Who are you grateful for? Who has had an impact on your life, has been there for you even when you didn’t realize it? Have you ever expressed your gratitude to these people? In today’s interview, John Israel will inspire you to do just that.
John Israel, aka Mr. Thank You, is on a mission to elevate the level of gratitude on the planet by 1% by inspiring 74 million Thank You cards written all over the world.
In October of 2016, John kicked it off by writing 5 Thank You cards a day, every day for 365 days. This mission transformed his life, family, community and business. His story has been featured on ABC news, Fox News, PopSugar.com, MarthaStewart.com, and Good Morning America.
Professionally, John is a corporate gifting consultant, where he helps companies and businesses retain clients and appreciate referral partners through high quality gifts.
John now speaks at business and organizational conferences where he shares his story and inspires people to make gratitude a habit in their lives.
John’s website can be found at https://mrthankyou.com/.
This podcast interview was recorded on Dec. 11, 2020
How do you treat that for which you are grateful?Tweet
Timeline of the Chat
02:00 – The genesis of the Mr. Thank You project
06:54 – Anticipating the impact of the Mr. Thank You Project
10:09 – Observing the impact of gratitude
19:27 – The Process of Five Cards a Day
26:39 – Keeping a gratitude practice
29:44 – 30 Days Gratitude Challenge
31:51 – Unexpected, incredible gifts
42:31 – What gratitude looks like
48:08 – The Gratitude Wall
49:33 – Invitation/Challenge
You can’t be upset and write a good thank you card at the same time.Tweet
- The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg
- The Mr. Thank You Project: A Journey to Elevate the Level of Gratitude on the Planet…One Card at a Time, John Israel
What’s distinct about gratitude and happiness is gratitude is a reflective state.Tweet
Transcript of the Episode
The genesis of the Mr. Thank You project [02:00]
Damianne: [02:00] I read that you started this project when you became the sole provider for your family and you started feeling some pressure from that and becoming unhappy. Did I get that right? And at the time you were selling gratitude, tell us about that stage of your life.
Israel: [02:16] Yeah. That’s kind of an interesting thing for people when it’s like, what do you do? If I had to summarize it, I’m a professional gratitude salesman. It is literally our business. We have a corporate gifting company; that’s what Mr. Thank You is. So we work with companies in their gifting strategy, how they say thank you to their clients, their employees.
We had built a really great business and 2016 was a very unique time because our business was going well, and my wife and I, we had just bought our first home the previous year. We had our first child right around the same time. And then I come to find out we’re expecting our second child. And then my wife also simultaneously leaves her job to become a stay at home mom, which we had talked about when we were planning on that. And then also I got a job opportunity to move our business from southern California, where we lived at the time, to Dallas, Texas to kind of expand all around the United States.
And so, you know, any one of those things is stressful, right? Having a child, you know, job loss, moving across the country, any one of those things are really stressful. So all three of them at the same time really weighed on my shoulders. And this job that I loved that was about gratitude and connection and appreciation became exactly that; it became a job, something I had to do to provide, to put food on the table. And honestly, Damianne, I was over it. And many people get that way in their jobs, which is something that you’ve done for a long time that maybe in the beginning, you love to do, you have purpose behind it, but then it just became this means to an end.
I just was really not feeling the purpose I once felt. And so I hired a life and business coach at the time to kind of help me through this experience. And the first thing he had me do is we went through this weekend long training, and it was really all about your vision, like what’s your vision for your life and for your business. And so I was in the gratitude game and what I came up with for myself and my small team was who we are is about elevating the level of gratitude on the planet. And it was really inspiring, just like writing it down and looking at it and you just kind of get the goosebumps, but then there’s also a really big problem.
Damianne: [04:24] Was it working for you?
Israel: [04:25] Well, and here is the interesting thing, which was I also heard a quote at that event that really challenged me and the quote’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson. What he says is, excuse me, I cannot hear what you’re saying because who you are speaks so loudly.
And for me, that is such a challenging quote because it challenges me to be consistent with my word. It’s like, you don’t just get to say, hey, I value this; I care about this. You have to prove it with your actions. And the challenge Damianne was that if you ask a hundred people who knew John Israel at that time, what do you know about this guy, they would probably say some nice things like driven or successful, motivated, but they probably wouldn’t say grateful or appreciative or even happy to describe who I was, because I wasn’t. And so how can I be this guy who says he’s all about elevating gratitude on the planet with his business, but yet he doesn’t embody it in his life. So I thought there was a real inconsistency there.
I worked with my coach on this and we came up with a strategy for how I can work on elevating my level of gratitude. This kind of lines up with a great book I was reading at the time called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. Great book.
He talks about this concept called a Keystone habit, and a Keystone habit is a singular habit you have that has a multiplied positive effect in your life, like working out. When you work out, number one, that’s good for you. You’re going to get healthier because you’re working out. Two, because you’re working out, you’re going to drink more water cause you’re sweating a lot. Well, that’s, it turns out drinking a lot of water is a good habit. The third thing is because you’re working out, you’re going to be more fatigued at night, so you’ll sleep better. So there’s all these benefits from one habit called working out. And so I just asked myself that question, like, what’s one habit I could have that could have that same multiplied effect in gratitude in my life.
And that’s where I just came up with this idea of like, well, what if I made a commitment to handwrite five thank you cards every single day for 365 days in a row. And that became what we titled the Mr. Thank You Project, which started really just as that, which was just a personal social experiment around gratitude, human connection. And it really expanded into this thing that we didn’t quite expect, but it’s really a big part of our life and in my business right now. So that’s kind of the precipice of how we began the journey.
Anticipating the impact of the Mr. Thank You Project [06:54]
Damianne: [06:54] You really took on the idea of show, not tell in terms of exhibiting this habit yourself, of sharing gratitude, showing gratitude every day for 365 days .What did you anticipate would happen? Did you have any sort of ideas?
Israel: [07:10] That’s a great question. I didn’t know what was going to happen for me, but there’s actually a little piece of the story that I don’t normally get to tell, but I’ll share it here, which is that right before this, right after we had our first child, my wife actually started a gratitude project and it was kind of this funny experience where she was taking an online, personal development course around abundance. And one of the challenges they give the participants is to experience more abundance, look at what you have a lot of and then just give it away, and see what happens. And she had this interesting experience where she would go to department stores and be shopping and she would collect thank you cards. She would see Oh, these are really cute or I know exactly who would love this one. She would collect all these thank you cards and she never sent any of them out. Some listeners might actually relate with that. You might have a stack of thank you cards that have the best intentions behind them, but didn’t go anywhere.
So she said, okay, well, I have an abundance of thank you cards. What if that’s what I commit to doing? And so she committed and I remember, because this was like really amazing, every single day, she didn’t have a specific number, but she was like, I’m going to write thank you cards every day for as long as I can until I give them out to everybody that I want to. And it was about like 60 to 70 days. It was about like two, two and a half months that she did this. And Damianne, it was fascinating.
When a woman has a baby, there’s often stress or there’s, you know, hormones and all sorts of things going on for a new mom. And she was the most gracious, loving, patient than I’ve ever experienced her in our relationship. And the only thing that I can connect it to was the fact that she was writing all these thank you cards. Yes, of course she had a baby, but the thank you cards really seemed to be this thing that she was just connecting with a lot of people and it was all about community and it was all about like not just, and this is, I think, one of the distinctions Damianne, which was it wasn’t just thinking good thoughts. It wasn’t just writing in a journal what I’m grateful for or thinking what you’re grateful for about other people, but there’s something to the vulnerability of expressing it in written form and then sending it.
There’s this whole vulnerability aspect and you don’t know how people are going to react or respond. And so I just saw it really impact her, but I also saw it impact our community. People were treating me better who got her thank you cards. So I didn’t know what would happen for me, but I did see that emotionally and mentally, it really positively benefited her. So I had a little bit of a case study that I was like, well, hey she wrote like 60, 70, thank you cards over that period of time. Who knows? At the minimum, if I feel better, like that’s a good step. So that’s all I really started with.
Damianne: [09:43] That’s interesting that you were able to notice that it impacted not just your wife, but the community around as well. That’s really a Testament to the impact that one person can have because often we think, Oh, what impact does it have when it’s just me that does something? But what you’re talking about sounds to me like a real example of how we can think about the impact that one person can have.
Observing the impact of gratitude [10:09]
There is some research that shows that what motivates us to the good in the world is when we are able to see our impact. I listened to some podcasts, read your work and I see that you tell stories about the impact of your notes on people, how we touch them, how sometimes that was the first time or the only time someone thanked them for being a pilot and landing the plane safely, for serving a group of 40 people at a restaurant, all of these different examples.
How did this thank you impact you in the beginning and how does it impact you now. So I’m curious if we think about it the other way. We can think about the community, but what about you as well?
Israel: [10:50] How did it impact me? I think that initially, so there’s this concept out there in the world, and this is a psychological term, but we all have this characteristic as a human being, which is called a negative bias. And a negative bias is a psychological term. Cause it’s a construct of what it means to be human, where we’re prone to looking for what’s wrong before we look for what’s right. Or we notice what’s wrong before we notice what’s right. And this is kind of baked into our DNA from when we were cavemen and cavewoman. Out in the jungle, we’d hear a, a growl behind a rock. We wouldn’t go over there and think it’s a cute little kitty cat. We would assume saber toothed tiger and we would run away and we would live to see another day.
So this whole concept of noticing what’s wrong first actually helped us evolutionarily survive for generations. So the question becomes, how does that affect us now? And you can even see this really easily with just how social media and the news is designed. Because we’re so prone to look at things that are a problem or wrong, it tends to get fed to us constantly, and that affects our thinking.
We’re constantly thinking about what’s wrong in the world and it creates a lot of fear; it creates a lot of anxiety. And so I say this because I would be just like that. I was a normal human being just like everyone listening, and I had that same exact experience of just constantly being surrounded by negativity and not able to sit through it really easily. And what was interesting about this challenge, and I think what’s helpful to share with people, Damianne, is that there were some rules to the Mr. Thank You Project, and this actually was a really, I think key reason why it worked really well.
There were four rules. Number one rule was I made a commitment to handwrite five thank you cards every day. So they had to be handwritten, couldn’t be a text message, an email or a video. I don’t think those are bad things. I love doing videos, but I wanted it to be more of a cathartic, like slowing process that I had to write them out because it would just be very meaningful.
The second piece is it every day reset at zero. So I couldn’t write 35 thank you cards on Sunday, because that’s not how I want to spend my Sunday. I want to be with my family. The third piece was I could write a max of three danky cards per any one person. This was important because I don’t want to just be thanking the same people over and over again. I want to be looking for people distinctly, so I could get. In a grateful state; that was a part of it. And then the final rule was an interesting one, and I worked with my coach on this and he said, John, this sounds like a great project, but you know, where’s the accountability? What happens if, or when you miss a day of writing your cards?
I thought about it, my first response was okay, for every day that I miss writing my five thank you card, I’ll donate $100 to charity. I felt pretty good about that because it kind of put me on the hook to make sure I did it every day. And then he looks at me and says, add a zero. Here in the USA, that’s…
Damianne: [13:42] It sounds a bit more painful when you add a zero.
Israel: [13:45] That’s a thousand US dollars for not writing five thank you cards in a day and that’s pretty absurd, and that’s what I told him. I said, that’s crazy. Why would I do that? And he said, well, you know, I don’t want you to have to donate any money, but let me ask you this. How likely is it that you’re probably going to donate a hundred or several hundred dollars to charity throughout the year anyways. And I said, yeah, we can already do that with our typing process or people ask for donations for something. And so he says, okay, well then you’re giving yourself a way out.
If what’s at stake every day is a thousand dollars, how many days are you going to miss? And of course the answer to that question was zero; there’s no way I’m going to miss a day if a thousand dollars is at stake. So then he says, okay, what would you like to do? So that became the fourth rule, which was a thousand dollars to charity for any and every day that I missed writing my five thank you cards. And five thank you cards times 365 days is 1,825 letters of appreciation in one year’s time.
You don’t need to know everything that happened to know that when you make any level of commitment like that in your life, whether it be to a health goal, to a business goal, to a relationship goal, for a daily focus thing you do every day, you’re going to change. For sure. And so I say that because it’s helpful to know that it wasn’t workable for me to skip a day. So it challenged me, even if I didn’t feel good, even if I didn’t want to write thank you cards, or I didn’t feel grateful, I still had to do it, or I had to pay a thousand dollars.
So it really became this crucible of learning for me , Damianne, where it didn’t matter how I felt, I had to work through whatever I was feeling to get in a grateful state, because here’s the thing is you can’t be upset and write a good thank you card at the same time. It’s this really interesting conflict.
So if I had a terrible day, which sometimes still happens, just because I write a lot of thank you cards doesn’t mean that I don’t still have marital challenges or kids breaking a glass or clients canceling business. It doesn’t mean that life was perfect. I just still had to deal with it and find a way to be grateful at the same time. That alone Damianne was life-changing.
I remember this moment, like, I’ll give a really simple example. I had a really tough day exactly like I described. Just long days seeing clients, traffic, didn’t have the success that I wanted, got a disappointing email and then I come home and I’m like, Ugh, gosh let me just get through these thank you cards and just finish this day. And so I come home a little early and I opened the door and immediately when I opened the door, the dog barks. So with the dog barking, that wakes up one of our sleeping children. And so now he is screaming, and then because he’s screaming, my wife, who now we have, the second child is born, that second child is now screaming who was almost asleep. And then I’ve got a barking dog and two screaming children and then my wife’s staring at me with laser beams coming out of her eyes, like why are you home right now? Because I came home 30 minutes early. And so now I feel even worse, and then I got to go up to my office, and I’m going to sit down and write, thank you cards. And I just sit down there and I couldn’t do it. I literally could not muster any ounce of gratitude in that moment, but I still had to. The other option was to pay a thousand dollars. The only thing I could do, Damianne, was I closed my door, I turned off the lights, I laid on the ground and I processed the day. I just sat with everyone emotion I was feeling, all of the frustration.
And the way that I liken to that experience was kind of like, if you have a snow globe, right. I’m sure you’ve seen a snow globe before. It’s like when you shake it up; I think when we have a really emotionally charged day, it’s kind of like that. We’ve got all these thoughts that are clouding our mind. We can’t see straight. We can’t think straight and. And so that’s what I was feeling, and so by taking the time to pause and stop and just be with everything, it gave my brain time for everything to start settling to the ground. It took me about 10 minutes and I started to feel a little more calm. I got up. I grabbed my journal. I think journaling is a really great exercise to start flushing thoughts out, and there’s like little exercises that I learned around emotional management, like what am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling that? Is this true? How do I know is this true? Then I started to challenge my negative thoughts that I was having like, Oh, I totally ruined my wife’s life. Is that true? Oh not really? I probably upset her. What’s really true. Oh, well, she’ll get over it. We’ll have dinner and it’ll be fine.
And so I was able to move through the emotional challenges. And then once I did that, Damianne, and I got to then ask myself the question, who am I grateful for today? And the names came easily. I wrote those cards really effortlessly because I was in the state to do it. So a lot of this project, which I totally didn’t expect, became this emotional management exercise of how can I get into a grateful state even, and especially, when I don’t want to? That alone, Damianne, is life-changing because when you think about, how many times have something happened, someone sent us a nasty email or a phone call to a colleague that totally turned us in a negative attitude, and then we’re talking to someone who has nothing to do with that and then we blow up at them. Or we’re short, or we do something that even damages that relationship.
How is that impacting our life? How is that impacting our business or our ability to be productive? It’s massive. So for me, that was one of the biggest things that really shifted for me, and it really became this muscle, like how quickly can I shift from whatever I’m feeling right now to how I want to be, which is grateful, happy, peaceful. And that was really powerful.
The Process of Five Cards a Day [19:27]
Damianne: [19:27] Yeah, that’s very interesting because I think that’s something that we tend to struggle with, that most people struggle with. We tend to wallow. We tend to share our frustrations and play the stories in our heads over and over again, where we stay in that place rather than feeling the feelings, processing them and moving on, or even choosing what do you want to feel next?
And so it sounds like having this gratitude practice really gave you a thing to aim for so that you could go through the emotions and then know the next thing I’m going to do is feel grateful and go through this process. And I’m wondering if also by having it be a written activity, that also slowed it down even further.
How long would you say it took you typically to write these five cards?
Israel: [20:17] That is a fantastic question by the way. Cause there, there is a psychological component to this that I think really played into why writing it was important. So, and I’ll go into a little bit of the definition of gratitude is the emotion one feels when you receive a gift or experienced something as a gift. So it’s really easy to understand because when you think of somebody who has given you something unexpected, given you a gift, how do you feel? That emotion is gratitude, right? It’s like, you can call it happy, but there’s just this thing of like, Hey, you didn’t have to do that. That was amazing.
There’s also this interesting experience of you can have life experiences because the other part of that definition is the experience of something as a gift. So you could look at a time of life that was challenging. Maybe you were in a relationship with a significant other, and at some point that ended. And how did you feel? I still remember the first one for me, and it was devastating, like I took the coldest shower of my life and I’m like, life is over. And then she asked out my best friend on a date and it was just like, Oh my gosh. And then it gets worse. By the way, this girl wound up becoming a great friend. I went to her wedding a few years back. So we’re still good friends. Anyhow, but I remember in the moment, it was literally like life was over. But later, now that I’m married with children, I can look at that experience and be like, I’m glad that happened because I found who I am really supposed to be with.
So we can actually look at challenging parts of life and say, well, that needed to happen for this to happen. So I could actually say there was a real gift in that experience. And so I think for this, this whole idea of gratitude, what’s distinct about gratitude and happiness is gratitude is a reflective state, and it’s almost meditative.
When you think about mindfulness and meditation, people talk about the benefits of it is that it calls you to be conscious in the moment. And I think that this exercise was like almost a meditative practice, where with everything going on, I had to stop, I had to think about somebody, reflect on them and ask myself, what do I love about this person? What’s great about this person. How have they made my life better? How do they impact the world? And I had to think about all these questions and it caused me to then write a really great thank you card to this person. So it was really, I think, this cathartic process of stopping everything and anything I can think about, I have to focus intentionally about what do I love about this person.
And that process was, I think you kind of nailed it where it really was like having to stop and write that took the time that was really like this meditative practice. And it took me about an hour and a half every day to write these cards, which by the way, I did the math on this and it was really interesting. So an hour and a half, so 90 minutes, times 365 days, so it was 32,000 minutes divided by 60 minutes, so it’s 547 hours divided by 24 hours in a day. It was 22.8 full days, 24 days spent in a state of gratitude. That is crazy. I mean, you do that with anything, right, love loving your spouse, taking that amount of time to think about your spouse or do something for them, focusing on your business or self-discipline; that’s a game changer.
They say you can tell what somebody values by how they spend their time and how they spend their money. That was just kind of a really interesting thing that I do think that the amount of time spent into it was definitely a key characteristic. I think you’ll notice that 90 minutes is a long time to spend writing five thank you cards, because they weren’t just, Hey, thank you for that thing.
Damianne: [23:55] Routine.
Israel: [23:56] Yeah. This is where people get interested in the project because it wasn’t, and I really wanted it to not be this way, it wasn’t like the pleasantry of gratitude. Which is what most people think about. I don’t know in other countries, but in the United States, when someone graduates high school or college or university, they get graduation gifts and presents . Or when they get married, they get all these gifts. And one of the pleasantries, or what you’re supposed to do is to send a thank you card to the person who gave you the gift. Well, if you’re on the other end and you received all those gifts, sending the thank you cards is the biggest chore in the world. People avoid it for six months and they’re thinking about it. They’re like, Oh, I don’t want to do this, and it’s literally the opposite of gratitude that they feel when they’re doing it. It’s this, like, I hate doing this. So it’s completely ineffective if the goal is to feel gratitude.
So for me, I really wanted them to not just be thank you for the thing you did. I wanted to do this really reflective whole human look at a person. What do I love about this person? What can I acknowledge about them? And I started to learn there’s formats. It’s kind of interesting. There’s formats and structures that go into writing a really meaningful thank you card, which we can go into at some point or not in this conversation, but it ultimately was a very powerful process, just spending the time to write a really meaningful card, not just like a pleasantry type of thank you card.
Damianne: [25:22] So some of that time is in creating, in thinking, in processing. It’s not all 90 minutes of writing necessarily
Israel: [25:31] Yeah. It’s sitting there thinking about somebody. What do I appreciate about them? Sometimes I would literally take out the notes in my computer and I would just type out what I would want to say and change things or flip it around and then I’d write it. Or sometimes I’ll rewrite someone’s card, like three times because I just didn’t get it right. So it definitely took time just to compose it, and part of that was really just thinking through it.
Damianne: [25:51] I just love the way that you did all of the math and put it in terms of minutes and hours and days. I think that’s so helpful when we think about this, because anything that you do for that amount of time, as you said, you’re going to build a muscle; you’re going to strengthen a particular area.
If we exercise that much, we would be so much stronger. And so it’s a form of exercise; you’re exercising a muscle; you’re exercising your brain and changing your brain in very tangible ways. I’m sure if we were to do a scan, because I’ve heard other researchers talk about this, where there’s actually changes in the brain that we can detect over time with people going through the exercise of gratitude. So I just find that so fascinating.
Israel: [26:34] Yeah. It was a pretty wild year. A lot of interesting things happen.
Keeping a gratitude practice [26:39]
Damianne: [26:39] How has this experience changed over time? How much do you still practice gratitude in terms of writing notes now? And how do you experience this activity differently now than you did at different times in the past.
Israel: [26:56] Yeah, it’s a really great question. So kind of interesting fact, prior to this project, I really wasn’t a thank you card writer. It wasn’t really a part of my life. In fact, my mom tried to get me to send thank you cards to everyone who gave me gifts for my graduation, and I didn’t. I just didn’t. I just never got to it. And once I was a sophomore in high school or in college, I think she was over it. And so it wasn’t really a part of my life. And so since I finished the project, I still do write cards. I wouldn’t even say I do them every day; I do them every week for sure. And they will vary in who they’re to and what they’re about.
For the exploration of the project, it really was how creative can I get with this? Back in the project, I wrote them to literally every type of person. I wrote them to politicians that I appreciated. I wrote them to people who own businesses and companies that I loved, Whole Foods, Home Depot. Whole Foods actually sent me back a letter as well with a $10 gift card to Whole Foods. I don’t know if you’ve been to one of those. You can’t really buy much with $10.
Damianne: [27:56] I was about to say what did you get?
Israel: [27:57] It was like a half of a smoothie, but they sent me something and that was cool. I sent them to my favorite authors. I sent them to the trash man who picked up our trash. I sent them to the people in my neighborhood who decorated their house for Christmas, because I just love the response my kids have when they see a house that’s really nicely decorated.
So it was really this like outward looking for people to appreciate. I don’t do it to that degree as much as I used to during the project. What it is now, it’s significantly more important than it used to be, because I know the impact that it has on people. And so a lot of it is based on people that I interact with, people that I meet; I do send them to clients. And I think that now it’s really more of a thing that I turn on when I need to. And so sometimes I might sit down, like the other day I sat down and I just wrote 10 thank you cards in a row because I had 10 different people that I kind of have been stacking up. So I have a note in my phone that says, thank you cards. And I add people to it if I remember that I need to write them cards.
A lot of times, by the way, this is actually an interesting fact that I learned about, the science behind it is that there was a bigger impact on people as it relates to gratitude, having a solid chunk of time, like an hour to two hours where they would write thank you cards to people; that had a greater resonance and impact than if someone did one card every day. There’s something about spending more time in it that really caused people to get into the emotional state, because you can knock one out pretty quick and then move on.
By the way, this isn’t to tell people that one a day isn’t good because I think that if someone does one thank-you card every day, I think it’s a beautiful place to start. Just start with one a day everyday for 30 days, which by the way, we have a 30 day challenge. By the way, can I give that away to everyone who’s listening real quick?
Damianne: [29:43] Absolutely. That would be great.
30 Days Gratitude Challenge [29:44]
Israel: [29:44] Yeah, so really simple. If you go to https://mrthankyou.com/30, just put in your email. We’ll give you a 30 day challenge that’s just got a couple of things to help you with it. I think that is a great place to start.
And in the scientific lens of what they learned, is it like when you do it in chunks of time, it has a really powerful, positive impact. So that’s how I tend to do it now is more like in chunks and not quite every single day, although I do a lot of keynote speaking now, so I tend to talk about it every day. And I think what’s really changed for me now is I try to look at it, because in the moment when I was doing this for the whole year, I wasn’t thinking about the science. I only had so much time. I was like, I’m writing my cards and then I’m living my life, like that is it.
It wasn’t until I was getting towards the end of the project that so many things happened Damianne, that I was like I’ve got to write a book about this. And so I started doing research towards the end of the project. Now that I was done, I was able to stop and really reflect on the whole thing and ask what did I learn; what were the lessons; what did I experience; what did I see; what did I feel; what makes a good thank you card? It’s been about two years since I finished my project, so I started in October 10th of 2016. It went for a whole calendar year until October 9th, 2017. And then since then it’s like every year I’m still uncovering new things and learning new things.
Some of the impacts I didn’t see until a year or two later in the relationships that I had. So it has really evolved, but it’s more of, I would say, a conscious practice. I don’t do it everyday, like I used to, but it is more of a conscious practice.
Damianne: [31:21] Yeah, it’s interesting because just this week I was reading an article that said that it’s more effective to write three thank you cards in one moment than to write to one a day, even if you were going to do this once a week. As I’m chatting with you, I’m beginning to understand a bit more that it’s probably because the amount of time you spend helps you get into that state where you can really savor and appreciate and start looking at the world differently and all of these impacts.
So that’s really interesting.
Unexpected, incredible gifts [31:51]
Israel: [31:51] Yeah. Yeah, there was another , I don’t usually tell this story, of kind of a catalyst, because it’s hard to say like any one thing started this project. It did work out that I happened to be in the gratitude business and I wanted to work on the vision and, you know, get a habit in place.
But there were pieces of my life that when I remembered, I’m like, wow, I forgot that that even happened. And one of them, because you hit on something that I think is really important, which is spending a chunk of time doing this,because for some people, they may listen to this and be like, wow, that sounds great. I don’t think I’m going to do five cards a day for a year because it is really hard, but I think if you start, and that’s where the 30 day challenge will help, is to start by just making a list of people that you want to appreciate.
Think of 30 to 60 people that have impacted your life. It could be family members, teachers, coaches, mentors, authors. Just start by making the list and then start by taking chunks and writing them thank you cards. So the story was, and this kind of goes into, because I know you’d like to know like the story behind everything else.
So my start in business at 19 happened, not because I wanted to get into business at 19. My degree in college is kinesiology. So for all intensive purposes, I should be a chiropractor or a physical therapist, but I’m not. I got a job in business because my father got sick with Parkinson’s disease when I was in high school, and he left his job early. He got kind of a settlement from his company and then they ran out of money. And so I was now in college. My parents ran into money. Not only could they not pay for college anymore, but when I came home for summer break, I had to pay to rent my own room.
It was this really traumatic experience of I was just thrown out on my own, like really overnight. And it challenged me to like, well, I gotta figure this out. So I got a job in sales, and then because of that, it turned out I was really good at sales and I learned all these things. But it was really the stressful time of life for about four or five years where I was just really hustling and working hard just to make ends meet.
And so anyways, fast forward to 2007, 2008, I had actually had a really great year in sales; I’d broken some national records. And for the first time in my life, I made more money that year at 24 than anyone in my family has ever made. And it was kind of like this prideful moment, but I also still wasn’t fulfilled.
And I remember going through this personal development seminar, and this is where some things kind of crossed over. The speaker at this event said, in every life experience, there is a gift, and your job is to find it. And I didn’t like that because I had a lot of life experiences that I didn’t want to find a gift in.
I don’t want to find a gift in the fact that my dad got sick, that he had to leave his job, that I got thrown out on my own, that I had to take care of myself. I didn’t want to find a gift in that; that was hard or that was painful. But that idea just sat with me for a while. And I finished that weekend seminar and I remember it was a couple of days later, I’m sitting in my car and it was this interesting experience where my then girlfriend, now wife, asked for a ride to the airport at five in the morning, which is clearly an awesome time to have to wake up and drive somebody to the airport. You’ve all had that call from a friend, right? Like, Hey, can you give me a ride to the airport? And you’re like, sure. And you’re like, when’s your flight? And they’re like, Oh, 6:00 AM. You’re like, Oh, I hate you.
So anyways, I drove her to the airport, but instead of being really negative, I was actually in a really good mood, which was odd. I lived in Southern California still, and I remember I went to the beach cause I’m like, something’s going on? I got to capture what I’m feeling right now. And what kept coming out was this idea of in every life experience there as a gift and your job is to find it.
It was in that moment, Damianne, that I realized that my success that I had occurred because of my dad’s sickness. If he didn’t get sick and go through what he had to go through, and then it put me in the position, I was, I would not be who I was and I was a very successful 24 year old. I actually felt for the first time instead of pain, I felt gratitude. And that was moving. It was like one of the greatest pains I had in my life at that time. And to have that change from pain to gratitude is powerful. And then I started to think about all of the people that were along the ride with me.
I thought about my mentors in my life, the managers that had supported me, the trainers that taught me everything that I knew, all the books that I’d read. And I started to think about all these people that had actually been alongside of me during that time when I actually thought that I was alone, and I started writing down all these people’s names in my journal that I really was just grateful for. And I literally spent that day writing emails to all of these people, thanking them for the impact and spelling out what specifically they did, what specifically they said, how it impacted me, how I am in the world now. And every time I clicked send on one of these emails, it was like that level of gratitude just got higher and higher.
And I remember I did this for about five hours straight and by the end of that fifth hour , mid to late morning at this point, I was on such a high of gratitude. I was literally crying, and I remember telling myself I have never felt this good in my life, and if there is a way I could find to feel like this every day, I can die happy.
I remember thinking that, and this is a decade before I start this thank you project. And I remember at some point during the project being like, Oh my gosh, I’ve been here before. I literally told myself if I could find a way to live like this, this would be like the life to live.
I can’t say , Oh, every single day I live with the highest level of gratitude, but it is literally the work that I do now. I just wanted to connect those dots because I think that a great starting point for people is just that, is to just make that list of people that when you reflect on your life, and you think of who’s been there next to you; who’s supported you; who taught you; who did you learn from? And you can start to see the support, the gifts that have shown up in your life because they didn’t have to do that. That is one of the coolest things.
So the nature of gratitude again, when you go back to the definition, gratitude is the emotion when you receive a gift or experience something as a gift. And you start to look at the people in your life and you can actually say, you didn’t need to do that. You didn’t need to spend that extra time with me, teaching me how to write better like my English teacher did. You didn’t need to spend that extra time with me in practice, making sure I understood how to do that drill correctly, but you did. And that is the nature of a gift. So it really is this practice of looking at anything and discovering the gift. And that is such a simple thing, but it is so significantly life-changing and powerful that anyone can do it. That’s the best part.
Our project now is totally different. So the project is not for John Israel to keep writing all these thank you cards, although I do. Our mission evolved to our goal is to elevate the level of gratitude on the planet by 1%, by inspiring 74 million thank you cards written around the world. I really stand with that because what I’ve seen, anytime I do a keynote or I do a workshop or anything like that, mostly via Zoom at this point, I have people write a thank you card during the session and hands down, I’m talking CEOs and executives, people who make crazy amounts of money, do this singular activity, and I teach them how to write a good thank you card and I go through the process and they write it, and I get emails of people just like I wrote a letter to… this literally happened last week; I wrote a letter to my dad and I, and I don’t talk to him often because he and I have different political beliefs, and I wrote him a letter letting him know how much I loved him, regardless of what he thought; regardless of whatever he believed, he’s always my dad. And then he sent me back this email, and he forwards me this email that he gets back from his dad. I’m just getting to see this and I’m like, man, this is crazy. And that’s what I love about it.
And one of the unique things is whenever we’ve discovered things like this, like you talk to a lot of interesting people who do projects and do different things, which what I love about this is that it’s really simple. And it costs nothing. You don’t even have to use the thank-you card. You can take a sheet of paper and just write something out. It doesn’t even require much of anything and it changes people’s lives. And so for now, the fact that this is the work that I get to do now, whether it be like from a keynote speaking or we still run our gifting company, but really, this is what we do now.
Just sharing this message with people, if it helps them live a more grateful life, they love their spouse better, they love their children better. I mean, we live in a world Damianne that has so much opportunity and it is more filled with negativity and cynicism than ever. How can that be? And so I think if we can help people kind of shift their perspective, feel more gratitude, express it in their life, experience more joy, if that’s what I get to do for the rest of my life, yeah, I’m cool with that.
Damianne: [40:45] Yeah, I think that’s really amazing because I can think of some experiences, and not that I have written cards necessarily, although that’s definitely something that I will take up the invitation to make a list of people and work on that, but I can think of some instances where somebody has done something, and even if it’s their job so it’s not that I didn’t expect them to do that thing, but I have so much gratitude for the way that they did it.
So a very simple example in Czech Republic, sometimes people can be a bit brusque in customer service. Maybe all over the world when you go to different government offices, people aren’t necessarily the friendliest. I went to this office just before they were closing and I thought for sure somebody would be upset with me or tell me that I needed to come back another day. And there was this lady who was so patient and my Czech is poor and her English was non-existent but somehow we managed to communicate and she made me feel so cared for, for me to be able to get my health insurance process all done. And I told everybody this story, you know, how wonderful this lady was, but then I thought, okay, what if I found a way to tell her that, or write her that or something, how much more impact would it have made? Or I can see somebody where you give somebody a chocolate bar for them having done something for you in a nice way, and their face lights up. And then that in turn lights you up.
And so I really have seen the power of gratitude and doing it with a note, where it really takes nothing except your time, is such a simple, not necessarily easy, but a simple invitation for people definitely. And yeah, I’m taking you up on that too.
What gratitude looks like [42:31]
I’m curious how often do you get a response back?
So it’s an interesting question. So what I’ve run with, and to me, it was crazy to realize, and then now I just accept, this is what the case is. Ten percent, so 10% of people even just responded back that they got it, which can be really difficult. Because, especially when you kind of pour your heart out into a letter and you make it very intentional and meaningful and you spend time on it and then you send it and you don’t hear anything. The feeling on the inside is like, Is everything okay; did I upset you; did I do something wrong; was this weird; I don’t know. And we have all these emotions and we don’t know what’s going on. And this was , by the way, an experience, I couldn’t tell you until after the project was over because I didn’t know about this until after it was over, but that number stayed the same with my family.
I wrote thank you cards to my mom, dad, siblings, everybody and same thing with them. Only my sister, out of all those people even said they got it. Here’s the other part of that story. I went to visit my mom. So this is a year after the Mr. Thank you project was over, I was visiting my mom because my dad was still with Parkinson’s, but very ill. He was very far along in his journey. This is about, you know, 16, 17 years into having the disease. And so my mom was taking care of him a hundred percent.
We came down to visit and see how we could be helpful. So I was talking to my mom and we’re having this kind of heart to heart conversation at the table and she’s crying. And she says, you know, John, I got your thank you card the other day, and I so much wanted to appreciate it, but I just couldn’t because I’m in so much pain here taking care of your dad by myself. And it was the first time that I think I can really remember listening to my mom because after that I realized like, wow, that her reaction or lack of had nothing to do with me. It was really what she was going through. And she went on to tell me what was going on and how she was feeling.
I’m the youngest of five kids, and she said, Hey, what I really want, and I basically said how can we help? She said, I would love it if every one of the kids, all five of you, could come out for a week and watch dad for a week while I go on vacation, or I just don’t have to take care of him. That would really, really help. And she had talked about this before, by the way, but I always responded like, Oh, but I’m so busy and we’ve got stuff going on. And we live in a different state and that’s too hard and organizing schedules and taking care of kids. And I basically used to give her resistance. But in this moment I was like, you got it; we’ll figure it out. And I jumped on the horn, I called all my siblings. We got a conference call going, and we picked who’s got what week throughout the year. And we planned it and we made it happen. Every one of the kids got to go take care of my dad that year and was like, well, let my mom either leave or just be around town and not have to take care of him. I was the second to last. My sister was the last one. And he passed away the weekend after the final child got to come and watch him..
Wow. What a gift to all of you.
Israel: [45:44] Yeah. And I really think that some of this wouldn’t have been catalyzed because here in here was like the, by the way, this was the lesson that came from that experience, which is a question. How do you treat that for which you are grateful? You don’t get to tell somebody, I love you and then treat them like; you don’t get to tell someone how much they mean to you and how much you’ll do anything for them, and then they have a request and you’re like, Oh, but I’m really busy. So for me, that was the experience, and I think that was actually a bigger challenge out of this project that I didn’t expect, which was not just in writing all the cards, but how I needed to show up in my relationships now, which is like, I need to show up as somebody who actually cares about this relationship and that was a life changer.
I would honestly say that my relationship with my mom has completely changed since that day. It was a really joyful year getting to experience spending time with my dad, and I’m not grateful that my dad had to go through that, but I am grateful for the lesson, the experience of bringing the family together and all the good that has come from it.
So that’s one little piece that I would say it was an unexpected benefit. I teach a lot of business people and the title we put a lot to my messaging is called becoming irreplaceable, and what that means is how do you become somebody others don’t want to live without. And in business, that’s really helpful because if you can know how to make, not just a relationship, but a relationship where you’re so valuable to this person, that they want to just keep human existence and send you customers and do more business with you, that’s a really powerful place to be.
I think that has really come out of this experience of this whole Mr. Thank you project, not just writing these cards, but how I needed to keep growing and being a better person and being more helpful and more valuable to my relationships. And it was really kind of this upward spiral ever since then.
Damianne: [47:39] What came up for me as you were talking is well we’ve gone full circle, talking about show, not tell, and also that practicing gratitude really helps you be able to see people, see people for who they are and for what they’re telling you, and in a whole different way where you’re paying attention differently than you may have before, because you want to know that whole person, you want to see that whole person. That is so very powerful.
The Gratitude Wall [48:08]
I’m seeing that in your background, there are lots of post-it notes, sticky notes, cards. I don’t really know what they are, but tell us about these and I’m going to take a screenshot if that’s okay.
Israel: [48:19] Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And if you’re listening, if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll actually see this picture, because they do have it on there. So I have this gratitude wall. And so this is behind me. I’ll kind of pivot a little bit. So these are actually thank you cards that I have received from people.
When you write 1,825 thank you cards in a year and you speak on gratitude to audiences, you get some thank you cards back. And so for me, when I come into my office, this is what I see every single day. And I still get letters. I’ve got a stack of these I still need to add up there, but I go up there and I read them, because to me, they’re a remembrance of why I do what I do. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges. I remember an early mentor told me that a lot of success is just remembering why you want what you want.
And that to me helps me be reminded of what I want and why I want it, which is to see the impact this has on people, even if it’s that they write one card to somebody that they’ve been meaning to. That’s really great. So this is my gratitude wall. Anytime I get a thank you card, I put it up there.
And if anyone for some reason wants to send a card, my address is actually on our website at mrthankyou.com. It’s right on the bottom. You’ll see it there, but that’s it.
Damianne: [49:33] You’ve already told us that we can join the 30 day challenge by going to mrthankyou.com/30. ,Is there anything else that you would like to invite people to do, to participate, to join this movement?
Israel: [49:47] While we did get to cover a lot and Damianne, you’re a great interviewer. So yes, a lot of really great questions today, the book The Mr. Thank You Project, which is available on Amazon pretty much in every country. I would recommend picking up a copy of the book because the book actually has pictures of the cards because I tried to track this as I was doing it. If I wrote a card that was really meaningful to me, I would take a picture of it. And then, so as I wrote the book, I would write about an experience and then I would actually post a picture of the actual card that I wrote.
So if that’s helpful for you, you can pick up the book on Amazon. And there’s also a whole slew of different stories we didn’t cover today that are in that book. I would invite you guys to pick up a copy of that book. And if this message is relevant for you and you feel like you’re part of an organization or a company that would value this message, you can reach out to us on my website. Just go to the media inquiries and go and put a requests there.
Last thing that I’ll say is our mission, like I said, is to inspire 74 million you cards written around the world. So when you go to Mr.thankyou.com, you’re going to see something that is like a picture of a map, and then you’ll see these little cards kind of flying around on the map, and that is actually a global gratitude map.
So when you go to mrthankyou.com, you can actually create a free profile and we will give you your own gratitude portal, where as you write thank you cards to people, you can put their name and their zip code or their country. And we’ll actually give you your own gratitude map and it’ll show where your cards are going around the world. And then we do a timestamp of who you wrote the cards to, so that it’ll actually it’ll keep track for you. And that was partial personally for me, because when I was doing this project, I would just use an Excel spreadsheet. I’d just write people’s names because I didn’t want to forget.
When you write a lot of cards, it’s literally like, Wait did I write that person? Did I just think about writing them a card? I don’t remember. And so that Excel spreadsheet really helped. So we built the website to basically be a platform for people to go and to write and to track their own gratitude projects, because that’s really our mission.
I want people to start a gratitude project, whatever that looks like. Literally, even if it’s just making that one list and writing a letter to everyone there. That’s great. Even if it’s just one card, if you just do that one thing today, like that would be my one takeaway. I would say write that one card you’ve been meaning to and then let us know. You can go to mrthankyou.com, log the card, and then we’ll keep track for you. And then you can always keep going back and updating and updating and updating, and you know, it’ll exist forever. So there you go.
Damianne: [52:03] Wonderful. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, John. I encourage everybody to check out the links in the show notes and yes, I have my task cut out for me, a task I’m excited about. I will send you a card after I have done 20 people on my list. So that’s going to be my, my commitment to that, my intention that I’m sharing here today.
Israel: [52:30] Cool. Awesome. Well, thank you for hosting us and Damianne, thank you for taking the time to interview me and to interview all the people and to edit this podcast and put it out
Damianne: [52:41] Thank you for coming on and sharing about your work and inspiring us, encouraging us to join and experience in the magic of gratitude.
So thank you.
Israel: [52:52] Awesome. Thanks, Damianne.