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The Power of Nice

survival of the nicestA new book,  Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Made Us Human and Why it Pays to Get Along, by Stefan Klein,  is revisiting the idea of  “survival of the fittest,” and just what that might really mean in terms of human social interaction.   Reviewed in the wonderful journal,  Greater Good: the Science of a Meaningful Life, ( Does Nature Select for Nice? ),  reviewer Joseph Ferrell says, “Klein argues that selflessness, not selfishness, creates more genetic success, and that proof for this has been gaining momentum among scientists, gradually challenging the “survival of the fittest” model in evolution.”

“If our ancestors had not learned to follow common goals, they would never have become sedentary, never have crossed the oceans and colonized the entire earth…never have invented music, art, and all the comforts of a modern life,” writes Klein, suggesting that the rise of civilizations are likely the result of a selflessness that  is vital to our species’ continued success.

Oftentimes it doesn’t feel that way – that selflessness leads to more success than selfishness.  Big business, big government, brute strength, loud propaganda, steamrolling bosses and coworkers, drivers apoplectic with road rage,  and pushy people on the street and subway would seem to suggest  otherwise, that nice people get kicked to the curb while the self-absorbed rise to the top and reap what often seem to be undeserved rewards.

But if you feel you’re one of the “nice” people – and probably most of the people reading this would feel they fit that category – think about your day, about your circle of friends, about the stranger who smiled at you, or said “excuse me,” or who helped you pick up something you dropped.  More likely, those folks outnumber the others,  who typically substitute volume for substance.

Our work with FIRST youth robotics teams reveals to us regularly the power and promise of selflessness.  In FIRST parlance, it’s known and celebrated as “Gracious Professionalism.”  FIRST students together Coined by Dr. Woody Flowers,  FIRST advisor and Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Gracious Professionalism, or as the kids call it “GP”,  is “a way of doing things that encourages high-quality work, emphasizes the value of others, and respects individuals and the community.”

Gracious Professionalism, Dr. Flowers says, is  a vital part of pursuing a meaningful life, and he  urges FIRST students to “Go be kind and creative.”

Dr. Flowers gets the power of compassion in a competitive world.

And, indeed, a FIRST tournament can be one big noisy nerdy,  love fest, a combination of fist pumping, chest thumping, gear grinding competitive robotics mashed up with those same competitive kids line dancing with linked arms  happily caterwauling to 80s karaoke.  They understand that even in a field of obvious winners and losers, they are still all friends, bound by their unique shared community that endures beyond the field competitions.

They have learned that they can be nice and successful, and the wonderful schmaltzy rewards of their larger community reinforce that understanding.

No less that Charles Darwin himself pondered the question of altruism and its role in natural selection. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “He who was ready to sacrifice his life, as many a savage has been, rather than betray his comrades, would often leave no offspring to inherit his noble nature.”

The question is not, then, “Why is the world so cruel?” But perhaps more appropriately, “How can there possibly be so much kindness in such a cruel world?”  That is the miracle, made abundantly obviously by a nature video gone viral over the last few days, of a hippo gently shoving an injured gnu ashore.  In what way would helping the gnu benefit the hippo?  And yet, the hippo helps.

Clearly, compassion and kindness persist in the most unusual and trying of circumstances.

Instances of heroic selflessness are legion throughout human history, and everyday acts of random kindness are abundant.  Cooperation and collaboration – “Coopertition” FIRST kids know it as – ensures not only individual survival, but the success of a community.

It’s not hard to see what drives some people to ruthlessness.  The real wonder is what makes so many, so nice.

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Lives of Holy Curiosity

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAs with all great journeys, there are more questions now than answers, not the least of which is, where shall we go from here? As that remains to be answered, all we can do now is keep living life to its fullest.  - Andrea Willingham, our daughter

Life is a work in progress.  We’ve always told our children that.  Sometimes we need them to remind us of that, too, when we lean towards sedentary thinking.

We’ve also always told our children to “Question everything,” to not make a habit of accepting things at face value. Sometimes, as you get older, it’s easier to just accept things. Questioning – and dealing with the sometimes complicated answers – can take a lot of energy, not to mention brutal self honesty in assessing situations and deciding how to proceed with both the questions and the answers sometimes.

In a recent article in Mindshift (Why It’s Imperative to Teach Students How to Question as the Ultimate Survival Skill ) author Warren Berger ( A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury)) . observed on “Pi Day,”  the anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birthday, as well as my own, that questioning “was a big theme for Einstein, who told us, “The important thing is not to stop questioning,” while also urging us to question everything and “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Berger designated March 14 “Question Day 2014″ , which I think is my new all time favorite holiday.  I hope this trends!QuestionDayHeader2

Apparently at one time it did.  In  2008, Einstein’s birthday was observed as  “National Question Day”  by the Inquiry Institute, a consulting organization founded by Marilee Adams.   But it didn’t seem to catch on.  I hope Berger’s effort meets with greater success.

“Questioning is a critical tool for learning,” says Berger. ” It helps us solve problems and adapt to change. And increasingly, we’re coming to understand that questioning is a starting point for innovation. In a world of dynamic change, one could say that questions are becoming more important than answers. Today, what we “know” may quickly become outdated or obsolete—and we must constantly question to get to new and better answers.  Questions also spark the imagination.”

With our children grown, and asking new questions that only they can answer, my husband Steve and I found ourselves reevaluating some of  our life and work, and asking hard questions about our own way forward.  It can be especially difficult to set free the things you’ve created.  Like children, the creations we birth often take on lives of their own; bending,  and sometimes breaking,  under the influence of other forces, and other ideas, becoming things other than expected.  If these creations are meant to be, they’ll persevere, follow the course of their own history, unfold in their own way. If they’re not meant to be, they won’t.

What remains is us: The Creators.

And we have so many more questions about so many more things! So we forge onward here, in the next chapter of the next stage of our lives of holy curiosity.

We hope you’ll join us!

-Terri Willingham

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Avoidances Enabled: Highways

Old Baton Rouge Capitol

Storm approaching over Baton Rouge Capitol building

My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?).   When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”

bluebonnet swamp

Bluebonnet Swamp

Toodling around  Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods  that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.

raccoon

Raccoon in Bluebonnet Swamp

Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city.   Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.

Baton Rouge statue

Statue on LSU Ag Center grounds

In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.

baton rouge

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge, like all communities  large and small, is more than the sum of its parts.  It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of  its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry.  Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.

Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches,  if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates.  But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by.  And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.

Back Road Reflections

AR back road Last year around this time, my oldest daughter and I headed out for a road trip to Arkansas, where she was competing in the National Taxidermy Association event.  We love our time together, out and about and exploring, and the event itself was fun and edifying and my uniquely talented daughter had a good showing. But the trip turned trying, and painful, when we were in a bad car accident the day before we were to returnIMG_4025 home, struck by a good person but a careless driver.

Things went from bad to worse after that – our dog died before we could get home; our house flooded a couple of weeks later, due to a roofing job gone bad; and a recent lay off just added to the somber (and damp) atmosphere.

But the trip itself, when all was said and done and accounted for, was still good and memorable and meaningful, as road trips often are.   We took the “blue highways” home – America’s slower and more scenic back roads.  The Natchez Trace proved especially an especially calming and thought provoking drive, ambling along the eastern spine of the country, through deep woods and rolling hills, through centuries of history.

road home by Rob McGinnisThinking about that trip, as the date for this year’s journey approached, I ran a “Blue Highways” contest on Fine Art America and the submissions provided a thoughtful look at back roads scenery and history around the country.  The top three winners are featured here in this post, but the rest are all worth enjoying.   Because despite the harrowing start to our trip home, personally detouring ourselves off main highways to take a slower drive home made that journey far more memorable than the accident, providing a soothing balm to its scary precursor.

The back roads of America are the ultimate roads home – through the Autumn Backroad View by Alan Grahamboroughs and little towns and fields and farms and cottages and cottage industries that lie at the heart of who we are, a diverse and multifaceted people, self-reliant, independent spirited folk.

Sometimes we make mistakes – we check our cell phones when we should be watching the road; we get out of our car when we should stay in it and change the course of our own and others’ lives; we say something when we should remain silent, or conversely, we remain silent when we should speak out.  Sometimes we’re foolish and short-sighted, impatient and intolerant.

And other times we are magnificent – our back roads speak to some of that higher purpose, the way they trace ageless tracks throughGlacier National Park by Glenn Barclay our countryside, past the monuments and signs through which we memorialize our past,  and the way the artists among us capture the canvass of our classic  landscapes, or turn a vista into a turn of poetic phrase.   There are always the “helpers” Fred Rogers spoke of, the people you see in every community who alleviate blight, waste, loss, anger and heartache with the stroke of their brush of  compassion and kindness – an art in itself.

And so as we set out on the road again tomorrow, northward bound to Baton Rouge, LA this time, we’ll be angling again for those back roads, taking the opportunity and the time, to travel carefully (defensively!) and thoughtfully.

“Life is a highway”, Tom Cochrane sang.

Sometimes it’s a rough ride.  But if you take the back roads – the roads less traveled – and don’t let the set backs sideline you, there’s a good chance you’ll not only go places and see things, but learn a bit on the journey.

On this Earth Day – Think…

Earth Day

The Things That Matter: Fishing for a Real Future

soldering guidanceMy day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.

“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ waslearning about robot you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”

In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.

bass pro area

Site of “The Estuary” shopping plaza

The Tampa Bay Times  reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially)  toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.

real estuary

A real estuary

Besides the sad fact that  “The Estuary”  shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”

Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated.  More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?

Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.

But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”

“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer .  “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library.  …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums.  Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “

Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.

From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future.  Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.

stem skillsA knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies

  • Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
  • Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
  • Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.

In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.

“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” state rankingobserved the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”

By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)

Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.

Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.

“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes  the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”

checking under the hoodPublic officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations  far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will.   If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.

If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!

Make 2013 a Love Note!

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.  ~Hal Borland

Of all the images I captured this year – sweeping Alaskan vistas, Ozark valleys, majestic marshes, beautiful animals and amazing skyscapes – it is this goofy but joyful family portrait that seems to both sweetly sum up the past year, and to beautifully illustrate my hopes for the new one. Everyone in the photo has suffered some hardship or loss over the past year:  the passing of close loved ones, the loss of jobs, accidents,  and health problems.  And still we dance.

2013 live in joy and thanksgiving

In the wonderful poem, “What If” , by Ganga White, Director of the White Lotus Foundation yoga center in California, White asks:

What if our religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water—the rivers, lakes and oceans?
What if meditation was our relationships?
If the Teacher was life?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being

Think about it: What if your life  really was your worship?  Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe , what if   each day was treated as holy and sacred in the Temple of Earth?  What if your life was one big Love Note? Consider how you would live then, and you will have your way forward into a future where the only resolution you need is the resolve to live in joy, compassion and thanks giving.

Wishing you a New Year rich with opportunities for good choices, and thoughtful and intentional ways of being, and wishing all of us the strength of our convictions to help create a world in which love, reverence, and gratitude are central to our lives.

Happy New Year. Look after each other.