Lessons From the 'Kindness Boomerang' Effect
For Orly Wahba, a highly respected educator, author and public speaker, teaching others about the power of kindness has become more than a mission. It’s a way of life.
“If kindness is done right, if we’re able to empower people to recognize their value, then they are going to become more productive. There is going to be more innovation in the world, greater connection. That is my goal with this movement,” she says.
A former middle school teacher turned entrepreneur, Orly learned from her students just how impactful immersing yourself in acts of kindness, compassion and empathy can be. She realized that incorporating these values into her lesson plans holistically could help to engage and empower young people in a way that she could never have imagined.
That experience motivated her to start Life Vest Inside, a non-profit organization dedicated to ‘inspiring, empowering and educating people of all backgrounds to live a life of kindness.’
They do this through inspirational media such as films, educational projects (many of which have been incorporated into school curriculum), technology and live events.
At the heart of Orly’s belief is the understanding that self-love and self-compassion is the first step to being able to practice kindness in a genuine and impactful way.
“When you take a look at all of the vast social issues plaguing society today and you continuously ask the question of “WHY?” – what you find is that it all stems from a lack of self value, self worth and the feeling of lacking purpose,” says Orly. “The mission of Life Vest Inside is to prevent these issues from coming into existence. If you don’t see your own value, how can you possibly see the value in another?”
In Orly’s lesson-a-day book ‘Kindness Boomerang,’ she lists dozens of ideas for how to incorporate kindness into your everyday life.
Click here to watch the amazing film ‘One Day,' part of the Kindness Boomerang initiative, which currently has more than 34 million views on YouTube!
Orly truly believes that acts of kindness can change the world and once you hear more about her inspiring story in our Q&A below, you will too.
Orly, you began your career as a teacher. How did that experience inspire your journey to become a kindness advocate?
My seven years teaching were by far the most amazing, transformative years of my life. I loved my students very very much and I loved going to school everyday. For me as a teacher, my main goal was inspiring the students to see the beauty within themselves so that they could begin to then see the beauty within others. I was a teacher for middle schoolers - 7th & 8th grade students - which is a really challenging time. Those are very pivotal years, especially as you venture into high school, where you’re trying to figure out who you are or what everybody is telling you you should be.
So for me, it wasn’t just about teaching the facts and the figures, it was about incorporating kindness, compassion, empathy into every single classroom discussion. These were things we were working on on a daily basis and I embedded them into the curriculum, it wasn’t like a once-a-month thing where we were going to talk about kindness. Working with my students and helping them to become the best version of themselves actually helped me to become the very best version of myself because as a teacher, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviour that you’re expecting from your students.
So for me, character development, values, building myself up, always working to improve who I am, it’s always been very important to me ever since I was a child. It was basically thrown into hyper gear during my years teaching because I knew the way that I acted, the way that they saw me act, actually influenced them more than what I would tell them.
My years teaching were in a sense, the stepping stone for me to create this global organization and global movement called Life Vest Inside. My students told me, 'You have to take this message to the world' and that gave me the courage to take this leap of faith. I left my job teaching. It was supposed to be just for a year, just to see what would happen if I put my whole heart into this dream, this goal I had of really impacting change in the world. And this was a goal I had way before I became a teacher. This was a goal I had ever since I was a four year-old kid who dreamed of changing the world. It was a very big passion and a lot of it came from hardships and adversity that I personally faced in my adolescent years after there was a fire in my house when I was 15 years-old. It was a very devastating time. It was one of those years when everything that could go wrong, went wrong. My dad had lost his job and one thing after the next continued to go downhill. And when you see your family in suffering mode, in a problem situation, you don’t want to be a burden on them. So I would hide my emotions from them. My friends didn’t know what to say to me, so I hid my emotions from them too. Until one day when I just sort of broke down, and I fell into a very scary and a very, very dark depression. Really dark. I felt very alone.
I was home from school for several months, sleeping most of the day, crying the rest of it. And during that time I was home, not one person came to visit. Not one person called to see if I was ok. And that made me feel like, well, if I wasn’t here tomorrow, would that really make a difference to anybody? I felt like the answer was no. And that scared me more than anything. I felt so alone. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be here and I wanted everything to end. I’ll never forget that feeling and after several months, I went back to school, but I wasn’t the same kid. Then, one morning I woke up and I was getting ready to go to school and I was in the bathroom, I was looking at myself in the mirror and the craziest thing happened. I didn’t see that four-year old Orly that wanted to change the world looking back at me. It was like she was gone, like someone had taken her. It was in that moment that I made a promise to myself. And it’s my belief that it’s that promise that led me to my years teaching and it’s that promise that led me to the work I’m doing with Life Vest Inside and it’s that promise that wakes me up every morning and that has guided me to all other projects and initiatives that I’m doing or will continue to do in my life.
It was a promise to be there for people the way I wished somebody had been there for me. To see people the way I wished somebody had seen me.
Those next couple of years of high school were really tough, I was sort of walking alone. But the greatest thing happened to me, I got to fall in love with me, for me. Not because I wanted to impress this person or the other. And I got to find my voice - a voice that was always there inside of me begging to get out, but I was so shy as a kid, I had so little confidence. I didn’t love me enough. I was expecting to get my validation from outside. But it doesn’t work that way. Only once you value who you are, when you love who you are, then can others truly love you for who you are.
And so, for me, wanting to become a teacher was about making sure that no student felt the way I did in those years. I guess it’s that sense of empathy. When you go through that hardship in life, you develop a much deeper sense of empathy. And so the way in which you see people, the way in which you feel their pain is very different, and being a middle schooler can be very challenging. You’re in this in-between phase. You’re not an adult, but you’re not a kid. For me, it was always about giving voice to my students. I would put myself in their shoes and I’d speak to them from that perspective. And I believe it was that ‘training’ (without me knowing it was training) that really was part of my journey.
I did many kindness activities and initiatives with my students in class, many of which developed into how I built the organization. By seeing their reactions to the conversations about kindness that we would have in class, I began to recognize just how powerful the medicine of kindness really is, that it’s an anecdote to so many hardships and issues in the world.
With your website, book and films, what do you hope to achieve? What is your ultimate goal with the Life Vest Inside movement?
With Life Vest Inside, our mission is to inspire, empower and educate people from all backgrounds to lead a life of kindness. But our goal is not actually kindness, it’s empowerment - empowering people to recognize their value, that they matter, that they’re unique and significant. But kindness is the tool that gets us there. What do I mean by that? When a person is engaged in an act of kindness, or an act of giving, they feel this amazing sense of self value, because in that moment of kindness, you don’t need to be the smartest or the wealthiest or the prettiest to make a difference. You just need to be YOU.
The biggest issue that I feel our society is facing - both with children and adults alike - is when people feel a lack of self value, or self worth, wanting to be the ‘other’ guy, always looking and comparing and feeling like we’re not enough. As opposed to looking in the suitcase that has been specifically designed for us. What is in our suitcase? Which talents? Which skills? Which tools? Which resources? We need to learn to use them to make the world a better place, as opposed to looking in other peoples’ suitcases and wondering why don’t I have what they have?
We’re meant to utilize those things to advance the world and to advance ourselves, to develop our skills and our character. My goal with this movement is, if kindness is done right, if we’re able to empower people to recognize their value, then people are going to become more productive. There is going to be more innovation in the world, greater connection. If people recognize that they matter, then as a result, they recognize that their choices matter, and so they are more likely to make better choices. But if they don’t think that they matter, then they don't feel that their choices matter, that affects the world at large. So if we can simply empower people to understand their power in this world to impact change, we can really shift things in a tremendous way.
But more than that, where does unkindness come from? For me, it stems from an inability to recognize your own value because, again, if you don’t love you, how can you possibly love somebody else for who they are? If you can’t embrace yourself, how can you truly embrace another? If you embrace yourself with your flaws and your mistakes and your mishaps, and you’re secure in who you are, you can now embrace others for who they are.
In today’s world, dialogue has gone out the window. Difference of opinion is no longer there. If you don’t agree, suddenly you’re just bad. But in this world, there are different people with different perspectives and different ideologies. Everybody is different. Everyone has a different fingerprint on this world. We can’t expect everybody to be like us. All we can do is respect ourselves and embrace ourselves, so we can then embrace others for who they are.
So my ultimate goal with this LifeVestInside movement is to spread our message through inspiration media like film, through education by developing and implementing curriculum, through technology such as our Project Hope Exchange initiative, through leadership training programs and through international on-the-ground events like Dance for Kindness, these are the ways we look to achieve our goal.
And our goal is simple - it’s to help people recognize how interconnected we all are in this world and to recognize our value. To recognize that we are each here with a very specific purpose, something that we - and only we - are meant to give to the world. If we are not going to give our best selves, then something is going to be missing - a piece of the puzzle will not be put in place and therefore the puzzle will not be complete.
I love that you describe yourself as a lover of people. With your optimism, do you feel that kindness comes more easily for you, or do we all have the capacity to be kinder?
Great question. It’s my belief that we all have the capacity to be kinder because it’s my belief that human beings are inherently good. In our core, we are good. But somewhere along the way, we get hurt. Sometimes we lose trust, we lose faith in people, we lose faith in ourselves. It can make us become bitter or cynical. But my belief is that every pessimist is really a closet optimist, waiting and hoping for someone to prove to them that the world really is as good as they once hoped. We’ve all made mistakes, but if we constantly hold on to those mistakes and allow them to define us, or to define who other people are, we’ll never be able to advance. It’s not easy to trust after being hurt. It’s not easy to be vulnerable. But by learning to trust and have faith in one another, by opening ourselves up to potentially get hurt, we’re able to create a better world.
Kindness has been a part of me ever since I was a child. But does that mean that I’m always the kindest person, or that I don’t make mistakes? Of course not. We all do. We’ve all said things we didn’t mean to say, we’ve all done things that we didn’t mean to do. That doesn’t mean that we’re bad people. But if we define ourselves only by our actions, then we can never grow to become something better than what we were.
I’ve had many hardships in my life, many discouragements. I’ve definitely been hurt. But I always say, if I let that hurt and that pain change me, then they’ve won and I’ve lost. I cannot stop believing in the good of people. People tell me, ‘You’re too trusting, Orly. You’re so naive.’ Well if that means that I’m going to look at the world with fresh eyes everyday as though I’m a kid, then great. Bring it on! Because the minute that I lose that ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, then I’ve lost my essence of who I am.
We all have the capacity to be kinder, but it stems from our ability to trust, to have faith in each other even though we’ve been hurt. That doesn’t mean that you should be a door mat. Being kind doesn’t mean that you cannot be firm. Being kind doesn’t mean that you can’t stand up for yourself. Kindness begins first & foremost with ourselves, it stems more from the recognition of our own value. But I do believe we can grow that.
What do you hope children take away from your message?
I love kids. I see myself as a big kid. The biggest message I have for young people is to believe in yourself. That may seem simple, but it’s not. It’s probably one of the hardest things that you can do, recognizing that you matter. Every day when you wake up and you have air in your lungs, remember, that is on purpose. There is something that you are meant to do in this world that nobody else can do. And it doesn’t matter what mistakes you made yesterday and the day before, you are here for a reason and that’s to make the world a better place.
So have faith in yourself, believe in yourself. If you have a dream to achieve great things, don’t ever let it go. I know I haven’t. There have been many people who have tried to discourage me and there have been many times when I wanted to throw in the towel, but if you believe enough in your dreams, there’s nothing that you can’t achieve. We each have the capacity to do great things in this world. Sometimes the greatest things are the simplest things. Sometimes it’s a smile, or the advice that we give, or a shoulder that we allow somebody to lean on.
So seek out opportunities to engage in kindness on a daily basis, to be there for others. But don’t forget that it’s very important to be there for yourself.
What are some practical ideas particularly in this challenging time, that family members can do to teach kindness in their circles?
I think that this time has offered us an amazing opportunity, as crazy as that sounds. My heart goes out to all those that have been lost and I’m not saying this is a positive thing. But from every negative thing, it’s our responsibility to look for the message that we can take from it. Suddenly, from a world where we go so quick, where everything is at the speed of light, suddenly we’ve been forced to stop. We’ve been forced to slow down. We’ve been forced to stay home.
We generally can keep ourselves busy, with the busy work of life. But very often, we forget to do the hardest work, and that’s the work of the heart. It’s very easy sometimes to do kindness or to do charity for people outside of our home. But often times, we lose sight of the people who are sitting right next to us. We think we know what’s going on in their lives, but you never know what’s going on in a person’s life. We need to take the time to look inward, as opposed to just doing outward things.
Kindness isn’t about an action. It’s about a way of life. I suggest reading my book 'The Kindness Boomerang,' for practical tips on everyday kindness. But specifically to this time we're in living in, try to listen - to friends, to family, especially those within your own home. Give them your time. Everybody is experiencing these challenging times in a different way. Simply by sharing allows a person to feel that they’re not alone. To me, this is a huge act of kindness. Call or send a virtual message to someone - Ask them how they’re doing, what they need or how you can help.
How important is it to be kind to ourselves?
If you’re going to be unkind to yourself, then the kindness that you put out into the world is coming from a place of sacrifice, not from a place of abundance. And giving from sacrifice is very dangerous because if you don’t give enough to yourself and you’re giving from a place of depletion, you may very well come to resent that same giving.
That sounds crazy, but there are two types of giving in this world. There’s giving from strength and giving from weakness. From strength, this comes from a place of abundance, recognizing your own value. Understanding that but knowing your limits. Knowing that sometimes saying ‘no’ isn’t unkind, it’s necessary. When you go on an airplane, they always tell you in case of an emergency, to put your own life vest first. Now that may seem selfish, but it couldn’t be further from the truth, because if you drown, how can you possibly help somebody else?
So I say, being kind to ourselves is key. It’s not always easy, especially for those givers out there in the world. It’s probably one of the hardest things. But it’s important to set limits and boundaries for ourselves, to put aside times within our day, or within our week, that are solely for us. Because they rejuvenate us in a huge way. They put air in our life vest to become strong enough not only to lift you, but to then lift another.