Chip McCraw drums

13 things being a musician has taught me about business

A lifetime of playing drums in bands and in churches has not only enriched my life beyond measure, but it’s taught me a lifetime of invaluable lessons. Lessons that apply to every other aspect of my personal and professional life. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

 1. Put in the prep time

No, practice isn’t always fun. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes it’s exhausting. But it pays off for the ones who put the time in to be prepared. In the business world, that might take the form of education and other training, and starting your career in an entry level position and learning everything there is to know about your field.

It’s not just about how many hours you practice, but the quality of your practice. Don’t just go through the motions – strive to learn from your practice and intentionally improve your skills.

2. Check your ego at the door

This is especially important in my church gig, where the musicians take a back seat to the real purpose, which is creating an atmosphere of worship. But it applies to any musical setting, where the sum should be greater than the individual parts. Remember, the point of your being there is to give your audience (i.e. your customers) what they want, not to try to steal all the attention for yourself.

3. Don’t trash other musicians

Nothing makes you look more petty than trying to make yourself seem better than your colleagues. Nobody likes a bragger. Competition can be a great motivator, but don’t go overboard. Be happy for anybody who’s succeeding in your company and your field. If you’re good at what you do, people will know. It’s better to let someone else talk about how good you are, because that’s infinitely more credible.

4. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are

In my first few bands, I was always the youngest member. I think I subconsciously knew I always needed to prove my worth. As time passed, I wasn’t the youngest or least experienced any more. But I still remember one gig I got as a hired gun for a singer-songwriter when I was around 27 or so. I knew of the lead guitarist and bassist he’d hired because I’d seen them in a smoking hot rock band a few years earlier. These guys were head and shoulders above where I was musically, and I wasn’t sure I could hang with them. But their musicianship pushed me to try to rise to their level. I don’t know if I got all the way there, but I definitely got better.

Wherever you are in business, gravitate toward the people around you who excel. Their example is priceless.

5. Keep spares of everything you need

I’ll never forget the gig in North Myrtle Beach when I was 17. About halfway through the night my snare drum head split open and I didn’t have a replacement head. I was mortified. My bandmates suggested that I go to a neighboring nightclub and see if I could borrow a head from the drummer playing there. I went, but I couldn’t get the drummer’s attention because the band had just started their next set.

I walked back to the venue we were playing in and got a roll of duct tape to try to patch the broken head. For the rest of the night, my snare had about as much volume as a small metronome. My bandmates were not happy with me and it took forever to live that down. Since that time I’ve actually kept a second snare drum ready for action in case of emergency.

Today, if I’m producing an event or have to give a presentation, I’ve got my PowerPoint, Excel files, etc. saved on my laptop and on a flash drive. I’ve also got them all printed on paper and tucked away in my laptop bag in case the technology fails. Redundancy is your friend.

6. Study how your role models do it

Some of my early drumming idols included Butch Trucks and Jaimoe (Allman Brothers), David Garibaldi (Tower of Power), Paul T. Riddle (Marshall Tucker Band), and Steve Jordan (Blues Brothers, David Letterman Band, John Mayer Trio and many more). I shamelessly stole licks from all of my favorites and worked them into my own style of playing. Who are the “rock stars” in your profession? Study what they do and how to do it. Learn from their examples and emulate them as you develop your own identity.

7. Respect the cats who have more experience than you do

There will always be someone with better chops and more knowledge than you have. Close your mouth and listen to them when they speak, and you’ll grow. Maybe even into the next star.

8. Leave everything on the stage

Give 110% every time you perform; don’t phone your work in. The right people will notice and you’ll eventually reap the benefits. The musicians who rise to the top, be they touring musicians, regional favorites, or outright stars, didn’t get where they are by slacking off. Slackers stay in the rut they created for themselves. Whatever your job is, do it completely.

9. Always be professional

Acting like a professional immediately sets you apart from the hacks. Learn what it takes to succeed and be respected in your field, and stay focused on that. I love this quote from an Atlanta Institute of Music and Media blog:

“That person you were mean to in college could be in a position to help further your career by helping you land an awesome gig, or sign a record deal, and chances are, if you made fun of them or spoke negatively about them in the past, they will not be in such a giving mood.”

10. Your body is also your instrument – take care of yourself

Eat healthy, get exercise and rest, and keep the partying under control. See your doctor and do what you’re told to do. You need a healthy body and mind to do what you do.

11. Promote yourself (tactfully)

Every band or solo musician needs a promo kit; it’s how they present themselves to the world. In the business world, your personal brand is everything. Build your LinkedIn profile so that it showcases what you’ve accomplished and what can do. Every time you interact with colleagues and bosses, let them see the best you. Find a way, without being obnoxious, to show the value you bring to your organization.

12. Develop your network

It’s wise to build relationships with other musicians, teachers, and a personal support network. Those connections can steer you toward the next opportunity. And they can encourage you when you stumble and lose confidence. Look for ways to encourage the younger ones just getting into the business.

13. If you make a mistake, do it again so people think you meant to do it.

Okay, that one’s a joke. You might get away with that onstage if you’re improvising, but you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you do it in the corporate world. That said, your mistakes are your best learning opportunities and they can even open your eyes and ears to new and better ways of doing your thing.

What would you add to this list?


Radio isn’t dead yet, but it may be committing suicide

AM-FM Radio

Pandora released its 2018 Definitive Guide to Audio recently, and the verdict is clear. Broadcast radio as we’ve known it is on its way out.

The music streaming service released its first guide in 2017; the second annual edition, in their own words, is “chock-full of helpful insights on the state of audio advertising today.” Among the key insights, as if you couldn’t predict, is that audio streaming has entered the mainstream.

53% of us stream audio weekly (I’m streaming a radio station right now…does that count as streaming or radio?). In fact, we stream audio more than we play our owned music (CDs, digital music files, etc.)

But what caught my eye is the continued decline of radio.

Radio was my first career, my first love. I’d still go back and do it again today if i could support a family through radio. But broadcast radio as I knew it doesn’t exist any more, and if it isn’t dead yet, it may be committing suicide. AM/FM radio listenership has fallen by 34% in the last 10 years, and commercial clutter is the self-inflicted wound. According to Pandora, major market stations cram as many as 10 ads in a break, which is bad for both listeners and advertisers.

Radio listeners are willing to wait only so long while ads play before they tune out. It’s a simple push of a button and they’re off to another station or to the aux input where their phone is connected and ready with their favorite playlist. Let’s be honest – too many commercials just p*** listeners off. It was the No. 1 complaint I heard when I was in radio and nothing has changed.

Now, we all get it. Advertising is how stations pay the bills and stay on the air; radio is business and that’s how business works. But advertisers don’t like endless commercials either, because it makes it harder for their ad stand out. After all, one spot in a cluster of four stands out better than one in ten. And that’s if the listener even stays through the whole break.

Our tech follows us into the car

Radio listening is declining in cars as the adoption of alternatives like satellite radio and car connectivity continues to increase. We get real-time traffic updates from Google Maps, and according to the Definitive Guide, “Pandora is the dominant installed brand in connected cars, and its active user base has grown at triple-digit annual rates over the last six years.” Shocker.

Everybody under age 65 spends more time using smartphones apps than we do with radio. As that trend strengthens we’re more and more likely to keep listening to music on the smartphone when we get behind the wheel than to switch to the car radio.

How does radio survive?

Chip at WENC-FM

Me at age 18, playing 45 RPM records on FM radio

Don’t count radio stations out just yet; the industry has adapted before when pundits rushed to pronounce the medium dead. From the 1920s AM powerhouses were the singular source of dramas, comedies, and variety programming until television overtook radio as the dominant broadcast medium in the early 1950s. Having lost their original market, radio stations turned to music and news/talk, where they found a new and solid audience. If broadcast radio is to survive now, it must again learn to adapt.

In fact, the Pandora guide suggests that for radio to stay relevant, it must embrace mobile apps and other methods of online delivery of their content. Strong digital platforms have already demonstrated their formidable strength in the media marketplace and they show no signs of retreating.

If radio was forced to splinter into niche programming to keep its audience 70 years ago, the mandate is even greater now. There really is no such thing as mass appeal any more, as cable networks, streaming networks, podcasts, and more  lead the way by catering to niche audiences. Radio must continue learning to tailor its content to more narrowly targeted audiences.

And for crying out loud, radio has to figure out a better balance between sales and programming. Granted they are like two wings of an airplane and you can’t fly without both of them. But the current imbalance will leave the airplane spiraling downward until it crashes and burns.

Failure to adapt could leave radio in the past, a distant memory just like the 45 RPM record it leveraged to survive in a long forgotten lifetime.

See Pandora’s full report


Radio receiver photo by Anthony from Pexels

If the service is free, you are the product

If the service is free, you are the product - article by Chip McCraw

We’ve witnessed a little hyperbole, hand-wringing, and uninformed political posturing in recent days about data breaches and online privacy. The latest, and surely not the last, has Facebook squarely in the cross-hairs. But I think some of us are overreacting a bit.

If the service is free, the customer is the product.

That’s an old saying often attributed to the IT community. Not much is free in this world; somebody has to pay for everything. (After all, the lights have to stay on and web hosting providers aren’t charities.)  Facebook and other “free” social media juggernauts are paid for by ad revenue. That’s why they can be free to us users. Therefore, the users are the “product” being sold to advertisers. That’s never been a secret. I’m just surprised that anyone is surprised by that.

Generally speaking, nothing you do online is private. I completely understand there are necessary exceptions like your financial records, etc. But what you do on Facebook (the hotel you stayed at last night, what you ate, what you like, how much you hate the president, etc.) by its very nature, is very public.

So my unsolicited advice, with all due respect, is get over it. Here’s why:

If you post something online, it’s now there for advertisers and everybody else to see. If you don’t want everybody to know it, don’t share it online. Even if you answered questions in an online quiz, did you really think your answers would be private? It would be terribly naïve to think so. But I firmly believe it all can be a good thing.

As a marketing person, I love it.

I can spend my limited advertising dollars much more efficiently by targeting an audience that’s likely to respond to my message. Who doesn’t want to use their money wisely and effectively, and get the best possible return on their investment? Granted, I don’t need or want your name, phone number, or address in order to do my job. (That information is easily findable online in public records if somebody wants it badly enough, though.)

But if I can find out that you have a greater propensity to buy what I have to offer – without prying into what’s truly private – then I can try to engage you with something that’s more likely to resonate with you. I don’t waste my budget and risk annoying a lot of people by getting in front of folks with zero interest in my product or service.

As a consumer, I love it.

I really don’t need to see ads for industrial supplies or Japanese beauty products, but I just might be in the market for new tires or stock images for a website. I appreciate seeing ads that are actually relevant to me instead of just random noise. It’s a better experience for everybody.

My wife figured out the game and now plays it to her advantage. A while back she wanted a new cell phone cover. Instead of buying the first thing she liked, she did a Google search for cell phone covers, clicked on some of the results, and then waited. In fairly short order, ads offering better deals on cell phone covers started popping up in her Facebook feed and following her around as she moved on to other sites. She got what she wanted, and at a better price.

That’s at least partly due to a practice called remarketing (or retargeting, depending on who’s talking). Marketing professionals understand that 96% of visitors don’t convert to buyers the first time they visit a website. Remarketing is an effective way to connect with people who have already shown interest in their product or service as they browse elsewhere.

We can fret over the illusion of online privacy, delete our social media accounts, and try life off the grid. More power to you if that’s what you decide. I’ll miss you on the interwebs.

But the better approach, in my opinion, is to do our homework and understand the technology for what it is, beef up privacy laws as necessary to close real holes, and take ownership of the information we put online. In doing so, we can leverage that information to create a better experience for ourselves and the people we choose to do business with.

Now it’s your turn. How are you dealing with online privacy?

The ever-growing shift toward mobile

Mobile device

I recently sat in on a webinar presented by a staffer from Google’s Partner Enablement Team who shared some pretty interesting facts about how we consume information and engage with businesses.

We check our phones an average of 150 times a day.

In fact, we spend ¼ of our lives connected in some fashion. We’re looking at email, social media, checking in with location-based apps, mapping the drive to our next destination, and using myriad other apps throughout our waking hours, primarily on our smartphones. And if we have a sleepless night, what’s the first thing we reach for? The phone, which we left on the nightstand right beside our pillow.

Mobile searches finally exceeded desktop search – not all that recently – it was actually way back in late 2015. (Yes, that’s a pretty long time ago, given the rapid pace of change in the digital marketing world.)

Mobile has changed the customer journey.

We act on stimuli immediately, regardless of time of day, which means businesses have to be available 24 hours a day. We want someone on the other end of a phone or live chat whenever we want to engage, even if it’s in the middle of one of those sleepless nights.

People make “unscripted” decisions – we’re less loyal to brands and a deliberative decision-making process, and more loyal to “the need in the moment.” Crave a burrito for lunch? Whip out the phone, search for “Mexican food near me,” and pick from the results. Whoever has what we want right now wins.

Because of the immediacy of mobile, we now have very high standards. Frictionless online experiences with businesses that provide relevant content, services, or products really don’t impress us. It’s expected.

Marketers must adapt to mobile.

This all points to the fact that we as marketers must adapt our focus heavily toward mobile or risk being lost in the shuffle. A mobile-friendly website is a given. But with nearly 68% of all emails being opened at least first on mobile devices, email marketing must cater to the small phone screen with responsive design and larger fonts. Bulletproof buttons (that appear in email messages even if the user has images turned off) can ensure your CTA is seen and thus more likely to be effective.

The reader considers these factors and decides which messages are worthwhile, and either interacts immediately or re-opens them later on a laptop or desktop for further engagement.

The shift toward mobile devices is hardly a fad – it’s a solid trend that businesses must embrace in order to connect with today’s digital consumer.

Now it’s YOUR turn – what are YOU doing to adapt your marketing efforts to mobile? Share a comment.

Mickey Roker: my moments with a drumming giant

Mickey Roker was one of my early influences, not just because he was a phenomenal drummer, but primarily due to a personal connection.

Mickey Roker w/Milt Jackson at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay CA 1980s
© Brian McMillen

It began around 1972 when Mickey was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer. Dizzy’s trio had just played a matinée at Southeastern Community College in Whiteville, NC, where my dad was a dean. After their performance my dad invited Dizzy and his band to our home for dinner. Surprisingly, they accepted! Dizzy Gillespie in my house!

Somewhere during conversation before dinner I asked Mickey how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better,” was his immediate reply.

It wasn’t long before he found out I was an aspiring drummer (and by aspiring, I mean I owned a set of drums; it was too soon to call me a drummer.) With a big grin on his face he said to me, “Come on, let’s go see your drums!”

Mickey followed me back to my bedroom where my Sears blue sparkle drums were set up. “Let me see you play!” he practically shouted. I banged on them the best I could; I’m sure it sucked but Mickey was nothing but enthusiastic and encouraging to me. He did, however, admonish me to practice my rudiments. Must’ve been apparent that I hadn’t been…

Several years later while I was attending NC State University, I went to see Dizzy and band at a local nightclub. During a break between sets I walked up to Mickey and, just for fun, again asked him how long he’d been playing drums. “Long enough to know better.” (I loved it, and to this day I often use his line when somebody asks me the same question.)

I then reintroduced myself, and he at least pretended to remember me. He asked if I was still playing drums; I said yes, I was playing in a southern rock band. “Ah,” he said, “lotta shuffles, right?”

Oh, yeah, lotta shuffles. As a rookie I was impressed that an old school bebop and jazz drummer was aware of a very different musical style favored by us younger musicians. But Mickey Roker was actually much more than a jazz drummer – he was a role model for a kid who wanted to play.

Mickey passed in May 2017. I wish I’d had a chance for just one more conversation with him; if I had, I would have told him I never forgot his encouragement or his incredible drumming. And I would have confessed I haven’t always practiced my rudiments like I should, but I’ve tried to honor his passion for drums.

Rest in peace, Mickey.

Photo credit: By Brianmcmillen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons



Most of us really don’t understand forgiveness. If we’re honest, we crave forgiveness at some point from someone, either a person we’ve wronged, or from God. We want it for ourselves, but we’re loath to grant it to others. We say things like, “there’s no way I can forgive that person…it would be like saying what they did was okay. It would be like an open invitation for them to keep doing it.”

But let’s stop for a moment and think about that God dynamic. When we confess our trespasses and sincerely ask to be forgiven, do we actually expect God to tell us that what we did was okay? Of course not! We know that forgiveness from God comes for actions that are absolutely NOT okay. What else would we need to be forgiven for? So, can we take that off the table? Forgiveness is not the same as excusing or condoning bad behavior. It’s much deeper than that.

Unforgiveness is hazardous to your health

A surgeon named Dabney Ewin conducted a series of experiments in 1978 on burn victims he was treating. He observed that many of his patients were extremely angry, either with themselves or another person they blamed for their injuries. His angry patients were slower to recover and their bodies more often rejected skin grafts than patients who were not so angry. His conclusion was their deep anger was interfering with their ability to heal.

When he took steps to help his patients forgive themselves or others, he saw their stress levels drop and they achieved faster recovery times. Unforgiveness had a tangible effect on their emotional and physical healing, but choosing to let go of their anger allowed his patients to relax and respond better to their treatment.

Another researcher, Dr. Robert Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, developed a four-part forgiveness therapy in the 1990s:  1) uncovering your anger, 2) deciding to forgive, 3) working on forgiveness, and 4) discovery and release from emotional prison. I think that last part is the most telling – unforgiveness is nothing less than an emotional prison.

poisonChristian pastor Greg Laurie puts it this way: “Unforgiveness is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” Withholding forgiveness does little or nothing to the object of our anger; it only imprisons and even incapacitates us. And thus showing forgiveness, which we’re actually commanded to do, is an act of liberation…for ourselves. Forgiving that person releases us from the bondage we put our own selves in, for when we hold onto anger we sacrifice our own peace.

Jesus taught us to ask God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. He went on to say, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”

But, how?

Easier said than done? Absolutely. So, how do you forgive someone who doesn’t deserve it, maybe doesn’t even want it? Enright’s four-part therapy is an excellent model. First, you must recognize your anger and the damaging effect it’s had on your health, your outlook on life, the way you act, even your relationship with God. Understanding that, next make a conscious decision to forgive.

Working on forgiveness is where it might get a little harder. You can start by praying for that person. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” You may be surprised to find that by really praying for that person you develop compassion and empathy for them.

The payoff comes in the final step. As you begin to truly forgive, the weight of hurt, anger, and longing for vengeance will start to lift. The chains of your emotional prison will break. Who knows, you could even discover a way to bring some good out of your experience.

Consider the Old Testament story of Joseph, who suffered great cruelty at the hands of his brothers. He had every reason to be bitter and vindictive; no one would have blamed him if he had destroyed his brothers when he had the chance. Yet he rose above his plight in dramatic fashion and he showed mercy instead. “You intended evil for me,” he said to them, “but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid.”

His actions healed a family and left a shining example for the rest of us.

Now, who do you need to forgive?

How to deal with negative reviews

Angry Computer

What do you do when your business gets a negative online review?

Recent numbers show that over 80% of the US population is now online. Of those, a full 90% read online reviews before making a purchase. And of those, 88% trust the reviews they read as much as a personal recommendation. Knowing this, you want to have nothing but 5-star reviews for your business, right?

Actually, no.

Consider your own online research – how do you react if you search a company and find all glowing reviews implying the company practically walks on water? You’re probably really suspicious of every one of those reviews.

After all, nobody is that perfect; 100% positive reviews are automatically suspect. You’re actually more credible if readers see a few unhappy ones here and there. Hopefully a small percentage, but we’re a cynical people and we expect to see the good, bad, and ugly. If the bad and ugly aren’t there, we don’t trust the good.

So, do we just welcome bad reviews with open arms? Well, yes and no. Being criticized is never fun, but it is an opportunity to correct a shortcoming you might never have known about if the review hadn’t been posted. We all makes mistakes, but how we respond to our mistakes is what’s important. Equally important is how we respond when the criticism is unwarranted.

By the way, it’s rarely a good idea to try to get a review taken down. Most review sites won’t even consider it and the reviewer certainly won’t. If you make an attempt, you’ll probably be perceived as a bully trying to hide the truth. Unless the review violates a site’s policies (e.g. profanity) it’s there forever.

Best practices for negative reviews

Following these best practices can help you navigate the rough waters of negative reviews.

Some reviews aren’t worth a response

Some have language or opinions that are clearly irrational or unfair. Some are posted by habitual complainers. Those may be better off left alone. Save your energy for legitimate issues from real customers.

Always be professional and polite

This is a basic tenet of good customer service, and it absolutely applies to online engagement. Show respect, even if the customer doesn’t. Take the high road when you respond and stay positive, brief, and never defensive.

Respond promptly and highlight your strengths

Take the time you need to collect your thoughts and to gather the facts about the complaint, but don’t take too long or it will look like you’re ignoring your customer. A day or so is reasonable. If you’ve dropped the ball with a customer, acknowledge it briefly and assure the customer that it’s not how you normally do business. Point out any policy or expectations your business has for a good customer experience.

Quickly try to move the conversation offline

The longer a dialogue goes online, the greater the chance for it to go sideways. Invite the customer to contact you by phone so you can rectify the situation quickly. Even better, if you know the customer’s identity and contact information, you can be proactive and call the customer.

Don’t feed the trolls

Never argue with anyone online, even if in your heart of hearts you know the customer is in the wrong. You will never look good if you take an adversarial tone, and you could be playing into a troll’s hands. He or she may be baiting you, hoping to suck you into an online “flame war.” You won’t win – you’ll only give that person more ammunition to paint you as the bad guy.

Remember, you’re not answering just the reviewer – you’re speaking to the whole world online. Think of it as having a loudly aggressive customer in a crowded lobby. Everybody is watching you, waiting to see what you do. This is the time to show the world what a class act you are.

What if you suspect the review is a fake?

Most of the time even an anonymous review will contain at least a few details that will help you identify the customer. However, a recent review left us scratching our heads.

negative review screen shotHarsh accusations, but pretty vague at the same time. In this instance we searched our CRM and found no record of this person having been a customer. I spoke with the local manager in the city where the review was posted. Neither the reviewer’s name nor his comments sounded familiar at all to anyone. Regrettably, competitors and disgruntled former employees have been known to drag company names through the mud. It’s not ethical (and it’s almost impossible to prove), but it happens.

If someone does this to you, no matter how badly you want to call the person out, don’t do it. Even if he or she is not your customer, what if he’s taking up for a relative or friend he believes has been wronged? What if your database is missing some critical information? You really don’t want to find that out after you’ve put your foot in your mouth.

But if a reviewer makes false statements, you can state the facts as you know them in a calm and tactful manner. You can point out inaccuracies without calling him out. (On the outside chance the review is legit, you haven’t opened yourself up to a world of trouble.)

Using those guidelines, the next day we posted the following response:

negative review and response

We first politely acknowledged the post. We then briefly stated our commitment to integrity and customer satisfaction. Next – and you really have to get this right – we tactfully stated we didn’t have a record of his being a customer. Finally, we invited the reviewer to speak with us offline where we could address his concerns.

While we believe this was a fake review, we were careful not to say that. Thus the situation doesn’t escalate, the online world sees us responding professionally, and the door is left open for legitimate dialogue.

Do you have other tips for handling negative reviews?

Memorial Day

It’s a terrible thing…

“It’s a terrible thing to die on a battlefield a thousand miles from your home and family.”

I heard that statement during a Memorial Day observance in church yesterday. I’d never heard it put quite that way before and it got my attention.

Most of us are sincere in our effort to remember the people who died while serving in our country’s armed services, especially on Memorial Day. Most of us know someone who has lost a family member even if we haven’t personally suffered a loss.

But hearing this remark put things dramatically into a service person’s perspective for the first time for me. It prompted me to imagine vividly what thoughts might flash through the minds of a mortally wounded soldier and his or her comrades on a battlefield. Give the choice, I would prefer to die at home, or at least close to my family. I imagined the utter loneliness – aloneness, if that’s a word – that must overtake a soldier, knowing he or she would never see home and family again.

That personalized the sacrifice which we endeavor to honor on Memorial Day. It’s a far greater sacrifice than most of us can fathom. Regardless of whether we believe a particular war is just or the cause noble, we stop to honor those sent to battle who didn’t come home.

Who is your starfish

Who is your starfish?

You may know the story of the old man walking on the beach early one morning. A storm had blown through overnight and the beach was littered with thousands of starfish as far as he could see in both directions. Continuing his walk, he noticed a small boy in the distance. As the boy walked along he would stop occasionally, bend down to pick up a starfish, and toss it into the ocean water.

“What are you doing?” the old man asked when he came closer to where the boy stood.

The boy looked up at the old man and replied, “I’m throwing starfish into the ocean. There was a big storm last night that washed them up on the shore. Now that the tide is going out they can’t get back in the water by themselves and they’ll die if I don’t throw them back in.”

“Son, there are probably ten thousand starfish on this beach,” the old man scoffed. “You can’t save them all. Even if you worked all day, you’re really not going to be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down again, picked up another starfish, and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. He smiled at the old man and answered, “It made a difference to that one.”

So, who is your starfish?

I’m willing to bet there’s one around you somewhere. For me at this moment it may be the friend I discovered in a homeless shelter a few nights ago. I can’t solve homelessness even for my immediate community but I’m determined to do something for my friend. At other times it’s been less dire, such as someone who asked what it takes to be in my line of work and what he/she should do to get the necessary experience.

Your starfish might be someone who’s struggled or stumbled in his/her career whom you might be in a position to offer a job or career advice. Perhaps you can introduce someone to your network as they look for a better opportunity. Or maybe you can show a little patience to a young co-worker and mentor him/her in how to succeed in your profession.

No, you probably can’t save all of them, but you absolutely can make a difference to at least one person. Keep your eyes open, look around, and I bet you’ll find your starfish.

Homeless shelter

Old friend at the homeless shelter

I saw an old friend at the homeless shelter last night. It was a bit of a surprise.

I was one of a handful of adults accompanying a church youth group to serve dinner to the shelter’s guests. I could see him approaching as we stood in the hall waiting to wash up and put on our gloves and hairnets. It took me a moment to recognize him, you know, how you can’t place a familiar face when you see it entirely out of context.

He was clearly there for dinner. He spoke as he walked past. “Hi, Chip.” I guess he felt like he had to say something since we’d made eye contact. I said “hi” as he continued down the hall.

Soon the food trays came out to the counter and I stood behind the youth as they began serving guests. He made his way through the line and sat at a table in the small dining area. For ten minutes a debate raged in my mind. Does he wish I hadn’t seen him? Does he hope I’ll leave him alone? Would we both be too uncomfortable if I went over and spoke again? Ultimately I decided it would be worse to do nothing than to risk being rebuffed.

What do you say?

I asked for permission to sit for a moment at his table; he said ok. I searched for something meaningful to say, but what DO you say? How are you? Well obviously not great, he’s eating dinner in a homeless shelter for crying out loud. Good to see you? That sounds trite, and he probably doesn’t think it’s good to be seen there. I fumbled awkwardly, confessing to him that I felt like a dumbass because I didn’t know what to say, but wanted to say SOMETHING. He was gracious but subdued, and not extremely talkative.

Finally I asked how I could pray for him, hoping for something tangible, not wanting to offer the usual hollow I’ll-pray-for-you line. “Right now, anything would be good, really,” came the reply. Fair enough. Not knowing what else to do, I wrapped my arm around his shoulder as I stood to leave and quietly said, “Love you, Brother.”

I moved back behind the counter with the others in my group. He finished his dinner, rose and walked out of the room, never looking in my direction.

I guess we’re done

I figured that was the end of that, but as the time drew near to leave I saw him walk back into the room and sit again. No eye contact. But after several minutes he stood and walked toward me. We chatted more freely this time, even smiling and laughing. He spoke of how proud he is of his daughter who’s graduating from college soon and how he hopes he can make the trip to see her walk across a stage for her degree. I hope so too.

As it was time to go, I reached out and shook his hand, still not sure what to do and feeling mighty inadequate. But hoping that making an old friend laugh was at least better than nothing at all.


(Photo credit: By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Dave Kaylor [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)