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NACS Show Attendees to Get Lesson on the Good Life


ATLANTA — In September 2015, a photo showing a Danish policeman playing with a young refugee girl went viral. Sitting cross-legged in the road, the girl smiles as the two make goofy faces — despite having lost her home and, possibly, her family and belongings.

In another scenario, a suicide hotline fields a call from a woman with a flat tire. Overwhelmed and despondent, with no family support in her life, she feels at the end of her rope. The flat tire is the last straw.

What can we learn from these two scenarios? The little girl, despite her misfortune, understands love, nurturing and positive thinking. The woman, on the other hand, needs to be taught.

This is what Steve Gross’ organization, Life is Good Playmakers, is all about. While many people are familiar with the company’s for-profit T-shirts, those shirts support a nonprofit charity of the same name. Life is Good Playmakers partners with teachers, social workers and child life specialists to help children who have faced emotionally challenging situations build resilience through positive thinking.

At this year’s NACS Show, Gross plans to show attendees how this message can improve shopper relations in convenience stores. Gross will deliver the NACS Show general session keynote on Wednesday, Oct. 19 from 10:15 to 11:30 a.m.

“How do you show love to a frightened three-year-old?” posed Gross, founder and “chief playmaker” of Life is Good Playmakers. “What happens when kids don’t have love and healthy attachments? How do we create an environment where kids can overcome adversity? We provide resources to childcare professionals on how to spread optimism.”

This embodies much more than asking people to smile and love their neighbor. It means having playmakers use research and science to discuss what concepts like compassion really are and how to nurture them in oneself. Playmakers also discuss humor, fun, authenticity and courage. They are called playmakers because, as players do in sports, they make good things happen when their team needs them the most.

“We’re an integrated brand [profit and nonprofit sides] with one single mission: to spread optimism,” said Gross. “This isn’t just flowery stuff. There’s a lot of science related to human development, sociology and anthropology regarding what love and compassion look like in the brain. We’re human; we’re hard wired to see the negative, and must practice seeing good in other people and yourself.”

Life is Good’s mission is not to preach about happiness. Rather, through Playmaker 101 and Playmaker 202 training sessions called “Discoveries,” playmakers help professionals understand core concepts, grow them in themselves, and work out a program for the spirit, heart and soul. A discussion component allows participants to share feelings and observations.

“We’re not preaching to people that they’re living the wrong way,” said Gross. “What you focus on, grows. I’m more of a guide than a trainer.”


Gross points to Holocaust survivors as people who, despite facing tremendous adversity and often losing most or all of their family members, have maintained hope and the will to survive. Many Holocaust survivors went on to be fulfilled and successful.

This type of positive thinking includes the ability to count blessings and appreciate what one has. “You can complain that you have one leg, but another person will say I have one healthy leg,” said Gross. “It’s about learning to live life well.”

Another element involves strengthening social connections. Gross offered an example from his own life of a Dunkin’ Donuts clerk who always recognizes his young son and gives him a doughnut hole. This creates a positive vibe whenever the family comes to buy doughnuts.

“If you do small things every day that impact emotional wellbeing, your life changes. If you let somebody go at a traffic intersection, it changes the energy. If somebody holds the door for you, looks at you and sees you, it means something. These things take practice. But over time, they accrue.”

Gross also addresses some people’s beliefs that catastrophic events have made the world a terrible place. He counteracts the negativity by pointing out that there are more do-gooders than bad-doers in the world.  

“People look at tragedies like Columbine or the Boston bombing, where there were only two evil-doers,” he said. “When you look at the tragedy, look at all the people who tried to help, those who risked their lives, or raised millions of dollars; the medical people and those who made artificial limbs. For every act of evil, there’s usually tenfold acts of goodness.”

The same holds true for negative comments. If somebody hears 1,000 positive comments and one cruel one, they take the latter one to heart. “There’s a reason people do this,” said Gross.


Since its 1994 inception, Boston-based Life is Good Playmakers has offered retreats and ongoing support to more than 5,000 childcare professionals. As a nonprofit, the organization must raise funds to support this work. This includes cash donations, and $100 million in annual sales from its T-shirts and other sportswear, home products and greeting cards that pair original artwork with simple, positive messages about life. In addition to generating capital, the apparel’s high brand awareness helps spreads the word about the company’s mission.

Life is Good also raises funds by speaking to corporate America about how its message can improve business. These presentations represent a small portion of total speaking engagements, but 100 percent of the speaker fees go toward supporting the charity; speakers do not receive a stipend, according to Gross.

“Spreading the word to corporate America is a byproduct. A while ago, people began inviting me to talk. While this is maybe 2 percent of my work, it helps us provide training and resources.”

Gross has addressed IBM, Commonwealth Financial, as well as state municipalities. At this year’s NACS Show, he will talk about applying positive thinking to build resilience and bring greater joy to the workplace across the convenience store industry.  

“It would be helpful to have the entire [c-store] staff joyful rather than miserable,” he said. “It’s all about relationships and social connection. If you like the people who work there, you’re more likely to come back, even if it’s more money than the store down the street. If you remember somebody, there’s a vibe. In every environment, no matter where you are, would you rather have positive people or disengaged, negative people?”

Gross concedes that many individuals are not revved up about being convenience store clerks. However, he says being positive is about more than one’s occupation.

“People can think there’s no meaning to selling bubble gum and cigarettes, but letting your occupation define your purpose on earth is silly. Nobody knows Rosa Parks as a seamstress. Nobody knows Buddha as an unemployed guy. It doesn’t matter what profession we’re in, it behooves us to bring our most positive self to work every day,” he added. “To quote Abe Lincoln, `Whatever you decide to be, be a good one.’”

For those who are looking for answers, Gross believes a positive attitude can point them in the right direction, both at work and in their personal lives.

“If you’re coming as your most powerful, creative self, you will figure things out. We’re people first. We weren’t built for convenience stores; convenience stores were built for us. Regardless of your role, this impacts you as a person.”

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