Six years ago I set a goal to smile at everyone I encountered for 6 months. It was partly a social experiment, and partly an intention to be more positive.
I was surprised how this goal quickly deepened my self-awareness in profound ways. I started to notice the thoughts I had in response to the different kinds of people I saw while walking down the street. I observed how my thoughts about people were influenced by the way I was feeling when I encountered them. And I quickly noted how both those things impacted the way I showed up.
I had names for different personas of the people I encountered. With some personas I found myself making snap judgments and noticed I had a tendency to avoid acknowledging certain people as a result.
But something interesting happened when I forced myself to smile. My critical thoughts about other people melted away and I felt better. Over time, I noticed I more consistently showed up as the person and leader I wanted to be - kind and caring.
One time I was walking to the store when I saw a homeless man I'd seen around town for months. Normally I would ignore him and keep walking (this isn't something I enjoy admitting). But this time I looked him in the eye and smiled. He gave the biggest, most endearing toothless grin as his eyes sparkled looking into mine. I walked on feeling incredibly light and energized from our brief interaction.
Since then, I've made a point to acknowledge the people I see when I'm out and about. Regardless of whether or not I know them. It's my way of saying, "I see and honor you, my fellow human."
Sometimes I get lost in my own thoughts and forget to pay attention to the people around me. Some people don't even notice my greetings. But still, I do my best to look into their eyes and smile. I find it often brightens my day (yes, I even do this in COVID times while masked because our eyes smile too).
All of this started because I asked myself a series of "What if...?" questions.
At the time, I was learning how making eye contact and smiling releases oxytocin, which makes us feel good. I wished I felt happier and wondered:
"What if I smiled more?"
"What if I smiled whenever I was doing a task I didn't enjoy?"
"What if I smiled when I felt bad?"
"What if I smiled at everyone I walked past?"
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the last wondering, "What if I smiled at everyone I walked past" was a simple, achievable goal that had the potential to create a big impact. So I accepted my what-if question as a challenge for six months.
Asking "What if...?" questions is a powerful practice. I've used it to redirect myself when triggered. And to explore possibilities when I'm trying to come up with new ideas.
"What if...?" questions engage our prefrontal cortexes, which enables aspirational thinking. It opens us up to a world of possibilities so we may dream big. This allows us to consider how things are interconnected so we may explore linkages between different areas of knowledge. "What if...?" questions also get us out of the rut of the way things have always been.
Asking questions that spark our thinking in new a generative ways is an essential part of developing effective plans for turning big ideas into reality.
Contrary to popular advice, not all great goals need to be SMART. In fact, sometimes the most measurable things are the least motivating. If we aren't motivated by our goals we won't have the grit to sustain our efforts.
I wasn't keeping a tally of how many people I smiled at. There was no clear, easily definable finish line marking I achieved my goal. Yet it was a wise goal for me to make at the time because it had a positive ripple effect in my life and work. Smiling at people made me feel good and boosted my confidence - it improved my demeanor as a leader, parent, and friend!
At the end of the Annual Planning Workshop, participants often share how the intentions they set for the year pleasantly surprised them.
In one instance, I had a participant who was keen on making great strides professionally. Upon completing the reflective exercises I led, he shared with astonishment, "my big goal for the year isn't about my career, it's about my personal life. And I'm really excited about it. What I thought should be my goal never felt good to me! And I wouldn't have realized this without going through the questions you asked me."
What's even better, after focusing on his personal goal for the year, he also achieved the professional growth he wanted. He was able to perform better at work because he was happier as a result of focusing on what mattered most to him.
This is a common story I hear from Annual Planning Workshop participants. On the surface we think, "I should increase my sales by 20% this year" or "I should finish that professional certification." There are all sorts of messages out there about what you should do to succeed. But only you know what it will take to be more successful in your life. And the best way to find that out is by asking yourself powerful questions!