To the Class of 2020: You’re our Heroes

I love listening to commencement addresses (Nerd Alert! I watch them on Youtube!) I find them hopeful, optimistic and inspiring. I live in an area surrounded by college campuses. I love graduation, seeing excited students, friends and families. I can’t help but think of all the hard work, tears, joys and experiences of the graduates. This important tradition of graduation has been radically transformed this year. My heart goes out to the graduates and their families. Many of my students are graduating from college this year, and my oldest son is a high school senior. Though I am pretty sure I will never be asked to give a commencement speech, I think we need one more this year than ever. So, here is my address to the class of 2020: 

Faculty, staff, administration, alumni, family, friends and most important, graduates,

I’m humbled and honored for the opportunity to speak to you today. I know how disappointed you all are to not have a real commencement and how disappointing your senior year has been. 

I would like to give you a word, just one word, that I think may help you to reconcile and grieve your loss. A word to inspire you now, and compel you forward in the future. That word is: Solidarity. Solidarity is a French word that means unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group. I want to focus on the idea of mutual support. 

What you have done over the last several weeks is about much more than you. You have stayed home, social-distanced and forgone so much to keep yourself safe, yes, but also to save others. By sacrificing your own senior year, you have shown us a great example of solidarity! So often when adversity strikes we naturally focus inward and are most concerned with how it will affect us. Surely you have done some of that during this pandemic, as you should have. You have every right to grieve for the loss of opportunities and closure you so looked forward to. And yet, even though you may not have been sick yourself, you made necessary sacrifices to isolate yourself to lessen the impact for others. Your sacrifice has not gone unnoticed, you have shown solidarity with your community and with the world. 

If you are like many of my students, and my own son, you grew up reading and loving J.K. Rowling’s magical world of Harry Potter. Remember, Harry, Ron and Hermione also gave up their senior year, or seventh year as they say in Hogwarts, to find and destroy the horcruxes in order to save the wizarding world. They, like you, showed solidarity. So yes, mourn for what you lost, but also take comfort in the fact that your sacrifice was not in vain. 

One of my favorite lines from a commencement speech comes from J.K. Rowling at Harvard: “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”  

This pandemic has no doubt changed the route you will take into the future but the responsibility to determine where you end up is still yours. We know you can do it! 

Along with Harry Potter, your generation has also grown up with superheroes. Like you most superheroes wear masks. Instead of concealing your identity your mask will be a unique reminder of how you, in solidarity with the world, wore it to help protect others, not from super-villains, but from this superbug! Arguably, the greatest superhero creator of our time is Stan Lee. He tells a great story at a UCLA graduation event  about how he developed Spiderman deliberately as a teenager with teenage troubles and his publisher thought it was a terrible idea. Despite this, he slipped The Amazing Spiderman into the final issue of a magazine and it was a huge hit! This is best one liner of his speech:“If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don’t let some idiot talk you out of it.” 

With all you’ve been through we can’t wait to see the amazing ideas and leadership you will provide. We know no one will get in your way!

This idea of solidarity will also compel you forward, if you let it. The whole world will remember 2020, but as graduates, you will share something unique: the fact that you lost your senior year, and graduation. This can unite you to your fellow graduates in a way that other events would not. So, what do you do with that? Continue to think about others. Like Harry, Ron, Herminoe and Peter Parker, you will overcome your obstacles to fight for the greater good. 

We’re proud of you! We’re counting on you! We have every confidence in you going forward. 

Congratulations and good luck! 

Donald Trump’s Unprecedented Leadership in Unparalleled Times

I have little patience for armchair quarterbacking. Being a critic is cheap. A crisis like we are seeing with COVID-19 will test all of our leadership skills. Looking for blame will do little to help the situation. Donald Trump and other government leaders are not responsible for this virus. I think we all have to be patient as we work to manage this crisis. No matter how much planning and preparation we do there will always be missteps, miscalculations and mistakes. 

One of the hallmarks of leadership is how one responds under pressure and how one owns the problem. During World War II, President Harry Truman kept a sign in the Oval Office that read “The Buck Stops Here.” Good leaders don’t blame others for problems, they go to work to find solutions. A companion principle is accountability. Leaders are eager to know how and what went wrong so they can fix it. The coronavirus is an unparalleled crisis in our time. It has required unprecedented leadership. 

Mr. Trump has provided unprecedented leadership, but, sadly, it has been unprecedentedly poor leadership. He not only refuses to take any responsibility for the handling of the crisis, he looks for every opportunity to blame others. Instead of “the Buck Stops Here,”  we see a passing of the buck. Blaming and abusing the media, gaslighting the World Health Organization, as well as projecting his own failures on governors and others. He has refused to acknowledge where mistakes have been made and shows a disdain for facts. His press events are more like campaign rallies, filled with lies and scapegoating. His dismissal of the crisis early on, and the lack of tests, health care equipment etc., could be chalked up to understandable mismanagement, if it wasn’t for the constant lies, blaming and shaming (for a thorough time line of Mr. Trumps reactions to the virus check out this three part series from Steven Harper).

Some of you will read this and think I am making a partisan attack. However, a crisis like this cuts through party lines.  Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican in liberal Massachusetts, has had wide bipartisan support during the crisis. So has Andy Beshear, a Democrat in deep red Kentucky, and Larry Hogan, a Republican in liberal Maryland. All of these governors have approval ratings in the 70s or 80s. Republican Governor Herbert of Utah, and Governor DeWine of Ohio have received national bipartisan praise, as have Democratic Governors Cuomo and Newsom of New York and California. Why? Because they have exhibited the kind of leadership that we need in a moment of crisis. 

No doubt there will be a congressional panel that it will look into the national mismanagement of this crisis. Historians and other academics will expose in great detail why our response was so inferior compared to places like Germany, Iceland, Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and others. We will not need to wait for those reports to confirm what we see everyday coming from the White House: a void of leadership looking to absolve itself of any responsibility or accountability for this crisis.

Writing to Change the World

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I am writing to change the world! Well that feels like a bit much, eh? But, there it is, on my website, as the tag line. You see it on every page. I am putting it out to the world. So what troubles me about this claim? The scope! When I say I want to change the world the first thing that comes to mind is that what I do must have some kind of global impact. The earth knew I was here because of the seismic impression I left. Therein lies the rub. The scope of the ambition leaves you feeling small and hubris at the same time. 

So what do I really mean when I say I want to change the world by what I write? I mean I hope to influence the world for good, I want to be among the contributors, not just the cynics. Of course, I would like my words to reach the masses, but that’s not the main motivation, not even close. If it was, it could taint what I write. I would find myself always chasing the popular new thing looking for more eyeballs and possibly lose sight of the goal. The goal is to impact the world around me for good. A forest is a mighty thing but so is a tree. To reach the one has value, to develop your skills has merit, even if only a dozen see it. I do want to change the world but I know that may never be on the scale it sounds like. 

I’m so very grateful for those who have impacted me in my life, few of which are NYT bestsellers or have monetized their talents in grand ways. My widowed neighbor taught me at church and welcomed me into her home. She was, for me, a much needed surrogate grandparent. She was never interviewed by Oprah and didn’t “make it big” but she changed the world by changing me. School teachers, church mentors, friends, coworkers and of course family, have all blessed my life and almost without exception did those things in obscurity. But, make no mistake they changed the world by changing me.    

So why do I write? Why not just be a nice guy? Well I am trying to be a nice guy. I’m trying to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good husband, a good father, a good Christian etc. Part of that for me means trying to push myself in new ways and develop my talents so that I can be of value to those around me. One risk we have when we pursue this course of action is comparing ourselves to others finding, ourselves lacking and then quitting. I am sympathetic to that, and I’ve written about it on at least two occasions ( Check out those posts here and here).

We can’t let whatever we aren’t yet stop us from becoming what we can be. We also can’t minimize what we are doing because we haven’t maximized the impact. Six years ago I had the distinct impression to spend more time on social media and be more purposeful about it. That journey has led me to write more, think more and be more brave. Since then I have, little by little, accomplished a lot! Here is a brief list:

  • Finished a 40k word middle grade book
  • Joined the Society Of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators
  • Joined a writing group
  • Learned how to query agents to represent my projects
  • Began my blog 
  • Reached close to 10,000 views on the blog
  • Have had near 500,000K views on social media (this is an educated guess because FB analytics are tricky for personal accounts) 
  • Finished (almost) with the first draft of my second book
  • Created a website 
  • Learned how to better brand my work
  • Met new people 
  •  Made new friends  
  • Improved my skills 
  •  Gained new skills 
  • And in some small way have made a difference 

Perhaps the most satisfying thing that has happened is the personal messages I get. So many times I have felt like a humbug, gotten discouraged, or have been ready to walk away from everything, when someone will reach out to me and thank me for something I have written. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and support I have received and humbled by the impact it’s had on myself and others. So yes, I may never monetize my work, and yes, I may never reach the masses, but I am changing the world, one word at a time, and that’s okay by me.