The Efficiency of Kindness

Last week at the Trader Joe’s, I picked up some groceries and stood in line. The cashier was reaching into this overfilled shopping cart and ringing up the items. The future owner of all of these groceries at the other end of the register and putting all of the groceries in paper bags.

For a couple moments, I just looked at this process and realized that I was just an idle by-stander doing absolutely nothing. So, I started to take things out of the shopping cart, so the cashier could focus on ringing up the groceries. At first the women, “Oh…no…no. That’s okay. Don’t worry about.” And, I responded, “No, no. That’s okay.”

Later, she said to me, “You are the best customer.” I am not too sure if that is the case, but I will say that it made for a far more enjoyable 20 minutes at the grocery store. Not only was I actively engaged in something aside from being caught up in my thoughts, but also I was part of an experiment: The Efficiency of Kindness.

In a previous time, we lived in smaller communities or villages, where we knew the cashier, the fellow shopper, etc. We knew their families, we knew their trade, we knew their hardships, we knew them as humans. We were there for one and other — just because and no other reason.

The difference between today and this “previous time” is that our community has become faceless. We have our immediate family and friends, and then everyone else. Whether we go to a self-service counter or not at the grocery store, we can now pick up our food without talking to a single human being.
The current model of capitalism is simple: I pay money, you give me something. Intelligence and logic has enabled and will continue to make that exchange of goods and services as efficient as possible. But, I believe there are consequences.

We now go to the grocery store with the intent of getting back home as quickly as possible. We may be coming back to have dinner with our families, but it seems like a lot of us are just rushing back, so we can turn on Netflix or our televisions. Why do we watch Netflix? To laugh? To cry? To enjoy the world of 2D images of people interacting? We have become so efficient that we have replaced real human interactions at the grocery store with passively witnessing human interactions on a screen.

There in lies the rub, we actually never created greater efficiencies, we merely shifted human needs from the real to virtual world.

Image source: Monkey Pictures

What are the chances?

I am very… very…very…honored to be here today. For the next 180 days, we will spend 90 minutes each day together. Do you understand how amazing this is? 

Think far far far back: Think about your great great grandparents and what would have happened if they had not met. Think about your great grandparents and think about if they had not met or if one of them had gotten sick before your grandparents were born. Think about your grandparents and if one them had taken a left turn instead of a right turn and if they had not met. Think about your parents and all the experiences they went through that may or may not have led to your birth. 

And, then think about all the different paths you have taken your whole life to bring you into this classroom. The probabilities are very very very low. Somehow, someway we will be in this classroom together for 90 minutes each day. I am honored. 

~ Dr. Chen, my high school physics teacher

What are the chances? What are the circumstances…what are the situations… what are the conditions that enabled you and I to be born. If you think through the long march of time that led to your birth, it’s rare.

With such low odds that you and I are here, two things go through my head:

(1) What are the chances that I am writing this and you are reading this. Whenever I meet a friends or family, or even sit next to a stranger, I can’t help but reflect on my teachers words of wisdom and think to myself with gratitude: “What are the chances?”

And, (2) With such a precious life, what am I going to do with it. As the Dalai Lama says, “To be born — at all — is a miracle, so what are you going to do with this life? Now that you have it. What are you going to do with it? Are you going to waste it? Are you going to do something interesting with it? Are you going to do something that matters to you [no one else] or not?”

With the probability of being born so low and with very little time (~90 years or less than a blip in cosmic terms), I can’t help but feel a sense of urgency — an urgency to not just tolerate my day-to-day, but to be excited, to be present and inspired by the day-to-day — to lose track of time (like I did when I was a kid and would spend hours creating cardboard spaceship for hours).

For years, I have been fascinated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow — that state where you forget about time and hours later you pull your head up and you don’t even know where the time went. My theory is that everyone wants that — that feeling of flow — that feeling where you are so caught up in the present that nothing else exists.

For the past couple years, I have been asking myself questions based on the Meaning, Pleasures and Strengths (MPS) process created by Dr Tal Ben-Shahar (author of “Happier“) and based on the concepts of flow. He asks you three very simple questions:

  • What gives you meaning?
  • What are your strengths?
  • What gives you pleasure?

What about you — what is your MPS? Let me know in the comments. I pulled together a powerpoint template, so you can clearly write out your thoughts (Download the MPS Template).

All good things,