Small Invisible Acts

A man wrote a short story that he could not get published. So he included it in 200 Christmas cards he sent out to friends and family.
One of the cards ended up in the hands of a film director. He made a film based on that story.
It lost a fortune and the director never made a successful film again. He ultimately had to sell his production company and with it the rights to the film.
The company and the rights were sold several more times. The eventual owner forgot to renew the copyright of the film.
Which meant that it was now free to anyone who wanted to air the film.
So PBS did.
And then other networks followed suit.
They aired it around Christmas because they needed cheap programming to compete with newer holiday specials.
The film was It’s a Wonderful Life.
The story behind how this classic came to be epitomizes its name and central message every bit as much as the better known plot of the film itself.
Small invisible acts by people known and unknown shape our lives.  It reminds us to send more such acts into the world – without thought or expectation of any grand outcome.

Although, as this story shows, this doesn’t mean that something grand won’t eventually happen.  And when it does and others learn the story behind the story, they too will feel all the more grateful and enriched.  Perhaps inspiring more simple invisible acts to made.
Thank you to Phillip Van Doren Stern for sending his story, “The Greatest Gift” out into the world and into our hearts.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Thank You

As Thanksgiving approaches, I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude for all of your support and interest in these weekly notes.

Thank you for taking a few minutes each Monday morning to read these emails.

Thank you for your emails to me filled with kind words and your own personal stories.

Thank you for forwarding these words to your friends and colleagues.

Thank you for posting them on social media.

Thank you for finding Your American Dream Score.

Thank you to those whose research has informed these emails.

Thank you to those whose work helping others has been featured here.

Thank you to the writers and artists whose creations have sparked an idea for a weekly note.

Thank you to Fast Company, Huffington Post, Medium and Thrive Global for publishing some of this writing.

Thank you to the Ford Foundation for the many ways they have supported this work.

Thank you to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who has introduced me to so many people featured in these emails.

Thank you to PBS’s flagship station WNET for spreading the word and developing curriculum around this work.

Thank you to my friends and family for the material of our lives that sometimes gets shared.

And along those lines, thank you to my six-year old daughter who has finally fallen asleep allowing me to finish this email to you.

I appreciate the many demands on your daily time as well as the chaos in our culture that makes this time feel all the more precious. 

With that as context, I am especially grateful for any time you find for me and these weekly notes.  

I wish you safe travels and wonderful times with your friends and family this Thanksgiving. 


What Great Teachers Do

As I walked around my children’s classrooms, the walls were papered with new projects. The collective imagination of each class was surpassed only by the ingenious assignment that inspired it. Poems written by pairs of students describing what they had in common and what made them different, a quilt that showed the individual tastes and interests of each child woven together to make one fabric, an interview series between students discovering the likes and dislikes of a new friend in class.
Linking many of these exercises was the theme for the school year, “While we may all be different fish, we swim together as a school.”
Rather than indoctrinating these children with this important theme, the teachers instead gave them tools that would allow them to discover it’s meaning for themselves. 

It reminded me of something once written by someone who knows a thing or two about discovery.
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”  — Galileo
In his day, the idea of how to share what one knew was a matter of life or death. Which is why he shared his evidence of the earth revolving around the sun not as a belief or proven fact but as a point for discussion and careful consideration.
It seems rare that we have the time or patience to let people “find it within themselves.”  We present our facts and instantly dismiss others who don’t accept our position.
What if instead we asked questions that would allow someone to discover our truths for themselves on their own terms?
VICE news featured a former National Parks director who was spending both his time and money from retirement going around the country talking to outdoorsman.  Accepting that many in his audience are skeptical of climate change, he simply asked them questions about what THEY saw changing in their experiences hunting, fishing or spending time outdoors.  The result was an opening to a constructive conversation about climate change
Good teachers, whether in grade school or the school of life, recognize that it’s not about having all the answers, but in being able to ask the right questions. *******

Teaching as discovery fueled our development of Your American Dream Score.  We’re very excited to announce that our partner PBS Learning has just released resources based on this tool that help teachers engage students on questions around social mobility and civic engagement.  If you or someone you know is interested in using these resources, click on the links below.

Introducing Your American Dream Score: Find Yours Today

Today, I’m excited to announce the release of Your American Dream Score, a simple online tool to find out what factors were working for and against your efforts to achieve the American Dream.
The tool was made possible with generous support from the Ford Foundation and is being launched in conjunction with WNET, America’s flagship PBS station, and its’ Chasing the Dream Initiative.

It takes less than five minutes to discover Your American Dream Score. You’ll be asked several questions about your life, each representing a factor that research shows correlates to social mobility and/or happiness in life.
Once completed, you receive a score and a list of what you had working for and against you. The higher your score, the more you had to overcome. The lower the score, the more you had working in your favor.
You are also given a link to a song that symbolizes your journey and are encouraged to take some action.  This includes sharing your score on social media if you’re proud of what you’ve had to overcome, or grateful for the people and factors that helped you. 
We’d like to thank our friends at WNET and the Ford Foundation for making this new extension of Moving Up possible and providing such a wonderful platform for launching it. 
Importantly, I’d also like to thank each of you. Without your early support for Moving Up, this latest venture would not be happening.
Please find Your American Dream Score and share it with your friends today.
My score is 67, showing that while I had many things I had to overcome, I had almost as many things working for me – including great friends.  My song?  Appropriately enough was Somewhere Over the Rainbow – a symbol of this hopeful journey I’ve been on.
Stay tuned for more news on Your American Dream Score and Moving Up.


How To Save Art

During a classroom visit last week, my nine-year-old daughter showed me a project, featuring side-by-side drawings of the same subject – in her case spring. One was a realistic depiction and the second an abstract version. Accompanying the pictures was a biography on the Russian artist Kandinsky whose work they learned had a similar transition from the realistic to abstract.

The most remarkable thing about this lesson in perspective was that it was not part of their art class, but instead central to a social studies unit on Russia. Her teacher told me she was grateful to still be able to do these kinds of things with the added pressure coming from other curriculum requirements.

Recently, the President’s budget called for  eliminating federal support for the arts, humanities and for public media, further igniting debate on the role of art in our society. 

Sadly, art has come to be seen by many as separate from life. Either elevated as elite and above the masses or devalued as out of touch with every day needs and concerns. In both instances, art in the abstract is perceived as being distant and detached from the reality of life.

Yet our individual lives tell us a completely different story. Who can’t point to a book, painting, song, performance, film, or show that has lifted us for a needed moment or even permanently informed our worldview?

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, recently described how lucky he was as a little boy growing up in rural Texas, when his grandmother would bring him old art magazines and programs from arts events. She hadn’t attended the events herself but instead worked as a maid in a wealthy family’s home who had given them to her.

In this moving talk, Walker says, “Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it. Simply put, the arts changed my life.”

When we isolate the experience of art from the experience of life, we fail to appreciate its true value and leave it susceptible to the whims of false choices – whether in our federal budgets or our classrooms.

In his persuasive defense for public television, General Stanley McChrystal challenges this isolation and false choice saying, “In our society, I see public media as a lever. It pushes people by elevating them and their sights. It brings them into more thinking and understanding, and it brings us together.”

There are great ways to support the arts and public media now during challenging times. In the long run, though, perhaps the most important thing we can all do is to consistently demonstrate that art’s impact on helping us move up is not abstract and distant but very real and very close to home.

Do You Feel Lucky?

On the lead up to St. Patrick’s Day, I wondered about the phrase, “luck of the Irish.”

I had just watched a PBS documentary on Irish history and they didn’t seem very lucky at all.  Considering:

  • The great potato famine took over one million lives and drove another million to emigrate – decreasing the population of Ireland by almost 25%.
  • Their war for independence from England caused a lasting divide between Unionists in Northern Ireland and Nationalists in Southern Ireland. The solution to which caused such bitterness, that unlike in America, they don’t celebrate their Independence Day.
  • The period from 1970-2000 was called “The Troubles”! (Thirty years marked by escalating violence and domestic terrorism)

Ironically, the phrase “luck of the Irish” was originally one of derision. It’s origin dates back to the gold and silver rush in the 19th century. Many of the most successful miners were of Irish descent. Their success was attributed to “luck” rather than intelligence or hard work. This reflects a very unhealthy relationship between success and luck.

When reflecting on the role of luck in achieving our own dreams, only 27% of Americans see it as essential.  

However, when we think about luck’s role in other people’s success – especially those who we may not feel are as deserving  – then we see it playing a more significant role. 

Or in sports parlance — your opponents make lucky plays, you make great ones.

Our relationship with luck is critical to how we view the world and support each other.

In his book Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, author Robert Frank demonstrates its impact on everything from individual giving to support for fair tax policy and social welfare programs.

Usually when we acknowledge luck’s role in our success we can’t help but link it as just a by-product of our work. 

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.”  Easy for him to say when he inherited a 5,000 acre plantation.

The motto of my namesake, the McKinnon clan (Scottish not Irish – long story), is “Fortune follows the brave.”  Yet bravery had little to do with many of the breaks I’ve received along the way.

When we acknowledge the role of luck in our lives, it doesn’t diminish the magnitude of our success but enlarges our appreciation of it.

So just a few days after celebrating a day when we are all a little Irish, I ask you this –  Do you feel lucky?

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?

Who Is Your “Everyone”?

“Who is your everyone? Chess masters scarcely surround themselves with motocross racers. Do you want aborigines at your birthday party? Or is that yak butter tea you are serving…. Each people know only its own squares in the weave, its wars and instruments and arts, and also perhaps the starry sky.”

In her essay, “This is the Life,” Annie Dillard eloquently writes about our limited worldviews. She is not passing judgment but rather stating that this is a natural and universal aspect of life. We live among and are drawn to others who share our interests and experiences. This creates the illusion of “this is what life is” and often presumes what we think it ought to be for others. Some call this: living in a bubble.

We don’t need to travel to faraway lands or cultures to realize that our worldview is limited. Too often we can look at our neighboring town or the person sitting next to us on the subway. We see de facto segregation in our lives everywhere—in schools, in our workforce, in our politics. When we see someone beyond our weave, we are prone to snap judgments and compare their experience to ours. Instead of accepting that right now this is their weave. And much like ours, their fabric has points of beauty and vulnerability.

Recently PBS published a “bubble quiz” from author Charles Murray who contends that the upper class American has lost touch with the average American.

I encourage you to take the quiz here.

After you’re done, you’ll get a “bubble score,” which in and of itself is interesting.

Beyond this, ask yourself what kind of reactions or judgments you made while answering these questions. What images popped into your mind? Did you appreciate any aspect of the “weave” intimated by these questions?

Going back to Dillard’s essay, she doesn’t offer any panacea for expanding our limited worldviews — we are who we are. But she does prod us to appreciate both the diversity of lived experiences in the world, and the fact that each of us will still live and die under the same “starry sky.”

With this realization, she ends by asking: “Then what?”

How Well Do You See?

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life called “Invisible Made Visible.

The opening interview was with Ryan Knighton who is blind. He described an evening where he absolutely could not find the telephone in his hotel room. As much as he used various self-described techniques, such as “groping the coffee table” or “Marcel Marceau-ing the walls,” he could not locate the phone. For him, to touch it was to see it. And if he could do neither, then he presumed it did not exist.

The next day a new situation caused him to become totally disoriented in that same room. For a few minutes he couldn’t find anything and lost his bearings completely. An experience that was as frightening as it was frustrating. Eventually he realized something about the design of the room and all the pieces clicked. He regained his bearings, found the phone, and all was right with his world again.

In describing his episode, it struck me that we all suffer from a metaphorical blindness. If we cannot see something, or better yet, touch it, it doesn’t seem to exist. And so it is with many of the things that have helped us get to where we are in life.

Ryan described his experience as “getting lost inside his mistake.” In psychology there are various types of blindness.

  • Choice blindness refers to the phenomenon where people are blind to their own choices.
  • Inattentional blindness, also known as perceptual blindness, is the failure to notice a fully visual but unexpected object.
  • Change blindness occurs when a change occurs and we fail to notice it.

Watch this related experiment from NOVA and you will see what I mean. (It’s an engaging four minutes.)

The point being is that there are all types of blindness that cause us to miss the many things that help us each and every day. But too often, we don’t even bother to “grope” or “Marcel Marceau” around the contours of our life. We fail to try and “touch” or “see” those things that make us who we are.

So find five minutes today to truly see someone who is helping you to touch something that is making your life better.

At the end of the This American Life segment, Ryan talks about his blindness, saying that for some time what was most difficult about being blind was the embarrassment in still trying to “see” things.

He got over it. Shouldn’t we?