Wheeler: Five lessons from Newt Gingrich

Dream big. Work hard. Learn something new every day. Enjoy life. Stay true to yourself.

As Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich shared these five principles for a successful life to a group of high schoolers in Raleigh this week, I found myself wondering in what ways his detractors could shred this gift of insight. How gleefully people today rip apart every utterance of a politician not on “their” side, never stopping to actually hear anyone anymore.

Open this present, I was willing the 500 kids around me. Think past the coming prom. Appreciate the fact that you’re sitting in an auditorium in the United States of America, however broken you might believe it is, listening to a presidential candidate offer wisdom. Know that you have choices.

Say what you will about Gingrich’s proposals to privatize Social Security or drill for oil, topics he somehow made interesting to teens and likely will touch on Saturday as the keynote speaker for the Tax Day Tea Party in Raleigh. On this day, to these students, he was inspiring.

Imagine who we might be if we could find something to value in every voice – even a voice that many dismiss because of well-documented personal and professional failings.

By the time Gingrich got to his fourth principle, I was smiling, remembering the conversation I’d had just the previous evening with my soon-to-be high school graduate.

What a blessing, I had told my son, that you have a dream, that you can choose a college major that lets you earn money doing something you love, that you’re ready to work hard to achieve it. The fact that my son had recently returned from a spring break mission trip ministering to Haitian orphans magnified our thankfulness all the more.

Dreams are like vocabularies, though. We can’t reach for things we don’t know exist just as we can’t use words we’ve never heard. The degree to which we believe that current circumstances hamper a young person’s ability to picture the possibilities is one of the things that divide us.

But we can all strive to learn something new every day, even if it’s just to learn all we don’t know.

You have to like the work

In exhorting the students to enjoy life, Gingrich warned that it’s difficult to work hard doing something you hate. “Whatever you’re gonna do,” he said, “you have to like doing it.”

The reality is that we can’t all earn money doing something we love. Sometimes we just have to love taking pride in doing the best job we can. Americans in a position to follow their passions, I told my son, need to appreciate what a gift that is.

It seemed to be a sentiment Gingrich shared as he talked of his life on the campaign trail.

“Six days out of seven, it’s been fascinating,” he said. “I learn all sorts of interesting things. I get up thinking, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen today.’ My whole life has been like that.”

How can you craft a life, he asked, that pulls you forward?

When Gingrich was an assistant professor of history in the early 1970s, he asked his students to pretend it was 60 years later and to write letters of their lives to their grandchildren. Where are you? What have you done? Are you well off? How did you get there?

A satisfying moment

That assignment, he said, created the most satisfying moment he ever had as a teacher.

“A young lady who wrote me said, ‘I was about to get married and live in my small town next to my parents doing exactly what I had done my whole life. When I wrote my biography, I realized what I wanted to do is travel. I broke up with my boyfriend, and now I’m writing you from Australia.’ ”

She learned to be true to herself, Principle No. 5.

Explaining that concept to the kids, Gingrich kept it simple: When you look in the mirror, do you like the person you see?

“You aren’t going to be able to escape from yourself.”

As the ever-urgent campaign season provides even more opportunities for stridency and pettiness, that’s a truth we’d all do well to remember.