Sunday, August 31, 2014

Back to School

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but we’ve come to make the journey of “going back to school” into the most miserable experience imaginable.  There once was a time when kids were enthusiastic about going to school or returning to school.  There was a real excitement about new shoes, bright new clothes, new book bags and pencils or pens.  There were fresh, unsullied booklets and binders.  We’d put paper bag or team sport covers on our books.  We looked forward to seeing friends who lived too far away to see during summer.  There was a certain joy about returning to class led by a favorite teacher. 

Parents participated in this “tone at the top.”  They’d use this time to teach us how to organize ourselves for the school. They’d coach us to polish our shoes and put them near the door. They’d run down first-day-of-school checklists: Did we have this? Did we pack that? Was our lunch or lunch money ready?

Today, every cartoon in our local paper broadcasts the imminent misery of going back to school.  Advertisers are conditioning our kids to counter the prospective misery by buying up and over-dressing to compensate for the tedium of school days ahead. As a consequence, why are we surprised that kids today act out that negativism in disruptive, aggressive, and sometimes bullying behaviors?

The prospect of a positive learning experience has been exchanged for this negative hype.  Misery loves company, so every mention of back to school becomes a downer.


If we want kids to be enthusiastic about their learning experiences at school, we will have to set the “tone at the top” and close down the negativity.  Going back to school needs to become, once again, an exciting, positive, productive learning experience.  

To Make the World a Better Place to Live In

When I was in the 7th grade, my father was commuting daily by train between our small town in Southern New Hampshire and his office in Boston, Massachusetts.  My mother would drive him to the station each morning and back home again each evening. Often I would “ride shotgun” with her when she drove to pick him up in the evening.

Many times he was joined in the evening by another townsman commuter.  We would drive him from the station to his home on the way to our home.  My father would take over the driving, my mother would take over the “shotgun” seat, and I would sit next to our fellow townsman who inevitably would try to engage me in conversation.

He was a man of routine, as were most men of that era.  He’d start the conversation with, “Well, what did you do today to make the world a better place to live in?” Heady stuff for someone who barely qualified as a teenager! I’d have to think about an answer each evening, just in case he’d be on the train with my father and just in case I’d get his query. 

“What did I do, today?” would be my first thought?  I’d have to review school, classes, gym, and play after school to inventory what, in fact, had occupied my time.  The real challenge was whether or not I did anything worth reporting that might match his higher standard.  “What would make the world a better place?”

He was pretty generous in his performance appraisals.  I could say “I watered the plants at school,” and he would respond enthusiastically, “That’s marvelous!” as if I’d just saved the Amazon forests.  I might say, “I feed the dogs” to which he’d respond, “Good work!” making me feel like a responsible adult.  I might have to search for a performance measure, but usually could find something to report in terms of a grade, project, or report at school.

All of which was his point, of course.  His job was to set out some expectations that only I could determine would be acceptable by the standards of “make the world a better place.”  I had to find the actions that I deemed worthy of mention to him in the back seat of our car.  He made me think about my efforts each day.  Were they worthy?

At the end of the evening, we would drop him off at his front door, where he inevitably would say the same parting words, “Thanks for the buggy ride!” And we’d go our separate ways.


His expectations were pure and simple, but they stayed with me for these many years. Even today I will ask myself if I’ve done anything that might make the world a little better place to live in.  That is a mindset for which I must thank our townsman commuter - our fellow buggy rider.

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Asking Questions

It was interesting to read that the 2014 Fields Medal winner, Maryam Mirzakhani, was sharp enough in college to pursue opportunities to attend the “informal seminars” offered by noted Harvard mathematician, Curtis McMullen (a Fields Medal winner in his own right, in 1998). Taking advantage of extemporaneous learning experiences like that is an example of the initiative that puts individuals such as Mirzakhani on track toward exceptional advancement.

Mirzakhani was much more than merely a bump on the log among the seminar audience.

She asked questions.

Probably, she asked many deep, penetrating, and interesting questions. Which was one of the reasons Professor McMullen became interested enough in her intellectual development to mentor her as a doctoral candidate.

How many times have we attended an event or given a presentation or webinar where the moderator invited the audience to join in the “Questions & Answers?”  And how many times have we encountered dead SILENCE?

Smart speakers and moderators know this phenomenon all too well.  They seed the audience with one or two prepared questions to ensure that the proper tone is set and that the dead air doesn’t infect everyone.  That silence is very frustrating to a presenter.  You ask yourself, “Why did I bother?”

The “Question & Answer” portion of a presentation can be as enriching as the speech itself, but only if the members of the audience generate intelligent, relevant, and interesting queries in the speaker’s domain of expertise.  The failure of the audience to step up and carry their share of the responsibility results in the waste of valuable intellectual resources.

The speaker’s knowledge is under-valued.  Speakers thrive on the exchange of productive ideas and constructive dialog.  By failing to engage the speaker, the audience is failing to tap that fountain of wisdom.

The audience potentially is an active learner, but only if members formulate an intelligent question worthy of a response.  If the audience cannot think of anything to add to this field of inquiry, then when would there be a more fertile chance for idea exchange in which individuals might participate.

What are the reasons (or, more accurately, the excuses) for the silence?

“I don’t want to appear stupid.”  Isn’t it reasonable to believe that an individual exhibits a measure of intelligence simply by seeking the wisdom of the speaker and attending the event in the first place?  Isn’t there just one basic question that might add value to this topic and evidence your smarts more than your stupid?  

“I wasn’t listening closely enough. The speaker may have answered the question in the presentation.” For shame! Next time, listen up!

“I hate to be first.” So, you aspire to be second? Or merely a follower?

“I’m afraid of speaking in public.” The average person is more afraid of speaking in public than dying.  So, are you in that audience because you are an average or an exceptional person?  There are many ways to overcome this anxiety.  The easiest way is to just start asking a few good questions in a public event when invited to do so.

“The speaker knows more than I do.” Right! That’s why the speaker is on the stage, while you are not.  But, you are there to learn.  So, start by identifying one small area or thought whereby the speaker could enlighten you by sharing his/her insight.

“I should have prepared a few questions in advance.” Right again.  You should have done some research about the individual and formulated one or two questions to show you have a little interest in this topic.

“I wish I had more time to ask more than just one question.”  Which question is the most important one right now?  If you cannot get that one question asked and answered, why would the speaker bother with any of the other questions?

“I’d really like a one-on-one opportunity to talk with this individual.” Do you have secrets you don’t want to share with other members of the audience?  Why would this presenter possibly be interested in participating in that one-on-one with you if you don’t have the courage to express your questions in the public forum?

Imagine, if you would, the loss of idea development that might have resulted if Maryam Mirzakhani had not engaged Curtis McMullen in a creative dialog where she thought carefully about and asked some really good questions of him – so good, in fact, that he helped her achieve her doctoral goals as an advisor. Asking good questions is a fundamental skill that we all must develop.

Here’s an opportunity.  Bonnie Hill is a prominent and experienced corporate director.  She will be the keynote speaker for the UCLA Director Training Networking Dinner in late September 2014.  Do a little research about her extensive background and companies where she serves as a director.  What insight do you hope she might convey in her keynote presentation? What great question might you ask her to take advantage of this unique opportunity?  Can you come up with one quality question and have the courage of your convictions to be the first to raise your hand when invited to do so?