Bringing Grit Into the Classroom

Image: May 7, 2016 — Golden Brook School Principal Rory O’Connor, Windham Baseball/Softball League Opening Day. (TIM JEAN/Staff Photo/Derry News)

Welcome to Live-It-Uary, a place to celebrate life while we live it. Live-It-Uary honors people who show kindness, people who create and inspire, people who do good deeds. Thank you for making the world a better place.

What Do They Have in Common?

Fired from the very company he created, Steve Jobs later became the CEO of Apple and changed how the world uses computers. Nelson Mandela brought an end to apartheid and became President of South Africa after 27 years in prison. J. K. Rowling, a down-on-her-luck mom, fought through unemployment and a bitter divorce before publishing Harry Potter. Fired from her first job for being too emotionally invested in her stories, Oprah Winfrey overcame a troubled past and built a media empire.

They had different life experiences, but they all had one thing in common. They were resilient. No matter how hard times got, they pushed on.

You don’t have to be a computer genius, a political figure, or a starving artist to make the most of a bad situation. You can take on most any obstacle when you add a little grit to your life. It doesn’t matter your age or your circumstances. Just ask Rory O’Connor.

Giving Back to the Community

Rory O’Connor knows Windham, New Hampshire. Not only did he grow up in the small town, he gives back to the community in a big way.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology and a master’s degree in elementary education from the University of New Hampshire, he returned to his alma mater in 2008 to teach fourth and fifth graders at Windham Center School. While teaching, he also earned an education specialist degree in administration and supervision (Ed.S) from the University of New Hampshire and a doctorate in leadership from Rivier University.

It is no surprise Rory O’Connor is recognized for his service. From his high fives in the school halls to his creative school projects, his dedication has left an impression not only on the students but on staff and parents just the same. He became the vice principal of Golden Brook School in 2012, moved on to become the principal at Golden Brook School in 2014, and later transitioned to become the principal at Windham Center School in 2016.

He brought grit and resiliency to the Windham School District, and it is an honor to have my children play a part.

Teaching Grit to Our Children

We all know someone who perseveres despite tough circumstances. Whether it’s getting through an illness, getting over a loss, getting good grades (for kids), or whatever life throws their way, they land on their two feet. Rory O’Connor is teaching kids to do just that.

He and other teachers at the Golden Brook School instituted the Grit Awards Program. When you walk into the school, you come face to face with a large GRIT board covered in paper handprints of every color. Written on those handprints are the successes of children who have faced and overcome adversity at the school. It could be something as simple as getting on the bus or as hard as working on a difficult class assignment.

“We really wanted to instill that work ethic for them at a young age so that as they get older and mature, they have that skill set needed to really rise to the top and continue to succeed in life,” O’Connor said.

The effects are undeniable. Not only do kids get recognition for persevering through hard times, their behavior is reinforced in a socially meaningful way. They literally see that they are not alone, that other kids struggle too. It increases empathy and understanding for their fellow students. It is also a confidence builder and encourages them to strive to be the best they can be.

How to Be More Resilient

You can read about the growing research on grit and resiliency in Angela Duckworth’s New York Times best-seller Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She says, “When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.”

Grit and resilience are more than just persevering. They rely on how you see the world. You need to be willing to act. You need to be flexible. You need to embrace change. Most importantly, you need to grasp onto a growth mindset, a belief that your situation can improve with dedication and hard work.

If Steve Jobs wallowed after being fired from Apple, he would not have gone on to invent many of the technologies we enjoy today. South Africa could still be under apartheid without Nelson Mandela, we would not have enjoyed the adventures of Hogwarts without J.K. Rowling, and millions of people may not have been inspired to live their best lives without Oprah Winfrey.

We all face adversity. We could either fold and retreat and we can charge on and grow from it, even better the world. Thank you, Rory O’Connor. By teaching a younger generation about grit, you are making the world a better place.

What to Do With That One-Star Book Review

Image: © Piotr Marcinski (Fotolia.com)

Why You Don’t Want All Five-Star Book Reviews

Not even the greats get all five-star reviews, and they wouldn’t want to either.

A book with straight five-star reviews is highly suspect. Real life is a variable bell-shaped curve. Whether it is skewed good or bad, there will and should be differences in how people see your book. A perfect score looks artificial because, quite frankly, it is. It implies that not enough people beyond family and friends have read your book. Worse, questions could be raised about whether you paid for reviews, a definite no-no in the publishing world.

Put simply, a book with only five-star reviews is going to draw attention and not the good kind. Before long, Amazon is going to sweep down on you and delete all those seemingly perfect reviews. They have certainly done so in the past, and their campaign to decrease abuses in the self-publishing market is only intensifying. It would be a shame to be stripped of your Kindle privileges because you are caught purchasing fake reviews, not that you would ever do that in the first place.

That is not to say that you do not want five-star reviews. Of course, you do! You strive for the highest rating, the best possible average. You want people to fall in love with your writing, to think your stories are the bee’s knees, to say that the information you shared changed their lives. It’s great when that happens, but it isn’t going to happen all the time. It may not even happen at all.

Why One-Star Book Reviews Are Not That Bad

In the real world, you are more likely to have a mix of reviews, both good and bad.

If they’re all bad, there could be a lesson to be learned. Is your writing up to snuff? Did you really put out your best work? Is there something in the body of that book review that talks about what went wrong? Is there a recurrent theme among reviewers? Can you use that feedback to better yourself in a future book? There could be something to gain from these unpleasant reviews in the long run.

The conspiracists out there might think they are being sabotaged. After all, it’s not unheard of for people to give one-star reviews to downgrade their competitors. Look at Hillary Clinton’s memoir What Happened. Within hours of its release,  more than 1,500 reviews hit Amazon, only a third of them “verified purchases”. With odds low that so many people read the brand spanking new 512-page book on its first day, Amazon took down hundreds of one-star reviews. In accordance with its policy, “when we find unusually high numbers of reviews for a product posted in a short period of time, we may restrict the number of non-Amazon Verified Purchase reviews on that product”.

Even a stinker of a review can be good news though. At the very least it means you got an emotional reaction from a reader. You struck a chord. Be thankful that someone took the time to share their opinion, good or bad, and remember that even the New York Times’ best sellers get terrible reviews from time to time.

Build a Thick Skin

With all the time and effort you put into writing, you cannot help but be emotionally invested. Self-doubt creeps in when the naysayers dig into your work. Shaking it off can be a challenge.

“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.” 

― Elizabeth GilbertBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Through it all, you have to remember that your work is first and foremost your own. It doesn’t belong to anyone else. What other people think about it may color your experience but it doesn’t change the fact that you created it. If you have done your best, if you set out to do what you wanted, accept the positive with the negative and move on.

Who knows? People may even change their minds. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert tells the story of an editor who rejected a story she wrote but then accepted it years later, unchanged, as the greatest thing since sliced bread. A review is an opinion in a moment of time. Your work is a constant.

My point? Try not to take it personally. Book reviews can be a helpful marketing tool. They can guide you to be a better writer. They may even boost (or deflate) your ego, but in the end, it’s really the work itself that counts.

This Is Us Is My Family

Image: Justin Hartley, Chrissy Metz, and Sterling K. Brown in NBC’s This is Us

This Is Us

I am not alone when I say that This Is Us is one of the best shows on television. Milo Ventimiglia, Mandy Moore, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy Metz, and Justin Hartley win you over with their ensemble acting, but the real credit goes to creator and writer Dan Fogelman. Fresh, taut, raw, honest, This Is Us really is part of us.

There will always be shows where people see themselves reflected back in the storylines. Maybe they relate to a character or they share a similar life experience. It’s only natural to connect with a show that thrives on the human condition. This show, though, DAMN! It oozes catharsis, and the bond I feel for the Pearson family is beyond ridiculous.

Their story is my story and my story is their story. My family also had a father who was an addict, my parents had three children (the “Big 3”), and all of us struggle with our father’s tragic death, albeit from an overdose, not a house fire.

This Is Kate

Kate is one of the Pearson Big 3. The younger of the surviving Pearson triplets (the third child died in labor), she was always “daddy’s girl”. It didn’t matter what she looked like, how well she sang, or if she skipped school, her dad put her up on a pedestal. In his eyes, she could do no wrong and she thrived on the attention. Of course, she has her issues too. She has a complex about her weight, especially with model-thin Mandy Moore as her mom, and in the aftermath of her father’s passing, she puts the blame squarely on her own shoulders. “If only” is Kate’s unfortunate life motto. It’s time for Kate to put her guilt aside, to heal, and to chase her dreams.

My sister is Kate. A bit overweight when she was younger (she still thinks she is but she is perfect in my eyes), a girl with a stunning singing voice, she was the apple of my father’s eye. She was the one who would do anything for him even when the rest of us were fed up or overwhelmed by his addiction. She mourns him every day and has a hard time moving forward. She never did chase that dream of being the next American Idol, too busy burning the candle at both ends to keep food on the table, but as her kids got older, she went back to school to get a degree in social work. By helping other families deal with addiction, she will hopefully find her own way to heal.

This Is Kevin

Kevin is the oldest of the surviving Pearson triplets but acts much like the baby. He relies on his sister to pull him through the tough times, and he has most things handed to him on a silver platter. Much like his father, he is the charmer of the family. Being good looking doesn’t hurt either. As an actor on a popular TV show, he literally plays the part of the guy who has it all going for him. He has money, fame, and love. The problem is he never really deals with the death of his father. Knowing he treated his father harshly in those final days, his guilt brings him into a dark place. He pulls away from his family and things fall apart.

Then there’s my brother Dennis. He’s not an actor and he’s not famous, but he is good looking and he is the baby of the family, i.e., my parents doted on him (even though he never saw it, he got away with EVERYTHING). He is a tough bird. Following in my dad’s footsteps, he worked side by side with him in roofing and construction for years. Dennis was the one to sass talk my dad when he fell off the wagon, the one to call him out on his behavior. He didn’t see that my dad was looking for help because he was blinded by the pain of what our father’s addiction did to our family. Now he grieves the loss and struggles to get his own life on track.

This Is Randall

Randall is the odd man out and not just for the color of his skin. Literally adopted as the third member of the Big 3, he is not flesh of their flesh or bone of their bone, but he is a Pearson all the same. He distracts himself from the struggles he had growing up by trying to build what he thinks is a perfect life— marriage, two kids, a high-paying job, a big house. Problem is, when he gets there, it’s not what he wanted after all. Only after a breakdown does he realize he has to stop being a perfectionist and finally do what it is he really loves. To do that, first, he has to make amends with the past.

Minus the adoption, that is pretty much me in a nutshell. I pushed myself and I pushed myself hard, anything to remove the stain that was my father’s addiction. The first to go to college, I became a doctor. I got married, had two kids, and bought a nice house. Problem was, despite my best efforts, I was not happy. The administrative burden of clinical medicine burned me out, and when my dad died, I left too many regrets on the table. So I started over. Now I work part-time from home as an advocate for patients, spend more time with my family, and have that much needed personal time to chase my passion for writing. As I work through the loss, I am finding a better balance. It’s what my dad would have wanted.

This Is My Family

We all have stories, we all suffer loss, we all have regrets, we all somehow or other get by. It is comforting to know we are not alone. If you need more This Is Us fodder for Season 3, Dan Fogelman, give me a call.

Takers Are Not So Pretty in Pink

Image: Jon Cryer and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink (1986), Paramount Pictures

My John Hughes Life

In 2017, I championed My Bridget Jones Life. In 2018, I’m moving into John Hughes territory. Not only does the director have a litany of classic 80s movies under his belt, he has writing credits clear into the 2010s. Who can’t relate to a good old-fashioned coming of age story or a character that breaks stereotypes? This is my life in movies.

Not All She Is Cracked Up To Be

We all know the story of Pretty in Pink. Whether or not you watched the movie yourself, you know it by heart. Poor/rich girl meets rich/poor boy. It’s full-out class warfare. At the very heart of it, young lovers defy social norms to be with the ones they love. Think Romeo and Juliet without the death and violence.

Andie is everything we could want in a teenage heroine. She is smart, earning herself a college scholarship. She is creative, designing her own clothes with confidence. She stands her ground against bullies, staying true to her values. She puts peer pressure aside to date a boy she likes, no matter how much money he has in his wallet.

At first glance, she seems perfect, until you realize she’s not. Not by a long shot. You see, Andie may sound like a real winner on paper, but she is not exactly the sort of person you want to be around.

The truth? Andie, like so many people out there, is a taker.

Givers and Takers

Takers look to find what’s in it for themselves. You know the type. They show little compassion for others and shift the focus to me-me-me. When you look closely at Andie’s relationships, that’s exactly what you see.

Jack (Harry Dean Stanton). Andie’s unemployed father who mourns the wife that left him years ago. When her dad buys her a new prom dress, does she say thank you? Of course not. Instead, Andie berates him for spending the money and reminds him her mother “didn’t want us”. Nothing says I love you quite like guilting and pressuring your dad into doing what you want instead of helping him work through his pain.

Iona (Annie Potts). The spunky record shop manager who stops a shoplifter with a nail gun. When Andie finds out her friend is in love, does she celebrate the occasion? Of course not. Instead, she blubbers on about herself and asks for Iona’s old prom dress. “I just need it.” The next thing we see, Andie cuts Iona’s memories into itty bitty pieces to make a monstrosity of a gown that rivals the worst maternity wear.

Duckie (Jon Cryer). Andie’s best (and seemingly only teenage) friend with killer shoes. More than a quirky classmate with eccentric style, Duckie is also Andie’s not-so-secret admirer. It’s a damn shame she dismisses him so easily, quick to leave him behind for a piece of eye candy. Case in point, she turns to him as a last minute date for the prom and then dumps him on the spot when she lays eyes on “major appliance” Blane.

Try a Little Tenderness

What do Jack, Iona, and Duckie have in common? They are the givers. They show kind, if at times broken, hearts and do what they can to be there when their loved one is in need. Jack raises Andie on his own and strives to give her everything she needs. She wants more. Iona gives her not only a job but her friendship. It’s not enough. Then there’s Duckie, dear Duckie.

Duckie may not be part of the “in” crowd but that’s what makes him so gosh darn special. Nothing stops him from being the kind of guy he wants to be. He may be a fashionista who wears his heart on his sleeve, but he is loyal and true, there for Andie through thick and thin, as a friend or otherwise. In his own way, he is the hero of the story.

When he lip syncs Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, Duckie is all of us.

Frisky and free, hopeful and fun, we could all use a little tenderness, a little more kindness, in our lives. The trick is to be a giver and not a taker. Better yet, surround yourself with like-minded people, givers all around.

When I am surrounded by takers it wears on my spirit. It can be emotionally exhausting and even demoralizing. Stepping back and taking a mindful inventory of the people in your life can make a world of difference. Who makes you feel good about yourself? Who brings you down? I have had to do some soul searching in my own life. My choices have not always easy but cutting ties has saved me a lot of heartache over the years.

In your own life, would you rather be friends with Andie or Duckie? Remember, Molly Ringwald wasn’t part of the “brat pack” for nothing.

Maye You Know the Beauty of Getting Older

Image: Maye Musk (YouTube: COVERGIRL)

Welcome to Live-It-Uary, a place to celebrate life while we live it. Live-It-Uary honors people who show kindness, people who create and inspire, people who do good deeds. Thank you for making the world a better place.

What Is Beautiful?

No one knows what the future holds but everyone wants to look good getting there. People worry about fine lines and wrinkles. They focus on things that sag and let’s not forget that extra weight around the tummy. No wonder the cosmetic industry is booming. More than $13 million was spent on advertising in 2017 alone.

The problem is that too many people think that looking good means looking young. They try to hide the fact that they are aging even though it is a simple fact of life.

“Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
— Betty Friedan

If only there was someone to show them that life is about your fire not your age.

Oh, wait! There is!

Beauty Is Ageless

Covergirl signed Maye Musk to be their newest brand ambassador in 2017. Seventy years old in April of this year, she is a model and dietician with two Master’s degrees. She’s got the smarts and the looks to go along with a wealth of confidence.

Check her out here.

She doesn’t dye her hair, flaunting her short white crop with abandon. She wears makeup not to look younger but to enhance her natural features, not to impress other people but to make herself feel good. She’s happy and proud. Comfortable in her own skin and full of vitality, she is what I wish more women could be, myself included.

She may have passed some of that exuberance onto her son Elon. Yes, that Elon, but don’t think that’s all she’s about. He may be on the verge of technological greatness but she has left her mark just the same. Maybe Elon can be as cool as his mom when he gets older.

Break the Mold

Whether it’s vanity or fear of the great unknown, we need to get over getting older. There’s no stopping society from pushing unrealistic expectations on us, but we can rebel against that tyranny. Like Maye Musk, we can take the media’s image of beauty and turn it on its head. Be beautiful for who we are, not what we look like.

Too often we forget the simple beauty of being alive. Not everyone has the opportunity to live a long life, but we all live just the same. Our lungs move air in and out and our hearts pump blood through our veins.

It’s the energy we put into our everyday lives, not the make-up we put on our faces, that keeps us “young at heart”. If we play victim, we grow weak. If we revel in moments, we grow strong. Vitality is not about youth; it is about living life to the fullest at any age.

“Some people are old when they’re 18 and some people are young when they’re 90. You can’t define people by whatever society determines as their age.”
— Yoko Ono

I thank you, Maye Musk. You are a badass and a role model in more ways than one.

Do You Really Need Book Reviews?

Image: © Monkey Business (Fotolia.com)

Why Book Reviews Matter

Your book is published. Now what?

After marketing, you wait for the reviews.

Don’t think that the reviews don’t matter because they do. Unless you already have fans banging down your door for your next book release, odds are you need some social proof that your book is not only worth reading but worth putting down a few bucks. The more reviews you have, the more likely a stranger is going to give you, an author they know little about, a shot.

Think about it. Given the choice between two books in the same genre with similar styles of writing, each with a snazzy book cover and a matching price tag, one with 100 reviews, one with 10 reviews, which would you buy?

Keep in mind that book reviews are more than a popularity contest. More reviews mean more people clicked through to your book page. More click-throughs mean more sales. While Amazon is not exactly transparent about its ranking algorithm, this much we know for sure — those conversion rates, i.e. clicks-throughs to sales, make a difference.

Fake Book Reviews

The trick is in getting those reviews, and Amazon, for one, does not make it easy. The company is cracking down on people who have abused the system, as well they should.

In the cross-hairs are those who buy fake reviews to jumpstart their sales rank. Some authors have been brazen enough to use pseudonym accounts to market and cross-promote their books across social media. They hop onto different forums and have discussions with THEMSELVES to generate buzz for their books.

After all, who could write a more glowing review of your own book than yourself?

In 2012, self-publishing “phenom” John Locke was caught red-handed. The author of How I Sold One Million e-Books failed to tell everyone he got there by cheating. To promote his book, he not only bought 300 Amazon reviews from the now defunct GettingBookReviews.com, he also paid the reviewers to download his $0.99 ebooks so that the reviews showed up on Amazon as “verified purchases.” He duped the system, and his book sales skyrocketed as a result.

As proof for just how shady GettingBookReviews.com was back in the day, founder Todd Jason Rutherford is quoted as saying, Potential reviewers were told that if they felt they could not give a book a five-star review, they should say so and would still be paid half their fee…As you might guess, this hardly ever happened.”

Since 2017, Amazon has sued more than 1,000 sellers for buying or using fake reviews.

Book Reviews That Count

Not only will Amazon reject reviews by family members or close friends (sorry, Mom!), they won’t accept book reviews from anyone who has not spent at least $50 by credit card with the company. This latter rule is an attempt to prevent reviews from being placed by fake Amazon accounts and spambots.

Obviously, buying reviews is a no-no, but what constitutes buying a review is not always so clear. Take gift cards. If you have ever given the reviewer a gift card, all reviews from that person, past or present, will be considered paid for and deleted by Amazon. If you give the reviewer a copy of your book after the review is posted, then that too is considered payment.

Trickier yet is Amazon’s latest coup to turn away reviews for free ebooks, what they see as a quid pro quo of sorts, i.e., a free book for a review even if that review is not in your favor. It used to be the case that Amazon allowed sellers to offer free or discounted books to customers in exchange for an “honest” review. As long as this affiliation was disclosed within the review itself, all was well. At least that was the case until 2016.

Now Amazon only allows approved Amazon Vine reviewers to write reviews for free ebooks. Reviewers need to be invited to join the Vine program and that only happens after a number of their reviews have been voted as “helpful” by other customers. Don’t waste your time trying to find out who these reviewers are because you are not allowed to solicit them.

So much for building an audience and boosting book reviews with giveaways!

Building Your Book Review Count

As you can see, getting organic book reviews when you are starting out is not easy, at least not on Amazon. Unfortunately, as the biggest retailer of ebooks, that is where you have the most impact. All the cheaters and manipulators have mucked it up for the rest of us.

What makes things especially hard is that most people don’t bother to write book reviews at all, even when they love a book. The sad stats suggest that you will only average 1 review for every 150 books sold. To get more reviews, you need more sales, but to get more sales, you need more reviews.

What can you do?

The most important thing is to put out good work. Let your writing speak for itself and once the right set of eyes read it, fingers crossed, word will spread. Don’t forget you can still encourage people to write book reviews on other sites. Consider GoodReads and LibraryThing. Include testimonials on your author site as a marketing tool too.

It takes time to build up social proof, to show that you are an author worth reading, but you got this! Keep at it and be patient, patient, patient.

Good things come to those who wait and to those who keep working.