At the iconic bookstore Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, there is an inscription that reads: “Strangers are angels in disguise.” The bookstore is known for housing writers and travelers in need of a couch to crash on.
I remember reading Screw It Let’s Do It! in which Branson mentions an episode where someone came to pick him up, I believe in a limo, and the driver who was a famous artist had disguised himself. Branson told the story to show that you never know who you meet — treat everyone equally well.
Having traveled the world myself, I know from experience how happy it makes me when strangers greet me with kindness. From the many people I’ve met over the years I’ve also come to realize that connections are magical — you never know where that one meeting will take you; how it will change your, or the other person’s life.
Coming from Sweden, I grew up in a country where the word “please” doesn’t really exist. Swedes are extremely polite on the one hand, but they aren’t exactly friendly or polite with their language. It took me a while to learn how people in other countries communicate and how to use language to establish connections and, simply, to make people feel good. These days I make an effort to wishing people a good day, smiling at the grumpiest of sales assistants and generally being as nice as I can muster. Because that’s how I want to be greeted.
That’s not to say that you should be smiling to people who do you a disservice, I’m talking about people you’ve just met.
Growing up I was incredibly shy, so I didn’t really know how to interact with people. I was scared of saying much, as I feared rejection. Then I learned that a) people generally want you to speak with them b) it’s not about how they receive you, but about who you want to be.
I’ve been staying in Athens for a while and at a nearby pharmacy where I usually go to buy my Korres body products, the sales assistant is extremely grumpy. That led to me feeling rejected on more than one occasion. When I feel rejected, I want to shy away.
However, during my time in Athens a friend of mine passed away. And when he died I decided I had to learn something from his death. I needed to turn it into something positive in order to honor his life. So I thought about what I could learn from him as a person. One thing that stood out was that to me he seemed like the kind of friendly man who’d get on with anyone. You know the kind of guy who can start a conversation with just about anyone? Yeah. Kind, outgoing and funny.
So I decided life is about the people in our lives who, like my friend, believe in us. And who we choose to be is up to us. I want to be the kind of person that’s nice and outgoing, no matter what the reception I get. I saw it as a challenge being nice, instead of fearing other people’s opinion. If they want to be “sour grapefruits” as my best friend says, then that’s their business. Mine is to be sunshine.
So when I walked into that grumpy woman’s shop, I was as smiley and as polite as I would to anyone else. If she wants to be grumpy that’s her call, but it has nothing to do with me. And her grumpiness won’t dictate my behavior.
Another angle to this is the one my coach likes to use: always considering how to be of service to others. The idea of always showing up to serve. That it isn’t about you, but about what you can give to others.
As someone who had a very broken ego as a child, I can attest to how obsessed you can become with wanting to be successful and wanting to be perfect in every way. You think so much about how to be; how to please others, that you constantly fear other people and constantly look down on yourself.
It took me many years to comprehend that life wasn’t all about proving myself. First, I learned that my life is my business and if I want to sit on a stone in the woods singing to the forest, rather than chasing fame and fortune, then that’s my choice. My life, my gift. It’s mine to live as I please.
Secondly, when I moved to South Africa and volunteered with children, life suddenly became about them instead. While I felt pressure to provide something for them, I didn’t feel like I had to become something anymore. It was incredibly liberating.
In many countries, especially America, people are raised to believe they have to make something out of themselves. They have to succeed. But is that truly success? Happiness and, therefore, success is about doing what you love, in a place you love, with the people you love, while loving yourself enough to look after yourself.
A really cool exercise is spending a week showing up everywhere you go asking yourself how you can be of service? Instead of thinking about what your boss will think about your work, your boyfriend will think about your new dress, or what the people at the party will think about you, consider in every moment you’re just there to serve. It’s not about you, it’s about what you can do for them. Suddenly judgement goes out the door. It doesn’t matter what they think about you — that’s irrelevant. Your only job is to do what you can to serve them.
Life and work takes on a new meaning when you’re doing it to serve, not to impress, or gain something from it. Coincidentally, you’re likely to impress more and gain more, while feeling freer than you’ve ever felt.
Of course, you should also serve yourself, but by showing up to serve you usually do yourself the greatest service. However, when you exercise, eat healthy foods, pamper yourself at a spa, go to bed on time, etc. it’s all about serving your heart, mind and body. It’s about serving your soul as much as it’s about serving other people and the planet at large.
Life simply becomes better when we let go of our ego and start doing things from the heart to serve ourselves and others. We can only do our best in doing so, so people’s and your own judgement becomes irrelevant. And you start showing up as you actually want to be, rather than worrying what others will think about you.