Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Sharing knowledge and instilling good feelings




Across the U.S., May is traditionally a month for college graduation ceremonies. It's the season where commencement speakers share their knowledge of the world and instill good feelings in graduating seniors -- and there are some seven million students graduating from colleges and universities this year alone.

Each year, the President of the United States gives a commencement address at one of the nation's military academies like West Point or Annapolis. On Wednesday, Barack Obama will use his commencement address at West Point Military Academy to lay out a broad vision of American foreign policy for the foreseeable future. Earlier this month, the well-known tennis commentator Mary Carillo spoke to graduates -- including her daughter -- at Elon College in North Carolina, and the esteemed jazz musician and educator Wynton Marsalis addressed graduates at Tulane University in New Orleans. Both are excellent communicators. Meanwhile, closer to my home, the House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi addressed the graduating class at the University of California, Berkeley.

Politicians and entertainers are often asked to give commence speeches because not only are they well known public figures, they're at ease being in front of large crowds of people. They're naturals.

Last week, the world famous, nine-time Grammy Award-winning soul artist John Legend, who is also a philanthropist and Penn alumnus, returned to his alma mater to receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree. Legend also delivered the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, described by USA Today as being "funny, moving and musical," and he even worked some song lyrics into his speech.

"The reason I'm here, the reason I've had such a wonderful journey so far, is that I've found love. Yes, love," said Legend, who first visited the Ivy League campus as a high school senior named John Stephens in 1995. "We were all made to love. And I've found that we live our best lives, we are at our most successful, not simply because we're smarter than everyone else, or because we hustle harder. Not because we become millionaires more quickly. The key to success, the key to happiness, is opening your mind and your heart to love. Spending your time doing things you love and with people you love."

Legend's musical pedigree is rich in diversity -- he's worked with Herbie Hancock, The Roots and Kanye West, among many -- and, lately, one of his songs, "All of Me," has gained in popularity, too.

I came across Legend's wonderful commencement address the other day -- a link to it appeared on my Facebook news feed. I spent some time reading it -- absorbing its message -- and it really resonated with me. Legend had a lot of important things to say to the University of Pennsylvania graduates, and he connected a lot of dots, too.

I urge all of you to take a few minutes to read over John Legend's commencement address with focus and passion and courage. And, if you are so moved, click on the above link to watch Legend and listen to his words of wisdom.

"Thank you. Thank you so much. Good morning. And congratulations!
Now I'll try to be brief this morning. As a musician, this is about 10 hours before I normally go to work, so I'm gonna need a nap soon. And you've got degrees to receive.
And I also have a feeling some of you are already tired of me. The thing about pop radio in America, somehow they've scientifically determined that the public is only capable of liking the same 10 songs at any given time, so they simply play those songs over and over and over until you're finally completely exasperated. Then they move on ...
I've had a 10-year career as a solo artist and none of my songs has ever been one of those 10 songs. Until this moment. And now "all of you, are so over me, you're tired of hearing that I went to Penn. Why'd they bring him back again?" (sung to the tune of "All of Me" chorus)
That was my humblebrag way of saying I have the biggest song in the country. Very artful, wouldn't you say?
But, honestly, I am truly humbled and honored and grateful to be here at the commencement of one of the finest universities on the planet. I first visited this campus as a high school senior named John Stephens in 1995 -- 19 years ago -- and I would have never thought at that moment that I would be standing here as John Legend, speaking to you today.
The reason I'm here, the reason I've had such a wonderful journey so far, is that I've found love. Yes, love. We were all made to love. And I've found that we live our best lives, we are at our most successful, not simply because we're smarter than everyone else, or because we hustle harder. Not because we become millionaires more quickly. The key to success, the key to happiness, is opening your mind and your heart to love. Spending your time doing things you love and with people you love.
My life could have gone differently though. At first, I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in a small blue-collar city called Springfield, Ohio. I was surrounded by family, including two loving parents who cared so much about our education that they home-schooled us for several years during grade school. And they took the time to teach us more than academics. They taught us about character, about what it meant to live a good life.
My father often talked to us about his definition of success. He told us that it wasn't measured in money and material things, but it was measured in love and joy and the lives you're able to touch -- the lives you're able to help. And my parents walked the walk. They gave of themselves to our church. They took in foster kids and helped the homeless, even though we didn't have much money ourselves.
Growing up in the Stephens house also meant you were immersed in art and music and encouraged to be creative. We had a piano and a drum kit in the house. I begged to take piano lessons when I was 4. I started singing in the church choir and in school plays by the time I was 7. So I fell in love with music at a very young age.
My family was like a model family in our church and local community. My parents were leaders, raising intelligent, talented kids in a loving environment. We even had a little singing group called the "Stephens 5."
But things started to fall apart when I was 10. My maternal grandmother passed away that year when she was only 58 years old, and her death devastated my family. She was our church organist, and on Sundays after church, I would go to her house just to hang out with her. She would make chicken and collard greens and corn bread. And she would teach me how to play gospel piano. She was one of my favorite people on the planet.
She and my mother were also very close, and her death sent my mother into a deep depression that eventually tore our family apart. My world was shattered. My parents got divorced. My mother disappeared into over a decade of drugs and despair. And I was confused and disoriented.
After the initial shock of my family breaking apart, my outward response wasn't very emotional. I coped by being stoic and seemingly unaffected. I thought if I didn't expose myself to any more pain and vulnerability, I could never get hurt. If I didn't fall in love, no one could ever betray me like that again.
I busied myself with school work and lots of activities, and tried not to think too much about my family situation, tried to avoid pain whenever possible. A big reason I only applied to colleges on the east coast was to make sure I had no reminders of home in my daily life.
The only thing I allowed myself to really love without reservation was music. I put all of my passion into it. I spent so much of my spare time working on it, that I barely got any sleep. At night, I was doing community choir, show choir and musicals in high school; a cappella and a church choir in college. I wrote my own songs. Played in talent shows. I put a lot of energy into becoming a better artist, a better writer and a better performer. And in some ways, it made me a better student and a better leader. Because when you actually care about something, you want to lead. Apathy's not so cool any more.
When I graduated from Penn, I had many of the traditional opportunities in front of you now, and I took a job at the Boston Consulting Group. But I couldn't shake my passion for music. I had followed the path that the Penn graduate was supposed to take, but I didn't fall in love. I immediately started thinking about how I could leave BCG and become a full-time musician. I spent hours during the day preparing powerpoint presentations and financial models. And I spent almost as many hours at night writing songs and performing at small gigs around New York and Philadelphia.
I always believed that my big break would come sooner rather than later. In fact, from 1998, while I was still at Penn, to early 2004, I spent each of those years always thinking that I would get that big record deal within the next few months. I always thought my moment was just around the corner. But I was rejected by all the major labels; some of them rejected me multiple times. I played for all the giants of the business -- Clive Davis, L.A. Reid, Jimmy Iovine, you name it. And all of them turned me down.
But I did find a young producer from Chicago named Kanye West who believed in me. Kanye happened to be the cousin of my good friend DeVon Harris, a classmate and roommate of mine here at Penn. DeVon introduced me to Kanye in 2001, and we've been working together ever since. Our collaboration has been a huge part of my career, and it had a lot to do with me finally getting a major recording contract in 2004.
Now, Kanye and I have very different personalities, as you might have guessed. But what unites us is our true love for music and art. We love to create, and at no point in our creative process do we stress about what will sell or what's already popular. We think about making something beautiful, something special, something we can be proud of. We truly do this because we love it. We put all of ourselves into it.
And it turns out that love requires that level of commitment from you. Half-doing it is not doing it right. You have to go all in. And yes, your personal relationships require that too.
I know what it's like to be all ego in your 20s. I know what it's like to be selfish and just focus on your immediate wants and desires. I know what it's like to protect your heart from pain and disappointment. I know what it means to be all about the rat race and winning.
But years from now, when you look back on your time here on earth, your life and your happiness will be way more defined by the quality of your relationships, not the quantity. You'll get much more joy out of depth, not breadth. It's about finding and keeping the best relationships possible with the people around you. It's about immersing yourself in your friendships and your family. It's about being there for the people you care about, and knowing that they'll be there for you.
I know. It's not easy to go all in on love. I'm 35 and I'm married and I'm still learning how to do this completely. But I've found someone who makes me want to try, someone who makes me want to take that risk. And it's made all the difference.
Now, I've already talked about the power of love in your work and your personal lives. But I also want to talk about how love changes the world. There are 7 billion other people out there. Seven billion strangers. I want you to consider what it means to love them, too. What does it mean to love people we don't know, to see the value in every single person's life?
Think about that. It's a pretty radical notion. It means your daughter or son, your neighbor's daughter or son and the daughters and sons of people who live thousands of miles away, all deserve the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It means we let go of fear and see each other's humanity. It means we don't see Trayvon Martin as a walking stereotype, a weaponized human. We see him as a boy who deserves the chance to grow into a man, even if he makes boyish mistakes along the way. It means American lives don't count more than Iraqi lives. It means we see a young Palestinian kid not as a future security threat or demographic challenge, but as a future father, mother and lover. It means that the nearly 300 kidnapped girls in Nigeria aren't just their problem. They're "our" girls too. It's actually quite a challenge to love humankind in this way.
Professor Cornel West gives us a word for what this kind of love looks like in public. That word is justice.
If you're committed to loving in public, it requires you opening your eyes to injustice, to see the world through the eyes of another. This is not a passive activity. You have to read. You have to travel to other neighborhoods, other parts of the world. You may have to get your hands dirty. You have to allow people to love you, and you have to love them back
My team and I met a young girl named Rose from a small, impoverished village in Ghana. When you're working with development organizations and visiting the communities they work in, you're not really supposed to single out one child to fall in love with. You're supposed to stick to the program and focus on the interventions that lift the community as a whole. But we couldn't help it. We fell in love with Rose. Something about the spark in her eyes and her indomitable spirit made us want to go the extra mile to help her. So we decided to use our own funds to sponsor her tuition to secondary school.
We've stayed in touch with her over the past seven years, and we're so proud of what she's done individually. But we're also happy that she inspired us to formalize and expand our scholarship program to many girls in communities like hers throughout Africa, communities where the parents often invest in the boys' secondary education, but don't do the same for the girls.
In my travels around the world, I've looked in the eyes of many young girls and boys from Africa to Southeast Asia to Harlem, kids who had big dreams and needed someone to believe in them and invest in their future, in their education.
What would our schools look like if we were committed to love in public? If we cared about every kid in our school system, we would make sure they didn't go to school hungry. We would make sure they had proper health care and counseling. We would make sure they had excellent teachers in every classroom. We would make sure we weren't unfairly suspending them and criminalizing them for minor behavioral problems. We'd make sure all of them had the resources they need.
Every religion has this idea of philanthropy, love for mankind, at its core. But you shouldn't do this just to make sure you get into the "pearly gates." Look at the work of Marty Seligman here at Penn, who has literally written the book on happiness. Look at the work of Adam Grant, whom I hear is the most highly rated professor here: He has the data to show that giving works. There's an increasing body of research and knowledge that tells us that living a life of love and compassion is the true path to success and contentment.
So what's going to stop you? What's going to stand in your way? What's going to keep you from achieving your success? What will prevent you from going all in on love?
We're taught when we're young that the opposite of love is hate. But it's not. Hate is a byproduct. Hate is a result. Being a hater isn't cool. Nobody wants that. But hate comes from one thing: fear. And fear is the opposite of love. It's not a coincidence that when we talk about bigotry, we often talk in terms of fear: homophobia, xenophobia. Fear is what blinds us. Fear is corrosive. Fear makes us hold back. It whispers to us, tells us that we'll fail. It tells us that our differences are too much to overcome. Fear locks us in place. It starts fights. It causes wars.
And fear keeps us from loving. Even though we're made to love, we're often afraid to love. We're afraid of being hurt deeply. Afraid of feeling the pain I went through when my parents divorced. But you're never going to really love something or someone unless you put those fears aside. Don't hold back. Being in love means being ready to give freely and openly, and being ready to risk something. Risking pain and disappointment, conquering your fears, and becoming anew.
Alice Walker once said, "The more I wonder, the more I love." Love calls you to open your eyes, to seek, to search, to wonder.
Love is all-consuming -- it infiltrates your body, it's what allows you to experience bliss, joy and true friendship. You'll be more disappointed when something goes wrong. You might fall harder. But the only way you'll reach any height in life and in love is by taking the chance that you might fall.
You have to give your all.
Yes, I've been not-so-subtly working in my song lyrics. And some might think it's all a bit too much. Here I am, this R&B singer with an album called Love in the Future, who's recently married and wrote the biggest love song of the year, and what did I choose to talk about? Love. It's so corny, isn't it. It's much cooler to be detached and apathetic, right? We all like a little snark and cynicism and irony, especially from our favorite artists and comedians and writers. I get it.
But that cool detachment only gets you so far. Passion gets you a lot further. It makes you a better entrepreneur, a better leader, a better philanthropist, a better friend, a better lover.
I want you to live the best life you can. You can be world-changers. When you leave here today, you're going to be looking for a lot of things: security, money, friendships, sex, all kinds of things. But the most important thing you'll find is love.
So love your self, love your work, love the people around you. Dare to love those who are different from you, no matter where they're from, what they look like, and who they love. Pursue this life of love with focus and passion and ambition and courage. Give it your all. And that will be your path to true success.
Congratulations to the Class of 2014 and thank you so much!"

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A few thoughts on being a good listener


The greatest gift you can give another
is the purity of your attention.

Every day is a new day blessed with opportunities. As a social medium, Facebook affords us with an ideal an opportunity to exchange our thoughts and feelings with our family, neighbors and friends, both near to us as well as many distant time zones away. 

Part of the art of meaningful conversation, I believe, is in being a good listener -- even when we are socializing via Facebook. One friend of mine once expressed to me that I am tolerant and open minded, and for those reasons, they felt comfortable sharing a conversation with me. Mind you, we have never had the pleasure of meeting each other in person, yet there was a level of comfort and trust between us.

As I have gained the friendship of many different and wonderful people over the past few years, thanks to Facebook, I am very proud to call as dear friends those who come from many different countries around the world besides the U.S., including: several Asia Pacific nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam; India, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Brazil, and also many eastern and western European countries, such as Serbia, Great Britain and Belgium.

My group of dear friends resembles a microcosm of the United Nations. Among them, they also include many different faiths, too: Catholics and Protestants, Western and Eastern Christians, Muslims, Orthodox, Buddhists and Jews, too. I am blessed to be a part of a wonderful circle of cultural and religious diversity.

I consider myself color-blind when it comes to race and nationality, and I show the same love, respect and courtesy to all of my friends regardless of the color of their skin, their gender or their sexual preference. Because of my tolerance and open-mindedness, I have gained the trust of many of my friends, something that makes me very proud. And, as such, many come to me in confidence to share their thoughts, their hopes, their dreams and to seek my opinion, guidance and feedback. It has been a privilege to be thought of as a mentor and tutor, and I thank each and every one of you for the gift of your time.

Whether we realize it or not, each of us is blessed with the ability to be a good listener. 

“Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force," it has been said. "The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand.”

Because we validate each other's lives with our attention, I highly encourage each and every one of you to take the time to listen during the conversations you have with your family, your neighbors and your friends. Each of us has the potential to be a difference maker in another person's life. After all, as it's been said: "The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention."

In closing, my dear friends, I would like to leave you with a thought about listening from the 20th century American scholar and author William Arthur Ward, whose books about religion include: Fountains of Faith and Thoughts of a Christian Optimist. 

Ward wrote:

• Before you speak, listen.

• Before you write, think.

• Before you spend, earn.

• Before you invest, investigate.

• Before you criticize, wait.

• Before you pray, forgive.

• Before you quit, try.

• Before you retire, save.

• Before you die, give.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Stories and ideas: a celebration of words


A celebration of words /
My first Read-and-Write-a-thon experience

was a year ago this weekend.

Looking back on a year ago this weekend, I had never participated in a read-a-thon and, honestly, didn't really know what to expect. Would I be nervous? Would I be confident? Would the audience warm to my literary selection?

At 9 a.m. on a sunny, spring Saturday morning, as I recall, it was my turn to read in the WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School Library in Berkeley, an annual event in support of the WriterCoach Connection (WCC) program, a small but remarkable non-profit. Since 2001, WCC has brought one-on-one writing support to thousands of of middle school and high school students of all skill levels in the East Bay cities of Oakland, Richmond, Berkeley, El Cerrito and Albany. This year, more than 650 coaches are working with over 2,200 students.

Looking back on my first Read-and-Write-a-thon experience, I was both humbled and amazed. There was much generosity and support from the dozen-or-so who came early in the day to the library at the time I read a selected passage from Calvin Trillin's Tummy Trilogy, an ode to food. They focused on my every spoken word for the 15 minutes in which I commanded their attentiveness.

Fast forward a year and this Saturday, it's time for me to participate in the WriterCoach Connection's sixth annual Read-and-Write-a-thon. For 10 consecutive hours, volunteers like me, students and supporters will share their love of the written and spoken word. There's bound to be poetry read as well as passages from novels -- even a yearly tradition of the reading of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. It's our major fundraiser of the year, and it helps bridge the gap between what the WCC costs and what we're able to raise from school budgets and grants.

This year, I have been working individually with a variety of seventh and eighth grade students at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley. My students represent a microcosm of the school's student body -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic -- and of the city of Berkeley, too. It has been a uniquely rewarding experience to see my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers.

My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: to help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in each student's educational development.

If you would like to support me, our readers, and this wonderful program by making a small donation, that would be very cool. If you can help, please go to www.writercoachconnection.org, click on the blue Read-and-Write-a-thon banner, and you'll land on our fundraising page.

Whatever you can do, thank you so much for keeping us going. No pledge is too small. In fact, $10 will buy the paper and pencils a class needs to keep writing all year. Those 2,200 kids, my fellow volunteer coaches, and dozens of English teachers thank you, too. Donate because kids write the future.

And, if you're in Berkeley on Saturday morning around 9:45 a.m., when I'll be reading a baseball tale about Willie Mays from Roger Angell's Game Time, feel free to drop in at the Longfellow Middle School Library where the Read-and-Write-a-thon will be taking place from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. There will be some light snacks and refreshments available -- and the library will be transformed into an enjoyable literary café atmosphere full of stories and ideas.

Photo by Bob Menzimer.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Here's to our colorful May flowers


Pristine rose / The beauty of our May flowers

It's the first week of May and our backyard garden has started to bloom. Lots of colors -- orange, white, pink, red, purple.

Mr. Lincoln red rose
Looking back, the April showers we enjoyed here in the San Francisco Bay Area, indeed, brought an abundance of May flowers to our garden. Our Queen Elizabeth, First Prize and Pristine roses are blooming very nicely. The same for our Mr. Lincoln, white, orange and rainbow-colored roses. Just the other day, I witnessed our first All That Jazz bloom of the season  -- a lovely shade of red.

And, let's not forget that this is the time of the year our purple irises are blooming, too.

For most of us, flowers are an important part of our every-day lives. They have the ability to make us happy and cheerful. And, we offer our friends and loved ones flowers as a means of showing our sympathy.

Different types of flowers can express different kinds of feelings and emotions, from birthdays to graduations to weddings to funerals.

Queen Elizabeth roses
One thing's for sure: May flowers are a wonderful sight to behold -- and, I would would like to share with you a few of our May roses, which I photographed during the first few days of May.

Finally, let me leave you with this thought about flowers that's just as meaningful now in the 21st century as it was when it was written near the end of the 18th century:

"'Tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes!"

-- William Wordsworth, "Lines Written in Early Spring"
From Lyrical Ballads (1798)