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Mister Rogers at the factory

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Ten years after his death, Fred Rogers is a social media sensation. It’s chiefly because of a beautiful quote he once said about how to talk to children in a time of crisis.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.” – Sourced from fredrogers.org

It’s easy to understand why so many people feel comforted by Fred Rogers’ constructive advice about traumatic news, like the Newtown shootings or the Boston Marathon bombings. But there was so much more to Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

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I want to talk about another memory I have of watching Mister Rogers when I was a child. It was a recurring feature of the show: The factory tour.

A typical segment would be something like this. Mister Rogers would be seen speaking on the phone, arranging to go visit a place in his neighborhood where something was made. Say graham crackers, or mushrooms, or milk, or violins. Then we’d go with him to a factory where he’d put on a hat, and talk to another person in a hat about the machines and what they did. Footage of the machinery would roll as they talked. Then, as Mister Rogers said goodbye and thank you, the factory man would tell Mister Rogers he had a gift for him. What would it be? Why of course: A little carton of mushrooms to take home.

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For a kid, this was a treat to the eyes, ears, and brain: Watching big machines at work, hearing smart people talk about their purposeful work, and learning that products didn’t just appear at the store through magic.

Mister Rogers knew it was important for kids to learn where stuff comes from. Knowledge of how things work makes you a more functional participant in the world. Curiosity pays off.

And the factory owners he met on his tours demonstrated two simple qualities that are surprisingly rare and valuable in business.

1. They were proud of their work.
2. They could explain what they did in language simple enough for a child to understand.

This made such an imprint on me as a kid that even today I distrust any business that fails to meet these two basic steps. If you aren’t proud of your work or can’t tell me what you do, I immediately get cautious. When we’re trying something new at work, I sometimes think to myself, “Are we proud of this? Can we explain it in simple language?” If the answer isn’t yes, it’s time to ask some hard questions.

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On April 24 in Savar, Bangladesh, an unsafe building collapsed. At least 397 people died, though the total death toll is still undetermined.

That building was a factory used to make clothes sold in American stores.

Most of the stuff we buy is made in factories like that one.

Today, the global economy is so complicated that businesspeople are removed from the consequences of their decisions by great distances and many layers of outsourcing. The result is low bidders win even if they disregard human lives.

We are all participants in this mess, and we need to fix it. We could use more of Mister Rogers’ wisdom.

(Video grab via YouTube.)

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Television

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