Finding Hope and Availability

A Conversation with Bob Goff, New York Times Best-Selling Author of Love Does and Everybody Always

Bob Goff has gone to all corners of the globe to spend his favorite currency: kindness.  But he explains how acts of kindness can spread hope just as effectively without leaving your own neighborhood.

Bob Goff (via Facebook @bobgoffis)

If you’ve never heard of Bob Goff, his resume is impressive. A self-proclaimed “recovering lawyer,” he’s the founder of Love Does, a nonprofit human rights organization operating in Uganda, India, Nepal, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Because of that work, he was named Honorary Consul to Uganda.

He teaches at universities and travels to churches and organizations around the country to speak about leadership and ambition. He’s a master storyteller, a New York Times best-selling author of several books, including Love Does and Everybody Always, where he tells his own kind of parables that urge readers to live boldly and love their neighbors.

Perhaps more impressive is that his cell phone number is printed in the back of his best-selling books, claiming that he’s always available.

Catalyst editor Brittney Bain called Bob Goff in late April to see if that’s true, and if so, to find out how we’re supposed to love everyone in the middle of a crisis and to ask for a few life lessons. He answered.

Bob, what’s giving you hope right now?

We live down on the bay in San Diego, and there was a couple walking along holding hands, but you could tell they were really bummed, and I shouted over the water, “are you guys okay?” and they looked up kind of surprised. They said that they actually work in the ICU at the hospital here, treating and saving lives of these coronavirus victims. The reason they had such long faces is that they were supposed to get married two days later, but the church canceled, the reception area canceled, everything canceled.

There’s a little dock we have behind the house. The bay is closed, the beaches are closed, the parks are closed, everything’s closed. But, I’ve got one dock. So I told them, “I’ve got a boat, and I’m a captain. We can just stay right at the dock and get you married.” And so that’s what we did two days ago. They came out, and it was so fun to see their parents and a couple people they love just stand on the beach and watch.

That just reminded me about how much hope is out there, and I think we’re going to find what we’re looking for – we’ll find all the negativity we’re looking for, and we’ll find all the hope. But here’s the thing about hope. It’s way more powerful. Let negativity off the chain and it’s not going to do much. But let hope off the chain, and it will change everything.

We’ll find all the negativity we’re looking for, and we’ll find all the hope. But here’s the thing about hope. It’s way more powerful.

I think one of the things that drives me is this principle of loving your neighbor. I do a lot of things overseas. In Afghanistan, we’ve got a school for girls, and we have things going on in Mogadishu, Somalia, in a lot of places that have had a lot of setbacks, and we should love people far away, too.

But instead of going to the ends of the earth, what if you go to the end of your street? What if you just love people that God’s already dropped in your path? We come across them all the time. And the crazy thing is it’s one smile, it’s a wave, that’ll make all the difference to somebody.

There’s a story I wrote in the one of the books about how I went in to get a candy bar at the candy store when I was a kid. I put all my change out, and I was one penny short. And a very kind man behind the counter took one of my pennies, put it behind the desk, shined it up, and he put it back on the counter, and he told me, “shiny pennies are worth two.”

I went through the next 20 years believing that shiny pennies are worth two! You know why? Because I was in need and somebody saw my need and they said, “I can do something to fix that.”

It was just an act of kindness. It cost him one penny, but it changed my whole life. I’m 61 years-old, and I’m still thinking about one act by a guy in 10 seconds shining one penny, putting it down on the table, and declaring that shiny pennies are worth two.

It was just an act of kindness. It cost him one penny, but it changed my whole life. I’m 61 years-old, and I’m still thinking about one act by a guy in 10 seconds shining one penny, putting it down on the table, and declaring that shiny pennies are worth two.

You write a lot about how to love your neighbor. How do you love everyone in the middle of a crisis?

I think there’s a little bit of God in each of us. We can see a little bit of the divine in people, whatever their faith tradition is. And if we can see a bit of the divine in the people around us, we'll actually treat them differently.

Of all the crazy things, you will never see me without wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. It's not my hat. It's my neighbor's hat. It's Carol’s, and Carol was a huge Red Sox fan. I've never been to a baseball game, no desire. But she was going to be with Jesus by the end of the week, and so we made a deal that I would wear her Red Sox hat for the rest of my life and represent the Sox here on Earth. And in exchange, every time Jesus walked by her, she needed to mention my name.

Bob Goff, in his Boston Red Sox hat, visits the Love Does school for girls in Afghanistan.

The whole idea is to have these reminders everywhere and have clarity about why you're doing what you're doing. The people that are most difficult, they've lost the plot. They just forget why they are doing what they're doing. They're letting fear do the speaking. Some people deal with fear and insecurity in their lives by being mean like a rattlesnake. I know a couple.

And then, there are other people who deal with their fear and insecurity by being quiet like a church mouse. Wherever it is that we are, and whoever we're dealing with, we can't help other people understand themselves, but we can get clear about why we're doing what we're doing.

Fear is a punk, and I'm just not going to give fear the microphone anymore. It's going to take a little bit of introspection to get that for each of us, of like a moment of pause to say, "Who's doing the talking right now?"

That’s a good reminder.

I want to lift my eyes. I've sailed to Hawaii and back a couple of times, and the whole adventure is a big reason to go. One time, we left Hawaii and we were bringing somebody's boat back [to California].  And as we were leaving the marina in Oahu, I looked back, and I saw this piece of kelp trailing behind the boat. I didn't think anything about it. We went 2,700 miles, we passed underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. I looked back and what I am carrying? Same piece of kelp. This thing had wrapped itself around the keel of the boat somewhere in Oahu, and I dragged it all that way, and it slowed me down.

View of the dock from Bob Goff's porch. (via Twitter @bobgoff)

The reason that I did that is I never took the pressure off. The reason the kelp stays against the keel is that the keel has pressure against it. You're always moving forward. The only way to get the kelp off the keel, it's called backing down the boat. You actually turn into the wind, you push the sail forward, and you go backwards, and all of the kelp falls out.

I think what happened for Earth is we have an opportunity to back down the kelp. That we can actually say, “What are some of the things that have been trailing behind us? What are some of the limiting beliefs that we've had? What are some of the relationships that have been strained?” It's a time of introspection if we want it. It's just another way of saying that we don't need to carry that piece of kelp another 2,700 miles because it's actually slowing us down.

Anyway, I think if they had a metaphor team in high school, I would have been the captain.

I think what happened for Earth is we have an opportunity to back down the kelp. That we can actually say, ‘What are some of the things that have been trailing behind us? What are some of the limiting beliefs that we've had? What are some of the relationships that have been strained?’

You mentioned Carol earlier, and that recalls the story you tell in Everybody Always about the balloon-filled parades you do annually for New Year's Day. I was reminded of it seeing the car parades in neighborhoods to celebrate birthdays and graduations around the country right now.  How did your parades get started?

I think the most beautiful part of this parade is that it started 25 or 26 years ago, and it was just our kids. They were bored. They didn't know what to do with themselves. I suppose that was before Candy Crush. They decided to do something more beautiful, and I think we just need to get kids to decide that every day.

So, they decided to have a parade. They weren't bummed when nobody but us showed up. We got to the end of the street, and we had sent out flyers. And here's the important part, because I think that that's part of the parade: it's a rule that nobody can watch, everybody has to be in it.

That first year, the five people - three of them that were shorter than four feet - and my wife sweet Maria and I, we walked down the street. It wasn't quite walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, but it was a declaration. It was that we were going to celebrate our neighbors.

Then the next year, I don't know if people just felt sorry for us, but a couple of more people showed up. So, we picked a little old lady to be the Queen, and somebody else to be the Grand Marshal. Then, we did the same walking. A quarter of a century later, we've now had 24 Queens, and [Carol] was one of them.

Here's the crazy thing. Carol then goes to the grocery store to get some bread, and she couldn't get out of there for 45 minutes, because everybody called her “Your Majesty.”

There's now about 800 people that show up every New Year's Day for this parade, and we all walk the 400 feet that is our entire block. By the time they all line up, we're at our house. That's great. There’s something really beautiful about that reminder to love your neighbor.

The neighborhood parade, January 1, 2019. (via Twitter @bobgoff)

Where else are you seeing love take action right now?

I feel surrounded by this. It’ll be in the smaller things.

I know one thing that parents started doing. Sometimes I'll just jump on an Instagram Live and read a little bit of this book called, Love Does For Kids. And in a moment of brilliance with sweet Maria in the room, I told the story about the two shiny pennies. I said, "Hey parents, if you want me to send your kids a couple of shiny pennies, here's my address."

Now, I put my cell phone number in the back of two million books, and now my address is out there. So we started getting just carpet-bombed with requests. Maria and I sent out probably 1,000 letters to five different countries, including the United States. I'm like, I have to sell the car to pay the postage.

But we've been sitting at the dining room table, and we've been taping shiny pennies to letters to kids, to let them know that shiny pennies are worth two. I want them to be reminded about the power of hope, and that there's a connectedness. Most kids don't know what a letter is, so to get a handwritten letter from a stranger…we just want to be kind voices to one another. And we're one stamp away. Well, for the people that wrote me in Australia, like $3 in postage away.

Here’s the deal, the economics at one level don't make sense. To pay a buck or two to mail a shiny penny to Australia, or to Canada, or to somewhere in Europe. But it's reverse economy Jesus always talked about. It's like, you want to lead, follow. You want to be the big shot, be humble. You want to be the first in line, be last in line.

We can say, I'm going to make the leaps the greatest. I'm going to make the kid I'll probably never meet feel like a boss.

Bob Goff at the dining room table with a jar of pennies and a pile of letters to mail on March 31, 2020. (via Twitter @bobgoff)

How do you learn to make yourself available?

I get 500 or 600 emails a day. I answer every single one. Now, that probably isn't the most efficient use of time, but in the economy that I decided, I just think it makes such a difference when somebody is just available. When you send an email, don't you like it when you get a response?

I’ve talked about [the musician] Keith Green from Texas, he is the guy that showed it to me. I wrote him a letter in college, and because there was no such thing as internet back then, he wrote back to me. It was three sentences. I have no idea what he even said, but I'll tell you, I felt like such a boss. Keith fricking Green wrote back to me.

It’s a shiny thing. It's a note from you to somebody who hasn't heard from you for a while. Oh man, you'll blow their mind. A handwritten letter, laden with hope, not talking about what they should do, but telling them about who they are. “This is who you've been to me.” They'll remember the spring of 2020. What they're going to remember is something about staying home and a letter they received from you.

There’s something about availability. We can't decide how tall or short we'll be, but we can decide how available we'll be. Let me know how I can serve you, and your friends, and the people you love, and I'm there.

There’s something about availability. We can't decide how tall or short we'll be, but we can decide how available we'll be. Let me know how I can serve you, and your friends, and the people you love, and I'm there.
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