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The CultureMap Interview

TEDxSMU speaker Charley Johnson shares the beauty of paying it forward

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Charley Johnson
Charley Johnson, 32, is the president of the Pay it Forward Foundation.  Photo courtesy of TEDxSMU
Charley Johnson
Pay it forward bracelet

For Charley Johnson, life is about the little things. He truly believes that holding the door open, letting a car over during rush hour traffic or carrying someone’s groceries can change the world.

And he’s got 1.6 million bracelets to prove it. At 32, Johnson is president of the Pay it Forward Foundation.

“Imagine if a billion people woke up this morning and were a tiny bit nicer,” he muses. “Let’s inch our way toward something better.”

 “Imagine if a billion people woke up this morning and were a tiny bit nicer,” Charley Johnson muses. “Let’s inch our way toward something better.”

Johnson’s vision comes from the movie Pay It Forward, and the idea that one good deed should lead to another. “People think it’s too simple, that it can’t have an impact,” Johnson says. “But that’s the beauty of it — the simplicity.”

Johnson is one of the speakers at this year’s TEDxSMU conference on December 1. We sat down with him to talk about how a small idea could lead to something so big.

CultureMap: How old were you when first heard about Pay it Forward?

Charley Johnson: I was 20 years old, and, like most people at that age, I truly believed that I was right and everyone else was wrong. The fact that you could do something for someone and it could impact multiple people really clicked with me.

CM: Why the bracelet?

CJ: I don’t like to reinvent the wheel. My previous company worked in manufacturing and made the Livestrong bracelet. So when we created a bracelet for Pay It Forward, we wanted it to be the same but different.

It’s a reminder and a way to bring back the human connection, that intimate moment between two people. When you do something nice, you remove the bracelet and give it to another person.

CM: When was the first time you gave away a bracelet?

CJ: I actually was at a gas station. The person in front of me forgot his wallet. It was like $1.75 for a drink and a doughnut. I had a $20 on me and I said, “Don’t worry about it – I have it.”

I gave that guy that bracelet, and I saw the look in his eyes. The $1.75 and the bracelet, I promise you, made that guy go home and change the view of the people around him.

 “I knew there was no way I was going to college,” Johnson says. “I didn’t want to go sit in a classroom and listen to a professor.”

CM: Why is this idea working?

CJ: The most powerful thing about this is that its neutral. There’s no color, no creed, no political affiliation. It is something that all 7 billion people can be involved in. I have emails from all over the world, anything you can think of in this world that has divided us, has also included someone who wanted to be part of this.

CM: What was your life like before joining Pay it Forward?

CJ: Normal. Nothing special. I was very shy, very awkward. Not many friends. I started working with a manufacturing business at the age 15. It was my escape. I didn’t feel comfortable with typical teenage life.

It gave me an excuse to do what I wanted to do, which was to be around people smarter than myself. At age 25, I had more money than I could ever want or need. I realized it didn’t make me happy.

CM: What were your career plans as a young adult?

CJ: I didn’t have anything specific. I knew there was no way I was going to college. I didn’t want to go sit in a classroom and listen to a professor. I just felt real life experience would be better.

CM: How do people react when you tell them what your job is?

CJ: Most people, just because of human nature, only give you a couple minutes to explain. But if they give me more time, and start asking deeper and deeper questions, you have a fan for life.

People love the idea of something different, and the fact that we aren’t asking anyone for money. We’re not paying it forward for poverty or paying it forward for cancer; this is a movement that will make other nonprofits better.

 “My mother always said, ‘Go for the underdog,’” Johnson says.

CM: What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

CJ: My mother always said, “Go for the underdog.”

CM: What’s a typical day like for you?

CJ: I wake up around 6:30 am and do a quick workout. Then I answer emails from all over the world.

Every day there is someone brand new that’s just watched the movie or been to our website, and they want to know how to bring Pay it Forward to their company or community. I’m also on a lot of Skype calls, and I travel frequently.

CM: What’s next for Pay it Forward?

CJ: Keep an eye on us. 2012 was a great year. It was a year of saying yes to everything. But 2013 is going to be more strategic, more detailed.

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