness.
I think what I realised from that speech the other night is that I have worked really hard over the past few years to limit the damage that comes from over concentration on the things I cannot control. It really is wasted energy and effort. But I have not put much energy into the few things I can control. I honestly think if we all did that, even a little bit, and put kindness at the top of the list, together we can make the world a better and happier place.
Nothing wrong with that, is there?