Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men, and anyone else that's interested.

Posts posted in 2018

My sons,

It’s been said that the virtue that leads to all other virtues is gratitude. I love that sentiment, whether it’s true or not. I’m sure that by now, you both know people that are generally very happy and content with life, as well as people that can’t be satisfied and are upset with everything under the sun.

No one looks at a complaining person and a happy person and actively decides that they want to be more like the complainer. That’s just the truth of it. None of us grow up wanting to be whiny, complaining, discontent people. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” - these are the very principles that our great nation is founded upon. We all want to pursue happiness, and want to have it in abundance.

Gratefulness plays a huge role in that.

If you look a little closer, I’m willing to bet that a common thread among those that are happy is that they’re also very grateful people. A couple of reasons for that.

Gratefulness causes you to think outside yourself.

A heart of gratitude causes you to be regularly thinking about the things that you’re thankful for, and keeps your mind off of yourself and on others. It keeps you being thoughtful about the external; about how others are feeling, about their actions and intentions.

By thinking about others, the altitude of your view gets higher. You get used to thinking about spheres outside your own. Your world becomes bigger.

Gratefulness causes you reflect on the beauty in your life.

When we stop to acknowledge the good that others have done in our lives, we stop moving, if only for a moment. This world that we’re living in is incredibly fast paced and is constantly trying to drown out any silence that gives you room to reflect. But taking the time to reflect on the many things we have to be thankful for, the many things that are beautiful, rich, and wonderful about our lives regularly; that truly is a great thing.

Gratefulness gives you the space to make mistakes.

When you approach your life with a heart of gratitude, it creates the space for the imperfections of humanity to breathe, to air out, to be released. So often we’re concerned about looking perfect, sounding perfect, appearing like we’ve got perfect lives on social media. We don’t give ourselves the space for the truth that is humanity - we’re not perfect. We’re not idyllic. We have flaws.

Gratefulness allows us to recognize that others can contribute to our lives, and in so doing allow us the space to recognize that we need others and aren’t perfect.

And so my prayer for you is that you will live lives that have an abundance of things to be grateful for, that are characterized by happiness, joy, and thankfulness. Hopefully when you read this, we’ve continued our nightly traditions of sharing three things that we’re thankful for each day. I started that with you several years ago in an attempt to set a regular pattern in all our lives of being grateful, and I pray that we’re still continuing with that tradition to this day. I love you boys.


My sons,

We live in a noisy world. The growing allure of cities that never sleep, the 24/7 nature of online communities, the endless stream of echo chamber social media updates, the constant notifications and interruptions brought about by our connected devices; these make moments of true silence a scarcity, or even a rarity. Our world prides itself on being able to entertain us and hold our interest at all hours of the day with anything and everything that we may desire at the tip of our fingers. Instant messaging, same-day shipping, fast-food services; all of these reinforce the man-made belief that we are extraordinarily busy, and that any moment spent without a pressing action to take is a wasted one.

When I was younger, I read a beautiful essay titled “The eloquent sounds of silence” by Pico Iyer that spoke to me as much then as it does now, and speaks volumes on the topic. Masterfully written, the essay begins by describing the nobility and loftiness that our thoughtful selves identify with silence. Quoting Herman Melville, he begins:

“All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence.
[It] is the general consecration of the universe. Silence is the invisible laying on
of the Divine Pontiff’s hands upon the world. Silence is the only Voice of our God.”

It is no accident that the greatest honor we can pay someone is a moment of silence. Sacred places are purposefully silent. Reverent places. Honored places.

When one visits the 9/11 memorial at the World Trade Center, one is instantly transported to a place of honor, of grave silence, of respect and admiration for those that lost their lives and to those that gave them to save another. In that silence, in that reverent space, one’s words and thoughts cease and make room for emotion and feeling to rush in. It is in falling silent that we allow ourselves to truly feel. It is in that space that the most beautiful and divine elements of humanity can be experienced.

And yet silence is something that at best eludes us and at worst terrifies us. We are constantly seeking to drown out the silence with noise. We prefer the bustle, the white noise, the incessant notifications of a busy life.

“In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think;
but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think,
and so sink below ourselves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows.”

Perhaps we fear the things we cannot control. Perhaps the thought of something deeper than our consciously controlled thoughts terrifies us. Or perhaps, hopefully, our avoidance of silence is not a conscious one and is therefore one that we can remedy. Perhaps all it takes is a bit of desire and some strong intention to allow ourselves to be silent, to allow ourselves to be taken to that transcendent place that allows us to simply be.

“In love, we are speechless; in awe, we say, words fail us.”

Beautiful.


My sons,

Someone once said that the true measure of a life is how much of it is given away. I’m not sure if that’s the only measure, but it’s certainly a very noble one, and is one worth considering.

While the argument can be made (and certainly has been) that those in fortunate positions ought to be generous with what they’ve got, I want to go further and suggest that we remove the precondition. People ought to be generous with what they’ve got, regardless of their station in life. There are the obvious altruistic reasons for this, but it turns out there are a lot of benefits for the generous individual as well.

Focus on others

Being generous causes us to think of others. It takes our eyes off ourselves and instead allows us to consider someone else, to consider their needs, to consider how to help move their lives forward. By thinking of others and pouring into their lives, we necessarily need to know how and what to pour in; requirements that can only be fulfilled by us shifting our gaze from ourselves onto others.

Growth mindset

Whether we’re giving time, resources, or our energy, generosity naturally fosters a growth mindset. We pour into others to help them grow, to help them be filled, and to move their lives forward towards fulfillment. And with any habit, the more we practice this, the more our brains will be rewired towards that mindset.

Perspective

Have you ever noticed that the happiest people you know are also the most generous? They may not be the richest people, the smartest, or the ones with the most time and uncomplicated life, but they are generally quite generous with whatever resource it is that they’ve got. No matter their station or circumstance, I’m willing to bet that when you enumerate those in your life that you know of that are truly happy, they’re also very generous with anything and everything that they’ve got.

This isn’t an accident. The more generous a person is, the more perspective on life they get. Because generosity requires us to pour into people, requires us to loosen the hold on the things that are ours, and requires us to consider others, we see things from a different vantage point. We view ourselves against the backdrop of humanity on a whole and are able to get a glimpse of the big picture. And that’s a very humbling experience. When we see ourselves on the canvas of the world painted on the timeline of history, we realize that while our individual part is incredibly significant and meaningful, we are but a small part of a much more important whole.

And so I urge the two of you to view yourselves on that canvas, and to see the role that you can play as a part of the bigger picture. In being generous, not only do you sharpen your view of yourself and of the world, but you see the movement and growth of the world that you can play a bigger part in. Our generosity allows the world to move forward, to heal, to rebuild, to refine, and to redefine. And those are all beautiful things worth giving our lives for.


My sons,

There are times when life feels simply like a grind. Too much work to do, too many books to read, too much study left with topics to learn. In those times, it is easy to feel like life is an endurance exercise, that it is something to be endured.

We’re told that our endurance is rewarded. We’re told that studying hard in school means that we’ll be rewarded with a great job. When we start that great job, we’re told that working hard will allow us to advance quickly and will give us the freedom and purchasing power to enjoy the fruits of our labor. Then we have kids and we’re told that we need to invest in our kids and give them every opportunity. Following this train of thought, the point at which we stop enduring and stop working incredibly hard is the day that we retire.

And then we can enjoy life.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m not at all suggesting that working hard is a bad thing, and that perseverance and grit aren’t noble characteristics; quite the opposite. I want you to grow up as steadfast men, as men that have grit and perseverance, as men that stand up for the right things and fight the good fight. But I also want you to grow up as balanced men, men that recognize when it’s time to be running the race, but also when it’s time to be having fun, enjoying life and love, creating joy, and experiencing freedom.

Life should not only be an endurance exercise.

Even in our physical exercise, we’re told to take breaks. Just as the body needs time to rehydrate, to recover, and to refuel, so too do our souls need that time. Push hard, yes. Go big, yes. But make sure that you don’t work so hard that you forget what it’s like to have fun. Make sure you’ve got people by your side that you can have the time of your life with, who will be there to shoulder the load with you when you can’t carry it alone, who will be there to jump off a cliff with you when you desire it, and who will laze by the pool with you when you need it.

My hope is that you can be that for each other, that you can help keep each other balanced. Run the race together, yes. But also celebrate the victory together. I pray there are many of those for you both. I love you boys.


My sons,

Something that corporate America puts a large emphasis on is this concept of owning outcomes. It is so deeply rooted in our professional culture that at the time of my writing this, the exact phrase “owning outcomes” is one of the things that my company measures my performance on.

We are a capitalist culture that is hyper focused on outcomes, on the output of the individual, the team, the company. So much so that we’ll often sacrifice other things to get the results that we want.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I believe that owning your outcomes is a good thing. It’s good to be intentional, to be deliberate, to have the organizational mindset that enables planning for success and for achievement. But as always, too much of a good thing can and likely will become a bad thing, and I believe that we’ve gone overboard with this notion of owning outcomes. Here’s why.

First, when we put ownership of outcomes so much higher than other attributes such as empathy, balance, and mature judgment, we miss out on the fact that in pursuit of those outcomes, we may in fact cause pain to others. We ignore the fact that we may be causing a natural imbalance that has other rippling effects. And we may not spend the time to thoughtfully assess the impact of our actions on other areas of our concern.

Second, when we focus too much on outcomes, we lose sight of the fact that in the journey of life, the destination isn’t the only important thing. We are sometimes so incredibly focused on where we want to be, what experiences we want to have, what the notch on our belt or the line item on our resume will be that we forget to take into consideration who we are becoming. How will these experiences and choices shape the men that we are becoming, the values that we are acquiring, and the natural inclination to repeat these choices in the future?

Lastly, when we focus on outcomes, people become an afterthought at worst, a resource or asset to tap at best. And resources over time tend to be exploited selfishly for their worth to us.

So my challenge to you today is to recognize that while planning well and having a thoughtful strategy for your life is a good thing, ultimately the outcome is out of our control. Be content with the way you handle factors that are in your control; factors like the way that you respond to stressful situations, or the patience you have with the person who cut you off. Don’t focus so much on the outcomes here, because chances are, many of these outcomes aren’t as important as the men that you are becoming.


My sons,

We are, as a society, largely concerned with goals and milestones. We are greatly focused on hitting the next checkpoint, the next marker on the path towards the target, the journey that we’ll need to take to get there.

And yet we never talk about what happens once we do in fact, get there, wherever that happens to be.

I absolutely love grand, epic stories. I love reading about the internal struggle that the hero must overcome in order to be victorious against the external. I love that epic ending, that dramatic finish. And yet something that often gets missed is what happens afterwards. The evil king is overthrown and the people come back to power. The hero slays the dragon and saves the princess. The long lost son returns home. The aliens are defeated and the world is saved. The crisis is averted, and the world returns to normal. Roll credits.

What these stories never mention is what happens afterwards, in the years following victory! What happens when there are no more foes to defeat, no more hills to climb, no more beachheads to conquer?

The truth is that we don’t write books or make movies about that part because it’s boring. It’s unremarkable. We want the adrenaline rush that culminates in the big resolve after the final conflict.

But life isn’t just about that.

In fact, I’ll argue that most of life isn’t about that at all, and instead of those mountaintop experiences where the camera pans out behind us and depicts the grand and epic army ahead of us to conquer, most of life is actually spent in the valleys where one patch of flowers is indistinguishable from the countless others.

While character traits like courage and boldness are needed on the mountaintops, it is character traits like persistence, grit, resolve, and collaboration that are needed in the valleys. These are the traits that allow us to persevere, that allow us to slow down and run the long race. These are traits that move us from a place of reaching for the latest and the greatest, the glitzy and the glamorous, to a place where we can be content and satisfied being right where we are.

There are a number of reasons why we ought to have this change in perspective:

  1. By removing our hyper focus on the top of the mountain and allowing ourselves to pan out and see the surrounding landscape, we’ll see many things that we weren’t able to notice before. Things that may not have seemed important, or may be smaller in comparison. Things that didn’t stand out, or weren’t clearly in focus. We’ll be able to see these things, and we’re able to derive joy from them.
  2. We’re able to see people. Often our hyper focus on the goal causes us forget that there are people around us that are affected by our actions, and that need our attention, support, and care. Shifting our focus allows us to see these people more clearly.
  3. We’re able to sustain our pace. Life is not a sprint; it is a marathon. By learning to persevere and persist in times when your adrenaline isn’t rushing and flooding your system, we’re able to pace ourselves and sustain. The long game doesn’t only require the ability to run fast; it requires the discipline to know when to push hard and when to relax and recover. It calls for balance and for wellness. It demands rest.

While I’m not at all saying that we shouldn’t reach for the stars and strive for the mountaintops, I do believe it is equally important that we learn how to slow down, and more importantly, how to tell when we need to switch between the two.

Because while it’s the mountaintops that offer breathtakingly epic views, it’s in the valleys that the flowers grow.

And so my prayer for you boys is that not only will you encourage each other to run and push as hard as you can when it is appropriate to do so, but that you can also rest, rejuvenate, slow down, and take the time to see the details of what’s going around you.


My sons,

We live in an age where leadership is a quality that is expected at every level. From an early age, children are engrained with the notion that they are all expected to be leaders. They are taught the qualities and characteristics of a leader, and are put in situations where they are expected to demonstrate leadership. Then they go to college and are told that leaders are to be esteemed, and that they are the leaders of tomorrow.

It’s quite clear that leadership - and the attributes and character traits that go along with it - is highly regarded. It behooves us, therefore, to dig in and learn about this topic; to consider, to study, to debate, and to discuss, and in so doing, deeply enhance our own understanding of what it means to be a leader.

It is said that the true measure of a man is not how he treats his equals or his superiors, but rather how he treats those who are inferior to him. This inferiority can come in many forms; an inferiority in status, station in life, accomplishment, or even ability. It could be the cashier at the checkout stand, or the bellman who takes your bags. It could be the new college hire on your team, or the person who restocks the snacks in the office pantry. It could even be the customer service agent you had to call because their company messed up your order.

The truth is that the way we treat these people speaks volumes to our character. Treating those who may be beneath us with dignity and respect says a few things, especially to those in our organizations.

  1. It says that we believe everyone has the same intrinsic value. We tell people who may be in our organization that regardless of their current role, we will treat them with respect and will distinguish evaluating their work from evaluating them.

  2. It says that we believe our current role as the manager is a job role and not a value judgment. As a manager, we are not worth more and are not valued more; rather, our role and responsibilities are simply different than theirs.

  3. It says that we will not judge a book by its cover, and will take the time and the care necessary to get to know people. It says that we will demonstrate the thoughtfulness and empathy needed as we evaluate them.

And if these aren’t enough, remember that as leaders we are examples to those we lead!

“Attitude reflects leadership, captain” ~ Remember the Titans

When we treat the least and the last with dignity and respect, we not only set ourselves up for success as leaders, but we influence those that we lead to do the same. And that, truly, is a mark of a great leader!


My sons,

Over the past few years, we’ve spent a bunch of time talking about the grand and the lofty. We’ve talked about attributes and character traits that are expansive, traits that encourage big picture thinking and visioning. Today we’re going to talk about something quite different and yet just as important, if not more so.

Mankind was created to move forward. We were made with this celestial imprint on our lives that drives us to dream, to innovate, to invent, and to create. But sometimes, the path to get there isn’t easy, and is filled with hardship, with opposition, with trials, and with people who would see us fail. It is a truism that our lives will not be easy, and it is a certainty that when we endeavor to elevate our thoughts and actions that we will face opposition that will attempt to pull us back down.

It is in those times that we need to have grit.

Grit is the ability to dig deep and to persist in your endeavors. It is the ability to remain steadfast in your convictions and your beliefs, and to stay on the path that you’ve determined to travel. It is the trait that enables us not to give up, not to abandon our aim, no matter how hard things get.

That’s not to say that being stubborn and set in the path that you’re taking excuses all else. Being steadfast doesn’t excuse bad behavior, and doesn’t give us permission to treat others without respect. Quite the contrary - having grit says that not only do we stick to our path, but we stick to our character as we hold the line.

There are those that abandon their posts when the going gets rough. Of those that don’t, there are those that stay and yet complain about it and have a poor attitude towards everyone, believing that because of their resoluteness, they have the right to look down on others.

And then there are those that stay and elevate the situation and all those around them. They stay the course; both the course that they’ve physically set out on, as well as the course to maintain their integrity and their values while the trials come.

That’s grit.

Not the people who can endure any hardship, but the people who can endure those hardships without compromising their beliefs, their integrity, their character, their praiseworthiness.

And that’s my prayer for the both of you. Life will get hard; there is no doubt about that. But my prayer is that not only will you be able to stay the course, but that you will be unwavering in your moral character as you do.


My sons,

I watched a movie once which had a great line in it. I don’t remember which movie, or whether it was a good movie or not, but this one line stuck out to me:

”True darkness is not an absence of light. It is the conviction that the light will not return”

I found that not only to be an extremely beautiful and poetic line, but also an insightful one. Life often brings about hardship, and we may occasionally feel down or discouraged in our situation. Certainly I’ve had moments which I thought were rock bottom for me - moments where I lost hope, moments where I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, moments where I truly felt lost in the dark. And yet despite that, I still believed in that age-old mantra, ”even still, things will get better”.

The key then, is to determine what we do in those times of darkness, of despair, of hopelessness. Do we succumb to it, allowing it to envelope us and draw us into a downward spiral where we eventually will not only be unable to see the light, but will become convinced that the light will not return? Or do we hold steadfast to the belief that in spite of this, things will get better?

There’s a beautiful hymn that I love called “It is well” by Horatio Spafford which has a beautiful story behind it.

Horatio lived in Chicago in the 1800s and was a successful lawyer, with much of his money invested in property in the area of Chicago. In 1871, the great fire of Chicago claimed the life of his 2 year old son, as well as much of his property investments. In 1873, after the economy tanked, he had planned to travel to Europe with his family. In a late change of plans, he had to stay behind a while longer, so he sent his wife and four daughters ahead and had planned to meet them. Their ship was shipwrecked, and he lost his four daughters. His wife survived, and sent him that famous telegraph which simply read, ”survived. alone”.

After reuniting with his wife, the two walked along the beach commiserating their loss. It was there that he penned these beautiful words.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well with my soul

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

~ Horatio Spafford

My prayer for you both is this; that when life throws you curve balls and you find yourself lost and without hope, that you may cling to the belief that things will get better, whether you can see the light at the time or not. I love you, my boys.


My sons,

It’s been said that in life, we only have a handful of moments, of choices that set us on a path and ultimately work to shape our legacy. Those moments may be actions that we choose to take that have eternal impact, words we choose to say or write, or even thoughts we allow ourselves to entertain.

These moments happen when we least expect them.

It’s not ours to determine when they happen, so we need to be ready for them. As you both know, I’ve always been a huge fan of being intentional, both in thought and in action, and while that’s certainly much more of an aspiration than a daily reality, I believe that it’s our ability to stay the course, to strive for that aspiration that will be our greatest asset. And so we start small. Rome wasn’t built in one night, and neither is character.

So start small. It’s the little things we do, each and every day, each and every little choice we make - these add up to shape the greater whole of our character, and ultimately allow us to be ready for those moments when they arrive.

We may not even know they’ve come and gone until later when we’ve had the time to reflect and to assess the impact they’ve had on our path.

My prayer for you both is that when those moments come, you’ll be ready to consciously and intentionally make the choice that you want, that you intentionally have come to decide is the right one for you.

And remember that no matter what you choose, you’ll always have my support. I love you boys, and I know you’ll both make me proud!


My sons,

I know I’ve written about empathy in the past, but I’ve been doing a bunch of reading and thinking on the topic, and I wanted to share some more thoughts with you both as I learn more about this beautifully difficult character trait.

When I first encountered the concept of empathy, I believed it to mean putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and trying to determine what I would do in their situation. While I still think that much of that statement is true, I need to make a small tweak. I now believe empathy to mean putting myself in someone else’s shoes, and trying to determine what they would do in their situation, and why.

The fundamental difference here is the focus. My first definition has to do with me; what would I do in their situation. This is entierly determined by me, my background, my experiences, and my context. The choices I make in that frame of empathy then, will reflect my preferences, my value system, and ultimately would, without intention, be self-serving.

Now, since our goal when we apply empathy is to understand the other person and to add strength to the relationship, this definition isn’t as useful to us.

Our new definition is more compelling because it gets at the heart of what the other person needs, what they desire, and what motivations factor in to their decisions. It causes us to not just know about the other person, but to know them.

In his book The Lonely man of Faith, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik postis that one of the core needs of man is the need to know and be known. He argues that the need to be known is a universal characteristic across mankind, and that as relational beings, we find much fulfillment and peace in being known.

And so when we want to demonstrate empathy, there is much good that we can do to add to our shared understanding, and to bring fulfillment to the other person.

  1. Remember that empathy is an act of understanding, not of judgment. It is primarily an observational activity, observing and learning about the other person’s motivations, context, and values. It is not applying our own judgment to those things!

  2. Be patient. In our self-centered and self-focused world, it takes time to develop the muscle to break away from that trend and to focus not on our own agenda and goals but on someone else.

  3. Intentionally practice and apply empathy. No change comes without effort. While the desire to have empathy is already a great first step, we need to progress past that and realize that there is real work to be done in order to get us being truly and effectively empathetic.

My hope for you both is that you grow up to be men that are confident in yourselves, and have enough confidence around your own desires and needs that you’re able to set aside yourselves and learn to concern yourselves with the needs of others.


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