Life lessons from 10 years of holding positive signs in public

I remember the first time that I stood at the end of the train carriage and unfurled my sign. My hands were shaking so much that you probably couldn’t even have read what was written. I didn’t know how people would react and I was bracing myself for the worst, expecting to feel embarrassed and ashamed for doing something so out of the ordinary.

I found instead that putting myself out there was far more rewarding than it was terrifying.

Lesson 1: The magic happens when you step outside your comfort zone

Most of my fear, as it almost always is, was imaginary. The reality that met me was not the one I had imagined in my head. Of course there were confused frowns but there were also smiles. Lots of them. Almost every time I hold the sign now someone will come up and start talking to me.

Over the years I have had people write notes in response, I’ve had a sketch drawn of me, and one person even offered me tickets to a concert that they couldn’t attend that evening. There was also a tearful hug from a woman who, after a bad day at work, “really needed to see something like this”. This experience in particular sticks with me whenever I feel any doubt about what I’m doing.

Some of the lovely notes I’ve received over the years

Lesson 2: It’s never personal

In the ten years I have been holding my sign, I have only experienced three negative responses. They’re not always necessarily positive. Most people tend to ignore me. A quick glance, a curious eyebrow, and then back to Candy Crush. Nevertheless, three bad experiences in ten years is an incredible ratio and, honestly, not something I would have expected.

It turns out that, on the whole, people are actually really quite lovely. And for the three people that for whatever reason weren’t so charming that day, well, it doesn’t mean they are a bad person. In all likelihood they were simply having a bad day and I was their outlet. The best thing I can do in that moment is to be empathetic and listen, not to the negative words they have chosen to voice, but to the underlying need of theirs that isn’t being met.

Lesson 3: Give people permission to be their best selves

It takes just one person in the carriage to smile or to laugh for everyone else to follow suit and for the general mood to immediately lighten. In the moments before this, I’ll see people looking around at others trying to gauge how they should react. We’re such social creatures that we seek permission from others to express how we truly feel, even if they are complete strangers. We desire connection but no-one wants to be the odd one out.

The sign gives people that permission. The permission to make eye contact with strangers. To smile if they want to smile. To come up and talk if they want to talk. On more than one occasion I have seen people that were strangers to one another continue talking after I have left the train.

Lesson 4: Meet people where they are

When it’s 7am on a Monday, and everyone is on their way to work bleary eyed and barely awake, it’s understandable that seeing someone holding a sign that reads ‘you are beautiful’ incolourful crayons might be a bit too much to handle.

The time of day, day of the week, and even tube line can affect whether people will respond positively (or at all). Although the underlying sentiment always remains the same, I have started carrying a variety of signs with different messages to make sure I am meeting people in a place – emotionally and mentally – where they are ready to receive the message.

My morning sign now reads: ‘have a lovely day’.

Lesson 5: The more you give, the more you have to give

There are of course times when all I want to do is put my headphones in and ignore everyone around me. In that moment, I don’t feel like I have the energy to be able to connect compassionately if someone wanted to talk. And that’s okay, sometimes we need to take time to ourselves to recharge.

But what I’ve come to realise is that, most of the time, it’s the very act of giving that energises me.

It’s the most curious thing that our capacity for love and kindness is replenished most by giving them away.

I have come to see my sign as a mirror. When I hold it, what I see reflected back at me are people that are kind, positive and caring. Each stranger’s smile reminds me of this.

So if you happen to see me at the other end of the carriage, please feel free to smile and say hello.

You can find me on Instagram as @abeautifulsomething