All the Rage of Kindness

As a speech coach, I can’t help but click on speeches.

‘Tis the season for convocation addresses and I’ve already seen the kindness theme rear its ugly head. Back in 2021, just as the Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson rockets were about to dominate the news, a LinkedIn connection of mine posted a convocation address he said was “the best advice [he’d] ever read.”  It was an American writer’s convocation address to the 2013 graduating class at Syracuse University. This successful writer, George Saunders, waxes on about the importance of being kind and how each year as he ages, his appreciation for kindness grows. My LinkedIn connection couldn’t agree more.

He called it the best advice, but I call it a load of malarkey.

The post had me reflect on my relationship with kindness, and how it has served me. Professionally, I posit it hasn’t served many well.

Starting thirty years ago, in the summer between my third and fourth year at UBC, my friend Sarah and I both apply for a cushy job working reception at the campus Conference Centre. To even be able to apply, we have to be able to type 50 words per minute, and provide test results to prove it. We go to the typing test together. We are allowed two tries. After the first test is scored, I reach the 50-word goal! Yay! But Sarah doesn’t. She’s not even close. Boo! She suggests I put her name on my second test. It felt selfish not to. Unkind, even. So I type “Sarah” on the second test and I pass that one, too. Now, we both have typing tests that meet the requirements! We both send in our resumes! We both get interviews!

And then Sarah gets the job and I don’t.

Instead, I spend that summer at the Conference Centre stripping beds, folding hospital corners, pulling globs of hair out of sink drains and scrubbing toilets. Dragging my vacuum around, I can barely manage a wave across the lobby to Sarah at the front desk, in her pressed white shirt with her fancy gold name tag, cheerily greeting guests and typing reservations into a computer at a rate I’m guessing is less than 50 words per minute.

Forging Sarah’s name on the typing test was a bad business decision on my part, for sure, but it had felt selfish to leave her behind. I thought it was a kind gesture to a friend.

Returning to that convocation speech, even though George Saunders is indeed a successful writer, I had to look him up. As it turns out, he published a lot in the New Yorker, a magazine we used to get regularly in our household. With three kids to mind, that subscription was eventually cancelled as the piles of uncracked editions started to weigh on me as heavily as those piles of dirty onesies stacked up in the hallway.

In one particular New Yorker piece, Saunders describes the first day of his Master’s program at Syracuse University. They all go out dancing and George and his new professor, Tobias Wolff, stagger home together:

Afterward, Toby and I agree we are too drunk to let either him or me drive the car home, that car, which we are pretty sure is his car, if there is a sweater in the back. There is! We walk home, singing, probably, “Helplessly Hoping.” In his kitchen, we eat some chicken that his wife Catherine has prepared for something very important tomorrow, something for which there will be no time to make something else.

I leave, happy to have made a new best friend.”

After reading this, all I can think is Poor, Poor Catherine.

I wonder what her reaction was. Did she lose her mind the next morning when she opened the fridge? Or maybe she was a selfless and kind professor’s wife who just laughed it off. “Oh well! Aren’t you guys hilarious! So silly. No worries, I’ll make another chicken! Or something! Ha ha! So funny!” 

I can’t help but imagine that while they were out dancing after class, Catherine was at home preparing that chicken. Maybe they had kids and she had to do it after they went to bed. Maybe, since George and Toby ate it as described in this drunken (hilarious!) footnote, she will be repeating that task tomorrow, cooking another chicken (hilarious!). Maybe instead, Catherine had hoped to read something that next day—maybe peruse a New Yorker—or perhaps write something, or think about writing something, or just stop thinking about everything that needed to be done—like preparing a chicken dish or getting to those piles of laundry—to have the luxury to think about nothing, because we have learned that having time to think about nothing is necessary to be able to then think about something. 

Instead, Catherine would have to think about how to solve this chicken problem, this chicken that I can imagine might well have been prepared for a professional event that benefitted the career trajectory of her husband, Toby. It’s just a guess, but I bet I’m not far off. I bet he dedicates a book, “To my Catherine, who has the kindest heart in the world.”

Then George Saunders introduces us to Doug Unger, his other teacher in his early Syracuse days.

Every Monday night, Doug’s workshop meets at his house. Doug’s wife, Amy, makes us dinner, which we eat on the break.

He doesn’t mention Amy again. That’s all Amy gets. Doug’s wife, Amy, cooks them dinner every Monday. Something tells me Amy might be a bit disappointed with that one mention. But how kind of her to make dinner for them all, every single Monday. “To Amy, the kindest of us all.”

In his address to the 2013 graduating class, Saunders continues to illustrate the wonders of kindness:

One thing in our favor: some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age. It might be a simple matter of attrition: as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish—how illogical, really.

Nope. Malarkey. 

Being selfish is very useful and completely logical and it has landed many people exactly where they sit in their successful positions as C-suite executives, presidents, billionaires, and maybe even bestselling authors.

I’m guessing that Catherine and Amy were very kind people all along, and I bet they got less kind once they hit 50. That’s what’s happening around me, at least. I’m only now noticing how useful it might have been to be more selfish, professionally. There would have been much less toilet scrubbing, much more successful-being.

You name the “successful” position, and my money’s on there being a lot of selfish people in those spaces, with a lot of kind people having helped get them there, unnoticed footnotes who make them meals with chicken the night before, perhaps helplessly hoping to be rewarded for it. There they are, thousands of thankless kindnesses—worth nothing more than a book dedication—afforded to people on their roads to success. 

Being kind is a result of having empathy, which is all the rage now. Those in the corporate world call it a soft skill. They call it emotional intelligence. Empathy is the buzzword in leadership training. Vulnerability! Kindness! Empathy! All the rage! But how about rewarding those who already have heaps of it? Empathy only makes you a better leader once you’ve made your way into that leadership position. What gets people into those positions is often their distinct lack of empathy: less kindness, more ‘wise business decisions’.

Who are these ‘great leaders’ anyway? Maybe it’s my failing as a mother, but I know one of the first people my teenagers name as a great leader is Elon Musk.* Not big on empathy, our Elon. But Teslas and space rockets are a big hit in this house.

Empathy—which leads to being kind—only gets “better as you get older” if you sucked at it to begin with. 

If we’re not careful and start to genuinely acknowledge and reward empathy, then people who are selfish will continue to rise to the top, and people who are kind will continue to go unnoticed, becoming footnotes in the stories written by people like Toby, Douglas and George, Elon, Bill or Richard: leaders who are apparently just now waking up to the value of kindness. What a privilege for them to embrace kindness from where they sit.

So to Life’s Graduating Class of 2021, I propose this as you begin your quest for success:

Absolutely, by all means, strive every day to be kind.

But also, notice kindness. Acknowledge the kindness afforded to you.

See it around you. 

And in some real, concrete way, reward that kindness.

If we keep disproportionately rewarding those people who make selfish decisions labelled as ‘good business’, we’ll only end up with more of the same in leadership positions, and more useless, selfish rockets in the sky. 

*I’m happy to report that since 2021, Elon’s status as a great leader has significantly diminished in this household. A dearth of kind words about him, his politics in general and his Twitter/X endeavours have all combined to knock him down a notch.