I am devoting extra time this year to learn more about two people, Robert Frost and Fred (Mr.) Rogers. Why Mr. Rogers? Yes, I watched his show as a kid, and I have fond memories of it. However, it is also because of the philosophy of life that he embraced and the way he determined how to invest his time and energy. Consider the Venn diagram below, which I created based upon what Joanne Rogers (his wife) described in the forward to Life’s Journeys According to Mr. Rogers. In this forward, she noted that, “…he knew in his heart that there could be a connection between television, the real needs of human beings (particularly children), and spirituality.” These three items combined to become what we now remember as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Television (the dominant technology of his day)
According to Joanne, already in college, Fred had a fascination with the technology of television. He was troubled by some of the uses of this media, but also believed it had great promise for good, granted that one designed something properly. He invested years of his life into studying and honing the skills necessary to flourish in the television industry. This included entry jobs over the years that eventually led to doing puppetry, running a lesser known show on a Canadian TV station, and finally becoming known as the face and mind behind Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The Real Needs of Human Beings
The second core value was a desire to do good. In this interview, Fred describes how his mother dealt with seeing tragedies and unpleasant events in the world. She said to him, “Always look for the helpers.” This means not getting drawn into the depression and darkness of the bad events, but devoting one’s energy to the needs of people in those events, and the people who are getting involved and striving to meet those needs. In essence, it is a worldview that looks for the people who are striving to be a neighbor to those in need, to find real needs of people and then to meet them using your distinct gifts and abilities.
It is well-known that Fred Rogers was a man of faith and had a seminary degree. While he was not explicit about the source of his beliefs and values in his show, they informed the words that chose, the way he treated people, and the type of show he hosted.
These three values of Fred Rogers intersected in his life’s work, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. They help us understand the why behind the work of Mr. Rogers. They also give us a guide and potential template for thinking about our life’s work.
Interestingly, this is part of why I elected to spend more time learning about Mr. Rogers this year. Soon after college, I too became intrigued by the increasingly dominant technology of my age, the world-wide web. I also shared a common core of Christian spirituality, and part of my tradition holds love for neighbor in high regard, as a foundational teaching in discovering one’s callings in life. As a result, I thought that I could learn from a person who is highly regarded and unquestioningly impactful in his work.
Perhaps others can us this simple guide to clarify, discover or explore their own life’s work. I offer a revised version of the Mr. Rogers Venn diagram with that in mind. Notice that I kept “Needs of the Neighbor”, as this becomes a starting point for all of us. What gifts, talents, interests, abilities do I have that might benefit the need of people in the world? I also adjusted the center space. By identifying something for the other two circles in the Venn diagram, perhaps it will help to discover your neighborhood, that place where your gifts, passions and interests intersect with the needs of people in the world.
Consider also how this framework might serve as a guide for learning organizations. What if the fundamental purpose of a learning organization were to help people refine their neighborhood, and then to develop knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in meeting the needs of people in that neighborhood? That makes for a compelling why to drive the experiments and innovations of learning organizations in the 21st century.