Posts posted in 2020
Something I’ve always valued is retrospection and introspection. Looking back at our experiences to learn from them, and looking within to thoughtfully consider the choices, decisions, and actions we’ve taken are two very good habits to build. As with any habit, it’s best to start building them early and when one doesn’t need them yet. Taking a page from Robert Redford in Spy Game:
“When did Noah build the ark, Gladys?”
“Before the rain.”
Looking back on this year, it has definitely been one for the history books with all the unexpected twists and turns. It’s been a trying year for most, full of challenges, upset routines, and new and very real fears. It’s brought folks face to face with many insecurities: meaning, purpose, relationship, isolation. It has caused many to look forward, to desire a different future, and to even take action towards making that different future happen.
As we think through those new beginnings, I want us to consider a few important things.
The future is decided by optimists
I’m not just being optimistic here myself, hoping for a future that is defined by optimists. The future will always be decided by optimists.
Why? Because it’s human nature to desire inspiration, to follow those that are inspiring. We are wired to move life forward, to strive for a tomorrow that’s better than today. Optimists paint those pictures, tell those stories, and dream of those grand and epic scenarios.
We aren’t attracted to pessimists. We may resonate with their negativity, and we may seem to connect over a shared disdain, fear, or dislike, but ultimately they don’t attract or inspire us in the long run. It’s the optimists that attract us, and ultimately it will be the optimists that change the world for the better and decide what our future looks like.
Be FOR other people
Coming out of this isolating time, I would challenge us all to be more for other people. We’ve already had enough focus on ourselves this year. Let us make tomorrow more about other people than ourselves. Let us make it a time where we think more of others, do more for others, care more for others, and love others more.
It’s never too late to start
Lastly, it’s never too late to start making the changes you want to see in yourself! If I’ve learned anything at all this year, it is that it’s never to late to get started.
You may have had a rocky start. You may have rough soil to work with. You may have spent years down a path that you’re not happy about. But that’s okay. We move life forward, one step at a time. Tomorrow isn’t defined by what you did yesterday; it’s defined by what you set your mind to do tomorrow. So as we start this new beginning, my challenge to you both is to start it by being optimistic that the best is yet to come, and by setting your minds on being for other people.
Happy new year!
We live in challenging and complex times where nothing is simple, nothing is exactly as it seems. There are no black and white situations, and there are no clear cut answers. Every situation we face has an immense amount of nuance that needs to be considered, examined, and thoughtfully understood.
This year has been packed full of hard stuff. Natural disasters. Racial tensions. Riots. One of the most polarizing presidential elections in recent history. One of the worst global pandemics in all known human history. Social
These are all extremely complicated situations. And yet we can learn something in them, we can grow in them, we can flourish as a result of them.
Something I’ve been learning lately is that so much of the battle is just showing up. That simple act of getting off the sidelines, picking a side, and standing with your fellow men and women to take on whatever’s coming is immensely powerful. Make no mistake - the enemy (whoever you want to think of as the enemy, be it fear mongers, racists, bigots, homophobes, religious persecutors, or any other person or power that tries to diminish the nobility of the human spirit) wants us to stay idle. The enemy wants us afraid, lazy, lethargic, arguing amongst ourselves, or anything else that would prevent us from action.
Showing up is half the battle.
1. We create a positive, forward moving mental state
So much of success in the arena is simply about moving forward. When we are still, the battle is lost. But when we are in motion, when we are fluid, when we are gaining momentum and focused on a goal, that is a beautiful thing. That motion, that movement, that momentum and inertia moves our lives forward and gives us courage to take on even bigger things.
Simply showing up is a victory unto itself, and however small that may be is enough to spark us into action.
2. We encourage others
The human spirit is strengthened by witnessing acts of bravery, of honor, of noble intent. When someone sees us getting off the sidelines and showing up in the arena, something deep inside them sparks. Regardless of whether that spark itself is enough to light a fire in them, us showing up and bringing encouragement to another is itself a powerful thing.
3. We show the enemy we’re not afraid
So much of the world is shrouded in fear, in misdirection, in misinformation that leads to inaction. By showing up, we show the enemy that we’re not afraid, that we’re willing to stand shoulder to shoulder in the arena and take on what’s coming.
So my sons, my prayer for you is that you too would show up. That you would move life forward, that you would encourage others and find others of like mind to fight together with, and that together we can stand up against the injustices and the abominations of the world. For together we stand; divided we fall. I love you boys.
I wanted to talk a bit today about our Amazon Leadership Principle Learn and Be Curious. The description of this LP is as follows: “Leaders are never done learning and always seek to improve themselves. They are curious about new possibilities and act to explore them.”
But what does that mean? How does that actually apply in our regular lives?
First, a few thoughts about learning itself. Specifically about our relationship to learning, how we approach it, and our mindset around it.
Learning ought to be a lifelong activity and endeavor. It is something that we expect of our children. It is something that we allocate the first quarter of our lives to. It is something that successful people do all their lives because it separates us from the rest. It is the thing that allows humanity to progress, to advance, and to have made leaps and bounds from our much more primitive ancestors.
And yet once we graduate from college, the majority of us have a sharp decline in the rate of learning, the topics which we learn, and the time we spent dedicated towards bettering ourselves. We leave our climate and environment of learning and are thrown into a fast paced delivery-driven culture that more often burns out our college grads more than it teaches them.
That in turn begs the question of environment. Do we have an environment where people can learn? One that encourages the trial and error required for new neural pathways to be created? One that rewards failure as much as it rewards successes, knowing that failure is but a step on the path to progress and victory?
In a candid fireside chat in San Diego earlier this year Bill Gates suggested that there are certain conditions that which, if not met, make it incredibly difficult - even impossible - for an individual to learn: confidence, curiosity, and constant feedback. Let’s talk about each of those.
People need confidence to learn. They need confidence to know that they can get this, that they are able to progress. They need to believe in themselves, that they are capable of change, of improvement.
Confidence is built by successes, by cheerleaders, by supporters, coaches, and mentors. The more we craft an environment where these things naturally happen and are praiseworthy the more confidence we will see among those living in it.
When we were young, we were curious about everything. The quintessential example is the kid that asks “why” one too many times that it sends their parents over the edge. We each have a natural curiosity about the world, a spark of joy at discovering something new, something novel, something wonderful.
And yet that curiosity gets beat out of us. It begins in adolescence when the desire to fit in (and the awkwardness of not fitting in) begins to pick up steam. And then responsibility kicks into full gear, whether from owning a home, being married, having children, having family responsibilities thrust on you, or a myriad of other things.
Slowly but surely our natural curiosity shrinks until we become caught in the rat race of the mundane.
We must craft an environment where curiosity flourishes, where people are able to explore, to try new things, to fail at things, and to share those learnings with others. We must give people the time, the physical space, and the mental headspace to venture out, to ask questions, and to stick their finger into the proverbial socket to see what happens.
As leaders one of the most important things entrusted to us is the care for our people. As General Stanley McChystal puts it in his book Team of Teams, leaders must take on the role of the gardener. The gardener has no direct ability to make plants grow. However, they do have the ability to cultivate the plants, to prune as needed, to till the soil, to water and provide nutrients, and to provide an environment that is ideal for growth.
So too is it with leaders.
We need to create the right environment for our people to grow in, and need to trim and prune where necessary as well. This means providing consistent and constant feedback as people learn and grow. Without a tight feedback loop, people will be left wandering and reinforcing bad habits that should have been pruned early on.
Learning to learn
So how do we create this environment where people can flourish in their learning, and how do we create that desire for learning, that mindset for growth, that joy that comes from making progress?
A few practical things we can do.
- Reward learning. When I was a new parent I was told that we should praise our children for the learning process, not for the accomplishment. In her book Mindset Carol Dweck argues that praising results creates a fixed mindset in our children who are hyper focused on results and not on the growth or the learning. We obtain what we measure and reward.
- Lead by example. When I was at Microsoft, Bill Gates used to take what he called Think Week. It was a week where he would go off the grid and allow himself to learn. He would read. He would think. He would ponder. He would ruminate. And in doing so he set the example for his company that reading and learning were highly valued activities.
- Play the long game. Learning takes time to come into fruition. As teams and leaders, valuing learning from our people means that we need to have the patience for that growth to pay off. We have to invest in our people and have the mindset of long term benefits. When we are short sighted, when we become too caught up in tactics and immediate results, we stifle our people’s ability to participate in and to value learning.
One of my lifelong mentors taught me that we don’t build teams for a reason or season, but for life. That is long game thinking. That is the type of thinking that encourages growth, fosters curiosity, and values learning. And that’s what I desire to do - to build teams for life; teams of lifelong learners who are excited to learn together and to apply our learnings to the problems of the day.
Much has been said on the topic of time management, and with good reason. Our world seems to be obsessed with it, with the ability to be ever more efficient, and with the relentless pursuit of higher output and productivity. There is much research and many lifetimes of thought that have gone into the topic with many different techniques and practices that I won’t get into.
Instead of focusing on how to manage one’s time, I want to muse on the topic of what it means to manage your time well.
Why do you want to manage time well?
The first question we need to ask is a question of purpose, of motivation. Why do we want to manage our time well? What is the primary purpose? While there are no objectively wrong answers to this question, there are a few dangerous ones that will make success very difficult.
For example, some great motivators for time management are to have more time for one’s pursuits, to have more time at one’s disposal for things of value, and to free up time for others to claim. Some bad motivators are to be more efficient so that we can get more work done, or so that we can cross more toil-based tasks off our seemingly neverending todo list.
We’ll get to why those are bad motivators later, but for now let’s suffice it to say that our motivators not just whether we’re successful but also the nature and the route by which we’re successful in managing our time well.
How we work
Whether we’re discussing our professional work life or making progress in our personal life, the way we work tends to be similar across both. Some of us are list people, some are chaotic feeling-driven people, some are guilt-driven, and some are externally driven.
Regardless of your preferred style, there are a few things that are simply limitations of the human brain that affect us all.
First, the human brain is only able to concentrate on one thing at a time. Contrary to popular belief, multitasking is not actually possible for the human mind. Our brains perform similarly to single CPU-based systems - we switch between each of our multiple tasks at a rate that is passable (ie not immediately obvious but easily noticeable to the keen observer).
For our brains as it is for CPUs, this is expensive. This is because context switching wastes cycles. In computing, this means that each time the CPU switches tasks, the context that it needs is recalled from memory. That recall process wastes time and cycles. This is also true of our brains - switching context back into focus wastes our brain energy and takes time.
Studies tell us that it takes on average 23 minutes for an average adult brain to get from one task into a flow state on a different task. This means that each time we context switch, it takes us 23 minutes to be back to working at full strength!
All this is to say that we cannot, and should not attempt to multitask.
As such, we must prioritize. We first build a list of all of our priorities. Then we need to remove our distracting priorities. This means that for anything that doesn’t fall into our top 5, we must actively avoid them because they were priorities that didn’t make the core 5 but are close enough that they can (and certainly will, if we allow them) distract us from accomplishing our top ones.
This is hard! These are things that we actively want to do and believe there is much value in doing, so letting go of them will be incredibly difficult!
Next, once you’ve finished the top 5, don’t just automatically get to the next one - re-evaluate your list at that time to determine if the next things still are the next right things to do. We often find that they aren’t!
Lastly, management experts suggest no more than three things going on at a time. Many successful executives who seem to do so many things at once in fact limit themselves to doing one thing at a time - they get that thing done well, and then move onto the next.
For example, Mozart is the only known composer who was able to work on multiple works at once, all of which were masterpieces. Bach, Haydn, Handel, Beethoven - they all worked on a single piece at a time, and didn’t move onto the next until the first was finished.
Chances are, you are not a Mozart.
Incredibly effective executives have focus, concentrate on one thing, and concentrate their organization on one thing. Know where you need to concentrate your time and your team’s time, and do so intentionally.
Know what we can realistically accomplish
As we progress in our lives they become increasingly busy. Professionally, we have more demands and requirements of our time, and our added value to our organizations mean that more weight is placed on the things assigned to us. Personally, our lives expand to include dating, spouses, children, social obligations, taking care of aging loved ones, and hopefully, going on vacation and seeing the world!
What do we do with all of these demands?
We attempt to do them all. We try to make time for everything that feels important, but the problem is that constantly adding more without taking away anything is a fools errand, but we’re often too foolishly optimistic (or too stubborn) to see that.
Part of the problem is that what is important, or what “matters” is subjective. What matters to each of us may be quite different and very nuanced. It therefore behooves us to be thoughtful about processing our inputs so that we determine for ourselves what matters, instead of simply adopting the beliefs and opinions of others.
Another problem is that the minute you start feeling “on top of things”, the goal posts will move and more things will get added to the list.
This is because with each time-saving invention, the bar simply moves to accommodate. For example, the advent of the washing machine made it such that now that you COULD keep all your clothes cleaned, you SHOULD have them always cleaned. As a result, our inventions do not free us but rather enslave us further.
This is made explicitly clearly when we consider those much less fortunate than us. It is a common adage that those living in countries with much less are much happier. This is because they are not burdened with the ever increasing set of things that are possible with some effort and as a result don’t spiral into cultural expectations of making all the possible things required with much effort.
The answer then, lies not in finding ways to do more and to accomplish everything that we think is remotely important. Instead, it lies in us being thoughtful about what truly is important.
So how do you know what is important?
A common strategy here is to do a small amount of work to generate some vague definition of importance in one’s life, and to allow that amorphous cloud unpredictably determine one’s actions. For example, we may decide that we value relationships and friendships. This is such a broad value that it is almost meaningless when it comes to being an input for how to manage one’s life. There are many types of relationships, and each individual relationship is unique in its nature, its time requirements, and therefore its value. As such if we simply act on the value system that we value relationships, a bad relationship may in fact cause us to make bad decisions.
Professional success is another such amorphous value. Not only is this vague description harmful, but it has the additional unfortunate reality that it expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. No matter how much time you give it, it will always use that time, and more. This is why being more efficient so that one can get more work done is a fools errand - there will always be more work.
As such it becomes critically important for us to ensure we have the right boundaries around work, and the amount of our lives that we’re willing to give it. These boundaries need not only be restricted to time boundaries! A common misconception when it comes to work is that boundaries here simply mean time restrictions. Work takes up more than just our time - it takes up our thought space, our emotional capacity, our relational capabilities. We need to ensure we’ve got healthy boundaries across all of those.
Adjustments, not solutions
As always, my aim here is not to provide solutions but rather to stir thought and conversation around the topic at hand. As such, I will also not offer solutions but rather a few suggestions for tweaks that we can make in our journey towards managing our time well.
- Realize you won’t get it all done. This realization leads to freedom. Ancient farmers knew this - they would get done whatever they could in a day and do the rest the next. They knew that they were not capable of rushing a harvest or of growing a herd, so they accepted that pace of life. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that and try to cram more in a day than is humanly physically possible.
- Time should not be your own. Because time is a networked resource, it has Much more value the more people around you have control over it. This means that having an abundance of jealously hoarded free time is not useful, but having time where friends can drop by, loved ones can reach out for help, and children can demand your time to play with them is what makes time infinitely more meaningful.
- Realize that there are important things and there are urgent ones. You must not starve the important for the urgent. And there are always enough urgent things to take up all of your time, if you let them. Therefore we must ruthlessly prioritize!
- Invest in systems that evolve over time. Set aside some time to build systems that will scale for you over time. Learn to make more categorical decisions - choices which once made allow you to eliminates dozens of other choices.
My sons, it is never too late or too early to start learning to manage one’s time well. As such my hope is that you will begin now, no matter when “now” happens to be. Managing our time well will allow us to get more out of the limited time on this earth that we have. And that is a truly beautiful thing.
It’s easy to look at the world around us and see its many flaws and many weaknesses. It’s easy to see the hatred, the racism, the sexism, the anger, the suspicion - it’s easy to look at all that and decide to keep your head down and mind your own business.
And no one would fault you for that.
We live in a world where people are expected to cower, to keep their voices down, and to do the bare minimum to appease their own consciences, often with little to no impact.
I implore you to choose a different path.
I recently read a beautiful speech from the 26th president of these United States, Theodore Roosevelt, which has since come to be known as The Man in the Arena. It reads:
It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs,
who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls
who neither know victory nor defeat.
Yes, there are many ways in which we have fallen. Yes, there are many unspeakable acts and unimaginable crimes that have been committed, and even sanctioned in our lifetimes. Yes, we are surrounded by imperfection in this fallen world.
But let us stop standing on the sidelines watching idly as others struggle and fight in our stead. Let us never stop picking ourselves back up and getting back into the arena. Let us fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. Let us speak up for the voiceless. Let us defend the defenseless. Let us bring hope to the hopeless.
Let us let shine the nobility of the human spirit; that spark within us that when pressed enables us to stand courageous with a courage we didn’t know existed.
I love you, my boys. I pray that when you are old enough to understand these words, that you will find your father in the arena, that he will be standing side by side and back to back with men and women that he loves and loves him, and - most of all - that you will join them in the arena and fight together.
I read a statement today that was simple yet profound. It got me thinking about my upbringing, my context, my biases, and my perspective. I was raised very fortunate, very lucky. I was raised in a loving home with parents who did absolutely everything in their power to give me and your uncle everything we wanted. We were treated with dignity and respect, and were taught to honor others and to treat others well. We were raised believing we could do whatever we set our minds to, that we could be instruments of change, that we could be leaders of the future.
Not everyone is raised this way.
I now realize how lucky I was, how precious it is to have that be my story. The statement I read today inspired me to redouble my efforts. It said simply:
“When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.”
We are currently in a time where many have lost. Loved ones, homes, jobs, families, safety, security - all of these are among the things that have been stripped incredibly unfairly from such a large number of people. So many homeless, without safety, without security, without the knowledge of where their next meal will come, or if it will come at all.
To be fair, there are many that are rising to the occasion. The heroes of today don’t don spandex and nylon capes, no. They put on their nurse’s scrubs, their surgeon’s gloves, their firefighter suits, their signs of protest and defense. God bless those heroes.
But beyond supporting them, beyond giving our resources and time to listen, to learn, to stand up for, and to protect, we can do more still. We can live each day honoring the things that we have, so that we honor those who have not. We can live each day taking every opportunity that fortune blesses us with, and do so remembering those who are less fortunate.
We are fortunate to live in America, to live in a nation founded on the belief that all people were created equal, to live free of oppression and free to pursue happiness and association however we desire. Many are not that lucky. Many living even in this nation are not that lucky.
Something we’ve done since you were young is to share things that we’re thankful for at the end of each day. I pray that this letter finds you still with that spirit of thankfulness, of gratitude, of humility. You are both blessed beyond measure; don’t take that for granted. Honor those who have less than you do.
Something that I’ve always taken for granted growing up is that all people are created equal. Growing up in Canada, that was just something that I assumed. I had close friends of many different races and never thought twice about it. We played sports, learned how to write code, talked about our relationship troubles, applied to colleges, and dreamed about our futures together, regardless of race, religion, or culture. I used to just accept that as a reality, and assumed it was like that everywhere in the world.
Boy was I wrong.
While I’d encounter the occasional stranger who had a disdain for Chinese people and vocalized it to me, my group of multi-racial friends always dismissed those comments as coming from ignorant folks, and we just went on our merry way. However, many don’t have that luxury, and many have much worse persecution than just being called a derogatory racial name.
In my youth, I believed that everyone was created equal, and should be treated as equals. As I grew older, I learned that there’s a difference between equality and equity.
Equality is treating everyone equally. Equity is treating everyone how they need to be treated in order for them to feel equal.
I don’t know what your future will hold, or what the racial, socio-economic, gender, status, or belief structure will look like when you two grow up. I do know that you two will grow up as two of the most fortunate boys in the world, simply by being raised in America, in one of the largest and most prosperous cities of our time, and with a family that loves you, is concerned about teaching you to treat others with respect and dignity, and seeks to give you every opportunity to experience a rich and full life.
Do not squander that blessing.
My sons, I urge you to be a part of the solution. Don’t assume that everyone is being treated equitably and thereby ignore the issues of our time. Speak up for those without a voice. Love those who the world does not deem lovely. Advocate for those who cannot represent themselves. Be generous with your time, with your resources, with your hearts, and with your care. And above all, listen. Listen to those who are in pain, to those who are persecuted, to those who have come to their wits end. And then have grace and mercy for them, and love them.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a bold dream in 1963. That dream was for this country and this world to believe and act as though all people were created equal. It was a dream that longed for his children to be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. It is a dream that I have for the two of you, and is a dream that has not yet been realized.
We can change our world, but it takes all of us coming together to make that dream a reality.
Life is an adventure. It is beautiful. It is breathtaking. It is full of joy, of triumph, of victory, of mountaintop experiences. It is also full of sadness, of loneliness, of gut wrenching sorrow. It is about the journey and not the destination.
The Good Book tells us that “in this life, you will have trouble.” It’s not an if, it’s a when.
Composure, then, is the manner in which we meet that trouble. It is the perspective we take, the peace (or lack of) we have, and the mindset we embody. It is the expression of our true selves, our inner core, our self discipline, our grace.
As you know, we’re currently in an unprecedented time in our world. In an era where global travel is incredibly accessible, individual freedoms are at their prime, and technological advancements have created an expectation of connection and information, an outbreak of this magnitude has been difficult to contain. The death toll is nearing a half million, with hundreds of thousands of new cases still being confirmed. There is currently no known cure or vaccine, and much of the world is living in self-quarantine.
It’s very easy to feel that things are unfair, to feel hopeless and helpless, to feel that there isn’t anything we can do.
In these situations we are presented with a choice. We can choose the path of self-pity, of externalization, and of blame, or we can choose the path that is steadfast, that is bold and courageous, and has the resolve to go through this painful refinement of our character and come out stronger. We can choose the mindset of merely surviving, grasping at any means to do so, or we can choose the path of flourishing and prospering despite our circumstance.
The difference between believing things are unfair vs unfortunate is subtle but important.
When we feel that things are unfair, we believe that things are outside of our control. We absolve ourselves from blame and from responsibility for the situation, and we believe that there is nothing we can do to influence the outcome. We believe that undesirable things are being done to us. We position ourselves as the victim, and fixate our mind on a position of self-pity.
On the other hand, when we feel that things are unfortunate, we remove blame from some unreachable or invisible actor that has it out for us and instead focus on the situation itself. We recognize that we live in an imperfect world, and that inexplicable things happen. We take the perspective of recovery, of advancement, of moving life forward. We see ourselves not as helpless but as capable and able to change our stars. We have self-compassion, taking the necessary care for ourselves so that we can recover and thrive despite our surroundings.
This difference, while subtle, end up causing ripple effects in our mindset and in the actions that we take. Over time, it affects our constitution, our demeanor, and the way that we approach the world. That in turn impacts the interactions and relationships that we have, ultimately deeply impacting our lives. And so I encourage you the next time you find yourselves in unfortunate circumstances to think of them as just that; unfortunate circumstances. I pray that you have the discipline and mental fortitude to direct your reactions so that not only will you survive, but will thrive in those times.
I love you, my boys.
We’re currently in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s something that this world hasn’t seen in quite some time, and is something that I sincerely pray you won’t have to experience again in your lifetimes. There are many tragic stories of loss, of separated loved ones, of devastation. There are also many stories of hope, of perseverance, of strength, of unity, and of support. The impacts of this pandemic are both global and local. Globally, our economy has taken a huge hit, our social structures are stressed to the point of breaking, and our government is struggling to act decisively and swiftly. Locally, we are practicing social distancing, staying home with our families and going out only out of necessity.
It has not been an easy adjustment for many.
I recently finished a book called “A gentleman in Moscow”, by Amor Towles. It is a wonderful and beautifully written book that seems poignantly relevant in our current world situation. The book is a novel that follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who after the revolutionary war ended in the 1920s is convicted of such. He is forced to live out his days as a “Former Person” within the confines of the Metropol hotel, not being permitted to ever leave its premises.
The book chronicles the life of the count, who first sets foot inside his new quarters in the prime of his life. He immediately has the realization that in order to survive the constant mental assault and boredom of several more decades in this space, one must have resolve, determination, and fortitude of mind. As we walk through his early days of captivity, he quickly establishes a regular routine that provides him the much needed structure of a productive life. As he settles into that routine, we watch him evolve from a person who is striving simply to survive to one that is longing and looking for ways to thrive.
It is that mental fortitude, that singular belief that in order to flourish, one must overcome one’s current situation that allows the count to positively thrive for decades in such a small space.
“Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity - a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.”
I certainly don’t profess to know the secrets of mental fortitude, nor do I know by what magical coincidence or stroke of good luck I have been blessed with some measure of it. I do however know the secret of building fortitude, of building strength. Exercise. Just as our physical bodies require exercise and a healthy diet to build strength, our mind requires exercise and a healthy diet of positive inputs and interactions.
I’ve discovered a few key things that have done wonders for me:
Read. Reading not only develops our creativity, but it challenges our mind to imagine, to ponder, to think deeply about topics and situations that we may not have had the chance to face yet. It allows us to develop the ability to empathize with a character, to reason with an author, to dream wondrously with the protagonist, and to suffer deeply with the fallen hero.
Reading also gives us the opportunity to build relationships, to dialog, and to discuss with friends new and old the topics and virtues of the latest book that we’ve read. Read for enjoyment, read for self-development and self-improvement, read for knowledge, and read for perspective. Read fiction to dream and paint canvases in your mind. Read non-fiction to be challenged, to think critically, to ruminate, to reason.
Meditate. Meditation builds focus of mind, and trains our discipline. It allows us to process our thoughts, to understand ourselves, and to listen to our innermost mind.
Write. Writing causes you to elaborate on your thoughts, to organize them, and to provide structure to them. Regardless of whether your writings are read by three people or by three hundred, writing builds your ability to expand on a thought and to nurture and bake an idea in your mind. We all have the spark of creation within us; let it be a tool to help refine your mental process.
Jesus tells us that “in this life, you will have trouble”. That is a certainty. Those with an ample supply of mental fortitude are the ones who are able to not only survive, but to thrive in those troubles. And that’s my hope for you today, that you both would be strong men, physically, emotionally, but most importantly mentally. That you would have the strength of mind and discipline of heart to achieve all that you set your sights on.
I’ve been reading a book that a great friend recommended to me called “Where the crawdads sing”, by Delia Owens. So far, it’s an artfully written book full of beautiful and vivid images the author paints for your mind’s eye combined with insightful nuggets of truth for you to ponder. Perfectly up my alley.
There’s a beautiful dialog in the book between father and son where the son complains to his father that he’s studying poetry in English class and doesn’t like it. The father’s retort is beautiful:
Don’t go thinking poetry’s just for sissies. There’s mushy love poems, for sure, but there’s also funny ones, lots about nature, war even. Whole point of it - they make ya feel something.
I love that. They make ya feel something.
So much of our lives are about things that don’t touch on the topic of feelings. We’re inundated with information, obsessed with learning and progressing, and laser focused on academics and achievement. But we’ve got to remember to feel. As Robin Williams puts it in Dead Poets Society:
We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion.
Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
Perfect. In the book, the author says of the father:
His dad had told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what’s necessary to defend a woman.
My sons, if I’m able to accomplish that, to impress that single line upon you, then I’ll be beyond ecstatic. Be strong men, yes. But strength is not only stoic and outwardly fearless. It also embraces vulnerability so that one can be known and understood. It is confident in the relationships and connections it has built enough for vulnerability, for sentiment, for sensitivity.
So my charge to you today is this: be strong and decisive men, yes, but take the time to do things that make you feel. Watch a beautiful sunset descending between the crevice in the mountains. Sit still and deeply listen to music that moves you. Rekindle an old connection. Embrace a friend fully and earnestly. Love big. And be loved big.
I love you, my boys.
Hopefully by the time you both read this, I’ll still be as avid a reader as I am while I’m writing (or perhaps even moreso!). Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to read books that are outside the standard set of things that I have spent much of my life concerned about. Books that don’t have to do with leadership, technology, faith, or self-improvement. Books that are works of fiction. Books that are on topics I’ve spent less minutes thinking about than I’ve got fingers.
A great friend recommended one to me, called “When Breath becomes Air”. It’s a beautiful memoir by a brilliant young doctor as he struggles for meaning knowing that he’s terminal and that he hasn’t got a lot of time left. As I journeyed with the author through his struggle and through his quest for meaning, I found myself relating, empathizing, and searching for those same answers. Instead of an informative last testament of a man I’d never met I found a mirror held up to my own question of meaning.
And I cried. I cried for him, for his family, for his wife and daughter that survive him. I cried deeply as his wife’s Epilogue ran across the pages, speaking of his focus for life and his love of relationship. It was that book that started me on my journey to better understand myself, my purpose, my meaning.
I won’t say that I’ve found all the answers since then, and I don’t doubt that when you boys read this, I will still not have all the answers. But I will say that along the way, I’ve been learning more and more that connection - meaningful connection - matters.
We were made for connection, made for relationship. We were made to do life together.
I’ve found that to be true. When I look back on the time lapse of my life so far, when I see the fleeting three-second clips of deeply cherished memories, I see connection. In every single one of those memories I see connection. Whether it is sharing a beautiful sunrise with a great college friend after pulling an all nighter together, or chatting with the one friend that stayed awake while the others slept in the back on a long cross-country drive, or even celebrating our childhood sports victories over milkshakes. Most of these moments were about connection.
It’s not an accident that every success, every victory, every win that I have I immediately want someone to share it with.
It’s also not an accident that the deepest, sorrowful moments of my life were all moments that I felt alone and abandoned.
We were made for connection.
So my challenge to you then, is to be generous in your attempt for connection. Put yourself out there. Be courageous. Be willing to make the first move, to initiate a conversation, to sit next to a stranger on a plane and not immediately put in headphones or pick up a book. Even small connections matter. A smile, making eye contact with a stranger, a friendly wave, a warm hug goodbye. You never know just how much those moments may shape someone’s day.
Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the concept of choosing to love, especially when it’s hard.
It’s very easy to choose to love someone or to choose to do the loving thing when things are easy. But the true test of character is what we do when things aren’t easy, when they’re not ideal, when they’re not living up to our expectations. How do you respond? What choices do you make? Do you choose anger? Or do you choose love?
Anger begets more anger
So choose love. Choose to do the thing that you know is right, even if you don’t feel like it. Choose to hold to the principles that you believed to be praiseworthy and worth pursuing when you weren’t in the midst of the storm. And hold on. Tight.
How do you do it? How do you choose to do the hard thing, to do the unnatural thing, to do the thing that you know you ought to but really, really don’t want to? How do you choose to hold your tongue when you’re ready to rip someone a new one? How do you choose to love, to swallow your hurt and pain, and do the right thing?
There’s a song that I love from a movie I watched recently that’s entitled “The next right thing”. I love so many things about that song, musically, dramatically. But most of all, I love the message the song conveys.
This grief has a gravity, it pulls me down
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
“You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing”
Break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make
So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
There will be times when you feel like you’re flattened, that you’re on the floor. You’ll feel like the world is against you, and you’ll want to give up. I hope that in that moment, for just a moment, you’ll be able to take a breath and get even the briefest hint of perspective that will allow you to choose to do the next right thing.
It’s something that gets easier with each victory, and is something that should be celebrated when you succeed. Take a second for yourself to internalize that feeling when you know you’ve chosen the right thing, even when the walls are still crumbling. When you know that while you may not have saved the current situation, you’ve chosen the right thing. The thing that will let you look back and be happy at the men that you’ve become, that despite all odds and worldly wisdom or reason that told you to choose otherwise, you chose the next right thing.
And that’s my hope for the two of you; that when life goes sideways, when things really suck, that you’ll be able to choose to do the next right thing.