Gratitude is Contagious

And we catch it in the most unlikely places.

“This picture gives me so much joy” — my friend Jane posted on my IG account.

I like gratitude. I always have. I’m a fan of the word itself. Three syllables. It’s a foundation word in the “thank you” lexicon. Solid. It’s easy to say and imparts feelings more cerebral than a passing sense of thanks.

The past 12 months were not the easiest to get through for many people. But as we move forward, for me, gratitude won over what at times was a deep sense of loss.

In my corner were random acts of kindness shown to me throughout 2021, encouragement from past colleagues, and the final drop in the pond that helped my own sense of gratitude ripple across time and through my keyboard, a simple moment repeated daily at my sister’s dinner table.

Random Acts Of Kindness

Packing up “life” to move to the other side of the planet, to another hemisphere, has its complications. Selling a house, boxing all your precious belongings, even when paired down annually over the previous decade leaves a lot of “i’s” to dot, and “t’s” to cross. Add to that a two-year-old labradoodle that needs vaccination and transportation in a COVID world of few flights.

Gus the Dog

At the end of 2020, we found ourselves in Taipei. Australia wouldn’t issue a visitor visa to my husband of six and a half years, despite being provided an exemption to travel on compassionate grounds. Taiwan, on the other hand, recognized our marriage and fast-tracked me to a resident visa, allowing us to stay together.

We both kept ourselves busy to fill in the time before we could fly down to see my parents. He and a few of his college friends started a new business together, and I took a language course at a local university while consulting on a digital project out of the UK.

As our goals seemed further and further away, we had a few setbacks that impacted our mental and physical health. So much so that we both had to literally press the pause button for a number of months to recover.

Through all the emotional fog, there were beacons of random kindness that lifted me up and carried me along in their belief in me.

There was the Crusty Fin who, upon hearing secondhand some medical issues that had befallen my immediate family, religiously rang me each week to “check-in” to see how I was doing. He is the type of person I aspire to be, but alas am not. Friendly, witty, intelligent, and humble. There has not been a week in the past five months that his name has not appeared on my phone. We must have had calls on bicycles, in pubs, coffee shops, by the river, in hospitals, at the beach. And when I have not felt like communicating with the outside world, he’s been on the other end of a datastream telling me “that’s ok”.

There was the Ever-Enthusiastic Canadian who staggered me with his intellect. I worked on three projects in 2021, and during each of them, unpaid and unphased, he offered to lend an ear and a brain, and a boatload of happiness into the bargain. We only met in person once before I left Toronto, in a beer garden on Parliament St. But what followed was a Zoom facilitated friendship that I can only imagine, while completely foreign to me, is “de rigueur” for kids of today.

There was the Hong Kong Power Couple who, when hearing over a casual lunch that I would be spending an undetermined number of months in an Airbnb, offered me a house to recharge in. It turned out that they had a spare home in a little village on the southern tip of Hong Kong island near Shek O that they weren’t using. And as it was in the wilderness with no convenience stores nearby or public transport, they casually threw a car into the mix for me use indefinitely. A Porsche no less!

After the first week, I began to relax. After the second and well into the third, I began to wonder if I were outstaying my welcome. But weekly phone calls to check up on me, allowing me to potter in the yard (though I admit I didn’t do nearly as much as I should have) and welcoming a meal when they visited some weekends helped me realize that this was simply a gift of friendship with no expectations. I was exhausted when I reached Hong Kong, and I needed a reset. Their gift was priceless.

And then there was My Lifeline. Someone who stopped me from drowning. Literally, the personification of a liferaft. Words alone can’t express the impact this one angel had on my year. Whenever I couldn’t see a path forward, they calmly asked: what can I do to help? They know how grateful I am to have them in my life and would be embarrassed if they were ever to read this. I will simply say “thank you”.

The Illusory truth_effect, first identified in a 1977 study by Villanova and Temple Universities purports there is the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger? I call bullshit!

For most of my life, I believed this simple phrase. I suspect it’s because it was quoted so often. If you hear something repeated so many times, you start to believe it, even when there is not an ounce of truth to it.

Most of the time, however, I’ve noticed that what doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger at all… it chips away at the very fabric of your being. And, over time, it’s easy to miss the signs of mental fragility until it’s too late.

2020 was not an easy year for me and my family. 2021 was far worse. I’m not stronger for the challenges I faced, rather, I am stronger for the love shown to me by grand gestures, by the unwavering belief from my husband and my family both in Taiwan and in Australia, and from random asks of kindness that I could never have imagined in my most positive state of mind.

Encouragement From Colleagues

The difference in receiving encouragement from family and childhood friends to that of business colleagues is surprisingly quite stark. The former sees all your failings without filters and for some reason still likes you. They know your character and your flaws and they still wish you the best. The latter, also know your failings, your career “ups” and “downs”, but at the end of the day, offer encouragement because they believe you deserve it based on combined experiences in a work environment.

Over time friendship/colleague lines blur. But a colleague who keeps in touch, who is there for you decades after your 9–5 office interactions, who remembers the good in you and believes in your abilities is a friendship to be nurtured, a relationship to be treasured.

Way way way back in the late 90’s I spent a year working in Adelaide, South Australia. Not my finest hour. Wanting to return to Sydney, I reached out to the new head of Strategy and Marketing for a role his team had created. I didn’t get the job, but what followed was a friendship that has spanned 20 years.

I first worked on projects for which he was a stakeholder. Then projects he was leading. Finally, some 15 years later I bumped into his family in a restaurant below my building in Kennedy Town. I mentioned I was heading to Australia for some interviews the following week, to which he said: “Give me a week. Let’s meet here in one week’s time. I’d like to change your mind”.

What followed was a whirlwind six months where I rode shotgun for him as he balanced a dual trade sale and IPO process. This only deepened my admiration for someone who was already a personal hero.

Over the years we have formed a unique camaraderie based on shared experiences through good and tough, sometimes heartbreaking times. He remains one of my most trusted mentors. Someone that, no matter what country he’s in, or what deal he’s executing, will always take my call. I might not always like what he has to say, but I know it is always from the heart. When I waivered throughout 2021, he was a rock. When I had wins, he rejoiced with me.

Imagine walking into a mate’s home for the first time, being greeted by his new partner whom you’d never met, and being asked in no uncertain terms to read to their three youngest while dinner was being prepared. Being the youngest of six children and having worked overseas while my nieces and nephews were growing up, I’m not sure I had ever read to a child before. My unease was not lost on my host. In fact, I suspect she relished the pantomime playing out in her living room. But my lasting memory of that night is one of feeling welcome.

It was towards the end of 2005 that I relocated from Beijing to Hong Kong to take up my bank’s regional strategy role. The first project I commissioned was an assessment of profit pools for an Australian financial services firm. Ironic now, given the current state of play of said firms in the region. Leading the work for the consulting firm was a Harvard and Monash graduate. To call him simply intelligent would be a disservice. He had a way of bringing everyone into a conversation and valued everyone’s input equally. I learned a lot from him over the next decade, not the least of which was that being the odd person in the room is more often than not an advantage.

My next visit to their home this past November was much the same as my first visit. I was met at the door by their youngest and spent the evening alternating between conversations with their kids, sharing tacos, gin and tonics, and generally being made welcome once more in their home. After years apart, my friends still believed in me and volunteered actionable advice that gave me the confidence my new business was on track. The evening was a Masterclass in corporate strategy and start-ups, and a Masterclass in parenting and family togetherness.

It was in this same week that another friend, one who I knew not nearly as well, set my future path on a completely different trajectory.

On three occasions in the past ten years, I’ve taken serious steps to return to Australia. I’ve reached out to my networks, I’ve applied for roles, and I’ve participated in interviews. But when you are overseas, it’s not that easy. But there was always one man who was in my corner. He would often reach out to me and ask how I was doing, would recommend me to his peers, and would keep an eye out for relevant job openings that might suit my skillset. We had worked together in the past, and although he knew me, he probably knew more about my reputation for delivery. We’d never really socialized.

On my visit to Australia, we agreed to have dinner. In the course of the year, he had introduced me to his company which had played an important role in the design of my new business. I wished to thank him for his support and continued encouragement.

What I didn’t expect was the compassion he showed me as we each talked through our past year.

Towards the end of dinner, I said: “We have known each other for a long time, but we really don’t know each other very well — why have you always been so kind to me?”. His answer was simple and moving. He likes spending time with good people and likes to see good people succeed. I felt this was undeserved, but at the same time, I swelled with pride. I hope to repay the kindness he has shown me over the past decade.

My Sister’s Table

I’ve often written about myself and long past let go of any feelings of imposter syndrome when doing so. I’ve even written extensively about my father and often of my husband. Writing about my sister, however, someone who shuns social media in all forms to be present for personal interactions and her own development feels a little wrong.

To assuage my unease and keep her out of the spotlight, I’ll call her Jenn.

Jenn has devoted her entire career to the service of others. First, as a teacher, then to her family and community, followed by a career in school administration. Most recently she works in aged care. Her husband, let’s call him Keith, is a serious, yet playful man. They are a serious, yet playful and funny team.

Jenn and Keith have three cost centres. #1 is a high achieving cost centre both academically and on the sports field, just finishing high school. Cost centres #2 and #3 are still well and truly entrenched in the joys of teenage schooling and also exhibit unfamily-like qualities of success, at least from their uncle’s comparative perspective.

After finally returning home for a Christmas with my own mum and dad this year, I joined my sister’s family in their mid-New South Wales home for a few days on my way to Sydney for New Year with my university friends. All very lowkey at our advanced ages.

I’m not sure if it’s a habit, indoctrination, or good parenting (I admit freely I don’t know what that is) but with kids aged between 14 and 19, I’ve never experienced such respect and genuine niceness in one family unit at the dinner table since….since…. ever.

As they sit down together for each evening meal they go around the table and say what they are grateful for from the past day. Some comments might be a little cheeky, but for the most part, Jenn and Keith and their cost centres attend to this short ritual with dignity and respect. It sets the tone for the coming meal, and more often than not, in a world of TV, streaming, games, and devices, everyone stays at the table for one board game before departing their separate ways to act like more normal teenagers I suspect.

When it was my turn, it really did make me think. For each thing I said at Jenn and Keith’s family dinner table, I had to toss up between more than two or things I was most grateful for that day. If you had asked me how my day was without this ritual, I suspect I would have sounded like the tired, broken record I play in my head too frequently. I would definitely not be building a mental gratitude loop.

As they say, simple things are often the best. And this was one of the simplest, best family rituals I’ve been blessed to be a part of.

Six months, seven flights, four countries. Waiting, waiting, and waiting for my husband to be granted a visitor visa simply to hug his mother and father-in-law in their failing health. In the end, I had to leave him behind and make the final journey myself. I wished them Merry Christmas alone. I hugged them and felt their warmth for both of us.

Christmas Day was a sad day for me, despite the joy of having family and their kids in festive, cheerful form. I had a wonderful trip to my hometown and got to reconnect with my family. But I missed my husband. I missed my dog.

But all things considered, acts of kindness that I did not expect, nor did I fully deserve, encouragement coming from quarters unexpected, and a simple exchange played out daily at my sister’s dinner table helped me see my adventures in 2021 through a much happier lens than I would have ever expected at the halfway mark.

In hindsight, 2021 for me was a year of deep connection. A lot of close friends and work colleagues are not mentioned here. New Years’ dinners with university friends, and spare guest rooms where I rarely unpacked my suitcase. A picnic at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair. A bike ride along Tallow Beach. Farm stays. Cricket and beer. They know who they are.

It has been six months since I sat to write something of substance. Every time I tried I have found it hard to translate a positive train of thought into letters on a page. I needed this clear head, a peaceful mind, to properly process the gratitude I feel towards exceptional people.

Spend a moment to calm your mind. What are you grateful for today?

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Andrew Tiernan

Andrew Tiernan

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Strategist, ex-banker, builder, and writer. I love the art of writing and I still build things. But these days I focus more on humanity than economics.