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 tagged with #Books
We live in a world that is increasingly polarized and extreme, and in a time where everyone seems to have strong opinions that are strongly held (and unfortunately, usually weakly researched). Many folks with extreme thoughts are also closed off to other inputs and conversations from folks with differing perspectives. The unfortunate result of which is further divide and disconnect between people. Some of this is natural.
In the past century, our world has gotten a lot smaller. Air travel prices have drastically reduced such that the average person is able to fly and see much more of the world than ever before (in 2022 the Gallup poll stats show that the average American flies 1.4 times a year). Video conferencing technologies make it possible to talk to virtually anyone in the world in real time. The internet has made it possible to access news, research, and opinions from anywhere and everywhere in the world instantaneously.
In this environment, it is natural that those seeking to be heard and to build a platform would have to differentiate themselves. Since your local newspaper is no longer your only source for news, agencies and publications need to differentiate themselves. The media is shaped by “newsworthiness”, which is in turn shaped by what is trending on Twitter and Facebook. The easiest way to get things to trend? Toss outrageous extreme grenades at core beliefs and watch it rain.
This type of extremism, while being occasionally amusing at best and purposefully confrontational at worst, does not lead you to a great life. It does not bring people together. It does not create a better world. It does not bring the type of vulnerable closeness that we seek, and does not lead to great and long-lasting outcomes.
The pitfalls of extremism
There are many pitfalls to extremism of any sort, but that’s not our primary topic today so we’ll touch on this only briefly. In my mind there are two major downfalls of extremism as we see it playing out in our world.
The first is that it divides and does not unite. Having strong opinions is fine - great even. But those strong opinions must be weakly held, and must be fair game for honest and open conversation and debate, and must not close the door for collaboration. Remember that human life is created to move forward together. We were created for relationship.
Oliver Burkeman put it perfectly in his book Four Thousand Weeks:
“The truth is that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others.”
Put simply, extremism breaks cooperation.
Second, our current rendition of extremism is not open to other ideas. Rather than allowing new information from opposing opinions to change our minds and provide us perspective, these encounters tend to deepen our certainty about our own perspectives. This echo chamber is further amplified by social media’s knack for surfacing more opinions that are like ours (and slightly more extreme than ours - as we said above, grenades generate great click rates).
A balanced approach
In contrast, there is much beauty to be found outside of the extremes.
Consider a simple example. We hold in high regard the quality of courage. We make movies about men and women who demonstrate high amounts of courage. We give awards, commendations, and much recognition for courageous acts. It is a trait we believe the paragon of virtue contains.
Yet this trait taken to either extreme is bad. In extreme excess, this trait becomes rashness. In extreme deficiency, this trait becomes cowardice. We need the balanced middle; courage.
Another example. There is a fine line between neediness and vulnerability. It is perfectly fine to vulnerably express that things have been quiet of late and therefore one has been lonely. That is explicitly different than expressing that one is lonely and needs to never be left alone again.
Aristotle provides the following framework, for which we’ve filled in a few examples:
|Vice from deficiency||Balance||Vice from excess|
Our world is not characterized by balance. We all too often lean into either excess, and see examples of those all around us.
Learning through diversity
Why is it so common for people to lean into excesses? To address this, it’s useful to understand how our childhood programming around learning factors into all of this.
We were taught that when we learn, whether we are reading, discussing, or experiencing, we gather inputs in order to strengthen a given argument. We start with the assumption that our belief is true and then we seek to confirm that. We need to flip our understanding of learning so that we learn from the bottom up. We need to read, ponder, and process for the purpose of gleaning knowledge and wisdom from the text, not to reinforce an idea we’ve already held.
By adjusting thus, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting because it gives us an opportunity to expand our thinking, and to gather more perspectives on a given topic.
In work as in life, perspective matters. But more than that, knowing which perspective to adopt is essential, and our ability to find the right level of zoom and the right altitude to take will be critical to our continued growth along the path that we’ve intentionally set ourselves out on.
Let me unpack that.
First, it is good to understand that there are many different perspectives to any given situation. Having a good range of perspectives that you can understand so that you can pick and choose the right one to handle a given situation will be very beneficial.
Next, figure out the right zoom level. When you zoom in as deep as you can, many details emerge that you could not see at higher altitudes; perhaps you can see the details of the seashell in your hand, and its intricate colors and contours and textures. Zooming out, you are able to see that this seashell was sitting on a beach filled with many other seashells. Further still, you are able to see that this beach is a part of a river, lake, or ocean. Even further and you are able to see that this river flows from one large body of water to another.
We need to be able to discern when it is in our best interest to zoom in and look at all the granular details and when it is best to zoom out and look at the big picture. We need to determine which perspective and zoom level gives us the best perspective to make the best decision possible.
It is said that life is a series of individual moments that make up a larger path. Each of these moments requires us to pick the right perspective so that we can best stick to the larger path that we intend for our life progression.
Balancing impact and savoring life
We’re often told that we need to go big or go home. We’re trained to think about our careers as the thing of utmost importance. We’re pushed to be productive, to have lasting impact, to have great effect on our teams, our industries, and our world.
And somewhere along the way, we accepted that this came at the expense of savoring life.
But here too, it is possible to have a balance! The key is to think through what you want and how hard you want to run after each thing. We must realize that in life, as in work, there are skills to be developed, discipline to be employed, and learning to be had to savor and enjoy life to the full.
Yes, you read that right. We need to learn and apply effort to enjoying life.
We grow up believing we need to put effort into school, into learning new skills, into getting better at sports, at music, at art. But for some reason, we think that relationships should be easy. We think that enjoying life should be easy. We think that finding someone who you can spend your life with, and who you can squeeze every ounce of enjoyment and pleasure out of life with should be easy.
It takes as much effort, learning, intention, and instruction to savor life as it does to be highly impactful in our world. We need to therefore work hard to get as much of both as possible, and in doing so find the right balance for us at every given moment.
A final word on solutions
Something I’m learning is that there are no solutions, only adjustments for a certain time. Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems. As such, I want to encourage you not to think of any of this as a solution for how to live a balanced life. Rather, we make adjustments for a time, for a season, for a spell. And when it is appropriate to do so, we reevaluate and make more adjustments.
My sons, life is dynamic. It is free flowing. It is full of beauty, of joy, of sadness, of sorrow. It is rich with color, abundant in love, spotted with pain, with the occasional streaks of anger. It is best experienced together, with vulnerability and trust.
My hope for you is that you live lives that are not characterized by extreme behaviors but rather of balanced, thoughtful, mindful, and measured.
Tags: #Balance #Books #Connection #Mindset #Learning
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.
Tags: #Character #Discipline #Connection #Strength #Mind #Persistence #Books
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.
Tags: #Character #Love #Connection #Strength #Feelings #Books
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.
Tags: #Meaning #Intentional #Books #Loss #Love #Connection