Who is your starfish

Who is your starfish?

You may know the story of the old man walking on the beach early one morning. A storm had blown through overnight and the beach was littered with thousands of starfish as far as he could see in both directions. Continuing his walk, he noticed a small boy in the distance. As the boy walked along he would stop occasionally, bend down to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the ocean water.

“What are you doing?” the old man asked when he came closer to where the boy stood.

The boy looked up at the old man and replied, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean. There was a big storm last night that washed them up on the shore. Now that the tide is going out they can’t get back in the water by themselves and they’ll die if I don’t throw them back in.”

“Son, there are probably ten thousand starfish on this beach,” the old man scoffed. “You can’t save them all. Even if you worked all day, you’re really not going to be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down again, picked up another starfish, and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. He smiled at the old man and answered, “It made a difference to that one.”

So, who is your starfish?

I’m willing to bet there’s one around you somewhere. For me at this moment it may be the friend I discovered in a homeless shelter a few nights ago. I can’t solve homelessness even for my immediate community but I’m determined to do something for my friend. At other times it’s been less dire, such as someone who asked what it takes to be in my line of work and what he/she should do to get the necessary experience.

Your starfish might be someone who’s struggled or stumbled in his/her career whom you might be in a position to offer a job or career advice. Perhaps you can introduce someone to your network as they look for a better opportunity. Or maybe you can show a little patience to a young co-worker and mentor him/her in how to succeed in your profession.

No, you probably can’t save all of them, but you absolutely can make a difference to at least one person. Keep your eyes open, look around, and I bet you’ll find your starfish.

Homeless shelter

Old friend at the homeless shelter

I saw an old friend at the homeless shelter last night. It was a bit of a surprise.

I was one of a handful of adults accompanying a church youth group to serve dinner to the shelter’s guests. I could see him approaching as we stood in the hall waiting to wash up and put on our gloves and hairnets. It took me a moment to recognize him, you know, how you can’t place a familiar face when you see it entirely out of context.

He was clearly there for dinner. He spoke as he walked past. “Hi, Chip.” I guess he felt like he had to say something since we’d made eye contact. I said “hi” as he continued down the hall.

Soon the food trays came out to the counter and I stood behind the youth as they began serving guests. He made his way through the line and sat at a table in the small dining area. For ten minutes a debate raged in my mind. Does he wish I hadn’t seen him? Does he hope I’ll leave him alone? Would we both be too uncomfortable if I went over and spoke again? Ultimately I decided it would be worse to do nothing than to risk being rebuffed.

What do you say?

I asked for permission to sit for a moment at his table; he said ok. I searched for something meaningful to say, but what DO you say? How are you? Well obviously not great, he’s eating dinner in a homeless shelter for crying out loud. Good to see you? That sounds trite, and he probably doesn’t think it’s good to be seen there. I fumbled awkwardly, confessing to him that I felt like a dumbass because I didn’t know what to say, but wanted to say SOMETHING. He was gracious but subdued, and not extremely talkative.

Finally I asked how I could pray for him, hoping for something tangible, not wanting to offer the usual hollow I’ll-pray-for-you line. “Right now, anything would be good, really,” came the reply. Fair enough. Not knowing what else to do, I wrapped my arm around his shoulder as I stood to leave and quietly said, “Love you, Brother.”

I moved back behind the counter with the others in my group. He finished his dinner, rose and walked out of the room, never looking in my direction.

I guess we’re done

I figured that was the end of that, but as the time drew near to leave I saw him walk back into the room and sit again. No eye contact. But after several minutes he stood and walked toward me. We chatted more freely this time, even smiling and laughing. He spoke of how proud he is of his daughter who’s graduating from college soon and how he hopes he can make the trip to see her walk across a stage for her degree. I hope so too.

As it was time to go, I reached out and shook his hand, still not sure what to do and feeling mighty inadequate. But hoping that making an old friend laugh was at least better than nothing at all.


(Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The prayer I dreamed last night

Continue us not in our goods but in our services
“Continue us not in our goods, but in our services.”

I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed a prayer before, but that was a line I either heard or read in a dream last night. I could dismiss it as a random string of unrelated words, as dreams so often generate. Or I could embrace it as a pretty cool metaphor.

Might it have been a supplication for strength to rise above the everyday grind of tasks and action items? To set our energy on the greater good through serving others, on providing value and not just “stuff” to do?

There’s the obvious spiritual connotation – do your words and actions constitute service to God and those around you?

And there is also a work and life context. In your job or other avocation do your activities simply allow you to check something off your to-do list, or do they provide a tangible benefit? Is there a worthy purpose for what you do?

The lesson of the survivor tree

The survivor tree outside our dining room window

This frail and disfigured little tree stands just outside our dining room window. We call it our Survivor Tree.

It’s not much to look at. The oddly curved branch once was the trunk, much longer and rising straight and strong toward the sky. But when a severe winter storm struck a few years ago it nearly collapsed under ice that entombed its branches. Ice can increase the weight of a tree’s branches by as much as 30 times; this tree bent all the way over until some of its branches touched the ground. A few branches were indeed lost, broken off under the icy weight.

I thought it would stand back up when I knocked the ice off of the remaining limbs just as the other shrubs and trees in the yard had done. It didn’t. Instead, it remained stooped and defeated. “It’s done,” I was told. “You need to get rid of it and maybe plant something else in its place.”

But I refused to cut it down. “Let’s just give it a few weeks and see what happens in spring.” I pruned back the most damaged branches and waited.

Sure enough, as the weather turned warm again small green shoots began to appear on the upper side of the bent trunk. The little tree had survived the ice storm. In time the shoots became tiny new branches that sprouted leaves. You could almost hear them crying out, “there’s still life here!”

It’s winter again now and our Survivor Tree is bare. But in a few weeks those signs of life, symbols of being a survivor, will start to appear again.  Something that’s not much to look at now will transform into a poetic image that “looks at God all day and lifts her leafy arms to pray,” to borrow a line from Joyce Kilmer.

There’s a lesson to be learned here, of course.

Don’t be in a hurry to write off something, or someone, bent or broken by life’s winter storms. As long as there is life, there is hope. Hope for regeneration, for rebirth, for not just surviving but even thriving again.

Once a musician, always a musician

Last month I had the great fortune to reconnect with a childhood friend whom I haven’t seen since I was about 14 years old. I met Sam Hawkins after my family moved to north Raleigh when I was 11. He was one of the first neighborhood kids I met and we quickly became friends.

Me on my first drumset, age 12

Me on my first drumset, age 12

Though I speak often of my first band in high school, Sam was actually the very first guitarist I ever played with. Soon after I got my first Silvertone drum set on my 12th birthday Sam and I started jamming together in neighborhood carports and basements. We had grand visions of becoming rock stars.

Our moms drove us to a Battle of the Bands competition being held at Dorton Arena on the NC State Fairgrounds. We were not yet teenagers, too young and inexperienced to compete, but the event organizers agreed to let us set up on the floor near the arena entrance and play a couple of songs before the real show started. We were nervous, enormously self-conscious, mostly unnoticed, and I’m sure we stunk up the place. Nevertheless, we were bitten by the music bug in a big way.

Disraeli Gears album coverIt was Sam who turned me onto an album by a cool new band called The Israeli Gears. This band combined blues and rock in a way I’d never heard before and I promptly fell in love with their sound. Some time later we discovered the band’s name was actually Cream, and the album we were digging on was Disraeli Gears. Pretty heavy stuff for a couple of middle school boys.

My family moved away from Raleigh shortly after I turned 15 and I hadn’t seen or spoken with Sam since. We connected on Facebook last month and messaged each other briefly, which in turn led to a 45-minute phone conversation the next Saturday morning. It did my heart good to learn he still plays his guitar, and I was excited to tell him I’m still playing drums every chance I get.

For better or worse – once a musician, always a musician. Rock on, Sam!

Gets Better

If you could write a note to your younger selfI saw this post on Linkedin today asking, “If you could write a note to your younger self, what would you say in only two words?” The comments were filled with the usual pithy and silly responses like “bless you,” “enjoy life,” “go ahead,” and even “buy Apple.”

But among all that, one comment stood out to me as the thing I would say to my younger self: “gets better.” Boom! Kudos to whomever wrote that. We all go through seasons where we don’t believe that’s possible, but then in time it happens.

Sometimes my older self needs to hear that too.

Men’s Wearhouse gets it right in social media following email snafu

On the Sunday after Christmas Men’s Wearhouse sent an email blast to its customers announcing the last day of of its After-Christmas Deals promotion. But due to an unfortunate glitch in its email system, customers received the same email dozens of times. I counted 64 in my inbox. I was slightly annoyed.

But I’m also in marketing and I understand that automated systems can sometimes go sideways. It sucks, but it happens. As the old saying goes, the true test isn’t whether you make a mistake – it’s how you respond to the mistake that really defines you. I fired off a tweet:

I was curious to see what their response, if any, would be. We’ve all seen examples of companies mishandling screw-ups, either becoming defensive, not responding at all, or worse – attacking the complainer. I wanted to see how savvy Men’s Wearhouse is with social media. Their response would determine whether I unsubscribed from their emails or not.

Now, I’m hardly one of their bigger customers. I do like their products but with two family members’ college tuition to pay, I don’t exactly have a lot of discretionary income left for frivolous things like clothing. If I never spent another dollar in their stores they’d never miss it. It would have been easy for them to ignore me. But to their credit, my answer came 3 and a half hours later:

Short, to the point, and effective: an apology, a brief statement about the cause of the problem, and assurance that action was being taken. No excuses, no phony falling on their sword – just a swift, positive response. That’s all I needed. I didn’t unsubscribe.

My response let Men’s Wearhouse know I was rooting for them to resolve their issue:

I think they were relieved to see I wasn’t going to be a troll – they even favorited my tweet. You can almost hear the relief in their final tweet to me:

What Men’s Wearhouse understands is that social media for business is no different from face-to-face engagement – except that the whole world can eavesdrop. They knew they weren’t replying just to me, they were telling everybody in the Twitterverse that they appreciate customer feedback and they are responsive to us. Well done.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have an example of customer engagement in social media, good or bad, to share? What was your experience?