Celebrating birthdays growing up in Suffern, New York, were always bittersweet. Bitter because of my mother. And sweet because of my mother. Let me explain.

I know many people claim that their mamas are the best cooks in the world, but my mother, who is 100% Italian, can outcook any mama! Her food is simply the best. Chicken parmesan, spaghetti and meatballs, Italian-stuffed bread, baked clams, ravioli, and linguine and clams…and that was just for dinner!

Birthdays were always sweet for me because my mother would cook all my favorite foods throughout the day. French toast for breakfast, homemade pizza for lunch, and all the food I mentioned above for dinner.

But my Italian-Catholic mother is not just a great cook, she is also is as strict as they come. Of all my friends growing up, I had the strictest mother by far. Nothing got passed my mother. And I mean NOTHING.

I had more chores around the house than all my buddies combined. No kidding, I had a list of 25 things to do around the house every weekend. And there was NO fun or sports until every chore was done! So, birthdays were always sweet because my mother would ease off the chores on my special day.

My mother also hosted the best themed birthday parties for me as a kid and invited all my neighborhood friends, baseball buddies, Father Bill from Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and even my school teacher at Viola Elementary. I had the sweetest birthdays.

That lasted until the end of the day. After all my birthday party guests left and the last bowl of pasta was eaten, unfortunately the evening would turn bitter real fast.

“Take out a piece of paper Tommy,” my mother would demand. “Write down every person’s name that attended your birthday party and the gift that they gave you,” she would continue.

Then she would hand me a huge stack of blank thank you cards and for the next few hours she would make me sit at the kitchen table and write a handwritten thank you note to every human being that breathed the words “Happy Birthday” to me that day. She would also proof every letter making sure it was sincere and heartfelt. And if it wasn’t, she’d make me write it over again until I got it right.

I hated that part of my birthdays and I hated writing those damn thank you notes. As a kid, it was the perfect way to ruin my perfect birthday!

Fast forward to today…

My 20-year-old stepson Anthony is applying to attend the United States Air Force Academy (USAA). I never realized how competitive it is to be accepted into the Air Force Academy. Apparently, applicants have a better chance at getting into Harvard University. Near perfect grades are not enough. To be accepted to the USAA, you also need to be nominated by a U.S. Congressman or Senator and have multiple letters of recommendation.

Last week I got an email from my dear friend Steve Schuck who wrote Anthony a letter of recommendation for his Air Force Academy application. Steve’s executive assistant Connie wrote to me saying, “Steve and I both received handwritten thank you notes from Anthony. Well done! Someone raised him right. Thank you!”

We live in a world now where people thank us for sending thank you notes. Why? Because handwritten thank you notes are so rare these days. People just don’t write handwritten thank you notes anymore. And when folks do, they become collector’s items.

My mother’s bittersweet birthdays have changed my life. I would credit my writing 50 — yes, 50 — handwritten letters a week for the past 20 years for much of the success that I’ve been blessed with. It has become my trademark, the guy who still writes handwritten notes in a world of Snapchat, Twitter, texting and email.

I have a friend from Toledo, Ohio, that has sponsored 10 high school students to participate in our National Leadership Academy for the last few years. Last week, unfortunately, my friend wrote me an email explaining that he is cutting his support from sponsoring 10 high school kids to five. When I reached back out to ask for feedback as to why his company is decreasing their support, and I was saddened by his response: “We sponsored 10 kids to attend your National Leadership Academy and although we may have gotten 10 thank you cards, all but two looked like the kid put zero thought into it.”

I lost sleep over this feedback because it broke my heart. My friend from Toledo is 100% right. A generic thank you card with zero thought and no heartfelt words is worse than not writing a thank you card at all.

In the ultra-competitive business landscape that we live in, the difference between a company hiring one candidate over another is often as simple as a thank you note. The difference between a client hiring one company over another is also often a thank you note. And, the difference of an employee feeling valued vs. not feeling valued by their boss is often a handwritten thank you note.

So, my mama was right. Handwritten thank you notes are important. Unfortunately, they have become a lost art. But if you commit to write one heartfelt and handwritten note every day, I guarantee that you will live an abundant and successful life. And the people that receive your heartfelt and handwritten notes will also cherish these letters as much as I cherish my mama’s chicken parm!