They say that in order to receive a smile you must give one away. Ruth Kaiser has given away thousands and in return has launched the Spontaneous Smiley Movement. She’s all about optimism and choosing our lives by choosing our behavior. The Spontaneous Smiley Project is much bigger than simply thousands of people posting the smiley faces they find in every day objects.
I first saw Ruth Kaiser’s TED-X Silicon Valley talk online through a social media mention and I was moved…to smile. As soon as you see her website something magical occurs, you begin to see smiles in everyday objects all around you. I found myself chuckle later that day as I looked down at the bright pink arch of my sneaker and above it, there were two bright blue tiles on the floor that together formed a beautiful smile.
Ruth Kaiser had been finding these Spontaneous Smileys as she says “forever.” The hobby became a movement and that movement turned into a book – The Smiley Book of Colors – which is being published this month by Golden Books. Spontaneous Smiley has received well over 16 million page views and was featured on the CBS Evening News.
In August 2009, Spontaneous Smiley began a partnership with Operation Smile, which funds surgeries for children around the globe with facial deformities. A smiley upload earns a $1 donation to Operation Smile. So far, they’ve funded 17 surgeries.
Ruth says “The decision to launch a website so that Spontaneous Smiley could be more than just Facebook and Twitter fun was really the moment I committed to thinking of the project as something to put out into the world beyond just social media.”
She tells the story of an unlikely fan, “One day as I was crouched with my camera in hand over spilled soda on the side walk, a man came along and asked ‘What in the world are you taking a picture of?’ I showed him the smiley. He smiled. I smiled. He went on his way. About two minutes later, he came running back in my direction. “Quick bring your camera, I found one!”
Ruth’s biggest “Aha moment” came when she was getting requests from strangers who wanted to use her Smiley photo for their profile picture or asking if they could use Smiley Birthday Cake to send to a friend. “The charm of the photos was clearly contagious. Why not see if Spontaneous Smiley could be a book, a calendar, greeting cards, posters and t-shirts? I have to admit a lot happened by my being a novice who was naive enough to simply ask. This optimistic and honest approach has been a wonderful guiding force for my Spontaneous Smiley Project.”
“After a lifetime in the classroom telling my preschoolers & parents that my curriculum is kindness, I feel compelled to share the ideas about kindness and optimism with a larger audience. I began to receive many compelling emails from people globally who had been moved by the project’s intention to spread happiness, one smile at a time. As I responded to those emails, I felt the “calling” grow and began to blog about how we choose our life, how we decide our level of happiness and how our chosen behavior effects everyone we come in contact with. It has been this aspect of the Spontaneous Smiley Project that has brought me (and I dare say others) the greatest joy.”
For those of you who may want to expand your hobby or message take note of how Ruth’s courage to simply ask began to make things happen. She was driven by her passion and just kept talking about it:
“I wanted to get Spontaneous Smiley into a newspaper. A friend who was a reporter offered to help me write up a slick, official looking press release but it didn’t feel authentic, instead I sent out a ‘teacher Ruth’ style playful project description and ended up in newspapers and magazines in the US, China, Europe and South America…
Next, I wanted to see if I could get on the TV news…local news would certainly be cool but what about asking the big dogs at the networks. Couldn’t hurt to Google around and search Facebook to see if I might take a shot in the dark. I happened upon a fellow at CBS whose posts I saw on Facebook…and I ended up on The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.”
With this momentum, Ruth wrote a child’s book of optimism and had no idea how to get it published so she turned once again to Facebook asking for advice. “Someone I didn’t know replied that he had a friend who knew everything about kids’ books. He gave me her name and I sent her a message. As we chatted back and forth, I came to learn she was an editor at Random House. Lo and behold A Smiley Book of Colors is coming out.”
Technology was working so Ruth had her tech savvy son set up Google searches for key words like smile, optimism etc. and utilized search engine optimization. She would also actively reach out to people online who she felt would take an interest in The Smiley Project.
“That’s how I connected with Ron Gutman who had done a TED talk about smiles that was one of the most viewed TED talks ever.
In our email exchange I learned he was curating a TED talk, so I pitched the idea that any Ted Conference could use a few moments of levity and all those heavy thinkers really needed an opportunity to lighten up.” It worked and Ruth was invited to give her own TED talk.
No one had asked if she’d ever done any public speaking so she didn’t mention that the TED talk (in front of 350,000 people via simulcast) would be her first attempt. She was going to do it anyway. The media exposure was happening fast and with that comes challenges, but Ruth continued to forge ahead with energy clearly driven from her passion.
“In a very real way, the challenges I’ve faced with The Spontaneous Smiley Project have only been about two things. One, do I spend money when none is coming in? And two, where will I find enough hours in the day to apply my best effort when I do have a full time job?
The first challenge has been a tricky one. I have three kids I’m in the middle of putting through college on my own. As I was already incurring lots of debt, it was scary to incur more. But I knew Spontaneous Smiley needed me to throw some money at it, if it was going to get out to the world.
The second challenge is time. I’m often working late into the night on projects for Spontaneous Smiley and then popping up and out bright and early to get to work. It has taken lots of self discipline and time management to make it all work.
From the moment that I realized that Spontaneous Smiley was a children’s book waiting to be written, it took all of five minutes to write the entire text, literally. The words, the message simply flowed. Preschoolers are my life. I had no problem addressing my hope that they can find a happier way to be in this world, my biggest goal is to help kids. I hope to engage the world in a conversation about how adults’ interaction with kids matters. We are their teachers. We can teach happiness.”
As a mompreneur owner of a small chain of preschools for 18 years, Ruth has been in the trenches, learning by doing, running her business while running a home. She’s one of those people who can’t just sit still when they feel they were meant to do something. Her kids have been at her side involved in many aspects of her busy business over the years.
Now, they can just watch her smile.