Wednesday, November 25, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: The Surprising Power of The Gratitude Question




“Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier, or thinking they can't feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack." Harvard Medical School “Healthbeat” newsletter


I have a new secret tool for upgrading or calming my troubled thoughts.

Years ago, a teacher and leader I admired taught me a simple method for reining in out-of-control thoughts. He taught me to sing or hum an uplifting song to myself whenever I found my mind wandering in unhappy, anxious, discouraging, or inappropriate paths, or when my thoughts were racing and keeping me from going to sleep. Amazingly, after only a verse or two, my thinking would shift into a more positive direction or I would be able to relax and drift off to sleep.

Lately, however, for reasons unknown to me, singing a song to myself has become less effective than it used to be. Perhaps the song had become repetitious, perhaps the neural pathways in my brain were getting older, or perhaps it was something related to the pandemic. Whatever the cause, my singing technique wasn’t working as well anymore.

But recently I have come across a new approach, a different methodology for controlling or quieting my thoughts.

I’ve been thinking a lot these days about gratitude, trying to write something appropriate for the Thanksgiving season. With those ideas floating around in my head, I made an amazing discovery. I have found that when I can’t sleep or when my mind is roaming in undesirable directions, I can place myself in a happy, inspiring place by asking myself one simple question. 

What Are You Grateful For?

I call it The Gratitude Question.

It’s a simple but effective query. When I ask myself The Gratitude Question, I find that, without resistance, my brain glides into thankful, appreciative territory where I relax and realize how blessed I am. While there, I remember that when you love what you have, you have everything you need. While there, I recognize how much I love the people who surround me. While there, I stop worrying; I stop fretting; I stop yearning for things I don’t have. I am at peace.

Going to my thankful place by asking myself “What Are You Grateful For?” completely changes my spirit and attitude. My eyes are opened to the multitude of blessings that continually surround me. From that vantage point, I treasure the words of William Arthur Ward, who wrote: "Gratitude can transform common days into thanksgivings, turn routine jobs into joy, and change ordinary opportunities into blessings."

This Thanksgiving, despite the uncertainty and angst swirling around us, I choose to be grateful. I choose to cherish everyone and everything that blesses my life.  I choose to believe what Melody Beattie said: "Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more."

This Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for my wonderful new super-question: “What Are You Grateful For?” 

Perhaps you should try asking yourself The Gratitude Question and see what happens for you. For me, it changes everything.



Wednesday, November 11, 2020




“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.”  Oprah Winfrey

Over the past several months, our country has experienced the most non-empathetic environment I can remember. Everyone has been shouting at each other and imagining that their rancorous arguing was changing someone’s mind, when in fact no one was listening and not one person’s mind was actually changed.

This is a dangerous place to be. The fabric of our society is fraying due to these divisions.  “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization,” said Roger Ebert. “The death of human empathy is one of the earliest and most telling signs of a culture about to fall into barbarism,” according to Hannah Arendt. Sadly, in this tumult many friendships and familial relationships have been torn asunder.

I do not pretend to know how to fix what’s going on in our country, but I do have an idea about how we might repair schisms on a personal level. 

We must return to empathy, and it starts with simply being nice to one another. “The outward expression of empathy is courtesy.” Stewart Butterfield.  Somehow, a lot of folks have come to think that the challenges and injuries that they have experienced justify their striking out at others who see life differently. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one heals themselves by wounding another.

Empathy isn’t complicated. It starts with a desire to understand another human being.  In the words of C. JoyBell C., “empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people.” Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another. True empathy requires that you step outside your own emotions to view things from the perspective of the other person.

I like the way Brene Brown expressed it: “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” Unfortunately, most of us aren’t really listening when we think we are, especially when the other person holds a different viewpoint from us. “We think we listen, but very rarely do we listen with real understanding, true empathy. Yet listening, of this very special kind, is one of the most potent forces for change that I know.” Carl Rogers.

There are powerful professional advantages to empathy. For example, empathy is the key to great sales and marketing. An old adage, though somewhat dated, remains true: "If you want to know what John Smith buys, you must see the world through John Smith's eyes."

Years ago, I learned another benefit to empathy in an unlikely setting: law school. By its nature, the legal profession tends to be adversarial, so it’s easy to think there is no place for empathy in that world. 

Rex E. Lee, my law school dean, was an extremely effective appellate attorney. He personally argued 59 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as Solicitor General of the United States and in private practice. He taught his students that empathy would make them better advocates. He said: “You must fully understand both sides of the question before the court. If you can’t articulate your opponent’s side of the case as readily as your own, you really don’t know the strength or weakness of your own position.” His counsel has helped me in numerous situations over the past 40 years.

Are you looking for a wonderful way to create empathy in a one-to-one setting? Here’s a great idea from one of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Covey. He espoused the idea of the Native American talking stick as a way to listen empathically. In his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes this technique: 

The idea is that only the person holding the stick gets to make their point and they continue to speak on this point until they feel they have been fully understood by the listener. The other person is only permitted to speak insofar as they need to clarify what they’ve heard, or to demonstrate that they have understood the speaker. Before stating his or her own point, Person #2 must restate Person #1’s position to Person #1’s satisfaction.

Once that has occurred, Person #2 may state his or her own position, and Person #1 in turn must restate Person #2’s position to Person #2’s satisfaction before the conversation may move forward. 

As soon as Person #2 feels they had been understood, they pass the talking stick back to Person #1. After this occurs, Person #1 can begin again to explain their current thoughts.

Covey’s Indian Talking Stick principle is a powerful communication device for resolving disagreements and for exploring the possibility that there may be a superior answer that neither one of them held before. The best way forward may not be “your way” or “my way,” but a third way that arises from truly listening to and understanding each other.

Whether we use Covey’s talking stick approach, or we just slow down and start really listening to each other — even those we disagree with — we urgently need to find more empathy, individually and as a nation. I pray we can.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: What Makes a Gift "Great"? - Part 2: Giving More with Less


WEDNESDAY WISDOM:  What Makes a Gift "Great"?  

Part 2:  Giving More with Less


“You give but little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”  Kahlil Gibran


As an estate planning attorney, I have from time to time been privy to, and in some cases a facilitator of, some very substantial charitable gifts.  I applaud the generosity of those who make such gifts, and I appreciate the tremendous good they accomplish.

But my deepest fascination in the world of charitable giving is with people who have relatively little and yet make meaningful, life-altering gifts.  The Oseola McCarty story is a prominent example.  Another is the widow and her two mites in the New Testament.  I had always pictured that woman as being elderly and alone, until I encountered another depiction — that of a young widow with her brood of small children who, in Jesus’ words, “cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury” because she donated “all she had.”  The image above definitely changed the way I looked at that event.  But whatever her age or circumstances, her story has touched millions of hearts over the centuries.

There is another tender account of a destitute widow in the Bible, this one from the Book of First Kings in the Old Testament, who also “cast in all the living that she had.”  That woman, known as the widow of Zarephath, likewise showed exceptional faith and generosity.  In addition, she demonstrated that rendering service is another way to make a Great Gift. 

Her husband had died, and she and her son faced the grim reality of starving to death, victims of a long, grueling famine.  She was making a small piece of bread for her son and herself with her last bit of flour and oil, and then afterwards they would lie down together to die.

Into this tragic setting the Lord sent the prophet Elijah, himself starving from hunger.  He asked the widow to make the bread and give it to him.  He wanted her not only to donate her remaining flour and oil, but also to actually bake the loaf for him.  The scripture recounts that she did as asked and gave away her last morsel of food.  In response to her gift and her service, she was blessed miraculously — she never ran out of flour and oil during the remainder of the drought.



This story illustrates the principle that giving of ourselves can magnify — or even supersede — giving our financial resources.  Our monetary donations are far more powerful when they are accompanied by gifts of our time, talents, and physical labor.  Or even if we have no money to give, we can give our service.  The widow of Zarephath baked a small loaf for a hungry man of God.  The little drummer boy in the Christmas carol, who thought he had no gift to give that was fit for a king, played his drum for the Christ Child, playing his best for him. I like to think of these offerings as a form of “philanthropic sweat equity.”

When we render service for a worthy cause, what is best for us to give?

Each of us has certain capabilities and skills that can be considered our Unique Abilities, things we’re really good at and that seem to flow easily for us.    These talents feel natural to us and we enjoy doing them. Sometimes when we’re using these gifts, we feel energized and more alive.  When we’re operating in our natural areas of strength, our “philanthropic sweat equity” donations of time and effort can have far greater impact than our normal efforts.

My friends Yale Levey and Ryan Ponsford of Gateway for Good and Main Street Philanthropy have catalogued 16 useful talents or skills that can leverage or amplify a person’s service to a charitable organization, beyond money.  Do any of these Unique Abilities apply to you?  Could you make a significant difference for your favorite causes or charities by giving in some of these ways?


  • I am a helper. When I volunteer my time, talents or treasure, I am living my higher purpose.
  • I am a listener. I get energized when talking to new people and hearing their stories.
  • I am a professional. I enjoy sharing my experience, business acumen, and wisdom with others.
  • I am a connector. I make introductions and help new relationships thrive.
  • I am a creator. I recognize the need for tools or processes that make things better.
  • I am an influencer. I can describe a vision and people follow my lead.
  • I am a craftsman. I enjoy doing projects and working with my hands
  • I am a teacher. I have a unique ability to communicate in a way that people can understand. 
  • I am a host(ess). When people get together, I provide an environment for the best experience.
  • I am a great story teller. I can hear a story and re-tell it in an energizing and compelling way.
  • I am great with technology. If you need help with your tech issues, I’m the one.
  • I am artistic.  I create visual images that touch people and move them to action.
  • I am available. I make time to be available and I’m happy to apply my time in ways in which I can be of most value.
  • I am an organizer. I enjoy ensuring everything has a place and is well organized.
  • I am a facilitator. I have a skill for helping others think through issues and come to conclusions.
  • I am imaginative. I like to find creative ways to express information or deliver messages.


Can you find your unique talents, skills, and strengths in this list?  And when you do, how can you benefit your favorite charities more effectively by focusing your service in the areas of your greatest strength?  

When we serve using our unique abilities, we can make miracles happen. The desperately poor widow of Zarephath combined service in her unique area of skill — baking bread — with a miniscule donation of flour and oil. With no money but with an enormous endowment of faith and service, she blessed both the prophet Elijah and her family, immediately and long term. 

We can make exceptional gifts to the charities of our choice when we give of ourselves, using our unique talents, skills, and strengths, EVEN WHEN WE HAVE LITTLE OR NO MONEY.  As I wrote in my previous Wednesday Wisdom article, “the dollar amount of our charitable gifts doesn’t matter.  What makes a gift GREAT is not its size, but its character.”  I challenge all of us to identify our personal gifts and talents, and then give them away in a cause greater than ourselves. 

Shakespeare wrote: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”  To me, giving more with less is the key to miraculous gifts and lasting joy.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

WEDNESDAY WISDOM: What Makes a Gift "Great"?




"Not what we give, but what we share--

For the gift without the giver is bare;

Who gives himself with his alms feeds three:

Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."

James Russell Lowell





There are good gifts; there are better gifts; and there are Great Gifts. What distinguishes a Great Gift from an average or even wonderful gift? What converts a charitable gift into the "Great" category?  

Two very dear friends, Ryan Ponsford and Yale Levey, recently challenged me to ponder those questions. They shared some of their own musings on this topic and invited me to add my ideas to theirs.

Ryan and Yale are two of the biggest dreamers and doers I know. They continue to spearhead the Main Street Philanthropy work I began with them several years ago, and they are now developing an online platform to take MSP concepts to a vastly expanded audience, all with the mission of using philanthropy to unite a divided world.

Working with and building on Ryan and Yale's excellent thoughts on the subject, here is my answer to their query, What Makes a Gift "Great"?


A Great Gift is Transformative. It changes the heart and life of the giver.

A Great Gift is Impactful. It produces a measurable difference in the recipient person, cause, or organization.

A Great Gift is Compelling. It motivates others to make similar gifts.

A Great Gift is Fulfilling. It satisfies long-held and deeply-felt longings of the giver.

A Great Gift is Organic. It springs seamlessly from the life lessons and passions of the giver.

A Great Gift is Narrative. It expresses and reinforces the central storyline of the giver's personal experiences.

A Great Gift is Empowering. It leverages and multiplies the giver's unique skills, strengths, and capacity.

A Great Gift is Inspired. It flows from wisdom and personal guidance from a higher power.

A Great Gift is Integrated. It meshes with the giver's overall planning objectives and opportunities.

A Great Gift is Connective. It binds together the giver and the recipient person, cause, or organization.


As I pondered this subject, my memory went back to one of the greatest gifts I know, one made by Oseola McCarty to the University of Southern Mississippi. This is what I wrote several years ago under the title "Oseola McCarty: The Rest of the Story." As you read it, compare my list of qualities of a great gift with her giving experience.

Oseola McCarty, an African American washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, single-handedly changed the definition of philanthropy at the University of Southern Mississippi. Here's the inside story of her amazing donation.

[Personal note: I was a professor of business law at the University of Southern Mississippi in the mid-1980s and later was associated with USM Foundation's Estate Planning Advisory Board. I was also Vice-President and Trust Officer at Trustmark National Bank in the late 1980s, where I was acquainted with some of the participants in this story.]

In 1995, at the age of 87, Oseola McCarty had a problem. This simple, hardworking lady had saved and penny-pinched her way to an estate worth over $200,000 and she wasn't sure what to do with it. The tellers at Trustmark National Bank sent her to see Paul Laughlin, the bank's assistant vice-president and trust officer.

Listening to her story, Paul learned that Oseola had washed and ironed other people's clothes all her life for ten cents a pound until she "retired" at age 86 due to arthritis in her hands. She had never married and never had any children. Most of "her people" had passed away earlier, so she needed some advice on what to do with her life savings.

Paul, recognizing her lack of formal education, used a masterful approach to uncover her deeply-held passions. He took out 10 dimes and spread them on the coffee table in front of her. "Miss Oseola," he said, "show me with the dimes what you want to do with your money."

"Well," she began, picking up the first dime, "I've always believed in tithing, so this one's got to go to the church."

"And I've got two nieces and a nephew I want to help," she continued, picking up three more dimes. "These are for them." Then she hesitated.

"And what about the rest?" Paul queried.

She studied Paul as if to see if she could trust him, smiled nervously, took a deep breath, and said, "You know, I always wanted to be a teacher. But my auntie got sick when I was in the sixth grade, and she didn't have anybody to take care of her. I stopped going to school to tend her, and I was never able to go back. After she died, I was too far behind, so I just kept working, washing and ironing and saving my money. So, I never got to be a teacher."

Her eyes filled with tears. She paused and looked away, then composed herself and went on.    

"But I understand the college in town helps black kids become teachers. I want to help them."

 "You mean the University of Southern Mississippi?" Paul asked.

"Yes, that's the one," she replied.

"What do you know about the University of Southern Mississippi, Miss Oseola?"

"Actually, I've never even seen the place. It's too far to walk and I never owned a car. But I understand they help black kids become teachers. I'm too old to do it myself, but I'd like to help some of them become teachers."

Paul wisely recognized that she would have needs during the rest of her lifetime, so he helped her set up a charitable remainder trust. The fund provided income to her during her lifetime, then at her passing went to the University of Southern Mississippi to pay for scholarships for black students in education.

Paul also realized that sometimes, the story about a gift can be more valuable than the gift itself. He got her permission to tell the University about her donation.

News of that gift hit the University of Southern Mississippi and the town of Hattiesburg like a Category Five hurricane. The whole community was electrified! A lot of people with a whole lot more money than Oseola McCarty looked at themselves and asked, "Wow, if a local washerwoman can do something like that, what's wrong with me?"

Long before she died and her $150,000 gift passed to the University, there were millions of dollars in the Oseola McCarty Scholarship Fund, helping to fund scholarships for needy black students in education. Her gift changed hundreds of lives.

It changed her life too. This humble little lady finally saw with her own eyes the University of Southern Mississippi, where they awarded her the first honorary degree in the history of the school. She saw the whole country. She saw the White House-from the inside, where President Clinton awarded her the Presidential Citizen's Medal and scores of other humanitarian honors. Harvard University awarded her an honorary doctorate and she won the United Nations' coveted Avicenna Medal for educational commitment.

She later wrote a book filled with her simple, homespun wisdom. See a copy of the cover above.

Through it all, she retained her grace and humility. "I can't do everything," she said, "but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do, I will do. I just wish I could do more."

Comparing Oseola's gift with my outline of what makes a gift great, it's easy to see that what she did was the epitome of GREATNESS! Bless you, Oseola, for setting such a marvelous example for so many.

And what about our own charitable gifts and donations? How do they measure up? I'm not talking about the dollar amount, because that doesn't matter. What makes a gift GREAT is not its size, but its character. Here are some questions we can ask ourselves that can help us evaluate our gifts and hopefully guide us to put more heart into our giving:

  • Does giving this gift change me?
  • Does it make a significant difference for the recipient?
  • Does it motivate others to make similar gifts?
  • Does it satisfy my own deep-seated yearnings?
  • Does it spring seamlessly from my passions?
  • Does it express the central storyline of my life?
  • Does it leverage my unique abilities?
  • Does it flow from divine guidance?
  • Is it in harmony with my overall planning?
  • Does it bind me with the recipient?