Ten promises... because I said I would

When the little white envelope stamped in Cleveland, Ohio fell on my doormat a few weeks ago, I knew there was no way back.

Ten business card-sized strips of white paper, empty, apart from one line in black at the bottom of each card: “because I said I would”. The sender, Alex Sheen, explained their purpose on a small note attached: “Because I said I would mails 10 promise cards to anyone in the world for free […] It may just be a piece of paper, but sometimes you just need something to hold on to.”

I first heard about the “because I said I would” movement after seeing the shocking viral video of Matthew Cordle, a then 22-year-old American who confessed to killing a 61-year-old man in a highway accident when drunk-driving. Instead of handing himself in to the police, he contacted Sheen and asked him to help him “create a positive ripple in as many people as I can reach”. Cordle was arrested and sentenced to six and a half years in prison, from where he works on campaigns to stop drink-driving.

The video caused a lot of outcry as well as support on social media. The victim’s ex-wife spoke out to say she believed the confession was genuine. I was torn between struggling to have empathy for any drunk driver and somehow still feeling some respect for the fact that this young guy chose to go public and make it his life mission to stop others from making the same irreversible mistake.

When I looked closer at the medium Cordle had chosen to share his story, I discovered a whole range of small and big, ordinary and extraordinary promises. A teenager wrote to Sheen to say that promise cards she had written stopped her from taking her own life. But there were also the four-year-old child who promised to overcome her fear of the dark and sleep in her own bed from now on, the dad who promised to watch his son play football and thousands more.

Because I said I would describes itself as “a social movement dedicated to bettering humanity through promises made and kept”. It only works if people pay it forward.

In the first year of launching, Sheen has sent out over 150,000 promise cards to people in 48 countries. He could have saved himself a mountain of envelopes and stamps by doing the whole campaign online. But Sheen believes that what makes it work is the fact that each recipient physically sees these cards in front of them and has to write down their promises, engraving them in their memory as they do so. If their promise is to someone else, they hand them the card, creating a ripple effect.

It only works if people pay it forward.

My promises

Walking around with the 10 blank cards in my pocket, I slowly started to realise this experiment might be harder than I had anticipated. The thought of making promises popped into my head regularly. There are no rules about what kind of promises you should make on the cards: it is completely down to personal choice. I wanted mine to be things that I a) really wanted to do (encourage), b) really wanted to achieve (empower), or c) really wanted to stop doing (change).

Some serious self-reflection was needed and it took me a week to actually face the challenge. Sat down in my favourite local coffee shop, I opened the little white envelope once again. I decided to write down the first 10 things that would come to mind, as long as I felt they could change, encourage or empower me or people around me.

After writing all 10 promises, I handed some of the cards to the people I made the promise to. I kept the others in my wallet. Some were short-term promises that I wanted to make and keep right away. Others were regular things to which I attached a frequency to help me achieve them. A few were long-term goals, too, but I wanted start taking steps to achieving them nonetheless.

Writing them all in a 1 to 10 list here made me a bit hesitant at first. It somehow felt like I needed to justify why I chose what I chose. I started to feel self-conscious and wondered if I should choose only a few cards to make public. But then I thought of Matthew Cordle and his decision to open up. I scrolled down the long list of promises shared by real people all around the world via #becauseisaidiwould on twitter. I realised that many of these promises, made by people that I never met in my life, made me want to act, promise and be a better person.

I started to appreciate the power of this very simple idea that sharing is caring. I searched the web for some more promise theories. Google pushed through a quote by motivational speaker Wayne Dyer: “Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.” Not being one for American self-help gurus, I quickly closed the browser window. But I knew I had to put my cards on the table anyway.

Not being one for American self-help gurus, I quickly closed the browser window. But I knew I had to put my cards on the table anyway.

Here goes – in no particular order.

Be there when friends move into their new homes. Some of my oldest friends were putting their first homes up for sale around the same time. I remember when they bought their houses and know how big a deal it was back then. I wrote this card when two of them bought their new dream home together: a massive DIY project. It was one of those moments when I hate living abroad, away from my oldest nearest and dearest. I should have been there, when they signed the contract, when they got the key, when they put in their first weekend of messy demolition work. The other friends were still busy trying to sell their first home. I visited them both on a weekend at home and promised them that I would be there when they move in.

Be there when my brother and his girlfriend move into their first house. Incidentally, my brother and his girlfriend ended up buying the house of my friends (welcome to small town life). They only had a few weeks of small refurbishing jobs to do, but I flew home to help for a couple of days anyway. I was gutted to have to say goodbye to them just days before they moved in, but luckily a change in work schedule meant that I was back in the area later that month, and they invited me to be the first guest to sleep in their spare bedroom. It was an honour I proudly accepted.

Eat as healthy as I can for a month and be more aware of what I eat. After having read up on a nine-day healthy eating plan that did not look like either a diet or a crazy amount of work, I decided to go for it. I discussed the idea on the home front as I knew I would not have the motivation to do it alone, so we decided to stick to it together. We ended up starting from day 1 again after the plan was finished, as we both felt infinitely better for it. Reading up on the addictive effects of sugar really made me think and I was stunned to realise that I actually had stopped craving it after the initial cold turkey. Beyond that, I really felt the benefits of eating only good stuff. My energy levels went up and I stopped feeling bloated. I learned so many new recipes that it has been much easier to incorporate foods with the greatest health benefits into the daily menu. I never anticipated it, but this one turned out to be one of the best promises I kept.

Listen more than I talk and let people finish before interrupting. As a journalist, I ask questions and let other people do the talking. But among friends and family I have a bad habit of breaking into conversations when I really should just shut up and let people finish first. It is often out of enthusiasm but that doesn’t make it right. It is probably the toughest habit to break, but having the promise card come to mind has helped me bite my tongue a few times recently. It is funny how you really can use props as simple as a plain white card to alter your behaviour. I will need this card I my wallet for a while yet.

Practise empathy every day. Two people I met in recent years really made me understand the importance of empathy: the Dalai Lama, who embodied empathy in everything he told me in our 40-minute conversation, and Mary Gordon, whose groundbreaking programme Roots of Empathy teaches children the vital life skill by bringing a tiny baby into a classroom. Before meeting these two people, I understood how seeing things from someone else’s point of view could be helpful. But to really practise empathy in everyday life is tough, particularly in conflict situations. And yet, it has helped me a lot already. It is hard to describe what happens when you force yourself to consider the other’s point of view before acting. Try it next time you have an argument, particularly with someone close to you. Work out where they are coming from, what they might feel and why they feel it. It might sound all a bit too much like counsellor fluff, but you might find that it is more than that. I certainly did.

Control my temper in an argument and don’t raise my voice. There really is no point in getting all explosive. Ever. Shouting never achieves more than talking. I do not raise my voice often but it should just be never. Simple as that. I am going to hold on to this card.

Stop comparing my business to everyone else’s and be proud of how far I’ve come. A personal goal, inspired by my digital detox earlier this summer. I realised how much of the “comparison game” we all unwillingly partake in is caused by social media updates. No one likes to broadcast their off-days. And yet, it is so easy to forget how distorted our picture is if all we see is people doing amazingly well. I am contemplating another digital detox, as well as a way to incorporate the principles of it into my very connected work life. This card will go up on my office wall.

Launch a new product and give it for free to someone who cannot afford it. I recently experienced the “pay it forward” system first-hand and I realised we should all do it, both in our private lives and in our organisations. I have been working hard to get a new product off the ground. It is not quite as finished as I wanted it to be yet, but the card remains on the wall as a reminder of the kind of business I want to run.

Surprise someone in my family by doing something nice for them and keep doing so. I surprised my grandmother by arriving on her doorstep a couple of days before she expected me to be in in the country. I also brought a small duty-free shop surprise to my brother and his girlfriend when I visited their finished home. And I surprised my mom by leaving a personal gift between the post when she and dad returned from holidays. Family is precious. Small surprises can mean a lot, especially when living apart.

Make a serious effort to run 10km. After a lifetime of hating running and abusing my body hunched over a laptop, I have somehow come round a bit. I can now run 5km, but I always feel as if I cannot possibly do more. I just lose motivation to continue on beyond the halfway turning point. To do 10, I will have to be more committed to train. And train regularly. Which I know always makes me feel better - particularly when I am busy. No more excuses. Sometimes, you need a promise and a goal. This card is going up in the hallway, right above the shoe rack. I might even create some head space to reflect on the other promises en route.

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