“Thank you for all the time you spent away from your family to help others be closer to theirs,” Plano dad John Israel once wrote to a pilot. “Thank you for getting up early to fly a bunch of tired grumpy people through the sky.” That note was more than a random gesture of appreciation—it was part of a yearlong personal challenge to practice gratitude. But what started as a challenge has become a mission for Israel, founder and “chief gratitude officer” of the Mr. Thank You Project and author of a book by the same name. Through his website, you can track thank-you notes written by anyone (yes, that means you) from sending to delivery on an interactive map; nearly 7,000 cards have been sent worldwide … so far.
Tell me—how did the Mr. Thank You Project come to be?
When we had had our first child, my wife was going through a personal development program. One of the topics was abundance. She had decided to get rid of all [her] thank-you cards, and she wrote probably 80 thank-you cards in a month. [Emotionally], she was far better than I would have ever expected a new mom to be because she was spending a lot of time expressing love and gratitude and appreciation for the people she cared about. I was looking for a way to embody gratitude at a high level in my business and my life. I looked back at my wife’s experience and thought, “What if I do something like that?” So that’s where we came out with the idea of writing five handwritten cards a day for 365 days.
When did you decide to make it a public project?
Someone knew I was doing this and asked that I be on a panel and share what was going on. That story really resonated with a lot of people. I did lots of little interviews, and I actually received an anonymous box in the mail addressed to a “Mr. Thank You.” We hadn’t come up with a name. It was basically a box of thank-you cards and a letter of encouragement. I started to see how important this was for people, and it wasn’t just about me with this business vision. It was about having an impact on the world. So we created a vision to elevate the level of gratitude on the planet by 1 percent by inspiring 74 million thank-you cards, and that’s where we built mrthankyou.com.
What is your favorite thank-you memory?
We had just moved to Plano. We only had one car at the time, and I was leaving to go meet clients for the day. I realized we are out of coffee, and in this moment I was like, “Well, I’m just going to have to pick up coffee on the way out.” We had just had our second child, so my wife had hardly slept that night. We are 1 1/2 miles away from the closest coffee store, and she has no car. She was basically going to go the day with no sleep and no coffee. So I go drive myself selfishly to the Starbucks line, and I had just enough time to [get coffee], miss the traffic and get to my appointment. As I was in line, I was like, “I am the biggest, most selfish [person] because I’m going to get myself some coffee, and my wife is going to be at home miserable.” So I decided to buy her coffee. I drove home, and I put it on the doorstep with a little note. She said that was her favorite card she ever received. [It was a lesson.] How do you treat what you say you are grateful for? To say “I’m grateful for you” means there’s a level of responsibility of how I treat you.
What’s your goal with your book, The Mr. Thank You Project?
For me, it was to be able to capture the year in a way that someone didn’t need to hear me speak to get the story. This is something a friend shared with me: He said, “What I love about writing a book that encompasses something I really care about is to know if something ever happened to me, and my kids never got to hear me tell them that story, they would have an artifact.” That’s really what the book is. It’s an opportunity for my kids to get to know their father more as they get old enough to read the book.
Do you plan to do thank-you cards with your kids?
What I’ve learned is that you don’t need to teach children how to be happy, but you do need to teach them how to say thank you, and that’s the distinction between happiness and gratitude. Teach them when is a good time to say thank you. Saying thank you to people who do something for us gives them purpose. It brings value to them; otherwise, they’re just doing a job. So sometimes a card is great. I think a video is a great way to do it. We find different creative ways for [the kids] to express appreciation.
Any advice to parents who want to start doing thank-you cards with their kids?
A great thing that people can do as a family, or as a parent, is to involve the entire family to honor and appreciate someone, and a simple way of doing that is for a significant date or birthday or anniversary. Get all the family—brothers, sisters, kids—to either write a letter or make a video about a specific person, and collect all of them. Then give it to that person on their birthday or their anniversary or whatever. It’s a really powerful experience.