Hey, hey! Welcome back to another episode of The Bullpen Sessions. Today, I’ve got an episode for you that is both incredibly powerful and a lot of fun!
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for any length of time, you know that each week I sit down with an abundant thinker for a conversation about their life and the strategies and mindsets they use for success. I’ve had a lot of fascinating discussions with successful entrepreneurs and business people, and I’ve learned a lot of great tips and tricks I can apply to my own business. But today, I’m shaking things up a little. My guest on this episode of the show, Michael Ray, is changing lives through smiling.
Yup, you read that right! He’s changing lives through smiling. Michael fundamentally believes in the power of simply smiling at a stranger. He knows from experience how much a simple gesture like a smile can positively impact someone’s day, and he’s dedicated to making the world a better place by promoting hope and happiness in his community and encouraging others to do the same!
Inspired by his daughter who has Down Syndrome and is completely non-verbal, Michael founded Smile Project Louisville in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, in 2018. Since then, he has worked hard to spread smiles to strangers in his community, and now he’s getting ready to take the Smile Project on the road up the east coast from Nashville to Boston.
And I want you to know something — Michael’s not making a dime. It’s possible that Smile Project Louisville will become profitable one day, but that’s not the point. Michael’s goal is to bring smiles to strangers — he doesn’t worry about the money.
This interview is inspiring. I loved talking to Michael about his story — which, believe it or not, isn’t all smiles. We talked about some especially important interactions that shaped Michael’s life, and we talked about how we can all shift into a more positive mindset. I think you guys are really going to love this interview — let’s go!
Who Is Michael Ray?
Michael Ray is the founder of Smile Project Louisville, but his life wasn’t always all smiles. I’ll let him tell you more about it in a minute, but Michael has definitely seen some hard times. He’s experienced job loss due to the recession several years ago, the death of a child, the birth of another child with Down Syndrome, and divorce. For years Michael took antidepressants and watched his world crash down around him. At his lowest point, he even considered taking his own life.
But then a miracle happened. In 2014, when Michael was at rock bottom, he had a realization — he wasn’t going to be defeated by any of these obstacles life could throw at him. Then in 2017, a chance encounter with a kind stranger showed Michael the power that random acts of kindness and connections with strangers can have.
In 2018, Smile Project Louisville was officially born, and Michael threw himself into his new passion. He made it his central goal to affect attitude and behavior through smiling with strangers. He began working as a driver for both Lyft and Uber, and while that felt like a weird job for a former real estate agent, it gave him plenty of opportunities to interact with strangers and make their days brighter.
Today, Michael is happier than ever. He continues to draw inspiration from his relationship with his precious daughter, Maddie, and together they’re working to put smiles on the faces of everyone around them. I know this interview is going to bring smiles to all of you, too, so let’s get started!
Michael’s Story: From the Top to the Bottom and Back Again
Michael launched Smile Project Louisville in 2018, but his journey started back in about 2008. At the time, he was at the top of his game in the real estate industry. He was incredibly successful, and it seemed like his life was right on track.
But then something terrible happened. Michael and his wife lost their son. Michael described it to me as feeling like God was choking him — he didn’t know what to do or where to turn in that grief. Then, to make matters even worse, the recession happened. The housing market crashed, and Michael lost his job. At the same time, his marriage fell apart, and he was in the process of losing his house.
“I was a broken man. … I was in some dark places at the time because I was chasing a lot of other things in life … and then found myself completely empty. … So that led, then, to … other bad choices and chasing the wrong jobs and trying to recreate what I had. … I can vividly remember … going, ‘God, it’s over, … I’m 40 years old — where do I go from here?’” – Michael Ray
One day, without really knowing where he was going, Michael drove to his church. He didn’t have the strength to leave the car and go inside, but he sat in the parking lot and wept. For an hour, he wondered what on earth he could do and even considered taking his life.
“I guess on some level through the weeping and having one of those ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ moments in which you really realize … that [suicide is] not the way out … I just said to myself, ‘Hell no. This is not how I’m going to go out.’” – Michael Ray
Have you ever been there? Have you ever hit rock bottom? A lot of us are in that position right now. The pandemic has caused so many people to lose their jobs — people are desperate for some happiness and hope right now. The good news is, you can take responsibility for your life.
That’s exactly what Michael did. He decided to own every one of his choices. He realized that chasing success the same way he always had wasn’t going to work anymore. Everything he had — the money, the career, the family — had fallen apart. But he still had his life and his faith, so he decided to make the best of it.
Then something happened that changed his life forever.
What Happened at Wendy’s…
Four years later, in 2017, Michael’s life was in pretty much the same place. He was still struggling to figure out what to do next, but he had started making some wise decisions. He’d decided to cut back on the sugar and wean off the antidepressants. He wanted to start taking care of his mind and body and rebuilding the strength and courage he needed to continue.
I think there’s a key lesson in there — it all comes down to our choices. We are the choices that we make, and we are always 100% in control of those choices. Often the best thing we can do for ourselves is just take full responsibility and feed ourselves the things we need to succeed.
But other times, a random miracle happens, and it gives us the push we need to move forward. That’s what happened for Michael one day. He pulled up to a Wendy’s drive-through to order a couple of large chilis, and he found himself smiling. He spent maybe 30 or 40 seconds interacting with Shantrell, the woman working the drive-through that day, and her kindness and customer service struck a chord with Michael.
“I pull up, order, and then I’m literally … laughing, and then I’m in a parking spot crying. And it was one of those God moments for me, and I’m like, ‘God, what are you trying to tell me?’” – Michael Ray
Michael waited until the other cars had left, and then he walked up to the drive-through window. Of course, the natural reaction was to ask him what’s wrong, but he was there to share what was right. Michael thanked Shantrell for her goodness and kindness and asked if he could take a picture with her to remember the moment. She agreed, and an idea was born in Michael’s head.
A stranger’s kindness had a significant impact on him that day — what if he could have the same effect on another stranger? Could he pay it forward and start spreading happiness in his community?
“And then a couple of days later, I found myself in the gym. I encountered another stranger, and for some reason, I felt compelled to take a picture with them smiling. And then a couple of days later, there was another picture. And then a week, ten days go by, and I’d taken five, six pictures at that point. And then I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” – Michael Ray
That’s when Michael started driving for Lyft and Uber, and that’s when he found his God-given purpose: He’s here to make people smile. He had conversations with strangers all day long, and soon they became natural. He would smile at them, and they would smile back. The Smile Project Louisville was born.
The Michael and Maddie Show
Michael has been putting his time and effort into the Smile Project ever since! But the biggest thing that has kept him going is his daughter, Maddie.
Maddie was born with a condition called Down Syndrome, and in her particular case, it’s made her nonverbal. Of course, having a child with Down Syndrome comes with challenges. But even though Maddie isn’t able to talk to her dad, she and Michael have a special bond that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
“She has made me a better man, a better father. She was born in ‘99, but … [during] that window in 2012, I probably just existed as a father. … I tell her things because I know she can’t repeat [them] to the free world, and [I’m] like, ‘Look, do you realize you saved my life?’ … She showed me love, and she didn’t have to.” – Michael Ray
Maddie is the perfect person to help Michael in this movement. If you’re on LinkedIn or Facebook, do yourself a favor and watch the videos with Michael and Maddie — they’ll put a smile on your face every time!
Together, Michael and Maddie are making a difference in their community and around the country. They offer hope to people through their smiles, and they’re inspiring others to do the same.
“We’re really trying to change attitudes and behaviors with strangers by smiling [and] showing people that if you lead with love [and] the ability to be happy and find a place that you can interact in their life … even on a nonverbal level, just by smiling, [you] can have an impact on their life. … What I’m trying to do obviously is just inspire you to create that change in your life to go impact others in your community.” – Michael Ray
Who will you interact with today? I know it’s still a little hard to go out and meet people because of the pandemic — and it’s a little hard to smile with a mask on — but who could you impact in a positive way today? Even just showing kindness to the person who bags your groceries or takes your order in a drive-through could have a huge impact.
Why You Should Listen to this Michael Ray Podcast Episode Right Now…
I am so inspired by Michael and the work that he does. He is one of the most genuine people you could ever hope to meet, and I’m looking forward to seeing all the great work he does on tour!
Before we ended our interview, I wanted to ask Michael for any message he wanted to share with anyone who is feeling discouraged or defeated, and his answer was pure gold:
“First of all, surround yourself with positive people. … Understand and realize [that] hope is an insanely powerful tool. Believe in hope, but also embrace patience. Go to God if you have faith in your life. Believe in the power of prayer. And then like I did, put yourself in situations where you can smile with strangers.” – Michael Ray
That’s such beautiful advice. Hope, positivity, and faith are powerful tools for success and happiness, and I hope this episode inspired you to embrace them!
If you loved this episode as much as I did, please share it with your friends! Post a screenshot to Instagram and tag Michael, @smileprojectlouisville, and me, @andy_neary, with your biggest takeaways from the episode! And if you don’t mind, please give this podcast a five-star rating and review over on Apple Podcasts. Every review helps new people find us!
And don’t forget to check out Smile Project Louisville and keep up with all the incredible work they’re doing. You can head over to their website, or you can look them up on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. And if you want to reach out to Michael directly, you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call or text him at 502-777-6479.
Thanks so much for joining me today, guys! Before I go, I want to give you two special offers: Number one, I want to invite you to join my Complete Game Mastermind. This is my coaching program, and it starts in just a few days! Masterminds are a great way to get coaching and put yourself in rooms with other entrepreneurs just like you. You can start building your community and gathering people around you who will support you and your growth.
You can also join my FREE text community! Just text the word “Mindset” to 414-622-1462, and I’ll give you access to a TON of free weekly coaching. If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge and join the Complete Game Mastermind, this text community is a great way to see if my coaching might be right for you.
Thanks again for joining me today! Keep smiling — you never know who you might encourage!