“One day I caught the gaze of a homeless man. I had just come from the grocery store and I had a pop-top can of tuna, and I don’t know what possessed me, but I just reached in my bag and handed it to him. And he looked at me, stunned and surprised. And then we laughed because somehow we had beaten the racket and made a human connection. I was excited, and so I started carrying tuna around in my car. And I told friends about it and the next thing you know, I’ve created this informal tuna network of people playing big in a weird improvisational way.”
One of my favorite business school teachers told this story in his TED Talk, and I remember the tuna part totally froze me in place, and a little voice in my head said:
“Ok, we need to make a quirky little ritual like this!”
But what would be my frankincense and myrr offering that would make the homeless feel like Kings? It needed to be something that they valued. I love Stephen’s tuna story, but if I put myself in a homeless person shoes, I wouldn’t rank tuna high on my wish list. I could go the utilitarian route and provide basic essentials – like soap, shampoo, water….but that’s boring! I’ll leave that to the homeless shelters.
Observing the stoplight hustlers, I realized most smoke, so one of the things they might value is a simple cigarette. Often, they’re sitting outside for a long periods of time, walking up and down rows of cars until their legs ache, and if it’s nighttime, they’re seeking refuge from the cold. Cigarettes aren’t good for you, but they carry comfort for those that smoke, and certainly warm you up on a bone-chilling eve. Some folk might chastise me: “Why would you instigate smoking??” I say, realistically they’re smokers anyway, so I’m giving them something I know they’d appreciate, without being presumptuous about what’s “good” them.
As I started to get into the routine of rolling down my window and having an enjoyable exchange with the homeless person on the corner — I got excited.
What more could I do to make them really happy?
Then one day walking through Target, I landed in the greeting card isle, and spied my next best offering: a blue pack of cards that said, “Thank You Your Awesomeness.” I loved it – you’d totally chuckle if you received that card! So that became my new thing – writing an anonymous thank you card that said, “You’ve undoubtably impacted many people throughout the course of your life, so thanks for being here. Much love friend.” It was like being a little joy-giving fairy; every stoplight I’d study the faces pacing the car rows, and give the card to the person who seemed to need it that most that day.
I love this practice so much, but honestly I was surprised at how much courage it took to get started. Reaching outside our bubble can be uncomfortable, especially to interact with those who seem to exist in unparalleled universes to ours. But when you do it, it’s amazing the sense of exhilaration and gratitude that stems from the interaction.
Just recently I was gifted two king-size Toblerone bars. My third offering just fell into my lap without any extra creative exertion. I can’t wait to roll down my window tomorrow and say, “Excuse me sir, do you like really delicious, quality chocolate?”
Steven Tomlinson’s Ted Talk