Who Packs Your Parachute?

The Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone.  The time of year when many declare their gratitude for the people and things in their lives, on Facebook, over the phone and in person.

As the tryptophan induced slumber and Black Friday deals fade into the hectic Holiday season, I hope that the spirit of giving thanks does not.  Expressing and practicing thankfulness is something anyone is capable of and the results can be very impactful.

A study done by two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of UC, Davis and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, tried to determine the effects of gratitude.  Emmons and McCullough split the subjects into three groups and simply had them write a few sentences each week.

One group was instructed to write about things they were grateful for.  The second group was told to write about all the things that did not go their way and frustrated them.  The final group just wrote about things that affected them (with no focus on good or bad).

After this ten week study, the group that focused on what they were grateful for were more optimistic and had a more positive outlook on their lives.  The surprise finding is that this same group reportedly exercised more and made fewer doctors visits than those who focused on the negatives.

The results make sense; the more you concentrate on what you are grateful for, as opposed to the bad breaks, the easier it is to see the good around you.

Gratitude for those closest to us makes us hopeful and inspires confidence.  But, what about people we deal with every day who are not our closest family and friends?

In this light, I’d like to share the story of Charles Plumb.

Charles Plumb, a former US Navy Pilot during the Vietnam War, flew 75 combat missions before being shot down over enemy lines.  He ejected from his plane and parachuted into enemy hands.  Plumb was held for 6 years in a communist Vietnamese prison before escaping and returning home.

One day, Plumb was at a restaurant with his wife when a man approached the table and said, “You’re Plumb!  You flew fighter jets in Vietnam off the carrier Kitty Hawk.  You were shot down!”

Plumb, asked how the man knew that.

“I packed your parachute,” the man replied.

Plumb discusses this story in lectures across the country.  He tells his audiences that he could not sleep the night after encountering the man in the restaurant.  That night, Plumb imagined what the man looked like in his Navy whites.  He thought about how many times they may have passed each other on the ship without so much as an acknowledgment, since Plumb was a pilot and this man was merely a sailor.

Plumb now asks his audiences, “who packs your parachute?”

Don't forget the people who pack the parachutes in your life.
Don’t forget the people who pack the parachutes in your life.

Life will always make things busy for us.  Life will always make it easier to push forward than to stop and appreciate those around us.  How many times do we fail to say hello, please or thank you?  How many times do we fail to recognize the accomplishments of those around us, especially when those accomplishments allow us to succeed, both personally and professionally?

If we learn anything from Charles Plumb’s story, it is that the power of appreciation shouldn’t be reserved for those close to us or those we perceive as worthy of our acknowledgment.   Gratefulness should be incorporated in our daily lives, at home, in public and at work. 

Let’s focus on thankfulness at work, a place where lack of appreciation is a common complaint. Glassdoor, the online jobs and career website, published their “Employee Appreciation Survey,” of 2,044 users in 2013:

  • 81% of employees say they would work harder when boss shows appreciation
  • 38% of employees say they would work harder when boss is demanding
  • 37% of employees say they would work harder out of fear of losing their job

People are far better motivated by appreciation than by fear.  The crotchety, unappreciative boss, like Bill Lumbergh in Office Space, who only shows up to deliver bad news or tell you when you screwed up, is not effective. 

As Peter Gibbons goes on to explain later in the movie in his meeting with the Bobs, “my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

It is easy to find shortcomings in our co-workers, bosses, employees, family and friends when life stresses us out and keeps us busy.  It is easy to criticize those around us (or tell them they forgot about the cover sheets on the TPS reports).  It is easy to be blind to all the small contributions made by those around us that lead to our successes in life.

Finding ways to be grateful and positive towards the people you interact with has a favorable impact on the person giving and receiving the appreciation.

Tomorrow, find an opportunity to specifically thank two people throughout your day.  It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, but don’t just say “thanks,” while hardly breaking eye contact with your phone.  Look the person in the eye and let them feel your appreciation.

While you are at it, let that person know how much their effort means to you.  Give the barista at Starbucks an “atta-boy” for making a great latte.  Thank an employee or co-worker for something they do everyday that might otherwise go unrecognized.  Thank your boyfriend or girlfriend just for being there for you when you’ve needed them.

This may be a bit uncomfortable at first.  We may find it hard to recognize others because we are envious, or we fear that shining a positive light on others casts a shadow upon us.  We may find it difficult to praise others because we feel that a person “should” be doing something. 

If the challenge is jealousy, you should still give the compliment.  The other person will feel good and hopefully you can find motivation to take the necessary steps towards accomplishing your own goals worthy of acknowledgment.  Even if we feel that a person “should” be doing what we are thanking them for, it builds self-confidence for the person receiving the recognition and when we feel appreciated, we are willing to do more for each other.  While it may seem counter intuitive, the best way to build your own self-esteem is by building up another’s.

On the flip side, many of us have a well conditioned reflex to deflect or brush off any appreciation.  We often feel unworthy of such praise.  When we do not practice being grateful for what we have and focus on the negative, hearing positive feedback feels foreign to us.

Not only is this preventing us from feeling good about our contributions, but it inhibits the person delivering the appreciation from having the experience of brightening someone’s day.  We owe it to ourselves and those around us to remember that we are worthy of praise and gratitude.

So, as the Facebook “Grateful for Us” captions fade into the holiday season, don’t forget to remain thankful to those around you.  Don’t forget to think about what you are grateful for.  And don’t forget who packs your parachute.

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