In graduate school I spent a lot of time in the library. Long hours of research never came easily for me; I’m highly distractible by nature. I had to teach myself practices to stay focused. I learned that taking short breaks to stretch every fifteen minutes would help me keep my mind from wandering,
One day when I was particularly antsy, I wrote a note for a stranger on a Post-it and then planted it in a book before I returned it to the shelf: “It’s ok to make mistakes (especially when you learn from them),” I penned, as if I was speaking to myself and someone else. I wondered when the next reader might find my note, perhaps in a week, or given the approximately 2.2 million books in the Columbia University library, maybe not for a decade or more. Either way, it made me smile to think about someone finding my note during a long research session; about how it might surprise them and hopefully bring a bit of levity to their day.
The next time I was at the library I wrote more notes:
“Remember to stretch—happy minds prefer happy bodies.”
“Smile at the next person you see.”
Soon the practice became part of my routine; before I returned a book to the shelf or depository I would leave a few words in it.
When I finally graduated, I stopped writing notes to strangers. No longer in the library, I left the practice behind. And then a few years ago, I bought a pack of old fashioned sales tags, the kind with little holes punched to fasten them to a string (I needed them for some handmade holiday presents). When I finished the project there was a stack of tags to spare, perfect for writing notes to strangers, I thought.
I started to scribble tiny messages in pen:
“Breath deeply. Now doesn’t that feel good?”
“Notice the beauty around you.”
“So much to be grateful for.”
And my favorite, “You are good. No, really, you are good. And I love you. —God”
I ‘planted’ these notes on the bus, in a coffee shop and in a brochure at the Department of Motor Vehicles. I even left one in the dentist’s office in the pages of a magazine for kids: “I used to be afraid of going to the dentist, too.”
So here’s an invitation: drop a few words for an unsuspecting someone to find. Think about how your words might bring a bit of surprise and delight to someone’s day. You’ll probably never see them receive your message, but maybe just knowing that it may be found by some unknown person in some unknown future—that just might be enough.
Dr. Erick Gordon is the Director of Education at Recovery 2.0. For sixteen years he was a professor in Columbia University’s school of education where he won numerous awards and honors for his teaching. He is the founding director of Student Press Initiative, the largest curriculum-embedded classroom publishing program in the world, as well as the former director of the New York City Writing Project. His work in creativity and purposeful play has touched thousands of students and teachers over the past two decades.