Letters to my sons

"The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature."― Abbé Prévost

My sons,

We all have different characters in our lives, and each one plays a specific role and occupies some amount of space within our social circle. Some of these characters bring joy to our lives, some bring insight, some bring comfort, and some bring companionship. Each relationship is unique, and each person adds different things to our overall experience.

It has been said that friends may be friends for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friends are in our lives for a reason; whether it’s to help us learn something, for us to go through an experience together, or simply because we’re classmates for a particular class, there are some people that fulfill their purpose and then exit our lives almost as quickly as they entered. Others are here for a season; perhaps they are there to walk with us through a season of change, or to help shoulder our burdens through a season of pain, or to be our sounding board in a season of growth. Finally, there are a small number of friends that are around for a lifetime; they endure through thick and thin, and support and encourage us through all the best and the worst that life throws our way.

It is this lattermost group that is not only the most difficult to find, but also the most difficult for us to be.

In my life, I’ve only got a handful of friends that I think will be with me for my lifetime. As I consider these friendships, I realize that each of these friends has a common trait shared among them. They are and one people.

If you’re basketball fans, then you’ll know that in basketball, “and one” means that after you make a shot and get fouled, you have the opportunity to add to your score. Similarly in life, “and one” people are those who “add to your score”. They are people who take whatever you do, think, or say, and add to it. When you tell an “and one” person your idea, they want to add to it, to riff on it with you, and to push you to think more. They say “yes, and you can also do this-and-that too!”. A few things that are common across all of these people:

THEY FOCUS ON THE POSSIBLE

While “and one” people may see the negatives, the roadblocks, the hurdles, and the potential pitfalls, they choose to focus instead on what could be. They ask questions, provide support, cheerlead, and encourage us to expand on our ideas, to push past our perceived limitations, and to achieve more. Because of their focus on what could be, they give us that boost that we need to move forward.

THEY FOCUS ON YOU

We’ve all known people who listen to your story only long enough to remind them of some experience they’ve had that then causes them to interrupt and share with you. “And one” people focus on you. They are good listeners. They are there for you; not for themselves.

THEY HELP US BUILD MOMENTUM

We are by nature creatures of great inertia. “And one” people help us build the momentum that we need. They get excited about our ideas and create a virtuous cycle of forward thinking. They take our budding ideas and give them light to nurture.

Not only is it important to surround yourself with “and one” people, it is also equally important for us to learn to be “and one” people for others. I’m a big believer that a life well lived is one that impacts, influences, and inspires others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. “And one” people do this naturally. A few thoughts on how to become more of an “and one” person:

DON’T COMPLAIN

As Dale Carnegie posits in his book https://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Friends-Influence-People/dp/0671027034, we ought not to complain. Yes, life may provide us with a series of unfortunate circumstances and events, but complaining doesn’t do anything positive for us in the least. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have hurt, upset, or angry feelings; rather it is to say that we ought to practice self control such that even when we’re overcome with those feelings we don’t complain.

By not complaining, we begin to orient our thinking along a positive track instead of a negative one, and in so doing become more able to see the positive in others.

THINK ABOUT OTHERS

It has been said that humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. When we spend less time thinking about ourselves and more time thinking about others, we begin to think about the possibilities for their lives and endeavors and are more ready to support and encourage them.

BE “FOR” SOMEONE

Champion someone. Decide that you will become their biggest advocate. Be for them. As you take on this task you will find presently that not only are you able to espouse their great qualities but you are able to more readily see opportunities ahead of them to build on those qualities.

My sons, life is too short to be lived alone. Surround yourselves with people that are “and one” people, and be “and one” people for those you surround. Encourage one another, spur each other on, and move life forward together. I love you boys!


My sons,

Today I want to talk about one of the most dangerous phrases in the English language. Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? I assure you that the phrase itself is indeed very powerful, and is also incredibly common. It is a phrase as old as time, and has been uttered by kings and peasants, rich and poor, young and old, the educated and the ignorant, even the wise and the foolish. It is a phrase that does not discriminate against any measurable external trait, but rather is a strong indicator of the internal human condition. It is the phrase, “if only”.

You’ve heard it before, and may have even said it to yourself a time or two.

“If only I was smarter, or taller, or better looking.
If only I had more money, or more friends.
If only she still loved me.
If only I paid more attention in class.
If only he didn’t mock me.
If only they had let me into their club.”

This phrase is dangerous not because of anything it conveys, but rather because of the mindset it exposes. It is such a seemingly harmless phrase, yet it expresses so much of the underlying internal condition. And as with all habits, if left unattended, it will change our character and will permanently impact the way we approach the world. Several negative ramifications we should be wary of:

WE DWELL IN THE PAST

If we look carefully, the words immediately following the “if only” are almost always anchored in the past. If only someone hadn’t wronged you, if only you had a better teammate, or if only you had chosen differently. Even the future sounding cues are really anchored in the past! If only she would take more initiative, if only he would be more kind. While those may sound forward looking, they aren’t! If only she took more initiative implies that she didn’t in the past!

The down side of dwelling in the past is that it’s just that - the past. We cannot move life forward when we have our gaze fixed on the past. Life is designed to be forward moving. We are meant to grow, to progress. It’s wired into the very fabric of our being! Every living thing is designed to move forward. The circle of life doesn’t go backwards! It is ever forward moving, and though it is cyclic, it does not run in the reverse direction.

You cannot move forward if you are fixated on the past.

WE FOCUS ON THE NEGATIVE

If only statements are generally negative. They point towards something that we wish didn’t happen, some event that we wish had gone differently, some regrettable circumstance that may have been thrust upon us. Human nature already fixates on the negative. A single traumatic event is often enough to have us spending a lifetime avoiding that same situation again.

This is a survival instinct that helped humanity tens of thousands of years ago cope with its environment. While modern advancements in research, in categorization, and in education have allowed us to understand much of our planet, this was not always so. Our ancestors could not point their smartphone camera at some plant and have Google tell you type of plant it is along with nutritional information, whether it has any medicinal properties, and how to pair it with other ingredients to turn it into an amazing salad. No, mankind of old learned things the hard way and avoided things it did not know; especially if it had a negative or painful experience.

We no longer live in that world, and yet our instinct of emphasis on traumatic events still remains. Journalists capitalize on this fact. The news is centered on the dramatic, the traumatic, and the negative. We don’t need more negativity; in fact, we need much more of the opposite. The world is not as bad as it seems, and things are getting much better! But we are not wired to see that, and so must fight against things that focus our attention on the negative.

WE DON’T TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

If only such and such a thing happened, then the result would have been much better. If only my team was better, then we would have won. If only mom cooked better, then I would have healthier eating habits.

These statements all push the burden of responsibility off of ourselves; we shift the blame to the thing that didn’t happen instead of acknowledging our own culpability in the matter. It is no longer our fault! If the other person had done better, or if the referee had not singled me out, or if she didn’t have it out for me from day one, then things would have been different and I would have had a more desirable outcome.

• • •


My sons, do not believe those lies. Do not focus on the negative events of the past, placing blame and judgement on others. Rather set your mind on the future; look forward for the next things that will come, and be hopeful for that future! Yes, there may be pain and suffering, but there will also be joy! Laughter! Beauty, love, romance, and new shared experiences! These are what we live for and look forward to. I pray you fix your eyes on those things and not the failings of the past. Acknowledge the past, take responsibility, learn from your mistakes, then move on, move forward.

I love you boys, and am so proud and happy to be able to move life forward with you!


My sons,

We’ve talked at length about integrity, about trust, and about strong moral character. We speak about these things because they are critical to building lasting and meaningful connections, but also because they are traits that the world values and finds desirable, admirable, and praiseworthy, and are sought out at the highest levels of our corporate culture.

As you know, I spend a lot of time reading and learning about how to be a better leader, how to build wildly successful teams, and how to create a culture for people to not only do their best work but to be their best selves. By no means have I perfected this, and I am blessed to have some wonderful people in my life that I get to learn from and learn with.

One thing that the learned from them is that there is a difference between telling the truth and ensuring that the other person has heard the truth. Let me restate and rephrase, because this is critical. There is a difference between you technically telling the truth, saying all true statements, and making sure that the other person fully understands the situation.

In the former situation, while you are being technically and objectively truthful, your listener is misled into believing something false. While you can legally claim that you haven’t told a lie, morally you haven’t told the truth. You may get away with this behavior for some time, and may even delude yourself into believing that you are an honest and truthful person, but those around you will eventually figure it out and the trust and relationship will begin to erode.

There is a big difference between telling the truth and not telling a lie.

We live in a world where character matters. Truthfulness, integrity, and honesty are traits that the world values highly yet finds in short supply. They are traits that we crave, that we long for, that we idealize in movies, books, and stories. And yet they are largely missing from our regular lives. Why is that? Why the gap?

To say that the world is full of intentionally dishonest people is not only disheartening and over simplifying, it is also incorrect and leads to very isolating and defeatist responses. No, I don’t believe that the world is full of intentionally dishonest people. Rather, I believe the world has become desensitized to dishonesty, and has allowed its moral compass to degrade to the point where half truths are often considered good enough, and the hard work, discipline, and focus required to live a morally upstanding life are deemed not worth it. Some have even been ridiculed and persecuted for pursuing those ideals.

My prayer for you is that you would both grow to be men of integrity, whose word is valued and trusted, and are known as honest, truthful, and trustworthy men. The road won’t be easy, and there will be many times where no one would ever find out if you withheld a small portion of the truth. But you would know. And just as “the safest road to hell is the gradual one - the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts” (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters), so too will those small allowances of half truths slowly lead you down the road leading not to great character, but rather to deception, dishonesty, and deceit. That’s not a road you want to be on, no matter how scenic and easy it may seem.

I pray that you become men of character that not only tell the truth but ensure that your listeners hear the truth. I love you boys.


My sons,

Much has been said about time management and how it impacts our productivity. There is a plethora of books on the topic by a variety of experts and researchers. There are blogs and life hacks written to help you categorically improve your productivity by tweaking a few things or by buying into some concept or movement. There is nothing for me to add to those volumes except to say that I believe time management is but a plan that one formulates. There remains the question of executing said plan.

Enter focus.

Focus is not merely the act of fixing one’s gaze on something, although it does begin there. No, focus is much more than that. It is the channeling of one’s power, the amalgamating of one’s energy, the collecting of one’s senses that, once collected, are brought to bear on the object of one’s gaze. It is the culmination and application of a disciplined life, of a mind that has endeavored to command the body. It is the single most important and impactful force in the world.

Focus is a multiplier on human impact. It is a force that when honed and deliberately practiced will multiply every endeavor you undertake. It has no boundaries and does not discriminate against its area of application. It is a skill, a tool that can be applied to the loftiest of aims or the deadliest of schemes. And it can be learned, trained, and grown.

Every human has the ability to apply focus, and almost certainly has at some point in their life. Each of us has undoubtedly experienced some situation that set off our body’s fight or flight response. In those situations, our body naturally focuses in on the perceived threat. It blocks out unnecessary noise and becomes tunnel visioned on the immediate danger, even blocking out our rational thought if it is not trained to handle the situation.

Short of constantly putting ourselves in life threatening scenarios, how do we build and develop more focus? How does one learn to harness its power and apply it to suit our needs and aid in our endeavors?

DREAM BIG

Often the biggest enemy of focus is distraction. Distractions are all around us. People will very often attempt to remedy this by either removing the distractions or by removing themselves from the distracting environment. While this is not at all a bad strategy, it is insufficient. There will be many times in our lives where we will need to harness the full power of our focus but will be unable to control or modify the environment to remove the distractions.

When we dream big, we create a large distance between the grand, epic vision and the small, often unimportant distractions. When our gate is fixed on something grand and inspiring, the little things that distract us lose their power over us.

PRACTICE

Focus is a skill. Like every other skill, it can be learned, cultivated, and improved. And like every other skill, the way to do this is to practice.

Start small. Be deliberate. Just as you would set aside time to practice your piano, your curve ball, or your speech, set aside time to practice focusing.

Pick something you don’t want to do, that you would naturally procrastinate on. Pick a reasonable interval (say 5 minutes). Use a timer. Then go. And repeat. A lot.

MAKE IT A HABIT

It is said that the journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step. Profoundly simple, the idea here is that we need to start small. We apply this principle to building habits - start small, start with a single step. In doing so, we create small wins that allow us to continue our journey and to take on bigger things.

Focus on something small, for a short period of time. Make it a habit, and presently you’ll discover that your threshold of focus has greatly expanded.

• • •


If one reasonable measure of a life is the impact it has had on others and on our world, then surely force multipliers like focus are important tools for us to pick up along the way. My hope for you boys is that you fix your gaze on the unseen things in this world and stay steadfast, focused on the things that help others and help to make the world a better place.


My sons,

You’ve both often heard me talk about having discipline, being efficient, and living intentionally. Without a doubt those are great things to work towards and to cultivate in your lives. Yet as with most things in this world, there is a balance that when struck correctly brings out an undeniable beauty. That balance is the skillful art of creating space, and knowing when and how to do so.

Space

The finest art is that which speaks most loudly to you. As the observer, yours is the only opinion that matters. Regardless of the artist, the medium, the subject matter, the artist’s intention as they created the piece, or even the opinions of the critics, the finest art is that which speaks most profoundly to you alone as the one experiencing that art.

Truly great art leaves space for the observer to explore, discover, and to savor.

It has been said that art is that which you leave out. It is the space created for you to fill with your thoughts, your background, your experiences, your worries, your struggles, and your triumphs. And once filled, it is the gentle nudge that begs us to deeply contemplate.

This concept is one that transcends art and finds its home in many other areas of life. In sports, coaches tell their players to train hard before the game and then to clear their head to give space for their instincts to take over. In love we give space to those we love to allow them to work out their feelings and choose to reciprocate. In music we have natural breath marks, spaces intended to allow the mind to settle and root itself on a mood or theme before being whisked away again. In friendship we share our thoughts and opinions with our friends and then give them the space to choose their own path while we support them wholly. Even in the act of Creation, God rested on the seventh day and made space.

Space to remember

It is with great intention and reverence that we create space to remember. At funerals we create a solemn space to remember the deceased and the life that they led, their impact on us, what they meant to us. At memorials we create an aura of silence to honor the dead and their sacrifice. At graduations we prompt our graduates to pause and reflect on their accomplishments in preparation for what is to come.

Space allows the heart to reminisce, to slowly and deliberately consider that which we are remembering, and to place ourselves in the midst of that experience once more. It allows us to experience more deeply, to love more deeply, to honor more deeply.

Space to heal

We need space to heal. The body cannot heal if we continue to put pressure and strain on our injury. The heart cannot heal if it is constantly being battered and under attack. The mind cannot heal if we continue to relive our trauma without the space or the tools to rewire our thinking. The soul cannot heal if it is not given the time to receive nourishment. When we have broken relationship, we instinctively ask for time and space to think, to ponder, and to heal. Without ever being taught, we know this. Deeply.

It is in that space that we are able to choose to heal, that we are able to take action towards healing. It is not a coincidence that many cultures have mourning rituals that specifically call for time and space to mourn. It is not a PR stunt for companies to offer bereavement time to their employees. It is because the space allows us to mourn, to remember, to honor, and then to integrate the reality of loss into our lives.

Space to grow

As a species, we are wired for growth, for forward movement. It is no wonder we have so many metaphors and images for growth. Perhaps one of the most common and well known images is that of spreading our wings and flying. We know this. We feel it. At a very early age, we instinctively spread our arms wide as we imagine taking flight and going to places currently out of our reach.

The beauty and glory of that image is not only in the jubilant and expectant pose we take, but also of the space around us; the space to explore, the vast horizon spread before us, the breathtaking view of the mountain we are about to soar over.

Human beings are meant to grow, and we need space to do that.

And so I urge you to create space. It may seem counterintuitive. It may feel awkward and unnatural. It may appear destructive at worst and not helpful at best. But we all need space. As you navigate your lives, my prayer for you is that you learn when you need space, how to skillfully create it, and how to confidently and unapologetically take the space that you need.

I love you boys.


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