Monday, March 28, 2016

The Aerodynamics of Teamwork


     For an individual whose interest is often perked by various examples and analogies surrounding the basic concept of teamwork, I’m often amazed by the knowledge that can be gleaned from observing the things around us—whether a bird, an insect, our general surroundings, and so on.  
     From pre-school to high school, we learn quickly that living means being a part of a team.  Coming together for various reasons, the idea of playing a role within a unit larger than oneself has become second nature in the society in which we live.  SWAT teams, paramedics, utility services, governmental boards, and others all depend on individuals teaming up and working together toward a common cause.
     Not long ago, I was stopped at a traffic light when out of the corner of my eye I noticed a flock of geese flying above.  In their “V” formation, each traveled in unison, flapping its wings and moving briskly along.  Counting nine birds while waiting for the light to turn green, I began trying to recall the reason why these winged animals travel in such a configuration. 

     After spending a brief stint on Wikipedia and Google searching for “Why do geese fly in a V formation?”  I was quickly reminded of one of nature’s greatest lessons.  By flying in a “V” shape, the entire flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.  The aerodynamic V shape configuration reduces the air drag that each bird experiences during flight in comparison to that same bird flying solo.  This not only allows them to cover longer distances with much less effort, it also serves as an excellent example of teamwork to all of us onlookers.  Much like the geese, people who share a common direction are able to get where they are going more efficiently, due to the simple fact that they are traveling on the thrust of one another.    
     Do you remember the first time you heard the mantra, “All for one and one for all?”  It was probably serving as a reference to team, unity, and/or accomplishing a common goal.  However it was introduced is not necessarily what’s relevant; what is significant, though, is the strength behind the meaning.  Each of us has a role to play in society and the world as a whole.  There are amazing benefits when we not only work together as a human race, but encourage and support each other along the way.  Much like the geese honking from behind to motivate those in the lead to keep up their speed, an encouraging word or act of kindness goes a long way.      
     Because humans are not geese and as such are extremely complex and complicated—not to mention all completely unique to one another—it is rare to find a team that doesn’t struggle to develop good working relationships every now and then.  To take it one step further, some teams often find themselves locked up in some disagreement, rather than working in unison to accomplish its actual goals.  These common denominators occasionally impart challenges, so with this in mind, let’s examine five practices to ensure a congruous team.
     The creation of a comprehensible vision statement.  According to About.com’s Susan Ward, a vision statement is the inspiration and framework for all of a team’s strategic planning.  Such a statement may apply to an entire company or to a single division within.  Whether for all or part of an organization, the vision statement answers the question, “Where do we want to go?”  When developing such a declaration, it should resonate with all of the team members and help inspire a sense of pride and ownership in the entire process.  Examples of vision statements are abundant if needing to know where to begin.  For instance Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, strives daily to live up to its vision, “to be the worldwide leader in retail.”  Remember, lengthy or not, this one statement is guaranteed to serve as an important reminder when needing to return to the original core purpose of the organization.     
     The sharing of clear expectations.  We are all guilty of communicating tasks to others without explaining the anticipated results.  Have the expectations for the team’s performance and outcomes been clearly communicated?  Has this communication been consistent from start to finish?  According to a work study by Watson Wyatt Data Services, companies whose employees understand the organization’s goals and expectations enjoy a 29% greater return than other firms.  Simply stated, when individuals of a team know exactly what is expected from them and their performance, accomplishment is much more likely versus failure.
     The implementation of an effective plan.  It is one thing to understand the overall vision and expectations that accompany it; it’s another to be set up for success.  To not just work a plan, but be effective throughout the process, a team has to be informed on specificsthe overall concept, team coordination, priorities, resource allocation, and so on.  The more information team members have about the overall plan the less confusion will be experienced.  In addition, the opportunity for internal friction and frustration to develop is reduced.  It is better to offer too much information than not enough when asking a fellow team member to invest time, energy, and expertise in the quest for outstanding results.
     The understanding of accountability.  The phrase, “The buck stops here,” made popular by President Harry Truman, sums up the fact that someone has to make the tough decisions and accept the ultimate responsibility for those choices.  Whoever shoulders that responsibility should always exercise fairness, consistency, and decisiveness.  A well-functioning team performs best when parameters are not only in place, but are reinforced in an appropriate manner.  Granted, there will always be team members pointing fingers at others and placing blame.  Nonetheless, by exemplifying transparency in this crucial area, the individuals comprising the team can approach problem solving, process improvements, and increase overall accountability with more ease, while boosting confidence in the complete functionality of the team.
     The celebration of team.  I wholeheartedly believe that nothing stimulates growth as much as sincere and enthusiastic praise.  Some might argue the fact that accolades carry a great deal of weight, but I guess that depends on whom you ask.  Studies have shown that over 80% of adults consider praise for a job well done as one of the best compliments anyone could give them.  It also seems to encourage individuals to do their very best, not just for themselves but the entire team.  This is one of those no-brainers.  Just think about how it feels when you are given a compliment or a simple thank you note shows up in your mailbox or inbox; a sincere “thank you” or “good job” goes a long way in loyalty and dedication.  As long as teams continue winning together and losing together, there will always be room for celebrating accomplishments.        
     So, the next time you are sitting at a stoplight and notice a flock of geese honking overhead, take a moment to admire their formation and attention to team.  Much like me, you might not instantly recall the textbook answer for why these winged animals travel in such a beautiful configuration, but you will witness individual birds working in harmony for a common cause.  As nature has reminded us countless times before, its causes and ours are not too far apart.  Team up and celebrate success! 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The Impact of an Answer

     Phonemic awareness—the sensitivity to and awareness of the phonological structure of words.  Put another way, the metacognitive ability that involves the capability to notice, think about, and manipulate individual sounds in words.  It allows a child to identify letters, recognize individual sounds, and blend those sounds into words. 

     The first time my mother was familiarized with this term was when the resource teacher for learning-disabled children sat with her and expressed concern about my ability to read and write.  During my first- through third-grade years of elementary school, I was carrying all A’s; however, there was a slight problem.  My achievement test scores in reading and writing were extremely low.  I was unable to auditorily identify and distinguish sounds.  In my own words, “I couldn’t clearly hear and understand the different sounds in words.”  
     From the beginning of upper elementary until well into my middle school years, I was tutored for a learning disability.  Every other day for an hour I sat in a small room close to the library with a remedial reading aide, speaking aloud into a tape recorder while reading flashcards.  I remember it vividly; the different cards in the deck would contain single letters, entire words, and short phrases that I was asked to sound out syllable by syllable.  This type of exercise went on during the entire school year, including a number of sessions over summer break as well.
     “So, why is it important to learn how to read?”  That was the initial question asked of me as I took a seat at the desk designated for me during my first tutoring session.    
     Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention to the question at first.  I was more consumed by the variety of posters stuck to the walls with Plasti-tak.  It was like an art gallery.  Pictures of all sizes—some full of bright colors while others were more pastel—all projecting a sentence or two of encouraging words.  Even though I couldn’t pronounce many of the displayed words, I could sense the optimism in the images.   
     Each time that I would arrive at the well-worn maple desk my tutor would begin doing what she did best—teaching me all there was to know about the sounds and pronunciation of words.  I don’t recall if I gave an answer on day one to her question, but if I did, it must not have been correct.  Each session without fail, she would ask once again, “So, why is it important to learn how to read?”  While carefully positioning the microphone connected to a bulky black tape recorder, she would patiently sit and wait for my response.  
     I must say, in the beginning I came up with a laundry list of entertaining answers.  And from that list I moved on to more simple answers that made very little sense, but sounded good, at least at the time I thought they did.  With each answer given my tutor would simply sit in silence, unimpressed by my lack of effort. 
     Why is it important to learn how to read?  Good question, I mused, even though I thought I had the answer.  I knew I was not the best reader, or, for that matter, a decent writer.  I needed help; however, and it was becoming obvious to me how determined I was to hide my impediment.  Deep down beneath the surface I had developed quite a defense mechanism that stemmed from those select few classmates who were notorious for poking fun at me and making me feel inferior.  The giggling, finger pointing, and ridicule that sometimes comes along with having to be tutored was taking its toll.  That’s the type of treatment that stifles confidence and truly tempts anyone to fold. 

     Nevertheless, it was halfway through the third month of sessions when something strange happened.  Arriving at the tutoring room as usual, I noticed that all of the posters full of colorful illustrations, inspiring quotes, and life’s lessons were nowhere to be found.  “How bizarre,” I thought, as I looked at the four bare walls.  All I remember seeing were the square outlines of white cement blocks.  Then, something caught my eye.  Plastered midway up one wall, right next to a small chalkboard, was a large piece of poster board.  Neatly printed in big letters, the question, “So, why is it important to learn how to read?” was written at the top.  What followed underneath was a listing of every sarcastic answer I had given from day one.  “Totally odd,” I thought.
     “For weeks now Paul,” my tutor said, “I’ve been asking you, ‘So, why is it important to learn how to read?’ and these are the answers you have given.  Take a good look.  Are you proud of what you see?  Frankly, it doesn’t seem that too much thought went into your answers.”
     I will never forget the panic I felt when hearing the seriousness in her tone.  Had I done something wrong?  I thought I had given good answers.  The whole point of us coming together was to work on my reading and writing skills.  What did knowing the right answer to this one specific question have to do with that?  Looking back on it now, clearly it had everything to do with it; and for learning that lesson, I’m truly grateful.    

     My name is Paul Vitale and I make a living as a professional speaker and author, something that never would have happened without the patience and persistence of dedicated individuals.  “So, why is it important to learn how to read?” was only one of the questions asked during my days of being tutored.  This brief snippet serves as an excellent example of a teachable moment that has influenced me both personally and professionally throughout my lifetime.  My tutor (or actually tutors—I had three throughout the years) indeed taught me the answer to this critical question:

It is important to learn how to read for your own survival as a human being.  The better reader you are, the better writer you’ll become.  A better writer will then become a better speaker.  As one learns to read, write, and speak well, a complete education becomes attainable and holds a significant value in one’s life.  

     For me, learning how to sound out words and put sentences together was one thing, but to understand the power behind the meaning of the words and sentences being spoken was life changing.  When I finally started taking the question asked of me seriously, I grasped the significance of the written and spoken word.  That’s good, especially when you make your living delivering presentations and authoring books!   
     For all individuals who make up the school personnel in every district across our land, thank you for teaching, tutoring, coaching, and counseling those who have passed before you and those yet to come.  Your unwavering encouragement gives hope to those who really do want to believe that “Anything is possible with a good education.” 
     To my mother Carole, Dorothy Payne, Rebecca Havens, and Judith Carruth:  I will always be grateful for the commitment you shared in helping me improve as a student.  Not only did I receive an education in reading and writing, but you also taught me this important lesson grounded in humility:  

“Even though others might laugh at you and try to steal the thunder from your soul, strike with lightning—not in destructive actions, but in cultured words.  Always have the confidence to believe in yourself and speak from your heart.  Even if your voice shakes, you’ll still be speaking from your heart.”

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Touch of Class

     I can say with certainty that it is easier and faster today to communicate via the written word than at any other time in our history.  From our beginnings with the Pony Express to mail that travels via wireless satellite signals, correspondence has become instantaneous and accessible to anyone with a keypad—whether on a mobile device, computer, or cell phone. While the instant gratification of today’s electronic communications has increased the frequency and speed with which we converse, the element of the personal touch is becoming rarer by the keystroke.
     Not long ago, I was in a position to hire a new employee.  After sorting through various applications, a colleague and I narrowed down the pool to 16 prospective employees.  Interviews were scheduled for each of them and the process began.  After two weeks of meeting with applicants, I was very impressed with more than a few.  However, several days later, as I was making the final decision, I noticed that only one of the applicants had followed up with a handwritten thank you note.  Guess who got the job?  
     As simple and outdated as it may seem, a thank you note can make all of the difference to another individual, especially in this technology inundated world of ours.  Granted, the abundance of media today can make relaying a message easier, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we should have a complete dependence on it.  Not only is a personal handwritten note polite, it demonstrates that you value the person to whom you are sending the note and you are willing to take the time and make the extra effort to tell them so.
     Think for a minute about how much unsolicited mail we receive on a daily basis.  How nice it is to check the mail and see a handwritten envelope amid all of the bills, credit card offers, and local sales flyers.  Which do you open first?  I know that for me personally, seeing a handwritten note immediately puts a smile on my face and is normally one of the highlights of my day.  Handwritten notes are often encouraging and make others feel appreciated.
     When is it appropriate to send a handwritten note?  Thank you notes can and should be written for meals, gifts, services, and any other situation when you feel gratitude toward someone.  As I mentioned earlier, a very important, but often overlooked, time to send a thank you is following a job interview or yearly evaluation.  Not only does this say a lot about your character, it also places your name in front of the employer one last time before he or she makes a final decision.  
     Many of the most prominent and influential people in our society send personal notes.  Is there a correlation between sending notes, status, and success?  We may never know for sure.  However, one story is told that George H. W. Bush carried a box of note cards with him on the campaign trail.  After each event, he immediately penned thank you notes to all of the volunteers and event workers.  Many people believe this helped him win the election for the Presidency of the United States.  It definitely didn’t hurt!
     As easy as it is to use technology to communicate today, are you willing to make the added effort to go above and beyond and write a personal, handwritten note?  It is truly easier than you may think to set yourself apart from others!  A simple way to ensure this happens is to always keep a good supply of cards, envelopes, and stamps on hand in an readily accessible area.  Before you know it, this added touch of class will become a habit of the best kind.
     Remember, handwritten notes are the personal touch people are looking for in today’s media-deluged world.  Making this special effort is an act of engaging with another person and is one of the best methods of networking that I know.  It only takes a minute to jot down a note, yet it can open paths for fostering friendships, creating new relationships, and broadening employment opportunities.  Aside from this, you’ll gain personal satisfaction in knowing you went above and beyond what’s expected.  A touch of class goes a long way and is appreciated by many. 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Live Life Like You Mean It

     With each morning arrives a new day and the prospect of pursuing as much from life as it truly offers.  Live life like you mean it, or get out of the way.  This is an age-old adage I've heard throughout time; however, quite often it seems difficult to comprehend.  We create exciting plans, set fresh goals, make new resolutions, and then somewhere along the line, we forget what we originally set out to accomplish.  I would venture to say this pattern has eluded very few.  Whether it comes from being passive, unmotivated, too busy, or just plain lazy, the end result is consistent—good intentions lacking effective follow through.   
     I have the tendency to believe that on some days we make life a little more difficult than it is intended to be.  Three words that might help:  Keep Life Simple.  Make a plan and work the plan, then move on to the next task at hand.  I realize this motto sounds extremely uncomplicated, but it is supposed to.  Keeping life simple might seem like wishful thinking to some; however, each of us is in control of our actions and reactions during all situations encountered.  If we choose to begin a task, it is up to us to either complete it or desert it.  At the end of the day, it is our life to live—with or without the results planned for.

     Not long ago, as I was writing an article about weight loss and thinking about the important steps to take in order to reach and maintain an ideal weight, I was once again reminded just how important a positive attitude is.  We've heard it our entire lives…from parents, teachers, and presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, “Nothing on earth can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong attitude.”  Like any other goal we set in life, with the right state of mind, anything is possible. 
     Many times though, it is easy to get frustrated hearing all about having an optimistic attitude.  Often, this frustration is born from the fact that our attitude is not necessarily good or bad, it’s somewhere in the middle.  We have to take the leap and do our best to focus on thinking positively; be aware, though, at times this does not come easily.  Disasters, large and small, real and imagined, happen daily.  We live in a world where computers crash, you get laid off, or you come home to find a letter from the IRS informing you that you are being audited.  Natural catastrophes such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes affect us globally, as well as on our home turf.  On days like these, we are more inclined to react negatively than positively.  And that is understandable. 
     On the flip side—if you get a raise, your boss finally okays that two-week vacation, or you come home to find a letter from your mortgage company telling you of an error in your favor, you are probably going to have a very upbeat attitude.
     Examples such as these illustrate how we sometimes let external circumstances dictate our internal response.  Obviously, many times events are completely out of our control; however, the way we respond is always something we have the ability to be in command of—our internal response is always our own.
     Whatever your goal may be, remember that in all areas of life, we simply have to make a choice.  Either we can flow with the current, or rise above it.  I can personally guarantee that when you rise above it, you will see positive changes happening.  You have the power within you to do whatever you set your mind on doing.  Remember that success leads to success and that the little successes, albeit often accompanied by a minor setback or two, will always add up to big accomplishments. 
     When we make the choices to have a positive attitude and control the way we respond to expected or unexpected challenges, we have the chance to view circumstances such as change in a manner that is beneficial to us, regardless of whether that adjustment is something we desire.   
     Life shows us that change is inevitable.  We have a choice to either embrace it or fight it.  Larry Cole, Ph.D., author of the book, Frustration Is Your Organization’s Best Friend, shares insight on change that makes good sense.  He writes, “It’s difficult to remember that frustration, fear and confusion are your friends while you are being bruised by the process of change.  But when you do remember, they become powerful allies.”  Change does produce a considerable amount of fear of the unknown as well as confusion; however, in order to escape mediocrity, change is inevitable. 
     My grandmother once told me a story about a woman who always cut off the ends of the ham before placing it in the oven to bake.  She had done this for years, and one day, her husband asked her why she prepared the ham that particular way.  The woman thought for a moment and then she replied that this was the way she had been taught by her mother. 
     This began to puzzle her, so she called her mother and asked why she always cut off the ends of the ham before baking it.  The mother replied that was how her mother had always done it.  More curious still, the woman then called her grandmother to inquire about the method.  When she asked why the whole family did this, the grandmother responded with laughter.  She informed her granddaughter that the only reason she always cut the ends off of the ham was because their oven was so small, the only pan that fit was not large enough to hold the whole ham!
     Oftentimes, situations and circumstances never change simply because the past won’t allow it.  Or will it?  As overwhelming as change can be, it is important to grasp the fact that not all change is bad.  In fact, it can be quite rewarding.  We, as human beings, have a tendency to live in a comfort zone and therefore develop all sorts of habits for different reasons.  Thus, we often have a difficult time when the need for change arises.
     The choice, ability, and energy to transform any aspect of your life lie completely on your shoulders.  Being satisfied or not is up to you.      
     Recognizing the need to make an adjustment and committing to do so hinge on having the discipline and patience to know which direction you are traveling and when you plan to arrive.  Change does not happen overnight but it does happen, and the sense of accomplishment—big or small—that follows eliminates the frustration,
fear, and confusion.  Where would we be without change and those who are willing to stand behind it?
     None of us knows the exact number of days that will comprise our life; however, we do know that we can never reclaim our days lived.  There is no better moment than now to forge ahead with passion and excitement and begin what we have only dreamed to see completed.  This is our day to live the way we choose, embracing needed change, possessing the right mental attitude, and creating a world that will define our legacy.     

     Remember, each day offers a new challenge and a new opportunity.  Keep life simple and live life like you mean it…or get out of the way and simply watch as it passes you by.  Whichever you decide, it’s your choice to make.  Why not answer the call of opportunity today, and together let’s make a difference not only to ourselves, but to those who surround us. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Monitoring the Maze of Technology

     Throughout history, various types of revolutions have defined the formation and growth of generations upon generations. Today’s society has instant, world-wide access through a variety of media advances that are easily accessible and generally affordable. Cellular telephones, video games, televisions, computers, and personal handheld electronic devices have transformed the way our world communicates. It is safe to say, our youth today are riding the wave of a global technology revolution.
     Simply defined, a revolution is a fundamental change in power or organizational structures that takes place in a relatively short period of time; the results of which include major changes in culture, economy, and socio-political institutions. Although the telephone took 20 years to reach 50 million users, the Web took only four years, iPods three and MySpace two, while YouTube hit 50 million users in one year! How can this be? The iGeneration (those born after 1990) is driving these trends. Individuals in this group watch more than 100 YouTube videos a month, download applications, MySpace and Facebook (now verbs), and text the night away. They don't see technology as a tool. For them, it is just a way of life. Leading to the question: How does this affect the youth of today?

Where the Focus Is     
     As anyone who knows a teen or a tween can attest, various media are among the most powerful forces in young people’s lives. According to a 10-year KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION study, eight- to eighteen-year-olds spend more time with media than in any other activity besides sleeping—an average of more than 7½ hours a day (more than 53 hours a week). Because they spend so much of that time “media multitasking” (using more than one medium at a time), they actually manage to pack a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes worth of media content into those 7½ hours. Older teens and Net Generationers spend more than 20 hours per day using all types of media, including cell phones. This is accomplished not by not sleeping but with considerable multitasking, which peaks at seven simultaneous activities for older teens.     
     Television shows, video games, music, and the websites they visit are an enormous part of young people’s lives, offering a constant stream of messages about families, peers, relationships, sex, violence, food, values, and an abundance of other topics. A recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found there is a greater chance for obesity, smoking, violence, and eating disorders in today’s youth that can be directly traced to their media consumption. Understanding the role of media in young people’s lives is essential for those concerned with promoting their healthy development including parents, physicians, policymakers, and educators. Once we understand the scope of this revolution, we can begin to guide young people in exerting and maintaining control over technology, instead of vice versa.

Talking versus Texting
     For starters, taking a firm hold on readily available mobile devices, the Net Generation (1980-89) and the iGeneration (“i” representing media such as iPods and the Wii, but also reflecting the “individualized” nature of the media) have turned the concept of communication inside out. It is now all about texting, IMing, Facebooking, Skypeing, FaceTime video chatting—pretty much anything but sharing the same space and talking in person.     
     Surely you don’t have to look far to know that texting is the method of first choice for communicating among youth. Ironically, what would once be considered the easiest and most available form of keeping in close touch has now become a device predominantly used for “chatting” without actually speaking. Cell phone ownership is nearly everywhere among teens and young adults, and much of the growth in teen cell phone ownership has been driven by adoption among the youngest teens. Three-quarters (75%) of teens and 93% of adults ages 18-29 now have a cell phone. In the past five years, cell phone ownership has become mainstream among even the youngest teens; fully 58% of 12-year olds now own a cell phone, up from just 18% in 2004.
     According to Nielsen Mobile, in the first quarter of 2009, the average U.S. teen made and received an average of 191 phone calls and sent and received 2,899 text messages per month. By the third quarter, the number of texts had jumped to a whopping 3,146 messages per month, which equals more than 10 texts per every waking non-school hour. Preteens sent and received 1,146 texts per month. With numbers this astronomical, it’s easy to see how practices such as sexting—and yes, harassment—have become more prevalent among students; creating dangers they don’t yet have the maturity to grasp.

World Wide Web
     The past several years have seen an explosion in teenagers’ use of the Internet. Fully 93% of teens ages 12-17 go online, and 73% of American teens now use social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter. Youth who spend more time with media report lower grades and lower levels of personal contentment. Nearly half (47%) of all heavy media users (those who consume more than 16 hours of media content per day) say they usually get fair or poor grades (mostly C’s or lower), compared to 23% of light media users (those who consume less than three hours of media per day). Heavy media users are also more likely to say they get into trouble frequently, are sad or unhappy (e.g. Facebook depression), and are often bored. Despite these cautionary statistics, teen usage is not likely to diminish.
     In response to teens’ growing online presence, a digital media culture has emerged that entertains, informs, and connects them to one another. Optimally, this “virtual mall” can be a place where teens go to socialize with friends, listen to music, do their homework, window shop, and follow the latest trends. Unfortunately, a great number of individuals—both young and not-so-young—use their digital presence to create a fantasy world where their words and actions hide behind anonymity, participating in a crude culture where they intentionally inflict harm without concern for potential outcomes. Instances of various forms of harassment and cyber-bullying have steadily increased, with news accounts more and more frequently reporting tragedies such as suicide resulting from this callous, irresponsible behavior.

Hazards…and Solutions
     The scientific and public health communities overwhelmingly conclude that unmonitored online activity and viewing violence through media pose a harmful risk to children. Violent and sexually explicit images that are constantly streamed through video games, reality television, news shows, and the World Wide Web serve to desensitize youth to what is acceptable behavior and what should be off limits.     
     On the other end of the spectrum, since 1980, the increase in childhood obesity represents an unprecedented burden on children’s health. Thirty percent of children ages 6 – 19 are either overweight or “at risk” of being overweight. In addition, an estimated 80% of overweight adolescents continue to be obese in adulthood. What relation does this have to the technology revolution? Childhood obesity has been linked to media usage and its various forms of advertising.     
     During the period in which childhood obesity has dramatically increased, there has been an explosion in media targeted to children. Much of this media is laden with elaborate advertising campaigns that promote high-calorie, low nutrition foods such as candy, soda, and snacks. It is estimated that the typical child sees about 40,000 ads a year on TV alone. Add to that the fact that more than eight out of ten (85%) of the top food brands that target children through TV advertising also use branded websites to market to children online.    
     From the standpoint of social development, where does the barrage of individualized media leave our youth? Quite possibly detached, isolated, unable to properly and fully interact face-to-face with others, and depending on their level of isolation, unable to relate to the needs of others or build lasting relationships. Teens and tweens must learn to exercise impulse control in an environment that is alternately a vacuum and a galaxy of possibilities.
     How do we balance the influence of various media? When used properly and kept in check, technology can be a tremendous tool and asset to everyday living. Digital literacy and online citizenship are critical skills parents and educators must instill in today’s youth. The responsibility for controlling the methods and manner in which young people use all forms of media lies in all of us by our example, discipline, and common sense.
     Whether you are a parent, educator, or both, recognize that the risks are real. Create balance by using and watching media together with these impressionable young people. Those who take an active role alongside their children, as well as talking about the risks and rewards of media use, are employing the most effective strategy adults can utilize to help youth become selective and critical media consumers. Place parameters on how much time can be spent with various media and the manner in which it is used. Monitor young people’s online interactions. As a parent, seize advantage of the tremendous amount of resources available to police your children’s media consumption.     
     It’s safe to say that the global technology revolution is here to stay and its place in our lives will only expand, including innovations not yet created. With this in mind, together let’s take control of technology, before technology takes control of our youth.

For more information about children, health, and the media, visit the KAISER FAMILY FOUNDATION at www.kff.org.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Serving Others Heroically


     In the minds of those both young and old, the term, ”hero” seems to generate a variety of images spanning from superstar athletes to flamboyant actors and actresses to the newest host of the latest and greatest reality show.  Heroes.  Some say there are many to look up to these days; while others say there are only a few.  
     One early morning, while flying to Pittsburgh, I had a layover at Chicago’s Midway Airport.  Not having eaten breakfast yet, I pulled up a stool at Harry Caray’s Restaurant en route to the Southwest Airlines terminal.  It was hard concentrating on the breakfast menu with the echo of conversations all around me, not including the various voices of history resounding throughout the joint; hanging neatly and evenly on every wall around me were photograph after photograph of ball players, local celebrities, and politicians—all signed and matted in decorative frames. As if I weren’t already over-stimulated enough, my attention was also being drawn to the four plasma televisions positioned strategically throughout the restaurant.
     One television was tuned to a network covering advances in the space program; another was highlighting the upcoming Tour de France.  A third television was covering breaking news in politics, centered around the recent elections; and the TV in the far right corner of the restaurant was tuned to a story debating the issue of steroid usage in professional sports.  I had just experienced a hard enough time choosing the pancakes over the French toast—now I was faced with deciding which program to watch.
     As I sat there, glancing back and forth between the televisions, it was hard not to notice others doing the same.  Back and forth, back and forth…one story to the next.  That seemed to be the common exercise of all those trying to grab a quick bite to eat. “Another fast-paced day with information overload,” I mumbled quietly under my breath as I poured syrup evenly across my stack of hotcakes.
     As I began to eat, something else caught my attention.  Up at the cash register, spelled out in large white block letters was the word “HEROES” stretched across the back of a man’s shirt.  Underneath the letters was a long list of the names of each fallen firefighter who sacrificed his or her life on 9/11.  In that somber moment, I asked myself, “Who are the heroes of today?”
     According to the stories spilling over from each of the televisions, “heroes” or better yet, idols and/or champions, are apparently quite prevalent these days.  At least that is how it seems to be presented on most television networks, in numerous electronic stories posted in cyber space, and throughout the pages of various magazines and newspapers.
     Webster defines a hero as someone admired for their achievements and noble qualities; an object of extreme admiration and devotion.  I have to admit that many sports heroes such as Michael Jordan and Peyton Manning are remarkable.  Their perseverance, discipline, and pure guts are rightly noted.  Then there are the courageous astronauts who’ve lived with the deep passion of exploration and discovery throughout their lives.  And although not all politicians and activists are best described as heroes, there are an uncountable many that have stood on their core beliefs and principles, and they can definitely wear the title of “hero.”
     However, as I sat there and reflected, it quickly became more evident to me that many of our real “heroes” have never graced the front cover of a magazine nor had a press conference held in their honor.  People who may not have access to great wealth or material possessions, nonetheless, have become heroes due to their enormous hearts.  Because we don’t personally know their names, these “heroes” don’t seem to be as recognized; however, they are surrounding us every day. 
     The hospice worker who prepares a family for a loved one’s death; a school teacher who spends countless hours instructing our future generations; the men and women who so proudly wear the uniforms of our armed forces and place themselves in the midst of harm’s way each and every day; community action groups who ensure people aren’t discriminated against in the workforce; young kids who join together to raise money for relief efforts when natural disasters hit; victim advocates who work tirelessly for justice; every human being who has ever gone out of his or her way to be kind to the lonely, less fortunate, and beaten down.  The way I see it, these people are “heroes,” too.  Maybe they’re not front and center but I believe that the names of these brave people belong in the same sentence as those icons whose stories spill from the television screen.         

     Who are the heroes of today?  I’m of the opinion that we all have heroic qualities.  Just think of the opportunities we are afforded on a daily basis.  Think of all of the times when common courtesy is called for.  Mix in some common sense and help others who need it.  It may be something as simple as helping a colleague who drops a stack of papers on the floor, or allowing the people seated in front of you to exit the plane first— not rushing past them.  Holding the door for someone trying to get to the elevator; offering your place in line at the grocery store if you notice someone in a rush; helping others avoid road rage and allowing them to merge….oh, please allow other motorists to merge.
     Some may wonder what these things have to do with heroes.  I would answer that true heroes answer the call, both big and small.  Their inner-qualities hold them to the greatest level of accountability—both when people are watching and when they’re not.  As long as there is air to breathe, each and every one of us has the distinct pleasure of serving others “heroically.”  For it’s this kind of action that has the greatest impact on mankind. 
     Of course, news organizations will continue to focus on the superstars and the not-so-super stars.  In the end though, each of us will be remembered for our contribution to the world and its people.  While I finished my meal and paid my tab, I was reminded of the idea that we all possess the potential to be a hero.  As I walked out of the restaurant thinking of the impact that I can have on others, I couldn’t help but notice the name on the door and say to myself, “Holy Cow!”