Not long ago, I sent myself a card that caught my eye at Trader Joe’s. “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” it challenged.

While there are many ways to measure success, one of the best is adding up the number of Firsts in your life. When we’re children, everything is a first. As time goes on, many people simply cease doing anything that is not a repeat of a past performance.

It’s the path to early senility.

How can you experience a life filled with Firsts? How can you find yourself exclaiming, “I’ve never done that before” ?  It may be easier than you think.

Every day living offers an abundance of opportunities to do something you’ve never done before. Drive a new route. Eat a new food. Get to know a stranger. Pick up a book from a section of the library you don’t usually visit. Try a new marketing approach. Write a poem. Wear a color that’s  been absent from your wardrobe. Take a public speaking class.  Plan a business project with a new partner.

While ritual and tradition may be comforting, making a conscious decision to pile up Firsts can be addictive. Doing so can also lead to larger adventures since it’s a guaranteed confidence builder.

In order to bring more Firsts into your life, your imagination needs to be fully engaged. While we all have  random first-time experiences, they can be far between if we don’t instigate them ourselves. Learning to think in new ways, in turn, is vital to growth.

“It is one of the paradoxes of success,” Charles Handy discovered, “that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom the things to keep you there.”

You’ve got to keep creating Firsts if you want to see progress.

The enemy of living this way is the undeservedly popular comfort zone.  While that zone is different for each of us, it’s the place where there are no surprises, nothing unexpected.  It doesn’t build brain cells, it doesn’t stir the imagination. It’s the place where we keep the remote control and emotional control.

Parents often encourage their adult children to live in a comfort zone, thinking it’s a place that prevents worry. There are very few Firsts for those determined to preserve  comfort—which is truly worrisome. The comfort zone is a holding tank; it doesn’t lead anywhere.

No matter where you are nor how old you are nor how long it’s been since you’ve had a First, come up with one right now and do it. Then find another and do it again. Expect that you’ll experience discomfort and welcome it as an ally in creating a richer life, not a sign that you should turn back.

“Those who try to do something and fail are infinitely better than those who try to do nothing and succeed,” said Richard Bird. That’s an invitation to a life filled with Firsts.

Trader Joe’s was in a festive mood this morning. There were balloons and flowers everywhere and the employees were in costume. Alas, I arrived too early to sample the chocolate-dipped strawberries. I’m a raving TJ’s fan and not just because I love their food: I’m fascinated by the atmosphere. The other day, I was checking out and I asked the always-cheerful man helping me how he was. “Fantastic!” he replied. I pointed out that he always seemed to be fantastic and he said, “Having open heart surgery will do that.” Then he shared a bit about his philosophy of optimism.

Two other entrepreneurs that I love are Tom & Ray, the Car Talk guys. As I was heading home from the post office this morning, they were talking to a woman who called in for advice on buying used cars for her college-aged sons. She mentioned that she was also going back to college. Later in the conversation, they asked what she was going to study and she said business. Immediately, Tom lectured her about her decision saying, “But you’re an artist. You’ll be bored to death. After a week you’ll want to gnaw your leg off. Don’t do something just because you think it will make more money.”

My kind of guys.

They’re not the only self-bossers that I’m crazy about. My new love is Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh who just made Fast Company’s list of the 50 most innovative companies in the world. Here’s a look at the foundation on which this company is built, in Hsieh’s own words:

At Zappos, we have 10 core values that act as a formalized definition of our company culture. Our core values weren’t formed by a few people from senior management that sat around in a room at a company offsite. Instead, we invited every employee at Zappos to participate in the process, and here’s the final list  we collectively came up with:

1) Deliver WOW Through Service

2) Embrace and Drive Change

3) Create Fun and A Little Weirdness

4) Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

5) Pursue Growth and Learning

6) Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

7) Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

8) Do More With Less

9) Be Passionate and Determined

10) Be Humble

The cool thing about the Zappos core values is that  I’ve used them as my own personal values as well. So it makes tweeting really easy for me… Whether I tweet about something personal or something related to Zappos, if I’m living my life through these 10 core values, it all goes towards building the Zappos brand while shaping me personally as well.

I urge you to add to your Valentine weekend celebration by viewing this Zappos’ video on What is Love? .

This week’s My Turn piece in Newsweek is by Ann Banks and is called Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One. She’s talkiing about traditional storytelling (as opposed to the way I talk about it in the Compelling Storytelling seminar), but it’s a wonderful reminder of the power of storytelling. She ends by saying, “We need again to imagine a future that is meaningful in the face of difficult circumstances. Listening to each other’s stories may grant us a sense of common purpose that money can’t buy.”

I’ve been wondering how I’ll explain to my grandchildren what it was like to take pictures before digital photography. Thanks to Bill Geist, I realize there’s a much longer list of things to show them that are new to our world. Last week on CBS Sunday Morning, he did a delightful piece in honor of the show’s 30th anniversary. Geist introduces his toddler granddaugther to everyday things that didn’t exist 30 years ago. Take a look. 

I’ve always liked Rick Steves’ philosophy about travel being an opportunity to be a voluntary ambassador of world peace so I was happy to read that he received a Citizen Diplomat Award this week.. 

He wrote about the experience on his blog and said, “NCIV promotes citizen diplomacy with nearly 100 community organizations throughout the United States. Working for the US Department of State, their mission is to welcome and enrich the experience of people (mostly education, business, and political leaders) who visit our country…There’s always something uplifting about getting committed, caring people with the same passion together in the same room. I enjoyed giving my Travel as a Political Act talk, and they seemed to gobble up the ideas. Even though I may have been preaching to the choir, there is a powerful, intangible value in such a pep rally (for me, as well as for my audience).” 

Finally, if you have unrequited wanderlust, read this story about Anne Estes who has become an international petsitter. 

Love makes your soul crawl out from its hiding place. ~ Zora Neal Hurston

Since my daughter Jennie moved to Austin, TX she’s loved everything about her new hometown except that there’s no Trader Joe’s. When I go to visit, I tuck several of her favorites in my suitcase, but they’re a poor substitute for having our favorite grocer available on a regular basis. For years, TJ’s (as its known to its loyal customers) was something I only experienced when I visited my family in California. I never could adequately explain what made this place so special since calling it a grocery store never seemed quite right. 

When I was moving to Las Vegas, proximity to TJ’s was a big priority. Now a visit to TJ’s is a regular experience for me several mornings a week and I’ve been thinking about all the things that set them apart from other grocery sellers. Some things are obvious. Their product line, for instance, is just theirs. You won’t find brand names mixed in with their offerings. You will, however, find things you never knew you wanted to try. How does that happen?

Besides having all sorts of things you many never have seen before, they also have daily samplings. Never had panettone? Try it and see what you think. Not sure you’d like gingerbread coffee? Have a cup and you might discover a new pleasure.

The product line’s not the only thing that’s different there: the shopping experience itself is unique. If I go to a normal supermarket, I usually zoom through picking up items that I need. TJ’s demands a more leisurely pace since you never know what new treasures might have landed on their shelves overnight. They also move entire sections around in the store from time to time so you really have to pay attention. 

The supermarket I shop at less frequently, has done a fine job of training their employees to recite the same questions to each and every shopper. Not so at TJ’s. It’s actually possible to have a personal interaction with the folks who are working there. After I’d won the weekly store drawing (for which anyone who brings their own bag is eligible), I was paying for my purchases with the gift card they’d given me. I mentioned that I’d won and the checker exclaimed, “YOU’RE Barbara W?” It’s not unusual for a store to post a winner’s name, but it’s pleasantly surprising to know the employees actually noticed.

One hot morning last summer, I walked out of TJ’s, jumped in my car and it refused to start. I went back inside the store and up to the customer service counter to ask if I could use their phone book. One of the fellows working there said, “Let me try starting it. I’ve got jumper cables in my truck.” I breathed a sigh of relief and thought I’d be on my way in a few minutes. It turned out to be more complicated than that, but throughout the ordeal, several employees got involved and offered suggestions until the tow truck arrived. As if I didn’t already love them enough, they won my heart forever that day.

Then there are the shoppers. I can’t recall ever interacting with people in other grocery stores the way I do at TJ’s. It’s not unusual for strangers to query one another about items. “Have you ever tried this?” a stranger might ask. One day, I was about to grind coffee and noticed a woman quietly watching me. I flashed a smile and she shyly admitted she didn’t know how the coffee grinder worked. I invited her to come closer and walked her through the entire process. “Oh,” she said, obviously relieved to see how easy it was,”I’ve been wanting to try their coffee, but didn’t know how to grind it.” 

I still smile when I recall standing in front of a jar of something I’d never seen before and saying out loud (I’m not sure why), “Do I like pumpkin butter?” A passing customer nodded and said, “I believe you do.” Turns out she was right.

The way Trader Joe’s communicates with their customers is also different  from the mega-markets. You won’t find a TJ ad in your Sunday paper, but you might find their quarterly Fearless Flyer in your mailbox or at the store. This little advertising piece–a masterful example of storytelling–is such fun to read that regulars eagerly look forward to its arrival knowing some new taste treat will be brought to their attention. 

If you’re a Trader Joe’s fan already, the next time you visit, notice what you enjoy most about the experience. And if you aren’t fortunate enough to live near this creative enterprise, plan your next vacation to include a pilgrimage and see for yourself how imagination can turn mundane grocery shopping into a mini-adventure in pleasure.