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'On Life & Leadership' Blog

Big changes can start with the smallest of steps

As first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on August 8, 2016

As a leadership and life coach, I’ve worked with many people who want to make big changes but don’t know where to start. I often recommend they take what seems like a ridiculously small first step. Often, it makes a big difference.

I’ve been thinking about this change strategy as I consider the growing divisions in our country. Pundits often comment on the breadth and bitterness of the divides but offer few solutions. And the suggestions they do offer can feel hopelessly complex.

Maybe there is a ridiculously small first step we all can take that will lead us to a solution.

Maybe that step is something as simple as making common courtesy common again. For example:

My stepdaughter, Barclay, has a summer job as a hostess at an upscale Philadelphia brewpub. An elderly woman came in with her family for dinner. The woman mentioned she had a medical condition that made her sensitive to cold and asked for the restaurant’s temperature to be adjusted. The manager turned the thermostat down a notch, but Barclay saw that the woman still was shivering. So she dashed out of the restaurant, fetched a sweater from her car, and handed it to the customer.

The woman was so touched by this simple act of kindness that she embraced Barclay and started to cry. The next day, the restaurant manager acknowledged Barclay’s gesture in his daily employee email.

When the owner of the restaurant learned what Barclay had done, he wrote her a lovely thank-you note for what he deemed exemplary customer service.

I asked Barclay how it felt to receive this recognition, and her response was telling. She said that although the praise felt good, she was sad that something she considered “no big deal” – a common courtesy – was considered extraordinary by others.

I was sad that Barclay is growing up in a world where common courtesy is no longer the norm, where our shared humanity is obscured by shared mistrust, where acts of violence are more notable than random acts of kindness.

What if we started to change that worldview by testing my small-step strategy? What if we all went out of our way to commit acts of common courtesy?

Start by opening a door for someone, checking on an elderly neighbor on a hot day, or letting another driver merge into your lane of traffic.

What if we thought of “See Something, Say Something” not just as a call to report suspicious behavior at this guarded time, but also as a call to engage in neighborly behavior? “See someone, look him or her in the eye, and smile.”

I was recently on a train platform at 30th Street Station heading to New York. It was 7:15 a.m., and all of the people around me were looking down at their cellphones, many with headphones on.

I challenged myself to resist the urge to pick up my phone. Instead, I complimented the stylish woman next to me, whose skirt I admired. Her face lit up with a smile brighter than any phone screen.

One ridiculously small step.

Two days ago, I said “hello” to another hiker as I passed him on the Wissahickon trail.

Startled, he asked, “Was that ‘hello’ for me or are you talking to someone on the phone?”

I chuckled and answered, “No, I was saying hello to you.”

“Wow,” he replied.

Wow indeed.

If each of us takes the small step of seeing and acknowledging those around us, then maybe kindness will become contagious, common courtesy will become common again, and perhaps everyone would feel that they matter.

Let’s see if what seem like ridiculously small steps can seriously change the world. What better time than now? Join me for the You Matter Marathon – No running required!

One thought on “Big changes can start with the smallest of steps

  1. Sidonie Foadey says:

    Way to go, Cheryl! Small, simple, common but incredibly powerfuf! A grain of sand matters, a drop of water matters, and so on!!! Thanks very much for having started the YMM. A wonderful seed has just been planted and is already growing exponentially. The ramification is bound to be nothing short of phenomenal! So it is. Namasté, dear One, You Matter!!!

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