Lessons learned from the great Stuart McLean

Stuart McLeanThis week, Canada lost a national treasure. Stuart McLean, best known for his radio program The Vinyl Café and early days on CBC radio, passed away at the age of 68.

Stuart was one of the best teachers and mentors I ever had. I first met Stuart in 1984 where he was one of the young, hipper instructors in the Ryerson school of journalism. (I’m smiling as I write this because Stuart never in a million years would have considered himself hip.) We were instantly smitten by him.

Stuart wasn’t just a teacher. He was a friend. He was one of us. He’d invite us to his home for coffee on the weekends to hear our story ideas, and review transcripts or tape, or go out for a beer after a full day in the studio.

As a teacher, he was patient, encouraging and insightful. He’d let us explore and discuss ideas, perched on a desk at the back of the room, always watching and observing and jumping in when needed to steer us in the right direction. He knew the greatest learning was by doing and exploring, and gave us full reign to make mistakes, learn and grow.

While many people may remember Stuart as a great storyteller, I will always remember him as a great listener. Stuart had this uncanny ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room. He gave people his undivided attention and hung on their every word.

I remember the time Stuart turned the tables on me and interviewed me for his radio program and one of his books. The segment was on Ernie the Hot Dog Man. Ernie was a fixture on Ryerson campus, and Stuart interviewed some of his students to find out what Ernie meant to us.

It was unnerving to be on the receiving end of the microphone and Stuart’s steely gaze. He thrust the microphone under my chin and started asking questions. His eyes never wavered once from my face. He said nothing–just sat and nodded with a slight grin on his face. I realized after I had watched a master at work. Stuart had perfected the art of listening and knew how to get his subjects to open up and share their inner most thoughts and feelings simply by staying silent.

Here are just a few of the things I learned from Stuart McLean.

I learned that every person in this world matters and has a story worth telling.

I learned to be curious and to ask questions.

I learned that people appreciate when you take an interest in their lives

I learned the importance of listening with your heart

I learned the power of silence in drawing people out

Most of all, I learned what it meant to be a good human being.

As I was reading the many tributes to Stuart this week online, I came across one story about his philosophy on teaching. The first duty of a teacher he said was to build confidence, no matter how deep you may have to dig. “If there’s something good in the assignment turned in, praise that,” he said. “If the writing’s bad but the broadcast quality is good, praise that. If the broadcast quality is poor, but they’ve organized it well, praise that. And if everything is bad, but their posture is good, well, dammit, praise that.”

I’m still learning from this great man.

Stuart, I know you’re up there in the vinyl café in the sky, microphone in hand, capturing new tales. This one’s for you.

Have something to look forward to

 

Swinton family in front of waterfall

On our vacation last year in Grand Falls, New Brunswick

A couple of years ago, I was watching Barbara Walters year-end special on the Most Fascinating People of 2015. She asked comedian Kevin Hart to complete the sentence “Happiness is…” and he replied, “Happiness is having something to look forward to.”

I thought it was an unusual but honest and insightful answer. The daily rhythm of life can become tedious. Most of us work to live, and the reality is in North America, the balance of working and living is out of whack. We work too much, and don’t take time to enjoy life.

That’s when you need to have something to look forward to. I find this longing grows even more in the winter months. By mid-February, Dave and I begin to yearn for our next adventure. We start pouring over calendars and road atlases and looking up vacation rentals on vrbo.com and airbnb.com. Where will the winds take us? What will our next adventure be?

My brother Don is the king of having something to look forward to. He takes about four or five trips a year. As soon as he unpacks his bags from his last vacation, he is planning his next trip. I think he would shrivel up into a hole if he didn’t have something planned. And as it happens, Don is a pretty happy guy.

This week’s #HappyAct is plan your next vacation, a weekend away, a special night with friends. While away a snowy Sunday making plans and dreaming of your next adventure, big or small.

Hit the buffet

mandarin buffetEach year we have a “last in the lake” contest. The last in the lake gets to choose dinner at their restaurant of choice. Clare has won it the last two years in a row (the date was October 30th for the record) so we made the trek on Friday night to what’s becoming an annual tradition to the Mandarin restaurant.

The Mandarin is the penultimate, king of buffets. Dave and I are skeptics when it comes to buffets—usually “buffet” means mediocre food at best served at room temperature. The Mandarin is the exception to the rule. They know how to do buffet right.

We arrived and were greeted by our hostess who showed us to our seats in the F room. It’s important to remember your room number, because it is easy to get lost (Dave and I both entered the wrong rooms that night after filling up our plates).

The Mandarin isn’t just a food experience. It’s eye candy if you like people watching. You never know who you will bump into or what you’ll see. Grace ran into a high school friend. I saw my co-worker Shelli and took the opportunity to ask her what she thought of their new practice of putting the number of calories on the glass above each dish. We both decided we didn’t like it.

It’s particularly fun to see the different strategies for the buffet. Some prefer a traditional approach, starting with soup or salad, then hit the mains while others go off the board for 200 and mix it up. Some people get small dainty plates of like-minded dishes. Others pile food on their plate in a magnificent mound while you watch in admiration and fear as they wind their way back to their seat from the busy dining room.

I especially like watching kids eat. Grace was a classic example. She started with the hot, traditional Chinese food fare, filled up on a plate of waffles and French fries for her second course, went back for salmon and ice cream and finished with a plate of ribs, green tea jello (which she didn’t eat), chocolate cake and a chocolate dipped strawberry. Nothing short of inspired.

Mid-way through your dinner, as the blood rushes to your stomach to digest the copious quantities of food, your mind starts to wander.

  • How many items are in their buffet? 150
  • What’s the most anyone has eaten? I suggested to the waitress they should have a contest. Give contestants a two-hour window and have designated calorie counters track their every calorie. It would be an amazing marketing campaign for the restaurant.
  • How much food do they go through in one day?
  • The kids wanted to know what happens to the leftovers—do they get donated to shelters?
  • What’s the profit margin on each meal? Our waitress told us it’s just $1 for lunch and a bit higher for dinner—we found that hard to believe but then thought maybe they make profits on the drinks
  • How many people do they serve each day? The room we were in held 64 people for example, and gets turned over 3-4 times during dinner. Our restaurant had six rooms—you do the math
  • When Clare started to slump over in her chair after her fourth plate of dessert, we asked our waitress if anyone has ever fallen asleep at the table before? The answer was yes.

My only regret on Friday night was I didn’t have my phone to take any pictures, well and maybe that fourth plate of dessert.

This week’s #HappyAct is to hit the buffet at the Mandarin. But give up on the calorie counting—it’s just not worth it!

Aim for progress, not perfection

strive for progress signIn my line of work, I make it a mission to cut out jargon. There is one buzzword I’ve adopted and even grown fond of lately–the word agile.

More and more, you hear about agile teams, projects and processes. Agile methodology is when you plan out your tasks or work in phases, then measure and tweak along the way.

The reason why I like this word so much is because the agile approach embodies an inherent philosophy that has a direct impact on happiness —the importance of aiming for progress, not perfection.

Two of the leading experts in the field of perfectionism are Canadians—Paul Hewitt, a professor at the University of British Columbia and Gordon Flett at the University of Toronto. In just one of their many studies of 10,000 professors, they found a statistical co-relation that those pursuing a perfect solution had a lower number of publications, lower amount of citations and a lower impact on their profession. They also had a higher rate of depression, anxiety, eating disorders and, shockingly, a higher rate of suicide.

I’ve never been a perfectionist. I can’t imagine the burden that weighs on people of trying to be perfect or achieving the perfect result all the time.

I’ve learned there are many ways to skin a cat. When my team works on a design concept or develops communication plans at work, there isn’t any single right or wrong answer or method. There are simply different options and approaches with different merits and risks. You choose a course, try it out, see what works, then adjust your plan.

You learn most when you fail. Unfortunately one of the biggest issues in business today is organizations say they are willing to let their employees fail, but when push comes to shove, the focus on the bottom line wins out. Companies are so lean they can’t afford the time, money or resources to fail.

Still, aiming for progress, not perfection is a philosophy that can benefit just about every aspect of our lives. Trying to lose weight? Aim for progress, not perfection. Studying for a big exam? Planning a large event? You know the answer.

This week’s #HappyAct is to aim for progress, not perfection. Perfection is an elusive dream. Instead set small, baby step goals, and celebrate when you hit milestones.

The best advice for uncertain times

trumpocalypseThe Trumpocalypse is officially here.

I was astonished how many people refused to watch the inauguration. I’m not sure if they believed by watching they were endorsing what was happening before their eyes, or if it just sickened them too much to witness the carnage.

As a history major, I wasn’t about to miss this historic moment and witnessed Trump get sworn in with Dave and some colleagues at the Brew Pub, swilling our sorrows in beer.

It was all so surreal. Trump’s stump speech, evoking the vision of a country in decline and decay when unemployment is at one of the all-time lows and the United States is enjoying a period of strong economic growth. The cutaways to delusional loyal Trump supporters, crying in the sparse crowds of the Mall, fooled into thinking this man will make America great again.

The most fascinating part of Friday’s proceedings was seeing the reactions in the faces of the former Presidents and first ladies.

Bill Clinton had a plastered smirk on his face. Hillary sat by his side, with pursed lips and a glint of condemnation and disbelief in her eyes.

Barack Obama probably played the part best, and true to self, was gracious, putting the situation above himself.

But it was Michelle Obama who spoke volumes without uttering a word in her every move, gesture and look. Her sideward glances, lowered eyes and stalwart, I will get through this façade were those of a woman crestfallen, who knew everything she loved and cherished and had fought so hard to build would be disassembled in days by a man she abhorred.

Yes, the Trumpocalypse is here, but don’t despair. There are news reports by the dozens of Americans who are depressed and angry about the state of their country.

The best advice I’ve seen for weathering this storm is from advice columnist Ann Landers. A 24-year old woman wrote to Ann to say with all the conflict in the world and uncertainty, she was experiencing feelings of depression and anxiety.

Ann’s advice to her is this week’s #HappyAct: volunteer in your community. Do something to confirm or restore your faith in humanity. We can’t control the world around us, but we can make a difference and help make the world a better kinder place in our own backyard. It’s a start.

You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate

sign that says you can't buy happiness but you can buy chocolate which is basically the same thingI’ve discovered a new favourite haunt in Kingston, Cacao 70 on King Street. This popular chocolateatery franchise has several locations in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver and opened a restaurant in Kingston last summer.

Cacao bills itself as a unique place to drop by after a hectic day at work or school and relax and share a moment with friends. In addition to its heavenly decadent chocolate menu, it serves sandwiches, salads and boasts a great brunch menu.

Cacao 70 didn’t disappoint.

The minute you walk in the door, you know you’ve entered chocolate heaven. The melding smells of sweet milk and dark chocolate stick to your nostrils and you immediately forget about lunch. Just bring on the dark stuff.

I’ve been to Cacao two times in the last two months, once with my girlfriend Elaine for her birthday, and once with the girls. Elaine and I ordered sandwiches. My chicken salad sandwich was one of the best sandwiches I ever had. Cacao makes their sandwiches on thick, toasted delicious homemade bread. The chicken had an amazing mix of flavours.

chocolate wafflesWe made sure we had room left to split a chocolate birthday fondue. Cacao’s fondues come with fresh fruit, waffle squares and brownie chunks for dipping. One piece of advice: don’t overdip! While it looks like you have this huge bowl of chocolate, it’s really a half-bowl, but in the end we discovered it was the perfect amount as we mopped up the remaining drops of chocolate with our fruit.

The second time I went to Cacao, I took the girls after we packed hampers for the Salvation Army before Christmas for a special Mommy daughter lunch. This time I had a chocolate strawberry crepe. Grace went for it, ordering two chocolate dishes, the chocolate waffles with whipped cream and a chocolate fondue. Everything was decadent.

kids eating chocolate treatsI’m already planning my third trip. Maybe this time I’ll try the chocolate banana pizza, a volcano ice cream cup or a vintage hot chocolate. Oh, the choices.

This week’s #HappyAct is to indulge in a chocolate fantasy meal. Because as the sign says, “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy chocolate which is basically the same thing.”

Ed. note: I know writing this at the beginning of January may seem cruel for those of you who hope to lose weight in 2017. I’ve got the perfect solution. Use your chocolate extravaganza experience as an incentive and reward. Stick to your weight loss regime. When you successfully meet your first goal, whether it’s a month of healthy eating, or your first few pounds off, treat yourself to a Cacao dish!

Friends eating chocolate fondue

chocolate crepes

Where do you turn when you feel all alone?

sign that says this too shall passI’ve learned something important about happiness this week. It’s hard to be happy when you feel all alone in the world.

This week, for reasons I won’t disclose I’ve felt very alone and isolated. In fact, I can’t ever recall feeling quite this way before. I struggled to find my own inner happiness. I tried, oh, how I’ve tried, but I’ve learned it’s difficult to be happy when you feel all alone.

Here are some of the things that helped this week. Hopefully they will help you too if you ever find yourself feeling this way.

  • Being around other people. On Friday, I went for a skate at Market Square in Kingston. Just being around other people laughing and having fun outside on a beautiful cold winter’s day made me feel better
  • Spending time with my animals. No matter what, your pets will always love you.
  • Spending time outside—feeling the sun on my face, going for a walk on a crisp wintry night surrounded by the stars
  • Calling an old friend and hearing a friendly voice
  • Playing the piano. When I play the piano, I forget everything else and just concentrate on the notes, and the beautiful melodies floating up from the keys.
  • Writing—I guess it’s no surprise I’m writing this post at 4 in the morning when I couldn’t sleep

When all else fails, indulge in a good bout of tears, preferably in a hot tub under the stars. At least, that’s what my Mom always used to say (well, not the hot tub part–that piece of wisdom is mine).

This week’s #HappyAct is to share a comment on this week’s post. Have you ever felt all alone in the world? What did you do? And don’t worry about me. I’m hopeful, this too shall pass.

Ed. note: While generally I try to post positive, uplifting happy acts each week, I believe it’s just as important to know and spark discussion on what makes us unhappy.