A Real-Life Application of ‘FeedForward’


September 10, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

As all coaches know, it’s a wonderful moment when someone tells you you’ve changed their life.

A few years ago, I wrote a column for BusinessWeek.com called Managing Up: Your Parents. I described meeting a woman, Trudy Triner, who had used the concept of “FeedForward” in a very personal way. After hearing me speak at a conference, she asked her colleagues at work what she could do to be a better team member and her employees what she could do to be a better manager. Then she asked her mother: “What can I do to be a better daughter?”

When I met Trudy a few months later at a conference in San Francisco, she told me that question changed her life in a wonderful way. I’ve told her story at hundreds of programs since then and was happy to learn more of her story, which I want to share with all of you.

MG: Trudy, tell us about your mom and what you learned when you asked her what you could do to be a better daughter.

Trudy: First, thank you for your part in what was a wonderful life-altering experience. You helped make the last years of her life very happy. Here’s what happened.

My mom was in her early 80s, lived alone in rural Arkansas, down a country road almost a mile from her nearest neighbor. She wasn’t in the best of health, but she was spunky, loved her life, and was determined to stay independent. The high point of her day was going to get her mail, which came to a big country mailbox by the road. She walked almost a quarter of a mile to get there. There were no sidewalks, so getting there took a lot of effort, and she wore an emergency alert necklace, just in case she should fall.

When I asked her what I could do to be a better daughter, she simply said, “Send me more mail. When I walk all the way out to the mailbox and there’s nothing there, I feel sad.”

I have to tell you, the thought of her looking into an empty mailbox day after day broke my heart. I hugged her and told her I’d do better.

I can understand how you must have felt. What did you do?

I started what we called our “Make Mom Happy By Mail” campaign. I sent a steady stream of mail for two and a half years—until she passed away less than a week after being diagnosed with cancer.

I wanted her to find something interesting or fun almost every time she opened that box. I carried stamps with me all the time and was constantly on the lookout for interesting things that would fit into an envelope. A quick stamp, and off it went. I did it several days a week.

Wasn’t it hard to find things to send so often? I think most people just think of sending greeting cards to their parents. What could you possible think of to send so often?

No, it wasn’t hard. Actually, it was a lot of fun. I sent flower seeds, newspaper clippings, magazines, tea bags, money, books, Hershey bars, and dozens of other things—anything I could think of that would make her smile.

And since she loved to know what was going on in my life, I also sent movie stubs, bus tickets, to-do lists, grocery receipts, restaurant menus, and performance evaluations—dozens of day-to-day things. A friend called it a “modern archaeological dig” into my day-to-day life. My mom loved it.

And then you started a website and a blog and eventually wrote a book about making elderly relatives happy called Make Mom Happy by Mail. What are you hoping to accomplish?

I’m hoping to change people’s lives by reminding them that our moms, dads, and grandparents won’t be here forever and that there’s a wonderful opportunity to make them happy right now. And it can all start by just asking, “What can I do to be a better son, daughter, granddaughter, or friend?” My book and blog offer hundreds of suggestions for ways to make them happy.

Reading the book, I found your initial concept grew beyond the idea of sending mail. How did that happen?

When I started doing research for the book, I learned that not everyone has great relationships with their parents. So there’s a chapter about mending relationships while there’s time. There are many wonderful stories. For instance, there is one about a man in his 70s who mends his relationship with his dad, who is in his 90s.

At first, I hadn’t considered the parent with Alzheimer’s disease, but then I learned what people are doing to bring joy to those loved ones and included their ideas in the chapter, “It’s never too late.” I even heard from caregivers that mail can still be important for a surprising reason: It seems that reading a letter to a patient helps the caregiver feel closer to them as a person, which can actually have a positive impact on their care giving.

There are dozens of books about the issue of dealing with older relatives. What’s different about Make Mom Happy by Mail?

This is an important issue for many people, and there are lots of great books about taking care of elderly relatives. So in my book, I list many of them in the 40-page resource section.

Make Mom Happy by Mail focuses not on the problems of old age, but on the possibilities. It’s all about doing what you can to bring happiness, fun, and sometimes even happy resolution. People tell me it’s uplifting and inspiring. And that makes ME happy.

In the article I wrote for BusinessWeek.com, I said there would be three benefits to asking a parent what you could do to be a better son or daughter.

1. It will be good for them. Even if there’s nothing they would like, they will be happy you cared enough to ask.

2. It will be good for you. The No. 1 regret children have when their parent dies is: “Why didn’t I let them know how much I appreciated all they did for me and how much I cared before it was too late?” Later on you will be grateful that you did.

3. If you have children, asking your parent how you can be a better child is good for your children, too. What a wonderful way to model your values and the way you hope your child will treat you when you are the old person.

Yes, I agree. My mom’s gone now. I miss her very much. But I’ve found great comfort in knowing that I was able to show my love and appreciation for her almost every day for the last years of her life. There are no regrets and no “if only’s.”

And there’s one more benefit I’d like to add. That’s the personal pleasure of making someone’s wish come true. Thank you, Marshall. I owe it all to your magic question, “What can I do to be a better daughter?” I hope everyone reading this interview will ask their version of that magic question today.