The power of a napkin…

Who is the most influential person you know? Think about that for just a second. Now, ask yourself this: Who is the person who has influenced you the most? Is it the same person? Do the answers even come close to each other?

OK, now, think about this: why is the most influential person you know so important? What difference has he or she made?

As you think about the person who has influenced you the most, ask yourself the same question: Why are they so influential? What has he or she done, said, or allowed you to do, be, say, or become that actually means something? Just think about it.

I’m in the advertising business. I’ve been helping to build brands and tell other people’s stories for about 18 years. It’s a fun, exciting, job, but finding that thing — that something — that speaks to people, makes a connection and somehow resonates with them, isn’t always easy.

Despite all of that, I have been able to do some cool stuff over the years. I’ve written for everything from hospitals to orange juice; restaurants to headlights. I’ve worked on mom and pop brands, local, regional, national and even international brands. I’ve won a few awards, had a few things show up in national magazines. One TV spot just ran during the Grammy’s last month, which was cool. But most of the stuff I do ends up in a folder on my desktop, or in the nearest trashcan. It’s a humbling profession, trying to impact people with words. Trying to create influence. My chosen career is either about gaining attention, or garnering intention. The first has everything to do with getting someone to notice something; the latter is about building a relationship and inviting people to become a part something you believe in.

In my opinion, it’s a lot more gratifying to engage people in something than it is to sell them something. That’s what great storytelling and enduring communication does.

So, let me tell you a little bit about my story:

I grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Great family. An older sister, two brothers, and a mom and dad who loved each other immensely and intensely until the day he died.

Dad was a marketing guy, too. He was a successful business owner, and one of the most creative guys I have ever known. He was a great athlete, too. An All-American football player at Vanderbilt University. They weren’t very good back then, either, but dad was evidently an elite receiver.

He was also an avid runner. In fact, he was training for his fifth marathon when his doctor gave him a pre-race, routine physical and said that he was in great shape. Blood pressure at 120 over 80. The physique of a 25 year old… “But you might want to see about the twitching in your arm.” Within a few days, several tests had been run and he sat there half-listening to the sobering results.

“Okay, bottom line doc. Can I run in the race or not?”

“No, I don’t think you understand, Mr. Ivey… You have a progressive neurological disorder… It’s called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis… You have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

Lou Gehrig… Wow. My Dad found something almost complimentary about both the challenge and the nature of his disease.

Lou Gehrig was the “Iron Horse.” He played in over 2,000 consecutive games. Almost 15 years without missing a single turn at bat. 18 months after that pre-race diagnosis, my dad was gone. He was 41 years old. Two years younger than I am right now.

And now I have my own kids. Five of them. My oldest daughter is the same age I was when my dad passed away. My wife and I never really talked about kids before we got married. We just started having them.

One after another. They just kept coming. She was like a Pez dispenser.

And now that they are growing up – all fairly self-sufficient and becoming the people they were created to be – I’m starting to understand what real influence is all about. It’s something my dad came to understand before he died.

I got cut from my school’s basketball team in ninth grade, and I was devastated. My dad knew I was upset, and proceeded to give me the single, greatest gift he ever gave me. That night, after I had gone to bed, he wrote me a note. It was scribbled, and hard to make out because he had to write it with his left hand. He was born right-handed, but the disease had rendered his right arm useless. So, he sat down at the kitchen table that night and wrote this with his left:

Today is going to be a great day. 

It’s your day. No one and nothing can make your day anything other than what you want it to be. If the weather calls for rain, decide now that you will enjoy being wet. If the test score is low, work hard to make sure the next one is higher. If treated unfairly for something, smile and be thankful for the many things you’ve not been caught for. 

Attitude is everything. 

Today is not yet anything. 

Fill it with laughter.

—Dad

I kept that note for a long time. Somewhere along the way, I lost the original, but the idea of that note – and the words he wrote – have stuck with me. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t think about him and what he must’ve been going through when he took the time to encourage me and reveal some truth about what really matters. It was such a simple act. But the impact it has made on me has been pretty incredible.

I write notes to my kids, too. My wife – as wonderful and beautiful and perfect in almost every way as she is – is not a morning person. Not even a little bit. Because of that, I usually get the kids up and off to school in the morning. Part of that process is packing lunches. For a couple of years now, I have been including a note alongside peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and bruised bananas. They love it when I do this. Not the banana part, necessarily, but I found out recently that my 10 year old has been collecting the notes for a long time.

She probably has 100 of them in a shoebox under her dresser.

Late last year, I wrote a note that I thought was particularly insightful, so I took a picture of it and posted it to Instagram and Facebook. It read:

“Remember, every time you smile, a mean kid gets diarrhea.”

That’s wisdom right there, y’all. The next day’s was pretty funny, too, so I posted it as well:

“You might not be as smart as your sister, but she can’t eat gluten, so… You win!”

You can see now why my daughter keeps them, right? But then other people started keeping them, too. The notes started being shared over and over again. After a couple of weeks of posting these Napkin Notes, my Instagram account blew up, and the Napkin Notes album on my Facebook page started getting shared. I had friends and family in other parts of the nation sending me messages that they’d seen my napkins shared by friends of friends of friends in Kansas, California, Little Rock, Michigan, and towns in Texas I’ve never even heard of. These notes – where the key messages include topics such as diarrhea, vomit, poop, boogers, toenail clippings, and subtle jabs at my wife’s cooking – were kind of going viral.

Now, as a marketing guy, I became somewhat obsessed with trying to understand why and how these stupid notes could possibly go down as some of the most influential writing I’ve ever created.

I have more than 10,000 Instagram followers now. The album on Facebook has been shared 50,000 times. There’s a Napkinisms fan page with 6,000 followers. Individual posts are being shared thousands of times. Bloggers are posting about these things. Women’s Day Magazine wrote a piece about it.

It’s fairly safe to say that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have seen these silly napkins. These people are crazy, right? But then I started actually reading the comments and reactions people were posting online, and it began to make a little more sense.

These notes have touched people in a lot of different ways. Some laugh. Some people even cry. One lady wrote and told me that she was reconsidering her decision NOT to have kids, because she never thought being a parent could be so much fun! But most people are simply being reminded of characters in their own stories that influenced them in some way. Like my dad did for me that night after the basketball tryouts.

He didn’t set out to change the course of history when he wrote that note. He just wanted to change that day.

Likewise, I didn’t set out to gain a bunch of followers on Instagram, or to create a TED Talk, or write a book, or anything more significant than making my kids smile at the lunch table. But that’s the beauty of it. That’s why it works. Doing something great doesn’t require doing something grand. Read that again: Doing something great doesn’t require doing something grand.

That’s true in advertising; it’s true in your schooling; it’s true with your families; it’s true in your jobs; it’s just plain true in life.

So, back to the questions I asked at the beginning: Who is the most influential person you know, and who is the person who has influenced you the most? For me, the person who influenced me the most is my dad. He only had 41 years on this planet (and only 16 with me), but he made the most of that time. The note he left me that night was just a tiny example of that influence. And I bet your answer is similar. It might not be your father or mother or even family, but I bet it’s someone who invested in you personally. Someone who knows you well and wants the best for you.

And as far as the most influential person I know? Well, that’s me. At least, that’s the goal, right? In life, I mean. Not on Instagram or Facebook. I have five beautiful kids, a wonderful wife, great friends, coworkers, clients, and countless other people I interact with every day. That’s a lot of opportunity to make a difference. And these stupid paper towels are just a tiny example of that influence. Is that true for you? Are you the most influential person you know?

I hope you are.

Billy Ivey

Billy Ivey is a writer and advertising guy living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is married to a beautiful woman with whom he has co-created five better than average-looking children. He started a website where people can write inspiring, encouraging, or just plain silly messages to kids in need.

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Billy Ivey

Billy Ivey is a writer and advertising guy living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is married to a beautiful woman with whom he has co-created five better than average-looking children. He started a website where people can write inspiring, encouraging, or just plain silly messages to kids in need.

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