Pay It Backward

This morning, I enjoyed my morning ritual of grabbing a cup of coffee at Starbucks on the way to work. I pulled into the drive thru and got in line with the other cars. Once I got up to the speaker, I ordered my drink along with a scone.  There was nothing out of the ordinary in this process until I got up to the window. The lovely barista stuck her head out and told me the following:

The car ahead of you has paid for your order.

That was so nice. I don’t even think I know them.

Then she said, “They wondered if you would like to pay for the order of the car behind you? Their order is about the same amount as your order.”

I didn’t know the people in the vehicle behind me but I thought…why not?

“You bet!” I responded to the barista. I handed her the money and felt all the great feelings one has when generosity and kindness randomly enter your life for no apparent reason.

But the story doesn’t end there. The barista poked her head back out through the drive thru window and told me one more thing:

You are the 28th car in a row to do this.

The 28th car! This had been going on for awhile here. I was a part of something very cool, very “Christmas-y.” It made it extra special to have someone pay for my coffee and then have the opportunity to pay for the coffee of the people behind me. But there were a lot of people doing this…in a row. It was a chain of giving. It was a cycle of spending for others. I wondered what to call this phenomenon. The best I came up with was pay it backward.

As I pulled away from the window, I tried to sneak a look at the person behind me. I wanted to see their reaction. They smiled. Awesome!

Thinking about the event as I continued on to work I wondered, what if I had said no to the barista’s offer? What if I had said that I was just going to enjoy my free coffee and not pass it on to the car behind me?

As I thought through the exchange, I realized the barista didn’t tell me how many people had kept this thing going until after I made my decision about whether to participate. Perhaps she wanted to see how generous people were based on one interaction rather than the previous 27. Maybe she wanted to see if I would be the one car out of 28 cars that was too selfish to respond to a kindness with a kindness.

While it didn’t really cost me anything, I had made my decision to participate out of my own generosity and the generosity of one other person. Once that happened I discovered I was a part of a much bigger story.  I’m glad I didn’t have find out how it would have felt to have said no and then have the barista tell me that I was the guy who brought an end to a pretty terrific story.

I have told this story all day. I feel like I got as much out of this as the guy in the third car got. I don’t think it mattered where you were at in the line. It’s probably cool to be the first guy to start it. It probably sucks to be the last guy who ends it. But anyone in between gets the same blessing. There’s joy in participating – in receiving and giving.

I would love to hear more stories during this Christmas season about how different folks started a chain of events that got people paying it backward. I am going to try and start a few of more these stories and tell the world about them. If you’d like to participate there’s a hashtag already floating around Twitter called #payitbackward. Click on this link to view the #payitbackward hashtag at work on Twitter. Anytime you participate or hear of a story like this, let the world know and use the hashtag. Who knows, we may start a movement that changes the mood of drive thrus across this great land of ours.

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  1. To go off of Ryan Robert’s earlier post – that person who started it paid for it and probably has no idea the impact it had on the 28+ that came after her. Leaders often make choices like this and often never get to see the full impact of their decisions.

    1. Author

      So true Ryan. As I thought about trying to start this kind of thing in other places I realized I would have no idea if it caught on or not. Also, thank you for stating that the person who started this thing could have been a “her.” My use of “guys” was meant to be gender inclusive (hey you guys). Sometimes my use of the common vernacular gets me in trouble. Appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  2. Tim, this is great, thanks for sharing. In your post you mentioned the, “first guy to start it.” That person paid for their own order AND the order of the person behind them. Almost a “second mile” or “other cheek” kind of thing. I am reminded that leadership (positive and formative influence in the lives of others) is much more than simply being at the front of the line–there is a “cost” to be paid that reaps great dividends down the line. Keep on, Ryan

    1. Author

      Ryan! What a great insight. Your comment just made this story even better. The “cost” is typically one of responsibility, whether it be time, finances, or the success/failure of a certain venture.

      Hope you’re doing well. Thank you for the comment. I’m adding it into the telling of the tale.

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