Fred Rogers was a man who was as genuine in his personal life as he was onscreen to the millions of children and adults who watched his publicly broadcasted show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” during the 1960’s and 70s.
His impact on our culture has endured. The new moving documentary on his worldview and career — “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — is out now on iTunes and other streaming services. In it, you watch Rogers, a Presbyterian minister by training, take his lessons to television, creating a show that addressed personal, political and family issues that young children faced with grace and dignity.
The film opens with Rogers on his piano, saying that he aimed “to help children through the modulations of life” as he put it, but by the end of the film, you realize the profound effect he had on adults too.
Here are lessons we can apply from the film to our own professional lives:
Take all the people you work with seriously
“I don’t think anyone can grow unless he really is accepted as he is,” Rogers says in the film. Watching Rogers patiently wait for a young girl to speak, or sing about acceptance with a young quadriplegic boy in his show, you realize that Rogers respected the dignity of children’s struggles.
It’s a lesson that we can carry into our own lives to meet people where they are in life, and accept them for where they are in their careers.
Diffuse tension by remembering the mission
In one scene, we watch Rogers testify in a 1969 congressional hearing on public funding for shows like his. John Pastore, one of the senators listening, already looks bored and acts dismissive towards Rogers before he has started speaking.
But Rogers does not let Pastore’s skepticism distract him from going forward. He is calm yet confident as he explains what he does: “I give an expression of care every day to each child.” It’s a reminder that we can manage our emotions even if other people around us at work cannot manage theirs.
He explains the stakes of his message of acceptance by reciting one of his songs: “What do you do with the mad that you feel / When you feel so mad you could bite?”
By the end of the speech, his gentle yet firm explanation about why his show matters to children has effectively disarmed the senator and won him over. “I think it’s wonderful,” Pastore says at the end. “I think it’s wonderful.” Rogers got the $20 million in funding.
Use silence to your advantage
Rogers knew the value of timing and was willing to stay silent to get his message across. In one episode of his show, we watch him run an egg timer for sixty seconds to show children just how long a minute was.
Rogers was a methodical teacher who understood the power of silence. As critic David Bianculli points out in the film, Rogers was comfortable with saying little and listening more to guests and children speak. By keeping silent, it would encourage visitors to open up more.
If you find yourself rushing to speak in a meeting, try slowing down the pace of a conversation, and make room for pauses and silence.
When the final credits rolled for my theater and the lights went up, many of the audience members, including myself, were blinking back tears. The ending of the documentary is cathartic and designed to crack open your heart.
The scene uses archival footage of Rogers’s 2001 commencement speech at Middlebury College as he was near the end of his life. In it, Rogers asks the audience to take a minute of silence to think of the extra special people who “cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you.” After the minute passes, and our minds are brimming with memories, he says, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about: just imagine how grateful they must be that you remember them when you think of your own becoming.”
The practice of giving thanks is scientifically proven to activate the production of dopamine and serotonin in our brains and uplift our moods. When we remember to pay attention to good in the world around us, we rewire our brains and expand our hearts.
I left the theater grateful for my family and for Rogers, for helping me remember that “It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood.”