One rainy night many years ago, a gentleman and his wife entered the lobby of a small hotel in Philadelphia. The man asked the clerk if he had any rooms available. The clerk, who was actually the hotel manager, was a friendly man who prided himself on superior customer service. He said that unfortunately the hotel was completely booked. "However," he said, "rather than send you out in the rain at 1 a.m., I would be happy to offer you my room. It's not a suite, but it will be comfortable for the night."

The man tried to object, but the clerk insisted. The next morning, as he paid his bill, the gentleman said to the clerk: "You are the kind of manager who should be the boss of the best hotel in the United States."

Two years passed, but the two men stayed in touch. One day the clerk/manager received a letter from the guest, inviting him to New York for a visit and including a round-trip airline ticket. When the clerk/manager arrived in New York, the man met him and led him to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. He pointed to a brand-new building. "There is the hotel I want you to manage," said the man. "You must be joking," said the astonished clerk/manager.

"I can assure you that I am not," said the man, William Waldorf Astor, and the palace that he had built was the original Waldorf (later Waldorf-Astoria) Hotel.

The moral of this story is you never know when kindness will come full circle.

Kind words and actions start with kind thoughts. In a hypercompetitive world, we might be tempted to take a dramatically different approach. But that tactic doesn't produce any winners.

Mean people are not ­happier, or necessarily more successful.

Pastor and author C. Neil Strait said: "Kindness is more than deeds. It is an attitude, an expression, a look, a touch. It is anything that lifts another person."

Contrary to the old saying, nice people can finish first. The key is to know how to use kindness to your advantage. Here are some steps you can take to make kindness a habit.

• First, be kind to yourself. You'll find being nice to others is easier if you build your self-respect with positive thoughts about your personality and achievements.

• Treat everyone with respect. Don't worry about who's on top. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated, regardless of their position or job title.

• Say no when necessary. You can't do everything. It's kinder to say no to something when you cannot devote adequate time or attention than to do a halfhearted job.

• Plant seeds of kindness. Do something nice every day. Kindness pays most when you don't do it for payback.

• Take the high road. Trust me, it's the road less traveled. It's a wide highway with no traffic jams. And no road rage.

There's an old story about a king who had a beautiful ring and three sons who each wanted it. When the king died, he left three rings for his sons and a note that said, "My dear sons, one of these rings is real, and two are fake. The way you will know who has the real ring is that the son with the real ring will be kind and generous to all people."

Each of the three sons spent the rest of his life being good to others — to prove that he had the real ring.

Mackay's Moral: Funny thing about kindness: The more it's used, the more you have of it.

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or e-mail harvey@mackay.com.