Flex your kindness muscle, jerk

One of my favorite short fiction authors, George Saunders (that is, short story, not short in stature), regrets his many failures of kindness.

51xfEKhLwAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Saunders released a new book this year entitled, “Congratulations, by the way,” and I would highly recommend it for your bookshelf. Honestly, it isn’t as much a book as it is a transcript of a commencement speech he gave. But it is fun. Also, the cover is pretty and the kindness theme is a blunt and necessary reminder. All this, of course, is well worth your time.

I found Saunder’s book at (uhem) *Urban Outfitters* in the clearance bin while on vacation. Clearance bin!? How kind.

Anyway, I’d like to be more kind.

I’ve never thought about kindness being a skill. Can it be a skill? If so, then the consequences are scary. It means our kindness can improve. I always assumed, embarrassingly, that kindness was limited by our predispositions, how our parents and community nurtured us. I assumed that “kind people” were naturally built to be nice, and the jerks (that’s me) were off the hook for round-the-clock niceness.

But framing kindness in this new light asks us to reconsider our intentionality (as well as coming to terms with the necessity of proper planetary social interdependence). Are we doing enough?

Saunders does three things in this book that I very much respect: 1) he admits he wasn’t always kind 2) he explores why we aren’t all necessarily inclined to be kind and 3) he assumes that everyone could be kind if they just focused on better (more selfless) things.

Here’s a couple quotes from the (incredibly) fast read:

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

“Since we have observed that kindness is variable, we might also sensibly conclude that it is improvable; that is, there must be approaches and practices that can actually increase our ambient level of kindness.”

“Succeeding… is hard, and the need to do so constantly renews itself (success is like a mountain that keeps growing ahead of you as you hike it), and there’s the very real danger that ‘succeeding’ will take up your whole life, while the big questions go untended.”

So, what do you think? Is kindness a skill? Does the drive for personal success get in the way of kindness? Can the two coexist?

Get the book and let’s talk about it!



  1. Mmm…that last quote on the ‘mountain of success’ is astonishingly lucid. Just ruminating here, I say we should ‘do kind’ as a practiced skill until we can do it by heart, meaning ingraining it within. It helps if you have some sort of ideology or a faith system that inculcates that value. The personal drive for success can surely get in the way; but I think the two can coexist. Thoughtful post, Kevin!

    1. Michael, wonderful comment. I think you are right in that some sort of faith or ideology is appropriate. One thing I also appreciated about his book was when he suggested that we all should listen to wisdom by those who were wise enough to write it down. It’s not a direct nod to the Bible, but it is how I relate to it.

  2. Sounds like a neat book — one from which I could certainly benefit. An area I’ve been praying about becoming more kind is dealing with customer service representatives. They often slave away in thankless tasks and I wind up yelling at them, much to my shame.

    1. Unfortunately, I can relate about the service jobs people. Let’s both try to be more kind, though, really, I can’t imagine you being any more kind! How is that possible?

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