Recognition. Affirmation. Gratitude. A Conversation with Alexis Girvan
This winter Alexis Girvan emailed us after coming across one of our definition cards in Nesting. She knew we were soul mates..."handwritten notes - on real paper, with real ink - are my love language, and a huge driving component of my dreams, personal mission and life vision."
We couldn't turn down the opportunity to connect in person, so she came out to Western Mass for tea and a studio visit. We loved learning about her Recognition, Affirmation, Gratitude initiative (RAG for short) and knew it was ripe for spreading. This practice is implemented by small business teams, in classrooms, and within larger corporations around the country. We're sharing it with you today because we believe it is a wonderful practice to use as a support for your personal relationships as well.
Now's the time to put away your phone, silence your computer notifications, close your extra tabs, so you can fully and deeply enjoy this conversation.
You have a long history with letter writing, can you share a bit about your relationship with this practice and what it means to you?
Growing up, my family would often talk about the love languages and how powerful it is to receive love in the language you speak it best. Knowing that words of affirmation was mine early on, I discovered just how powerful both the receiving AND the giving of intentional, poignant, well-worded affirmation really was. My dad and I would write each other notes and leave them in each other’s lunch, friends and I would keep notebooks documenting life through HS, and I had a number of friends across the world I’d connect with regularly with actual hand written letters. So early on I just fell hard for the power of words, especially handwritten. All those notebooks, journals and notes passed in the hallway are still tucked away in my closet back home and are treasures I often dive into!
As an adult, the power of the practice has only deepened. In a culture where things are digitized, screen-mediated, always backlit and buzzing - it seems like such a rarity that we would write or receive anything on paper, with ink, and send it via anything that takes more than seconds to go through! But gosh, what a treasure it is when we do! I think I can safely say at this point now that my love language is paper and snail mail!
Tell us about RAG, what is it and how did it come to be?
My senior year of undergrad, I wrote my thesis on the power of language and the handwritten note. I dove deep into the capacities of language to name the struggles of humanity, identify the longings of the human heart, and ultimately speak courage to the deepest parts of us! Along with the thesis, I designed my own line of notecards specifically to celebrate the ordinary. I wanted so much to help people recognize that we didn’t need an occasion - a birthday, a holiday, an event - to celebrate, affirm and practice gratitude for one another, but that encouragement and intentional affirmation of one another is crucial in the everyday, ordinary moments of life! Often that is when it matters most!
My first job at out of college, I sat under one of the most inspirational leaders I’ve met to date. During the first year of work, he challenged each of us to come up with something that would build into the fiber of our culture as a team. It was the perfect space for me to activate what I’d spoken about hypothetically in my senior thesis! Thus - RAG (what was then called WAC, created in collaboration with my dear college roommate and coworker) - was born. Very simply, each month, every team member would choose another team member’s name out of a hat. During that month, they had to either write them a small note of encouragement, buy them a small gift particular to who they were, or just sit for a moment and share in person one thing they truly appreciated about the other teammate. It was incredible to watch the impact of it all. Such a small thing - yet - small things are easily done, and easily not done. When we do them - it truly can shape someone’s day, week, month, life!
Since then, WAC has been on a 10 year journey of innovation, collaboration and LOTS of iteration - being taken into numerous small teams across a number of different industries. As I moved on from that first team to work with lululemon, WAC iterated a bit. In an effort to streamline the concept RAG was born! A catchier brand, a solid tagline (Recognition. Affirmation. Gratitude), and a concept with a potentially disruptive root, in the most positive of ways. (Usually when people think of ragging on one another, there is negative connotation. To RAG on someone here turns the typical on it’s head and articulates how someone has shown up for you, been there for you, just BEEN. And been fantastic at it. )
Along side mailboxes for each team member, I knew I wanted to provide inspiration for teams to know what to look for in their teammates. Each RAG board now includes a space for whatever team or company it’s established in to spotlight one of their core values, and share a question, quote or thought provoking statement to help us recognize that value in action. In a culture where engagement and retention is a steady struggle, this has provided some serious value add to the RAG structure!
Currently RAG is operating in a number of small teams, classrooms, and offices around the country. There is lots more to go - but I’m grateful for the organic life of it’s own it’s taken on thus far!
What advice would you give someone new to RAG writing?
Advice I would give to someone just being introduced to the concept of RAG would be, first, catch someone doing something right! It’s so easy for us to see what we don’t like, what’s different from the way we do things, what to complain about. But really, what a GIFT it is when we take a minute to recognize what someone has done well - and just call it out!!
And second, you don’t have to be a writer to write a note that makes an impact. The simplest of words can often times go the furthest. So often I will hear people say, “I’m really not good with words” or “I am a terrible writer.” Reality is, we use words every day, often times haphazardly. A willingness to get intentional, think for a moment about what someone else may need to hear, and just share it can have an impact way beyond what we might expect. It may take effort, yes - but is worth its weight in gold.
How do you feel RAG notes positively impact people's lives?
I’ve watched so many of these little notes shape peoples days. It is a gift to watch people’s faces light up around someone recognizing them not just for what they are accomplishing - but simply for who they are! One thing particularly interesting to note with RAG is how deeply it shapes both the receiver AND the writer. It’s easy to note the impact felt when you receive what someone sat down and intentionally took the time to celebrate about you. But what’s even crazier is to watch the way practicing gratitude for others actually cultivates more joy in the person that wrote the note! I’ll often say, gratitude is a muscle. If it’s rarely exercised, it cannot grow. BUT, when it IS worked, just like when our muscles are worked, it grows, massively. We begin seeing things with a lens of energy and excitement around the discovery of things around us (and in others!) we never even knew we were grateful for!
Do you incorporate the RAG ethos into your life in other ways?
Two of my top 5 core values are authenticity - making space for others to be fully themselves - and communication - using the written and spoken word to affirm life and redeem time. Both of those things, if I’m staying committed to them and living into them well, require me to get present with others, set aside my own distractions and mind chatter and listen, deeply, to what others need. I feel like it’s a lifelong journey for me - but everyday my heart’s prayer is that I might do just that. Listen to my life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is!! And ideally, to be the fragrance of love (Christ!) to those around me. Sharing intentional moments of recognition, affirmation and gratitude with others is definitely one method for doing it well.
I’m also a journaler. Writing is like breathing for me, and ever since I was 12, I’ve written daily. Over the last few years, as the practice of gratitude has profoundly shaped my life, I’ve started guiding my daily entries through the lens of gratitude. I found that so often, I was coming to my journal and just emotionally throwing up, tossing everything on the page and just letting it sit. There is a time and place for that! However, I wanted my daily practice to be more intentional about growing that muscle of gratitude and helping me see life through a larger and more thankful lens. Now, each of my journal entries start with 5 things I am grateful for that day and expands from there.
Which Of Note cards would you suggest using for RAG?
Of Note has so many cards that do exactly what I hope for RAG to do - celebrate the ordinary!! Because the intention of RAG is really to help commemorate simple moments and celebrate the individual for who they are rather than anything achieved or accomplished, I love both ‘PSST’ and ‘REMEMBER THIS’. I’d say my all time favorite though is, “I think of you often’ … the original Of Note card!!!
If you haven't yet mentioned your annual gratitude notes can you say more about them here?
YES! This has become one of my favorite annual reflection and review practices. At the end of each year, I like to reflect categorically on my life. In the Physical, Mental, Social, Spiritual, Vocational, Professional, Financial and Recreational categories, I take stock as to what went well, how it was shaped and what I can press into in the coming year. As I do that, usually a few key people bubble to the surface as having impacted one of two of those areas pretty strongly.
So, now, each year I Practice writing 5 letters, asking the question: Who had the greatest impact on me this year? I then take a day to sit and write each of them a handwritten letter to tell them so. And gosh, I’ve just realized how healthy this practice is - slowing down to appreciate who is shaping my days and articulate it to them, rather than just acknowledging it myself and moving on. And often I realize it is people who didn’t know how profoundly they shaped my season of life. They certainly aren’t expecting a gratitude note on the 1st of January telling them how much they were valued in the year previous! So, it’s a fun, and at this point, meaningful practice for me each year.
Anything else that you'd like to share?
How much I adore ofnote? haha - That. :) -
AND - RAG is in a (very slow) process of becoming. In the meantime, I’m happy to hop on the phone and connect with anyone who may want to bring the concept of RAG to their team, and create a regular, programmatic, systematic way of recognition and affirming team members, etc. Relationship, in corporate culture, can so often be sacrificed on the alter of execution. Reality is, it’s our relationships and depth of communication that can accelerate our alignment, execution and productivity 100 fold! Checking out the blog - www.lifeinanote.com - or shooting me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org will do just fine. Of course a note in the mail would be just fine too :)