Worldly Lessons for Graduates

(Please note, this column originally published several years ago when my son graduated high school. Being as I didn’t write this — the contents are contributed by friends and family and are generally timeless. I hope sharing with yet another class of graduates will prove helpful. Congratulations to the class of 2020.)

With the end of this school year, my son will graduate from high school and move onto another stage in life in which I’ll most likely play a contributing role at best. No longer will we share the day’s events over the dinner table or hang out on the front step talking. My relationship will be transitioning from parent to consultant in many aspects. In the end, the decisions – and results – will be his and his alone.

While I’m accepting of this development, I realize my work will never be complete. There will always g be an urge for a “just one more thing I want to share” moment.

This moment in time brings me to this week’s column. The random lessons below – written in no particular order – are a culmination not only my life but also from those I value in my life: friends and family. On a Wednesday, I posted this idea for a column on Facebook and within hours received contributions from nearly two dozen individuals around the world. And therein lies the credit for the vast and varied wisdom. 

So as yet another high school class approaches graduation, here are a few final thoughts from those who’ve been there.

The “one more thing….” list:

Always put the newest tires on the front of your car. 

Always do your best – especially when you think no one will notice. People do.

Telling the truth is always easier to remember.

When using a wrench: lefty loosey, righty tighty.

Take action when you first think of it – time has a way of getting away from you.

Remember to regularly tell the important people in your life you love them. 

Regardless of what you hear, God does exist and will be there when you need him most. Really.

Change your oil every 3,500 miles and rotate your tires every other time.

The tip of a shoelace is named an anglet.

Being right isn’t always the most important thing in life.

Moderation is usually the best choice.

You’re not likely to be the smartest person in the room – so don’t act like it.

Count to ten before getting angry. It really works.

What goes around, comes around.

Never spend more than you make.

Don’t eat yellow snow.

If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything.

You will experience failure, and the key is always to fail forward…never repeat a failure

Don’t stand up in a canoe.

If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Never underestimate the power of kindness to make a difference in the lives of others.

Treat everyone like you wish to be treated.

Call your momma.

Don’t take yourself so seriously. No one else does.

Learn to laugh at yourself.

Your beliefs determine your actions; think seriously about what you believe.

Always expect others can change; it is what you would want others to believe of you as well.

You are entitled to your opinion; the world is not obligated to hear it.

If you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re probably right.

You want it, earn it.

Remember you to listen more than you speak – that’s why you have two ears and only one mouth.

Everything is sales. EVERYTHING.

Learn how to prioritize.

Great love and great achievements involve risks.

God first, others second, me third. A hard one but true. 

Believe “failure is not an option,” and you will be a success at everything.

Worry is like a rocking chair: it takes up a lot of energy and doesn’t get anywhere.

No man ever lay on his deathbed wishing he’d spent more time at the office.

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Invest In Your Local Businesses

I hope you are shopping locally whenever possible.

COVID-19 is rewriting the rules for nearly every aspect of our lives. Until a vaccine is developed and widely distributed, we are all in a brand new world. Until then, elementary classrooms will not fill with dozens of students. We won’t be elbowing up to the stage at a concert, and squeezing into the tiny middle seat of an airplane will make us feel strangely threatened.

But we need to make sure we do not lose our connection to the local businesses making up the threads of our community. Doing so could leave this critical fabric in tatters.

While large corporations get the glamor and attention when courting a local community, small businesses quietly go about their activities. No glitz, no massive tax breaks. I would bet if you step out your front door, you can toss a rock into the yard of someone either owning or working for a small business. I know I can.

My wife and I are slowing getting back out as local businesses struggle to reopen. We are both careful and cautious but know we are ultimately responsible for our health. Strangely, a face mask hanging from the rearview mirror of our cars is becoming the norm.

Today, as so many local businesses – and by direct relation, neighbors – struggle to regain financial footing, look at your choice of shopping as an investment. When you have a choice, make it local. Invest with the businesses you know whose roots are firmly grounded in your community with blood, sweat, and tears.

As local restaurants began to reopen, my wife and I sought out specific favorites of ours to visit. The driving factor? We wanted to support those we did not want to disappear from our community and lives. Previously our modest dinner might not have made the difference between them being open, but now, it just might. And that would hurt our community.

The other day I needed a can of spray paint. I had three choices – online, a mega store, or one where the store owner lives locally. Doing so, in small part, ensures he will continue to operate his business, hire young local students, and make modest but essential contributions to local charities.

And for the price of a can of gloss clear coat, I cast my vote.

Locally-grown and managed businesses are so much more than the sign on the side of the road. Picture the face of the person who created this dream or where someone landed their first job. Think of the families, depending on these modest businesses for a paycheck. Most shops may be small compared to those making national headlines, but locally and collectively, they are the heartbeat of our community. They are too small to fail.

As we all learn to shape our new reality, let’s commit to spending our dollars with a purpose – one we carry with the respect we do in the voting booth.

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The New Norm Coming Into Focus

The novelty of working from home is over. Oh, so over.

“Sometimes I look up at the computer screen during a video conference and wonder who the old guy that looks like my aunt Thelma is,” said a friend. “Then I realize it is me.”

Video conferencing might only be the tip of the sword.

The COVID-19 crisis is changing our lives in profound ways. If this is a disruption, then it is one akin to a tectonic behavioral shifting occurring within a generational gap. And if most of us experienced the coming of the internet, 9/11, and the Great Financial Crisis of 2009, this event is an attention-getter.

As medically dangerous the COVID-19 crisis is, the forced change in behavior could forever warp how we manage our days. And maybe there are a few positive takeaways.

My wife and I are getting to know each other in ways similar to when we first began dating. Without the constant pressure of having to be somewhere, we find ourselves sitting and talking more. One night we played a game of naming restaurants from our childhoods until the other called uncle. And with most, came a story or memory to share.

I’ve also learned my back might be able to survive multiple workouts a week, but whoever imagined doing a 1,000-piece puzzle would wreak havoc on my spine?

One morning I finished up a video call and realized I was wearing the clothes I’d slept in the night before. How did this happen to someone who is rather particular about his wardrobe and hair? If this is the future, I’m not sure I want to play. I genuinely enjoy a well-tailored suit, sharply pressed shirt and matching tie, and colorful pocket square.

This week another friend joked they’d put on 10 pounds.

“We better hope this does not turn into the COVID-19,” I said.

As much as I try to stick to my exercise routine, I’m beginning to think it might not be the dryer’s fault that my pants are barking.

On the other side of this, I am relearning to read music, reading more books, and carving out moments where I suddenly ask myself, “where did all these birds in the trees show up.”

The Wall Street Journal reports Americans are working more hours than ever during this chapter of work-from-home. On average, people are working up to 3 hours more a day – something I can personally attest. Days start early and run long.

Psychologists point to habits being taking root after 14-days. I’ve lost track. Some days I the only clue I have on what day of the week it is the little letter embossed atop my morning pillbox.

Suddenly I feel naked at the grocery store without a mask. When watching television and someone touches a door handle, I wonder wiped down recently. And a clip of a baseball game crowd doing the wave seems like a lifetime ago.

The world is changing. I guess I can, too.

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Never Forget The Value of Cheer

My grandfather successfully served in World War II yet never lifted a weapon.

Much like today, people were confused, uncertain, and struggling to make sense of their surroundings. And while his war – and the fear of a terrorizing invasion is vastly different from avoiding a deadly virus – he played in an important role helping people get through to next sunrise.

My grandfather, a father to 4 girls and too old to serve in the military, fought the Battle of Britain with the limited tools God gave him – a singing voice and empathetic urge to bring smiles to people’s faces.

Wars can be won and lost at home. Battlefield victories pale in comparison to the collective spirit of those back home. Without a shared purpose or vision, the pain of war can erode the mortar holding together the foundational bricks of the people.

My grandfather was generously known as an entertainer. Nothing professional, but always willing to lead a song or tell a story at the pubs dotting the Scotland and English landscapes. When I think of him, I picture him standing on a chair, belting out traditional folk songs, or telling stories to workers coming off a shift at the local shipbuilding port.

The government split my mother and her family apart during the war, scattering them across different towns as not to allow a single bomb to erase an entire family. And while the sisters lived on rural farms, my grandparents were assigned to work the underground trains in London.

As German bombers scorched the skies, sirens would send people underground for cover. And tunnels beneath the cities became a strategic fall out shelters for Londoners. It was in those musty caverns my grandfather fought the war.

With the muffled sounds of the nightly bombings dripping from above, he would take to a song to lift the spirits of those squatting against walls. My grandfather’s charge was to transport people away from pain and fear and to one free of bombs dropping from the skies above.

I recall the stories of how he would be singing and elevating his voice as the noise above sought to compete as if they knew he was fighting against them. In my imagination – the ones created while hearing the stories told to me as a child – his voice echoes down dark caverns while hundreds of people cover themselves and small children from dust and fragments of falling stone.

As an adult, I now understand my imagination colors these stories in romance, but the key elements remain. His job was to do whatever he could to elevate people’s spirits during a period of great despair and uncertainty. And although never issued a weapon, his tools moved people to want to see the next sunrise.

Today’s world is uncertain. We don’t know what we are dealing with or for how long. But the lessons of my grandfather still apply. We need to keep our spirits up, focus on coming together, and know – if we have the grit – we will see tomorrow’s sunrise.

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Easter Eggs And Making Memories

Baseball is not only American tradition gone silent during this COVID-19 crisis.

Easter Sunday always brings back memories of my brother and me standing in a long horizontal starting line of a hundred other kids, colorful straw baskets in our hands, waiting to race across a field finding and picking up colorful eggs hidden between the grass blades.

This year, this timeless tradition across American communities will not happen as we practice social distancing and shelter at home guidelines.

My memories always feature brilliant colors. Skies painted in radiant blues, white clouds billowing like dancing cotton balls, and breezes slipping by at a whisper’s pace – not too much, not too little.

The Easter egg hunt playing my head is no different. A half-century later and I still see eggs pushing the boundaries anything an artist ever dipped a paintbrush into, grass so green as to make a golf course jealous, and my mother’s dress drinking in all the available sunlight from above, cheering us on from the sidelines.

Yes, at that moment, life was perfect.

I don’t know how many eggs I collected that day or if I ever ate any of them. The moment is about being with my family and friends making memories I would faithfully carry forward with me for a lifetime.

Today we need to not let up on making memories. Yes, we should follow the guidelines in place to protect all of us, but doing so does need to mean living absent of life.

A friend shared he would be using a video tool on his computer to visit with his kids and grandkids on Easter. Don’t think the kids will ever forget the Easter spent seeing their grandparents on a video screen?

We need to understand this window does not equate to putting life on pause. We are exclusively in charge of creating the emotions and memories we experience and take forward. And that comes from plucking the emotional chords hardwired inside each of us. The only way the will sit silent is if we don’t make an effort to strum the strings.

This weekend is a great time to reach out to someone and create a time-traveling memory. Pick up your phone and calling someone you know or love. We all are in this great shared experience of temporary restriction, but without human contact, this moment can result in a painful window of isolation.

Make a few calls this weekend. Send a few texts to friends you’ve not heard from in a good while. And if you can, invite someone to figure out how to use a video conference tool. Memories result from experiences – mainly the actions and interactions with others.

There may not be a field of colorful eggs planted in the grass field of a nearby park, but there are plenty of opportunities to discover memories ahead of us. This point in time is temporary; the memories are forever. The memories you plant today will be yours forever.

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How will COVID-19 Change You?

What markers will the COVID-19 crisis leave on society?

Much like September 11th and the Financial Crisis of 2008, behavioral experts believe COVID-19 will leave a psychological or emotional marker. And those markers will predict how we will act for weeks, years, decades, or in some cases, the rest of our lives.

My dad, now 92-years old, still displays instincts rooted in him during the Great Depression. No matter how successful he may be at any point in his life, he remains cautious with money, fiercely debt-averse, and tends to hold onto random items he might need one day.

Having nothing and lived firsthand the feeling the uncertainty of what tomorrow holds – the most significant shared event in his lifetime – formed how his mind processed his decisions to this day.

My dad once bought a belt, absent a buckle for $4.

Holding the brown strip up to him, I asked him why he would spend money on something he could not use.

“It is a quality piece of material,” he said. “I’m sure I have an old buckle on a worn-out belt around here I can figure out how to put on it.”

His delivery was as flat as if he was explaining to me which horizon the sun would rise the next morning.

Decades of comfort will never change my dad’s mindset of what the raw feeling of having nothing is.

So with COVID-19 impacting our society, what markers will become imbedded into our collective and individual psyche going forward?

To this day, September 11th always revisits our minds when boarding a plane or see an unattended bag beneath a bench. And the following the Financial Crisis of 2008, over the top displays of wealth were no longer viewed with admiration, but rather as insensitive out of touch.

So what will COVID-19 leave behind – or more accurately – accompany us into the future?

Experts say it takes 2-weeks of behavior to form hold in our minds. So what will our new patterns of social distancing, working remote, or learning to not run to the store every day do to us? Will we ever feel the same about shaking hands with a stranger or offering a hug to someone we barely know in pain? Will we ever feel comfortable sitting in a seat next to a stranger at the movie theater or in the tightly clustered seats of an airplane?

Some emotional markers will fade. Others, like my dad’s childhood, remain close to the surface, hiding around the corner whenever he makes a decision. The question is, which ones will we take forward, and for how long?

There are a few changes I hope people take away from this COVID-19 crisis. I see more people outside, walking, and children playing in yards. I also see people checking in on family and friends. And if anything, we are learning to slow down a bit, less obsessed with consumption and self-aggrandizing behavior on social media.

But as for me buying belts without buckles, I’ll keep you posted.

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COVID-19 Infects Each Of Us

Never has a day felt so much like a week – nor a week so much like a month.

In a world of clichés, “uncharted waters” appropriately rises to the churning dialogue.

“I don’t even know what day of the week it is,” said a friend. “I’ve lost all sense of time.”

My friend is not alone. I found my daily pillbox serving as my default calendar, helping me correctly identify the day of the week.

In little more than a week, the COVID-19 virus has infected the lives, minds, and psyche like little else in our collective living history. And while the debate rages on about to the urgency of the public health threat, there is also an expanding inherent fear of the unknown and of what tomorrow will bring. And then, unfortunately, there are the deaths, further cementing a foundation for which to support compounding worries.

Last week our biggest problem was where to buy toilet paper. Today, last week seems like a month ago, a time when our reference point for pain was a temporarily empty shelf in a grocery store or debating whether to book a flight for an upcoming vacation.

I hate writing this column. I’m frustrated, hurting for others, and unsure exactly what will come next. Uncertainty is naturally unsettling.

But on the other hand, I am confident in my family, friends, neighbors, and community. Never have I felt so much love or so much urgency to help others. I want to use whatever skills and talent God placed in me to help others through this window.

So let me focus on what I do know and of what I am certain.

My family loves me, and I love them. I control my reactions to what happens to me and those around me. And I have faith the goodness of people will rise to the top when needed. And finally, my faith – the bedrock of who and what I am: a servant to God and others.

And as for the world around me, know I have faith in you and your natural goodness. While we collectively look for that much-needed break in the waves, hope to catch a glimpse of an approaching shoreline, let’s make sure we take care of each other. Your actions can be in terms of volunteering, donating goods and services, or sharing a skill you might have with someone in need. If this formula sounds familiar, it is  – the definition of community.

Anyone reading these words knows what it is like to be knocked down and struggle back up to our feet. Yes, we are dusted and bruised, but we find a way to stand up again. But in times as challenging as these, what we’ve learned is to have faith in a stranger’s hand reaching down to help us regain our balance when we need it most.

Let’s be there for each other, ready to extend a helping or needed hand whenever the opportunity arrives around us.

God bless all.

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Coronavirus Shopping Lists Revealing

Saturday morning, I got up early and walked into an episode from the Twilight Zone.

Parking my truck, I paused to capture a picture of the sunrise with my phone. In the distance, an orange sliver peeked over the gulf’s horizon, clouds softening the image. A pair of brown pelicans drifted carefree across the sky, letting only the next thermal determine their future.

So far, so good, I thought to myself.

As I approached the building, the double-glass doors opened before me, washing away the illusion of normalcy like green pollen in a spring rainstorm.

Going to a grocery store during peak times is not all that scary. I’ve survived a quick run for a box of cornbread mix on Thanksgiving morning.

Today, I immediately recognized, would be curiously different.

With lines stretching far into the aisles as when a hurricane is headed our way, people strung across the store. But something was different in the air – an urgency and uneasy sense of the unknown.

If I were a shark, I am sure I’d say I was picking up on the smell of fear.

I understand the dangers of the coronavirus. My 92-year old dad is under lockdown in a retirement home, and my daughter manages a low immunity system due to her Crone’s Disease. I respect the medical challenges this unique strain represents and my personal responsibility.

But what is the deal with everyone buying toilet paper? Nowhere in news reports does is recommend people get as much toilet paper as possible. Did I miss something?

Turing my cart around near the empty shelves where eggs usually roost, I see the store manager moving items. His eyes are heavy, his body tired.

“Wow,” I say. “What do you think?”

“I don’t know what to say,” he says. “People are shopping like they are to going to be sequestered for a year.”

We both force a smile, each knowing all we can do is watch the behavior play itself out.

I walk the store, making notes of not only what shelves are empty, but conversely, those left relatively untouched.

Water. Individual and gallons inventory pretty much drained. Blue Bell ice cream appears to be getting drawn down. Pinto beans so cleaned out you have to read the label on the shelf to know what is missing.

On the other hand, fresh vegetable and fruit appear normal, bread shelves are functional, and for some reason, beer suppliers are loading the stores up, inventory stacked as far as you can see in front of plump coolers.

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I’m not sure what this says about us our society. While most of us are all well-adjusted adults, I can’t help but feel our grocery shopping selections are most telling. Peeking into some else’s cart is always a highly-practiced sport at the grocery store, but this is the same concept on steroids.

I recognized exhaustion on the face of the woman checking my groceries.

I’m pretty sure all she wants is a nap.

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Spring Break An American Original

One day historians will look back at America and point to 3 significant cultural contributions to the world: hot dogs, apple pie, and spring break.

Throughout my lifetime, the once quiet week-long break in the school calendar somehow morphed itself into a marketing and travel juggernaut. Where once the window equated to sleeping in for a few days, today’s culture bakes in the expectation of exotic travel or some equally exciting use of the time saving the planet.

I grew up in a home where the biggest room in the house was the garage. Spring break meant sleeping in and not doing homework each night. We didn’t even know anyone who would take a trip over spring break outside that of a distant relative’s funeral.

In our neighborhood, spring brought crawdads, tadpoles, and Little League baseball sign-ups. The first two were free; the second might require convincing across the dinner table. Back then, parents did not intentionally build activities into every open window their kids might have – be it a weekend, after school, or even in the mornings. We were just kids making up life each day, letting adventure lead us where it may.

Then came MTV, changing America and the world’s perception of spring break forever. The televised event aptly titled MTV’s Spring Break, poured hours of festival programming into living rooms featuring lots of music and equally less clothing. Once somewhat contained to Daytona Beach, the fever for more events from which to make money quickly spread. And with the fever came the change to America’s psyche that the once quiet window of time would now demand the days to be filled with plans, excitement, or adventure.

Asking another person what they did over spring break went from polite conversation to a competitive challenge – as if two Sumo wrestlers stood facing each other fighting for the top social status.

Ironically, today I live on an island where spring break is an essential part of the annual economic model. Hotels fill up, restaurants stop taking reservations, and you can pretty much successfully play the license plate game in minutes.

Spring break is every bit as much a part of the national annual calendar now as the week of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Today, parents and tourism groups are quick to defend against any changes to the schedules. And interestingly, many teachers are challenged or scorned should they consider issuing homework to be completed over the week-long window.

In a strange twist, the spring break mentality influences even those without kids in school. So embedded is this feeling that today I feel like I am opting out or missing out on some special opportunity by not having plans during a spring break – years after our kids became adults.

I no longer wade knee-deep in creeks armed with an empty coffee can and my bare hands. But if I did, I’m willing to bet there is someone willing to pay for such the eco-friendly experience of hunting tadpoles and crawdads for spring break.

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When Halfway Equals Making Progress

My daughter called for advice on how to complete paperwork for her new job.

“What percentage do you think I should put away into the 401K past the match?”

She’s twenty-five and single. But to me, she still bangs around in my heart as a 10-year old princess asking me to save her from imaginary dragons. But today she’s a young adult with enough instinct to know she should never pass up an opportunity to prepare for her future.

I suggest an aggressive rate; my wife suggested a more balanced number. In the end, what matters is our daughter understands the need to be prepared for her future – much like and elevator I rode last week.

Being prepared is a lesson we generally learn the hard way. From children’s fables – the grasshopper and the ant – to a financial advisor reviewing your retirement plan, we should always be preparing for the next step. Both illustrate you can’t make up for lost time. Work must go in long in advance if you ever wish to arrive at a destination with any level of confidence.

Which brings me back to a lesson I learned from an elevator.

Stepping into the brass-trimmed cabin, my hands held a scone in one hand and hot tea in the other. I’d forgotten the elevator required a keycard for access to rooms above the third level. My room was, unfortunately, on the thirteenth floor. Hands full, I mentally fumbled what to do next.

And then the elevator began moving.

Figuring some divine elevator karma stepped in and would help get to my floor, I decided not to put my drink on the floor and go searching through my pockets for my keycard. Instead, I figured I would go along for the unprompted ride and see where I would end up.

Honestly, I assumed someone above was calling the elevator up to their floor. I figured the elevator would rise, stop at a specific level, and guests climb aboard would push button. From that point, I just thought I could then press my floor’s button and be on my way.

But that did not happen. Instead, I watched the red numbers count off until the 7th floor, where the elevator paused. The doors did not open; people did not get on and whisk me away. I was in the same situation – only now on the 7th floor.

And then I figured it out – the elevator defaulted to the 7th floor, roughly half-way up the tower. Doing this allowed the elevator to reach a requesting party on any level in about the same travel time. And doing so would drive better customer satisfaction. And yes, according to what I read afterward, fancy algorithms drive this piece of science.

My daughter knows she needs to be prepared – much like the elevator. She also knows sitting on the ground floor and not preparing for what is next will make her hopes of reaching her goals more difficult.

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