‘Pay It Forward’ Author Never Imagined Her Idea Would Spread So Far

Proof little acts of kindness can make a big difference
By Tara MacIsaac, Epoch Times
April 16, 2016 2:37 pm Last Updated: May 7, 2016 7:50 pm

In the 1990s, Catherine Ryan Hyde was a little-known author with a pile of publishers’ rejection letters. She didn’t give up, and finally her breakthrough novel “Pay It Forward” was published in 1999, becoming a national best-seller.

In 2000, it became a hit film starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, and it spawned a movement that has been spreading kindness across the world for 16 years now.

“I was an extremely under-published author at the time,” Hyde said in an email to the Epoch Times. “My goal was simply to see [‘Pay It Forward’] in a bookstore some day! … I certainly never thought I was powerful enough to make a real-world change.”

The book is about a 12-year-old boy who completes a social studies assignment to “think of an idea for world change, and put it into action.” His idea is to do good deeds for three people and ask each of those people to “pay it forward” by doing good deeds for three more people.

I certainly never thought I was powerful enough to make a real-world change.
— Catherine Ryan Hyde, 'Pay It Forward' author

Three good deeds quickly become 9, then 27, then 81, and so on.

Hyde described one of the first moments she realized her fiction had become a reality. In 2000, she read a story in the Buffalo News about a woman who lost her car payment check on the way to the post office.

A couple found the check, which was only for half of what the woman owed. It was accompanied by a note apologizing for the short payment and asking for more time to make the full payment.

The couple wrote a check for the other half of the payment themselves and sent both checks in for her. They had seen the movie “Pay It Forward” the previous night and were inspired.

Helen Hunt (L), Haley Joel Osment (C), and Kevin Spacey (R) pose at the premiere of their film
Helen Hunt (L), Haley Joel Osment (C), and Kevin Spacey (R) pose at the premiere of their film “Pay It Forward” in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 12, 2000. (Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images)

Some of the longest pay-it-forward chains have been recorded at the Golden Gate Bridge, as people pay tolls for others in line behind them; or at Starbucks, where people pay for the orders of those behind them.

Hyde reflected on all the stories of people paying it forward over the years: “You know, there have been so many. And so many are so big and sweeping, and ongoing. And yet I still keep thinking about a note from a second grader who wrote to me.”

“He told me he wanted to visit a nursing home and talk to the people there because he thought they were lonely. Nobody has really topped that. At least, not for me. It’s just so incredibly pure,” she said.

Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon allow their photographs, like this one, to be published through Creative Commons for free, with the message to users: "We ask absolutely nothing in return, but it would be nice if you payed it forward, too! Share some love, do something nice for somebody else.
Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon allow their photographs, like this one, to be published through Creative Commons for free, with the message to users: “We ask absolutely nothing in return, but it would be nice if you payed it forward, too! Share some love, do something nice for somebody else.” (Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon)

Hyde was the recipient of a small act of kindness that first gave her the idea for her book.

Her car broke down and she was helped by two strangers whom she did not get a chance to properly thank. She began stopping for stranded motorists and performing other random acts of kindness in “repayment.”

“I noticed that we are often quite suspicious of strangers. Basically, we are afraid of each other. I wanted to create a fictional scenario (in the book) that allowed the ‘Pay It Forward’ concept to spread so people understood that these are truly selfless acts of giving—in other words, that there are no strings attached,” she said. “And then … life imitated art. And you could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Hyde established the Pay It Forward Foundation in September of 2000 to nurture the growing movement. Today, the foundation’s main focus is getting copies of the book into schools and encouraging discussions and assignments that will help children grow into kind adults.

David Goodwin, the executive director of the foundation, said, “We’re trying to grow and teach kindness. We hope that through that, we’re able to do more.”

David Goodwin (Courtesy of David Goodwin)
David Goodwin. (Courtesy of David Goodwin)

Rather than focusing on helping individuals in need as many other great social-service organizations do, he said, the foundation is focused on “teaching young people about the philosophy of kindness among strangers and the pay-it-forward ethos.”

This school initiative began in 2014 when Hyde published a young-reader’s edition, slightly modified from the original to be more suited to children. In September 2014, the foundation sent out about 300 books to a few schools; by the fall of 2015, it had expanded to 3,000 books in 28 schools across the United States, and counting.

This April 28 will be the ninth annual Pay It Forward Day. The day was first established by Blake Beattie in Australia, who has since been working in parallel with the foundation to promote the movement.

After so many years, Hyde said, she has become used to how far her idea has spread, but sometimes it still amazes her. “I’ll be watching TV and hear some celebrity say those three words when I wasn’t expecting it. And I’ll think, ‘Whoa. How did that get from inside of my head to all these public places?'”

Then-president Bill Clinton with Catherine Ryan Hyde when she was invited to the White House to attend a screening of the movie "Pay It Forward." (Courtesy of Catherine Ryan Hyde)
Then-President Bill Clinton with Catherine Ryan Hyde when she was invited to the White House to attend a screening of the movie “Pay It Forward.” (Courtesy of Catherine Ryan Hyde)

“Pay It Forward” was initially rejected by her agent, but Hyde was undeterred and found a publisher. She has now published some 30 books, persevering through the discouragement of more than 1,500 rejections. She coaches other authors and encourages them to similarly endure criticism. 

Hyde described the “baffling thought” behind “Pay It Forward”: “We all say we want to live in a kinder world. And it’s not hard to be kinder. It would certainly be hard to change the whole world from night to day, but to wake up in the morning and add kindness to the world is easy.

“So the question is, if we all want to live in a kinder world, and kindness is easy, why don’t we just do it? Why doesn’t somebody just start?”