As 2007 drew to a close, John Kralik was experiencing the greatest hardships of his fifty-three years. His second marriage was dissolving, a new chance at love had passed him by, his law firm was floundering, he was overweight and out of shape, living in a cramped, hot apartment, and struggling to pay growing personal bills. He did not ring in New Year’s Day full of optimism and good cheer—yet when he walked in the hills outside of Pasadena that day, wallowing in his misfortune, a small voice inside his head surprised him with its urgency and told him to be grateful for the few things he did have, instead of dwelling on what he did not. That early morning walk—and the voice—inspired him to embark on a project that would change his life dramatically, and wonderfully.
Over the next year, Kralik decided, he would write a note each day thanking someone in his life for a gift or an act of kindness. He wasn’t entirely sure where the project would lead, or if it would even improve his outlook the way he hoped it would, but he knew that everything he’d been trying up until that point hadn’t improved his life.
The result of his plan surprised him. He wrote notes to his children, to his ex-wife, to his ex-girlfriend, to his staff at the law firm, to former colleagues, to friends who cared enough to touch base with him as he kept his business afloat during the financial crises of 2008. And he began to receive not only thank-you notes in return, but practical solutions to his life’s problems—cash, new business, home repairs, healed relationships, a way to get exercise—so many other positive outcomes that, within a year, his life had entirely turned around. The act of writing thank-you notes, and receiving them, revealed to Kralik that the life he’d been regretting wasn’t so bad after all, and that, with a little perspective, some initiative, and a more open heart, his life could even be great.
Kralik’s memoir of his first fifteen months spent diligently acknowledging and being grateful for the people and positive aspects of his life is an inspiring and uplifting tale of redemption that shows us how to recognize the good in life and maintain that good, while letting fruitless negativity fall by the wayside.
1. Have you ever had days like the author’s “lowest day,” or known anyone who was going through a similar situation? What helped you or him or her recover from it? Did you have someone like Kralik’s friend Bob around for support? Compare your experience with the author’s.
2. Discuss Kralik’s New Year’s Day hike and his walk through the mountains. Have you ever had a similar experience—an epiphany or message from your higher self—that helped you later on? What did you think of his grandfather’s “silver dollar” lesson?
3. Discuss Kralik’s adoption of the Pollyanna “glad” game. What does it reveal about his character? Discuss too, his relationship with his daughter and its redemptive nature.
4. When Kralik writes his thank-you notes, he often finds his gratitude is rewarded—either coincidentally or by the people to whom he wrote the notes. What do you think about his take on “good karma” and the small and big acts of kindness bestowed on him during this year? Discuss in particular the instances when his good fortune seemed mostly due to his efforts, and less due to luck, chance, or fate.
5. What do you think of Kralik’s ability to examine his own character flaws, and his former inability to see what was good in those around him? At the end of Chapter 10, titled “Mediation,” he writes of his ex-wife: “Either she reacted to the thank-you notes by doing a lot more things that I could appreciate, or she had been doing things that I should have been appreciating all along.” What does a statement like this say about the power of self-reflection? Compare this instance with other examples in the book where he stops underestimating others or taking them for granted, and sees more clearly their positive contributions to his life.
6. Despite Kralik’s financial stresses and his relationship problems, it is evident from the beginning of the book that he has a strong circle of friends who care about him. How much do you think his thank-you cards worked, and how much did the consistency of his friends play into his good fortune in 2008? Kralik depicts himself as an ungrateful wretch early in the book, but the presence of his concerned friends, loyal staff, and faithful girlfriend Grace contradict this character description. Discuss whether or not you think the thank-you notes truly changed Kralik’s character, or if it merely altered (or refreshed) his perspective.
7. In the chapter titled “Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal,” Kralik writes: “I was learning that it was the hatred in my heart, not the hatred others held for me, that could truly destroy me.” Discuss the significance of this statement and its relevance to the entire book. Would this work as a good statement of theme for the memoir? Have you ever had a similar experience with “letting go”? Compare your experience to Kralik’s, and discuss what you learned in the process.
8. In the latter half of 2008, Kralik runs into more financial adversity and further emotional problems. His biggest client becomes insolvent and his girlfriend breaks up with him a second time. Discuss Kralik’s response to these new crises and how his perspective has changed so dramatically from where it was the previous year.
9. Also in the latter half of 2008, Kralik takes up running at the urging of two friends, Neil and Paul. Discuss how the thank-you notes acted as catalysts for these deepening friendships, and how the inclusion of running—despite weak knees and a bad case of asthma—was as redemptive a process for Kralik as his thank-you note writing had been.
10. Do you send out thank-you notes regularly? Do you receive them? After reading this book, how has your perspective on gratitude—and showing gratitude—changed?
A Conversation with John Kralik
You mention in the beginning of the memoir how you aspired to be a writer early in your life. Now that you’ve published a book, run a marathon, and become a judge, what other aspirations do you have?
My initial reaction to this question is to say, “Oh my goodness, I better make up some new goals or my life is over.” But I think this book is about more than just obtaining goals or getting what you want. It is not exactly “Thank and Grow Rich,” though that did seem to happen to me. I hope the next step in this journey is not about material or status goals but about being of help to others and about healing and relationships.
My primary aspiration right now is to be there for my daughter, as well as my sons when they need me. My daughter continues to amaze me every day. There is no darkness not lifted by picking her up from school, and hearing, for example, what an awesome schedule she has tomorrow, which will include some classes perhaps, but also In N Out Burger for lunch and the Halloween parade in which she will be dressed as a cookie to complement her best friend’s Cookie Monster costume. We still have our own little two-person reading group every night. She loves anything by Rick Riordan, but she is also open to some tremendous classics, which I’m getting to rediscover because of her. When we read Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain together, it brought back my memories of reading it as one of nine children, just like the Gribley family in the book, and of the romantic ideas that occurred to me more than once in those days when I read the book in boarding school. I dreamed of striking out into the wilderness on my own and being totally self-sufficient with little more than a pen-knife, like young Sam, the teenage hero in the book. When we talked about whether my daughter would want to try that, she said, “Well maybe, but I don’t think I could really live without…” Then she listed what she would miss, and her list started with the word “you.” As you might imagine, my list of what’s important for the future starts with her.
My next aspiration is to become a judge the governor will be proud to have appointed. Starting this new career has been a challenge, an exhausting one at times. My first assignment has been to the criminal court in East Los Angeles, and on some days I consider as many as one hundred cases. Because my thirty years of experience were in the civil courts, I spend much of my spare time now—lunches, nights, weekends, holidays—reading and studying the criminal law and procedure. And I continue to fall asleep watching old episodes of Law & Order, though I’m not so sure I’m actually learning anything from that.
I continue to run. As I promised my friend Paul (page 196), I ran a second marathon, the Long Beach Marathon. Unfortunately, Paul’s cancer had progressed so much by then that he was unable to run with me. After that marathon, which was more painful than the first, I seemed to deteriorate a bit physically. It felt difficult to run. Everything seemed to hurt. I thought perhaps it was because of all the sedentary time required for my new job. Also, I worried that I had become too old to run. But with the change in my insurance, I was able to return to my special doctor (pages 112-13), who figured out that I had a Vitamin D deficiency, probably brought on by being in a windowless room (i.e., the courtroom) all day long. All it took was a little Vitamin D, and I was running again. I finished the Disneyland Half Marathon in September 2010 and just registered for the Los Angeles Marathon in March 2011. Come run with me!
Of course I would like to write another book, and am hoping that the reception for this one will be sufficient to encourage a publisher to take another risk on me.
In the book you describe coming across a file box filled with old letters and some thank-you notes. Do you have a favorite thank-you note? What was the most surprising or unusual thank-you note you ever received?
As I continue to send out thank-you notes, I receive more and more thank-you notes and letters. I put them on a table in my office. There is now an overflowing pile on top of that table, which is in itself always a surprise to me and which I consult in my difficult moments.
Also, during my thank-you note year I saved a piece of legal paper on which my daughter wrote messages to me while she was visiting my office and I was on the telephone. The first message was “Come see me in my secret place.” She had established a second little fort (see page 49) behind the couch in my office, and was working on her artwork there. Further down the page, she asked, in her third grade printing, if she could borrow my “cellaphone.” My reply, also written on the page, is “for one minute.” After that my daughter wrote the words “THANK YOU” making each letter bigger than the other. This was followed by 12 exclamation marks, each bigger than the last until the final one which went down to the bottom of the page.
My dear friend Paul (page 169) lost his battle with cancer in early October, just a few months before this book was published and a few days after his fifty-eighth birthday. When I saw him last he had asked “When is that book coming out?” Although he had previously said that he did not need to read the parts about him, he said he would like a copy for his birthday. Barbara Jones, my editor at Hyperion, overnighted a copy to him, and his wife read it to him just before he lost consciousness. His wife told me he approved of what I had written, and his family asked me to read the parts about him at his memorial service. Just before I did, Paul’s son gave me a letter he had found among Paul’s special things. I had written this letter to Paul more than fifteen years ago to thank him for being my lawyer in a difficult case (page 170). Of course, in those days I had a lot to learn about gratitude, so the letter included some self-congratulations about my paying the bill in full, but I also wrote of how proud I was to be represented by him, and thanked him for being there at a time when my own skills as a lawyer were both ineffectual and unavailable due to how disorienting that case had been. I had concluded by saying that he had been there for me as a lawyer and a friend, and that I would never forget it. It is one of the greatest gifts of my thank-you note project that through my notes I was able to make good on this promise, when otherwise he might have slipped away not knowing how much I did remember, and how grateful I truly was. I had forgotten this letter to Paul, and was truly surprised to find that it existed, and moved beyond words that he had saved it.
How many thank you notes have you written to date? Do you have a favorite pen or paper to use when you write a thank-you note?
I’m going to write some today, but the current total, as of October 29, 2010, is 622 dating from the first note written in January 2008. There are now two spreadsheets, one on my PC and one on the MacBook I was able to buy with the advance I got from my publisher (Thank you, Hyperion). I don’t write one every day, but through the journey I have learned of other, more disciplined people who do, and of the great rewards that come from such discipline.
I decided to share some of the advance for the book with the people whose notes and or e-mails are included in the book, and one of these was my friend who is called Neil in the book (page 104). In addition to being a district attorney, triathlete, and skiing and photography buff, Neil is a fountain-pen enthusiast, a subpopulation I did not know even existed. He didn’t need the money I sent him, but instead of returning it, he bought me an exquisite fountain pen decorated with drawings of the Great Wall of China, to write more notes with. Using a fountain pen requires greater care and concentration, and often results in neater writing. When it is not available, I just use a pretty good fine-point pen.
A fine point helps because I still just use the plain, off-white 3-by-5 stationery cards that I was trying to use up when the project began. (See page 16.) I did use them up, but when I left the firm, my office manager made sure I had a large new supply.
What other types of writing do you do? Are you interested in writing another memoir, or will you try your hand at a different genre? Are you working on anything now?
Of course in court I write out opinions when the issue is somewhat complex. I feel that if the parties and attorneys who read these statements can at least see that I made a disciplined attempt to analyze the issues, they will feel less disappointed if they do not win.
As an attorney, I wrote and received many letters that were meant to make the recipient’s head explode with fear of the disastrous legal consequences that would occur if the demands of the letter were not met with all deliberate speed. Having left that world behind, I am enjoying the opportunity to employ my letter-writing skills to get closer to family and friends, and to develop new relationships.
The thank-you notes and other letters I am writing and receiving are in their own way continuing to tell a story. I’m not quite sure what that story is yet, but I’m trying to listen for that story, and to the voice that told me to write the thank-you notes in the first place. For example, when I sent a donation to the boarding school I started attending when I was ten, one of the nuns responded with a thoughtful handwritten note. We obviously had something in common, and after a few more letters I ended up visiting this sister and the school as it is today. There are no more boarders there, but she took me around what is now a cloister for the nuns, and let me see again the places where so much of my youth and adolescence occurred.
There is also a novel I started ten years ago about an altruistic, alcoholic attorney in Los Angeles. Known as “Sleepy Sam,” he has a tendency to fall asleep during his cases. Or does he? He always seems to win them in the end. Sleepy Sam is accused in the murder of his best friend, and must find a way to get himself out of trouble and avenge his friend’s murder. I make some attempts at finishing this book, but am unsure about it. The second half might end up clashing too much with the first half I wrote ten years ago. Life is different now.