A new way to give thanks this Thanksgiving

This week provides a welcome respite for many, as we put aside our daily troubles, gather with family and friends, and pause to give thanks for what we have and those who helped make it possible. 
It can come in the form a few words over a meal, a phone call or a prayer.  All are valuable practices in gratitude.
But often these moments can be fleeting and soon replaced by Black Friday sales, workouts, and holiday movies.
If you’re looking for a more lasting way of giving thanks than I encourage you to try our new tool,  “Who is your dream team?
Simply put, it guides you through a series of quick prompts – about the family, friends, influences, places, work colleagues and other sources of inspiration that made your life possible.
At the end, you’ll get a wonderful visualization of all the people who contributed to who you are today AND the opportunity to share it with them as a way of saying thanks.
The importance of this last step is best captured in the words of Fred Rogers (aka Mister Rogers).
“Whomever you’ve been thinking about… imagine how pleased they’d be to know that you recognize what a difference they’ve made in your becoming.”
Taking the time to reflect on where we come from is central to how grateful we feel and our desire to be supportive of others.
I hope you can find the time to name and thank your dream team this holiday weekend. You find a few quiet minutes to complete your own online or if prefer pencil and paper you can download what you need and even bring copies to Thanksgiving dinner to do it together with friends and family.
This tool would not be possible without the generous support of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Carolinas, the Foundation for the Carolinas, the PBS initiative Chasing the Dream and Sol Design. 
And I, of course, would not be possible without my own dream team – captured in this visual below. (A helpful note is that our dream team, like our life, is a work in progress. No doubt I’ve accidentally forgotten people (sorry!) and hopefully will have more names to add as I grow. It’s not about the end product but the act of ongoing reflection).
Happy Thanksgiving to you and everyone on your dream team.

Would you like more or have you had enough?

In his brilliant new book, We are the Weather:  Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, Jonathan Safran Foer recites a common definition of the American Dream as “having a better life than one’s parents – better primarily in the sense of affluence.” 

He describes how his grandparents had a better home than his great grand parents and how his parents had a better home than his grandparents AND how he now has a better and more valuable home than any of them.  He concludes by saying that this defining of “having enough” as “having more” is the mentality that created both America and global warming.

Writing, “It is problematic on all scales, and self-destruction is built into the model because nothing can grow forever.”  Ouch.

Conversely, I recently went to an event featuring a discussion with Lin-Manuel Miranda. He was asked if the success of Hamilton was paralyzing in determining what to do next. After all, how could you possibly top its success? 

Instead of talking about pressure and writing blocks, Lin said how freeing this success was — “I’ve accepted that this will be the first line of my obituary and I’m cool with that.”  Because he was proud of that work in its own right, he can now be free to pursue projects without feeling like they need to live up to Hamilton in order to be successful.

Rather than self-destruction, his relationship to success was infinitely more sustainable and presumably satisfying. 

It is perfectly natural to want a little more, to continue to grow, challenge yourself again and again and again.

But to what end?

Searching for the King

Growing up I absolutely idolized Elvis Presley. His rock and roll greeted me after Friday Little League games as I walked into the bar where my mom worked.  His movies kept me company on Saturday afternoons. His gospel music was my church on Sunday. 

Why I was so drawn to him is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was his devotion to his mother – which I shared to my own. Or maybe I aspired to replicate some semblance of his rags to riches story. Or maybe as an awkward kid who wasn’t especially popular, I just reveled in his coolness. 

All of which might explain why as a nine year old, I entered a Halloween contest dressed as Elvis (I finished second behind a tricked out R2D2 from Star Wars.)

Recently my appreciation for Elvis was rekindled when I watched the HBO documentary about his life, which was aptly named, The Searcher.

It detailed his never ending sense of insecurity, the memories of poverty he could not shake and his quest to connect with and through music.  His openness and integration of different musical genres from gospel to soul to rhythm and blues helped usher in rock and roll and popular music as we know it. 

Among the many things that stood out in the film were the stories about how authentically he was able to communicate through song.

Elvis had a twin brother who died at birth, a fact that reportedly haunted him throughout his life.  As a child, Elvis was encouraged by his mother to go outside and sing, telling him, “When you sing to the moon, your brother can hear you.”

Later in the film, someone described the secret to authentic musicians by saying, “When they sing, you can hear them negotiating loss.”

Today, many do not remember Elvis very charitably. Instead of thinking about his pioneering talent, vulnerability, meteoric rise, service to his country, or generosity, they remember him in final years – the leather costumes, gained weight, drug usage and ignominy of his death (which I was shocked to realize happened at the young age of 42.)

Watching the Searcher was a reminder of how crucial the soundtracks of our lives can be when it comes to finding and following our own paths. They don’t just play in the background but inspire us to move forward.

Thanks Elvis.

Origins vs. Traditions: Baseball, Hot Dogs & Apple Pie

Hot dogs didn’t come to America until the 1860’s when a German immigrant began selling them off a cart in New York’s Bowery.

Apple pie came to America courtesy of England – via Geoffrey Chaucer’s recipe.  But apples originated from Asia – which is also where fireworks were created.

Baseball, our national pastime, may actually trace its roots back to Egypt – where the first use of a bat and ball were discovered.

Finally, America didn’t invent the idea of democracy – that hails from Greece. In fact, the word democracy isn’t even in the Declaration of Independence.

There are many fine traditions associated with July 4th.   Celebrating them binds us together as a nation. 

But origin stories do us one better, they connect us more broadly to the world and remind us of our shared humanity.

Hope you had a wonderful 4th of July.

What Do You Do in Line?

I recently heard the writer and sociologist, Arlie Russell Hochschild describe the discontent many feel in the country today.  It was from her acclaimed book,Strangers in Their Own Land, and was captured in the following metaphor:
“You’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. It’s like waiting in a pilgrimage, and the line isn’t moving. Your feet are tired. You feel you are properly deserving of this reward that’s ahead. And the idea is, you don’t begrudge anyone in this right deep story. You’re not a hateful person. But then you see… somebody cutting ahead of you. Why are they getting special treatment?
Then, in another moment, the president of the country, Barack Obama, who should be tending fairly to all waiters-in-line, seems to be waving to the line cutters. In fact, “Is he a line cutter?” — the idea is. How did his mother — she was a single mother, not a rich woman — afford a Harvard education, a Columbia education? Something fishy happened. That was the thought there.”
In a final moment, someone from the coasts, someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite, turns around, and they’re really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck.”  That is the estranging thing, that insult.”
The power of metaphors is their ability to reveal deeper insights into our thinking about a particular topic.  

And in hearing hers, it illuminates the following truths about how we see mobility in this country:
We generally don’t understand how we end up in our place in line.

We have even less knowledge about how other people get their place in line

We don’t know why the line moves for some and not for others.

And finally, we spend too much time judging others in the line and too little figuring out how to make the line move faster for all of us.

What do you do when you’re in line?

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Watch This Twice

A few weeks ago, someone suggested that I watch the video, This Is America, from Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover)

A better recommendations would have been to watch it twice.

My first viewing left me mesmerized, but also wondering, “What the hell was that about?”

My inclination was to google that very question.  The results were revealing. Countless articles broke down the multiple layers of the video, pointing out important things I had clearly missed in my initial viewing.
So I watched it again. This time, instead of watching the action taking place in the foreground, I focused exclusively on what was going on in the background.

Like the peeling of an onion, each layer was stronger than the one before.

Demands on our time and distractions to our attention make for superficial viewing. And as supply follows demand, eventually superficial content.

Yet beneath the surface of every story, including our own, should be depth worth examining.

Find the time to watch something twice. First follow the action right in front of you, then watch again to see what’s happening in the background. 

It could be this video.  Or try it with a sporting event (watch a portion of the game following the ball, then spend 10 minutes focused on one player without the ball.)  Re-read a great book or listen closely to the verses of a song multiple times to get past the hook.

Finally, try to view your own story differently. Take your eyes off of yourself and look to see everything that is happening all around you – what meaning and depth do the people, places and events in your background add to your story? 

When you take the time to look twice at something, you won’t have to worry about what you’re missing. 

The Final Gift from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination.

On April 3rd, the evening before his death, he gave his last public talk in Memphis. The speech is largely known for his prescient “mountaintop” passage below:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life–longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Given that the very next day, he would be taken by an assassin’s bullet, it is hard to understate the tragedy of his closing remarks.
Yet to only remember that portion of his speech is to miss what is essentially a blueprint for advancing social change.

He opens by reminding us of the incredible progress we have made in human rights throughout history – while saying there is no other time in which he would want to live.

Calling people to join the Memphis march for sanitation workers, he outlines why marches work, how non-violence is effective and the importance of carrying oneself with dignity throughout.

For those engaged in the myriad of movements today, he also discusses other tools for activism, chief among them economic withdrawal (reminding people, that at the time, the African American economy at $31 billion was larger than many developed countries – including Canada.) 

Mobilization, economic leverage, media savvy, patience, determination, and dignity – these were among the tools of his trade. And they were all on display in this Memphis speech.

Right before his mountaintop reference, he discussed his mortality in even more vivid terms. Years earlier in 1960 – prior to most of his signature achievements – he was stabbed by a mentally ill black woman in New York during a book signing event. The tip of the blade was at the edge of his aorta. He observed that had he even sneezed he would have died then and there. History robbed and no telling its impact on the civil rights movement.

Which is all to say for all the planning and strategy we put into our life, there is no accounting for the fickleness of fate.

Whether out of honor for Dr. King or interest in learning more about how social change happens, please take a few minutes and read the fullness of his remarks here.

Perhaps, the sadness from the loss he himself foreshadows will be replaced by a renewed optimism for what is possible.

What Can You Say in 6 Words?

Distillation requires us to reduce something to its essence.  Within art and literature, it often means that less is more.

Hemingway was especially gifted in this regard and, as legend has it, was once challenged to write a story using only six words. His response?

  “For sale; baby shoes. Never worn.”

This six-word format has been popularized by the organization Six Word Memoirs.

It has also been an effective instrument in getting people to open up on issues like race as evidenced by The Race Card Project.  This initiative was started by Michele Norris of NPR and is now affiliated with The Bridge at Aspen Institute. 

Several hundred thousand people have shared their six-word reflections on race. Just spending a few minutes on the site will show you the power of the format.

In reflecting recently on why I do this work in general and more specifically my interest in a better conversation around the American Dream, I distilled it down to this:

“I die. Daughters live. Now what?”

Part of the discipline of this exercise is to allow these few words to stand on their own – and, in doing so, give us pause so they may soak in.

So if you have a few minutes today, try distilling your story down to six words.  As is the case in so many things, much of the value lies in the process not the end product. Still, I think you’ll be surprised by how a few words can say so much.

How Do You Compare To Others?

We all like to believe that our self-worth is something we determine on our own. It is after all called self-worth.
Then why do we so often feel compelled to compare ourselves to others? We do it with our looks, our grades, our performance, our income and raises. And we do it between neighbors or friends (e.g. keeping up with the Joneses) and within our families (e.g. will we do better than our parents?)
The sociological term for this is social comparison theory.  Initially it was believed that the primary reason people do this is to gain an accurate self-evaluation. The more we compare ourselves to others, the more sure we can be about our own sense of self.
More recently, there has been focus on the types of social comparison; upward vs. downward. The idea being that we compare ourselves downward to feel better about our selves and we compare upward to motivate us to do better.
The power and implications of social comparison are significant. Some have theorized that the recent election was swayed by a large percentage of the population whose frustration is not just because their own situation hasn’t improved but that compared to their parents or others they once considered beneath them it now feels worse.
Recently, I had my own lesson is social comparison at work.
Last week we launched, Your American Dream Score, a simple quiz to assess what you had working for or against you in life.  As part of our online efforts to spread the word, several messages were tested.  Most were about self-exploration – “find your score”, “see what was working for you”, etc. But one utilized social comparison.  It said, “Abraham Lincoln’s score was 81 and George Washington’s was 54. Find yours.”
The result was the Social Comparison message outperformed all others by more than 300%, regardless of the audience being targeted. People were interested in learning about themselves but significantly more interested in how they compared to George and Abe.
If you’d like to conduct a little experiment of your own, try this:

  • Take 5 minutes and find Your American Dream Score
  • Share it on Facebook (your score will automatically pop up but all other information is hidden from others). 
  • In your post, either tag friends or include a message suggesting others find their score.  

What happens next? If previous experience holds true, your friends will start to post their scores in your feed, essentially comparing themselves to your score.
The good news, depending upon how they compare to you, you will have helped them either feel better about themselves or motivated them to do better moving forward.
Either way, consider it your good deed for the day.