Best Commencement Speeches: Tom Hanks

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On May 25, 2023, American actor, director, producer, and writer Tom Hanks delivered the 372nd commencement speech at Harvard University to more than 9,000 graduates. Hanks, who is the fourth-highest-grossing actor in America, received an honorary doctor of arts degree and a Wilson volleyball with the Harvard logo as a homage to his beloved friend, “Wilson,” in the film Castaway (2000). Forefront on Hanks’ mind was the assault on truth that is dominated the United States over the last decade. His speech is set against the backdrop of memorable news stories like Trump’s never-ending claims of a stolen Presidential election, fake news, and witch hunts; the debut of “alternative facts”; the Fox News-Dominion settlement for reporting the falsehoods that conservative viewers wanted to hear, the devastating opioid crisis that falsely promoted “nonaddictive” drugs, George Santos’ outrageous campaign of lies, and so forth. Perhaps Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer back in 2018, summed it up best during an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press (August 19, 2018): “Truth isn’t truth.” A few days earlier Guiliani told Chris Cuomo on Cuomo Prime Live (August 15, 2018): “[Facts] are in the eye of the beholder.” When Cuomo responded, “No, facts are not in the eye of the beholder,” Giulani stated, “Yes it is — yes they are. Nowadays they are.” Think on that: nowadays they are. Hence, Hanks laments that it has come to this —  truth has lost its value in modern society: “For the truth to some is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data, nor common sense, nor even common decency… Telling the truth is no longer the benchmark for public service. It’s no longer the salve to our fears, or the guide to our actions. Truth is now considered malleable, by opinion and by zero-sum endgames.” Later he notes, “Truth is mined at the intersections of our chosen behaviors and our fixed habits in our personal boundaries… The truth is sacred, unalterable, chiseled into the stone of the foundation of our republic. ” James Comey, former director of the FBI, said it this way (August 19, 2018): “Truth exists and truth matters. Truth has always been the touchstone of our country’s justice system and political life. People who lie are held accountable. If we are untethered to truth, our justice system cannot function and a society based on the rule of law dissolves.”

Here are some excerpts from Hanks’ commencement speech:

“We all have special powers and abilities far beyond the reach of other mortals. Some of us can repair a screen door with ease. Some of us can take care of a five-year-old kid and a toddler for 24 hours a day and never stop loving them. Some of us make sense of physics and economics and global policy. Some of us survive somehow on minimum earnings. Some of us graduate from colleges despite years of lockdowns and Zooms. Now these achievements are all stellar, even though yes, we are all but human. Still, we’d like to look up in the sky and see not a bird, not a plane, but well, someone who is young and strong and super who will fight the never ending battle for truth, for justice and for the American way. Someone who will take on that work…

Veritas. The language of telling the truth. It is the in the vision quest for truth that we look to you newly incorporated members of the Justice League of Avengers to come to the rescue. For the truth to some is no longer empirical. It’s no longer based on data nor common sense, nor even common decency. Telling the truth is no longer the benchmark for public service. It’s no longer the salve to our fears or the guide to our actions. Truth is now considered malleable by opinion and by zero-sum endgames. Imagery is manufactured with audacity and with purpose to achieve the primal task of marring the truth with mock logic, to achieve with fake expertise, with false sincerity, with phrases like, ‘I’m just saying. Well, I’m just asking. I’m just wondering.’

Now, literally you cannot believe your eyes and your ears will help others lie to you. Someone will report the world to you exactly as you wish it were full of alternative facts, of conjured narrative meant to buttress the status quo and deny its offenses or rejig the rules and muddy the playing field, depending on where one is on the food chain and the moral spectrum. The American way can be demonstrated without ceasing as a perpetual prayer by every big shot in any plain Jane or Joe Blow. Justice can be an everyday pursuit case by case, with both lightning speed and the slow inevitable effect of gravity. Truth though Lord, truth. Truth feeds up in the high country as elusive as serenity, yet as certain as the North Star and the Southern Cross. Truth is mined at the intersections of our chosen behaviors and our fixed habits in our personal boundaries.

Truth has synonyms such as honesty, honor, transparency. And yet, the common practice of so many is to play fast and loose with those very words, to create enemies, to claim victimhood, to raise the mediocre into merit and to make cloudy a vista that is actually crystal clear. Likewise, truth has opposites. Omission. You don’t need to know that. Distraction. That’s not the real story, this is. Opinion. Masquerading as clairvoyance. ‘Oh, here’s what is going to happen.’ And influence pedaling. A lot of people are saying truth too has a nemesis equal to any colored kryptonite. That lack of feral hound is never too far off the path in the weeds and in the shadows, lying in wait for the lethal opportunity to bring truth down. And that beast is indifference, which will make moot all the permanence found in truth. Indifference will rust away the promise of our promised land. Propaganda and bald face lies will erode over time. Idolatry and imagery lose luster in effect. Ignorance and intolerance can be replaced by experience in the wink of an eye, but indifference will narrow the vision of America’s people and make dim the light of Lady Liberty’s symbolic torch. Indifference make citizens into indentured servants held in labor by the despots and tyrants whose default setting is cynicism, who outlawed dissent and banned art and dialogue and books. Who grab power any way they can enabled by the subterfuge of their co-conspirators, rewarding their rationale of the complicit, and surging into the vacuum caused by the indifference of a people who have been made weary by struggle, so weary that they lose hope and are left to yearn to be saved by the fiction of superheroes. Every day, every year, and for every graduating class, there is a choice to be made.

It’s the same option for all grownups who have to decide to be one of three types of Americans, those who embrace liberty and freedom for all, those who won’t, or those who are indifferent. Only the first do the work of creating a more perfect union and nation indivisible. The others get in the way. And the never ending battle you have all officially joined as of today, the difference is in how truly you believe and in how vociferously you promote, and how tightly you hold to the truth that is self-evident, that of course we are all created equally yet differently. And of course, we are all in this together. If we do the work, justice and the American way are within our grasp, no matter our gender, our faith, our station, our heritage or genetic makeup, the shade and hue of our flesh, or the continental birthplace of our ancestors.

Why is that truth so hard for some to accept, much less respect? If you live in the United States of America, the responsibility is yours, ours. The effort is optional, but the truth. The truth is sacred, unalterable, chiseled into the stone of the foundation of our republic. All of us, none of us are super. We are the Americans. Liberty and justice is for us all because yes, we have specific names and we have lived every year of our ages. But when it comes to race, we are all uniquely, magnificently, simply human…

May goodness and mercy follow you all the days, all the days of your lives. God speed. Congratulations.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

The Best Graduation Advice: 2023

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsIt’s that time of year when excited graduates don their cap and gown and patiently sit on folding chairs on an expansive lawn to listen to the sage advice of the guest speaker invited to their commencement ceremony. Book publishers are very aware of this annual event and publish books that they hope will be purchased as keepsakes of graduates’ academic milestone. Although most books in this category contain complete commencement speeches or long excerpts, Clarkson Potter took a different approach with their recent book, Carpe Every Diem: The Best Graduation Advice from More Than 100 Commencement Speeches. The beautifully-designed, small-format book contains 100 quotations and short passages from speeches of famous academics, actors, athletes, authors, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, poets, politicians, and poets. The book poses the question: “Okay, you’ve graduated. Commencement is over. But how will the rest of your life commence? I should note: advice from real people should be truly cherished because it is only a matter of time when commencement speeches will be written by ChatGPT. Without further ado, here are some pearls of wisdom from true mortals:

Michael Dell: “As you start your journey, the first thing you should do is throw away that store-bought map and begin to draw your own.”

George Saunders: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded… sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly… As a goal in life… Try to be kinder.”

Toni Morrison: “You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing, and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And even though you don’t have complete control over the narrative… you could nevertheless create it.”

Anna Quindlen: “Don’t ever confuse the two: your life and your work. The second is only part of the first.”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: “Life is short really means do something… Life is short really means have a purpose. And purpose does not need to be grand. I think that the smaller the purpose, the more meaningful. To be kind. To have empathy. To avoid sanctimony. To think of the humanity of other people — to try.

Steve Jobs: “Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the result of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions down out your own inner voice.”

Billy Collins: “The corollary to carpe diem is gratitude, gratitude for simply being alive, for having a day to seize.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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How To Read and Recognize a Great Book

alex atkins bookshelf books“The method I should advise in reading great books is a simple one. I should try, first of all, not to be awed by their greatness. Then I should read without any other preparation than life has given me-I should open the pages and find out how much they mean to me. If I found my experience reflected in some parts of the book and not in others, I shouldn’t worry about those blind spots. They may be the fault of the book in those places-it may be out of date. But it is more prudent of me to suppose, what is just as likely, that my own experience is perhaps a little thin in the regions those parts of the book dealt with. To find out which is so, I should read the book a second time, and a third. Whether or not the repeated readings clear up the difficult pages, they will show me new meanings in the part I already understand.

When we encounter these dead spots in books sup­ posed to be masterpieces, and when we are humble enough to explain them by some insufficiency in ourselves, the impulse is to go for help to other books, to works of criticism. It is much more profitable to go directly to life. I won’t say that no aid can be had from other people; I couldn’t believe that and keep on teaching literature, or even write these papers. But the best teachers of literature, in my opinion, try to suggest the experience which such passages are designed to reflect; they remind their hearers of experience mislaid for the moment; they can only remind-they can’t impart it. We do as much for each other, far from classrooms, whenever your casual enthusiasms open my eyes to a beauty in art or in nature which I overlooked, but which I am ready to admire. Sometimes I ask a student in class to tell me the plot of the book we are about to discuss. I have never listened to an honest summary of that elementary sort without learning something new about the story; I have seen it now through another person’s life. In fact, there’s no better way to measure personality than to ask for the outline of a story you know well. But most of this experimenting we can do on ourselves. We can c1verhaul our experience, to find the material needed to understand the book; we can open our eyes to life about us, and find the material there. It is fatal to suppose the great writer was too wise or too profound for us ever to understand him; to think of art so is not to praise but to murder it, for the next step after that tribute will be neglect of the masterpiece.

It is advisable to sample as many of the great books as we can, for the first ones we come to may not be those which reflect us most completely. But once we have found our author, we have only to read him over and over, and after a while to read out from him, into the authors who seem kindred spirits. When the reader has found himself in two great authors, he is fairly launched.

But the books should be read over and over. Until have discovered that certain books grow with our maturing experience and other books do not, we have not learned how to distinguish a great book from a book.”

From The Delight of Great Books (1928) by John Erskine (1879-1951). Erskine was an English professor at Columbia University, where he developed the General Honors Course focused on the classics of Western literature, later becoming “Masterworks of Western Literature.” This course was later taught by Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler. Their work on teaching this course over many years inspired them to develop the Great Books of the Western World program and the Great Books Foundation. Years later, Mortimer Adler taught the course at the University of Chicago. Alder collaborated with Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago to develop The Great Books of the Western World. The set of books was first published as a 54-volume set in 1952 by Encyclopedia Britannica. The second edition published in 1960 contained 60 volumes. The criteria for inclusion in the Great Books set was threefold: (1) the book must be relevant to the present; (2) the book must be rewarding to read and re-read; (3) it must be part of the “great conversation about the great ideas.” At a publication event in 1952, Hutchins explained the value of the Great Books: “This is more than a set of books, and more than a liberal education. Great Books of the Western World is an act of piety. Here are the sources of our being. Here is our heritage. This is the West. This is its meaning for mankind.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

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To learn more about Alexander Atkins Design please visit

Best Commencement Speeches: Joseph Brodsky

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

On December 18, 1988, Russian American poet and essayist Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) delivered the Winter Commencement Address to the 2,000 graduates of The University of Michigan (Ann Arbor, Michigan). It was delivered at a time when glasnost (“openness, being more public”), promoted by leader Mikhail Gorbachev, was sweeping over the former Soviet Union. Little did some of these graduates know the slings and arrows that the speaker, who stood before them, had endured.

Brodsky was born in Russia but was expelled in 1972 for his anti-Soviet poetry. The Soviets did not make his life easy: he was frequently interrogated, confined to a mental institution twice, and sentenced to five years of hard labor. He found solace in his study of poetry: in the evenings he would write and read anthologies of English and British poetry. Over time he became a symbol of artistic resistance in a totalitarian country. With the help of fellow poet W. H. Auden, Brodsky was able to immigrate to America where he continued to study and write poetry. He taught at many prominent American universities, including University of Michigan, Mount Holyoke, Yale, Columbia, and Cambridge. In 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his poetic work and he was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 1991.

In his memorable commencement speech, titled “Speech at the Stadium,” Brodsky extols the virtues of the Ten Commandments of the Bible as well as avoiding the seven deadly sins. He doesn’t mention by name, so for the uninitiated, they are: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. (Incidentally, they are called “deadly” because committing these sins leads to the death of the soul.) There is a common misperception is that the seven deadly sins (or cardinal sins) are found in the Bible.  They are not — they were introduced by Evarius Ponticus, a Christian monk and ascetic who lived in Jerusalem and Egypt in the 4th century. Ponticus believed there were eight evil thoughts: gluttony, fornication, greed, envy, wrath, dejection, boasting, and pride. (Come to think of it, that actually sounds like the essential qualities of a modern-day politician in the post-Trumpian world.) Ponticus’ ideas were incorporated into western Christian theology by John Cassian, a Christian monk and theologian, in the 5th century and later in Roman Catholic theology by by Pope Gregory I in the sixth century. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated on the seven deadly sins in his seminal work, Summa Theologica. Brodsky’s contribution to the graduates of the 20th century is to build on these foundational 17 lessons by adding six tips for living a better life.

The transcript of Brodsky’s commencement speech can be found on several websites, often under the banner of “The Greatest Commencement Address of All Time.” Also, most of the versions have been heavily paraphrased, edited, and in some cases restructured in format. The actual transcript, which runs about 3,400 words, can be found in a collection of Brodsky’s essays titled, On Grief and Reason: Essays, that was published in 1995. An argument can legitimately be made that it is timeless, however, it may not necessarily be the greatest commencement of all time. To begin with, it is not particularly eloquent; moreover it is unnecessarily verbose, even rambling at times. (When will commencement speakers understand that this is the graduates’ moment of glory, not their own?) And for a poet, one would expect a more elegant and um… poetic expression of ideas. Surprisingly, Brodsky makes use of several cliches that could have been expressed more originally. Nevertheless, the beauty is in the eye, or in this case, ears, of the beholder: you be the judge. Here are excerpts from Brodsky’s commencement speech:

“Life is a game with many rules but no referee. One learns how to play it more by watching it than by consulting any book, including the Holy Book. Small wonder, then, that so many play dirty, that so few win, that so many lose…

If I remember my colleagues well, if I know what’s happening to university curricula all over the country, if I am not totally oblivious to the pressures the so-called modern world exerts upon the young, I feel nostalgic for those who sat in your chairs a dozen or so years ago, because some of them at least could cite the Ten Commandments and still others even remembered the names of the Seven Deadly Sins. As to what they’ve done with that precious knowledge of theirs afterward, as to how they fared in the game, I have no idea. All I can hope for is that in the long run one is better off being guided by rules and taboos laid down by someone totally impalpable than by the penal code alone. 

Since your run is most likely to be fairly long, and since being better off and having a decent world around you is what you presumably are after, you could do worse than to acquaint yourselves with those commandments and that list of sins. There are just seventeen items altogether, and some of them overlap. Of course, you may argue that they belong to a creed with a substantial record of violence. Still, as creeds go, this one appears to he the most tolerant; it’s worth your consideration if only because it gave birth to the society in which you have the right to question or negate its value. 

But I am not here to extol the virtues of any particular creed or philosophy, nor do I relish, as so many seem to, the opportunity to snipe at the modem system of education or at you, its alleged victims… But there is a transparent wall between the generations, an ironic curtain, if you will, a see-through veil allowing almost no passage of experience. At best, some tips.

Regard, then, what you are about to hear as just tips­ of several icebergs, if I may say so, not of Mount Sinai. I am no Moses, nor are you biblical Jews; these are a few random jottings scribbled on a yellow pad somewhere in California — not tablets. Ignore them if you wish, doubt them if you must, forget them if you can’t help it: there is nothing imperative about them. Should some of it now or in the time to be come in handy to you, I’ll be glad. If not, my wrath won’t reach you. 

1. Now, and in the time to be, I think it will pay for you to zero in on being precise with your language. Try to build and treat your vocabulary the way you are to treat your checking account. Pay every attention to it and try to increase your earnings. The purpose here is not to boost your bed­room eloquence or your professional success — although those, too, can be consequences — nor is it to turn you into parlor sophisticates. The purpose is to enable you to artic­ulate yourselves as fully and precisely as possible; in a word, the purpose is your balance. For the accumulation of things not spelled out, not properly articulated, may result in neu­rosis…

2. Now, and in the time to be, try to be kind to your parents. If this sounds too close to ‘’Honor thy mother and father”’ for your comfort, so be it. All I am trying to say is, try not to rebel against them, for, in all likelihood, they will die before you do, so you can spare yourselves at least this source of guilt if not of grief. If you must rebel, rebel against those who are not so easily hurt…

3. Try not to set too much store by politicians — not so much because they are dumb or dishonest, which is more often than not the case, but because of the size of their job, which is too big even for the best among them, by this or that political party, doctrine, system, or a blueprint thereof. All they or those can do, at best, is to diminish a social evil, not eradicate it. No matter how substantial an improvement may be, ethically speaking it will always be negligible, because there will always be those — say, just one person — who won’t profit from this improvement. The world is not perfect; the Golden Age never was or will be…

4. Try not to stand out, try to be modest. There are too many of us as it is, and there are going to be many more, very soon. Thus climbing into the limelight is bound to be done at the expense of the others who won’t be climbing. That you must step on somebody’s toes doesn’t mean you should stand on their shoulders. Besides, all you will see from that vantage point is the human sea, plus those who, like you, have assumed a similarly conspicuous — and very precarious at that — position: those who are called rich and famous…

5. At all costs try to avoid granting yourself the status of the victim. Of all the parts of your body, be most vigilant over your index finger, for it is blame-thirsty. A pointed finger is a victim’s logo — the opposite of the V sign and a synonym for surrender. No matter how abominable your condition may be, try not to blame anything or anybody: history, the state, superiors, race, parents, the phase of the moon, child­hood, toilet training, etc. The menu is vast and tedious, and this vastness and tedium alone should be offensive enough to set one’s intelligence against choosing from it. The mo­ment that you place blame somewhere, you undermine your resolve to change anything; it could be argued even that that blame-thirsty finger oscillates as wildly as it does because the resolve was never great enough in the first place. After all, victim status is not without its sweetness. It commands compassion, confers distinction, and whole nations and continents bask in the murk of mental discounts advertised as the victim’s conscience…

6. The world you are about to enter and exist in doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s been better geographically than his­torically; it’s still far more attractive visually than socially. It’s not a nice place, as you are soon to find out, and I rather doubt that it will get much nicer by the time you leave it. Still, it’s the only world available: no alternative exists, and if one did, there is no guarantee that it would be much better than this one. It is a jungle out there, as well as a desert, a slippery slope, a swamp, etc. — literally — but what’s worse, metaphorically, too. Yet, as Robert Frost has said, “The best way out is always through.” He also said, in a different poem, though, that “to be social is to be forgiving.” It’s with a few remarks about this business of getting through that I would like to close… 

Try not to pay attention to those who will try to make life miserable for you. There will be a lot of those — in the official capacity as well as the self-appointed. Suffer them if you can’t escape them, but once you have steered clear of them, give them the shortest shrift possible. Above all, try to avoid telling stories about the unjust treatment you re­ceived at their hands; avoid it no matter how receptive your audience may be. Tales of this sort extend the existence of your antagonists; most likely they are counting on your being talkative and relating your experience to others. By himself, no individual is worth an exercise in injustice (or for that matter, in justice). The ratio of one-to-one doesn’t justify the effort: it’s the echo that counts. That’s the main principle of any oppressor, whether state-sponsored or autodidact. Therefore, steal, or still, the echo, so that you don’t allow an event, however unpleasant, or momentous, to claim any more time than it took for it to occur….

I had better stop here. As I said, I’ll be glad if you find what I’ve said useful. If not, it will show that you are equipped far better for the future than one would expect from people of your age. Which, I suppose, is also a reason for rejoic­ing — not for apprehension. In either case — well equipped or not — I wish you luck, because what lies ahead is no picnic for the prepared and the unprepared alike, and you’ll need luck. Still, I believe that you’ll manage… 

Clearly this place is of extraordinary sentimental value for me; and so it will be­come, in a dozen years or so, for you. To that extent, I can divine your future; in that respect, I know you will manage, or, more precisely, succeed. For feeling a wave of warmth coming over you in a dozen or so years at the mention of this town’s name will indicate that, luck or no luck, as human beings you’ve succeeded. It’s this sort of success I wish to you above all in the years to come. The rest depends on luck and matters less.”

The complete commencement address can be found in Google Books by searching “Brodsky On Grief and Reason.”

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. Cheers.

Read related post: Best Commencement Speeches: Khaled Hosseini
Best Commencement Speeches: Ken Burns

Best Commencement Speeches: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
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Best Books for Graduates
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For further reading: On Grief and Reason: Essays by Joseph Brodsky (1995)

The Dirty Little Secrets Colleges Do Not Want You to Know

alex atkins bookshelf educationThere is a lot to unpack in Netflix’s fascinating documentary Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal, directed by Chris Smith. After you watch you will feel shocked, infuriated, or demoralized — or perhaps all three. The documentary focuses on William “Rick” Singer, the founder of The Key, a for-profit college counseling and preparation business, and its related charity, Key Worldwide Foundation, used to funnel “donations” that were actually bribes. Between 2011 and 2018, extremely wealthy parents paid Signer approximately $25 million to bribe coaches and university administrators at some of the most highly-ranked colleges in America to get over 700 students into their first-choice college. After the FBI’s investigation, 50 people were indicted for crimes related to Singer’s elaborate bribery scam. Only one, was pardoned by former President Trump.

Early in the film, we learn that there are three way to get in the college: the front door, the back door, and the little-known side door. The existence of this side door is one of American colleges’ dirty little secrets. Based on wire-taps, we listen in as Singer makes his pitch, elaborating on the three door system: “We help the wealthiest families in the US get their kids into school… Now these families, they want guarantees. They don’t want to be messing around. They want this thing done. So they want in at certain schools. So I’ve done 761 — what I would call, ‘side doors.’  The ‘front door’ means getting in on your own. The ‘back door’ is making a donation, which is ten times as much money. I’ve created this kind of ‘side door’ in because with the back door, there’s no guarantee. They’re just gonna give you a second look. My families want a guarantee.” Some very wealthy individuals, believing that rules and morality do not apply to them and their children, were eager to avail themselves to this side door. Akil Bello questions mirrors what most people thought when they learned of the scandal: “Why did these [rich] parents choose to cheat this when their children had so much already? Part of it seems to be when you reach a certain level of wealth, there’s a relentless pursuit of the trappings of power. You want to have the fancy car, the fancy house, whether you need it or not, and it seems to me that the atmosphere created in high-wealth societies is part of the problem.” So you see, the rich are really different than the middle  and lower class [picture the eyeroll emoji here].

The documentary shifts its focus from the bribery scheme to the broken hyped-up system that allowed this corruption to take root in the first place. The documentary introduces a variety of experts that shed light on some other dirty secrets that colleges don’t want you to know. Some of these issues are not new, of course, since several books published over the last decade have exposed them; however, the documentary’s value is that it places them back center stage, for another generation to witness. Specifically, we learn how universities develop their brands, game the rankings, and perpetuate the illusion of prestige and the myth that only an exorbitantly expensive college can deliver a great education. Consider the cost of that education: according to the College Board, the average cost for an undergraduate private or public education has more than doubled in the last three decades. As of 2019, college graduates are crippled by more than $1.7 trillion in student loans — an increase of 100% over the last decade. Let’s listen in on the discussion:

John Reider, former Stanford University admissions officer: “Over the last three or four decades, higher education has become increasingly a commodity. Something that you purchase — a product. It’s a goal in and of itself, rather than the goal being to get an education. [This is a wonderful insight through the lens of etymology As Reider states, prestige translated from the French means “illusion” or “glamour.” The French word is, in turn, derived from the Latin word praestigium meaning “illusion” and the Latin word  praestigiae meaning “conjuring tricks.” So the next time you hear a tiger parent going on and on about how important it is for their children to attend a “prestigious” college, feel free to school them on the etymology of the word and the myth they bought into.] 

Akil Bello, test prep expert: It’s typically accepted that Ivy League institutions are the quote unquote ‘best’ in the country. But all of those differences have almost nothing to do with the academics of the institution. U.S. News [& World Report] started ranking colleges in the 80s, based on one criteria: prestige. That’s it. 

John Reider: “Prestige is actually a French word. In the original French, it means something people don’t realize — it means ‘deceit.’ That’s what prestige is in the college. It’s imaginery. It’s an illusion. Yet people believe in it. 

Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission. “It’s not just population growth that makes it harder to get into college today. The colleges themselves have brought it about. Because the more selective they look on paper, the higher ranked they are going to be.”

Perry Kalmus, independent education consultant: “Everything these schools are doing is massaging to try and up the rankings and it’s a really dangerous game.”

Daniel Golden: “Most people see college admissions [and say] ‘oh it’s based on merit except for affirmative action for minorities.’ My view of the admissions process is all sorts of different preferences, with — yes — some student getting in on pure merit, but many others getting in due to preferences that skew rich and white. One is by preferences for students who play niche sports, like sailing, or fencing, or horseback riding, which most kids never get a chance to try. Then there’s making a huge donation to a university that gets them noticed by the fundraising office, which will recommend the candidate to admissions.”

Barbara Kalmus, independent education consultant: “No good will have come out of these sentences or out of this scandal. The fines they’ve been given — meaningless. In terms of hitting them in their pocketbook — what a difference it could have been made if we hit them hard and put that money to work for underprivileged kids. That would have been amazing. Then you can say at least some good came out of it.”

Daniel Golden: “I try not to blame the families or parents. I tend to focus the criticism on the colleges and universities that created this system. If they didn’t have these loopholes and these preferences for families of privilege, then I don’t think there would be these kinds of temptations. This scandal is not necessarily a reason for colleges to change their ways. Because it makes the colleges seem more exclusive and desirable than ever. If all these rich people are willing to go to these incredible lengths and risk jail time just to get their kids into these colleges, then they must be incredibly valuable.”

Barbara Kalmus: “What we are doing to these kids by pounding them into the ground with Top 25, Top 10, Top 5 [Schools]? Because ultimately, where you do go to school has little or no effect on what will happen to you in the future.”

Akil Bello: “The United States has over 3,000 colleges. You have infinite choices.”

John Reider: “Forget about USC. Go someplace else. You can get a great education almost any place if you want it. The parents in this case didn’t believe that. Because the bigger school had the prestige, had the glitter, had the glamour, had the bragging rights.”

In the end, Singer’s house of cards — held up so long by an extensive web of secrecy among college officials, coaches, exam proctors, parents, and students (see, the rich can be very tight-lipped! membership has its privileges) — came tumbling down due to a completely unrelated case: the FBI was investigating a financial executive who, in order to obtain leniency, ratted out a Yale coach that was accepting bribes for admitting students. Busted! Of course, after he was caught, Singer was very eager to rat out all his co-conspirators and clients in order to reduce his sentence. For pleading guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, conspiracy to defraud the U.S., and obstruction of justice, Singer faces the maximum sentence of 65 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.

The documentary concludes with an observation by Naomi Fry, a staff writer for The New Yorker who recognizes Americans’ ambivalence toward the wealthy, combined with sense of satisfaction of justice being served, with a hint of schadenfreude, as the penalties and sentences of the guilty are displayed on the screen: “In America, we love the wealthy and we hate the wealthy. They disgust us and they fascinate us. This story was a perfect opportunity to see how rich people live and the realities of the system being exposed. And so there’s something incredibly refreshing to have just a little bit of justice being served in a sea of injustice.”

 So how did this documentary make you feel? What are your thoughts on the scandal and the families that were indicted?

ENJOY THE BOOK. If you love reading Atkins Bookshelf, you will love reading the book — Serendipitous Discoveries from the Bookshelf. The beautifully-designed book (416 pages) is a celebration of literature, books, fascinating English words and phrases, inspiring quotations, literary trivia, and valuable life lessons. It’s the perfect gift for book lovers and word lovers.

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Best Commencement Speeches: Chadwick Boseman

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

On May 12, 2018, a young actor delivered the 150th commencement speech to a capacity crowd of over 20,000 people at Howard University. There was tremendous excitement and anticipation surrounding his appearance since his recent film was one of the highest grossing films that year, earning over $1 billion worldwide at the box office. Little did the graduates know that the actor was not just a hero in films, he was a hero in real life as he courageously and silently was battling colon cancer since 2016. After his death in August 2020, his words of wisdom on that summer day would be even more meaningful to that graduating class — and now the world. Who is this actor? The then 42-year-old American actor Chadwick Boseman, star of Black Panther, two Avengers films, Get On Up, and Marshall. Variety film critic Owne Gleiberman observed, “Boseman was a virtuoso actor who had the rare ability to create a character from the outside in and the inside out [and he] knew how to fuse with a role, etching it in three dimensions… That’s what made him an artist, and a movie star, too. Yet in Black Panther, he also became that rare thing, a culture hero.” Michele and Barack Obama added, “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.” Dr. Wayne Frederick, president of Howard University, expressed his conflicting emotions: “I feel strange. I am overjoyed — not that I got to know him — but that he lived and in doing so, he taught us how to live fully and how to embrace life through all its opportunities, flaws, and weaknesses. I don’t think he hid from any of those things. He wore them gracefully. His ability to set that example is so touching and that, to me, is what is resonating now. He lived fully. His time wasn’t short. He maximized what he had.”

One of the most quoted passages from the speech is this: “Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose.” Here is the full text of Chadwick Boseman’s inspiring commencement speech to the graduates at Howard University:

“It is a great privilege, graduates to address you on your day, a day marking one of the most important accomplishments of your life to date. This is a magical place, a place where the dynamics of positive and negative seem to exist in extremes. I remember walking across this yard on what seemed to be a random day, my head down lost in my own world of issues like many of you do daily. I’m almost at the center of the yard. I raised my head and Muhammad Ali was walking towards me. Time seemed to slow down as his eyes locked on mine and opened wide. He raised his fist to a quintessential guard.

I was game to play along with him, to act as if I was a worthy opponent. What an honor to be challenged by the GOAT, the Greatest Of All Time, for a brief moment. His face was as serious as if I was Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila. His movements were flashes of a past greater than I can imagine. His security let the joke play along for a second before they ushered him away, and I walked away floating like a butterfly. I walked away amused at him, amused at myself, amused at life for this moment that almost no one would ever believe. I walked away light and ready to take on the world. That is the magic of this place. Almost anything can happen here. HU! You know!

Howard University, I was riding here and I heard on the radio, somebody called it Wakanda University. But it has many names, the Mecca, the Hilltop. It only takes one hour, one tour of the physical campus to understand why we call it the Hilltop. Every day is leg day here. That’s why some of you have cars. During my junior and senior years, I lived in a house off campus at Bryant Street. For those of you… That’s right, Bryant Street. For those of you who don’t know what that means, that’s at the bottom of the hill where the incline gets real. Almost every day I would walk the full length of the hill to Fine Arts, where most of my classes were, carrying all of my books, because once you walked that far on foot, you are not walking back home until it’s time to go home for good.

But beyond the physical campus, the Hilltop represents the culmination of the intellectual and spiritual journey you have undergone while you were here. You have been climbing this academic slope for at least three or four years. For some of you, maybe even a little bit more. Throughout ancient times, institutions of learning have been built on top of hills to convey that great struggle is required to achieve degrees of enlightenment. Each of you had your own unique difficulties with the hill. For some of you, the challenge was actually academics. When you hear the words magna cum laude, cum laude, you know that’s not you. That’s not you. You worked hard. You did your best, but you didn’t make A’s or B’s, sometimes C’s. You never made the dean’s list, but that’s okay. You are here on top of the hill.

I want to say something to that. You know, sometimes your grades don’t give a real indication of what your greatness might be. So, it really is okay. For others it was financial. You and your family struggled to make ends meet. Every semester of your matriculation you had to stand in one line to get to another line, to get to another line for somebody that might help you. You had to work an extra job, or two, but you are here.

For a lot of you, not all, but a lot of you, your hardest struggle was social. Some of you never fit in. You were never as cool and as popular as you wanted to be, and it bothers you. So, your social struggles here became psychological. Even though you made it up to hill, you carried the baggage of rejection with you, but you are here.

Some of you went through something traumatic. You made it to the top of the hill but not without scars and bruises. Some of you fit in too much. You were on the yard rapping on your frat block when you were supposed to be in class. Or you got caught up into DC party life. I know how that is. I mean, we are right here in the midst of the city. Sometimes you forgot you were in school. You probably could have graduated with honors, but instead you are getting an “Oh yeah” degree today. Oh yeah, I have class. Oh yeah, I have that paper due. Oh yeah, I have a final. You were literally too cool for school. You waited until the last minute to do your best work and it’s a wonder that you made it up the hill at all because you carry the baggage of too much acceptance.

Most of you graduating here today struggled against one or more of the impediments or obstacles I’ve mentioned in order to reach this hilltop. When completing a long climb, one first experiences dizziness, disorientation and shortness of breath due to the high altitude, but once you become accustomed to the climb, your mind opens up to the tranquility of the triumph.

Oftentimes, the mind is flooded with realizations that were, for some reason, harder to come to when you were at a lower elevation. At this moment, most of you need some realizations because right now you have some big decisions to make. Right now, I urge you in your breath, in your eyes, in your consciousness — invest in the importance of this moment and cherish it. I know some of you might’ve partied last night. You should, you should celebrate, but this moment is also a part of that celebration. So, savor the taste of your triumphs today. Don’t just swallow the moment whole without digesting what has actually happened here. Look down over what you conquered and appreciate what God has brought you through.

Some of you here struggled against the university itself. This year, students protested and took over the A building, formulated a list of demands and negotiated with our president and administration to determine the direction of our institution. It’s impressive. Similarly, during my years here at Howard, we also protested and took over the A building in order to preserve Howard’s alum, in order to preserve Howard’s annual appropriations from Congress. President H. Patrick Swygert decided to reduce the number of colleges at the university. By his plan, engineering would need to merge with architecture. Nursing would merge with allied health and the fine arts, my school, will be absorbed by arts and sciences. That’s how we saw it, absorbed.

For many of us in fine arts, this signaled to us that our curriculums, all the curriculums of students following us, might become watered-down concentrations. This undermined the very legacy we were proud to be a part of and aimed to continue. The fine arts program had produced Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Isaiah Washington, Richard Wesley, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, just to name a few. We felt that… Yes, yes. You could go on and on. You can go on and on. You can go on and on. We felt that we could compete with students from Juilliard, NYU and Carroll Arts as long as we continued to have a concentrated dosage that rivaled a conservatory experience, but without it…

Although we took over the A building for several days and presented our arguments to President Swygert and the administration, the schools were still merged. Thus, the current collection or formation of schools exists. That’s why I view your recent protest as such an accomplishment for both sides of the debate, student and administration. I didn’t come here to take sides. My interest is what’s best for the school.

A Howard University education is not just about what happens in the classroom, students. In some ways, what you were able to do exemplifies some of the skills you learned in the classroom. It takes the education out of the realm of theory and into utility and practice. Obviously, your organizational skills were unprecedented. I’m told that you organized shifts so that you could at least continue some of your classes. We missed all our classes. We were in the A building. I’m told that through donations, there was always an ample helping of food. I probably ate a slice of pizza during the entirety of our three-day protest.

Your organization and planning was impeccable. You received the majority of your demands, making a significant impact on those who came after you. As is often the case, those that follow most often enjoy the results of the progress you gained. You love the university enough to struggle with it. Now, I have to ask you that you have to continue to do that even now that you received your demands. Even if you are walking today, you have to continue to do that. Everything that you fought for was not for yourself. It was for those that come after. You could have been disgruntled and transferred, but you fought to be participants in making this institution the best that it can be. But I must also applaud President Wayne Frederick and the administration for listening to the students.

Your freedom of speech was exercised in a way where you can contribute to this place. It also shows that you can contribute to the democracy. The administration and the campus police at the time when I was protesting were not nearly as open-minded as this current one. I know this was a difficult time, but because of both of you, I believe Howard is a few steps closer to the actualization of its potential, the potential that many of us have dreamed for it. Students, your protests are also promising because many of you will leave Howard and enter systems and institutions that have a history of discrimination and marginalization. The fact that you have struggled with this university that you love is a sign that you can use your education to improve the world that you are entering.

I was on a roll when I entered the system of entertainment, theater, television and film. In my first New York audition for a professional play I landed the lead role. From that play, I got my first agent. From that agent, I got an on-screen audition. It was a soap opera. It wasn’t Third Watch. It was a soap opera on a major network. I scored that role, too. I felt like Mike Tyson when he first came on the scene knocking out opponents in the first round. With this soap opera gig, I was already promised to make six figures, more money than I had ever seen. I was feeling myself. But once I got the first script, with soap operas you very often get the script the night before and then you shoot the whole episode in one day with little to no time to prepare.

Once I saw the role I was playing, I found myself conflicted. The role wasn’t necessarily stereotypical. A young man in his formative years with a violent streak pulled into the allure of gang involvement. That’s somebody’s real story. Never judge the characters you play. That’s what we were always taught. That’s the first rule of acting. Any role played honestly can be empowering, but I was conflicted because this role seemed to be wrapped up in assumptions about us as Black folk. The writing failed to search for specificity. Plus, there was barely a glimpse of positivity or talent in the character, barely a glimpse of hope. I would have to make something out of nothing. I was conflicted. Howard had instilled in me a certain amount of pride and for my taste this role didn’t live up to those standards.

It was just my luck that after filming the first two episodes, execs of the show called me into their offices and told me how happy they were with my performance. They wanted me to be around for a long time. They said if there was anything that I needed, just let them know. That was my opening. I decided to ask them some simple questions about the background of my character, questions that I felt were pertinent to the plot. Question number one: Where is my father? The exec answered, “Well, he left when you were younger.” Of course. Okay. Okay. Question number two: In this script, it alluded to my mother not being equipped to operate as a good parent, so why exactly did my little brother and I have to go into foster care? Matter-of-factly, he said, “Well, of course she is on heroin.”

That could be real, I guess, but I didn’t want to assume that’s what it was. If we are around here assuming that the Black characters in the show are criminals, on drugs and deadbeat parents, then that would probably be stereotypical, wouldn’t it? That word stereotypical lingered. One of the execs pulled out my resume and began studying it. The other exec wore a smile and was now trying to live up to what they had promised me only a few moments before — “If there is anything you need, just let us know.” She said, “As you have seen, things move really fast around here, but we are more than happy to connect you with the writers if you have suggestions.”

“Yeah,” I said, “that would be great.” I said, “because I’m just trying to do my homework on this. I didn’t know if you guys have decided on all the facts, but maybe there are some things we could come up with, some talent or gift that we can build. Maybe he is really good at math or something. He has to be active. I’m doing my best not to play this character like a victim.”

“So, you went to Howard University, huh?” the exec holding my resume interrupted, peeking over the pages. “Yes,” I said proudly. He slid my resume back in his desk and said, “Thank you for your concerns. We will be watching you.”

I left the office. I shot the episode I had come in to shoot on that day. Probably the best one I did out of the three because I got one that was bothering me off my chest. I was let go from that job on the next day. I got a phone call from my agent. They decided to go another way. The questions that I asked set the producers on guard and perhaps paved the way for less stereotypical portrayal for the Black actor that stepped into the role after me.

As the Scripture says, “I planted the seed and Apollos watered it, but God kept it growing.” God kept it growing. Yet and still, when you invest in a seed, watching it grow without you, that is a bitter pill to swallow, a bitter pill. Anybody that has ever been fired knows what I’m talking about. Even if you really don’t want the job, when they let you go, it’s like any break-up, you act like you don’t care. I didn’t need that damn job anyway. I didn’t need them.

But when you have those moments alone, you start to wonder if there was a better way to handle it. If you could have handled it better maybe you could help your family. Then before you know it, you are broke. You find yourself scraping together change just so you can ride the subway, so that you could get the next job. Maybe if you could book something else that would eclipse the feeling of doubt that’s building, but it seems like you can’t pay them to hire you now.

My agents at the time told me it might be a while before I got a job acting on screen again. Well, that was fine because I never wanted to act in the first place. And I definitely didn’t want to be caught dead going after a fake Hollywood pipe dream. I’m more of a writer, director anyway, so forget their stories. I can tell my own stories. But am I actually blackballed? “We are hesitant about sending you out to some people right now because there is a stigma that you are difficult.” As conflicted as I was before I lost the job, as adamant as I was about the need to speak truth to power, I found myself even more conflicted afterwards. I stand here today knowing that my Howard University education prepared me to play Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall and T’Challa.

But what do you do when the principle and the standards that were instilled in you here at Howard closed the doors in front of you? Sometimes you need to get knocked down before you can really figure out what your fight is and how need to fight it. At some point, my mind reverted back to my experiences here, to the professors that challenged me and struggled against me, Professor Robert Williams, Doctor Singleton, George Epstein, to name a few, the ones that will fail you out of the goodness of their hearts.

This may be hard to grasp for some of you right now, but I even considered President Swygert and how negotiating with him was practice for a world that was considerably more cruel and unforgiving than any debate here, one that had no interest in my ideals and beliefs. How would I maneuver through all of this?

Finally, I thought of Ali in the middle of the yard in his elder years, drawing from his victories and his losses. At that moment I realized something new about the greatness of Ali and how he carried his crown. I realized that he was transferring something to me on that day. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter in me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. He was transferring the spirit of the fighter to me. Sometimes you need to feel the pain and sting of defeat to activate the real passion and purpose that God predestined inside of you. God says in Jeremiah, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Graduating class, hear me well on this day. This day, when you have reached the hilltop and you are deciding on next jobs, next steps, careers, further education, you would rather find purpose than a job or career. Purpose crosses disciplines. Purpose is an essential element of you. It is the reason you are on the planet at this particular time in history. Your very existence is wrapped up in the things you are here to fulfill. Whatever you choose for a career path, remember, the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose. When I dared to challenge the system that would relegate us to victims and stereotypes with no clear historical backgrounds, no hopes or talents, when I questioned that method of portrayal, a different path opened up for me, the path to my destiny.

When God has something for you, it doesn’t matter who stands against it. God will move someone that’s holding you back away from the door and put someone there who will open it for you if it’s meant for you. I don’t know what your future is, but if you are willing to take the harder way, the more complicated one, the one with more failures at first than successes, the one that has ultimately proven to have more meaning, more victory, more glory then you will not regret it.

Now, this is your time. The light of new realizations shines on you today. Howard’s legacy is not wrapped up in the money that you will make but the challenges that you choose to confront. As you commence to your paths, press on with pride and press on with purpose. God bless you. I love you, Howard. Howard forever!”

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Best Commencement Speeches: Rick Rigsby

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom

Dr. Rick Rigsby is an ordained minister and President and CEO of Rick Rigby Communications; he travels around the world as a motivational speaker teaching people about leadership principles. Prior to that, Rigsby was an award-winning television news reporter, a college professor at CSU Fresno and Texas A&M (where he earned the Outstanding Teaching Award), and served as chaplain and character coach for the Texas A&M Aggies football team. He has earned four degrees: BA in Mass Communications; MA in Public Communications; MA in Biblical Theology; and a PhD in Critical Media Studies. Rigsby is the author of the bestselling book Lessons From a Third Grade Dropout: How the Timeless Wisdom of One Man Can Impact an Entire Generation. Rigsby was born in Vallejo, California in 1956 to working class parents. His mother was a forklift operator at the Venetia Arsenal and his father was a cook at the California Maritime Academy. In his motivational speeches, Rigsby draws on his life experiences to share the wisdom of his working class parents who taught him enduring values and life lessons and inspired lifelong learning. As his website explains: “Inspired by a genuine conviction to help people realize their full potential [Rigsby] brings a combined four decades of experience and expertise… [He] encourages, inspires and challenges people at every level to dream bigger, stretch beyond comfort zones and achieve the impossible!” Below is Rigby’s powerful, poignant, and inspiring commencement speech, titled “Lessons from a Third Grade Dropout” to the graduating class of the California State University Maritime Academy in Vallejo on April 22, 2017. It is filled with several insightful and transformative life lessons drawn from his personal journey. It is no wonder that this graduation speech has been viewed over 14 million times:

The wisest person I ever met in my life, a third-grade dropout. Wisest and dropout in the same sentence is rather oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp. Like fun run — ain’t nothing fun about it. Like Microsoft Works — y’all don’t hear me. I used to say [I] like country music — but I’ve lived in Texas so long, I love country music now. Yeah! I hunt. I fish. I have cowboy boots and cowboy… Y’all, I’m a blackneck redneck. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? [It’s] no longer oxymoronic for me to say country music and it’s not oxymoronic for me to say third grade and dropout.

That third grade dropout, the wisest person I ever met in my life, who taught me to combine knowledge and wisdom to make an impact, was my father, a simple cook, wisest man I ever met in my life. Just a simple cook. Left school in the third grade to help out on the family farm but just because he left school doesn’t mean his education stopped. Mark Twain once said, “I’ve never allowed my schooling to get in the way of my education.” My father taught himself how to read, taught himself how to write, decided in the midst of Jim Crowism, as America was breathing the last gasp of the Civil War, my father decided he was going to stand and be a man, not a black man, not a brown man, not a white man, but a man. He literally challenged himself to be the best that he could all the days of his life.

I have four degrees. My brother is a judge. We’re not the smartest ones in our family — it’s a third grade dropout daddy, a third grade dropout daddy who was quoting Michelangelo, saying to us boys, “I won’t have a problem if you aim high and miss, but I’m gonna have a real issue if you aim low and hit.” A country mother quoting Henry Ford, saying, “If you think you can or if you think you can’t, you’re right.” I learned that from a third grade drop. Simple lessons, lessons like these. “Son, you’d rather be an hour early than a minute late.” We never knew what time it was at my house because the clocks were always ahead. My mother said, for nearly 30 years, my father left the house at 3:45 in the morning, one day, she asked him, “Why, Daddy?” He said, “Maybe one of my boys will catch me in the act of excellence.”

I want to share a few things with you. Aristotle said, “You are what you repeatedly do.” Therefore, excellence ought to be a habit, not an act. Don’t ever forget that. I know you’re tough. I know you’re seaworthy, but always remember to be kind, always. Don’t ever forget that. Never embarrass Mama. Mm-hmm. If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. If Daddy ain’t happy, don’t nobody care — but I’m going to tell you.

Next lesson: lesson from a cook over there in the galley. “Son, make sure your servant’s towel is bigger than your ego.” I want to remind you cadets of something as you graduate. Ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. You all might have a relative in mind you want to send that to. Let me say it again: ego is the anesthesia that deadens the pain of stupidity. Pride is the burden of a foolish person.

John Wooden coached basketball at UCLA for a living, but his calling was to impact people, and with all those national championships, guess what he was found doing in the middle of the week? Going into the cupboard, grabbing a broom and sweeping his own gym floor. You want to make an impact? Find your broom. Every day of your life, you find your broom. You grow your influence that way. That way, you’re attracting people so that you can impact them.

Final lesson. “Son, if you’re going to do a job, do it right.” I’ve always been told how average I can be, always been criticized about being average, but I want to tell you something. I stand here before you before all of these people, not listening to those words, but telling myself every single day to shoot for the stars, to be the best that I can be. Good enough isn’t good enough if it can be better, and better isn’t good enough if it can be best.

Let me close with a very personal story that I think will bring all this into focus. Wisdom will come to you in the unlikeliest of sources, a lot of times through failure. When you hit rock bottom, remember this. While you’re struggling, rock bottom can also be a great foundation on which to build and on which to grow. I’m not worried that you’ll be successful. I’m worried that you won’t fail from time to time. The person that gets up off the canvas and keeps growing, that’s the person that will continue to grow their influence.

Back in the ’70s, to help me make this point, let me introduce you to someone. I met the finest woman I’d ever met in my life. Mm-hmm. Back in my day, we’d have called her a brick house. This woman was the finest woman I’d ever seen in my life. There was just one little problem. Back then, ladies didn’t like big old linemen. The Blind Side hadn’t come out yet. They liked quarterbacks and running back. We’re at this dance, and I find out her name is Trina Williams from Lompoc, California. We’re all dancing and we’re just excited. I decide in the middle of dancing with her that I would ask her for her phone number. Trina was the first — Trina was the only woman in college who gave me her real telephone number.

The next day, we walked to [Baskin-Robbins] ice cream parlor. My friends couldn’t believe it. This has been 40 years ago, and my friends still can’t believe it. We go on a second date and a third date and a fourth date. Mm-hmm. We drive from Chico to Vallejo so that she can meet my parents. My father meets her. My daddy. My hero. He meets her, pulls me to the side and says, “Is she psycho?” Anyway, we go together for a year, two years, three years, four years. By now, Trina’s a senior in college. I’m still a freshman, but I’m working some things out. I’m so glad I graduated in four terms, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan.

Now, it’s time to propose, so I talk to her girlfriends, and it’s California. It’s in the ’70s, so it has to be outside, have to have a candle and you have to some chocolate. Listen, I’m from the hood. I had a bottle of Boone’s Farm wine. That’s what I had. She said, “Yes.” That was the key. I married the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen in my… Y’all ever been to a wedding and even before the wedding starts, you hear this? “How in the world?” It was coming from my side of the family! We get married. We have a few children. Our lives are great.

One day, Trina finds a lump in her left breast. Breast cancer. Six years after that diagnosis, me and my two little boys walked up to Mommy’s casket and for two years my heart didn’t beat. If it wasn’t for my faith in God, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If it wasn’t for those two little boys, there would have been no reason for which to go on. I was completely lost. That was rock bottom. You know what sustained me? The wisdom of a third grade dropout, the wisdom of a simple cook.

We’re at the casket. I’d never seen my dad cry, but this time I saw my dad cry. That was his daughter — Trina was his daughter, not his daughter-in-law, and I’m right behind my father about to see her for the last time on this Earth, and my father shared three words with me that changed my life right there at the casket. It would be the last lesson he would ever teach me. He said, “Son, just stand. You keep standing. You keep standing no matter how rough the sea, you keep standing, and I’m not talking about just water. You keep standing. No matter what you don’t give up.” I learned that lesson from a third grade dropout. And as clearly as I’m talking to you today, these were some of [my wife’s] last words to me. She looked me in the eye and she said, “It doesn’t matter to me any longer how long I live. What matters to me most is how I live.”

I ask y’all one question, a question that I was asked all my life by a third grade dropout. How you living? How you living? Every day, ask yourself that question. How you living? Here’s what a cook would suggest you to live, this way: that you would not judge, that you would show up early, that you’d be kind, that you make sure that that servant’s towel is huge and used, that if you’re going to do something, you do it the right way. That cook would tell you this: that it’s never wrong to do the right thing, that how you do anything is how you do everything, and in that way, you will grow your influence to make an impact. In that way, you will honor all those who have gone before you who have invested in you. Look in those unlikeliest places for wisdom. Enhance your life every day by seeking that wisdom and asking yourself every night, “How am I living?”

May God richly bless you all. Thank you for having me here.

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Growing Up in A Home With Books is Predictor of Educational Achievement

alex atkins bookshelf booksI know. Book lovers, who most likely grew up surrounded by books, read the title of this post, roll their eyes and say “You don’t say!” However, since the coronavirus has made inspecting the bookcases of journalists, experts, and celebrities a fun parlor game, its a perfect time to examine the question: does growing up with books have an impact on the level of education that children and adults will attain?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Joanna Sikor and a team of researchers at the Australian National University surveyed participants between the ages of 25 and 65 from 31 different countries from 2011 to 2015. Respondents were initially asked to estimate how many books they had in their home when they were 16 years old. Then they completed a number of tests for reading comprehension, understanding mathematical concepts, and the ability to use digital technology for communication. For the purpose of the study, literacy was defined as “the ability to read effectively to participate in society and achieve personal goals.”

So what did study reveal? The study, published in the journal of Social Science Research, found that home library size is positively related to higher levels of literacy. Specifically, individuals who owned around 80 books at home tended to have average scores for literacy, while those who owned fewer than 80 books tended to have below-average scores for literacy. As number of books increased passed 80, scores for literacy increased, leveling off at about 350 books. That is to say, whether a person owned 350 books or 10,000 books, literacy rates remained steadily high. The researchers wrote: “A growing body of evidence supports the contention of scholarly culture theory that immersing children in book-oriented environments benefits their later educational achievement, attainment and occupational standing. These findings have been interpreted as suggesting that book-oriented socialization, indicated by home library size, equips youth with life-long tastes, skills and knowledge. However, to date, this has not been directly assessed. Here, we document advantageous effects of scholarly culture for adult literacy, adult numeracy, and adult technological problem solving.”

Another important study along these lines was conducted by Mariah Evans and her colleagues at the University of Nevada, Reno. Conducted over 20 years with more than 70,000 participants across 27 countries, the study by Evans is the most comprehensive study conducted on ascertaining what influences the level of education that a child will attain. Published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, the study found that regardless of parents’ level of education, occupation, level of wealth, or country of residence, having books in the home had a large impact on children’s educational attainment. Specifically, a child who is raised in a home with a home library containing 500 or more books gives a child 6.6 more years of schooling in China; in the United States, it increases education 2.4 years. The average increases in schooling across all 27 countries was 3.2 years.

One of the most interesting insights from the study was that having books in the home is twice as important as the level of education of the parents. This counters the commonly held notion that having parents who are highly educated is the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education. Evans writes: “What kinds of investments should we be making to help these kids get ahead? The results of this study indicate that getting some books into their homes is an inexpensive way that we can help these children succeed. Even a little bit goes a long way,.” The study found that even having as few as 20 books in a home made a difference. Evans adds, “You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’. It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”

So bibliophiles can now look to science to justify their compulsion to buy books (known as bibliomania) without any guilt. And parents, if you are listening, take your children, head out to the nearest bookstore and get them started on an intellectual journey that will last a lifetime.

Note to readers: I was trying to research average number of books in home libraries in the United States, but could not find any reliable information. If you have some data (including sources, URLS, etc). Would appreciate any insights. Cheers.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by FOLLOWING or SHARING with a friend or your readers. During the coronavirus pandemic quarantines, it is a perfect time to explore the more than 1,600 articles on Bookshelf. Cheers.

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What Are the Most Loved and Hated Classic Novels?

alex atkins bookshelf books“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” wrote the brilliant Italian writer Italo Calvino. “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.” And naturally, that is why students are introduced to the classics in elementary and middle school, and explore them more deeply in high school and college.

Even though all classics have something to say, they are not universally liked by students and readers (we will address this a little later). Moreover, the classics are not always taught in the best possible way. In a thought-provoking essay, On Teaching Literature, Victoria Best, a former lecturer of French literature at Cambridge University, discusses the responsibilities that teaching literature places on both the teacher and the student, as well as the challenges that they face. When Best had an opportunity to teach literature, it was time for a critical assessment of pedagogical approaches to literature: “When I took up a university post teaching French literature I had to think long and hard about what we’re doing when we ‘teach’ a book or a play or a poem; what do we want out of it, how do we use it, and how best to lead students into an effective understanding? If you don’t ‘get’ literature, it can seem very perplexing and rebarbative. At worst, you can damage a student’s relationship to literature forever; thinking deeply about books can be something they never wish to do again.”

As she carefully examined her interactions with her students, Best came to appreciate how literature challenged students and the many obstacles that students faced in fully engaging with literature. She identifies four major obstacles. The first obstacle is the expression of thoughts and emotions: “At first they were shy about expressing what they thought. Too often they felt that loving or hating a book was the end of the matter. And they struggled to manage their tangled and convoluted thoughts in writing.

The second obstacle is the discipline that literature requires: “[Students] bumped up against the curious combination of creativity and discipline that literature demands. The way it invites us to think all manner of things, but to dismiss the majority in the interests of common sense, logic and emotional veracity. My students had to learn to deduce their conclusions only from the words on the page, not speculate wildly the way all other forms of media encourage them to do. And they had to organize their thought with care and reason to take another person through their argument.”

The third obstacle is the ability to think deeply and slowly: “This is the thing about studying literature – it stymies both of our main contemporary approaches to knowledge: the test-oriented desire for tickable answers, and the gossipy search for a self-righteous opinion. And so the huge obstacle it presents to the average teenager is the demand for slow thinking, not quick thinking, that pleasurable stab at what ‘everyone’ knows. My students struggled with the open-ended curiosity books required of them, the gentle, patient contemplation, the complete lack of an absolute answer. I told them that learning was most effective when it felt like a trip to a lesser Greek island – a place where there wasn’t much else to do but read and think. They almost preferred their own vision of themselves chained up to a hungry furnace in hell, shovelling in pages of mindless writing while being whipped by pitchfork-wielding devils.”

The fourth obstacle is narcissism. Indeed, great literature shakes us from our complacency — even more critical today as individuals become more isolated in their digital-device-created bubbles, oblivious to life’s nuanced ebbs and flows. Best continues the discussion: “For books do not keep us safe. They shake us out of ourselves, loosen our stranglehold on certainties, get us to walk a mile in another’s shoes. My job as a teacher was initially to unclasp my student’s fingers from their cherished narcissism. If they could put themselves to one side — forget themselves in a book, in the way that can be so wonderful — they could experience literature as a protected arena in which all sorts of troubling or paradoxical situations are contained and worked through. They could discover new ideas, new perspectives, and gain new sophistication in their beliefs.”

Best concludes with an eloquent and inspirational testimony about why it is important to study literature: “This is why literature is so important. Its study requires very different skills to those demanded by other mainstream subjects. All those issues my students struggled with – self-awareness, creativity, the challenge to established beliefs, the focused contemplation, the juggling of interpretations which had to be backed up by evidence – all exercised their minds in vital ways. And beyond that, stories form the great building block of existence. Whether they are stories we tell about ourselves to create identity, or stories in the news, or stories given to us by the authorities, the form becomes so familiar as to be lost to critique. It’s important to realise how determining stories are, and how we build them to persuade, insist and explain things that are often no more than cherished hopes. We lose a lot of insight if we don’t understand how stories function and the immense underground work they do within a culture.”

So let us return to the initial question: what are the classic novels that readers like the most and those that are liked the least? Where can we find that data? Enter Daniel Frank, a public policy expert and attorney, who turned to the rich data at GoodReads generated by hundreds of thousands of readers. Frank developed an algorithm to examine the rankings of the classics dividing them into the highest-ranked (most liked) and the lowest-ranked (most hated). So what did he find? Frank writes: “The data also reveals some interesting cultural trends. The first classic novel is Don Quixote which came out in 1615 but the next, Robinsoe Crusoe didn’t come out for more than 100 years later in 1719. The 1930’s produced significantly fewer classics than the surrounding decades, almost certainly as a result of the Great Depression and World War II. The two authors who produced the most classics are the British pair of Jane Austen with 6 and Charles Dickens with 5, followed by the American pair of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck with 4 each. This reflects the cultural reach of Britain during its empire and the evolution of American cultural hegemony. Just because an author produced a number of classics doesn’t make their books universally loved; Dickens’ books all score mediocre, while Hemingway is hated across the board, and Steinbeck fares poorly beyond East of Eden. Jane Austen is unique as the only author with multiple truly beloved classics.” Here are Frank’s lists of the most liked and the most hated classic novels.

The Most Liked Classic Novels:
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
1984 by George Orwell
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kessey
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Phantom Toolbooth by Norton Juster
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Most Hated Classic Novels:
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Moby-Dick, or, the Whale by Herman Melville
The Pearl by John Steinbeck
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Do you agree or disagree; additional perspectives? I welcome thoughtful discussion via comment section or email. Be a part of the community. Cheers.

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Why Read the Classics? by Italo Calvino
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American Literature by Joseph Epstein
Dan Frank:

The Value of Self-Education: Following in the Footsteps of the Ancient Greeks

alex atkins bookshelf educationOne of the most pervasive myths of modern culture is that in order to succeed you need to attend an exclusive private college where an undergraduate degree can cost up to $350,000 — and in some cases, close to $500,000. The fact is, most families cannot afford that. More than 54% of students in the U.S. take on debt to pay for college education. As of 2019, outstanding student loan debt in America has reached an all-time high of $1.41 trillion dollars!

The truth of the matter, as many education experts have pointed out over the last decade, is that there are many fine, outstanding colleges — public and private — that are not brand-names that can provide students an exceptional education. There are many books on the subject, including Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be by Frank Bruni and Colleges That Change Lives by Loren Pope — to name just a few. But today’s post focuses on where you can go to get a free college education. That’s right — I said “free.” For inspiration, let us turn to one of the countries greatest statesmen, but moreover, greatest intellectuals: Thomas Jefferson. Over his lifetime, Jefferson built a personal library of close to 6,500 books, which he eventually sold to the Library of Congress. Jefferson was a lifelong learner and greatly enjoyed the company of books and the pursuit of knowledge by reading books on every subject.

“Well, books cost money,” you say. True. But realize that Jefferson was only following in the footsteps of the Ancient Greeks. One of the most learned and famous philosophers was Heraclitus of Ephesus who was self-educated. Heraclitus famously said: “I am what libraries and librarians have made me, with little assistance from a professor of Greek and poets.” Amen. So  if you cannot afford to build your own library, you can always visit your local library or read some of the classics that are available online for free (eg, Gutenberg Project, Digital Book Index, Bartleby, and to name a few).

One of the most passionate advocates of self-education is historian and classics professor Susan Wise Bauer, who wrote The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. In an early chapter she discusses some of her frustrations and the limitations of graduate school. What emerges from her reflections on graduate school is the importance of self-education following Jefferson’s example. She writes:

“Here is the good news: You don’t have to suffer through the graduate school wringer in order to train your mind — unless you plan to get a job in university teaching (not a particularly strong employment prospect anyway). For centuries, women and men undertook this sort of learning-reading, taking notes, discussing books and ideas with friends — without subjecting themselves to graduate-school stipends and university health-insurance policies. 

Indeed, university lectures were seen by Thomas Jefferson as unnecessary for the serious pursuit of historical reading. In 1786, Jefferson wrote to his college-age nephew Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr., advising him to pursue the larger part of his education independently. Go ahead and attend a course of lectures in science, Jefferson recommended. But he then added, “While you are attending these courses, you can proceed by yourself in a regular series of historical reading. It would be a waste of time to attend a professor of this. It is to be acquired from books, and if you pursue it by yourself, you can accommodate it to your other reading so as to fill up those chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.”

Professional historians might take umbrage at their apparent superfluity, but Jefferson’s letter reflects a common understanding of the times: Any literate man ( or woman, we would add) can rely on self-education to train and fill the mind. All you need are a shelf full of books, a congenial friend or two who can talk to you about your reading, and a few “chasms of time not otherwise appropriated.” (Contemporary critics of university education might add that a Ph.D. doesn’t necessarily train and fill the mind in any case; this, sniffs Harold Bloom, is a “largely forgotten function of a university education,” since universities now “disdain to fulfill” our yearning for the classics.)

Young Randolph was able to build on the foundation of a privileged education. But his home course in self-improvement was followed by many Americans who were less well schooled-including thousands of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century women, who were usually given much less classroom education than their male counterparts. Limited to the learning they could acquire for themselves once a brief period of formal education had ended, American women of the last two centuries kept journals and commonplace books chronicling their reading, met with each other, and took responsibility for developing their own minds. The etiquette author Eliza Farrar advised her young female readers not only on manners and dress, but also on intellectual cultivation: “Self-education begins where school education ends,” she wrote sternly.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams

What is the World’s Dirty Secret?

alex atkins bookshelf moviesThere is a point, months or years after graduation, that one longs to return to college. Nostalgia grabs you by the lapels and cries out: “remember the great camaraderie; the epic parties; the memorable meals; the thought-provoking, passionate discussions, young love, and the idle time for contemplation or getting lost in the world of ideas? Remember all that?” Of course, those years slip by so quickly, like sand through your fingers. And now, stuck in the routine of a boring, soul-crushing 9-to-5 job, you really begin to miss those years and those amazingly transformative experiences. But, year by year those memories recede before us and you stretch your arms farther, like Gatsby reaching out to recapture his past, and a younger version of his beloved Daisy.

It is exactly that paralyzing ennui that motivates Jesse Fisher to return to college and visit with his favorite college English professor, Peter Hoberg, in the 2012 enchanting film, Liberal Arts (written and directed by Josh Radnor). By visiting college and his favorite teachers, Fisher hopes to recapture his passion, his purpose in life. Hoberg dispenses a lot of wisdom, including this gem: “Any place you don’t leave is a prison.” However, during one memorable scene, while discussing aging, Professor Hoberg shares the world’s dirty secret with his former student:

Professor Peter Hoberg: You know how old I am?

Jesse Fisher: No, how old are you?

Hoberg: It’s none of your goddamn business. Do you know how old I feel like I am?

Fisher: [Shrugs]

Hoberg: 19. Since I was 19, I have never felt not 19. But I shave my face and I look in the mirror and I’m forced to say, “This is not a 19-year-old staring back at me.” [Sighs] Teaching here all these years, I’ve had to be very clear with myself, that even when I’m surrounded by 19-year-olds, and I may have felt 19, I’m not 19 anymore. You follow me?

Fisher: Yeah.

Hoberg: Nobody feels like an adult. It’s the world’s dirty secret.

So if you are a young adult, now you know what most middle-aged adults know. But please be discreet, don’t tell anyone… remember it’s our little secret.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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Misconceptions About the Modern College Student

alex atkins bookshelf educationA survey in October 2018 by Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan organization, asked a representative sample of Americans, as well as individuals who worked in the field of education (leaders of educational institutions, leaders of educational associations, politicians, policy makers, etc.) to describe what they considered to be the typical modern college student. Turns out that most Americans, including the educational experts that should know better, need some serious schooling! — LOL! — most have many misconceptions about today’s college students. Executive Director Julie Peller stated “The data confirms that in several key areas the public is unaware of the demographic shifts that have occurred in higher education. Although policy insiders understand that the needs and aspirations of college students have evolved, the [incorrect] pop culture archetype for the typical college student still seems to dominate the perceptions of many Americans.”

So what are some of the misconceptions about the modern college student? According to the report, the “pop culture archetype” of the modern college student is:
18-24 years old
Lives on or near campus
Parents help with college costs
Attends a 4-year university
Attends full time
Has no children or other family obligations
Has spending money for clothes, beer, and travel

So how far off are these misconceptions from reality? Quite a bit. As one education insider explained, “Picture an 18-year-old from a middle-class background who gets support from parents and goes to school full time. That is probably the experience of most of us in the policymaking community. But that is increasingly not representative of a college student today.” And that’s putting it mildly. Here is the profile of the actual modern college student:
41% of college students are older than 25
13% of first-year students live on campus
55% are financially independent 
39% attend a college part-time; 36% of undergraduate students attend a 2-year college
26% are parents
42% of independent college students live at or below the federal poverty line

Class dismissed.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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What is the Genius of the Constitution?

alex atkins bookshelf movies

Sometimes a film from the past speaks to the present in a very compelling — and perhaps eerie — way. Take the prescience of the 1994 film, With Honors, regarding the topic of the balance of power between Congress and the President that has dominated the news in the last few months. In With Honors, Monty Kessler (played by Brendan Fraser), an honors student in the government program at Harvard University, and his new companion, Simon Wilder (played by Joe Pesci), a homeless man, attend a class lecture. The professor, Mr. Pitkannan (played by legendary author Gore Vidal) poses a question to the class: “Our founding fathers, or to be more politically correct, founding parents designed the Constitution to prevent the presidency from becoming another form of tyranny — an elected king. Well, did they succeed?… Could the President of the United States without consulting those he governs, more or less destroy the entire world?

Monty: “The President cannot bomb without reason.”

Professor Pitkannan: “He has the reason. He thinks we need more parking spaces. The point is — can he destroy the world?”

Monty: “Not without Congress.”

Pitkannan: “Now Mr. Kessler, after four years at Harvard has it escaped your attention that the President can make war for 90 days without consulting Congress… My question still stands: what is the particular genius of the Constitution? You sir [pointing to Simon], do you have an opinion on this?…

Simon: “You asked a question sir. Let me answer it. The genius of the Constitution is that it can always be changed. The genius of the Constitution is that it makes no permanent rule other than its faith in the wisdom of ordinary people to govern themselves.”

Pitkannan [in a sneering tone]: “Faith in the wisdom of the people is exactly what makes the Constitution incomplete and crude.”

Simon: “Crude? No sir. Our founding parents were pompous middle-aged white farmers. But they were also great men because they knew one thing that all great men should know — that they didn’t know everything. They knew they were going to make mistakes. But they made sure to leave a way to correct them. They didn’t think of themselves as leaders. They wanted a government of citizens — not royalty. A government of listeners — not lecturers. A government that could change — not stand still. The President isn’t an elected King, no matter how many bombs he can drop. Because the crude Constitution doesn’t trust him. He’s a servant of the people.”

[The classroom erupts in applause.]

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How Reading Makes You Smarter

atkins-bookshelf-booksA few years ago, the Pew Research Center published a report on the reading habits of Americans. The study focused on how often adults (aged 18 and older) read print books, audiobooks, and e-books. Unfortunately the results were not promising: the number of people who are not reading any books has tripled in the past three decades. Specifically in 1978, 8% of American did not read a book within the past year. In 2002 that number jumped up to 18%; and in 2014 that number increased to 23%. What those individuals don’t know, and dedicated readers do know (at least intuitively), is that reading makes you smarter and has several beneficial effects on the brain. Here are seven ways that reading makes you smarter:

1. Reading encourages empathy. Studies indicate that reading literary fiction increases empathy and sympathy as readers respond to the struggles of a protagonist. Reading allows the reader to step into the life of the protagonist and imagine what it would be like to have those experiences.

2. Reading poetry encourages deep self-reflection. Studies show that reading poetry activates areas of the brain that are associated with introspection and autobiographical memory.

3. Reading improves memory. Reading activates the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In one study, readers read simple descriptive phrases (like “dark blue carpet”) while placed in an MRI machine. The MRI indicated that these simple phrases were enough to activate the hippocampus. Using fewer words encourages readers to use their imagination to “fill in the blanks” and create a virtual scene or world.

4. Reading improves decision-making and emotional processing. Researchers have found that reading activates key parts of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex, lateral temporal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, inferior parietal lobe. The medial prefrontal cortex is involved with decision-making and memory recall. The lateral temporal cortex is responsible for emotional association and visual memory. The posterior cingulate cortex is involved with episodic memory recall. And finally, the inferior parietal lobe is responsible for understanding emotions and interpreting sensory data.

5. Reading improves your verbal skills and vocabulary. Studies show that there is a direct correlation between verbal skills and reading. As most readers know, reading is a great way to expand your vocabulary by looking up new words you encounter. The more you read, the greater your working vocabulary will be. Reading also helps discover new ways of describing situations, feelings, and places as well as creating images in the mind’s eye.

6. Reading strengthens the mind. The brain is not a muscle, of course, but studies suggests that mind-building (mental exercise) is analogous to body-building. In another MRI study, researchers found that brain retains activity for as long as five days after reading a book. MRI of subjects revealed increased activity in the left angular and supra marginal gyri and right posterior temporal gyri areas of the brain that are associated with comprehension.

7. Reading helps slow down mental aging. Studies show that reading improves memory and sentence processing in older adults. The steady exposure to literary ingredients that encourage imagination (eg, metaphors, imagery, abstract ideas, etc), the brain gets mental exercise, remaining active and healthy.

So what are you waiting for? Pick up a book and start getting smarter.

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For further reading:

30 Epigrams That Can Make You More Creative

alex atkins bookshelf educationThe wisdom of Heraclitus of Ephesus (535 – 475 BC), the ancient Greek philosopher who is considered one of the founders of ontology (the study of being) and greatly influenced the philosophy of the Stoics, particularly Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. Sadly most of his writings have been lost to the sands of time, save for about 125 fragments, epigrams, that appear in the writings of other Ancient Greeks. These early philosophers were very fond of epigrams, an idea expressed in a clever way. (The word epigram is derived from the Greek work epigramma, meaning “an inscription.”) Moreover, many of Heraclitus’ epigrams are paradoxical requiring contemplation and interpretation; therefore, in many cases, there is no one right answer. Those early philosophers were really onto something…

Despite being more than 2,500 years old, the epigrams of Heraclitus have been a tremendous wellspring for modern authors who have rediscovered and repurposed them in the last few decades. Authors like Ryan Holiday (The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living); William Irvine (A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy); and Dan Millman (Way of the Peaceful Warrior), for example, have very successfully mined the wisdom of the stoics for valuable insights into how to live and have a meaningful life. In 2001, creativity expert Roger von Oech (author of A Whack on the Side of the Head), stumbled onto the wisdom of Heraclitus as a key to unlocking creativity. In his book, Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It), he writes: “I’ve selected thirty epigrams which I believe best express Heraclitus’ philosophy of the creative spirit. I call these his Creative Insights… Viewed as a whole… [they] provide us with a set of tools on how to be more creative… Indeed, Heraclitus’ enigmatic style in itself forces us to think differently. To understand his vivid metaphors and unusual paradoxes, we’ve had to tolerate ambiguity and probe for symbolic meanings. We’ve also had to be imaginative and think of multiple interpretations… [These epigrams are] a treasure box of creative inspiration.” The 30 Creative Insights of Heraclitus of Ephesus are listed below:

1. The cosmos speaks in patterns.
2. Expect the unexpected, or you won’t find it.
3. Everything flows.
4. You can’t step into the same river twice.
5. That which opposes produces a benefit.
6. A wonderful harmony is created when we join together the seemingly unconnected.
7. If all things turned to smoke, the nose would become the discerning organ.
8. The Sun will not exceed its limits, because the aven­ging Furies, ministers of Justice, would find out.
9. Lovers of wisdom must open their minds to very many things.
10. I searched into myself.
11. Knowing many things doesn’t teach insight.
12. Many fail to grasp what’s right in the palm of their hand.
13. When there is no sun, we can see the evening stars.
14. The most beautiful order is a heap of sweepings piled up at random.
15. Things love to conceal their true nature.
16. Those who approach life like a child playing a game, moving and pushing pieces, possess the power of kings.
17. Sea water is both pure and polluted: for fish it is drinkable and life-giving; for humans undrinkable and destructive.
18. On a circle, an end point can also be a beginning point.
19. It is disease that makes health pleasant, hunger that makes fullness good, and weariness that makes rest sweet.
20. The doctor inflicts pain to cure suffering.
21. The way up and the way down are one and the same.
22. A thing rests by changing.
23. The barley-wine drink falls apart unless it is stirred.
24. While we’re awake, we share one universe, but in sleep we each turn away to a world of our own.
25. Dogs bark at what they don’t understand.
26. Donkeys prefer garbage to gold.
27. Every walking animal is driven to its purpose with a whack.
28. There is a greater need to extinguish arrogance than a blazing fire.
29. Your character is your destiny.
30. The sun is new each day.

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The Wisdom of Yoda
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For further reading: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Fragments by Heraclitus 
Whack on the Side of Your Head by Roger von Oech
Expect the Unexpected (Or You Won’t Find It): A Creativity Tool Based on the Ancient Wisdom of Heraclitus by Roger von Oech
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
A Guide to the Good Life; The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book that Changes Life by Dan Millman
The Life You Were Born to Live: A Guide to Finding Your Life Purpose by Dan Millman

A Reader Lives a Thousand Lives Before He Dies

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

From George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons, the fifth book in the sprawling epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, the source of HBO’s highly acclaimed series, Game of Thrones. The quotation appears in chapter 34, when Jojen Reed is talking to Bran Strark. Jojen, a member of the House Reed, possesses greensight, the power of prophetic green dreams. Although Jojen has greensight, he is not a greenseer, as he explains to Bran: “No, [I am not a greenseer] only a boy who dreams. The greenseers were more than that. They were wargs [a skinchanger, a person with the ability to enter the mind of an animal and control its actions] as well, as you are, and the greatest of them could wear the skins of any beast that flies or swims or crawls, and could look through the eyes of the weirwoods [deciduous trees of Westerns that have blood red leaves and bone white trunks] as well, and see the truth that lies beneath the world.”

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The Secret to a Great Life: Amor Fati

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsThe great Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that philosophy was not just a theoretical discipline but a way of life. During his life (55 – 135 AD), he endured and saw more than his share of adversity. He was born a slave and was crippled (there are conflicting accounts: he was either born that way or one of his masters crushed his leg). Eventually, after the death of Nero in 68 AD, Epictetus obtained his freedom and traveled to Epirus, Greece to teach philosophy. Fortunately for us, his wisdom and teachings are preserved in the Discourses and Enchiridion. The secret to a great life, according to Epictetus, was what Nietzsche called amor fati, a Latin term meaning “a love of fate” or “love of one’s fate.” Specifically, Epictetus wrote: “Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.” In other words, don’t curse your fate: accept it — furthermore: love it. Epictetus and the stoics believed that everything that happens in one’s life — whether good or bad — is fate’s way of reaching its ultimate purpose: shaping you into the person you should be.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The Wisdom of Saint-Exupery
The Wisdom of Steven Wright
The Wisdom of Spock
The Wisdom of Elie Wiesel

The Man Who Launched 75,000 Libraries

alex atkins bookshelf booksOn October 18, 2018, Todd Bol, the founder of the Little Free Library, passed away at the age of 62 due to complications of pancreatic cancer. Margret Aldrich, a spokesperson for the Little Free Library organization said of Bol: “Todd created this beautiful, living, breathing movement of literary and community that resonated from that very first Little Free Library all the way to today. He was a true believer in the power of one person to make a difference. And he certainly did.”

The story of the Little Free Library begins in 2009. Bol was renovating the garage of his home. After removing an old wooden door, he realized that he didn’t want all that good wood to go to waste. He pondered about what he could do with the wood. That is when he was struck with an epiphany: why not build a tribute to his mother, who had been a schoolteacher? So he built a small replica of a schoolhouse (about two feet wide by two feet tall), filled it with about 20 books that his mother owned, attached the structure to a post, and planted it on his front lawn. The world was introduced to the first free book exchange, the first Little Free Library, based on the honor system: take a book, leave a book. Absolutely brilliant!

Bol had read the biography of Andrew Carnegie, the railroad and steel magnate, who as one of the country’s richest men wanted to give back to society by establishing 2,509 libraries. That legacy was in the back of his mind, when he established the Little Free Library nonprofit organization in 2010, hoping to inspire others to build a little library in their own neighborhoods. His initial dream was to inspire others in order to beat Carnegie’s record. Bol, with the assistance of some craftsmen, built some of them; but most were built by home owners who downloaded plans from the organization’s website. In just two years, there were more than 2,510 little libraries around the world. Fast forward to today, and Bol’s organization has inspired more than 75,000 Little Free Libraries throughout the United States (all 50 states) and in 88 countries. And what’s truly remarkable is that people get really creative with their libraries — they come in all shapes and sizes. You will find libraries that look like spaceships, barns, Victorian mansions, boxcars, robots, log cabins, cars, boats, trains, and even replicas of the houses of the builders.

So the next time you walk by or drive by a Little Free Library, think of Bol, the man who launched 75,000 libraries around the globe to share books and support literacy. Indeed, one person can make a difference.

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For further reading: The Little Free Library Book by Margret Aldrich

What is the Worst Color to Wear to a Job Interview?

alex atkins bookshelf educationIf you are going to a job interview, most people are guided by two timeless maxims: “Dress for success” and “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” We can thank John Molloy, author of the best-selling book Dress for Success (1975), for popularizing the expression and the concept of “power dressing,” i.e., dressing like you are already successful and have the job. And we can thank film star and social commentator Will Rogers for the second adage. At bottom, both of these sayings reinforce the notion that in the real world, especially in the competitive business world, people are judged by the way they present themselves — more specifically, by the way they dress. Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, reviewing extensive research on first impressions states “Clothing plus communication skills determine whether or not others will comply with your request, trust you with information, give you access to decision makers, pay you a certain salary or fee for contracted business, hire you, or purchase your products and services.” Well said!

In the interest of finding the best and worst colors to wear to a job interview, CareerBuilder asked over 2,000 hiring managers and human resource professionals to discuss how they perceived different colors worn by job seekers. Let us begin at the bottom of the list; that is to say, the worst color to wear to a job interview. Can you make a guess? Overwhelmingly, survey respondents indicated that orange was the worst color to wear to a job interview. Sorry, orange is not the new black. Orange is well… the old orange. They considered orange to be loud, attention-seeking, and inappropriate in formal business settings. Other colors to avoid include: green, yellow, and purple.

Here are the colors that hiring managers and HR professionals recommended for a more favorably-viewed job interview, ranked in order of preference:

Blue: conveys trust, confidence, and suggests person is a team player

Black: conveys sophistication, seriousness, and exclusivity

Gray: conveys that person is independent and self-sufficient

White: conveys that person is well organized and careful

Brown: communicates warmth, safety, reliability, and dependability

Red: conveys power, passion, excitement, and courage

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For further reading:

Serendipitous Discoveries in Used Bookstores

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“Still, anyone with a taste for wonder — not all, apparently, have it — should learn to haunt used bookstores, even more than stores that sell new books… Each person should take pains to scout his own city on this score… The used bookstore, unlike the catalogue or even the library, puts us in a place where we can come across and buy some unsuspected title that turns out to get at the essence of what is.

From Another Sort of Learning: Selected Contrary Essays on How Finally to Acquire an Education by James Schall, S.J.

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The Most Beautiful College Libraries in America

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs most librarians know, college libraries have been on the endangered species list for some time. Over the last two decades, college libraries have downsized, relocated, or — gasp — entirely eliminated their books as they shifted to digital resources or repurposed the space. Which begs the question: if a library does not have any books, is it still a library? But we digress. In the article “The Disappearance of Books Threatens to Erode Fine Arts Libraries,” journalist Sarah Bond discusses this disturbing trend: “Across the country, many university libraries are engaged in a book purge. This has meant reassessing the use of library spaces and consolidating book holdings in a bid to attract more visitors. In states like Missouri and Kansas, libraries have begun to spend more and more of their annual budgets on digital subscriptions and spaces for people, rather than on the acquisition of physical books. As in Austin and Madison, such shifts have often been met with resistance. At Syracuse University in New York, there was a faculty uproar over the proposed movement of books to a far-away warehouse. The struggle ultimately resulted in the university building a 20,000-square-foot storage facility nearby for over 1 million books — guaranteeing next-business-day delivery.”

Twenty years ago, book stores also thrived. Consumers took them for granted. And then, before you knew it, they disappeared — one by one. That is why Town & Country’s recent feature, “22 of America’s Most Beautiful College Libraries,” is a reminder to appreciate their significance of what they contain as well as their stunning architecture. If you have an opportunity, visit them while they are still around. Here is the list of the 22 most beautiful college libraries in America:

Bapst Art Library at Boston College

Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington

Widener Library at Harvard University

Uris Library at Cornell University

Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library at Vassar College

Riggs Library at Georgetown University

Washington University Law Library

Hoose Philosophy Library at the University of Southern California

Harper Memorial Library at the University of Chicago

George Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University

Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania

Cook Legal Research Library at the University of Michigan

Butler Library at Columbia University

Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library at Yale

Anne Bremer Memorial Library at San Francisco Art Institute

Mclure Education Library at the University of Alabama

Joe And Rika Mansueto Library at the University of Chicago

Firestone Library at Princeton University

Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego

Albert And Shirley Small Special Collections Library at University of Virginia

William R. Perkins Library at Duke University

Powell Library at UCLA

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For further reading:

The 300 Book Vacation

alex atkins bookshelf booksMeet Hope Faith Wiggins — a sweet and precocious 8-year-old girl from Aldine, Texas who is a real inspiration for book lovers around the world. Her family could not afford a summer vacation, so Hope used her imagination and took a different kind a vacation — a voyage through the world of books. Specifically, she pledged to read 300 books before school began on August 19. Her proud mother reflected on the 300-book vacation: “The library opened up so many worlds. It was like a vacation, but inside our house.” Hope made dozens of trips to the library, collecting books by the armful, to exceed her goal. By mid-August, she had read 302 books. Hope’s profound love of books is infectious; she explains: “I like reading a lot because it’s fun. It’s like being inside of a whole other world. You can imagine that you’re the character, and for me, one thing that happens when I read a book or watch a video is I dream about it.”

One of her favorite books is Our Enduring Spirit: President Barack Obama’s First Words to America. Hope recently experienced something very tragic: she lost a close childhood friend to cancer. Each day she wears a yellow bow in her hair to keep the memory of her friend alive. It is that profound loss that inspired her dream career: to be a pediatric oncologist. She is certainly well on her way — the best education, as many philosophers and writers know so well, is self-education motivated by the insatiable thirst for knowledge. Moreover, at such a young age, Hope understands the importance of having a good heart as well as a good head; in the words of another inspirational and remarkable human being, Nelson Mendala: “A good head and good heart are always a formidable combination. But when you add to that a literate tongue or pen, then you have something very special.” Indeed, the world is a better place because of Hope.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading:

What Book Should Every Student Read in 2018?

alex atkins bookshelf booksEach year in the United States, there are 600,000 to 1 million books published each year. Of those, about 50% are self-published titles that sell less than 250 copies. So the book lover’s dilemma — what should I read? — is quite a challenge. But no need to pore over countless book reviews, book blogs, and best-seller lists — why not ask the smartest people on the planet: college professors. The bibliophiles at Business Insider (who knew?) recently asked the brilliant professors at Harvard University: what one book should every student read in 2018? Here are their recommendations.

EJ Corey, organic chemist: Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence by Joseph Aoun. Janet Napolitano, president of University of California writes: “[Aoun’s] book is a thought-provoking analysis of our technology –infused world and higher education’s place in it. Far from fearing the dislocation caused by the increased use of robots and the development of AI, Aoun offers an optimistic, practical view of what higher education can do to prepare the next generation. Anyone interested in higher-education policy will greatly benefit from this cogent, persuasively written work.”

Claudia Goldin, economic historian and labor economist: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: “There is no better novel I know about how women (and I don’t mean just Anna) – elite, intelligent, educated – are ignored, oppressed, and have little legal recourse. Women are the caregivers, the empathetic. They hold society together and provide salvation even as the priests take the credit.”

Stephen Greenblatt, English professor: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. Incidentally, this book is one of the most popular books assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen at over 70 colleges in America. Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative to defend those need it most: the indigent, the wrongly condemned, and those trapped in the byzantine and Kafkaesque criminal justice system. Author John Grisham compares it to the timeless legal classic To Kill A Mocking Bird: “Not since Atticus Finch has a fearless and committed lawyer made such a difference in the American South. Though larger than life, Atticus exists only in fiction. Bryan Stevenson, however, is very much alive and doing God’s work fighting for the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the vulnerable, the outcast, and those with no hope. Just Mercy is his inspiring and powerful story.” Ted Conniver, from The New York Times Book Review, adds: “You don’t have to read too long to start cheering for this man… The message of this book… is that evil can be overcome, a difference can be made. Just Mercy will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”

Steven Pinker, psychology professor: The Internationalists: How A Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World by Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro: [The authors] explain the decline of interstate war and conquest [via]… the Kellogg-Briand Paris Peace Pact of 1927, which declared war illegal… [The] book presents a sweeping vision of the international scene, making sense of many developments in the news and recent history.”

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For further reading:

Best Commencement Speeches: Tim Minchin

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomTim Minchin may not be a recognized name in the United States, but in Australia he is a well-known comedian, actor, musician, writer, and director. He is best known for his musical comedies that have been performed around the world, such as Matilda that received seven Olivier awards. Back in October 2013, his alma mater, The University of Western Australia, honored Minchin with an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters and asked him to deliver the commencement speech, which the university calls the “Occasional Address.” His thoughtful, and at time hilarious, speech titled “Nine Life Lessons” delivered to the 225 Arts and Sciences graduates and their families, manages to pack a lot of wisdom and inspiration in just 12 minutes. Here is Minchin’s memorable graduation speech delivered in his inimitable way:

“In darker days, I did a corporate gig at a conference for this big company who made and sold accounting software. In a bid, I presume, to inspire their salespeople to greater heights, they’d forked out 12 grand for an Inspirational Speaker who was this extreme sports dude who had had a couple of his limbs frozen off when he got stuck on a ledge on some mountain. It was weird. Software salespeople need to hear from someone who has had a long, successful and happy career in software sales, not from an overly-optimistic, ex-mountaineer. Some poor guy who arrived in the morning hoping to learn about better sales technique ended up going home worried about the blood flow to his extremities. It’s not inspirational — it’s confusing.

And if the mountain was meant to be a symbol of life’s challenges, and the loss of limbs a metaphor for sacrifice, the software guy’s not going to get it, is he? Cause he didn’t do an arts degree, did he? He should have. Arts degrees are awesome. And they help you find meaning where there is none. And let me assure you, there is none. Don’t go looking for it. Searching for meaning is like searching for a rhyme scheme in a cookbook: you won’t find it and you’ll bugger up your soufflé.

Point being, I’m not an inspirational speaker. I’ve never lost a limb on a mountainside, metaphorically or otherwise. And I’m certainly not here to give career advice, cause… well I’ve never really had what most would call a proper job.

However, I have had large groups of people listening to what I say for quite a few years now, and it’s given me an inflated sense of self-importance. So I will now — at the ripe old age of 38 — bestow upon you nine life lessons. To echo, of course, the 9 lessons and carols of the traditional Christmas service. Which are also a bit obscure.

You might find some of this stuff inspiring, you will find some of it boring, and you will definitely forget all of it within a week. And be warned, there will be lots of hokey similes, and obscure aphorisms which start well but end up not making sense. So listen up, or you’ll get lost, like a blind man clapping in a pharmacy trying to echo-locate the contact lens fluid.

1. You Don’t Have To Have A Dream. 

Americans on talent shows always talk about their dreams. Fine, if you have something that you’ve always dreamed of, like, in your heart, go for it! After all, it’s something to do with your time… chasing a dream. And if it’s a big enough one, it’ll take you most of your life to achieve, so by the time you get to it and are staring into the abyss of the meaninglessness of your achievement, you’ll be almost dead so it won’t matter.

I never really had one of these big dreams. And so I advocate passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious. Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you… you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams. If you focus too far in front of you, you won’t see the shiny thing out the corner of your eye. Right? Good. Advice. Metaphor. Look at me go.

2. Don’t Seek Happiness

Happiness is like an orgasm: if you think about it too much, it goes away. Keep busy and aim to make someone else happy, and you might find you get some as a side effect. We didn’t evolve to be constantly content. Contented Australophithecus Afarensis got eaten before passing on their genes.

3. Remember, It’s All Luck 

You are lucky to be here. You were incalculably lucky to be born, and incredibly lucky to be brought up by a nice family that helped you get educated and encouraged you to go to Uni. Or if you were born into a horrible family, that’s unlucky and you have my sympathy… but you were still lucky: lucky that you happened to be made of the sort of DNA that made the sort of brain which — when placed in a horrible childhood environment — would make decisions that meant you ended up, eventually, graduating Uni. Well done you, for dragging yourself up by the shoelaces, but you were lucky. You didn’t create the bit of you that dragged you up. They’re not even your shoelaces.

I suppose I worked hard to achieve whatever dubious achievements I’ve achieved… but I didn’t make the bit of me that works hard, any more than I made the bit of me that ate too many burgers instead of going to lectures while I was here at UWA.

Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures will humble you and make you more compassionate. Empathy is intuitive, but is also something you can work on, intellectually.

4. Exercise

I’m sorry, you pasty, pale, smoking philosophy grads, arching your eyebrows into a Cartesian curve as you watch the Human Movement mob winding their way through the miniature traffic cones of their existence: you are wrong and they are right. Well, you’re half right — you think, therefore you are… but also: you jog, therefore you sleep well, therefore you’re not overwhelmed by existential angst. You can’t be Kant, and you don’t want to be.

Play a sport, do yoga, pump iron, run… whatever… but take care of your body. You’re going to need it. Most of you mob are going to live to nearly a hundred, and even the poorest of you will achieve a level of wealth that most humans throughout history could not have dreamed of. And this long, luxurious life ahead of you is going to make you depressed!

But don’t despair! There is an inverse correlation between depression and exercise. Do it. Run, my beautiful intellectuals, run. And don’t smoke. Natch.

5. Be Hard On Your Opinions 

A famous bon mot asserts that opinions are like [assholes], in that everyone has one. There is great wisdom in this… but I would add that opinions differ significantly from [assholes], in that yours should be constantly and thoroughly examined.

We must think critically, and not just about the ideas of others. Be hard on your beliefs. Take them out onto the verandah and beat them with a cricket bat. Be intellectually rigorous. Identify your biases, your prejudices, your privilege.

Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.

By the way, while I have science and arts grads in front of me: please don’t make the mistake of thinking the arts and sciences are at odds with one another. That is a recent, stupid, and damaging idea. You don’t have to be unscientific to make beautiful art, to write beautiful things. If you need proof: Twain, Adams, Vonnegut, McEwen, Sagan, Shakespeare, Dickens. For a start.

You don’t need to be superstitious to be a poet. You don’t need to hate GM technology to care about the beauty of the planet. You don’t have to claim a soul to promote compassion.

Science is not a body of knowledge nor a system of belief; it is just a term which describes humankind’s incremental acquisition of understanding through observation. Science is awesome.

The arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated. The idea that many Australians — including our new PM and my distant cousin Nick — believe that the science of anthropogenic global warming is controversial, is a powerful indicator of the extent of our failure to communicate. The fact that 30% of this room just bristled is further evidence still. The fact that that bristling is more to do with politics than science is even more despairing.

6. Be a teacher.

Please be a teacher. Teachers are the most admirable and important people in the world. You don’t have to do it forever, but if you’re in doubt about what to do, be an amazing teacher. Just for your twenties. Be a primary school teacher. Especially if you’re a bloke — we need male primary school teachers. Even if you’re not a teacher, be a teacher. Share your ideas. Don’t take for granted your education. Rejoice in what you learn, and spray it.

7. Define Yourself By What You Love

I’ve found myself doing this thing a bit recently, where, if someone asks me what sort of music I like, I say “well I don’t listen to the radio because pop lyrics annoy me.” Or if someone asks me what food I like, I say “I think truffle oil is overused and slightly obnoxious”. And I see it all the time online, people whose idea of being part of a subculture is to hate Coldplay or football or feminists or the Liberal Party. We have tendency to define ourselves in opposition to stuff; as a comedian, I make a living out of it. But try to also express your passion for things you love. Be demonstrative and generous in your praise of those you admire. Send thank-you cards and give standing ovations. Be pro-stuff, not just anti-stuff.

8. Respect People With Less Power Than You.

I have, in the past, made important decisions about people I work with — agents and producers — based largely on how they treat wait staff in restaurants. I don’t care if you’re the most powerful cat in the room, I will judge you on how you treat the least powerful. So there.

9. Don’t Rush.

You don’t need to already know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life. I’m not saying sit around smoking cones all day, but also, don’t panic. Most people I know who were sure of their career path at 20 are having midlife crises now.

I said at the beginning of this ramble that life is meaningless. It was not a flippant assertion. I think it’s absurd: the idea of seeking “meaning” in the set of circumstances that happens to exist after 13.8 billion years worth of unguided events. Leave it to humans to think the universe has a purpose for them. However, I am no nihilist. I am not even a cynic. I am, actually, rather romantic. And here’s my idea of romance:

You will soon be dead. Life will sometimes seem long and tough and, god, it’s tiring. And you will sometimes be happy and sometimes sad. And then you’ll be old. And then you’ll be dead. There is only one sensible thing to do with this empty existence, and that is: fill it. Not fillet. Fill. It.

And in my opinion (until I change it), life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you’re doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running, being enthusiastic. And then there’s love, and travel, and wine, and sex, and art, and kids, and giving, and mountain climbing… but you know all that stuff already.

It’s an incredibly exciting thing, this one, meaningless life of yours. Good luck.

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For further reading:

The 15 Components of Emotional Intelligence

alex atkins bookshelf educationOver decades of study, psychologists have discovered that human beings have many types of intelligence. In 1983 psychologist Howard Gardner proposed eight, but conceded that there might be as many as ten.* One of these intelligences is emotional intelligence. Emotions, of course, are central to human existence. As the famous Roman writer Publilius Syrus (85-43 BC) advised in the Sententiae, “Rule your feelings, lest your feelings rule you.” The concept of emotional intelligence (EI) was introduced as early as 1964 by Michael Beldoch in his paper “Sensitivity to expression of emotional meaning in three modes of communication.” However, the term was popularized by psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer in their influential paper, “Emotional Intelligence” (1990) as well as science journalist’s Daniel Gorman’s best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence (1995). Salovey and Mayer define emotional intelligence this way: “[Emotional intelligence is] a set of skills hypothesized to contribute to the accurate appraisal and expression of emotion in oneself and in others, the effective regulation of emotion in self and others, and the use of feelings to motivate, plan, and achieve in one’s life.”

As popular as the term is, there are some disagreements about exactly which components make up emotional intelligence (EI). In his concise, but informative book 50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Psychology, Adrian Furnham elaborates: “There is no agreement about what features, factors, abilities, or skills form part of EI. As more and more tests of, and books about, EI appear on the market, the situation gets worse rather than better… A central unresolved question is what are the facets or components of EI?” To that end, Furnham provides a very helpful table of the 15 common components found in salient models of emotional intelligence.

Adaptability: flexible and willing to adapt to new conditions

Assertiveness: forthright and willing to stand up for your rights

Emotion expression: capable of communicating your feelings to others

Emotion management: capable of influencing the feelings of others

Emotion perception: clear and your own and other people’s feelings

Emotion regulation: capable of controlling your emotions

Low Impulsiveness: reflective and less likely to give into your urges

Relationship skills: capable of having personal relationships that are fulfilling

Self-esteem: feeling successful and self-confident

Self-motivation: Being driven and unlikely to give up in the ace of adversity

Social competence: having good networking and social skills

Stress management: capable of withstanding and managing stress

Trait empathy: capable of taking the perspective of another person

Trait happiness: being cheerful and feeling satisfied with your life

Trait optimism: being likely to look at the positive aspects of life

So now that we understand the many facets of emotional intelligence, we can discuss the next issue: emotional intelligence in the workplace; more specifically, how do different generations differ in terms of emotional intelligence? The research-minded folks at Talentsmart shed some light in a fascinating article titled Great Divide: The Generational Gap in Emotional Intelligence. The researchers observe what many have experienced in the business world: “For the first time in history, organizations find their offices occupied by employees spanning four generations — Generation Y (18-29), Generation X, Baby Boomers (42-60), and Traditionalists. While the generational gap can create a healthy marriage of fresh perspective and deep wisdom, we’ve all seen it give way to significant culture clash.” Baby boomers, for example, are used to planned face-to-face meetings, overtime, and occasional work on the weekends. However, Generation Y are used to interacting with others via text and email and are very protective of their personal time. Not surprisingly, the researchers found a huge difference between Generation Y and Baby Boomers, particularly with the facet of self-management: specifically, Generation Y are not good at self management.

So why do Generation Y employees lag in self-management skills? The researchers conclude: “It could be that coming of age with too many video games, instantaneous Internet gratification, and adoring parents have created a generation of self-indulgent young workers who can’t help but wear their emotions on their sleeves in tense situations. However, a deeper look reveals another explanation. Even within the same generation, older people have better EQ skills than younger — despite sharing the same generational influences. Self-management appears to increase with age. Experience and maturity facilitate the mastery of one’s emotions. Generation Years just haven’t had as much time to practice and perfect their skill at managing their emotions.” This opens the door to an important opportunity: to have HR experts help  improve the EI of Generation Y employees. The researchers echo what many CEOs and management experts have been promulgating for several years now: “They not only can do it; they must do it.”

*Gardiner proposed these ten intelligences: musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, existential, and moral. On the other hand, in his book, Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, Karl Albrecht, a management consultant, introduces “practical” or commons sense intelligence; he believes that there are six intelligences: abstract, social, practical, emotional, aesthetic, and kinesthetic.

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For further reading: Social Encounters edited by Michael Argyle
Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences by Howard Gardner
50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Psychology by Adrian Furnham