How to Be Kind in a World That Never Taught You to Be Cover

How To Be Kind in a World That Never Taught You to Be

“Well, some things you just can’t get for money.” The older I get, the more I think this is just something we, the not-yet rich and successful, tell ourselves to feel better. There is almost nothing money can’t buy. Because even for what you can’t trade straight for dollars, there’s almost always a proxy.

You can’t buy time, but not having to work 40 hours a week sure helps. You can’t buy health, but I bet your cancer treatment fares better if you can drop $2 million into it. You can’t buy happiness, but there’s a material sweet spot around $75,000/year.

Money makes the world go ‘round. I don’t think that’s bad, it’s just the way it is. Capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s helped us do good things, and I believe for many, the struggle for money is the right choice. But I also believe in being kind along the way. Work hard, be nice, win. There’s enough to go around for everyone.

And that’s where the road forks, because most people don’t think you can do both at the same time. Not every struggle is a battle, but if your only options are competing and conceding, they might as well be the same. If you tend to view the world as this dark place that you have to fight tooth and nail against to get what you deserve, I feel for you.

We don’t agree, but I have an idea where it came from. And it’s not your fault.


The world doesn’t teach anyone to be kind. Throw a kid to the wolves, and if he survives, he’ll be a wolf himself by the time he does. No, passing on kindness is your parents’s job. Or was. One day you’re two, the next you’re 18, and whatever happened in between is in the past. You enter the real world, whether in working, dating, or elsewhere, and suddenly, you’re drowning in responsibilities. Of course now it’s much harder to develop what you didn’t bring along. That’s one thing money really can’t buy.

You’re only brought up once. No reruns.

You can’t just grab a box of ‘great upbringing’ off the shelf and even if you could, you would neither have the money nor the awareness to do so when you need it the most. Because what 3-year-old can ask her parents for the money to get, well, new parents?

I hit the jackpot in that sense. I come from the most cotton candy sunshine rainbow family you can imagine. We’re not perfect, but my childhood was as close to it as it could have been. It equipped me with all the right tools. Optimism, determination, care, love, and discipline. Frugality, joy, gratitude, self-awareness, work ethic and responsibility. Now that I think about it, maybe there are things money can’t buy and some it even makes harder to attain.

None of the above can guarantee I will live a happy life, but I feel that so far, they’ve allowed me to live a good life. And that’s worth plenty on its own. For one, they’ve spared me from many a millennial struggle. Like financial irresponsibility, unrealistic career expectations, and immature relationships.

Of course I’m not immune to problems. As Ryan Holiday noted: “The world is undefeated.” It breaks everyone, it just does so in different ways. And yet, a loving family and a good upbringing is something I truly wish everyone could have. I’m painfully aware that’s not possible. Maybe you’ve had tough parents, no parents, or, let’s face it, downright shitty parents.

I can’t snap my fingers and turn back time any more than you, but I’d like to at least share what I’ve observed about how my own kindness transpires. Maybe there’s a process you can copy and it’ll ooze out just the same.

But to do that, we first need to talk about a topic dear to every German’s heart: rules.

Two Kinds of Two Kinds

Besides being German, I’m also an Upholder. It’s a personality type that thrives in meeting both inner and outer expectations. This means I don’t just abide by the rules, I love them so much that, if there aren’t any, I’ll set up my own, just so I can have a lane to drive in with bumpers along the side.

Whether you share my love for rules or not, you too have lots of experience with them. Making rules, taking rules, faking rules, breaking rules. But next to the rules you set for yourself and those the world pushes you to follow, there’s another dichotomy here. Some rules are stated clearly, others implicit.


Case in point: Area 51. When you drive past that “Restricted” sign, you know there are laws you’re about to violate. You’re trespassing on secret government property, you can be searched, arrested, shot, photos are forbidden and boy, you better not launch any drones. Those aren’t all of them, but enough for you to break a sweat.

It’s the second set, however, the unwritten rules of Area 51, that make venturing there a trip worth taking for thousands each year. Nobody knows exactly what they are, but they lead to all the rumors and myths surrounding the place. Because the only way to find out is to go there. What am I getting at?

Every situation in your life is like entering Area 51.

It might not be as exciting and, thankfully, not as dangerous, but wherever you go, there are rules, written and unwritten. They depend on the time, the people, the country, the culture, the politics, and a whole lot of other values. Unlike the government’s secret military facility, however, finding out what those unwritten rules are isn’t just encouraged, it’s your job.

And if you do it well, you’ll automatically be kind to others.

Mirror, Mirror…

We’re always told to break the rules, but I think there’s often a huge caveat missing: it’s advice for how to do things, not how to treat people. When it comes to social interactions, let the written rules inform your behavior while you figure out what the unwritten standards are. Following such rules as best as you can is less a sign of being a blind follower than it is a gesture of respect for others.

Adapting is a way of being kind because often, the two are one and the same.

We are a social species. It’s not just animals, we too mimic each other’s behavior. Subconsciously in conversation, on purpose to be part of the group. I tend to get along well with all kinds of people and I now see a big part of it is doubling down on that trait. Call it diplomatic, call it manners, but no matter how you feel about rules, showing a little flexibility helps us coexist.

Here are some of the unwritten ones I’ve discovered so far:

  • When you enter a quiet room, be quiet. When you enter a lively room, be lively. In other words: Read the room.
  • When your opposite is talking to you, don’t use your phone. Don’t even touch it. Chances are, you both can’t multitask.
  • When people notice you in the street, notice them too. Look, nod, be part of the world. Don’t stare at the ground. Don’t be an antibody. We get little of it these days, so acknowledgement is almost synonymous with respect.
  • When you meet someone new and notice them using certain words, pick up their vocabulary. An easy way to bond is meaning to say the same thing.
  • Whoever tells you a story, recap it as a question. “Wait, so you ran out of gas and the station was closed?” It’s called active listening, but it’s empathy.
  • When you disagree with someone, ask if they think you disagree. Often, it’s not the case. Let them explain again.
  • When someone shows you they like you without words, show them too. Look at them, be attentive, listen. They’ll understand, just like you.
  • When you can help people without really going out of your way, do it. Including, but not limited to, holding doors, standing up, and giving exact change.

Money, fame, happiness, success, it’s our right to fight for these things, but you’re not fighting against one another. We’re all in this together. Ultimately, either everyone wins or none of us.

Photo by Joshua Clay on Unsplash

Everyone’s Favorite Movie

I don’t think it’s a coincidence Germans are considered a nice people. We love rules. A little too much, maybe. That said, compliance is far from the only way of adapting.

Sometimes it’s your turn to reflect, sometimes it’s your turn to be the mirror. The most important rules are always the unwritten ones, because no one has dared articulate them yet. Let alone be the first to follow them and set an example. Imagine you treated everyone the way you would be treated if your life was a Hollywood movie. You’d constantly exceed everyone’s expectations.

I wish we could have nothing but perfect childhoods, wealthy families, and kindhearted humans. But a lack of the first two must never come at the expense of the third.

The world is only as dark a place as we allow it to become. So let’s not let it.