Maybe You Could Be President Someday…

This phrase has probably been uttered to hundreds of millions of American children over our country’s 240 year history.

Yet during that time only 44 people have actually held that job.

It is no wonder that when we tell the stories of our Presidents we marvel at the individual efforts and the hard work that must have been required to ascend to our highest office. Yet consider how many other factors, like these, had to fall in place when you hear their extraordinary individual tales:

Money helps. Every President but one (Truman) since 1929 has been a millionaire at the time of achieving office.

Education is critical.  Over 40% went to Ivy League schools and since 1893 all but one graduated college.

Health matters. Most enjoyed healthy lives – especially for their times. Even those who had to overcome well-known health issues, such as John F. Kennedy and both Roosevelts, had the benefit of being able to afford literally the best care in the world for their conditions. 

Connections count.  40 out of 45 came from politics – many hand picked by party bosses to be their nominee. Ten were directly related to another President (2 sets of father/sons, 2 sets of cousins and one grandfather/grandson).  In fact, genealogists have determined that FDR was related to 11 different Presidents himself (5 by blood and 6 by marriage). 

A little luck goes a long way.  20% didn’t even get elected to the office – rising only after the previous occupant died or resigned.  Of course, there are also five who did not win the popular vote but won via the electoral college. 

Lifted by many helping hands. Behind every President is a whole host of advisors, friends, relatives, aides and funders who supported them along the way.  However, 18 Presidents actually owned slaves, in many cases hundreds, which presumably allowed them to amass their fortunes that made running for public office possible

These are just a handful of the factors that help explain how these 44 people rose above the hundreds of millions of children who were told that “maybe one day they could become President too.”

None of this is to diminish any of their hard work or the amount of individual effort required to rise to the oval office.  But hard work and help aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact to become President of anything they are mutually dependent.

Consider this:  Even Abraham Lincoln perhaps our most “self-made” President, would never have risen to that office were it not for the simple fate of his birth.  Leave 99.9% of his genes exactly the same, but assume he were born either a woman or a black man. Could he have become our 16th President in 1860?

So on President’s Day, let’s honor those who have held this office by honoring the totality of what made their journey possible. 

Do Your Job

This is the mantra of the New England Patriots. The idea is simple. If everyone commits to understanding what your role is, focusing on doing that job well, and trusting your teammates to do theirs, the team – and everyone on that team – will win. The emphasis is not on being the best person ON the team but being the best person FOR the team.

In life, you could say the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl is achieving the American Dream. The difference is that we have come to think of the American Dream as an individual sport instead of the team effort it really is.

So what does it mean to “Do Your Job” if we want everyone to win the American Dream?

For a parent or a teacher, your role may seem pretty clear. But what about a business leader, celebrity, politician or citizen?

In general, we do a pretty good job pointing fingers at our “teammates” for not doing their job. We meddle or freelance and get “out of our position” because we don’t trust them.

It’s why parents constantly criticize teachers. Teachers criticize parents.  Citizens don’t vote but complain about their elected leaders.

We also focus on trying to be the “best in the world” instead of being the best “for the world.”  

This can explain why business leaders measure success by how much money their companies make not how happy they make their workers. See a very telling article on the World Economic Forum here.

Or why politicians talk about how many elections they’ve won vs. how much effective legislation they’ve passed.

Or celebrities pride themselves on how much the content they make grosses vs. making sure that none of that content makes us feel gross if our kids watch it.

Doing Your Job is harder than it sounds. Focus and trust are in short supply these days. But if we all commit to doing both – in every role we play – America’s team will also make a comeback for the ages.

One Woman’s March

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards, where white clouds of bloom drifted above the green land. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines.”

These are the opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. A book often credited with starting the modern environmental movement, as it called into question not just the unchecked mass use of pesticides but man’s increasingly fractured relationship to nature.

Upon publication over 50 years ago, it sparked a public uprising, a well-orchestrated industry response replete with “alternative facts”, congressional hearings and eventually regulations that not only curbed the use of pesticides, but also laid the framework for all the environmental battles and progress that would follow.

Before Silent SpringCarson was already a best selling author whose simple and beautiful prose created a sense of wonder about nature – specifically the ocean. Much like the opening lines of Silent Spring, she painted pictures of a world in which we wanted to live in harmony with all that was around us – thinking that we would protect that which we appreciated, understood and loved.

She chose her words carefully and while her message was alarming – she was by no means an alarmist. In fact, the passion and anger that burned deep within her was channeled into a warm illuminating light that added credibility and converts.

In her lifetime, her march was a slow and sometimes lonely one. Her legacy is the millions who have since picked up her baton.

The lessons of Carson’s life were unknown to me until I stumbled upon a PBS documentary last week.

Just days later, I found myself in my daughter’s classroom dissecting an owl’s pellet – essentially a giant fur ball they regurgitate after eating their prey.

We all went into this exercise with trepidation, children saying, “This is gross”, we parents thinking the exact same thing.

But as I watched these 9 year-olds delicately extract the bones from matted fur and proudly catalogue their discoveries, it was hard not to notice the look of awe and wonder in their faces and the unbridled amazement in their voices. 

This was education – a moment that connects them to the world around them. Perhaps for one or two, this would be their first step in a long march. One that started with fear and unease, but now grows with respect and love.

We are all marching in our own way. Every step measured by what we buy, how we spend our time, or how we talk to each other. Is this march for something or against someone?  Are we burning things down or shining light for others to see? And will our children or those that follow pick up our baton because we have marched well?

I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot

For the last few years, I’ve resisted the hype over the Broadway show, Hamilton.  After all how can one play be that good, that transformational?

While I still haven’t seen it, Santa Claus did place, the cast recording in my daughter’s stocking.  And from the music alone, I can say definitively that I was wrong.

It is a masterpiece on many levels – a historical primer on our nation’s founding and a paragon for using music and art to entertain and educate.

But perhaps most important, it is a moving and nuanced illustration of the challenges and glories when trying to rise in America that are as true today as they were over two hundred years ago when our country was founded.  

Recently I read an article critical of an initiative designed to give over 100,000 children from low-income homes the chance to see Hamilton. Despite the fact that it had a built-in curriculum where students would use art to explore a piece of history or a social issue, it was viewed as a luxury – when these funds could have gone to provide these same children with more “fundamental” needs. 

It signaled to me a lack of appreciation for how transformative a single exposure to a work of art can be in the trajectory of a youth. Yes it may exist in a singular moment of time, but the impact of that moment can reverberate for the rest of our lives.

Generally, we can probably all point to a book, song, play or other work of art that “changed us.”  

Now imagine, you come from a poor neighborhood and someone hands you a ticket to Hamilton. You take your ticket that people have told you others are paying a thousand dollars for and you watch a story about another poor kid who is trying to find his way.  He takes his shot. Sometimes succeeding but also failing – both in epic proportion. You are mesmerized by the music and the story. Later, members of the cast talk with you about what they learned in taking “their shot”. Finally, they tell you that you have something worth saying and show you how to start “taking your shot” by creating something that may be performed before a Hamilton matinee.

Now tell me how that does not fill a “fundamental need”?

It is not a meal but it nourishes.
It is not shelter but it provides warmth.
It is not school but it teaches.
It is not transportation but it provides direction.

Often we think we have to give kids the basics in order to have any shot in life. And this may be true.  But it is equally valuable to show them lessons learned through the examples of others and inspire them to have the confidence needed to take their shot when the time comes.

If we don’t, they won’t be throwing away their shot, we will. 

So take a shot at investing in arts education.

If you need a little extra inspiration, listen to “My Shot” from Hamilton.   

Can You Afford This?

Recently I was in a pinch and had to quickly buy some pasta sauce to make dinner for my family. I could have gone to the local grocery store where I normally shop but it was just a little out of my way. Instead I stopped by the gourmet store in town and picked up sauce that cost a ridiculous $10. For the convenience of saving 5 minutes I paid double of what I would normally.

Later that same weekend, my mother happened to be in the same local grocery store above and saw a “great deal” on family packs of pork chops. She decided she would stop there on the way home to Pennsylvania, purchase three packs of 6 chops, put them on ice for a 5 hour car ride and freeze them for the winter.

In my situation, I could afford to pay a premium for my time. In my mother’s, she saw a deal she literally couldn’t afford to pass up.

And there is the relativity of what is affordable in a nutshell.

Check out this new online platform that will show you what purchasing something would feel like to you if you were near the poverty line. 

For example, if you made $75,000 a year, you might not blink at spending $9 on a bottle of cough syrup but for mother at the poverty line, that same bottle will feel like $24.

If you made $100,000 and you wanted to live in a place with great school districts, like a suburb of New York, your average rent would be a $3,440. Pretty stiff. But if you were a low income family who also wanted to live in those areas with the same great schools, the cost of rent would feel like almost $12,000 a month.  

The simple fact is that when we use the term affordable, we typically think of it relative to what we can afford and not what others can’t.

What does this mean when it comes to helping more Americans move up?
Consider this:

A Gallup poll shows that 1/3 Americans put off health care treatment because they can’t afford the copay or deductible.
Half of all high school students who take college prep classes don’t go on to attend college. The number one reason – they can’t afford to.

As a country, WE can’t afford to have significant portions of our citizens not living up to their god-given potential because of they can’t afford basic things like staying healthy or becoming more educated.

It is too easy for us to judge others for the choices they make with limited financial resources without truly appreciating how difficult those choice really are.

(In fact as Sendhil Mullanthain points out in his important book, Scarcity, in general people with fewer resources are often more resourceful.)

So the next time you judge someone who doesn’t seem to “value” education like you do, consider that to them the simple act of buying college text books for four years ($2200 to you) could feel like $24,000 to them.

Who Taught You That?

What is the first thing you remember learning? It’s hard to say, right?

That’s because from the moment we’re born, our education begins. It’s hard to pinpoint what and when we learn because in our early years it is non-stop.

Children arrive on their first day of school with varying degrees of readiness. Thirty million degrees of variation to be exact. By some studies, children born into low-income families have heard roughly 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers when they enter school.

From there it doesn’t get much better for some. Learning is a lifelong process and there are countless factors inside and outside of the classroom that contribute to learning—or lack thereof.

Look back: at your preschool, your home life, your teachers, what you watched on television. Think about who, or even what, contributed to your learning. For some, it was a teacher in school; for others, it was Barney or Big Bird. Teachers come in many forms.

Have you ever really appreciated the value of that early “teacher” and told them how much they helped you? If not, give them a shout out on social media today.Read more about the many ways EDUCATION shapes us.