Wake Up, America (Before It’s Too Late):
Fifteen Virtues That Can Bring Our Nation Back from the Brink
Worried about the state of our nation? You’re not alone. David and Andrea Reiser, authors of Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth, want to restore America to its former glory—and they know just the values that will take us there.
Hoboken, NJ (October 2010)—Everywhere you look, from talk shows to the office water cooler to the dinner table, you see people wringing their hands about the state of our nation. No wonder: It feels like we’re living through a slow-motion train wreck. Our national debt is out of control. Our politicians are corrupt. Our business leaders are greedy, inept, or both. Our young people are disrespectful and lazy. And a shocking number of citizens are more interested in grabbing entitlements than in working hard to pursue the American dream.
Okay, these unflattering descriptions don’t fit everyone. But if we’re honest, we have to admit they do apply to enough citizens to constitute a problem—a big one. And according to David and Andrea Reiser—coauthors of Letters From Home: A Wake-up Call for Success & Wealth (Wiley, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-4706379-2-0, $27.95, www.ReiserMedia.com)—if we don’t shift our culture back to one that embraces the principles that made our country great, conditions will only worsen.
“It’s hard to deny that America has lost its way,” asserts David. “And there’s not going to be any easy fix. Certainly, we can’t legislate our way back to greatness. We have to find the seeds of that greatness inside us, one person at a time.”
“So many people we talk to feel the way David and I do,” adds Andrea. “What we need is a way to mobilize them—a way to spark a grassroots movement to return our country to its core values.”
That’s the hope that fueled the writing of Letters From Home, a project that’s part cultural treatise and part kick in the pants: for parents, for young people, for influential leaders—really for anyone and everyone who values America and wants to see it restored to its former glory.
Written in the form of letters to the authors’ four sons, the book explores fifteen basic American virtues that built our country and that foster individual success. Each chapter includes profiles of exceptional “real people”—the authors’ wealth management clients, friends, and neighbors—who truly walk the talk.
The Reisers are donating through their publisher 100 percent of the royalties and other income from the book to charity—specifically Share Our Strength (www.strength.org), Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (www.mskcc.org), and FORCE (www.facingourrisk.org).
Here, excerpted from Letters From Home, is a quick look at the virtues the Reisers want Americans to embrace:
Education. Obviously, the way Americans make a living has changed a lot over the past few decades. Our education system needs to change right along with it. John Dodig, principal of Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, the top public high school in the state, wants to transform education to emphasize flexibility and adaptability. This, he believes, is the only way our young people will be able to compete in a global marketplace.
“These kids need the ability to think on their feet, solve problems, and learn something new at the drop of a hat,” he contends. “So my corporation goes out of business? I don’t care; I’ll get another job. Or: You’re not going to make widgets anymore—you’re going to make that? Fine. Give me the manual. I’ll read it; I’ll teach myself how to do it.”
Hard Work. Too many Americans expect the maximum return for a bare minimum investment of “elbow grease.” Eli Zabar is the antithesis of this mindset. The youngest son of Russian immigrants, he is living proof of what can happen when you’re born into a hardworking family and internalize their values. Zabar has established himself as an esteemed icon of the New York City gourmet food world through his proprietorship of numerous markets, restaurants, and other operations. And he keeps his nose as firmly to the proverbial grindstone now as he did when he was just starting out in the early 1970s.
“Every day I feel there are so many things that are left undone, and that I’m still trying to get right,” he explains. “We change a display, we make a new recipe…and that makes everything else in place have to change, too.” Beyond that, Zabar is careful to emphasize that he literally has a hand in every pot: “I don’t put a value on whether one job is more important or more valuable, and another job is less valuable.” And yes—the boss works weekends, too.
Recognizing Opportunity. Many people seem to think that life owes them what they need, when they need it, on a silver platter—and that they shouldn’t have to go looking for opportunity. However, businessman Tim Brabham knows that such an attitude probably won’t propel you very far. Since graduating college in the early 1990s, he has held progressively more challenging positions at companies all over the United States. Brabham has learned that actively looking for the next great thing, combined with hard work and self-marketing, is a surefire formula for attracting opportunity.
“I vowed that in the future, when I started…running out of growth opportunities within a company, I would not make the mistake again of riding it out for too long and getting too comfortable within my role,” Brabham says of a lesson learned after leaving one position. “I…told myself…that given the opportunity for something that made sense from a career perspective and for my family, I wouldn’t be complacent and hesitant to move on that again in the future.”
Realistic Vision. America is full of folks who are sure that they’re the next big reality TV star…or inventor…or corporate mogul. Problem is, they’re living in a dream world, and their inflexibility more often causes them to crash and burn than to achieve success. Matt and Kate Jennings know that taking small steps, staying realistic, and constantly refining “the plan” will carry you much closer to your dreams. The result for them? Their passion for food has slowly and steadily grown into an artisan cheese shop and two popular restaurants in Rhode Island.
What’s more, the Jennings’ plans for the future continue to evolve. Ultimately, the entrepreneurial couple dream of creating an environment that includes a retail shop for artisan food, wine, and boutique beer, as well as a restaurant and an education center in which to hold culinary classes. “I just thrive on bringing people together and celebrating the conviviality of what a great food experience can be,” says Matt. Now that’s a truly delicious vision!
Integrity. What is integrity, anyway? The Reisers describe it as “the quality that locks in your core convictions and causes you to live consistent with them, like a personal code of honor. Having integrity requires establishing a strongly held set of beliefs and basing your decisions and choices on these values and principles.” In other words, when you have integrity, you stick to your guns. You keep your word. You meet commitments.
The word perfectly describes Ellis Waldman, a Providence, Rhode Island, business owner (Walco) and community leader. Whether he’s spending a decade developing a groundbreaking piece of equipment or taking a stand on a controversial issue, he displays a fierce determination to see his commitment through to the end. For example, despite vigorous opposition to a Jewish assisted living residence, he persisted in his vision until the facility was completed. (It’s had a constant waitlist since it opened in 2003.)
“If there’s something that’s important and that I believe in, I’m not going to stop,” he says. “I think if you believe in something and are determined, there will be a way to accomplish it.”
Positive Attitude. Negativity is draining. It repels people. It squelches hope and blinds us to the possibilities that exist all around us—particularly harmful at a time when Americans most need to be positive and resourceful. And it’s especially shameful to hear people gripe and complain when you know someone like Marucha Andrzejewski. Forced to leave her native Cuba with nearly nothing as a young woman in 1962, she has more reason than most to sink into sadness. However, she has found that you can achieve a lot more—and be much happier—if you choose to look forward and move forward with hope.
“There is not a day that I don’t think about either the music or my childhood,” Andrzejewski says of her native country. However, she has embraced her new home and chosen not to live in the past. “I realize what I didn’t have back there—not the material things, but the freedom that my children were born with here…I appreciate this country. I love it more than a lot of Americans who were born here.”
Resilience. Yes, times are tough right now. Lots of people have lost jobs. Some have lost their homes. Others have seen their retirement portfolios decimated. Yet, as bad as things are for America as a collective nation, as individuals we still have the prerogative to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and get back in the race. But in order to do that, we have to have resilience, and too many people these days seem to lack it. They need to take a cue from New Yorker Patrick Ciriello.
Despite losing his job and a large portion of his savings in the recent Great Recession, Ciriello sprang into action. He streamlined his family’s finances, and when no new positions appeared on the horizon, he decided to use the transferrable skills he had gained as a commercial mortgage banker to blaze a trail as a financial advisor.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time feeling sorry for myself. Maybe a day,” Ciriello recalls of his layoff. “You’ve got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and figure it out.” He reflects that, “There are going to be times when things certainly don’t go my way, or things are going to happen that I don’t like. I just think you have to fight through the obstacles. You have to take something negative and turn it into a positive or a strength.”
Accountability. Sadly, the breed of men and women who keep their words and accomplish their responsibilities—no matter what—seems to be dwindling. Mike Nardone stands squarely in the middle of that dependable group. Despite witnessing—and surviving—the horrors of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks from one building away, he felt a deep obligation to his employer and his colleagues, and kept pushing forward on that dreadful day and in the uncertain days that followed.
“When that sort of stuff happens, people either respond or they don’t,” Nardone reflects. “So I immediately started working the phones. I started reconnecting with my colleagues…I knew that I had a set of responsibilities…I’ve been that way my whole life. Just keep it simple, don’t try to be a hero, just focus on what’s in front of you and what you can control.” A year after the attacks, Nardone received a promotion. He now realizes that, “I ended up being seen as somebody who…focused on what had to get done. I know for a fact that it leap-frogged me above other people.”
Self-Discipline. We Americans have collectively lost the ability to delay gratification. (Hence, among other things, the debt epidemic our country is plagued with.) Amy and Howie Blustein don’t follow that trend, though. They choose to live a prudent lifestyle, maintaining as little debt as possible, taking the time to think about what they really want and spending their money accordingly. That means “wants” (like a new kitchen for “home chef” Howie) often have to take a back seat to more pragmatic needs.
“You know, if we really, really wanted to, we could just go out and do the kitchen right now—take out a $75,000 home equity loan and do the kitchen. But right now it’s more important to us to know that we can…start the kids off to college comfortably.”
Choices. When it comes to spending, saving, budgeting, and debt, it’s all about choices.
Patience. They say that good things come to those who wait…the catch is, most people aren’t willing to wait. Sure, it’s often tough to remain patient, but as Mary and Alberto Lobo have learned, having an achievable goal makes the wait more bearable. Originally from Portugal, the couple started their life in America with almost nothing. Knowing that they wanted to leave a significant legacy to their children and grandchildren, the Lobos saved and invested as much as they could, little by little. And their patience paid off.
“I feel grateful,” offers Mary. “If I have it, it’s because I saved it. We accumulated money by working hard and saving. It wasn’t handed to me. It makes me feel good to know that when something, God forbid, happens to us, my kids and grandkids have over $3 million tax-free.” Seems that good things do come to those who wait.
Harmonious Balance. These days, the “American Way” seems to be overextending, overworking, and overcommitting. And—shocker—it’s resulting in a lot of burned-out, unhappy people. Finding a way to balance it all is tough, but San Franciscan Stefani Phipps proves that it can be done. She has created two very different selves: “Work Stefani” (a highly successful banker) and “Life Stefani” (a woman who plays the harp, dances, has been to culinary school, and travels often). What’s more, Phipps has woven Work Stefani and Life Stefani together into one unique and fulfilled individual.
“I’m lucky that I make a great income doing what I do. But it is not my life,” Phipps explains. “My priorities are people, family, and health. So on a day-to-day basis, I take my health seriously, because without that, forget it, so that is why I eat well and exercise. And any person who needs me gets my time. I am never too busy.”
Kindness. In our every-man-for-himself society, being nice has become the exception rather than the rule. And that’s too bad, because as Meredith Fried knows, when you give of yourself, you get manifold benefits in return. In addition to “collecting” friends because of her natural positive energy and empathy, Fried spends much of her spare time helping and providing support to women who are facing breast cancer, which she herself has beaten. It’s not your typical help-an-old-lady-across-the-road example of an act of kindness (though Fried would do that too)—but it’s just as meaningful.
“For me, mentoring is a way that I can give back,” she explains. “I’m happy to share, and I like helping people. I think I understand the importance of listening, and I appreciate the fact that people have been there to do that for me, so it’s one of those pay-it-forward things.” Although Fried herself doesn’t consider her kindness to be heroic, that’s exactly what it is to those who are fortunate enough to call her “friend.”
Gratitude. We Americans have so much. The vast majority of us have a place to live, regular meals, and family and friends who love us. We have the freedom to do whatever we want with our lives. And yet, rather than feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the abundance in our lives, when people ask, “How are you?” we often answer with an empty, “Fine,” or a pathetic, “Terrible!” (followed by some self-centered whining). Instead, we should follow the lead of a young man to whom David and Andrea Reiser asked that question as he worked at Zabar’s deli counter.
The Reisers recount: “His unexpected answer stopped us both cold. ‘Blessed,’ he replied. He saw that he had stunned us, and went on to explain. ‘I go home to a warm bed. There’s food on my table. I have running water and I can take a hot shower. I am blessed.’ …How powerful, gratitude. A simple, truthful, one-word answer became a seminal moment for us,” they write.
Courage. Playing it safe is, well, safe…but this country wasn’t built by men and women who shied away from risk. We can all learn a lesson from them, and from their modern counterpart Alysa Mendelson Graf. Graf left behind a successful law career (for which she had prepared her entire life) to become a rabbi—her true heart’s desire. Was it scary? Definitely. But now Graf’s life—and due to her courageous decision, the lives of numerous others—has been changed for the better.
“I really do believe the only thing that could stop me is myself,” Graf shares. “And that’s what stops any of us. It’s sometimes hard to believe in yourself…[but] I’m glad I did it. I love what I do…I’m living my dreams. And those dreams include a wonderful husband, three delicious little boys, and a great job.”
Living Without Regrets. It’s disheartening to think of how many Americans come to the end of their lives with major regrets. If they had allowed themselves to act on their desires, what might they have accomplished? And how might our country be different? In Letters From Home, the Reisers profile a woman who, dissatisfied with her White House policy-writing job, decided to see what would happen if she followed her dreams.
Who was this woman? None other than Ina Garten, better known as the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa! With no prior experience, Garten bought a specialty food shop in the Hamptons in 1978 and pursued her true passion, running the successful and wildly popular shop for almost 20 years. She has since written numerous bestselling cookbooks and attracted countless viewers to her well-loved cooking show.
“It took me a long time to realize taking a risk always turned out really well,” recalls Garten. “You don’t figure out what to do while you’re on the side of the pond. You have to get into the pond, splash around, figure out what the pond feels like, and then go in some direction—or get…out of the pond once you know that it’s not the right pond. But you can’t do it from the sidelines.”
If you think re-indoctrinating an entire nation is an overwhelming task, you’re right. So don’t think of it that way, advise the Reisers. Instead, think in terms of making values-centered inroads in your own circle of influence—be it your family, your friends, your school, your workplace, or wherever.
“Our hope is that people will read our book, think about its lessons, and figure out ways to apply them to their own lives,” says Andrea. “We want them to say, ‘Well, lately I have been griping a lot instead of being grateful for all I have,’ or, ‘You know, maybe I am teaching my kids to be lazy and entitled.’ And then, we want them to commit to making a change.”
“We can all stand to make improvements and live more consciously,” adds David. “And if enough people make the effort, then collectively, we can shift an entire culture. Yes, it’s an ambitious goal, but if any country is up to it, it’s America.