Why Love Letters Matter

Over a lunch meeting recently, my colleague lit up as she told me about a recent letter she got. It was written by hand, she said. And thanked her for mentorship and support during a year-long fellowship. It went onto spell out what had happened with the person’s career as a result. The hand-written letter had made my collegue’s day, because it reflected that someone cared enough after many many years to say that “what you did, mattered”.

In my own inbox, this arrived recently:

Hi, Mark & Nilofer –

Thank you for creating and delivering an interactive and practical 1-unit course on best practices for collaborative management this past Winter quarter. I wanted to reach out and share how this has truly made an impact on me as well as my organization.
As Director of Membership at XYZ, I was recently asked to create an unprecedented organization-wide recruitment strategy for this upcoming fiscal year. I went through my notes from the course, my group project and significant portions of The New How to develop the process. I created an advisory team of field based staff who complete the day-to-day operations of recruitment.
Before the final strategy was shared with our senior management, my director noticed that those fifteen staff involved with the process were already influencing their networks and embracing the work of the strategic plan already.
We now have a final strategy and today we are outlining the project management as well as the inter-dependencies & mitigation plan so we can fully launch recruitment for this next year.
The ‘air sandwich’ is fairly non-existent and we are building energy and momentum.
Without your course, my organization would not have been successful in making this happen.


The timing couldn’t have been better. I was on the fence about teaching the course again, for a variety of (mostly practical) reasons, but the letter made me see a specific data point that the course was useful. Somewhere “out there”, someone was putting the ideas of New How to work, causing their teams to be more connected to one another, and turning concepts and ideas into a new reality.

And, so, I signed up to teach the course again in 2015. **

Which points to a fundamental truth: Everyone one of us needs encouragement.

And, what most people don’t realize is how many people get “hate letters”. Yesterday, someone who is a national thinker in the domain of economic injustice wrote me privately after getting a crappy book review in some regional paper. It was unfair, she thought, because the author took her to task for being too focused in one particular way. She had explained the focus rationale in the book itself and thought the reviewer either didn’t read it, or was having fun at her expense. And, she was right. But the thing that’s really going on is how many of these one gets, and how discouraging it is.

It’s relatively easy to be a critic. Because, honestly, isn’t everything flawed in some way? Whatever your even most-favorite-thing, you could find a way to critique it, easily. But it is harder to be a supporter.

Being a support is not the same as “be a cheer leader” because rah-rah-ness is probably the first thing most of us tune out. To be a supporter is to be encouraging in a specific way. To say I like it when you do this specific thing, because you seem to have a gift for it. Which is to say, you encourage people to keep chasing that idea into a bigger reality. To be a supporter can look like someone who is a Second Dancer. But it can also be the role of challenger. Someone was recently critiquing an assertion of mine, and he showed me the logic flaw I had, and where the argument fell apart. He wrote it all down so I could digest it, potentially to learn from, or to refute it. But then he did something else … he said he’d help me build a better argument. He sends me ideas, and discusses my latest iterations. I call him my “loyal oppositionist“, one of the key roles I think every team needs on it to get to great outcomes.  A “loyal oppositionist” solves an inherent paradox: they are on your “side”, while ALSO helping you get better.

New How Step ActAustin Kleon, a best-selling author in the field of creativity, talks about writing fan letters. It is amazing to receive a public one. It might seem silly. You might even think that your voice doesn’t matter, that any given person already knows their work, their role, their ideas matters. But each of us could use encouragement.  Think about what it feels like when someone says to you, great job for something you’ve done out of love and passion. Didn’t it make you want to do it more? Why not encourage someone you know.  A teacher, a friend, someone you work with. It will grow more goodness.

*p.s. I didn’t ask her to share this letter so if she decides to “out” herself, she can do so here.

** p.p.s. If you want to audit the course, you don’t have to be a student at SCU, you can do just the course. It’s in Silicon Valley in February, 2015.

*** p.p.p.s. Stop reading now. Go write a love letter, even a short one. Encourage the people or person who encourages YOU.

9 Replies

  1. Very useful post. I feel a little guilty now, which is probably a good thing. Thanks for the wake-up call.

    1. I always say that doing a little thing now vs. a big thing later is what caused the tortoise to win. No guilt, just action is required.

  2. THIS is GOLD: “To be a supporter is to be encouraging in a specific way. To say I like it when you do this specific thing, because you seem to have a gift for it. Which is to say, you encourage people to keep chasing that idea into a bigger reality.”

    It also says – “I see you.” And being seen is such a fundamental human need. I’m new to you and your world but fell immediately in love this past Saturday morning. Thank you for your work. And your insights about mattering, meaning and belonging. Your Platform 2013 talk moved me and inspired my blog for this week.

    1. Yes, it DOES say that. I hadn’t seen the connection, but of course it is that. Thanks and your nice comment for the Platform talk is really quite kind. I almost hid that sucker away because of the tears. But it was my son that said “you have nothing to be ashamed of…”

      1. Wow – what a gift your son gave you and the rest of the world. Glad you didn’t hide it woman. We need that. And stories like yours. When you cried and shared how you “recognized” yourself in that talk, and “saw” yourself, it really drove home the heart of your work for me. HUGE fan. I know you’re writing a book right now – can’t wait to read. I hope this piece of thought leadership makes it in there.

  3. Love, love, love this. I think encouragement and kindness — and handwritten letters — are some of the currency of community. Everyone can be a critic; it’s being able to see greatness and commend others for hard work, effort, and time spent that’s invaluable.

    Also, I just wrote (yesterday!) a short set of tips on how to add more letter-writing into your life, if it’s of interest! http://itstartswith.com/2014/10/handwritten-notes/

    Just stumbled across your site for the first time because someone pointed me here about writing notes — thanks for your wonderful writing,


  4. Thank you, Nilofer, for sharing my note! I was surprised when this appeared in my inbox but happy and grateful that my note was shared in a larger context. Your class was inspiring and I am officially launching my ‘take Nilofer’s course’ recruitment campaign! -Bree

  5. Thanks for posting about the importance of positive feedback in the form of fan/love letters. Long before the internet I was a volunteer in an organization that helped new mothers get breastfeeding off to a good start. I often received inspirational thank you notes from the women I helped and frequently saved them to read when discouraged about what a small impact I felt I was having. But to the women I helped, it was huge. And their taking the time to tell me about it encouraged me to keep carrying on, even when it was hard. Have to remind myself to write more of those kind of notes and on real paper. Much more meaningful to receive!

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