Optimism Is a Choice We Make


Congratulations to Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters, a CNN Hero.

I used to like the story about 10-year old twin boys at Christmas-time. Their parents explained to a psychologist that one was always optimistic, expecting good things to happen and the other expected the worst, a pessimist. “What can we do to balance their attitudes about life,” they asked. The specialist suggested they disappoint the optimist on Christmas morning and surprise the pessimist with everything he wants. They tried that and the boys bounced downstairs Christmas morning. The pessimist had a dozen wonderful gifts he unwrapped quickly and then pushed aside just as quickly. “It’s not the color I wanted. It’s boring.” He wasn’t happy. The little optimist searched for a gift and finally found a bucket of horse manure with his name on it. He jumped up and down with delight. “This is great. There has got to be a pony around here somewhere.”

Some people believe that it is pre-determined we will be one or the other, destined to always look at the downside or upside of all that happens. I think we have some genetic and environmental influences about our attitude but we also make choices. We can choose to be optimists and work toward a greater good. There are some great examples around us of people who optimistically took on big challenges and succeeded.

Chad Pregracke of Living Lands and Waters just received the CNN Hero Award for his amazing work in organizing 70,000 volunteers to pull 7 million pounds of debris from American rivers. His optimism about our abilities to clean up our messes is powerful. He continually interprets for people what can be done through collaborative effort. As a young man he collected mussels from the muddy pools of the Mississippi River and was stunned to find car bodies, barrels and myriad waste materials in the river. Fifteen years ago he began personally cleaning up the river and then enlisted others through his very persuasive storytelling about why it matters. When he learned of his $250,000 “Hero” award, he immediately gave $10,000 each to the other nine candidates. He saw the award as a broad endorsement of effort that should be shared.

Americans enjoy clean water, clean air, diverse wildlife, wonderful parks, forests and beaches due to thoughtful policies and careful legal protection. Behind each of those laws and policies you will find stories of personal effort and sacrifice by individuals like Chad, and small groups of people who were optimistic about improving something that mattered to them. We should not only be thankful for the clean environment we enjoy, we must continue to inspire people to get involved in ways that make a difference.

I can be pessimistic about global climate change, HIV and many of the world’s challenges, but it simply does little good. Optimism is the fuel of change. “Yes we can,” always feels better to me than “Why bother?” Interpretation as a profession is a communication process that can inspire change and influence people’s attitudes, if planned and executed well.

Tomorrow we will enjoy a great meal at home with family and I am thankful for the wonderful wife and family with whom I share life’s challenges and rewards. And we will be mindful as a family of the many people and places that have less than they deserve. We will continue to work optimistically for a better world and life for all people. HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

–       Tim Merriman

The Message That Still Inspires

Today is the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Documentarian Ken Burns is urging everyone to memorize the address to internalize it. You can go to his special website at www.learntheaddress.org and hear the speech given by Americans of all political stripes, including all five living Presidents of the U.S. The video above records Ethan Pond delivering the address at the annual Greenwood School contest in Vermont. The school employs the memorization of the speech as an important part of their educational program each year with learning challenged young people.

Great inspirational speeches endure over time. Fact-laden meandering talks are forgotten soon after they are given. Former Harvard President Edward Everett gave another Gettysburg Address that lasted more than two hours on November 19, 1863 just before Lincoln’s more succinct and direct speech that lasted just a little more than two minutes. Everett is described on Wikipedia as an “American politician, pastor, educator, diplomat, and orator from Massachusetts.” His speech was well received at the time but soon forgotten.

President Abraham Lincoln was asked to make his remarks at the Consecration of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The 271-word speech framed the theme of the talk that is still remembered these many years later.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

President Lincoln was reportedly ill that day, most probably with smallpox, which may have been the reason he kept his message short and direct. Getting right to the point had dramatic impact. Lincoln’s words are chiseled into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C. for all to see. People gathered there on this 150th anniversary to take part in the Burns challenge, not just to recite the passage, but also to think more deeply about what it meant.

Lincoln engaged us in a conversation that has never quit. How do we keep the United States a place where all are created equal? His theme continues to provoke us daily as we watch those still lacking some freedoms argue for equal treatment, in America and around the world.

Sometimes a great idea gets lost in the forest of words used to describe it. Everett wrote the President the next day and said “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

I’m going to memorize the address to remind me of the work that we must still do as a nation to be sure that all people are treated equally, the need for which is constantly underscored by daily news reports and observations we can all make.

As an inspirational speech, the Gettysburg Address is simply one of the best ever given.  I join Ken Burns in challenging you to read, recite, and remember its important message.

-Tim Merriman

Six Reasons to Train Collaboratively

guidesI recently stood for several minutes at an information desk at a park waiting for one of several workers on duty to notice me and ask to help. They were deeply engaged in personal conversations. Their uniforms indicated that some were employees and others were volunteers. At any park, zoo, museum, historic site, forest, aquarium or community there are people working for different organizations but doing the same work. Many organizations have volunteers, friends group employees and staff working together on information duty or making reservations for tours or programs.

Our uniforms, logos, and other insignias are not clear communication for tourists and guests at most recreational settings. They see an official outfit or insignia and attach it to the organization that seems most obvious. If you have partners, volunteers, concessionaires, and front-line employees in places where they meet your customers, your guests, they must deliver consistent messages and services. The customer will not understand who served them poorly.

Here are six things to think about when planning to train your front-line:

  1. Every employee, volunteer, concession worker, etc. deserves the opportunity to do the right thing the first day at work. They have to be trained before the first day on the front line for this to work. An orientation or host course starts each new worker with a basic understand of mission, job responsibilities and customer service. Letting your front-line do the wrong thing because you didn’t have time to train disrespects the customer and the employee.
  2. Every conversation with a customer or guest is a chance to help have a special experience and connect with the place, the story. Guests may make a lasting connection with your site or see it as “been there, done that,” as an experience. You can equip every employee with the skills to make a difference in every conversation through host training.
  3. The organizational mission is job ONE for every person meeting the public. Each employee has a job description, but the mission is overriding. If we do not work at achieving the purpose of our organization every day, we may be degrading the brand. The mission should be brief, memorable and easily remembered by each worker.
  4. Training in the same room at the same time with varied partners, volunteers and employees with different functions will build relationships. You should want security, cashiers, drivers, receptionists, and maintenance workers to see themselves as part of the team, working together to achieve the mission. They will know each other more quickly and have some respect for each other’s job roles if trained together. And they will have a basis for solving problems through their personal relationships.
  5. The customer should come second, not first. If we treat employees with respect, train them and equip them to respond to all situations effectively, they will treat customers with respect. We cannot yell at staff, mistrust them and hope they will treat guests better.
  6. Training is never as costly as mistakes that hurt guests, steal their money or mislead them and ruin an experience. You never get a second chance to make a first impression in customer service. Great customer service organizations invest time in preparing staff to meet the public. We should invest no less than two or three days and ideally a week or more. Initial orientation training must include organizational rules and procedures, but should also cover customer service and informal interpretation.

Front-line workers chatting with each other instead of turning to help a guest is a very normal thing to do, but with training they will know why their attention needs to be with the guest first and our colleagues in free time. We can improve uniforms, insignias and logos, but people will still confuse them if they work at the same site. Help them all deliver a quality experience and represent their organizations in the best possible way. It’s worth the investment.

We train with the Certified Interpretive Host (CIH) course from National Association for Interpretation, but can also customize host training to a specific site if requested. Let us know if we can help you craft and deliver the right host training for your staff.

– Tim Merriman

Passages Create Connections


Memorial service for Nancy at Honaunau Bay.

In the 1980s I was managing a nature center in Pueblo, Colorado. A local Italian family asked if they could plant a cottonwood tree along our waterfront in memory of their grandfather. Beaver had cut down many of the cottonwoods over the years, so we allowed the planting and I was amazed when more than 40 people, family and friends, showed up for a picnic and tree planting. They came back year after year to see how his tree had grown.

The poignancy of this thoughtful gesture made it clear that there is great power in life’s passages. At the nature center, we immediately turned all of our landscaping projects into memorial gardens. We used native plants but allowed families to pay for the landscaping and perpetual maintenance in return for remembrance of their loved ones. They would return again and again to view the gardens and feel close to their departed friends and relatives. We planted native plants in naturalistic patterns so the nature center’s high use areas became showcases for xeriscape and native plants options to serve the needs of the nature center and the people of the community who wanted only the gardening advice. But for the families who invested to honor a memory, the memorial gardens became that special place where they could feel a connection to more than the plantings.

Through the years we had weddings, funerals, and birthday parties at the center and each of those brought people out to enjoy each other’s company while out in nature. We also put stained glass windows in the Raptor Center’s foyer as memorials, which beautified that area with birds of prey in glass. Again families returned to show visiting family the windows and the birds of prey that had a special connection to their loved ones.

Gordon Maupin at the Wilderness Center in Ohio took this notion a step further in building Foxfield Preserve. He developed a natural burial cemetery that gave people a place to bury loved ones in nature without caskets, big monuments and mown grass. This strategy not only preserves large tracts of open space but embraces one of life’s certain passages for each of us, death, and affirms that many of us prefer to be a part of nature after life, recycled, not a preserved specimen.

As I write this, we are on the Big Island of Hawaii. We went to Honaunau Bay yesterday to snorkel and enjoy the scenery. Large numbers of people were gathering at the canoe club behind the beach park to say goodbye to their friend, Nancy. They carried long traditional canoes down to the water and mounted them to paddle out and spread her ashes. Then they returned to the bay and paddled in a circle as a lone Pu horn made of a conch shell was playing beautiful, haunting tones. Those paddling the canoes spread white and pink plumeria blossoms from their leis on the water. We could not hear what was being said about Nancy but everyone on the beach area became quiet, watching intently. It was beautiful and brought tears to the eyes of many. Respect is contagious. Though we didn’t know her, we thought she might be pleased to see how many people turned out to send her out to sea in this special farewell.

Life has many passages. Sharing those special times with special people in special places connects us forever to our community of family and friends, framed by the natural and cultural heritage we all share.

Tim Merriman