Alexandra Franzen wants “to live in a world where emails are short, love letters are brave, and ‘thank you’ notes are scribbled by hand”. And with such beautiful images of a life full of love, gratitude and tenacity conjured up, who wouldn’t want to join her?
Alexandra Franzen is one of my favourite word-gurus. Quite simply put, I adore the way she writes. It’s catchy, engaging. There’s a complex simplicity to it. A real ‘lightning bolt of awesome’. She’s not in the business of rocket science, but she is in the business of reminding you not to over-think things, to believe in yourself and to inspire you to take action. I stand in awe of her ability to be so sharp, so concise. Sometimes, there’s only a word or two per sentence. As a self-confessed verbal ultra-elaborator, this is magical.
So much of my professional writing life is about making sure I stand independently of my work, yet it is at odds with the way I see and interpret the world. I don’t like switching off my voice, and many times I think there’s too much professional writing that is devoid of personality. It doesn’t feel like it comes from the heart. But whoever said ‘professional’ writing had to be staid and boring in order to be successful?
How it all went down
On a whim, I sent an email to Alexandra. I wanted to tell her how much I admired her work and how her musings have influenced me, but I also wanted to seek her guidance on something I thought would be right up her alley. Delivering Alexandra the compliments on her work were what drove me to sit down and knock out the email in the first place: it came from a place of honesty.
I took my time crafting the email, obsessed over the angle, the words, and whether it sounded authentic (as authentic as you can be when technically you’re emailing a stranger asking for help). And after hitting send, I noticed a typo. Goddamnit! Nevertheless, I was fairly confident Alexandra could see the merits in my request and ignore the imperfections that belied the effort put forth.
I wasn’t expecting anything in return. She is, after all, kinda famous and was on a whirlwind book tour of the US. But lo and behold — I received a reply!
So… what did she say?
Suffice to say, I’m a bigger fan of Alexandra’s now that I was previously. She listened to me, diagnosed the conundrum and prescribed a solution. With fresh eyes and a keen nose for the missing element, she was able pinpoint exactly what I was missing.
It was that famous ‘laser-lucid’ advice she’s well-known for: advice that makes you slap your forehead and say, “But of course! That’s IT!”.
Why is this significant?
I think this is significant because, to put it simply, Alexandra didn’t have to. She received an email from someone she’d never met, and decided to help. She could have just as easily ignored my email. But she responded with enthusiasm and moxie. Seeing her response sitting in my inbox really made my day, and the advice was spot on. I was so encouraged and giddy with excitement!
We’re all so busy these days. So when someone takes time out of their lives to listen and respond to me, I am sincerely grateful. And as a consequence, I’m keen to do the same to other people. For me, one small spark is enough to fuel multiple acts of goodwill.
What I learned from Alexandra Franzen
PLENTY! She’s taught me how to rock a video interview, mantras for people (like me) who tend to overwork, how to attract the people you can count on, and how to say no, amongst others. But above all, our exchange has demonstrated to me what happens when you are so ridiculously generous: you can do anything! By making the lives of other people better, even in a small way, it will make yours better.
Alexandra clearly believes generosity is the secret of her success. And I believe it. She’s someone who’s got it goin’ on, and she’s not squirreling away all she has learned. Alexandra’s sharing, enriching the lives of those who come across her. It’s her secret sauce, and I am fortunate to have benefited from her generosity. Now, I’m inclined to do the same to keep this cycle of goodwill flowing and multiplying. Hopefully it will inspire others to do the same and the world will be better for it.
Paying it forward
I really admire her ethos of generosity, and what better way to see how it works than trying it myself, right?
There’s no time like the present. Over the past week, I’ve tried to do at least one thing each day to be generous. That may sound a little forced, but repetition actively helps reinforce new habits. I didn’t want this to be a one-time thing: I wanted to build it into my day in the same manner of Alexandra Franzen and Diane von Furstenberg. First thing Diane von Furstenberg does in the morning, she sends an email that doesn’t benefit her at all: sending people compliments, introducing people etc. I think that’s enlightening: she gives before even has her morning cuppa. That’s both impressive and humbling.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
So I sat down and hand wrote a letter to my sister in celebration of her upcoming birthday (good emails are good, but any letter that arrives – that isn’t a bill – is fantastic!).
I wrote an email to a friend far away, sending her love for her sick dad.
I sent a note of encouragement to a blogger I really admire after she had a really tough week with the fall out from a piece she wrote on sexual assault.
I did the laundry with gratitude without seeking anything in return.
I left a great review on iTunes for my favourite podcast, the Mental Illness Happy Hour.
I reached out to a new friend here in Chicago and invited her for coffee.
And there will be more. But the aim of the game is connecting. Really, truly connecting with people on a human level. One that doesn’t seek anything in return. One that finds reward within when you give, share.
Generous acts strengthen the bonds of friendship, and what’s more, studies show that your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than from receiving support yourself.
— Gretchen Rubin
Want to help pay it forward?
To my inner cynic, all this talk of generosity and gratitude sounds very saccharine, very ‘Pollyanna’. But less cynicism and more positivity, more doing from me can only be a good thing. So I’m throwing open my mind and my heart to make a difference (albeit a small one) in the lives of others. So call me what you will, inner cynic, I’m going to keep trying.
So you’ve made it this far — any chance you’d like to join me in taking some time today to be generous? Here’s a few quick examples of ways you can make an impact on someone’s day (but feel free to do something else!):
- Make a stranger’s day by shouting them coffee
- Compliment someone you encounter about something specific they’re doing/saying/wearing
- Send your Grandma a postcard
- Write a letter to that math teacher you had who made such an impact on you
- Thank your local postman/garbage man/train station attendant/dry cleaner for doing a good job
- Call that friend you’ve been meaning to reconnect with
Just try it. See if being generous makes you feel good, too.
* And no, I was not paid in any way to write this glowing review about Alex. I contacted her and she generously gave of her time and knowledge. She lives what she preaches and that alone inspired me to write this. Just payin’ it forward, folks!