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The Eulogy Test: How to Live a Life of Small Kindnesses

Give Give give

“It’s easy to miss the real point of our lives even as we’re living them,” writes Arianna Huffington in her book Thrive. “And it is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies.”

You never hear, ‘George increased market share by 30 percent,’” Huffington said at a recent event at Soho House in New York City. What you do hear in eulogies, she says, are stories of “small kindnesses.” Interestingly that’s also how to get ahead in the workplace.

In Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact Shane Snow, Chief Creative Officer at Contently, picks up this thread:

It’s well known that details make good art great. Subtle word choices separate great poets from amateurs. Small flourishes define superlative architecture. Tiny considerations make products world-class (“Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be,” writes Walter Isaacson about the Apple II in Steve Jobs).

I think the same can be said about building a great business. Tiny considerations in the interactions companies have with their customers are all about focusing on people before profits—and, paradoxically, this can yield huge returns. This is the mentality that Wharton professor Adam Grant talks about in his research on corporate “givers” versus “takers.” In various now-famous studies in his book Give and Take, Grant has shown that the most successful people in the workplace tend to be the ones who give selflessly to others without expectation of returned favors. Research by Jim Stengel, former global marketing head at Procter & Gamble, shows that this also works at a corporate level. Businesses “center[ed] on improving people’s lives outperform their competitors,” he writes, after studying a decade of market performance of fifty thousand brands.

In Thrive, Huffington argues that power and money have too long been life’s main yardsticks of success, and that we should measure our achievements instead by four new metrics: Wisdom, Wonder, Well-Being, and Giving. If the eulogy test is an indication, Giving is likely the most memorable of the four.

“It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice,” Grant writes in Give and Take. “It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others.”

[…]

When I look at other fast-growing companies with voracious users, I see small kindnesses everywhere. Uber recently upped the ante for me on car services when I got into one of its town cars in San Francisco. The driver had placed fancy jars of candies in the console for passengers. It was a small thing, but somehow it made me feel like the most important customer in the world. I gave him five stars. Tumblr’s terms of service reflect a culture of fun and user-centeredness: they use plain English and colloquialisms and throw in humor to make the read bearable. Few people read terms of service, and Tumblr doesn’t have to do this; they do it because they care about the little things. Google has famously kept its home page to a minimum number of words (currently I see sixteen, mostly the header and footer) in order to respect users’ time and not distract from the one thing they want: search. And Google periodically brings smiles to our faces by replacing its logo with themed “Doodles” on special occasions, such as the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Who or Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s birthday.

make your mark

This is a huge departure from the paradigm that’s dominated business for the last century. Instead of focusing on themselves, thoughtful companies are now asking what Eisenberg asks: “How can I put a smile on my audience’s face, in lieu of getting in their face?”

If I had my way, every business would adopt the manifesto that’s painted on the front wall of the Manhattan office of my friends at NextJump.com. The block letters read, “Our Mission: Do all the little things, so that others can do the things they were meant to do.” Free tattoos, fun “About Us” pages and invoices, plainspoken terms of service, and smile-inducing logo hacks are small investments, especially when compared with the costs of customer acquisition through advertising. But these kindnesses pay big dividends and are some of the ways new companies can hack the ladder to credibility and customer success in a short time. As Dr. Grant says, the more they give, the more successful they are. Indeed, a culture of tiny kindnesses isn’t just good for the world. It’s good for business.

Make Your Mark and Thrive add to our wisdom on how to live a meaningful life.