Are You a Change Maker?

If you travel at all for business, you know that it’s much different than holiday travel. The little things don’t seem to bother us so much when we’re heading off to spend a week lounging in the sun sipping umbrella drinks. Work travel is different. While I love what I do, there are times when it can be exhausting, and little irritations pop up everywhere. Rude people, long lines, hurry up and wait. There aren’t necessarily more irritations when we travel for business, but we notice them more.

After crisscrossing the country on a recent trip from SW Florida to Southern California to Boston, four days in and I was halfway there. By the time I arrived at the hotel, all I wanted was to change into my comfy clothes, get room service, and regroup for the next speaking engagement. Room service, I was told, was not available that evening, but the “marketplace” (a.k.a. snack bar) was open for another 25 minutes. By this time, I was hangry so I headed downstairs.

The young 20-something man behind the counter had already greeted me with a wide smile and neon green earbuds which I assume were providing the background for the song he was singing aloud.   As I approached, he removed his earbuds and continued singing… serenading me. It was impossible not to smile back. In that moment, my irritation started to dissipate. I ordered a chicken panini.  He told me it would be a few minutes because he had already started breaking down the kitchen.

“I promise it will be worth the wait! I make a 5-star chicken panini!” he said as he popped his earbuds back in and danced his way into the kitchen.

Here was a kid who was probably making a few bucks above minimum wage happy to be a work and taking pride in making a sandwich. Still singing, he bounced back from the kitchen. “Sorry for the wait,” he said.  “I hope this sandwich changes your day for the better.” Mission accomplished.  This kid was a changemaker.

On day six, I got up at 3:30 AM to make the last leg of the travel triangle back to SW Florida. I was whipped and all I wanted to be was home.  I got to the airport and navigated to the gate. Among the sea of early morning travelers, the gate agent stood out. She looked like she wanted to be anywhere but there. Her expression and overall demeanor was a mix of contempt, anger, and gloom. In fact, she looked like she hated not just her job, but her life.

There was clearly an issue with the flight as boarding time came and went leaving us all standing there waiting for an indication as to what the problem was. As people approached with questions, she abrasively answered without making contact or even looking up from the computer. We were intruders clearly interrupting her “work.” Beyond being a terrible representative for that particular airline, the attitude that she got in return only thickened the negativity cloak she wore so smugly.

After waiting for nearly 2 hours, I saw her sigh, roll her eyes, and frown a lot, but I never saw her smile once.  She had a choice that day: she could choose to change people positively with something as simple as a smile or a kind word.  Or she could choose to change people negatively as just another irritation on a long work trip.

We are all change makers.  Because we are wired to connect with others and emotions are contagious through mirror neurons, we change others with a powerful subconscious force.  What happens within us happens between us. We don’t just co-exist; we connect with each other from the inside out.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Those words are often attributed to Gandhi, but it turns out the actual quote has been truncated over the years. In 1913, he wrote this:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”

That kid at the marketplace clearly has discovered the “divine mystery supreme.” He may not know the neuroscience of a smile or laughter. He may not know the concept of emotional contagion – that because we are wired to connect with others, mirror neurons pick up the emotions of others and generate the same neurochemical response as if we were actually experiencing those emotions.

But, I bet he knows that, today, he has the power to create a positive experience for another person in his little corner of the world.  With a little more knowledge, experience, and determination, who knows what he’ll accomplish tomorrow?  I’d put him in front of my customers over the gate agent every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

And, for the record, that was the best damn chicken panini ever!



Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.


  1. LOVE this so much! Especially on the heels of my recent travel expeirence. “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I think we all agree with Laura’s sentiments. The gate lady and the flight attendant probably do need some love and compassion. “Sometimes there’s no response that can alter a person filled to the brim with darkness other than to quickly, respectfully engage in your transaction”. Interestingly enough, the gate agent before the flight was very similar to yours and everyone barraged the counter as soon as she stepped behind due to having questions regarding the flight delay, standby, seat changes. She became very reactive and I am certain she was just overwhelmed. Before boarding, I said to her, “I can only imagine how it must feel when you walk behind that counter and have so many people coming at you”. She smiled and thanked me. I really love the connection you made her with the story to neuroscience here with your sweet panini guy!

  2. Melissa, I am so happy that your article appeared in both my Facebook feed this morning and my LinkedIn feed. It’s the peanut butter to my toast – and I love peanut butter! This article speaks to me on many levels, and it set the tone for my day. Thank you for providing me a positive catalyst on which to start my day.

    I am guilty of getting so caught up in my head that I forget it is my choice to smile or not smile. The former, of course, is a much better way to go about the day. I have two shirts that I love and wear both with pride (and as a reminder). One says, “Believe there is good in the world” with some letters predominately reading “be the good.” The other shirt says “You Decide ):)”

    The panini guy would have brightened my day also – and there should be more people like him. We all need reminders from time to time that it takes too much energy to be negative, so why not choose the opposite? I realize we all have “things” but you also get out of life what you put into it. And we are all worth the effort, aren’t we?

    • Indeed, Laura… we are all worth the effort! Well said! Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. Incidentally, it’s pretty freaking cool to be peanut butter to someone’s toast. I’ll take that with gratitude!

  3. What an awesome reminder of how our perspective on the world effects us and others. It always brings me such joy to see anyone take pride in their work and sorrow for those struggling to do so. Our inner influences our outer and the outer influences our inner. Given so many people are struggling with their inner (e.g. anger, depression, alcohol/drugs, eating disorders, bullying, etc.) what must have happened in their outer before they even knew any better or could discern what was happening? How many childrens’ outer world is so toxic for the first 0-6 years of life that it forever influences their inner narrative thus perpetuating the vicious destructive cycle? What can we do to reverse this cycle?

      • My honor and pleasure Melissa! However, if I may, what I am speaking more to not Mental Health but rather Emotional Health. Even though all this processing occurs in the brain I feel it is very important to distinguish between our “thinking” ability and our “feeling” ability. Interrelated but different.

  4. I chuckled at the line, Melissa – “that was the best damn panini ever!” I so appreciate the encouragement in your story. The idea that anyone anywhere can be a change maker(sometimes unwittingly) turn a negative or mundane into a positive and or brilliant – no matter who one is what they do etc. A glowing message for us all!

  5. What a great story, Melissa. I was gobbling up paragraph after paragraph. It just might have been as yummy as that panini.

    The quotation that came to me is excerpted from Haim G. Ginott… “I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration…” I like it because the language shakes me up to exactly what is at stake. Those mirror neurons are powerful stuff!

    I wish that someone could have gotten through to that gate agent with a little inspiration. So glad the guy at the marketplace turned your day round. He’s clearly a master of more than the craft of panini-making – a changemaker indeed!

    • Haim G. Ginott… “I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration…” I just love that, Mary! The influence works both ways. Not only does the gate agent have influence on us, we have influence on her. I could have been a more positive force for that gate agent that day. Lesson learned.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this one!

  6. OK, I’m gonna remember the panini guy, Melissa! You’re right; he made all the difference that day, and at least you knew and appreciated it!

    And I appreciate Laura Staley’s comment, too, because we all have had bad days, right? We can’t know what her earlier part of the day or week was like; she might have had to deal with lots of others issues.

    Of course, the gate agent was also working … and perhaps forgetting who she was working for. But maybe it was a little too much that one day …

    I don’t know that I would have been thinking of trying to help her before reading your article, but you know what? I can see that if any one of the passengers had given her a smile, nod, or a few words to that effect, maybe it would have helped. And I think I’ll remember this if I ever have a chance to be that unexpected change maker!

    • I also appreciated the way Laura shifted my thinking, Susan. When we are in the weeds, all we can see is weeds. We all have the power of kindness or as Mary Schaefer contributed, “I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration…” (Haim G. Ginott…).

      Thank you for taking the time to read and share your insights!

  7. Thank you so much for this offer of “good stuff,” Melissa. I really enjoyed the story of these two individuals, how this illustrates emotional contagion. How we respond to people can really make a positive difference or not. I’m curious if anyone held compassion for the surly agent at the ticket counter. Makes me curious as to who-standing in her line might have been able to be her “change-maker.” Maybe she had lost a child. Maybe her husband had lost his job. Maybe she was living through a horrible divorce. I’m not making excuses for her behavior, but pointing to the world of compassion-holding space for her darkness-as we all know some form of that darkness inside ourselves.

    Seems like she needed some love and compassion the most, words of empathy/compassion- “I have had really bad days too. I know how difficult and stressful this job must be for you.” And sometimes there’s no response that can alter a person filled to the brim with darkness other than to quickly, respectfully engage in your transaction and walk away.

    Thank you so much for sharing, Ghandi’s entire quote. What uplifting words that resonate with the heart!

    • You’re so right, Laura. It’s easy to judge people without having any understanding of what worries or challenges they face. I love your solution: “Seems like she needed some love and compassion the most, words of empathy/compassion- “I have had really bad days too. I know how difficult and stressful this job must be for you.” And sometimes there’s no response that can alter a person filled to the brim with darkness other than to quickly, respectfully engage in your transaction and walk away.”

      That is what makes you the special person that you are! Thank you for giving me another perspective today!

      • The other bit to consider is this: NO ONE wants to be judged for how they feel (would any of us want a negative person to demand that we become a sourpuss so they felt better?)
        Allowing the ticket agent to be all the way ‘that’ is an act of acceptance of what IS…and becomes a moment of opportunity to demonstrate an alternative response/reaction to everyone, just by BEING the change.