• Ten Lessons from the School of Hard Knocks

    • Posted on May 12, 2002


    Another school year's ending, which means another gaggle of graduates making ready to enter the real world.  Not that school isn't real, it's just slightly more forgiving of screw-ups.

    The School of Hard Knocks awaits the class of 2002, and with the current job market, the knocks look harder than ever.  One hopes they're prepared. 

    Let me help by offering ten life lessons from SHK,  a school from which I've earned more than a few degrees.   

    First, ideas can be vastly more attractive than realities. The idea of having children, for example, can be far more exciting than actually raising children, as can the idea of  falling in love and getting married.

    Be careful, graduates, that you don't jump into relationships, marriage, and children without considering what they really require from day to day.

    Second, and closely related, you can love more people than you can live with.  Whoever you fall in love with may be a great lover, pal, talker, listener. But if they can't seem to touch a dirty dish and you love clean-plate sparkle, if they love heavy metal and you love silence, if they're devout and you're a skeptic, love them from a distance and save the heartbreak and court costs.  

    Third, beware of beautiful people.  With such people, what you see is almost never what you get.  Beauty covers a remarkable number of flaws. During the 1950s and 60s, half the country fell in love with Marilyn Monroe and/or Elvis Presley.  Both were basket cases who couldn't maintain relationships, who depended on drugs for waking and sleeping, and who left trails of heartbroken people.  Had they been ugly, even with their talents, few would have noticed.

    Fourth, too many friends can be as harmful as too few.  Reasonably balanced people need solitude, with no phones, no talk, no TV, nothing but themselves and their thoughts. You need only a couple of intimates.  Any more than that and you're probably yearning for space and solitude

    Fifth, speaking of friends, choose them with as much care as you choose a car, or a house, or a career.  Not only are you known by the company you keep, you know yourself by your friends.  They will tell you the truth even when it hurts you both. 

    Sixth, take care of all six of your homes.  You may think you have only one, your house or your apartment or your dorm room, meaning your dwelling.  But you actually have five more:  your self, your city, your state, your nation, your earth.  All six make up home, and they all require regular attention and maintenance.    

    Seventh, complaining requires more time than doing.  I once timed a deadly household chore I hated.  I thought it would take twenty minutes, but my stopwatch showed under seven.  I realized that this menial task did take twenty minutes: Seven for doing, thirteen for complaining. Now I just shut up and do it.

    Eighth, don't be too kind.  You can actually be too understanding, too forgiving, too willing to lend money or a hand.  There comes a time when you need to say no, or you will start to resent being manipulated. 

    If my dad had bought me a car when I pleaded and begged, I never would have bought my own, a 1950 bright blue Ford coupe.  It didn't last long, but it was mine.      

    Ninth, everything can be addictive.  Cars, food, movies, comic books, sugar, television, cards, Playstation 2, friends, exercise, as well as the more traditional addictive substances--alcohol, drugs, sex, shopping--must be dropped occasionally. Otherwise life becomes merely a collection of tired habits.  

    Finally,  the number one life lesson from the SHK:  Learn to say and mean the three most rarely put together words in the language.  No--it's not "I Love You," or "Mistakes were made," but "I Was Wrong."  

    How many of us have actually heard or said those three words in the last week or month or even year?  Those who say and mean "I was wrong" connect to the vast  majority of humans, all of whom are wrong some of the time about nearly everything. 

    Only the top graduates from the School of Hard Knocks have learned this prime life lesson. 

    Go comment!
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  • Five Leadership Rules for Presidents

    • Posted on Feb 03, 2002


    President Bush flew high last week. His stratospheric approval ratings mirror new-found confidence, and though Americans didn’t directly elect him, they have rallied behind him. 

    They did the same with his father during the Gulf War rout,  yet Bush senior lost his re-election bid.  What happened? 

     George Bush senior, it turns out, broke several rules of leadership and paid dearly.

    The junior Bush runs the same risk. 

    Presidents cannot stay in office and violate these rules. Clinton broke the fifth rule and got impeached, and probably should have resigned. A warning wrapping inside a negative role model.  So what are these rules? 

    First, keep a straight face.

    A leader cannot break into either laughter or tears at the wrong time.  I've observed dozens of leaders over the years from college presidents to governors to senators, and they only laugh out loud or weep at appropriate times, if at all. 

    Woe to those who don't. Years ago Ed Muskie, the Senator from Maine, broke down in tears over what he perceived as an insult to his wife. That finished him as a national leader.

     During his State of the Union address, the President seemed to verge on laughter, or maybe tears.  He wears a thin mask, and if he lets it down, he's a political goner.  George Bush senior did heed this rule, but broke several others.   

    Next, seek eloquence

    A leader must be literally well-spoken most of the time.  Good intentions don't count nearly as much as well-turned phrases, spoken with conviction and clarity. The current Bush has skated on melting ice for months in this department, and still struggles with proper names and common words like "nuclear." He says "nukeeler."

    Thanks to skilled speechwriters and four rehearsals, the President offered an occasional memorable phrase last Tuesday, such as "Our enemies believed America was weak and materialistic, that we would splinter in fear and selfishness. They were as wrong as they are evil."   Good writing there.   

    Yet he ended with "May God bless. . ." making him sound more like Red Skelton than a President.          

    And his father once intoned “It gets into quota, go into numerical, set numbers for doctors or not, it could go into all kinds of things.”   Uh, right.   

    Since the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, Bush junior and eloquence remain distant acquaintances. 

    Third, connect

    Leaders must connect on several levels with those they lead.

    Otherwise they’re taken as remote, even arrogant.  Bush senior expressed amazement  when he walked through a grocery checkout (with a reporter) and observed scanners for the first time. Everyone but him had noticed them, it seems.

    The younger Bush connects with most Americans now because he's leading a war effort, and it's going well.  But what about the economy?   Can we pay for education reform, the war effort, homeland security, a better health care system and still lower taxes?  Didn't his father call that "voodoo economics" when Ronald Reagan led us into enormous debts?

     The son would do well to heed his father’s words and connect with the millions of Americans who know that massive deficits aren't the way to run a country. 

    Fourth, seek compromise.

                Leadership and flexibility are forever wedded.  Rigidity creates stresses and cracks in everything, including leadership.  Compromise nurtures growth.  If President Bush wants a real win next election, he will need more give than take. He may have to raise taxes, for example, over his own dead body.

                He may also have to explore alternatives other than military action against North Korea, Iraq, and Iran.  He almost threatened  those nations, and that plays well at home, but the rest of the world sees a bully. If cooler heads in his administration (read: Colin Powell) prevail, he won't fall prey to far right hysterics.

    Fifth, tell all the truth, at least some of the time. 

    A leader I respect on the UNI campus recently told me there's only one rule for leaders:  Tell the truth, and if that grows tiresome, tell more of it. 

    President Clinton paid for breaking this rule with impeachment. The whole truth and nothing but covers a multitude of sins. 

    President Bush needed to mention the Enron mega-scandal directly, the largest bankruptcy case in American history, and pledge to seek justice for the scoundrels who took the money and ran.  His near-silence amounts to a violation of this rule.

    Understand, President Bush deserves praise for his steadfast response to the attacks.

    Still, by violating these leadership rules, he's following in the footsteps of his one-term father. 


    Go comment!
    Posted in
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“Even before the advent of the Internet, Cawelti’s columns went 'viral' in the Cedar Valley… the role of a columnist is to be thought provoking, to take tacks that shed a different light on an issue or possibly cause a reader to reevaluate a position. At the very least, it should bring clarity to a particular perspective, whether you buy into the commentator’s worldview or not.

Scott's work does just that.  Enjoy this collection of his writing.”

-Saul Shapiro, Former Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier Editor
Read Shapiro's entire introduction.


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