Most people who read my blog know me first and foremost as an author. So they are surprised when they learn that I do other things as well. (And conversely, those whose first dealings with me center on one of those other areas are always surprised to find that I’m also an author.)

Well, one of those other things I do is designing information systems. I’ve done this since I was a child and home computers first came out. But as far this story is concerned, here’s the simple version: I build fancy stuff with spreadsheets. Often, it’s stuff that few other people can figure out. And for that reason, I always have clients who seek me out and pay me well for this work (which I fit in between my writing and marketing and mentoring and…)

You might think these two worlds are incongruous, but in my mind, they’re just different ways of helping people. And I am passionate about infusing both with core values such as kindness.

To that end, I choose to donate a little time each week as I’m able to helping answer posts on a couple of free online forums. Typically, I can only volunteer about a half hour or so per week; but I can get a lot done in that time, considering that the forums are designed to help people with relatively small stuff. A little knowledge sharing here. A formula tweak there.

Recently, I read a forum post from someone who appeared to be located in Romania, and who was requesting spreadsheet help. But in assessing things, what he required wasn’t small stuff. It was a highly customized, time-intensive solution (i.e., real work).

Usually, I’ll just pass over such posts or suggest that the person consider hiring a developer. In this particular case, however, I made the choice to “break my rule” and try to help the guy out anyway. You see, I’ve been especially aware lately of the need for tenacious worldwide kindness. And while it wouldn’t bring about world peace, going the extra mile for this stranger in Bucharest seemed a good opportunity to put feet to my convictions.

Still, it was a bit tricky. Sharing complex solutions on a free forum would create unrealistic future expectations for site visitors. In addition, I can’t offer in a free public forum the same level of complex work that my private clients pay me for.

But my mind was made up. I was going to help this guy (I’ll call him “Ivo” here).

Since Ivo’s shared spreadsheet contained his email address, I reached out to him privately rather than through the public forum. I introduced myself. I explained essentially what I’ve shared with you here: that I am a longtime forum contributor, that the help he required went beyond what I could provide through the free forum, but that I was willing to help him at no cost if he would simply share a copy of the sample spreadsheet with me.

Some hours later, his email reply popped up.

As I try to keep this blog family friendly, I’ll have to do some censoring:

“You bet. You [#&%@!] poor [*!@~$] scammer, eat [&$^#%]. Maybe that’s more useful to support your laughable existence.”

Here, I’d offered him free work —work I’d have charged any other client $150 for—and this was his response?

What would you have done at this point, if you had been me?


I won’t lie. My initial reaction was to bristle. Hey, I’m human, just like you.

I mean, I owed this guy nothing. I didn’t need to help him in the first place. He wasn’t a paying client. And I would certainly have been well within my “rights” to dismiss him at this point. Just one more self-absorbed, entitled jerk in the world.

Shrug it off. Press “Delete.” Move on. Right?

Instead, right after that initial sense of self flared up at Ivo’s response—in the next moment, where choice begins—I was given a good dose of my own advice from previous books:

 “Humility is a strength, not a weakness.”

“Focus on the person, not the problem.”

“Kindness still works.”

Add to this that I’m just about to release my third book, Alternate Reality (just released: April 2022!). As part of the editing process, I’ve read through the entire thing about ten times by now. And that has meant being intensely confronted with even more of my own words, including this new piece of shared advice:

“Instead of thinking the worst about people,
wonder the best.”

Right about the time I was reading Ivo’s email, you might imagine that I was applying this bit of advice to him. “Wow, here I am going the extra mile to be kind to a stranger, and he replies with such rudeness, accusing me of being a scammer?” But rather than thinking in terms of his choices, I found myself considering my own.

Would I think the worst of this guy based on his rude response? Or would I practice what I preach and make the choice to wonder the best about him?

I chose to wonder the best. I shifted my focus from what he had done—to why he might have done it. And that brought a new response: empathy.

I responded to Ivo’s email. I told him that I understood why he might be skeptical; after all, the world is a weird place sometimes. I offered him four different means of verifying who I was, for his own peace of mind, and again extended the offer of help.

I’d like to tell you that the clouds parted, that birds started chirping and that a swell of rhapsodic music began to play. Alas, it did not. My heartfelt email was ignored.

Surely, now was the time to dust off my hands and forget about this guy. I mean, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. And I want to be exceedingly clear here: that is true. As had been the case from the start, I owed this stranger nothing. I would not have been a bad person to walk away. And on the flip side, I wasn’t earning any cosmic brownie points if I chose to stick with it. All I can tell you is that, at the time, I felt compelled to try once more.

After a few days, I emailed Ivo again. I told him that I wondered if his skepticism was based in personal circumstances that had burnt him. And so, rather than continuing with my request for a shared spreadsheet, I worked out the entire complex formula in a spreadsheet of my own and then copied and pasted it directly into the email for him. I carefully explained how to implement it on his own sheet, asking only that he not post the formula publicly, so that I would not have that conflict of interest with other paying clients. I ended the email expressing my hope that this act of kindness might help restore his faith in humanity, even if only in some small way.

No birds chirping. No clouds parting. No music playing.

Instead, Ivo took my formula and did exactly what I’d asked him not to do: he posted it on the public forum. What’s more, he asked the larger community of developers there to confirm his earlier assumption that I was a scammer, and that this was malicious code. And to top it off, he implied in this public forum that I’d tried to get money out of him.

I’ll admit, my resolve to be kind was fraying around the edges at this point.

But I replied to his now public commentary as gently (yet directly) as I could. I reminded him that he could click my name link and be taken to the same profile I’d already sent him via email as one of four different means of verification. I asserted that I’d made very clear that my offer of help was free with no strings attached. I told him that I felt he was now just digging his heels in, committed to somehow proving that his initial assumption about me was true: that I was, in fact, a scammer. I told him that I couldn’t recall ever having worked so hard to give someone a free gift.

And then I remembered another piece of advice from The Best Advice So Far:

“Tenacious love expressed with creativity
can work wonders.”

It doesn’t always. But it can.

Allowing that “love” can be applied in both an individual and humanitarian sense, I determined to do the least likely thing.

I set aside my self-imposed rule of not posting complex work on the public forum, went into his publicly shared spreadsheet and implemented my full solution for him there, so that he could see with his own eyes that it was producing exactly the complex result he was hoping for.

I added one more comment, once again wishing him well and hoping that this might somehow restore in him a little faith in humanity.

And then, satisfied that I’d truly done all that was within the realm of my own choice to do, I let it go and moved on.


The next day, I got a ding alerting me that Ivo had replied in the forum.

“Your solution works perfectly. I misread you and your motives. I owe you an apology.”

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting that.

Yet as nice as that was, something still felt unresolved. Empathy kicked in again. I was aware that if other forum contributors read the exchange, they might avoid offering Ivo help on any future posts of his. So I offered a path to a “clean slate”—figuratively and literally. I suggested that he back through all of his comments and delete them, after which I would do the same. I’d already spent five times my weekly allotment of donated forum time on this one issue, but this seemed important.

Within a day, he had done just that: deleted all of his comments. I followed suit. Clean slate achieved.

Cue the singing birds.

But it didn’t stop there.

Two days later, I received an email reply from Ivo. Turns out, he’s from Latvia, not Romania. He apologized again and asked if he might get a second chance to undo that negative first impression he’d made.

He said he actually considered himself to be a kind and helpful person. He recalled to me the story of a woman he’d helped at a coffee shop late one night. In his words:

She told me she was an Uber driver and had just crashed. For some reason, she had no money and no phone. In addition to losing her only means of income, she mentioned that she also had cancer in her legs, and at one point she started crying. She asked for some cash and promised that she would give it back the next day at the nearby museum where she worked as a guard. We ended up walking to the ATM together, and I withdrew a hundred bucks. I gave it to her and she cried again a little, hugged me and thanked me enormously. It felt very good to be helpful to somebody in a great need!

And he never saw her again. No such person worked at the museum.

It had all been a scam.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering (as I did) about how Uber and “bucks” match up with Latvia, this all happened to Ivo during his first and only trip to the United States. It happened in Washington, D.C.—where Ivo had had to make an emergency diversion to the Latvian embassy. You see, upon arrival in California, thieves had broken into Ivo’s car and stolen everything they could get at, including his passport. Still, despite his own troubles, there he was trying to help this “poor woman” at the coffee shop.

You see, Ivo really wasn’t an awful, self-centered, ungrateful person. He was a nice guy who had just been hurt one time too many before I came along.

But the kindness I’d shown actually had turned the tide inside him. Again in his own words:

I think this experience will stick with me and will teach me a good lesson in the future as well.

Ivo and I have been talking back and forth for a little while now, having terrific conversations about stuff that matters. As it turns out, we have a lot in common. Yet we’re also learning from one another. Stretching our perspectives. And we’re just having fun getting to know one another.

Is kindness always rewarded with a happily-ever-after ending? Nope.

Will some people turn out to be as mean as they at first appeared? Yes.

Are scammers still out there scamming? They are.

But what, then? Should we all decide to live within the confines of our own little self-protective bubbles?

To never show spontaneous kindness again, because of those who might take advantage of it?

To just give up on hope? On humanity?

To me, that seems like the biggest scam of all.

Here’s another tidbit from The Best Advice So Far:

“Whatever you choose to do,
do it without expectations,
simply because you believe in doing it.”

Where that limit lies for each person and in each situation will vary. But my encounter with Ivo serves as yet another reminder that “you always have a choice.”

A choice to look beyond the what to the why.

A choice to focus on the person and not the problem.

A choice to trade thinking the worst for wondering the best.

Quite often, I’ve found, those “best wonderings” will be closer to the truth.

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