Contagious Awesomeness: Are You a Force for the Common Good?

We’ve all got a “thing” that set us off. My wife, Neely, can’t stand being late. I’m not talking about being on time or even fifteen minutes early for meetings and appointments. She’s always rationalizing showing up to social gatherings an hour early. She’ll play to my desire to be in bed before 9 p.m.: “this way we can help set up and leave a little early,” or “this way we can avoid traffic and get the perfect seat.” Of course, we’ve now been married long enough that she just tells me when we’re leaving and I say, “yes ma’am.” Kids, write that down.


Other people’s “thing” is they can’t stand technology equipment that is more than 3 days old. “Shane, I really don’t understand how you watch a football game without the 27 gig, ultramegawatt, hooverwoofer. I heard Tom Brady had a cold and I can’t even hear any sniffles.”  Maybe your “thing” is you are crazy about lawn care or keeping the creases out of your shoes. My “thing” is litter in all of its manifestations. 

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Working at a high school, I encountered masses of trash left all over the parking lot, athletic facilities, and inside school walls. Halls and bathrooms were often full of food wrappers, soda cans, and papers. Most disturbingly, when the cafeteria tables were put up after last lunch each day, a sheath of litter coated the floors. It communicated a clear message. “I am more important than whoever has to clean this up.” Or worse, “I don’t care about anyone but myself.” I was disgusted.

Cleaning up after oneself was simply not a priority for most of these high school students. Perhaps it is the result of less home responsibility. Parents who clean up after kids create an expectation that the world will do the same. It wasn’t just trash being left, after all. Name brand clothes and cleats are still constantly left in the weight room, never to be claimed.

My frustration eventually prompted a plan. I started the campus “Leave it Better” campaign. The concept was simple, while broadly applicable. Everywhere you go, leave it better than you found it. I started with the football team and then I got all the athletic teams to take time once a week walking the campus and picking up trash. My thought was that athletes had influence and by changing their thinking, we would change the student culture. As with most plans, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Our kids are usually very open to teaching and malleable to instruction. While typical adolescents, I’d never considered them exceptionally devious or defiant. Yet, no matter how much I explained the “why” or tried to create a sense of pride around leaving the world better, litter pick-up has not become a campus norm. I can take an arrogant, mindless freshman and get them to learn complex lifting techniques. I can prompt them to show up all summer for arduous workouts. I’ve even been very successful inspiring class clowns towards better behavior. However, litter continues to be a problem. It is part of a broader, more systemic issue.

The hiker’s ethic “leave no trace” bears little weight to the masses who are less concerned with nature or aesthetics. As usual, the absurdity of our current environment is best understood in comparison to the tribal context that defined most of human history. Sebastian Junger, author of Tribe explains:

“The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it's disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction—all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.” 

Selfishness is Not in Your Self-Interest

 Now to the success. My persistence is paying off. Individual kids are starting to pick up trash as a point of pride. With kids it often takes dogged, insane persistence, and consistency of message. Name the standard, and act on it to create contagious awesomeness.

For more contagious awesomeness, sign-up for the IHD Membership and unlock powerful, positive lessons to thrive in the modern world. 

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We are disconnected and, thus, have no issue with a standard model of life driven by narrowly pursuing immediate gratification over any concept of responsibility towards a greater whole. Paradoxically, this selfishness is the root of most individual angst. It is alienation that overwhelmingly prompts suicides and mass killers. Our society promotes constantly curated social media images, parents who worship their kids, and the elevation of loud athletes and reality TV stars. We’ve created a perfect recipe for Narcissism and isolation. Unfortunately, the narcissist struggles most. Life can never live up to their unrealistic expectations. The extreme focus on “me” creates a neurotic self-consciousness that breeds depression and a victim mentality. Humanity thrives on connection and purpose. We are at our best while immersed in authentic expression while contributing to meaningful pursuits.

In tribal society, you were part of something bigger than yourself. Parents weren’t concerned with providing every convenience. The necessity was to create a competent human capable of contributing to the whole- someone who would leave it better. In societies and groups where people are most fulfilled, they feel connected and part of something bigger than themselves.

Author and Founder of the Common Good initiative, Philip K. Howard, has spent a career analyzing the legal and political structures that fracture our society and create an insane lack of personal responsibility. As he states, “Individual responsibility, not mindless compliance, must be the foundation for government.” Without common values and a common sense of duty, the environment devolves into legal anxiety and an assortment of individuals looking out for “number one.” Just examine these bizarre, while common, experiences born of the American legal culture:

A 10-year old girl has always played in the outfield. When her team’s second baseman is out of town, she is moved to the infield. A routine fly ball hits her in the face and her parents sue the volunteer coach. This must be someone’s fault.

A stray grape falls out of a woman’s basket in the super-market. Minutes later, another lady slips on it and falls breaking her arm and straining her neck. The supermarket pays all medical bills, but the lady pushes for another $50,000 for “pain and suffering.” She feels entitled to turn this mishap into an opportunity.

A medical school student a week away from graduating drives by and sees a terrible accident. She stops and finds that the driver is in critical condition. Other onlookers have called 911, but it may take a while in these rural parts. She returns to her car where she and her mother determine that despite her medical knowledge it would be unwise to risk accusations of practicing without a license. They drive off.

I wish I were making these up. This is the environment against the common good and, thus, against fulfillment. So where does litter fit in? Again Sebastian Junger explains it best:

“… litter is an exceedingly petty version of claiming a billion-dollar bank bailout or fraudulently claiming disability payments. When you throw trash on the ground, you apparently don’t see yourself as truly belonging to the world that you’re walking around in. And when you fraudulently claim money from the government, you are ultimately stealing from your friends, family, and neighbors—or somebody else’s friends, family, and neighbors. That diminishes you morally far more than it diminishes your country financially.” 


When we diminish ourselves morally, we create habits that stand in the way of community and personal fulfillment. Look around. Litter is everywhere and in many forms. It is excessive smog created, grocery carts left, weights not racked, doors not held, and patience not offered. Yes, you can litter your toxic attitude. We’ve all had Debbie the Downer come suck the life out of a jovial room. Yet, likewise our attitudes can infuse the room with joy. Joking, smiling, and creative zeal offer contagious awesomeness.

The Awesomeness Archetype

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Aaron Batlle (Buy- yay), is the kind of guy everyone wants to be around. He makes the monotonous, hilarious and the mundane chore, a story that is told for years to come. In our time coaching together he started an annual tag game, a weekly coach’s “roundtable” meal, the pylon toss pre-game ritual, and daily staff ping-pong competitions. He’s the guy who went behind the bar after my wedding and took all the leftover beer to the hotel lobby. When a University of Washington Strength Coach offered me football tickets, Batlle insisted that we fly up to Seattle for a 24-hour trip in the busiest time of our work year.

He’s since moved 90 minutes away, but we still talk weekly. Every time he answers the phone with an enthusiastic: “WHAT IS MY BROCHACHO DOING!?!” When I called him to tell him Neely and I had an adoption match, he showed up at my doorstep (past my bedtime) ready to celebrate. It, apparently, took him all of 30 seconds to decide he was taking off from work to commemorate the event.

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You can’t be around Aaron Batlle, without feeling an expectation to have fun. He’s larger than life and he makes you feel good about yourself. Not in some phony, demeaning, sunshine and rainbows way. In fact, with Aaron you better have tough skin. Together we’ve enjoyed switching the keys on our boss’s keyboard (he still hunted and pecked) and Bieber-bombing a colleague’s classroom. The poor guy showed up to work Monday with thousands of pictures of Justin Bieber plastered across his room. They were inside student notebooks, curriculum binders, underneath desks, all over the walls, and even smiling at him as he pulled down the screen for the overhead projector. To this day students find Biebers is room D3. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Yet, even Batlle’s practical jokes serve to deepen bonds through shared experience.  He’s brutally honest and doesn’t edit himself to make friends. You feel good because he’s genuinely happy to know you and laugh with you. You feel good because he is direct when he thinks you are messing up and he cares enough to call you on your crap. He holds himself and his friends to a higher standard that he breathes into life through contagious awesomeness.

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie’s classic study on relationships (it’s included on the IHD booklist).  Smile at people. Call them by name. Be genuinely interested and excited to see them. We’ve all had those days where we were in a funk. The world felt bland and then someone snapped us out of it with a contagious life force that reminded us what it meant to be immersed in passionate experience. Maybe they boldly danced and did cartwheels in the hallway or were just shamelessly belting a song as they drove by. Their energy was contagious. They made us want to live boldly.

We have to refresh our contagious awesomeness daily. As Tony Robbins says, “your psychology follows your physiology.” Your mental world starts with your physical world. If you are sitting down with arms crossed or hands passively in your pockets, your brain is getting a strong pull towards malaise. Your social media scrolling posture is likely not promoting a lot of contagious awesomeness. However, if you get moving with strong, open posture, you’ll feel more alert and confident. This is where willpower becomes a great ally. The best way out is to start! By forcing yourself to overcome the inertia and move, you promote energy. If you really want a burst of awesomeness, jump into a cold shower. It’s better than caffeine.

If both negativity and positivity are contagious we should go to great lengths to shape our environment and create positive habits. How can you habitually expose yourself to the right energy and the right messages? I hope you’ll start by signing up for our newsletter or considering an IHD Membership. We all have days where the malaise is hard to shake. Creating a culture of contagious awesomeness helps mitigate the negative ripples of these days and snaps us back on course. We can do this in our families and in our peer groups by naming our own personal expectations. People may make fun of you at first, but they’ll begin to hold you to your own standard and likely jump on board.

In the Culture Code Daniel Coyle explains the heuristics exceptional organizations use to prompt the actions that they believe are most important. My favorites come from the Union Square Hospitality Group, Danny Meyer’s organization of top-tier restaurants, bars, cafes, and catering services. His ability to create exceptional establishments in a sink or swim New York City environment is predicated on naming powerful expectations. See how his heuristics can apply to your own life:

  • “Loving problems”

  • “Finding the yes”

  • “Read the guest”

  • “Collecting the dots and connecting the dots”

  • “Making the charitable assumption”

  • “Be aware of your emotional wake”

  • “The excellence reflex”

  • “Athletic hospitality”

  • “To get a hug, you have to get a hug”

Heuristics are more than catchy yarns. They vividly convey best actions and prompt a culture that knows what is expected and how to communicate those standards. While clear and demanding, they are adaptable, promoting freedom and flow.

“I say no to blame, no to complaints, and no to gossip…. The moment I start one of these three behaviors… I become negative. It is a sign of avoiding what I am responsible for: my life. Negativity is like pollution. It pollutes the mind and relationships.” –Aniela Gregorek

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Every day we are creating an emotional wake. Our actions and energy are contagious. It doesn’t have to be some forced grand, display. Hold the door for someone with a smile and eye contact. You’ll see the change on their face. Make the girl at the check out counter laugh. You’ll feel her energy shift. Take the time to name the actions that are most essential to creating contagious awesomeness, communicate those standards, and, most importantly, start to act on them. Your actions are the Most important ingredient in the chain.

The New Zealand All Blacks have a saying: “Sweep the Sheds.” It is their reminder to everyone in the organization that none of them are above any task. They are all responsible for leaving the program better. The best way for my students to value picking up trash is to see me picking up trash. Or, better yet, one of those pro athletes:

Now to the success. My persistence is paying off. Individual kids are starting to pick up trash as a point of pride. With kids it often takes dogged, insane persistence, and consistency of message. Name the standard, and act on it to create contagious awesomeness.

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