|The Edinburgh and London Royal Mail by John Frederick Herring, Sr., 1838 (public domain - Wikimedia Commons)|
"Let me hear from thee by letters."
— William Shakespeare, c. 1590
One small thing that brings me a great deal of joy is receiving a letter in the mail. And I'd wager that I'm not alone in that.
Amid all of the junk mail, bills, and remnants of our paper-bound society, it's remarkable how an envelope, some ink, and a specialty sticker can affect us so deeply.
Do you remember ever having a pen pal? It's a dated concept now, but as a child of a certain era, I recall having a regular correspondence with some faceless kid from another state, wondering when his half of our exchange would arrive and what he'd share of his life with me.
I also remember receiving letters from my grandparents, great-grandparents, and when I was away, my own parents.
Unlike phone calls, which were filled with distractions on both ends of the line, a letter was a concentrated bit of love and attention — a powerful pouring out of the writer's thoughts and feelings, a narrative of their choosing that gave the recipient a view into their world.
I've had opportunities to handle old and rare letters from authors, historic figures, and celebrities. One day, in the Ford Motor Company archives, Dean Weber, the former corporate archivist, showed me three resignation letters side-by-side: Henry Ford's in 1945, as he ceded control of the company to his grandson; Robert McNamara's in 1960, as he left the presidency of Ford to become Secretary of Defense under President Kennedy; and Richard Nixon's terse note upon leaving office in 1974.
While the cynical might few these simply as three pieces of paper with typing on them, what they represent is so much more powerful and personal. First and foremost, each precipitated actions that changed the course of history.
But deeper than that, each is a connection to a particular mindset at the time.
Henry Ford was inextricably part of the company he founded four decades before and he oversaw it sometimes in excruciating micromanagement. Despite his advanced age, it must have been heart-wrenching to have to leave it, even to his grandson.
Robert McNamara was one of the original Whiz Kids at Ford Motor Company, arriving after World War II and helping to put the company back on track. In November 1960, he was named the first president of the company from outside the Ford family. Just a month later, Kennedy offered him a cabinet position. Two career-topping achievements within a month must have been satisfying while leaving him with an excruciating choice.
And Richard Nixon held on to the presidency for as long as he could. When he realized that impeachment was inevitable, he chose the more honorable route of resigning rather than putting the country (and himself) through charges and a trial. He agonized over the decision, and in the end his brief note belies none of the emotion of it.
Touching these documents, knowing that the hands of the authors had once touched them, sent a figurative electric shock through me. For just a moment, I was connected to these giants of industry and politics.
Can the same be said of texts, tweets or emails?
We're instantaneously connected around the world, touching people whom we would have never known about, much less met years ago.
But today, our connections are loose ones. We communicate in bits and bytes, electrons and ephemerons, dependent on energy and ethernets.
We can respond with a heart, a thumbs-up, or a smiley, but are we that touched by electronic communications, dashed off in an instant? And do those emoji really hold the same depth of emotion that we feel when we read and touch paper correspondence?
Above all else, great leaders understand the power of personal communication and know how attention at the individual level creates a sense of connection — and more importantly, a sense of loyalty.
I'll be writing more about three leaders like this in Friday's subscriber-only edition. For another dose of Timeless & Timely, please be sure to sign up.
For the moment, I'd like to reflect on the future of mailed correspondence. Specifically on the fate of the U.S. Postal Service.
You're probably aware of the unofficial motto of the Postal Service, which is inscribed on the General Post Office building in New York City, as built by McKim, Mead and White:
"Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."
— Herodotus, 440 B.C.
This is not an exact quote, but a paraphrasing of an excerpt from The Histories, in which Herodotus described the messenger system that the Persians had perfected:
"Nothing mortal travels so fast as these Persian messengers. The entire plan is a Persian invention…Along the whole line of road there are men stationed with horses, in number equal to the number of days which the journey takes, allowing a man and horse to each day; and these men will not be hindered from accomplishing at their best speed the distance which they have to go, either by snow, or rain, or heat, or by the darkness of night. The first delivers his dispatch to the second, and the second passes it to the third; and so it is borne from hand to hand along the whole line, like the light in the torch-race, which the Greeks celebrate to Vulcan. The Persians give the riding post in this manner, the name of Angarum."
That sounds remarkably like the Pony Express, the American frontier system of mail, that was used two thousand years later.
With a more dispersed and settled population, America is covered by the U.S. Postal Service. Enshrined in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, the Postal Service is the nation’s oldest “essential” service.
Benjamin Franklin was a postmaster general for the Royal Mail in the pre-Revolutionary War years. And it was through his leadership in the Second Continental Congress that led to the establishment of a postal service for the United States.
Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the modern-day system is something of a lifeline to citizens stuck at home, while also being a daily risk to its workers who handle multiple pieces of mail. In addition to the health risks faced by its workers, the service expects to lose more mail volume as a result of the pandemic — all while nearing another a fiscal cliff under a hostile administration. The current postmaster general has made the case for stimulus funds.
Delivering stimulus checks to Americans and handling voting by mail may help, but will these measures be enough to rescue its legacy? Many Americans are doing their part as people rush to buy stamps.
In my estimation, as front-line personnel, postal workers are heroes just as healthcare workers are. They may not be saving lives literally, but the service they provide improves daily life, whether it's the receipt of a check, a birthday card, or a heartfelt letter.
"Carrier of news and knowledge
Instrument of trade and industry
Promoter of mutual acquaintance
Of peace and of goodwill
Among men and nations
Messenger of sympathy and love
Servant of parted friends
Consoler of the lonely
Bond of the scattered family
Enlarger of the common life"
— Charles W. Eliot, 1911
How might you promote peace and goodwill, or console the lonely, create a bond with scattered family or enlarge common life?
I'd suggest starting with writing a letter. It could be to colleague, a mentor, a friend or a family member.
Now that you have more time on your hands, buy some stationery (or just use whatever you have at hand), and savor the art of writing a letter.
If you're stuck and don't know to whom to send a letter, I'll make it easy. Send one to me (see the address in the newsletter footer — you must be a regular subscriber). If you're within the U.S., I'll write back.
"Pandemic pen pal" has a ring to it.
Can you think of someone who might like this newsletter? Why not send it to them?
This originally appeared in the April 15 issue of the Timeless & Timely newsletter. To see this issue in its entirety, including links, recommended books, and more, please click here. And more Timeless inspiration can be found here.
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