Last week I spoke on "The Element of Surprise" at a monthly lunch held in Houston's Energy Corridor. Here I provide a transcript of the talk in three parts.
The Surprise of Generosity
Howard Cooper was 83 years old. He had owned his car dealership in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 47 years. It was time to retire. It was time to sell the business. Before the transaction was complete, however, he wanted to make sure that his nearly 90 employees knew they were appreciated.
So Cooper came up with a surprise “thank you” plan. He gathered all his employees together for what they figured would be his good-bye. But it turned out to be much more than a goodbye. He told is employees that to show his thankfulness for all of their efforts through the years, he was going to give a gift of $1,000 to each of his employees. But that wasn’t the end of his declaration. He said he wanted to give $1,000 for each year that a person worked for him. Now, that was significant! Many of his employees had been with him for a long time. One had been there 46 years. All said and done, at what was to be his retirement party, he gave away about $1 million. Now that is what you call surprising generosity. His employees could hardly believe it.[i]
If you are like me, you love feel good stories like this, but you can hardly relate. Most of us are simply not in a place to show that kind of generosity towards others. That is true, but that need not keep us from showing generosity in smaller ways.
A number of years ago, psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that surprising generosity doesn’t have to be very big to have an impact. He and his team placed a dime near a copy machine where they knew employees would find it. When the subjects who found the dime were surveyed afterwards, they rated their overall satisfaction with life substantially higher than those who did not find a coin. That’s right, they were far more likely to say life was good after they had been surprised by nothing more than a dime![ii]
Two years ago at the December 12@12, I told you I had decided to surprise people with a little generosity. There were fourteen days left until Christmas when I spoke, so I went to the bank and got fourteen $5 bills. Then over the next two weeks I gave away those $5 bills here and there. Often for no specific reason other than to surprise someone with a little generosity. And based on the responses I got, I would say it was well worth the $70 investment. This year I will do something similar. This time with $10 bills. (I have to account for inflation, you know!) And I’m pretty convinced that it will be well worth it again. So how about you? What kind of surprising generosity will you show this, Christmas?
Surprising mercy, surprising service, and surprising generosity. Great gifts to give way at Christmas and at every time of year. I am not sure if you noticed, but these gift ideas are not really my own. They were given out a long time ago, when God surprised us not by coming down in glory, but by coming down as a baby, born not in a palace but in a stable, in a second-rate town. And when he came, he came as servant, who generously gave of himself, ultimately giving his life out of mercy for ours. So when we give these gifts, we not only do good by others, we enter into the shadow of God Almighty, and that’s always a good place to be.
[i] Eliza Murphy, “Retiring Boss Surprises Employees with Big Thank You Checks,” abcnews, September 10, 2012.
[ii] Roger Dooley, “Small Surprise, Big Mood Change, Neuromarketing,” accessed November 29, 2016.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.