052: Discover the Power of Gratitude with John Israel’s Mr. Thank You Project
John Israel is the author and founder of The Mr. Thank You Project: A Journey to Elevate the Level of Gratitude on the Planet … One Card at a Time. Over the course of one year, John wrote five handwritten Thank You cards a day, every day, for 365 straight days.
In a world that many believe is less grateful and appreciative than ever before, John’s work has truly struck a chord with people, and he’s shared his experiences on ABC News, FOX News, iHeartRadio, Popsugar, and even in a TEDx Talk.
John’s work has had a transformative impact not just on how I live my life, but on the people around me as well. Today, John joins the podcast to share stories and lessons from the Mr. Thank You Project. We get into why John decided to take on this time and labor-intensive project, what makes a handwritten Thank You card a much more powerful expression of gratitude than sharing or commenting on social media, and how you can find your own “why” to inspire others to make the world a better place together.
In this podcast interview, you’ll learn:
- How John Israel defines gratitude, why it is distinctly different from happiness, and what makes it so uniquely powerful.
- Why writing a Thank You letter as a teen helped John lift a weight of anger off his back – and how this expression of gratitude came full-circle years later.
- How John found his new “why” at a moment of major transition in his life, and how it naturally led him to launching the Mr. Thank You project, and how he actually set out to realize the massive task of writing five handwritten Thank You cards each day.
- What John did to ensure he never missed a day – and what makes having a daily practice of any kind so powerful and effective.
- Why gray divorce is becoming increasingly common in the United States – and why a one-sentence note attached to an action can be so meaningful.
“Inside every life experience there’s a gift. Your job is to find it.” – John Israel
The Mr. Thank You Project: A Journey to Elevate the Level of Gratitude on the Planet.One Card at a Time
What Is Mr. Thank You?
Start with why — how great leaders inspire action with Simon Sinek
Front Row Dads
Front Row Dads Retreat
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Casey: John, welcome to the podcast.
John: Hey. Thanks for having me, Casey.
Casey: Hey. I’m so excited to have you here with me. I really enjoyed reading The Mr. Thank You project. I’ve been a fan of yours for some time now. I’ve actually taken away some of the things that I’ve heard from various podcasts that you’ve done. I’ve implemented those in my personal life and our business. It’s had such a profound effect I know not just on me but all the people who were interacting with it. I can’t wait to share all these stories and things with our audience because I think it can make a profound impact in people’s lives.
I want to get into some of these things as far as it goes with The Mr. Thank You Project. What it’s all about. Talk a little bit about the book and some of your background and the stories that you have which are fantastic. I want to kick it off with some general questions around gratitude and meaning for you. One of those starts with a quote that I pulled out of your book, and that quote is “Inside every life experience there’s a gift. Your job is to find it.” What does that mean to you?
John: Yeah. That’s a very powerful statement because the… Another definition that I think is relevant for people to understand is the definition of the word gratitude. The best one that I found was that gratitude is the emotion one feels when you receive a gift or experience something as a gift. The second part of that definition is very relevant because it’s like how do you feel when someone gives you a wonderful birthday gift? You feel great. You’re grateful for what they did. When you look at it as the feeling you get when you experience something as a gift that means you get to decide “I’m going to see this thing as a benefit in my life.”
For me that first quote you brought up is really relevant to the most challenging times in my life. When I was 20-22 years old that I was going through some personal development programs and someone said that statement to me that in every life experience there’s a gift and your job is to find it, it was like, “What do you mean? Not every life experience. What about that time that girl broke up with me? Or what about that time that something terrible happened or we lost the big game? There’s no gift in that.” When you consider it as… Just consider that it’s true. What if there was a gift? What might it be? That perspective is really powerful because then it allows you to look at “What did happen?” It’s great that not every person we ever dated that we married. That’s probably good because we end up finding a different, better person or whoever was right for us later on in life and we’ve learned from all these experiences.
That for me is really the beautiful part of the concept of gratitude. That’s what’s very distinct about gratitude and happiness. Happiness is just this emotion you can create from what you’re doing. Gratitude is a reflective state. It’s like something happens and then I take the time to look at it, consider it and then add meaning, whatever meaning I want to it. That’s where the idea of gratitude is really powerful.
Casey: That’s something that I have shared with a lot of my family’s members as they’ve went through a difficult time losing a loved one here recently. I think it’s either the loss of a loved one, the loss of a spouse or a divorce or, heck, breaking up with your girlfriend for that matter was one of the examples that you had given. It’s finding the good in that. Being gracious when you’re faced with a difficult time.
John: Yeah. It doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Sometimes it’s a fresh wound and it’s hard. You don’t want to ask someone whose relative just passed away, “Where’s the gift in this?” It’s like, “Man, give us some time.” I think that’s one of the unique parts of it is it does take a little time. I think we’ll probably get to that with this concept of bringing gratitude to painful situations, but that… I think with all pain and challenges there is a time of mourning and grieving and experiencing all the emotions. Then once we’ve been able to get through that we give ourselves permission essentially to start adding the meaning we want to it, and not being as sad or upset or whatever about it.
Casey: Along these lines of gratitude, knowing that you were coming on as a guest we’d reached out to some of our fans. I had heard from a couple of them. They said, “I just feel like we’re living in a world where there’s less gratitude today, less respect, less appreciation than we had when we were kids.” I don’t know if that’s true. I think every generation seems to think that the current generation is going in the wrong direction. Maybe you think that that’s true. Overall how do you think that gratitude has evolved or changed over, say, the last 50 years or 20 years even? What’s different today?
John: Yeah. It’s an interesting question. One of my specific fields that I’ve focused on that a lot of you guys know or will know about is that I focused on handwritten thank you cards. The Mr. Thank You Project was me committing for one year to handwrite five thank you cards every single day for 365 consecutive days. It’s really interesting because a lot of the people who immediately really connected with it was of a certain generation. Typically it was around 50+ who were like, “Wow, this is so great. You’re doing this. This is such a lost art. Nobody does this anymore.”
Yet the interesting thing is I spoke at a leadership conference for college students. I had 800 college students hand writing thank you cards to all these people in their life and the way that they responded, Casey, was so fascinating. They were like, “Wow, this is so amazing. My Mom has always told me to write cards but I never heard anyone say it like you said it. This is so great. No one does this. It’s like a new…” They treat it like it’s a new thing, like handwriting a thank you card is a new cool thing. What’s interesting is I think there’s a higher value of handwritten cards now because it’s so rare. It’s easier to send a text message. It’s easier to send whatever.
I do think that gratitude does look differently. In the social media world it’s sharing some content that you have saying like, “Hey, I value who you are and what you have to say.” Or it’s what you comment on something or sending someone a text message. Albeit, I don’t think it’s the most powerful way to express gratitude but that’s just the way that our world works. I also think that in the concept of gratitude it’s hard… I think it is more difficult to be grateful today than it might have been a while ago for the sake of time from one thing to the next. It’s so easy to get busy and it’s hard to appreciate what you have because you don’t have the coolest, greatest version. Now there’s another version. Why appreciate what you have when what’s better is what’s ahead of you? It’s hard to really appreciate it. It doesn’t mean it’s not valuable. It’s just not been packaged in a way and presented in a way that people really understand its benefit and value. There is psychological benefits, there’s health benefits of being more grateful and appreciative that people just don’t know.
Truthfully, Casey, that’s what we hope to do. With The Mr. Thank You Project it’s about elevating gratitude on the planet. Part of it is bringing people a perspective and an idea around how you can consciously and intentionally be more appreciative in your life, and not only affect and impact your own life but affect your community and really have a ripple out in the world.
Casey: I think it’s important to say there is a difference between just saying thank you. I think that’s kind of the road that we’ve ended up on. We train our kids, “Hey, say thank you. Say thank you.” There’s not a whole lot of thinking or feeling behind it. Somebody hands us our coffee and we say, “Thanks.” Our spouse does something nice for us, we say, “Thank you,” but we don’t really explain and really get involved in that grateful emotion. It doesn’t help us connect nearly as well if we don’t connect with that emotion, right?
John: 100%. That’s one of the funny things. When people first hear about what I did, which was writing all these thank you cards, their initial response is like, “Why would you do that? Thank you cards are like… It’s such a chore.” Like when you get married you’ve got to write everyone the card for “Thanks for the lamp,” “Thanks for the whatever.” Or when you graduate from college or something. For me, my generation, or at least how I felt, was it was a chore. It was nothing of expressing true gratitude. It was what your Mom told you to do, which was just in line with doing the dishes, doing your laundry. It was a task. It wasn’t an opportunity.
When it comes to this idea and concept of how does it fit in the world now, I think people need to be taught it differently. That’s really what I think for me. I can’t honestly say that I wrote very many thank you cards before I did my project. I just happened to see it be very powerful in a couple of ways in my life and in my family. I said, “Hey, why don’t I try that on for a year and see what happens for me?” It was really aligned with my business at the time and what I cared about. In the process of learning how to authentically express appreciation there was so much learning that occurred that I think that if it took me writing 1800 thank you cards in a year to learn how to authentically express gratitude, most people who don’t have it as a habit are going to have a challenge with it. Hopefully that’s what we get to cover in this podcast. I’m sure we’ll get to some different types of cards that get to be written and given out.
Casey: Yeah. I heard about The Mr. Thank You Project. I hear five thank yous a day for 365 days going, “Boy, that’s a lot of gratitude. That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of effort. What happened to this guy that he thought he had to do this in his life and make a change?” Why did you feel this push that “I’m going to write five thank yous a day for 365 days”? Was the goal to write a book, become as famous as you have throughout the process? Why did you decide to take this project on?
John: Yeah. There’s a couple of things that melded together. There’s basically three stories. I’ll try to condense them as quickly as I can. First story was back when I was a 19-year-old college student selling Cutco knives house to house back in San Diego, California where I used to live. I didn’t have a desire to be a salesperson. I just wanted to pay for college and they had a good program. If you don’t know Cutco knives, a lot of college students will sell them. I was going to this woman’s house named Cynthia. I did a Cutco presentation and she bought a modest order. It was nice but for anyone who’s in business or understands when you make a connection with someone, a real, authentic, genuine connection… For me, I didn’t care what she bought. I just really loved meeting her. She was a really genuinely nice person. She told me all about her kids who she was so proud of. She was a single Mom. Her kids had just moved out of the house. They had become independent. She was talking about how proud of them she was. We had this really great conversation.
What was crazy is that 24 hours later after I left her house Cynthia gives me a call and says, “Hey, John. I need you to cancel my order.” I was really shocked. I’m like, “What?” In this point of my life no one had ever cancelled anything on me. I was like, “Did I do something wrong? Did I say something wrong?” She’s like, “I can’t talk about it but I just need you to cancel my order,” and so I did. I couldn’t stop thinking about her for days. What I realized is that I wasn’t as upset that I had lost a sale as much as I had lost a relationship. I was really sad that I had lost this connection with this person who was a really great human being.
I can’t tell you, Casey, what possessed me to do this because, again, I wasn’t writing a lot of thank you cards in my life. I just felt this desire to send her a thank you card. I grabbed some stationery off my Mom’s desk and I wrote a simple note that essentially said, “Dear Cynthia, I just wanted to reach out and say thank you for your time. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me and allowing me to do my presentation for you. I enjoyed getting to hear about your boys that you’re so proud of, and getting to learn about your life and your work and everything you do. I know right now is not the time for you to buy any Cutco, and that’s okay. I just want to let you know I really enjoyed getting to meet who you are as a person. If you ever need anything in the future, here’s my contact info. Take care. God bless.”
I sent the card and two things happened. One was immediately this feeling how I felt of letting go of this tension, this upset, this… I could be a victim and be like, “She cancelled an order on me.” I could interpret it however I wanted but it got clear that what I was missing was the relationship. That’s what I wanted to acknowledge. Immediately after sending that card this freedom lifted… Whatever anger I had lifted off my shoulders and I was ready to move on.
The second thing that happened was two years later I was off at college at Gonzaga University in Washington state. I was sitting in my dorm room and I get this random call. I pick it up and the woman on the other line says, “Is this Cutco John?” That’s what everyone called me back then. I was like, “Yeah, this is Cutco John. Who’s this?” She says, “My name is Cynthia. You might not remember me but I tried to buy some knives from you a few years ago. Are you still selling Cutco?” At the time I was and I was like, “Yeah, of course. How can I help you?” She’s like, “I’m ready to place an order now.” I was like, “Let’s do it.” I pull out an order form and she’s listing out all these things that she wants to buy. She had a catalog in front of her. I swear, Casey, she’s listing off the entire catalog. This is going to be a massive order. I think maybe one of the biggest ones I had in my career. I’m filling out everything out she wants and I’m blown away. When I’m totaling everything up I’m like, “Oh my God. This is going to be four times the size of what she was originally going to buy.”
Then she says, “John, do you know why I’m calling you right now?” I have no idea. She said, “What I couldn’t tell you all those years ago when I had to cancel my order is that I had just found out that I was diagnosed with cancer and I was going to have to leave my job. My kids who had moved out of the house that I was so proud of were going to have to move back in to help take care of me. As much as I didn’t want to cancel my order, I really had to circumstantially. I felt bad about it but when I got your letter in the mail it really showed me that you value me as a human being, not just a customer. I told myself when I get better I’m going to buy every damn knife this kid is selling.” That’s what happened. It was this powerful experience to learn that as a 21-year-old to value someone as a human being above a customer. That’s a very powerful experience. A lot of that stemmed from that… You can call it a thank you card but you can call it… That could have happened on the phone. It could have happened a lot of different ways, via email, but that card was that thing that she got to hang onto for a while, and she did to that moment. That was the first part that really opened my eyes that there’s power in the written word and in sending a handwritten note.
The second thing was about a year later when I was in college. I was in a biology class and this professor was sharing this idea of global warming. He was talking about how much energy… His question he asked was “How much energy do you think it would take to elevate all the bodies of water over planet Earth by one degree, Celsius or Fahrenheit? How much energy do you think it would take?” No one knew the answer. He gave us the answer and it was some bazillion kilojoules. It was a lot. What he was getting to is the point that it takes more than any one person, any one fish, any one animal, any one country. It’s a collective neglect that is causing all these negative impacts on our environment. I never forgot about that. It was this whole concept of one degree, one percent that could have such a profound negative impact with collective neglect. Hang on to that story.
How that stuck with me was a couple years later- and this is getting more to the present time- right before the project began what I did professionally was I was a gratitude salesman. When I was about 33 years old I was in the corporate gifting world. What I would do is I would help companies and businesses buy large scale amounts of gifts to give out to their clients, their employees. Essentially I was a gratitude salesman, is what I coined myself as. I helped people say thank you for a living. Also- this is in 2016- what was simultaneously happening right then is that my life was expanding as a husband and as a family man. We had a one-year-old son. We had just bought our first house. My wife was leaving her job to become a stay-at-home Mom. We also found out we were expecting our second child. It was all this new, heavy stuff that showed up in my life. Suddenly this job that I got to do and help people express gratitude was not joyful or fun anymore. It became a have-to. It became a struggle. It became like a grind that “I’ve got to produce for my family.”
I did what a lot of people do in those moments of desperation is I went to YouTube and looked up “inspirational videos”. I saw a great video by a guy named Simon Sinek called Start with Why. It’s a great message. If you haven’t heard it I’d definitely check it out. To simplify his message I’ll do that in two sentences. He said, “People don’t care what you do. They care why you’re doing it.” In business people don’t care what you sell. They care why you’re selling it. If you want to change your life and change your business, start with why. I really thought about that. At that point if I was really honest with myself about “what is my why?” my why was about survival. It was about making ends meet. It wasn’t spreading gratitude or cheer or happiness or anything like that. I thought, “That’s really inauthentic. How can I be this guy who says he’s all about elevating gratitude on the planet but I don’t embody it myself?” What I was looking for was a really deep, meaningful purpose that I could drive myself for.
That’s when I started thinking about this whole concept I remembered back in college. That thing that my professor had talked about of that collective neglect and how that can impact. Even something so small as one degree of temperature in the bodies of water but how negatively that would impact the world. How could I do that on the positive with gratitude? Then I remembered that opening story I shared about the card I wrote to my customer. I thought, “What if I could do something like that? What if I could commit for…? What if I could elevate the level of gratitude in the world with handwritten thank you cards? What if I could do that? What if I could inspire 74 million thank you cards written around the world?” By the way, that’s effectively 1% of the world’s population, so that’s where that number came from. I thought, “Man, that would be crazy. It’s probably possible. I don’t even know how you would do that.”
I had a business coach that I worked with at the time and I shared with him this story. He said, “That’s great you want to change the world, but there’s really great Buddhist parable you might want to consider before you start burning the ships and running across the world with thank you cards. Think of it this way: there was a man who went out and tried to change the world. He tried to do so and found it was too big. He couldn’t do that. He tried to change his country and so he worked on what he could inside the government. He found that was still too big. He couldn’t make the real change he wanted. Then he tried to change his town. He worked really hard on that and found out that that still was something he couldn’t change. Then he tried to change his family because he said that ‘That’s who I talk to every day. That’s who’s in my control. That’s who I can influence.’ He still found that he couldn’t change his family, as many of us learn. Then ultimately later in his life he learned that the only thing he had control over changing was himself. By changing himself he could indeed have affected and changed his family who collectively could have impacted their community, their city and ultimately the country and the world.” He told me that parable and I really thought about that. I was like, “If that’s true what could I do on a micro level to really express gratitude and elevate my own level of gratitude before I go out trying to change the world? How can I change my world?”
That’s where I came up with the idea. I love year long challenges. I said, “What if I just commit to handwriting five thank you cards every day for a year?” Five was an interesting number because one didn’t seem like a lot. 10 seemed like way too many cards to write in a day. Five was a Goldilocks moment of “I think that’s right. That would be challenging for me, but I think it would also inspire other people to try something similar.” That’s what we did. On October 10th of 2016 we started the Mr. Thank You project, which was a personal social experiment to see what would happen if I hand wrote five cards every day for a year ultimately to see if we could tip the scale in the world and inspire 74 million thank you cards around the planet.
Casey: How many have you tracked up to this point?
John: We track all this on mrthankyou.com which didn’t exist until basically the project was over. I would write all these cards and I started speaking at conferences because people heard about it and it got on the news and weird stuff. I was this weird dude who was changing the world with gratitude and writing a lot of thank you cards. It’s kind of an interesting story. Then I started getting all this feedback from people that were like, “Man, I love this idea. I’m going to start writing cards. I’m not going to do five a day but I’ll write one a day.” Or “I’ll do a 30 day challenge,” or whatever. Then someone I met at an event, the Front Row Dads Retreat. We might talk about that today. I met this guy at the Front Row Dads Retreat who… It’s a group of entrepreneurial men. We get together twice a year for a conference and mastermind. He was like, “Man, since I met you, I don’t know if you realize this, dude, but I’ve written like 300 thank you cards.” I was like, “Oh my gosh.” I’m like, “That’s crazy, man.” He was like, “Yeah. You should find a way to track all these cards that you’re inspiring around the world.”
That’s why we created mrthankyou.com, which is basically you go there, you create a free profile, you put in your zip code, your name. Then if you write a card to somebody you can just type their name in and their zip code. Then we’ll track all the cards that you write. We give you a global gratitude map to show where your cards are going around the world. It’s really cool.
Right now I think in this moment we’ve got close to 7,000 cards on there. I’m sure there’s a lot more. I hear from people that are like, “Oh yeah, man. I’ve written a couple hundred cards,” or “Our company is doing this.” I’m like, “Cool. Have you guys gone on the website?” They’re like, “No. What website?” I’m like, “All right. We’ve got to work on that. We’re in the promotion of that.” That’s secondary to the actual cards being written and going around the world. That’s what really matters.
Casey: I know here in the office alone we haven’t been tracking our thank yous but we’ve started a thank you project inspired by you. There’s easily well over 100 if not 200 written in the first couple months of the year as a group and those weren’t tracked. You’re having this huge impact. 7,000. It’s probably more like 70,000 if we were able to track all of those individuals that aren’t actually logging into your website. It’s kind of difficult for us to track the impact that you’ve had in their personal lives. We can track the impact in your life. You spent 365 days, 5 thank yous a day. How did that impact your life as far as how’d it make you feel? Did you feel any different from an emotional state when you started the project, when you finished?
John: Yeah, 100%. I’ve got endless stories from this thing. That’s why I had to write a book about it because there’s too many stories of things that occurred that you’ve got to document them. One of the most powerful days that really literally altered my life and set the trajectory of the entire project was day three. When I was boarding a plane from Los Angeles to Philadelphia for the first ever Front Row Dads Retreat, the one I just mentioned. I was flying out to this event. An interesting challenge people ask about is, “Man, how do you write five cards every day? Who do you write them to?” The first thing I did was I made a list, a master list of who I knew I wanted to appreciate. That would be teachers, old bosses, managers, leaders, coaches. People that were really important in my life and I was like, “I know I want to appreciate them.” Then I also left it open. I had about 350 on that list. Then I also wanted to open it to be in the moment, like who can I… I really wanted to alter my ability to be present to what I can appreciate in my life. You become a good finder. You’re looking for someone doing something good so you can acknowledge it, highlight it and reflect it back to them. That’s what you do in a thank you card.
As I was boarding this plane I thought about that and I was like, “Man, I never, never get to thank the pilots on my plane.” I fly a lot with my business, with my work. Every time during takeoff I pray for safe travel. Currently they’ve 100% delivered so they do a great job with that. I’ve never once said thank you to them ever, even physically. I thought, “That’s who I’m going to appreciate.” I walk on the plane and I ask the flight attendant, “What are the names of the pilots?” Which I learned is a very weird question. They typically don’t get asked that question. I had to explain I’m going to write them a thank you card. Then they were okay with it so they gave me the names. I sit down at my seat, and this is where a real challenge comes from that I think a lot of listeners can gain value from is this problem I had, which was how do you thank somebody that you don’t even know?
What I learned about in the language of appreciation, the word ‘appreciate’, the root word of that has Latin origins. The Latin word is appretiare, which literally translates to ‘to a praise’ or ‘to set the value of a thing’. If you think about it, if you’re going to sell a house or a piece of jewelry what’s the first thing you do before you sell it? You take it to an appraiser and you say, “How much is this worth?” Then they have their list of questions and what it looks like. If it’s a property it’s like, “Where is it located? What are the comps on other properties? How old is this home? What are the windows? What’s the condition on the roof?” They have all these lists of questions that they go through. Then at the end of it they hand you this sheet of paper that says, “This is what I believed this house to be worth.”
Now how do you apply that to a human being? What I learned is that you just need to be curious. These are some great questions to ask, which is what is this person’s life like? What do they really care about? What are some of their biggest goals that they have? What are the biggest problems that they deal with on a regular basis? You can ask those questions and not even have a conversation with that person, but you can start to imagine what their life must be like. This is essentially the letter that came out. I said, “Dear pilot, I know it might seem strange to receive a thank you card from a passenger, but I just wanted to let you know that as I was boarding the plane today I was realizing how much I miss my family. Then I realized this is what you do every day. I can’t imagine how many birthday parties, family get-togethers, anniversaries, holidays that you’ve missed for your job, and the countless hours that you spent in flight school preparing for this job. All to do that and have a lot of turbulence and a slightly bumping landing and have people complain about it. Whether you hear it enough or not, I just want to say thank you on behalf of myself and everybody on this plane.” That’s the card that I wrote. I wrote four of those cards because I had two flights and two pilots on each flight. I wrote something similar. The verbiage changed a little bit.
What was interesting about these cards, Casey, is that they were also on my business stationery so they had my contact info on it, which wasn’t the normal thing I would do but that’s just what was on my person at the time. I walked off the plane. I actually handed the cards to the pilots before I left, or I gave it to the flight attendants and said, “Hey, can you give these to the pilots?” That’s how I actually got them out. I didn’t get their address. People ask about that. They’re like, “How’d you get their address?” I didn’t. I just gave it to them. Here’s what was crazy. I land in Philadelphia and we’re there for a couple days. Within 24 hours I get correspondence from 3 out of those 4 pilots thanking me for the card that they got via text or via email, which is crazy to think. Your pilot sending you a text message. They went on to thank me for the cards that they’d received. One went on to say, “John, in my 12 years of flying I have never received a thank you card from a passenger.” That blew me away because I’m like, man, these guys have such significant, such big, such important jobs and no one is taking the time to thank them for who they are and what they do. If it’s like that for these guys with such significant jobs, what about everybody else in their life, in their marriage, in their career, in their relationships? What is it like for everybody else?
We landed in Philadelphia and I had all this stuff rolling in my brain of how crazy this thing is. We have our first day of the Front Row Dads Retreat and then we all decide at the end of the night to go to a bar/restaurant to fellowship and get to know each other. Most of us were new. We didn’t really know each other yet. We go to this bar/restaurant. It’s a hole in the wall. The World Series is playing so some guys wanted to watch the World Series. It was totally… They were not prepared for us. We had no reservation. The waitress looks at us, the one waitress in the restaurant. Her name was Shante. You could just… She didn’t have to say anything. You could see the look on her face. She was like, “You guys just ruined my night.” She was probably ready to go home early or whatever. We told her our situation and she sat us in the back of the restaurant and we had our dinner and our drinks. She took care of us, man. It was really amazing to see how much she rose to the occasion. She could have been totally lame and an annoyed waitress, but she wasn’t. She was great. She served all of us. She even recruited the cook staff in the back to bring our food out. She took care of all of our drinks, all of our food. Phenomenal job. 40 entrepreneurs, by the way. Imagine that. 40 dudes walking into a bar with no reservation. We should not be there. She did an immaculate job.
We’re closing them down. It’s like one or two in the morning and I’m like, “Okay, this is my final card for the night. She’s my number five.” I had written four cards to the pilots earlier, right? I grab some stationery which I keep with me at all times at that point. I grab some stationery and I say, “Dear Shante, I know it might seem strange to receive a card from a patron but I just wanted to let you know how much tonight meant to us. We’re a group called the Front Row Dads, which is a group of entrepreneurial fathers together for a conference to learn how to become better husbands to our wives and fathers to our children while we run successful businesses. Tonight was really all about fellowship and getting to know each other. You did an amazing job. We know we showed up with no reservation. You didn’t even have to seat us. You could have given us terrible service and we would have completely understood, but instead you were great. You were gracious. You helped us have the best night we could have possibly had. On behalf of myself and everybody in our group, thank you.”
I wrote the card, put it in an envelope and I walk over to Shante. She’s kind of sitting in the corner cashing out her tips. I hand her the thank you card and she accepts it awkwardly, as most strangers do when I hand them a thank you card. Then I start to walk away and I realize I need to go to the bathroom so I veer back into the restaurant and I go to the restroom. As I come out of the restroom Shante is standing there waiting for me with this big grin on her face. Her head’s kind of cocked to the side and she runs at me and gives me the biggest bear hug and says, “That is the best tip that I’ve ever been given!” Then she sets me down with a big hug. We just sat there for a moment and looked at each other, not customer-server but human being and human being.
I really got in that moment the power of this project is not about writing a lot of cards to people. It’s about really getting connected with one of the highest values we have as human beings that people don’t ever say but it’s actually important to them, which is to be… One of the highest values human beings have is to be seen for our value, not our weakness, but to be truly seen. It’s an interesting thing. When you think about it as a parent we’re trained to see what’s wrong with our kids because we want to raise good kids. I have two young boys. They’re four and two. I’m constantly looking at what they’re doing wrong and trying to correct it and fix it. We’re almost trained to look for what’s wrong in the world. What if your life wasn’t like that? What if every day you were committed to finding what’s right in people and then acknowledging it and noticing it? For me what I saw was this huge value in what I was doing beyond just writing these cards. This matters in the world. This brings meaning and purpose to people who are just doing a job. When I saw that at that last experience I was like, “I’ve got to do this.” Any doubt that I had was erased in that moment. I was like, “I’ve got to finish this project.”
That was day three, by the way. You can imagine 362 more days of this was crazy. They weren’t always as powerful and emotional and crazy like that, but having that happen early on in the project really set the stage for everything that happened.
Casey: I want to let our listeners know, you need to know that John’s just giving you a fraction of some of these stories. In a couple of the stories you told there I know you go a lot deeper in your book. I really appreciate the stories and how deep you go into them. If you think this is impressive, wait till you get in the book and start reading these stories a little deeper. We will put a link to the book in the show notes as well as a link to that Simon Sinek video, that TED talk that John just brought up.
John, I think we need to make sure we understand how you actually accomplished doing this every five days and never missed a day. Did you ever miss a day? If you didn’t, why didn’t you actually miss a day? How is that even possible?
John: Yeah. That’s a great question. To clarify for people, there were rules for the project that I invented. I made this commitment, “I’m going to handwrite five cards every single day.” I had to put rules in place because for me, I know that if I don’t have clarity with what I’m committed to I’m going to weasel out of stuff. I’m going to find a way out. I really wanted to make this a practice that would happen every day. Here’s what I committed to. Here are the rules. Number one, I would handwrite five cards every single day, meaning the cards had to be handwritten and they couldn’t be a text message or an email. The five cards had to be written before I went to bed, meaning I couldn’t… They had to be five every day. It couldn’t be 35 on Sunday. I couldn’t stack them up and do that because that would get really annoying. Especially on Sunday is my family day. My wife is like, “Why aren’t you playing with the kids?” and it’s like, “I’ve got to thank strangers.” (inaudible – 00:33:38) I committed, and part of it was I want to have a challenge to see if I can really get into a grateful state every day. That was the intention of the project.
Then the next rule was I could write a maximum of three cards per person, meaning I couldn’t write 75 to my wife. That would also get annoying if I’m thanking her for mindless things that… “Hey sweetheart, thank you so much for going to the grocery store and picking up almond butter because you know how much I love almond butter more than peanut butter now. I appreciate you thinking… ” That would lose its luster and value. I made it a max that I could count towards a project of three per person. I did have a handful of people that got four to five thank you cards but I stopped counting them, so some days I actually wrote seven or eight because that’s how it went. So, three cards max per person.
The final one was the rule that really shocked some people, which is that I committed that I would donate $100 a day for any day that I missed. It’s kind of interesting. I talked to my… Like I was mentioning, I have a coach that I work with. I was telling him about the project and he said, “John, what happens if you miss a day?” I was like, “I’ll donate $100 to charity,” and I was all proud of that. He said, “Add a zero.” I was like, “Add a zero? What do you mean? You want me to donate $1,000 every day I don’t miss this project thing?” He was like, “I don’t want you to donate any money, but let me ask you this: how likely is it that you’re going to donate $100 or a couple hundred dollars to a charity sometime this year?” I’m like, “Yeah, we do that all the time.” He’s like, “Then you’re giving yourself a way out. If every day what’s on the line is $1,000 to a charity if you miss a day, how many days are you going to miss this year?” I was like, “Zero.” He was like, “All right, then do it. Then add the zero.” That’s what happened. That rule got adjusted to $1,000 a day for any day that I missed, and I did not miss a day.
It was pretty insane how that worked out where… To clarify, the cards didn’t have to be done by midnight. They had to be done before I went to bed. That’s what was on the line every single day. Casey, there was one experience that was so crazy. I was at work and I was plugging away doing my thing. It was a long day. I came home and I was tired. I didn’t get much sleep the night before. We had an infant at home. I was like, “Okay. I’m just going to sit here and watch some Netflix and then I’ll get up and write my cards in a few minutes,” because I hadn’t written any cards that day yet. I pass out. I fall asleep, dead asleep. I’m dreaming. Deep REM sleep. In my dream my wife comes out. In the dream my wife walks up to me and she shakes me and says, “John, wake up. You have to finish your cards.” I wake up. My wife is not in front of me. She is passed out asleep in our bed with the kids and she’s… It was literally my psychology that woke me up. I looked at my clock. It was 11:59. Again, not that it had to be done by midnight, but how crazy is that? Then I wrote my cards and I went to bed at 1:30 – 2:00 in the morning.
It was crazy, man. It was what was on the line every day. I wasn’t going to not do it. Inside of that, by the way, there was a lot of creativity that came into play. “What are different, interesting, creative ways that I can bring gratitude and appreciate people?” That was the interesting part where I didn’t say I had to thank this many people, but I had to write this many cards per day. That’s where it was the distinction that I actually found some really interesting ways to express gratitude.
Casey: Along the way was there ever a point you’re 100 cards in and you’re starting to get frustrated? Maybe you’re getting a little discouraged? Did you ever get discouraged and say, “Maybe this isn’t worth it. Why am I doing this?”
John: 100%. I think this goes with probably the… The people who are listening to your podcast would really connect with this. Again, back in the day there was a little bit more level of reciprocity if someone gave you a gift or appreciated you. I remember meeting a client one day. She was hearing about what I was doing and she was like, “Oh my gosh. Yeah. My God, I sent this person a wedding gift and they never said a thank you.” She was offended. Here I am. I’m this guy who’s writing all these thank you cards. It was at about day 40 that I remember I had this moment where I was really annoyed. On day 40 I had sent out, what is that, 200-and-something thank you cards. Out of those 200 cards… Actually, I’ll ask you… You already know the answer because you’ve read the book, right? I would ask the listeners, what do you guess, what percentage of people would respond if you sent out 200 thank you cards? What would you think, Casey?
Casey: I’ve had this experience. I think our whole team has, and that’s why a lot of them get discouraged. You send out a thank you card, you never hear anything back. Then I think about all the cards that I’ve received from families that we work with or from family members for that matter. I can’t say that I’ve ever wrote them back and said, “Thank you for the thank you,” or maybe even mentioned to them, “Hey, thanks for the card.” I probably forgot about it at some point but it did mean a lot to me at the time. I would venture to guess as low as 5% or 10%.
John: Yeah, and that’s pretty accurate. It was roughly about a 10% response rate. Out of the 200 cards that I wrote I had only about 20 people who responded to even let me know they received the card. To me that was mind blowing. I’m like-
Casey: Cynthia, right? Cynthia didn’t, right? Did Cynthia let you know?
John: Two years later.
Casey: For years. Years went by and finally she let you know she appreciated the card.
John: Right. That’s where there was this real… Kind of like you had commented, I had this experience of “Does anyone care about this? Is this a big deal? Am I wasting my time? Is this even worth it? No one even responds to this. Is this just something you thought was cool that’s not really that cool?” I had this experience of I had to ask myself, “What is the intention of what I’m doing? Is my intention to get a reaction and a response? That’s how I’m acting. How I’m acting is that people should say something back. That it’s actually more about me than it is about expressing authentic appreciation and gratitude, which really a true gift, true generosity is giving without expecting anything in return.” I was really challenged and conflicted that “How you’re acting isn’t consistent with what you say the underlying theme is of being grateful and appreciative.”
Around that time I had a moment where someone sent me a card thanking me for the card they got. I was busy and I was travelling and I forgot to respond, and they sent me a text a week later. It was like, “Hey, did you get my card in the mail?” I’m like, “Was I totally that guy that didn’t respond?” There was even another experience where I had a… It was a family member and I had written them a card. I’ll share authentically who it is now because I think it’s more relevant. It was my Mom. I wrote a card to my Mom and loved on her as hard as I ever could. I shared with her everything and how much I appreciated her. I didn’t hear anything back.
John: Nothing. Nothing at all. I went out to go see my Mom about… I gave it up. I’m like, “All right. Whatever. I’m not going to bring this up.” Eight months later I go home and I visit my Mom in San Diego. We’re talking and she’s… What people don’t know is that this time also my father was really far along in his journey with Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed when I was 17 years old. He’d had it for literally almost 20 years. Yeah, about 18 years. My Mom was his 100% caretaker and she was watching him. I remember we were sitting down having a heart-to-heart because he was getting pretty far along. We were like, “What’s next? How do we deal with the possibility of his death?” We were talking about it and she said, “John, I have to tell you this. I know you sent me a card. I so wanted to appreciate what you said but I just couldn’t. I have been in so much pain and so much stress. This is so hard for me to do all this by myself.” I’m the youngest of five kids. I have one sister who lives in town in San Diego close and so she helps out a lot. We all live in Texas and we don’t really make it out to California very much to see them, so I really got to see how much she was struggling.
Then we got to have a conversation and I was like, “What do you really right now?” She was like, “I would love for each of the kids to come out and visit with dad for a week. Take a week out of your job. I know it’s going to be hard, but if you did that and watched him for a week and then I got to leave and go be a normal human being for a week and not be a caretaker, that would make all the difference in the world.” I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” I committed my dates and then all the other siblings we all committed our weeks that we would come out and do that and take care of dad. Man, Casey, I’m so glad we did because, I’m not even kidding, the day… During the time my final sister, the fifth one in the family, went to go visit my dad he passed away. All of us got that time and we’re so appreciative that we did.
It really opened my eyes to give up needing to hear from anybody because you don’t know what they’re going through. You also don’t know how much what you did mattered to them. There’s many times people spoke with me months after they got a card and said, “Hey, man. I didn’t tell you this but that came at the perfect moment. You didn’t know what was going on in my life but that encouragement, that love, that gratitude didn’t exist in my life. That really mattered to hear.” That’s where I tell people, give up the need to hear or see anything back and just give. Just give, just give, just give. I can’t tell you how much my life has been blessed generously from other people since starting this project. It’s endless. It keeps coming and it’s amazing.
Casey: I think so often that’s why we get into writing thank yous. It’s all very selfish. We’re doing it for ourselves. We’re not necessarily doing it for that other person. Especially if we’re in a sale situation, we’re doing it so that we can get that prospect back in the books. Or we’re doing it so that we can save the deal or keep them around for a longer period of time. We’re always doing it for ourselves. If we can do it for the right reasons then we can continue doing this for the timeframe as you did. Maybe it’s one a day, or two a day, or five a day. Whatever that number is for you, the only way you’re going to be able to continue to persist is if you’re really doing it for someone else. Maybe you’re doing it for yourself and letting go of some pain. Maybe it’s forgiving that individual, kind of like in a way you did with Cynthia. You’re saying, “It’s okay. I don’t need to hold this against you.” That relieves you. You’re showing appreciation for someone else, and hopefully you’re doing it to help them and whatever they might be going through in any given time.
I think one of the thank yous that you wrote had to do with that, had to do with making somebody feel better. It happened to be a whole basketball team, I believe. That was Gonzaga, right? The university?
John: Yeah. Oh, man.
Casey: This is one of my favorite stories so we have to get it out there.
John: Yeah. It’s one of those that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m a graduate of Gonzaga University. You may or not know but we’ve got a really good basketball team. We’re also a very small school so there’s a lot of love for that team because that’s what’s put us on the map. In 2017 we had made it to the national championship game for the NCAA March Madness tournament, which is essentially like the Super Bowl for college basketball. We go to the game. I wasn’t physically there but we’re watching it. My whole family we’re all jerseyed up and ready to go. It was a tough game. We didn’t get blown out because it wasn’t like that. It was just an ugly game and we lost. It was not good. I’ve never been a huge sports fan but I know people who’ve talked about their team losing and being so upset. I literally felt like… I don’t know if I’ve ever really been seriously depressed but that’s the closest I ever felt. Sick to my stomach, like, “I can’t believe we just lost.” That’s where I felt it, in my stomach. It was about 9:30 pm. It was a Sunday. I was thinking, “Man, I’ve still got to write my thank you cards. How the heck am I going to write thank you cards? I don’t want to be grateful for anything right now.”
That was one of the interesting challenges that came up in multiple ways in the project, which is how do you be grateful when you don’t feel like it? How do you write a thank you card when you’re not happy about anything in your life, and especially something you… For me it was really significant that our team had lost. One of the unique challenges that I began to ask myself was “How can I bring gratitude to this experience?” If it’s a painful experience or a trauma or something that was really charged emotionally negatively, how can I bring gratitude to this experience? I thought about it. I thought about the Gonzaga men’s basketball team. I thought, “Man, we didn’t win the national championship but how crazy and amazing is it that we made it to the national championship? This is literally the best team in our school’s history. This is to be celebrated right now. Whatever. We made it to the national championships. That deserves a celebration.” I decided, “What if I wrote a handwritten card to every single member of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team thanking them for the amazing season they’ve put forth?” I can’t tell you, Casey, literally how instantly, like snap my fingers, I went from emotionally depressed to “I am so freaking excited right now because I get to acknowledge and appreciate someone who really matters to me, which is the Gonzaga men’s basketball team.”
Here’s what I did. I went on their website and I pulled up every team player. I think it was about 17 or 15 players. I’m talking the red shirts, everybody. I looked up their scores. I looked up their best games. I wrote their card thanking them for the season, pointing out specific games that they were really a key player. Even with the red shirts I wrote, “Hey. Championship teams aren’t made in the championship games. They’re made in every single practice that led up to that. Thank you so much for pushing our team really hard to be the champions that they are.” I wrote those cards and I sent it out to every one of them, and I sent one out to Mark Few, who’s the head coach of Gonzaga men’s basketball. It was amazing. It took me several days, obviously, to write all those cards. It felt so good.
That’s what’s interesting. You can have a negatively charged experience and any time someone brings it up… Over the next two weeks you can imagine. I’m a basketball fan so whenever my school would get brought up and I’d say, “Oh yeah, I went to Gonzaga” people would be like, “Oh man, I’m so sorry. You guys lost the game, right?” Then that would get me even more negative. I’m like, “I can’t believe you brought that up.” There’s other things in life where if people bring it up you have a negative emotional attachment to it. What was so fascinating for me was that it wasn’t like that. Any time someone brought up the school and the game and the loss I’m like, “Whatever, dude. We made it to the national championship. How did your team do, by the way?” I was so proud. For me that was such a game changer in my life to learn that I could shift my attitude by making gratitude an expression, and choosing that I’m going to find a way to be appreciate and grateful right now. That was amazing. Here’s-
Casey: Shift your attitude, do gratitude.
John: What was that? Shift your attitude…?
Casey: Shift your attitude, do gratitude. I like that.
John: That’s a nice one. I like it.
Casey: Yeah. There you go.
John: Can I tell you the crazy part?
Casey: Yeah, tell me.
John: Okay. Here is where it got crazy. Two months later I am getting together for dinner with my family for my birthday. My wife says, “Hey, something came in the mail for you.” She hands it to me and it is a card addressed from Gonzaga Men’s Basketball. I’m like, “No freaking way.” I open it up and it is a handwritten card from Mark Few, the head coach of the Gonzaga men’s basketball team thanking me for all the love and gratitude that I sent to the entire team. He expressed how much he appreciated the alumni and how much the… I’m getting choked up talking about this. This is weird. How much he appreciated the alumni and how the fans make the team. I felt so honored that he sent me this card.
By the way, this is a really valuable point. Some people I think who are in your group that are listening are leaders in their company. They’re CEOs. They’re champions. They’re high level people that this might seem like writing a card to somebody. I can’t tell you how much more powerful a card from you comes and is received than it would be from anybody else because they know how valuable your time is. They know how important and significant you are. The fact that you did that means so much to people.
That’s what I got. For any people who are listening you can’t see this but behind me is my gratitude wall where I keep every letter that has been sent to me over the last two years. I have that card right up behind me by my light switch. I see it every single day and it reminds me of the value of what I do in helping spread this message around the world.
Casey: I’ve got to think that it had a really strong impact on your family as a whole and then even with your relationship with your spouse. I would think regular appreciation would be so powerful in any kind of relationship, especially one that’s that intimate. One of the things that I wanted to get to, it’s something that is on my mind a lot and that’s something called grey divorce. My parents divorced in their 60s after nearly 40 years of marriage. I see a lot of our families that we work with that are in their 60s, they’re in their 70s and they’re getting divorced. This is something that is a major trend in the country. That is that the fastest-growing segment of divorce is individuals over the age of 55. I wonder how we could apply your thoughts on gratitude in order to strengthen a relationship as we enter retirement.
John: Such a good question, man. Obviously I wrote some cards to my wife. It’s a given. It’s funny, I didn’t write one right away. I think I waited till about two months in before I wrote her a card. I didn’t want to just be like, “I’m going to write you a card. You’re part of the project.” I wanted it to be meaningful and timely. One day I was like, “Okay. I’m going to write it tonight.” I really poured my heart out. Love, love, love. “Everything I love about you, what I appreciate about you, what I care about. I’m so glad we’re together.” Laid it out. I left it on the dinner table. Again, don’t hear anything. My wife at this time we had a one-month-old baby, so this is a very emotional time for her. She’s taking care of a lot, the house. We’d just moved to a new house as well. It was kind of a crazy time so I gave her grace and I was like, “Hey, this isn’t about me. I wanted to make sure I said what I said.”
I think it was about a day or two later that I was getting ready to go to meet some clients. We had just moved to Dallas, at Texas that time. We moved in October. Right when the project started we moved. We only had one car because we had moved across the country so we were like, “We’ll buy a new car when we’re there.” We hadn’t bought one yet. We had one car so I was going to take it to go to work to meet with clients. We’re also a big coffee family. That’s a part of our world. I make a French press in the morning and then we’ve got a thermos and I pour the other half of it in there for my wife. She drinks that when she wakes up because I get up early. I’m doing the routine and I wake up and I’m about to make coffee and I’m like, “Oh, shoot. We’re out of coffee.” Then I realize, “Oh, man. My wife’s not going to get any coffee. I can go get coffee because I can go to Starbucks on the way to my client, but I don’t have time to go to Starbucks and come back. If I leave… ” It’s that 15 minute gap. If you miss that 15 minute gap you’re in the worst traffic ever. That’s what the time was. I was like, “Okay. If I go get her coffee I’m going to be late to my client. I don’t want to disrespect my client.” There was this conundrum.
I’m about to leave the house, kind of creeping out. Then my wife comes down the stairs and she’s like, “Is the coffee done?” I was like, “We’re out of coffee.” She’s like, “Oh, we’re out of coffee?” You could see her brain slowly starting to pick up, like, “We’re out of coffee. You’re leaving. You have the only car. I can’t go get coffee. I’m not going to have coffee. I’ve had two hours of sleep. I’m holding an infant. Oh my God, you’re leaving me in the house with no coffee.” I was ruining her life right there and I said, “Sorry, sweetheart. I’ve got to go.” I leave and I go to Starbucks to get my coffee like the selfish butthead that I am. I’m going to make sure I get taken care of. I’m in line and I have this moment. I’m like, “How can you do this, man? How can you not bring your wife a cup of coffee? She’s going to have a super hard day, and you know it, if she doesn’t have some coffee right now.” I was like, “If I do that I’m going to be late to my client’s appointment.”
This is the moneymaker. This is the decision and the thought that was the game changer for me in my relationship and also with the project. Which is this: “How can you tell her how much you love her and care about her and yet not treat her that way?” The other way to say that is “How do you treat that for which you say you are grateful?” How do I go write my wife this love letter and then leave her hanging like that? I was like, “I’ve got to bring her some coffee.” I get an extra cup of black coffee, I bring it home. I put it on the porch step and I put a little note card literally one sentence. All it said was “Monica, you are always worth a warm cup of coffee,” and signed “Love, your husband.” I sent her a text message as I drove away. I said, “Come out to the front door.” She finds it, she takes a photo of it, she puts it on Instagram and she sends me all those lovey texts and all these things like, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much. This is going to change my day.” Later on she goes on to tell me that’s the most powerful thank you card that she got.
I’m like, how is that? How can I have written a super powerful, big, long love letter and then this one sentence letter means the most? I think it’s because that sentence was attached to an action that proved how much I really loved and cared for her. That’s really one of the challenges that I think people will… I would say it’s a challenge inside the experience. That when you authentically say thank you to somebody or “I love you” or “I appreciate you” you don’t get to then treat them like crap and have no consequences. You are now responsible for that gratitude you put out there. Here’s the great thing: it’s not a bad thing. It just means that you’re now responsible for treating people better. Do you know what happens when you treat people better? They reciprocate back. They treat you better and life gets better. Your relationships get better. I’m not saying I have a perfect marriage or anything but that was a real game changer in as far as who I am as a husband for my wife and how I treat her. I don’t get to say “I love you” and then not treat her that way.
Casey: Yeah. I think that’s something that probably continued in your life, right? Did it stop there? How do you daily practice this gratitude with your wife? Do you have any daily practices as a couple?
John: That’s an interesting question. We have a couple of things. One… we actually started this before the Mr. Thank You project. It might have been one of those things in the background that I didn’t realize was there. We’re big on Airbnb renting our house out. Whenever we go travel somewhere we pay for our travel because we rent our house out. That covers our lodging when we go somewhere else. It’s a cool little system. We also have this wall called the wall of gratitude. Any time a guest comes to stay at our house, and even if we’re there, if it’s friends and family coming over we actually have them sign our… It’s literally a wall in our kitchen. We give them a Sharpie and we say, “Write what you’re grateful for and sign our wall, please.” It’s a really fun thing. We have this attachment of when we go every time we come into our kitchen we look at this wall with all these signatures from friends and strangers from all around the world. It’s really cool. I think it’s part of our culture in our family that we are appreciative.
I think there’s also different ways to appreciate people. One of the things for me how that looks is appreciating my wife’s energy. What I mean by that is for me, I’m a business guy. I’m out in the world constantly. I take pretty good care of myself health wise. I do yoga. I eat healthy food. I try and take care of myself because for me it makes me perform better. For her, she’s a stay-at-home Mom who doesn’t always have the luxury of going out to do certain things because she is watching kids all the time. For me it’s literally just stopping and saying, “Hey, what do you need right now? What do you need this week to make sure you’re at your best energy state?” She’s like, “Man, I really need to go get my nails done,” or “I really need to go run some errands and have you watch the kids.” We’ve since built our life and it’s constantly been asking that question of “What do you need right now to best help your energy?” and then me following through on that.
One of them was a big deal, which was “Hey, I’m really trying to… ” It was about a year ago. She was like, “Hey, I’m really trying to get one of our kids to stop nursing. One of the challenges is he sleeps in the bed. I would love for you to start putting him to bed.” I had to change my entire sleep schedule so that I could start putting our youngest child to bed. That totally changed her life. That gave her extra energy. She could get better sleep. She’s a better Mom. For me it was constantly asking that question of “What do you need right now to be at your best?” “How can I help you?” Simpler way to say it. It wasn’t easy for her to always tell me that because I wasn’t always that giving and generous of a husband, unfortunately. Just being true with you on that. I think that’s been really helpful because that’s what she does too now. She’ll say, “What do you need? How can I help you? What are you struggling with?” That’s some of the things that I think have really been transformative long term in our marriage. That it wasn’t just like a Band Aid.
That’s what I want people to get. Writing a thank you card isn’t just putting a Band Aid on a relationship. It’s setting the context for the future of the relationship. Now you begin this cycle of appreciation that people reflect back to you and they work harder for you. If you have a staff member and you write them a thank you card and they’re like, “Wow, thank you so much.” They’ll be like, “My boss really cares about me,” so they’ll work harder for you. It doesn’t mean you stop acknowledging them. You keep it up. Then that has them keep reflecting back and then boom and boom. It’s like an upwards spiral. That’s where I think a lot of companies and businesses have found to be a valuable thing to bring in to what they do. It’s not just about writing a card. It’s about changing the dynamic of relationships.
Casey: Really elevating that relationship to the next level. We can see how you’ve helped incorporate some of these things into your marriage. As a Front Row Dad you’ve been to the Front Row Dads Retreat. Jon Vroman, he’s been on our podcast in the past. I’m sure that you have some of these practices of gratitude that you’ve implemented with your kids. A lot of our listeners are stellar grandparents. They’re very involved in their children’s lives, their grandchildren’s lives. I’m wondering, how can a grandparent do maybe some of the things that you’ve done? How could they improve the relationship they have with their children by implementing this idea of gratitude? I also want to throw a quote in there. You answer this however you want or take the conversation wherever you want to take it. You said you don’t need to teach a three-year-old child to be happy, but you need to teach them to say thank you. That had a big impact on me.
John: Yeah. There’s a lot there. As far as for grandparents, this is a fun fascinating thing that you can choose to do in whatever capacity you want. I’m a big fan of journals and writing things down. Number one, if you actually wrote a really awesome, amazing, authentic letter to one of your grandchildren. Maybe it’s one of those where you’re like, “Hey, I want…” You give it to your child and you say, “Hey, I want you to give this to Jim on his 18th birthday.” Just write that. “Who I see you as and what I believe you to be.” We’re big on our last name. “You’re an Israel. This means something.” Giving that to a parent to give to their child later on when they could actually hear it and understand it and get it, that’s really powerful. I know some people who have actually picked up a journal and they write about experiences with their child or grandchild in the journal. Then they wait till a certain birthday and they give them that journal to say, “Hey, here’s all of these things that I remember about our relationship.” That was really cool.
As far as what we actually do with our kids, you really do need to teach them. They don’t know… The distinction of happiness and gratitude is that with gratitude it’s a reflective state. Happiness is just in the moment. You’re happy. You’re excited. You’re a kid. You’re playing. It’s easy to be happy. Gratitude has you literally stop and think. That’s hard for a little kid. For us it’s a constant simple part of Mom just made him macaroni and cheese. I’ll lean over to his ear and I’ll say, “Say thank you.” Then he’ll say, “Thank you, Mom.” Then he can see her smile and then when she’s happy I’m happy. It’s a full circle. That’s what it looks like on a small scale.
Then as far as they’re four and two so they’re not going to write anything as far as thank you cards. What we’ve done is any time we get a gift in the mail or something like that from a relative, we actually make a video. We do a really quick… I’ll take my phone out and we’ll say… I’ll be like, “Okay. This is going to be for grandma and this is for that truck that she gave you.” Then he’ll hold the truck up and be like, “Thank you, grandma, for the truck. I’m really excited to play with it,” whatever. Then we’ll text that to grandma. Dude, she’s over the moon. I think that is almost the new thank you card because the kids are so much more video related. I think that’s something that we’ve done to teach our kids and implement this as a practice. We’re also helping them say thank you the way that it’s most relevant to them and also doable for them. Those are some of my strategies I would say and throw out there for anyone who’s a grandparent, a parent or has little kids that are around.
Casey: Let’s do a little quick-fire as we wrap up here. The first one is, we’ve got a lot of people that are retiring. They’re leaving a long-time employer. Do you have any advice for them as they leave that long-time employer on how they can build new relationships, or maintain past relationships, or implement this idea of the thank you card as they leave?
John: Yeah. It’s a great question. I have had some experiences with people doing this when they were leaving a job. There’s one particularly. He was a friend and he wasn’t retiring because he’s like 25, but I think this is totally relevant for someone no matter what your age is. He was basically in a startup and he was with this company from the very beginning. He knew everybody on the team: the CEOs, the owners. Everybody. He was leaving for a different opportunity. He felt this particular project wasn’t in alignment with what he wanted to do anymore, but he didn’t want to leave and burn the bridge. I was in the midst of the Thank You project and we were having a conversation about it. Then I was telling him about how I had written cards to people and how it was impacting me.
I talked to him a couple days later and he was like, “Dude, you’ll never guess what I did.” He hadn’t quit yet and he actually wrote a card to every team member on his team and the CEO, and the CFO, and the owner of the company. He wrote, I don’t know, 15 to 20 cards. He wrote all these cards and he was like, “Dude, I can’t tell you how great it felt. I was so scared that I was leaving them, that I was doing something bad, they were going to be upset at me. Just by writing out… What I wrote was I would tell them how much I appreciated them. I would reflect on a story that we had together that I really enjoyed our relationship from.”
He was like, “It was like getting to relive the best parts of that company.” Even though he was trying to leave because he didn’t feel it was aligned anymore, but he was reflecting and remembering the best parts of his time there. For him it was like he got to leave on this really high note. Then on the flip side of that, the response he got from everybody was this loving send-off. Like, “Oh my gosh, Spencer, we’re going to miss you. We love you.” He’s created such a good leaving experience with the owners that they said, “Hey, man. We know you’re going to go off and do other bigger, better things but you’ve still got value here. I know you haven’t found that next job yet. Can we pay you as a consultant?” It was less hours, more pay, short term commitment, so it was a better deal while he was exiting. It was such a magical transition that it was really… What I see there is honoring the past and honoring their relationships. I think when we take the time to do that those relationships come back to honor us in so many different ways.
Casey: Yeah. For a retiree sometimes we don’t realize this. As we step into retirement we’ve spent so much time with those people every single day at work. Those are our friendships. Those are sometimes our strongest relationships and we don’t really recognize it until they’re gone. This is a strategy that can help you maintain some of those relationships, and maybe even bring some of those people that were just coworkers into your friend circle as you step into retirement. It’s so important to have that circle of friends and those relationships. Not to mention, a lot of retirees wouldn’t mind a bridge to retirement. If they could go through this process maybe they can get that offer to stick around for a little while in a contracting capacity and-
John: Yeah. By the way, I’ve got to say here… I almost don’t need to say this but I need to say it. Which is you really, really need to give up any expectation of receiving any favor back on anything. People hear what I say sometimes like, “Oh my gosh. That’s so great.” Then when they don’t get it they’re like, “Why did I even do it then?” Then it’s like, what was your real intention? I think that what’s there is to really go in authentic. If you go in authentically they’re going to feel it. I’d be lying if I said every card I wrote was the most perfect magical poetry like some of the things I said and were like, “Wow, that’s pretty good literature right there. That was pretty good writing.” They weren’t always like that. They weren’t perfect. This is an important thing is that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be authentic. That’s what people care about.
Casey: How do you motivate people to do this before it’s too late? Get up and get going and start practicing gratitude, start practicing writing these thank yous and appreciating others?
John: I can tell you, I can’t make anyone do anything right but I can just share stories that hopefully create a desire. For me one of the stories that was really powerful was at around month three of the project. It was in December. I was sitting at home I guess as most people do. I was sitting at home and I got a call from my best friend, Nick. He was the best man at my wedding. We grew up in high school together. We were very, very close. Unfortunately Nick was calling me to tell me that his father had passed away. It was terrible news because I was really close to his dad. He was a great guy. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. His parents had a lot of money so I would spend all my… I tried to eat dinner at their house all the time when I was a kid. They really took care of me. They were like my second parents. To hear his dad passed away really was unfortunate.
What made it worse was that I had actually written Nick’s dad a thank you card during the project but I had failed to send it. It was literally sitting on my desk looking at me. I could see Nick’s dad’s card while I’m talking to Nick. I had that card for about a month and the only reason I didn’t send it was because I was busy. I was writing cards and I was doing business things and I was like, “Whatever. I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it.” Then he passed away and I had this deep sadness. I still sent the card to my friend Nick and I said, “Hey, please read this to your dad however you feel he’ll receive it.” I’m not happy that that happened but I am appreciative that I got to experience it. What it did was it helped me understand a sense of urgency. We don’t get to know when it’s our time to go or when it’s anyone’s time to go.
When people ask, “Hey, what’s some of the biggest things that you’ve gotten out of this whole project?” I would relate it to one of the strongest pains people have close to death when they’ve reflected on their life and what are their biggest regrets. A lot of it is about relationships. People they didn’t forgive and people that they wished they had talked to, that they had kept a relationship with. Or things that they wish they had apologized for but that they didn’t because they were too proud. That’s what it’s like for some people when they die. Then there’s the other side of this which is what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if you made a commitment and a decision that anyone that matters to you that you commit to tell them how much they mean to you and what you love about them? That’s what I got to do for an entire year. It’s like, “What did you get out of the project?” I got a sense of peace. There’s not a whole lot of things left unsaid in my life with my family, with my siblings, with…
There’s a whole part of the book that I wrote about called Emotional Intelligence and Gratitude. How I learned to bring gratitude to pain by not writing thank you cards but writing an “I’m sorry” card or an apology card and owning my mistakes and my failures. How much that transformed my life by being able to do that. Now there’s a lot of peace and there’s not a lot left unsaid. Whatever people choose to do with the project, that’s great. All I can tell you is that time is limited. You don’t know when it’s your time, when it’s their time. Do it now.
Casey: Especially as you step into retirement you’ve got a little additional time on your hands. If you’re wondering how you’re going to fill it I hope you take advantage of this time. We talk about fulfillment. Most people are looking for fulfilment in life especially as you step into retirement. “What’s my purpose?” This time to reflect, as you said. That’s one of the biggest benefits is reflecting on your relationships and the impact they’ve had on your life. Spending that time reflecting and also forgiving individuals, saying you’re sorry. That’s going to be a very fulfilling experience, I can only imagine, at that time in your life. I hope people take you up on your challenge. If somebody wants to take you up on that challenge how can they connect with you? How can they get started? Where would you direct them?
John: Yeah, great question. Everything for me is under Mr. Thank You. If you go to mrthankyou.com you can put it an inquiry or ask a question and it’ll get to me. My direct email is actually firstname.lastname@example.org. What I like to give away to people whenever I’m on a podcast is a really simple starting point which is a 30-day challenge. You don’t have to do five cards a day. You could do one card. You could do three cards. You could do whatever you want. That’s why we try to create it open-ended like that. If you go to mrthankyou.com/30 you get a free… Just put in your email. We’ll give you a free PDF of a 30-day challenge. It gives you a chance to write down people who you want to thank. It gives you some questions to reflect on why you want to do this and how you plan on doing this. It’s really good. It’s what I wished I had. All the stuff that I give away now is what I wished I had when I started the project.
Then if you start writing cards we would love to hear about it. I love stories, by the way. I get emails at least once a week from people who are like, “I did this.” I had someone who was like they were on their honeymoon cruise. They did this whole experience where they got all the people on their table at dinner to write a card to the wait staff. They were at the same table every day because that’s, I guess, how you eat on a cruise. They talked about how great it was to experience that and how it created a bonding experience. I love hearing about how people choose to use this project to really make a difference in the world. Feel free to tell me some stories about that. Mrthankyou.com is where you can find me.
Casey: We will be putting that link in the show notes. I want to say this. When I first heard this I said, “I just don’t know if I can do this.” I write like an eight-year-old. When I was writing as a kid I had this perfect handwriting. Then one day in fifth grade all these other kids they started making fun of me and the way that I write. They said, “You write like a girl,” and so I learned to write real sloppy. Now it’s so bad that people say, “You’re not really going to send that to somebody, are you? It looks like an eight-year-old wrote it.” You said in one of your past interviews, “That’s okay. That’s perfectly fine because people aren’t really going to judge you on your writing for the most part. They’re going to be blown away that you took the time to write the card.” For me that was going, “Okay, they might think that I write like an eight-year-old but they’re going to be really appreciative that they got this card and they’ll get over it.” I think that’s really true. You said, “You could have somebody… You could type it up and you could sign it,” but I think there’s something in that handwritten form that really gets emotion. It gets yourself on that sheet of paper. I hope people take advantage of that offer.
John, thanks so much for joining us on the podcast.
John: Absolutely, man. Thanks for having me.
Casey: I look forward to catching you at the Front Row Dads Retreat maybe later this year.
John: Cool, man.
Casey: Take care.
John: Take care, guys.