Wednesday, March 24, 2010

New Mission: Guerrilla Compliments

I have become enamored by the concept of guerrilla movements. The Princeton Dictionary defines a guerrilla as "a member of an irregular armed force that fights a stronger force by sabotage and harassment." Typically, the term guerrilla refers to warfare. People who fight with guns and bombs to inspire fear and terror in the enemy. I prefer a broader interpretation of the definition, where any tool or medium might be used to inspire any emotion.

During February 2010, the Washington DC area experienced what came to be known as "The Snowpocolypse." Almost 4 feet of snow over the course of a weekend paralyzed most of the area. Events like this are stressful and dreaded by most adults, but to an equal intensity excite kids and teenagers everywhere because it means two things: 1) No school, and 2) snow shovels come out and it's time to make some money.

This has become a normal part of life, and no one is really opposed to kids making a bit of money by doing some hard physical labor. But my friends and I had another idea. We adopted a guerrilla shoveling strategy: We'd pick a house (often one we knew had older residents), swarm up, shovel the driveway (because there were six of us, we'd clear a driveway in 2 or 3 minutes), and then we'd quickly evacuate out of sight. We wouldn't knock on the door, we wouldn't charge them or even tell them who shoveled their driveway. We did this throughout the neighborhood (We got caught only once. It took us 5 minutes to convince her we really weren't looking for money. At this point, she came out and gave us apples and ginger ale. We decided this was a valid payment and graciously accepted it). I found out later that we apparently hit the editor of the community newsletter. She saw us running away, saw what we had done, and was inspired to write a whole article called "Snow Angels." An excerpt from the article she wrote:

"I was left with much more than a cleared driveway. More importantly, I was left... 
...with a greater faith in the character of the upcoming generation,
...with a hope, that the example of their kindness be recognized and spread,
...and with a sense of charity, that we all recognize the generosity of others and continue to pay forward the good will which we are blessed."

Since then, I've become interested in this concept of anonymity - doing good not only without expecting to be thanked, but by making it impossible to be personally thanked (or at least very difficult). During a conversation last night with Jesse Danger, I was hit with an idea. I call it "Guerrilla Compliments."

I took a pad of Post-it notes and wrote a short, positive message on each. Some were cliche sounding mood-boosters (The world is beautiful, and you are too), some were positive suggestions (Dreams are not just for when you are asleep), and others were calls-to-action (Make moves, not excuses). I wrote about 15 unique messages, stuffed them in my pocket, and went to campus for the day.

I've used about half of the notes I wrote so far. A few places that I've put Post-it notes today: Snuck one into a girl's open backpack. On a janitor's floor scrubbing machine. The 5th tray from the top of the stack of food trays in the dining hall. Each time, I take a picture of the post it note (on the target if possible, although most times I take the picture earlier so I can decide on a target at the last second), and then post it to Twitter through Twitpic with a description of where I just put it. I'm tagging each post with the hashtag #guerrillacompliments.

I hope that people are surprised when they find a yellow Post-it note somewhere they weren't expecting. And I am hoping that this surprise will encourage them to read, consider, and really embrace what is written on it. Maybe they will just throw the note away without reading it. But maybe one of these will brighten someone's day. Maybe it will inspire them to engage in their own spontaneous act of kindness. Maybe the encouraging Post-it notes telling people that "The only difference between dreams and reality is action" will cause someone to stop hesitating and take some action to change their lives. So many people go days, weeks, or months without a single positive or encouraging word said to them.

Lets change that.

Guerrilla soldiers fight a stronger force by sabotage and harassment. Lets be guerrilla soldiers, waging a war against unhappiness, with Post-its and pens as our weapons. If you want to join my war, I welcome you to show support by posting your own attacks on unhappiness to Twitter with the hashtag #guerrillacompliments. Don't have a Twitter? Then don't worry about it. The important goal here is to get out, and do good.

I'm going to inspire hope and joy where ever I strike. And I will strike every day. Will you?

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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ah, Sweet Misremembered Youth

This is an excerpt taken from the editor's note of the August 1986 edition of Analog: Science Fiction, Science Fact magazine. Analog is one of the longest running science fiction literature magazines, and authors from Timothy Zahn (of Star Wars Expanded Universe fame) to Isaac Asimov have written for them.

I found this issue in an antique shop in Seattle, and the message here really spoke to me. I wasn't able to find a copy of it online, and I think this is something people should be more aware of:

"Once upon a time there was a little town in the midst of a sea of fertile farmland. it had a downtown - not a big one, to be sure, or truly bustling, by cosmic standards; but a central district where a few main highways came together and townsfolk and farmers from the surrounding countryside converged to do business. One day this town decided to make all its downtown streets one-way - and many onlookers, both residents and outsiders passing through, wondered why. It didn't seem to them that the actual volume of traffic required such action, and in fact the resulting confusion seemed more of a headache than the "congestion" the new arrangement was supposed to alleviate. Some of these perplexed observers thought the matter over at some length, and the best explanation they could come up with for a tranquil little town's making its streets one-way was this. Much as a little girl might like to dress up in her mother's clothes because it makes her feel "like a big girl," a little city might adopt big-city traffic patterns to make itself feel like a big city.

A bit far-fetched, you may say, but several years later I still haven't heard a better explanation. Admittedly such analogies between the behavior of individual organisms and that of social units are imperfect, at best. There are such obvious differences as the fact that the decision to make streets one-way was made by a few individuals, not by the town as a whole (though that difference may not be as great as it appears, since the little girl's decision to dress up was made by a similarly small group of her cells). In any case, there are also clear similarities in the behaviors of organisms at individual and group levels. It can be at least mildly entertaining, and perhaps even instructive, to look at what they are.

The one I'm particularly thinking about today concerns a common tendency among adults which you've probably noticed in others and very likely exhibited at least occasionally in yourself. How often have you heard an adult beset by some problem like taxes or work pressures of family responsibilities sigh nostalgically that he wishes he were back in his childhood, without any worries? I've heard it often - and I've always considered it a clear sign that the adult's memory of childhood is, at best, exceedingly vague. Any child could remind you that childhood is anything but carefree. Every day is filled with concerns like what's-my-teacher-going-to-do-to-me-if-I-forget-my-book-report and is-that-bully-going-to-catch-me-on-the-way-to-school and am-I-growing-up-the-way-I-should and why-don't-boys-like-me.

"Ah," the adult smiles wistfully, "but those are such TRIVIAL problems compared to mine!"

To which I reply, with all possible respect, hogwash. The measure of a problem is not how big it is compared to somebody else's, but how big it is compared to your own perception of your ability to solve it. In those terms, a child's problems are not one whit less formidable than an adult's, and they may even be far more so. (Especially when you consider that the current crop of children are exposed to an unprecedented amount of information about current events and are well aware that many adult problems directly affect them, but are completely beyond their control.) A child's problems may loom large primarily because he lacks the perspective to accurately judge their real seriousness. If he's lucky, by adulthood he will be able to evaluate them more realistically and thus be less likely to let his worries get out of proportion to their causes (though many adults, alas, are not that lucky)."

The article goes on to talk about how this applies at a cultural and global level, which is just as important, but for another time. What do you think of this editor's note? Do you agree? Disagree?