Like billions around the globe, I found out last Friday that Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister of Japan, had been assassinated. Many regarded him as the most transformative leader in Japan since World War II, striving to restore his country’s technological edge and fostering cooperation among the world’s leaders. As I watched the TV coverage of the outpouring of grief, one thing became abundantly clear: He was loved by millions and millions of people.
Those aren’t words I say lightly. I lived in Japan for two years, and I deeply respect how the Japanese people cherish the word “love.” In the United States, we tend to use that word perfunctorily. We love the latest Netflix show, we love our ice cream, we love that restaurant down the street, we love that new movie. In Japan, the direct equivalent of “love” is 愛 (ai), but the Japanese people don’t throw that word around as casually as Americans do. I learned that they only use their version of “love” when it matters most. Some only say the phrase Aishiteru—“I love you”—to one person in their entire life. Is there anything more beautiful?
The truth is, I tell people I love them all the time. I say it to my family, my friends, my employees, my clients, my HVAC guy—anyone who has impacted me in a meaningful way. I even wrote a book, The Heart-Led Leader, about bringing love into the workplace. I’m proud that I open my heart to so many people in my life, but at the same time, I deeply respect how the Japanese have a different understanding of the word love. When they say, “I love you,” it signifies to the other person that they are singularly exceptional. More so than anyone else on the planet. I realized that I wanted my own version of Aishiteru—something I could tell the most important people in my life that I not only love them, but that they truly changed me.
Every Thursday I text an inspirational quote around to my closest friends and family. I don’t usually devote much time to it, but I try to channel nuggets of wisdom that I learned that week into a short message that might inspire others to lead, love, and live differently. Last week I wrote: “Some people collect things like coins, stamps, antique cars, and rare books. Try collecting people. They hold their value, and, unlike any other collectible, they can actually change your life.” Now, usually I’m sent back heart emojis, thumbs up, and other cursory replies. Not this time. The response was overwhelming. “I’m in tears,” one person wrote. “Thank you for making me realize what matters most,” another said. “I believe in this wholeheartedly,” another shared. But when one of my dear friends, Nick Weir, replied, “You’ve changed my life,” now that sent a chill down my spine.
You’ve changed my life. Hearing that moved my heart in such a special way. Like Aishiteru, it’s a phrase you don’t say casually. You reserve it for the people who make a real difference. And when you hear it, you never forget it.
I believe our God above is not a counter. But if He does, He’s not counting when people say I love you; He’s counting when they say, “You’ve changed my life.” Our goal should not be trying to earn people’s love. Our goal should be to earn those most powerful four words: “You’ve changed my life.”
This week I had breakfast with my mentor, Jerry Middel. No man has poured into me more than Jerry. Of course, I love this man. And I tell him that every time I see him. But when we celebrate Jerry’s eightieth birthday this November, I will tell him: “You’ve changed my life.” And that will mean more to him than a thousand “I love you’s.”
You can be an exceptional leader like Shinzo Abe was and change lives with an inspirational speech or with the stroke of a pen, or you change lives in your classroom, your church, or in your workplace through everyday influence. As for me, I’m still going to tell my friends and my clients and my employees and my HVAC guy how much I love them. But I’m going to also remember my time in the beautiful country of Japan and strive to honor the people who’ve truly made a difference in my life with four simple words: “You’ve changed my life.”
Today, try reaching out to someone in your life that had a profound impact on you. Someone that not only believed in you but invested their time in helping shape the person you’ve grown to become. Sure, tell them that you love them. But if you really want to rock their world, tell them, “You’ve changed my life,” and they will never forget it! Nor will you.