A Message for Graduating Seniors: You Can Be a Better Man!

A Senior Success Kit: Five Ways to Help Your Graduate Become a Better Man… and Live a Better Life

Looking for a powerful “parting shot” for your graduating senior? All the old values are new again. Kelly Johnson, editor of A Better Man, explains why lust, power, and greed are out-and good behavior is once again synonymous with success.

It’s “cap and gown” season, and as a parent of a graduating senior, you’re feeling an intense mix of glowing pride and nail-chewing anxiety. Whether your son is headed off to college or entering the workforce, you desperately want him to succeed. Is there a final word of wisdom you can leave with him as he parades across the stage and into an uncertain future? Yes, says Kelly Johnson, and it’s one you won’t mind sharing: A profound shift has taken place in America’s culture and suddenly, character counts again.

“In the wake of Wall Street scandals, bank bailouts, and various corporate wrongdoings, we’re seeing a renewed emphasis on ethics and good behavior,” says Johnson, editor of A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young Men on Love, Power, Pride and What It Really Means to Be a Man (Brandylane Publishers, Inc., 2009, ISBN: 978-1-883911-84-3, $25.95). “It’s not that unethical behavior has ever been promoted, but in the past it has been quietly condoned, or at the very least, people have looked the other way.

“That’s no longer the case,” she adds. “Good behavior is a requirement once again. And what that means for our sons is that educators, employers, and partners will be looking for evidence of those old-fashioned values that used to define manhood-like honesty, hard work, and respect. Those values will lay the foundation for successful careers at school and in the workforce.”

It’s those values, and other positive ones, that Johnson’s book celebrates. A Better Man is a compilation of interviews and essays from some of the most successful and engaging men in America today. Its pages are filled with words of wisdom from men ranging from former military officers to current NBA stars who share the lessons they’ve learned about what it really means to be a man.

Johnson says her book is meant to fill the moral void left by a time-crunched society and a popular culture that celebrates the acquisition of power and money at all costs, not to mention sex, violence, and self-gratification. It’s also the perfect graduation gift from parents, grandparents, teachers, or friends who want to equip the young men they love with the means to become a new generation of heroes.

Life Lessons Johnson’s Book Conveys

1. Be Known for Your Moral Courage

When you think of bravery and heroic acts, you probably picture a fireman pulling a victim from a burning building or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his fellow men. Moral courage is less visible but no less important. It reveals itself in the friend who withholds car keys from an intoxicated peer, the student who refuses to help his friend cheat on a test, or the employee who blows the whistle on an unethical boss. Rather than making the easier choice to go along with the crowd, true heroes and real men, like the ones in Johnson’s book, take the road less traveled.

“If there is one message that I want boys to take away from this book, it’s that nice guys don’t finish last,” says Johnson. “More often than not, they end up being more successful and have lives that are much more fulfilling than those who ignore ethics and work only for their own personal gain. Eventually, the Bernie Madoffs of the world will have their day of reckoning. Whether they get caught or they lose their wealth or families, in the end they are left alone with a path of destruction in their wake. I want our boys to see this end result and to think I want something better for myself than that.”

2. Your Past Does Not Have to Determine Your Future

It’s true that the place we come from and the experiences we have play a role in determining who we become as adults. But what many young men don’t realize is that an underprivileged childhood doesn’t predestine them for a future that’s “more of the same.” We live in a country that is founded on the dream to do better than the generation before us; a land of opportunity where hard work pays off and where redemption is possible. Helping a young man see this truth is one of the greatest graduation gifts you could ever bestow.

“It’s so frustrating to watch this generation of young men accept the life they’ve been given without fighting for something more,” says Johnson. “So many of the men I interviewed for this book didn’t come from great neighborhoods or Ivy League schools, and a lot of them made some pretty major mistakes along the way. Those same boys grew up to be men of honor and integrity, despite their pasts. They are a true testament to what the future generation of men can be, if they will refuse to accept the easy road and strive toward their true destiny.”

3. Have a Hero Complex

Ask any little boy what he wants to be when he grows up and the answer will surely be similar: a fireman, a police officer, an army man-a hero. Sadly, somewhere along the way, boys let go of those dreams and begin to define success through power, glory, and material wealth. Pursuing a career that doesn’t involve saving lives or defending the helpless isn’t any less respectful-or manly, for that matter-but losing the essence of what those little boy dreams mean is a tragedy, asserts Johnson. Being a hero can be as simple as volunteering at the local soup kitchen or becoming a Big Brother-or standing up for the classmate or coworker who’s being mistreated.

“What I want these boys to remember is why they looked up to those heroes in the first place,” explains Johnson. “The men I worked with on this book all shared a common trait-they were heroes-and not because they rushed into a burning building or jumped out of a plane. But because throughout the course of their lives they consistently chose the hard right over the easy wrong; they acted with integrity and honor even in the most difficult of circumstances; and they strove for the best in themselves while treating others with respect. All boys can grow into men who do the same.”

4. Work Toward the Highest Possible Goal

The highest possible goal, even one that seems impossible, is the right kind of goal to go for. As a kid, it’s easy to dream of being the president of the United States, the next great NBA star, or even a future Bill Gates. As life goes on and reality sets in, those dreams are set aside for what seem like more attainable goals. But regardless of where they end up, “better men” are born out of the desire to be something great and to do something important in life. They never lose that goal.

“As parents we struggle with the desire to encourage our kids to dream big with the fear of setting them up for failure,” explains Johnson. “But what I learned from the men in my book is that even when they didn’t reach their ultimate goal in the end, it still paid off. Kids who are working toward a big goal are more likely to stay out of trouble, keep their grades up, and respect the authority of teachers and parents. As you are sending the boy in your life off to college or out in the real world, you can be assured that it won’t matter where his journey ends, because the journey itself will be rich and fulfilling.”

5. Being a Better Man Starts Now

For young men, the life that looms ahead of them feels endless. It’s easy for them to believe they have all the time in the world to chase their dreams and become all they can be. But we adults know differently, don’t we? Time slips away, and before we know it, the distant and far-off future has suddenly become today. That’s why we must emphasize that the journey to being a better man starts now, and no day in the process should be wasted.

“If more young men took the initiative at a young age to live their lives with honor and integrity, it would set a new standard for the generations to follow,” asserts Johnson. “We have to explain to our boys that being a role model doesn’t start when you are an adult. Whether they realize it or not, there are younger siblings, teammates, and peers at school who are watching the way they speak and act. By carrying themselves with dignity now, they can have a tremendous impact on those around them.”

“Becoming a better man doesn’t happen overnight,” Johnson concludes. “Like any good thing, it requires time and patience, and most importantly, a willingness on the part of our boys to strive for something better. If we continue to present them with role models and heroes who they can look up to and emulate, we’ll get them started on the path that leads to success. And as they take those first tentative steps into adulthood, we can rest assured that we’ve pointed them in the right direction.”

About the Editor:

Kelly H. Johnson is an attorney, writer, and the mother/stepmother of five sons and one daughter. She holds a BBA from the University of Notre Dame and a law degree from the College of William and Mary, Marshall-Wythe School of Law. She served as law clerk to the Honorable Harry L. Carrico, then Chief Justice of the Virginia Supreme Court, prior to entering private practice with the law firm Williams, Mullen, Clark and Dobbins. She remained there, in the firm’s litigation department, until becoming a full-time mother.

An occasional lead singer in a local rock band, Ms. Johnson has written for both local and national parenting magazines including Richmond Woman on-line, Memphis Parent Magazine, Charlotte Parent, V Magazine for Women, Fifty Plus, and Family Fun. She is a frequent contributor to the widely distributed Richmond Parents Monthly, and her work appears in the compilations The Imperfect Mom-Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World (Doubleday), It’s a Girl-Women Writers on Raising Daughters (Seal Press), and in the forthcoming Love Wins (SmileyBooks).

Ms. Johnson lives in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, Fred, and their children, who outnumber them three to one.

For more information, please visit www.abettermanbook.com.

About the Book:

A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young Men on Love, Power, Pride and What It Really Means to Be a Man (Brandylane Publishers, Inc., 2009, ISBN: 1883911842, $25.95) is available at bookstores nationwide, from major online booksellers, or direct from the publisher by calling 804-644-3090.

Excerpts from A Better Man: True American Heroes Speak to Young

Men on Love, Power, Pride and What It Really Means to Be a Man

(Brandylane Publishers, Inc., 2009, ISBN: 1883911842, $25.95),

Edited by Kelly H. Johnson

Former President George H.W. Bush

Former President George Herbert Walker Bush looks to his partnership with former President Bill Clinton in offering his heartfelt comment to young men:

“When, in life, you find yourself on opposite sides of an issue from another person or group of persons, I encourage you to engage in the kind of rigorous debate upon which our great country was founded. However, I hope also that you will be mindful never to let those differences become a chasm which you cannot cross for the sake of a greater good. Indeed, ‘a better man’ is one who understands that he can put aside differences without surrendering his beliefs.”

Ambassador Andrew J. Young, Jr. (Civil Rights Leader)

Civil rights icon and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young talks about the night Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated and what he knows for sure about having a purpose in life larger than self-interest:

“I posed a question to the congregation earlier this afternoon. I asked them, ‘Was Martin Luther King a genius?’ Of course the answer to that was a unanimous yes. I followed that up with a second question: ‘Are you a genius? Are you a genius?’ Now the room got quieter; people were unsure of how to respond. But you see, if we say Martin Luther King was a genius without acknowledging that the same genius exists in ourselves, then we risk feeling relieved of the responsibility to pursue our own capacity for greatness.”

“I don’t know how to say it any more plainly. You are not simply this flesh and blood! You are spiritual beings, and because of this, you will not achieve the happiness you desire by living selfishly. You cannot survive like that!”

“Now, does this mean you cannot be successful? Of course not. We formed this business, GoodWorks International, because we felt called to help American businesses get into Africa, and we have been very successful. But before we began, I asked myself, Does this feed the hungry? Does this clothe the naked? Does this heal the sick?-and it does. Business does that. Jobs and work and wages and prosperity do all of those things. Nevertheless, I get criticized all the time for associating with Chevron and Walmart. But to my way of thinking, it is very simple: If we want lights, we need oil. If we want to drive cars, we need oil. It is ultimately very hypocritical to want to live as we do and not want to associate with the companies that allow us to do it.”

“So I say by all means, be successful. Be as successful as you possibly can! But find a way to serve God in your work at the same time, either directly or indirectly.”

Ray Allen (Shooting Guard, 2008 NBA Champion Boston Celtics)

NBA superstar Ray Allen is the holder of numerous all-time shooting and scoring records and is the starting shooting guard for the NBA’s 2008 Championship team, the Boston Celtics. In a thought-provoking interview, he talks to young men about the true measure of a champion and the reasons why all young men should demonstrate respect for women:

“I want young men to see that life is not about the flash and flare. It’s about having an impact on everything around you from your family to your community to the earth. At the end of your days, that inevitable question will rise within you of how well your life was spent. How well did you leave this planet from the time that you were born to the time that you left?”

“Ultimately, in my profession, we’re playing a sport, and that is what the focus is on. But we’re playing a sport that has seen great players before, has seen great players in our time, and will see great players when we’re gone. So we can’t reasonably be judged by our athleticism or by the numbers we put up or the championships we win. What we will be judged by-and judge ourselves by-is how we dealt with our success. How did you come across? How did you make the people around you better? Ultimately, that is what I want kids to see-that this game, like anything else in life, is about the relationships you create. Because once you’re gone, that is what is left. That is what you take with you to sustain you, and that is how you ultimately will be judged. What did you do to make things better? That is the question your life has to answer.”

“So, when it comes to women, I think every man in this world should take the time to make a woman feel better. The good men need to make up for the ones who aren’t doing the right thing. When you see a woman walking across the street-she could be a teacher on her way to work with 30 kids for eight hours, and if you compliment her or help her across the street, she’s going to go to school with that little bit of extra energy for those kids. Or it could be someone’s wife-someone raising children-and that is what society says is our foundation. We hear a lot of concern, ‘The children! The children!’ But children start with a man and a woman, and with a man taking care of a woman. That relationship is so critical, and we don’t teach that. We don’t take it seriously like we should. Ultimately, it will be our downfall.”

Matt Hasselbeck (NFL Quarterback for Seattle Seahawks)

Matt Hasselbeck, starting quarterback for the NFL Seattle Seahawks, redefines what it means to be a “great” man:

“I say, accept the risk of being a leader. Because it is a risk-you’re putting yourself out there. Being a leader isn’t about going with the grain. It’s about ignoring what’s popular and doing what’s right. And nothing about that is easy. It’s not easy to stand up to a group of your friends and say something like, ‘Hey, why are you smoking? That’s not cool.’ It’s not easy to say you’re not going to cheat when people ask you to or you see them doing it. But I’d rather have an honest ‘C+’ than an ‘A’ I got by cheating. Those things aren’t what’s popular; but that’s being a leader, in my opinion. When I go out and talk to young guys, especially young quarterbacks, I’ve really tried to share with them how those things that happen off the football field carry over onto the field. That skill set, and the fact that you’re choosing to act with integrity all the time-it matters. Your teammates see it and, as a quarterback, you need to be that guy in that huddle they know ‘for sure’: They know who you are; they know where you stand; they know what you stand for.”

Tavis Smiley (National Television and Radio Commentator)

Best-selling author and television and radio personality Tavis Smiley gives boys some straight-talk about the media and its undue influence in their lives:

“I think the most important thing that I can share in that regard is how easy it is to be swayed by those images if one does not have a clear image of himself. And so I think that we have to start with two fundamental questions, which are: What is the image that I have of myself? and What is the image I have for myself? The answers to those questions will shift over time, obviously. But that being said, you must know and have thought about the answers to those questions in advance.”

“There is an old adage, ‘It’s not what people call you; it’s what you answer to.’ I find myself consistently saying that to young black men and, in fact, it is something that I would say to any young man. It’s not what people call you; it’s what you answer to.”

Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC (Marine War Hero, Legend, Icon)

Colonel John W. “Rip” Ripley, USMC, was a legendary marine widely regarded as one of America’s greatest war heroes. The recipient of countless personal decorations including the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Legion of Merit awards, and the Cross of Gallantry, he offered his thoughts on what defines true courage:

“I have little doubt that each of you, if asked, would say that when you grow up you would like to be well respected-a man of courage and compassion, someone who treats his fellow human beings with dignity. But in life, the right thing to do is rarely the easy thing to do and, in the end, your ideals are meaningless if the decision to act in accordance with these ideals comes only when there is little or nothing at risk. Courage, whether moral or physical, always comes at a risk and with the expectation of sacrifice. It never comes cheaply.”

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