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.

My sons,

One of the most important factors that give life meaning is the passage of time, and its finite supply for each person’s existence. Without it, our actions have no meaning. With it, everything we do is viewed with the lens of the finite, and as such is a trade off of all the other things we could have done but have chosen not to.

A necessary (though often not taken) reaction to this is the act of maturing, of gaining perspective, of acquiring wisdom. As our time spent on this earth increases so too should our understanding of the big picture, of the tradeoffs required of us, and of the balance required to live a rich and fulfilling life.

Dying nobly

A beautiful characteristic of youth is its tendencies to lay it all out on the line, to throw caution to the wind, to go big (albeit without the slightest consideration that one might actually need to finish the second half of that phrase, “or go home”). Call it youthful arrogance, call it inexperience, call it a lack of perspective, or whatever else you may desire to call it, it is pretty widely accepted that youthfulness tends to be bold, to be idealistic, to favor action.

When we are young, we get fired up. We lean into causes, we want to go all out. We feel indignation at the errs and inconsistencies of the world. We want to fight, we want to make our lives count.

Our culture promotes this. We revere fallen heroes, we memorialize those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. We write stories about those who stand up, those who fight the good fight, those who refuse to take injustice sitting down. Everything seems more dramatic, more urgent, more impactful.

We feel more, love bigger, suffer more intensely, and even soliloquize more dramatically. We dream big. We long for a perfect world. We see injustice and we want to fight it. We see suffering and we want to end it. And we want to make grand gestures to do it!

Unfortunately, we are also indiscriminating about the cause which we want to fling ourselves headlong into. How many of us have not spent agonizing hours in a hair-pulling, helpless, even hopeless state over some unrequited love, some immovable and unchangeable consequence that prevents us from pure joy? And how many still cannot commiserate with the thought of making some life-ending (or at least, life-changing), impulsive, and probably stupid gesture as a result?

Come now. Be honest.

For me, it was seventh grade. Or perhaps ninth. Tenth? Twelfth for sure. Really, probably all of the above. My high school years were characterized by many immense mountaintop highs followed almost immediately by some unfathomable lows. Being dumped by my first girlfriend of a whole long 3 weeks, 2 of which were over Christmas break… over a written note no less! Or having my existence ignored by the pretty brunette whose name I can’t remember but whose face I can’t forget. Or wanting to crawl in a hole after thoroughly embarrassing myself in front of someone whose approval I longed for. Or almost failing to secure my first job because of some laissez-faire attitude applied to a misread situation.

Yeah, I’ve had my fair share of moments of wanting to go out in a blaze of glory.

Living humbly

Thankfully, those moments passed and I grew up. I matured. I developed more resilience, more balance, more understanding of the nuances of life. It has been said that

“The mark of an immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one” - The Catcher in the Rye

Absolutely beautiful.

As we mature, we begin to discover that our impatience tempers, our bias for action slows, and our once raging fire tapers down to an unobtrusive flame. Our youthful hotheadedness begins to cool, if not intrinsically then at least extrinsically due to our newfound understanding of social ramifications of unconstrained actions. And so we inevitably mellow out.

The danger here is to take that mellowing too passively, as so many do. Too many of us take the uninspired path of allowing the loss of our youthful arrogance to be replaced by a mature apathy. We fall out of our fiery and hyper-sensitive experiences into pools of insignificance, of lukewarm, purposeless living, and we follow an all too familiar path towards the midlife crisis - that existential crisis of purpose and belonging.

The best of us, however, learn that there is another path, another way to go that doesn’t lead to either a flame out in a blaze of glory or a slow and lackluster burn out. The answer is to put in the hard work necessary and learn to live humbly.

Why is this hard?

  1. Living humbly means genuinely caring about a cause greater than ourselves, more than ourselves.
  2. Living humbly is counter-culture. In a world fixated on Instagram photos proclaiming our wealth and experience, LinkedIn profiles touting our professional accomplishments, and ever more curated filters and edits of our public personas, being humble is quite unfashionable.
  3. Living humbly means suffering in silence, taking those inevitable injustices thrust upon us nobly, with dignity, and with a patient and calculated temperance that tempers our instant desire to rage out with indignation.

Lin Manuel Miranda’s rendition of George Washington says it well when he admonishes Hamilton:

“Dying is easy; young man, living is harder”

Living, indeed, is harder. Living humbly, harder still.

A few suggestions

By no means do I have all the answers, and by no means have I figured this out in a way that I can daily apply this to my own life, so take these suggestions as simply my thoughts in my journey.

  1. Actively look for places where you’re not the smartest one in the room. Our egos desire recognition and praise for our contributions and efforts. In seeking environments where others are further than us, we increase the ease by which we can place ourselves in postures of humility.
  2. Read. A lot. One of the most beneficial impacts of reading is that it puts us in our place. It causes us to come to terms with the fact that there is an incomprehensible amount of information, knowledge, and wisdom that we do not possess. At the time of this writing, it is estimated that the world currently contains anywhere between 125-150 million books. The amount of collective wisdom, experience, and knowledge contained in those volumes is enough to humble even the most arrogant among us.
  3. Measure your learnings, not your accomplishments. Instead of measuring what you’ve done, measure what you’ve learned. What we’ve learned tells us story of the journey; what we’ve done, the destination. The journey is infinitely more interesting.

My boys, my desire for your lives is that you would be kind, that you would be surrounded by people of integrity, and above all else that you would live lives characterized by a posture of humility and an eagerness to learn.



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