Steve Jones as Interim President Fairmont State University

My Nature-related Comments Responding to a Tribute to Mr. Rogers

Many of us grew up with Mr. Rogers… well, my kids did. Perhaps because I was already in middle school when the “Neighborhood” first aired, I’m more of a Captain Kangaroo product! posted a nice piece paying tribute to Mr. Rogers recently. I offered a brief response on the PositivelyPositive website. Here’s the tribute and my response:


The Tribute:

“I went to see the Mr. Rogers movie last week (“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”) and found it as heartwarming and uplifting as I expected.

If you’re able to see it in a theatre, don’t hesitate. At the screening I attended, everyone applauded at the end. This doesn’t happen much in Portland, Oregon. It felt like we were on a flight landing in Miami from Central America (it’s a thing).


Afterwards I stumbled on an article that details the level of precision that Fred Rogers put into editing the language used on his show. The man was relentlessly focused on connecting with children. He would go back and edit previous episodes if he found they no longer stood up, or if language had changed and required an update.

The article shows how a simple sentence would be deconstructed over and over:

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street.
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, Ask your parents where it is safe to play.
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

I so admire the precision of this work. When I write a major talk—the kind I’ll give over and over in a dozen or more cities—I try to think a lot about the words I use, the examples I provide, and so on. Of course, I’m no Fred Rogers.

But the point is every word, every sentence, and every inflection matters. Language matters!

To give oneself so fully to something, and then do it over and over again every single day for decades… it’s no wonder the man made such an impact on so many people. This kind of consistency and important to detail is all too rare.

Chris Guillebeau is the New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness of PursuitThe $100 Startup, and other books. During a lifetime of self-employment, he visited every country in the world (193 in total) before his 35th birthday. Every summer in Portland, Oregon he hosts the World Domination Summit, a gathering of creative, remarkable people. His new book, Born for This, will help you find the work you were meant to do. Connect with Chris on Twitter, on his blog, or at your choice of worldwide airline lounge.


My Posted response:

I am likewise no Mr. Rogers… yet I believe deeply in simplicity. Nature, too, prefers simplicity. Even in seemingly complex ecosystems, life distills to relationships between an organism and its neighbors and environment.

Having served as president at four universities, I always instructed my leadership team members to deliver even the most complicated issues to the governing Board in a manner that a sixth-grader could understand. Not because the Board had difficulty understanding complexity… but because I wanted my folks to do the incredibly hard work of simplifying the concept and its nuances.

Mr. Rogers mastered the art of simplifying adult-worthy messages. I believe that he shared my conviction that every lesson for leading, serving, learning, and living is written indelibly in Nature or is powerfully inspired by Nature.

May Nature inspire all that you do!