Character

What the Dalai Lama can teach us about character.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – The Dalai Lama

I was recently speaking to a friend who was sharing with me in a moment of vulnerability that he just can’t do it all. He feels he is “failing at everything right now” — being a dad, husband, employee, etc. He is not doing anything well — or at least at the level he expects of himself.

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What Steven Covey can teach us about character.

“Begin with the end in mind.”– Steven Covey

My 19-year old niece, Victoria, adopted from Russia at age 7, loves to watch the show CSI. She wants to work in criminal justice someday. She is currently in the law enforcement track at Normandale College and hopes that one day she will wear the uniform of a law enforcement agent.

Steven Covey, author of Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, describes people like Victoria who set a goal and do the necessary things to get there. His Habit Twobegin with the end in mind – describes the ability to envision in your mind what you cannot at present see. If you don’t make a conscious effort to visualize who you want to be and what you want, then you let other people and circumstances shape your life by default.
This idea – begin with the end in mind – can be applied to our current situation as we shelter in place during the pandemic. It forces us to take a different perspective.

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What Bob Marley can teach us about character.

“Don’t worry about a thing … cause every little thing is gonna be alright.” — Bob Marley

I remember the day, nine years ago, we took my father, who had struggled for three years with Alzheimers, for a short-term stay at the hospital. His care had grown beyond the scope of my 78-year-old mother. This change put my family in high-stress mode and there was much to worry about.

During admittance, the nurse asked my father the standard question, “Is there anything dangerous in your house?” Without missing a beat, my father answered, “Yes. My wife’s cooking.” My dad, sensing the gravity of the situation, never lost his sense of humor. He looked at me and said, “Don’t worry, Joe. Everything will be alright.”

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What Pablo Picasso can teach us about character.

“When I don’t have red, I use blue.” — Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso was a painter, sculptor, designer and the founder of Cubism. His lasting influence on modern art is indisputable. His famous Blue Period lasted from 1901-1904 and is characterized by a monochromatic color scheme saturated with blue tones. Here is his most famous work during his Blue Period: The Old Guitarist.

At first, these somber, depressing paintings of cabaret performers, beggars, and frail, old people were not well-received by critics or the public. But Picasso didn’t give up. He had the last laugh. The Old Guitarist is now worth $100 million.

B.Q. (Before Quarantine), one of my favorite ways I “painted with red” as the YF culture leader was to walk around our office and pop into people’s workspaces and chat. This in-person connection gave me energy, fuel and meaning. It also helped humanize our company culture. That red paint is no longer available. Working from home now, I need to “paint with blue” to connect with staff in virtual ways via zoom meetings, phone calls and brief, affirmational texts.

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What Margaret Wheatley can teach us about character.

“We need a worldview to navigate this chaotic time. We cannot hope to make sense using our old maps.” — Margaret Wheatley, American writer

Hanging in my living room is a beautiful tapestry of a medieval world map. I like its muted colors, Latin script, and fine details, but its depiction of world geography is all wrong. Some continents are the wrong shape and some oceans are too small. If we used this map today to circumnavigate the world, we’d shipwreck many times over and never get to where we need to go.

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What Viktor Frankl can teach us about character.

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl

Youth Frontiers’ mission around character and community is as important as ever. Maybe even more so … As our typical daily life is being upended, and our way of being in community is changed, we have the opportunity — and the moral obligation — to show young people the importance of rising up to embrace character. We must show our children what is noble, what is good, what living with character looks like in times of difficulty and suffering. This is not only good for our larger community; it is also good for our children’s sense of well-being.

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What Mr. Rogers can teach us about character.

“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” — Fred Rogers

In this time of social distancing, it can be tempting to forget about the concerns of others and focus instead on self-preservation. Many of us are trying to regain our sense of security by shoring up all of our resources — money, food, supplies, attention … even as our patience for loved ones in close quarters may be running out. This is an understandable response, yet it is a poor way to live. If left unchecked, we’re in danger of becoming a mean and miserly people.

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What Charles Dickens Can Teach us About Character

“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness … It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens understood the complexities of life and the character that surfaces during times of adversity as described in his classic, “A Tale of Two Cities.” Great stress reveals the best and the worst of our humanity; it exposes our innate fears and challenges the resilience of our hope.

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A Story of a Courageous Student Named Anthony

At Youth Frontiers, it’s our mission to positively impact school communities through our retreats. One wonderful part of our job is that the same students we reach often impact us in turn. For our staff, these students and their stories are unforgettable. In this series, we remember them.

This is a story of a student and his display of courage.

I remember Anthony. 

Anthony was an eighth grader who was so excited about the day. He was running up to myself and other facilitators giving us high-fives, he was dancing in front of his entire class. He was just an awesome, really fun guy.

And so I was really surprised to learn that he was one of the number one targets at his school.

And I was more surprised when Anthony got up to share at the end of his Courage Retreat.

He said, “Hi, my name is Anthony, and my Act of Courage is to be myself and to quit trying to impress you all so much.

I know you all egg me on to make some really dumb choices and you push me around. I hear the names that you call me. And, I know that you say ‘you’re just kidding’, but honestly, you have no idea how much they impact me.

You have no idea how much courage it takes for me just to get up and come to school everyday.

So, I’m going to ask you all to please quit and I’m just going to be myself. I hope that you respect that.”

Nobody moved.

I mean for a solid minute. People just sat there with their heads down. Some people started to cry.

I don’t think anybody realized how much their words were impacting and hurting Anthony until he got up and shared his Act of Courage that day.

Coolest thing was that after he shared, old friends of his got up and they apologized to him for being a part of what was making his life so miserable at school.

And by the end of the day, there was that big smile on Anthony’s face again. But, we knew at that point that it was the real deal. It was a real smile.

He felt heard. He felt seen.

It was an amazing day. I’ll never forget, Anthony.


This year, on The Character Movement, we are trying something new. We’ll be delving into one of our retreat values each month, examining it on our blog and in our Character Challenges. This month’s theme is honor.

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A Life-Changing Moment for a Student

At Youth Frontiers, it’s our mission to positively impact school communities through our retreats. One wonderful part of our job is that the same students we reach often impact us in turn. For our staff, these students and their stories are unforgettable. In this series, we remember them.

This is a story of a student and his life-changing moment.

I remember Abdul.

It was one of my first speaking experiences at Youth Frontiers in around 2002. And, I remember being in Evergreen Elementary in the gymnasium, staring at the clock on the wall, watching the second-hand slowly make its way around. 

Tick-tick-tick.

For me, this was going to be one of my first talks that I was going to give in front of a live audience and I was nervous.

I instantly knew when it came time to give my talk that I was in way over my head.

I started talking but they could tell that I was struggling, which meant that they couldn’t stop wiggling. And the teachers are no doubt judging. And my face is intensely sweating when…

I looked up. 

And when I did, I made eye contact with a young student who’s nametag I read said, Abdul.

I don’t know, it was like one of those things where there was this voice in my soul that said…

“Joe. Connect.”

And so I did the only thing I could do in that moment. I held his eyes a little bit longer than normal. I gave him a small little smile. One that said, 

“I see you, brother”.

Afterwards, I was connecting with Adbul’s teachers. They told me that it had been a very difficult year for him. It had been a struggle even to get a smile on his face somedays.

I remember as we were walking out of the gymnasium, I made eye contact with him one more time.

Walking over to him, I got down on a knee. I placed a hand on his shoulder. Beaming smile on his face and a beaming smile on my face. And he just says,

“Mr. Joe, you make my heart so happy”.

Now, nearly fifteen years later, I haven’t seen Adbul since that time.

Yet, I reached out to him on Facebook because I had never forgotten about him. And I said,

“Hey dude, I don’t know if you remember me but around fifteen years ago I led a retreat at your school for a company called, Youth Frontiers. You made a huge impact on me and I’ve never forgotten about it. Would you be willing to meet me for coffee?”

And he said, “Yes”.

Abdul’s now 24 years old and I said, “What are you up to?” He said,

“I’m working for this organization called, Youth Frontiers”

I said, “No way! That’s the company I was working for when I led that retreat so many years ago”.

He’s doing the same work. Inspiring the same kind of kids. 

I knew that this one moment of connection with this student was life-changing.


This year, on The Character Movement, we are trying something new. We’ll be delving into one of our retreat values each month, examining it on our blog and in our Character Challenges. This month’s theme is mind.

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