Make America Grateful Again
One of the most transformative moments of my life took place during a 20 minute taxi ride in New York City. It was around 2003, and I had been a Yellow Cab driver for about a year and a half. At that time, I had been going through a rough patch, both financially and personally. My passenger, who I very nearly drove right past, clearly took notice of my gloomy mood. He asked me how I was, offered some encouraging words, and then proceeded to tell me a story that would change the course of my life.
This was his story:
“I came to New York when I was 16 years old, an orphan with hardly a dollar to my name and without a friend in the world. My only comfort was my dream, that I would put myself through college and provide a better life for myself. I lived for some time in doorsteps, subway cars, shelters, or wherever I could rest my head. However I was able to make a few dollars to buy some food, I would do it; I shined shoes, washed windshields, whatever it took. Money I got from shelters to buy subway tokens I would save, and I just walked to wherever I was going. Once I was old enough to get into college, I applied everywhere I could, wrote the essays, talked to the deans of admission, and finally I got into NYU on a minority scholarship. It wasn’t easy at all, but I did it – I got into college!
“I was in, but I knew that wasn’t the end. I had to prove to myself that I deserved to be there. I continued saving money, working various jobs, and first and foremost, I studied a lot. I read my textbooks on the train, on breaks at work, I studied every spare minute.
“And then after six years of struggling to survive in New York, I walked down that aisle in my black gown and cap. When I approached the president of the university and he handed me my diploma, I burst into tears.
“Everyone thought I was crazy, but I didn’t care. They didn’t know what I had gone through to make it to that stage. I graduated from college! I did it! That day was the happiest day of my entire life. I had a dream, I fought for it, and I made it come true!
“I went on to earn a master’s degree, after which I entered a Doctoral program. In two months I’ll be graduating with a PhD, and of course I look forward to that day, the culmination of all my hard work. But even still, after getting my master’s and a doctorate, nothing compares to the elation and satisfaction of getting my bachelor’s degree. Nothing will ever compare to that.
“I came to this city with nothing but a dream, and now I have everything I ever dreamed of.
“So what I’ve got to tell you now is don’t worry so much about paying the rent and your other day-to-day problems. You’re going to take care of all of those things.
“All you need to worry about is to keep working towards your dream. You’re doing well for yourself, it sounds like you have a passion for what you do, so keep on doing what you’re doing.
“Remember this. Failure is not an option. Failure only means you stopped trying, and you don’t want to do that, right? You just keep working hard, always keeping your dream in sight, and you’ll make it one day.
“And that day when you make it, just make sure you bring someone along with you. In other words, I mean that just like lots of other folks have helped you along in your path, you need to help someone else achieve their dream. Give something back for all you’ve received.
“You’ll make it one day. Anyway, don’t worry about your day-to-day problems – just worry about getting to the place you want to be.
“Keep on doing what you’re doing.”
We pulled up to his stop. He handed me the fare plus a 400% tip, thanked me for the ride, and stepped out of the cab. I thanked him as he walked away, but those meager words have never seemed an adequate expression of gratitude for what he offered me.
Nearly 14 years later, the story of this man whose face I can’t even recall still affects me. His story has guided me throughout some of the most challenging times of my life.
How easy would it have been for him to simply write me off as just another grumpy cab driver? Instead, he took the time to offer encouragement and perspective.
When obstacles inevitably arise, his advice to “keep on doing what you’re doing” rings in the back of my mind, reminding me to continue focusing on my goals and to keep fighting for them. “Failure is not an option. Failure just means you quit trying.”
As the years have gone by, though, it is the more subtle lesson that stands out to me. Success will come as a result of hard work, there is no doubt.
But his story, and an honest reflection of my own life, will also show that hard work is only part of the picture.
The blood, sweat, and tears I pour into my work are vital, there is no doubt. But if we don’t have the right conditions in place, then success will remain a dream. Countless others have helped us throughout our lives and have created the conditions for our success – whether through opening doors, creating the financial or political conditions that support individual success, or simply through the day-to-day encouragement we receive from those around us. So much of the success we enjoy would not be possible without these conditions around us, for which we have little control but offer enormous benefit.
As such, his advice to give something back to others, to bring someone along with us as we reach our peak, strikes me as most important of all. I can’t succeed without the help of others; when I do succeed, I can show my gratitude by supporting someone else.
If we want a healthy and successful society, it will happen through these kinds of acts of gratitude – and the generosity that tends to emerge when we are truly grateful.
It’s very easy to forget (or doubt) the importance of these qualities to our success.
To throw in a pinch of science, we can look to evolutionary psychology to explain the tendency to focus on negative events more prominently than positive events. As early humans, it would have made more sense to place greater attention on potential threats in our environment than on spotting potential benefits – it’s far more important to avoid death by predator now than to have a full belly tomorrow.
But that doesn’t mean our focus on negativity in our modern society has the same benefit.
The negativity we tend to fixate on throughout the day are rarely life-threatening. It’s safe to say that rather than realistic, immediate threats, we tend to focus on the negativity of complaining, judging, and other unproductive thoughts.
Gratitude can be transformative in our lives. It can be a shield against the onslaught of negative thoughts and social bickering that often surround us. It is a key ingredient in the recipe for emotional first aid.
But we have to resist our biological urge to focus on danger, threats, and negativity, and instead foster thoughts that engender positive qualities, such as gratitude, generosity, and compassion.
Gratitude can be learned. Here are three steps one can take to cultivate gratitude:
- Start the day with gratitude:
Make a conscious effort to cultivate gratitude first thing in the morning. Rather than gripe about going to work, express thanks for having a job. Rather than complain about something someone else said or did, express appreciation for at least one benefit that someone else provides you. Starting the day with appreciation for the beneficial conditions we have, whatever they are, can transform the quality of our lives.
- Throughout the day, counteract negativity:
When negative thoughts arise, recognize them as such. As you notice a complaint, or judgment, or criticism, simply label it as “thinking”, or “negative.” Ask yourself, “is this helpful?” “Will this thought solve any problems?” There’s no need to get swept away by analytical thinking though. Just shining the light of awareness on our thought patterns can often loosen the grip our darker thoughts can take on the mind. Not always – but it’s worth a shot.
- End the day with gratitude:
Keep a daily gratitude journal for a month, writing down three things every day you’re grateful for every day (and not just the big things), ideally something different each day. This can also be hard at first, but this exercise can be very powerful for shifting our repetitive thinking to be more productive and positive.
Success doesn’t ride on the back of complaining. Quite the opposite, negative thinking straps an anchor around the ankles of success.
Healthy individuals and strong communities are built when we recognize the tremendous advantages we enjoy, the freedom we have to live happy and fulfilled lives, and the conditions that others have created over decades and centuries to support our success.
So keep on doing what you’re doing… but with a mind of gratitude. And just remember, when you succeed at whatever you set your sights on, be sure to bring someone else along.