Start Small

When I was in grade school, I had a babysitter that went to junior high who brought over her history textbook, presumably to do homework after I went to bed. But you and I both know the truth: She brought the book because her parents made her and then watched tv while eating all the good snacks after I was asleep.

I remember looking at that big book and thinking to myself, “I’ll never be smart enough to read books like that.”  Of course you don’t get from a grade school education to reading history textbooks overnight, you take it one step at a time. And a few years later, I turned into that same snack stealing babysitter who was assigned a big 900 page textbook that I never read. And just look at me now; an adult who mostly wants to read Calvin & Hobbes or Pearls before Swine above anything else. But that’s neither really here nor there, is it?

When I helped organize a group of people that would eventually adopt a school in 2013, all the school staff wanted was consistent classroom readers. They lamented the passing of  yet another year without readers for each of their classrooms. Fast forward a couple of years and we now do much more than simply read in classrooms. But we couldn’t be there without that small start.

I’m awfully good at running around in circles without ever making a coherent point, so here it is: Take it easy. If mentoring a student on an individual basis is intimidating to you, then don’t worry about it. Just pick your favorite book from growing up and find a group of kids to read to. Later this summer, when school starts back up, find a school near your home or work and ask if you can read to a classroom. You may find the spark to get more involved like I did and end up, as one trusted friend pointed out, “turn this into a small empire.”

But even if you only ever show up the one time and read to a classroom of kids, you have still done something great by making that first small step. You have left an indelible mark on a child’s life and affected lives positively in your community. That’s not a bad deal at all.

Without Wax

I’m always drawn to people who are sincere. Even when I don’t like everything they say, I still find myself identifying with them because at least they are being honest with us. I don’t think I’m alone there. I think a vast majority feel the same. It’s why no one condemns Willie Nelson for being a pothead and a tax evader. (also source of the picture) He’s pretty honest about how he does both of those things.

It’s hard to be mad at anyone who is just telling us the truth about themselves. And I really struggle with this in my writing. Part of me wants to only show the side that I know is how I’m supposed to be. The part that I know is good and normal and wouldn’t be embarrassing to be broadcast all over the evening news.

It’s just that there is this other side of me which I can’t deny exists. The one that laughs at people when they fall down (you know provided they aren’t really injured like bleeding from the head), listens to horribly profane gangster rap and though I’m really trying to stop, I sometimes can’t control my own foul mouth.

I know I’m allowed to mess up now and again. I know no one holds me at fault for bad decisions I made more than a decade ago.  I neither want to celebrate all my mistakes nor ever appear as though I am “holier than thou”. I just want to be me, Warner Phelps, a good ol’ Texas boy who sincerely loves Jesus, Willie and Tupac. (and Robert Earl, and UGK and the writings of Paul)  It’s who I am, a reformed wildman trying to spread a little love in this messed up world.

Mentor in Real Life

January is National Mentoring month so they were discussing that during the Rockets game this evening.  Bill Worrell made his little promo announcement and Bullard fired back something about how mentoring is more than just a hashtag, then…

uncomfortable silence for what felt like 10 minutes

Before Worrell redeemed and gave a heartfelt anecdote about how mentoring is the best thing that anyone could do with their time. He even threw in something about “youngsters” which is something that only sweet old people say.

But it got me to thinking, we sure do spend a lot of money and time encouraging people to get involved in mentoring and there are always far more kids that need a mentor than there are mentors to match them with.

I think part of it is invisible. If you aren’t a parent of school aged children, then you’re not really around kids. Which makes any problem, if there is one, out of sight and out of mind.

I think there is fear behind it. Kids, especially teenagers, can be punks and intimidating and it isn’t fun. What if you get one who is messed up? Well, guess what? You’re messed up and I love you, so problem solved.

To me it comes down to this: Mark 10:14:

14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

 

Jesus, friend of sinners, break our heart for what breaks yours!

Soft Skills

I’ve been lucky in my life. I’ve been flat out given jobs that I was in no way qualified for. But at the same time, I have landed places that made other people jealous and asked me what my secrets were.

Those of us who have been gainfully employed for a while take this stuff as given, but to those who have never been taught how to get there, it really is complicated.

It’s getting to be close to retail season and it may be that you know someone who will be looking for a job in the near future. Here are a few tips from someone who’s got a lot of practice:

  • You have to be confident without being cocky. No one likes a know it all but at the same time you have to walk in there and let them know that they can stop interviewing because they’re hiring you.
  • You have to dress for the job. Last year, I watched a guy walk into Hobby Lobby and ask for a job application wearing a t-shirt and gym shorts. He didn’t get invited for an interview*.
  • You need to get to a decision maker. If you ask the girl or guy at the front desk for an application, follow up with a probing question like, “Is there someone here that I could talk to about a job opening?”
  • You have to be proactive. Don’t go into any old store and hem and haw around the question. Find somewhere you want to work and go get it.

What I have learned is that there are a lot of smart people out there who have absolutely no soft skills. They lack confidence, they lack the ability to communicate, they don’t know how to solve problems, they’re not able to read people’s emotions.

One of these days I may get around to offering a free course online for people teaching these skills. That’s how important they really are to success. How many times have you heard a CEO say something like, “We just can’t get any good help around here.”

But for now, I’m just throwing this out there for anyone who might see this and say, “This is EXACTLY what I’ve been looking for”. There’s gotta be at least one person out there in the universe, maybe 2.

If you’re reading this and you could use some help, please email. If you are local to the Houston area and would like more information, let’s meet in person. I feel passionately about this and here is why: Gainful employment is a blessing from The Lord. Nothing makes you feel better than believing you have everything you need to provide for yourself. Nothing makes you feel better than landing a job when you’ve been unemployed or under-employed for a long period of time.

*addendum: I felt so bad about what I saw that I deliberated for a good 5 minutes whether I should follow the guy out to his car and ask if I could help him find a job. By the time I figured out a way to approach him that didn’t seem psychotic, he was gone. Might have worked out for the best that time. Pretty sure it would have ended with me getting beat up. 

Return of The Mack

I’ve been thinking about my mentoring kids a lot lately. Probably because it’s coming up on Father’s Day and many of these kids end up being paired with a mentor because of the lack of an adult male role model.

I’ve been derelict in my duties, mostly because of intimidation. Intimidation because the work is too great and I’m just me. There are literally millions of kids out there. I can’t be there for every single one of them like I want to be. I could name five off the top of my head that I wish I had the time for and I don’t. I’m disturbed by that.

Truthfully, I’m disturbed by a lot of things I see. And so I am back. I’m back because I have to say something.

I have to say something about these millions of kids out there who need someone in their life to show up and hang out and show them that they matter.

I have to say something about these kids that we are saddling with college loan debt, many times in the six figures, with almost no employable skills. There has to be a better way.

I have to say something about these kids that we are telling college is the only way to be successful in life. I find myself many times looking at people I grew up with who went into a trade and look at where they are now. Why isn’t someone explaining this is indeed a viable career path? Or rather, I know that someone is saying these things. I know there a few people out there pointing this out. What I want to know is why aren’t we shouting this from the rooftops?

I have to say something about getting in front of these kids and showing them we care. Showing them they really aren’t invisible idiots who we don’t care about. I have to say something to them and to us. It’s our job as the adults to join together and leave this place a little better than it was when we found it. I’m honestly not certain that we’re doing that right now.

So, yeah, the Mack (that’s me, and don’t worry, I’m aware that A) no one uses that terminology anymore and B) referring to myself as The Mack actually makes me a dork and I’m cool with it) is back and I have a lot to say.

It’s been boiling over in my head for too long now and I’ve been trying to make sense of it. I’ve been hung up on writing perfect words and getting everything just right. None of it matters to be really honest.

And if in the end, I write down a million words and burn it all in a large pile so no one ever sees it again at least I’ll be able to say I tried. And that’s better than doing nothing.

 

 

The opposite of well rounded

Last year, I saw one of those advertisements for hand-writing where it promises to make you a rock solid calligrapher if you just take some courses and maybe spend $1,000 and a  bunch of hours practicing.

I practiced lettering and making all my letters look real nice. I bought some fine tipped pens. I spent a few hours each week really working on it.

I sincerely gave it the old college try.

For about a month.

Then nothing improved and I went back to being the lovable buffoon that laughs when people fall down and  gets salsa on his shirt (EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.)

The truth is I’m not artistic. I’m creative. Just not artistic. I could spend 10,000 hours and maybe get a little better at hand lettering but it is not a gift I was born with.

My Top 5 Strengths per Strengths Finder are: Strategic; Empathy; Developer; Positivity and Communication.

I find much more value in applying what limited time I have to getting better at the skills I’m already good at. It just makes more sense.

And relating that to mentoring, I’m  fascinated with the idea of identifying the areas where kids are already gifted and then spending as much time and energy as you have developing that skill. Which is basically the opposite of what we do in public education. You’re good at reading? Very well, let’s put you in some science classes. You’re obviously a gifted artist? That’s all okay with me but we want for you to be better at writing essays.

Because when we celebrate accomplishments for doing unbelievable things, it is almost never due to the fact that someone was well rounded.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a perfect specimen of being exactly in the middle in every measurable facet!” (Actually that is the plot of Idiocracy)

The reality is, in most professions, the most gifted people are completely inept in other areas. The very best salespeople are generally terrible at details. They break the rules, they do the opposite of what everyone else is supposed to do. They come in late, they leave early, they skip meetings, they don’t turn in reports and paperwork. And none of it matters because they bring in checks which pay the bills, and the CEO will never fire the guy who makes it rain.

Imagine with me a world where we invest wisely in steering kids into rewarding professions that are completely suitable with how God made them. We let the artists be artists. We take the numbers dorks and give them as much accounting and finance classes as they can handle. We take the ones who just don’t care about any of it and teach them a trade where they get to be outside and work with their hands, which is what they’ve been telling us they want to do anyway.

Imagine it. Doesn’t it sound like a pretty terrific place?

 

Do It Again

 

I wrapped up another week of coaching basketball to elementary and middle school kids last week, and I find myself in a position similar to one I’ve been in the past few years.

This is my 3rd year coaching this group, and my 5th year of being involved with the camp.

It is exhausting. The days are long, the kids don’t always listen, and I can’t keep up with them like I used to.

So, every year about this time, I wonder, “Is all of this worth it?”

The late nights, the fast food dinners*, the changing the in the bathroom, the sore throats from yelling, the occasional headaches, the emails and phone calls at work that don’t get returned.

Is it worth it to put all my “priorities” aside for a week and chase a bunch of kids around a loud gym?

Yes. Because when my new buddy Dre comes up to me on the last day of camp and he’s crying because camp is over, it’s worth It.

Yes.  Because when one of my kids from last summer meets me as I walk in the door to give me a bear hug, it’s worth it.

Yes. Because when it’s my time to share stories from The Bible and there are 80 to 100 pairs of eyes listening to every word I say, it’s worth it.

Yes. Because when a girl who obviously has never heard the Gospel asks me questions about Jesus and then goes home that night to memorize her Bible verse, it’s worth it.

All of the fatigue, frustration, planning meetings that I don’t really want to attend, and even the pie in the face I got on Friday night when the girls beat the boys in a fundraising contest. All of it is worth it.

Because for a few hours last week, I wasn’t boring old insurance man peddling my general liability wares.

I was Coach Warner.

And I wouldn’t choose anywhere else in the world than being Coach to that group of kids.

 

 

*The young me can’t believe the adult me even contemplates this but yes, I have to own up to the fact that there really aren’t many nutritious and healthy options in the drive through line. One night, I ate 2 packages of peanut butter and crackers for dinner and I felt like I had a real-life hangover the next day.