Smile!

Everyone makes a difference. A security guardon the Sydney Harbour bridge turned for a moment after greeting a coworker with a handshake and a laugh. At that same moment, I was just behind the two of them trying to settle myself in for a moving meditation. I’ve been trying to spend most weekdays starting with at least one meditation, learning o greet the day with a sense or completion before racing off to accomplish a bunch of things that are never actually… complete. 

As usual, I was having trouble keeping my mind in a simplified and grateful state. Notice your breath… Notice the sounds around you… Notice your footsteps… Bird!!!!

I noticed the security guard turn, most likely to see that his coworker was off to a good day and still smiling. But in his view was me. Just little old me battling with the kind of self thoughts that a moving meditation is supposed to get rid of. 

“I am so bloody far behind on my exercise goals now. I should just start over.”

“… Ha. Ya. That’s another brilliant creative idea I give no time to. What’s wrong with me?”

“Oh man I have so much work to catch up on, I don’t even know where to begin…”

For a brief moment my thoughts halted as I realized the security guard took a very obvious double take – turning to check on his friend, seeing me and turning forward, than quickly turning again. “Oh God do I look like a complete…”

Before I could even weave more negativity into my Monday morning mantras, his thick Aussie accent cut through the sounds of traffic. Only a few feet from me, he appeared to almost be yelling. For a brief moment I thought I did something wrong and wasn’t supposed to be here. But he had a huge smile on his young, tan face. It seems like I waited a good lot second before what he said actually traveled to my ears, translating through big city sounds and finally coming to rest on my still tired brain. 

“SMILE!” He yelled. 

The look on his face said it all. I kne I should take no offense or some the next ten minutes wondering if I had resting bitch face no thanks to perpetual jaw exercises I’ve come to naturally move through all day long. 

What he said had an effect on me, but what he continued to do as we journeyed across 1 kilometer of stretched architecture, is what delivered the impact through and through. 

Trying to smile more and settle back into a more positive mindset, I felt as though my own eyes were camera peering outside my thoughts to record important information while I was busily mucking around on my brain, cleaning house before a new week. 

For a busy Monday morning, few people were on the bridge which more or less means few people are late to work at the start of the week and the tourist haven’t quite figured out how to get to the top of the bridge yet today. Still, he interacted with each person he passed by. He leaned in to softly shake hands with a young baby strapped to her mother for a morning walk, and complimented the two of them in a way that glowed across the mother’s face as she continued on, passing me only a moment later. 

I thought, “How could I have added to that?” 

Lacking answers, I continued to look straight ahead – thinking and moving, not trying to watch his actions in particular. They were simply there, recording via my mental camera while I went about my own work deep inside. 

A blonde kid, probably close to my age, leaned against the first pylon with one finger up to his Apple earbuds, as if to be adjusting or listening carefully. I couldn’t make out any of the words as the security guard placed one gentle hand on the man’s shoulder, stretching out his other hand as if to say, “Continue…”

He made no hard pause. He continues moving toward his post, never quite pausing long enough for me to catch up with him. All the while, he simply smiled, looked into people’s eyes, and showed a genuine sense of care. 

For the rest of my walk, I threw out the idea of forcing a meditation and instead I thought about how I have been a part of those moments in my own life. Most particylarly, when I have been able to project that sense of peace and happiness. 

Working my way through college, I spent 5 years as an advisor and counselor at my university. When I first started, I was young. I only knew how to check off tasks given to me and had little practice in creating my own business. Like many kids, I did whatever it took to say, “Done!” I paid no attention to what more I could do or how I could do things better – for myself and the business. 

Like all things, I learned the hard way. By simply doing what was asked of me and nothing more, I brought an unmanageable amount of stress into my life. My students, students parents, banks and lenders, and all kinds of government institutions (all required to approve people for education support) would be rapping at my door with accusations, needs, rejections, and overall impatience. I was doing my job! So, why was this so difficult?

For the first two years on the job, I ran into barrier after barrier before coming up with the magic solution that could make everyone happy. I learned how to be proactive – to act first and go the extra mile. 

The main graded factor of that role (the part that lets you keep your job), was to contact your entire database of assigned students a minimum of once a month. For me, that was 486 students. That was just the basic measurable of an advisor. As a counselor (a glorified sales man for the universiry), I was in charge of signing students up and seeing them through their first 9 credits – no matter how long it took to complete them. And in addition to that, I had to call 400 people per week (an expectation of 100 across 4 days + 1 day for additional training and paperwork). 

In both roles, I thought if someone called me, that was that! I made contact. Check them off the list. If I received a voicemail, I emailed them back rather than calling. I had an insane fear of the phone and I was in the most demanding phone job you could even imagine. But the demand paid off. I was doing this for free schooling and then $50,000 it wound up paying me in the end. Not bad for some 23 year old kid, right?

When I finally overcame the struggle of dealing with so many incoming messages (complaints, threats, accusations) that wouldn’t let you sleep at night, I had come up with a system to contact ALL my students EVERY week in some form or fashion. I went well beyond the already seemingly unmanageable task of a near 500 people. I set tasks to follow up at the end of every class (classes ran 4-6 weeks each). I set a task to send them a card after the completion of their very first class, on their birthday, and for their graduation. I custom made each card as I had been getting to know each person well enough to be able to write them a genuine message. I set reminders to follow up on every step of paperwork I would be processing for them, and no matter how big or small, I would call to let them know when a milestone was completed. If the paperwork wasn’t done within the time I quoted them, I would still call. 

Through this, I as easily able to overcome my fear of the phone.  Calling so proactively meant one of two things – that they knew it was me and they ignored my call (yay) or they were happy to hear from me because they knew I was working for them. We had built trust. Even when I had bad news to deliver, we worked it out. 

After that, I can count the number of escalating conversations I had with students on one hand. Three more years on the job and no more than five completely unhappy, won’t respond to positivity types of people. I still remember them well, and I knew it absolutely wasn’t about me so I did my best to be that one thing in their life that wasn’t reactive. I tried to never give up. 

Over the years my desk went to piles of sticky notes reminding me to call so-and-so about something they were upset about, to having cards, pictures, notes, and gifts from students scattered around. 

Even then, the trick is to keep going. You can’t keep yourself positive and sharp if you’re not always learning how to be better. So, in that last year, I teamed up with my Academic Advisor. One of her major jobs was to reactivate drop out students. In truth, it had little to do with me other than if the student owed the school money, they had to pay up first. But we called these students every week on a conference call. My academic colleague, Amy, was and is one of the kindest people in the world. Rather than take a bad cop, good cop approach, she supported me in almost always having to deliver bad news. But we made it possible for so many people to overcome so many things in life and get back on track. That was rewarding!

So, when I think about what I can do to add to the impact one security guard made on at least four lives, it makes me realize that in some ways I have reached the next level of my personal and career development. Things have been hard to handle. I don’t have the bandwidth to deal with that many incoming messages. I think this recent reorg that my manager and I rolled out before Stark and I went on vacation, will solve the bandwidth issue, but it is up to me to constantly do my best and share that sense of betterment with everyone I pass by. 

And when the security guard finally came to a stop at his post, he turned once more to see me pass by and be explained even further, “You should smile more. You have such a beautiful smile.”

So… Smile. 

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