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 #Learning

My sons,

I am not a mind reader. I can’t read your minds, can’t predict what you’re going to do next, and can’t know how you’re feeling or what you’re actively concerned about. ‘But of course,’ you say, ‘no one can do that.’

And yet that’s often the unspoken expectation in many of our relationships.

Take a minute to process that. While I’m sure everyone would agree that they themselves cannot read minds, but we often expect others to read our minds. Sure, we may disguise that desire in cliches. “If she really knew me, she would know what I think about this thing”. “I’ve raised him and lived with him for his 25 years. He should know what I want”. “We’ve been married for 10 years. He should know what makes me happy”. “We grew up together. She knows me like the back of her own hand”.

Bullshit.

This type of thinking is not the mark of a mature adult. It is unrealistic and impractical. It typically indicates that the individual has not spent the time to learn and understand the depth of relationships and the work required to attain them, and by extension that they do not and cannot experience the richest depth relationships have to offer. More on that later.

Why we expect people to read our minds

At a young age, we were taught that when we cry, mommy and daddy know what we want and give it to us. While they may not be right on the first time, they generally get it within a few tries. This is easy when you’re a newborn - all you do is eat, sleep, and poop.

However, many of us have not progressed past that. Once we mastered language, we were never taught to rewire our actions and our expectations to incorporate advanced communication. The Good Book provides some instruction here:

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.” - 1 Corinthians 13:11

To certain degrees, we have all done this. We’ve grown, we’ve developed the necessary communication skills to get by in professional and many social settings. We’ve learned to give presentations, to send and respond to party invitations, and to communicate with kids’ teachers and counselors.

And yet when it comes to communicating about our feelings, our desires, or our fears, most of us still follow the ways of childhood. We expect others to extrapolate from a small statement about putting a plate in the sink that we feel uneasy without a spotless kitchen at the end of the night. We demand perfect recall from our partner of every comment we’ve made in passing about our desires. How dare they not forget? Do they not love us or care for us?

We are not mind readers.

We desire to be known

Some of this stems from our desire to be known. As people, we need connection. We were built for relationship. We thrive in community. We need diversity. We need novelty, new inputs, and different perspectives in our lives.

This need to be known is natural, and is a great thing. Human connection is strongest and the most uplifting when we are wholly known. Collaboration is at its maximum, motivation and inspiration soar, and sparks of new ideas fly when we deeply and completely connect with someone, know, and are known by them.

But we’re also lazy.

We desire to be known without wanting to do the work required to build the type of relationships that allow us to be fully known. We have some notion that the level of connection we’re looking for should happen without our need to learn about it or to apply any effort to get it. We believe that time should be sufficient. That the simple fact of being childhood friends, of being married for a decade, or of having grown up sharing a room (and some hand-me-down clothes) should be sufficient and should automatically make us known.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way relationships in reality work. That level of connection requires one very important thing that most of us are quite poor at: being vulnerable.

Being vulnerable is a skill

When we were young, vulnerability came easily. We had few desires (eat, sleep, poop) and were quite ready to communicate (cry, wail, tantrum) them to anyone that would listen. So far so good.

But then as we grew, we developed more awareness of ourselves. We began to understand and feel embarrassment. We were taught about propriety and civility. We began to see the complex social systems around us. And we began to feel fear.

So much so that by the time we grew into our teenage years, most of us retreated into the recesses of our being, determined to avoid the embarrassment that comes from having the spotlight shone on us. Our bodies were changing - our hormones and thought processes were continually evolving, adapting to the new situations we found ourselves in. Our physical discomfort was made worse by our mental and emotional discomfort, and so we employed self preservation mechanisms.

Unfortunately, most of these mechanisms created separation and isolation. We expressed apathy towards things. We retreated to our rooms behind closed doors. We resorted to hiding behind the facade of a well-curated social media persona that we carefully crafted for ourselves.

As we reached adulthood, we came horribly unequipped and ill prepared for the type of vulnerability required to build the deep relationships that we crave. To add insult to injury we even began believing that this is simply the way things are, and that this level of arms length relationship is all that is possible and feasible as adults.

Thankfully we are wrong. It is possible to enjoy a deeper closeness than many of us grew up believing. It is possible to be in an environment and relationship where one can express themselves wholly and not be judged, and in fact be accepted, celebrated, and valued. But we must work on it. We must learn, we must experiment, we must take risks. To get the attainable amount of closeness we desire, we must develop the skill of vulnerability.

Learning to communicate

Arguably the most important skill a human being can ever develop, communication is the very core of any society, modern or ancient, and is the key to creating the environment of trust and vulnerability that we need to flourish. We must learn to skillfully communicate our needs, desires, and fears in a way that invites positive reciprocation and deepens relationship. To do that, we need to realize a few things.

  1. Being vulnerable is a risk. By definition, it is taking the risk to put oneself out there without defenses, with nothing but the hope that we will not be attacked while our guard is down. But there is great reward as well. If we put ourselves out there, and the other party reciprocates and instead of slamming us nurtures and loves us, our lack of defenses actually multiplies and intensifies the closeness experienced, and by extension the strength of the relationship built. As such, it is important to be judicious about who you are vulnerable with, and who you bring into your inner circle to share yourself with.
  2. You will most likely have to take the first step. Bridges are built from both ends, but getting to mutual agreement on the bridge often requires one side to start building first to demonstrate commitment to the investment. Which side starts is of no importance; it therefore might as well be you.
  3. In any communication, how you communicate matters as much (if not more) than what you communicate. This means things like tone, body language, choice of words, facial expressions - all of these matter as much as the message itself.

So how do we improve here? A couple of quick thoughts.

  1. Read. There are tons of books that provide great perspectives on communicating and how we can learn to be more effective at it. Books like Nonviolent Communication, The Charisma Myth, and the classic How to win friends and influence people to name a few are great resources that expand our understanding of communication.
  2. Take a small, calculated risk. Small victories where we can expose some vulnerability, can communicate some small facet of ourselves unknown to the other will lead to larger risks and larger victories. Going big to start is a surefire way for you to go home immediately after.
  3. Be persistent. Know that just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, a deep and vulnerable relationship takes time to build. Because they are rare, your relation may not be immediately receptive. Stay the course.

In learning to communicate, in learning to create spaces of trust that promotes vulnerability, we remove the need for our partners, friends, and colleagues to read our minds. And so my boys, my hope for you is that you will develop the skills necessary to have relationships and partnership where not only do they not need to read your mind, but you also do not have to read theirs.


My sons,

If there’s one thing in the world that I wish to be known as, it’s this; to be a lifelong learner. Over and above every other possible thing, I hope to be remembered as someone who was always learning, always looking for great inputs, always considering those inputs against his current perspective, and always willing and ready to have a mind shifting conversation. No matter what the realm we’re considering; be it relationship, engineering, management and leadership, spirituality, or even health or politics, I hope to have the attitude and mindset of one that is learning, all the days of my life.

This is because the world we live in is incredibly vast, and gets increasingly more complex with each year that passes. So much so that it is impossible for any one person to see it all, know it all, experience it all. The wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is collected, refined, and passed down through generations is awe-inspiring. There is much richness contained there that we ought to tap into in order to further accelerate our experience.

We were all born with an innate drive for progress. Whether you’re a creationist that believes that this is the breath of God in you or an evolutionist that believes that this trait is what made our forefathers fittest to survive, it is undeniable that we each have a spark; a special, mystical force within us that compels us forward.

And learning is the very core of that.

So then, if it’s so important, why do so many of us struggle with it? Not only in our formative years where we’re expected to learn, but in our later years where we have choice and as such choose not to continue? Why have we been so ill-equipped to truly be lifelong learners?

How we were trained to think about learning

When we were young, our education systems taught us that learning was for a purpose, and that purpose was the same for each of us. We were taught that learning was for the purpose of passing exams. Because ultimately, if you do well on exams, then you’d have a leg up on life, and you’d be able to succeed and have a great life.

And so everything we did at a young age revolved around this simple idea that the goal of learning was success. The process was laid out simply as learning -> acceptance to a good college -> get a good job -> have a good life.

That simple idea framed everything. It impacted what we read and how we read it. It caused us to think of writing as a means to that end. It changed how we research and expanded on our ideas. It engulfed the first 20+ years of our lives with an all-consuming requirement that most of us don’t realize is wrong until much, much later.

Allow me to restate the obvious just for completeness: the goal of learning is not to pass exams.

Why we learn

There are many intermediate goals that we may have in our lives for which learning is a required part of the journey (yes, passing exams is one of those). However, I would propose a more lofty goal.

The goal of learning is to gain wisdom, knowledge, and perspective that we can then apply to every facet of our lives.

Each of us has our own path to forge, our own destiny to follow, and our own legacy to leave. We each want to live a great life. We desire many things for ourselves; success, love, greatness, wealth, happiness, relationship. The list is long but distinguished for each of us, but at the end of it all, we each want to know that we lived a rich and full life.

At a young age, we believed that life to be about maximizing self, especially in comparison to others. We strove to be on top, to beat others. We loved (and for many, still love) being right a lot. This is because being right has a lot of beneficial side effects.

Not only do we get the pleasure of knowing that we were right and did the right thing, but we get reinforced by a number of forces both internal and external when we’re right. We may get praise when we’re right. We may be rewarded. We may gain trust and earn respect from our peers. We may be seen in high regard in our community.

Taken with the right attitude, there is nothing wrong with being right a lot. In fact, society on a whole moves forward by people striving to be right and to do the right thing. However, there are two ways to be right a lot. One is to learn a lot. The other is to never leave your niche.

It is good to leave your niche.

Disagreement as you learn

Only a fool assumes they know everything. Wise men know the limits of their own knowledge and are thirsty for more. They leave their niches in search for more wisdom and knowledge. They endeavor to learn; from experiences, and from others.

It is human nature to think about ourselves. Everyone can do that. However, it is unnatural (ie not sinister, but simply not natural) for people to think about others, to see things from their perspective, and to thoughtfully disagree in a way that encourages communication and facilitates joint learning.

As such, we must learn to appreciate (and develop!) the art of thoughtful disagreement. When you are able to find someone that can disagree with you thoughtfully and unemotionally, hold on to that - those people are rare!

Remember that it is pointless to be angry at a disagreement. Disagreements should not be seen as threats but rather as opportunities for learning and for refining one’s perspective.

How we learn

Ultimately, learning boils down to taking in new inputs, analyzing those against our current system of thought and belief, and determining how we adjust those beliefs in response to the input. These inputs can be new experiences, new ideas, or new rumination and insights gained about existing ideas.

There are three major ways to get new inputs: reading, ruminating, and living.

1. Reading

The traditional method of learning has us reading a text in order to strengthen a given argument. It starts with the assumption that the argument is true and then leaves us to confirm that. If you want to learn to be a better leader, read a book on how to lead. If you want to learn to cook well, read a book on how to cook.

As simple as this approach is, it’s insufficient at best and outright wrong at worst.

There is so much more to reading an article, book, or passage than the singular idea that one is trying to develop. With this top down approach, we throw out other sub themes that may be incredibly insightful for us.

A quick example that many of us have done. You’re reading a leadership book. Why would you care about the author’s anecdote about social justice? Just skip that and move on.

This type of top down learning is incredibly inefficient, and promotes echo chambers of confirmation bias.

Learning and insight must come from the bottom up. It is done by developing many ideas bottom up and seeing which ideas and arguments develop naturally, and then following those threads to their natural conclusion. It is from those naturally developed arguments that our thinking evolves and our beliefs and convictions are shaped!

As such, we should read for the sake of discovering something new. If we approach our reading as an act of discovery, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting, because the our approach values and promotes diversity. This then impacts our enjoyment and subsequently our desire to read more, which impacts our opportunities for greater learning.

2. Ruminating

What do you think about when you think of the term ‘ruminating’? If you’re like me, my mind conjures up images of standing at some great height, with the camera angle pointing upwards at me as I stare reflectively off into the distance. Some pensive soundtrack is playing, like Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Bach’s Cello Suite in G Major.

Of course, life doesn’t actually happen that way.

Much of the time, ruminating can be tough. For even the most well-intentioned ruminator, this endeavor if left undisciplined and untrained can quickly devolve into an aimless wandering of the mind, much akin to a daydream.

Enter writing.

In his book How to take smart notes Sonke Ahrens describes a wondrous system that utilizes the discipline of writing as a refining tool for our thinking. At a young age, we were trained to write for the purpose of validating learning. We wrote exams and papers to demonstrate that we indeed learned the topic at hand.

Ahrens argues that we have to change our mindset to one that views writing as a generator of learning. Writing causes us to learn, causes us to study, causes us to debate, converse, and participate in the public realm of knowledge. When we write, our brains think about what we’re attempting to write about, and formulates connections with all the other inputs that we’ve got floating around in there.

It is this act of synthesis that accelerates our learning. In order for the brain to write down a tangible and meaningful statement, it must consider our vast amounts of inputs on a topic and summarize it into something useful to be written. This is the very act of focusing our ruminations. It is directed. It is intentional. It is disciplined.

3. Living

We often overemphasize this one by chalking everything up to “learning through life experience”. Yes, life experience gives us many inputs. It gives us many opportunities for which new ideas may be encountered. It provides many challenging situations for us to endeavor to overcome.

But all of these opportunities require the right framing. They require the right mindset. They require courage. They require us to lean not on the understanding of others.

We must have the courage to use our own understanding. We cannot truly learn and understand if we are always applying knowledge only in the fashion by which we are instructed! Life experience allows us to extrapolate our knowledge into real experiences, and to learn how we can continually do better.

Have an open mind

I’ll leave you with one final thought; approach life with an open mind.

Often, the most profound lessons in our lives come from the most unlikely places. Remember that there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Having an open mind allows us to learn from anything and anyone, to take the lifetime of learnings from others and to add those to our own journey.

And that ultimately allows us to be the best selves that we can be.


My sons,

Life is full of choices. Some are easy and seemingly insignificant (what should you eat for breakfast?). Some are harder (should you go to Vancouver this weekend?). Some seem huge and very hard (which college should you go to?). No matter what aspect of life you consider - be it work, relational, academic, medical - we will have hard choices to make. These decisions are hard because they are by definition not simple (ie there is no objectively measurable way to decide) and because the impacts of these choices will typically have a pretty large impact and reach on our lives.

Studies have shown that the average adult makes 35,000 choices a day, around 250 of which are made on just food alone (Wansink and Sobal, 2007)! As a result, it is in our best interest to ensure that we deal with these choices well. To do that, we need to consider a few things.

Understanding the role of emotions in our decision making

For the majority of people, whether we admit it or not, our emotions play a large part in our decision making. There are many that want to believe that they are completely logical, and that emotions don’t play a part in their decision making, but the reality is that we are an emotional and relational species. It is almost impossible for the average person to completely remove emotion from their decision making.

The exception of course, is the clinical psychopath, who actually has deficient emotional responses and a lack of ability to apply empathy to a given situation. Since the majority of us are not psychopathic, we need to understand that the biggest threat to good decision making is harmful emotions. Whether that emotion is fear, anger, pain, or shame, strong emotional reactions left not checked are a great threat to our decisions and to our learning.

First, we need to realize this. Many don’t have the self awareness to realize that their emotions are actually playing a large factor in their lives. For much of my life, I prided myself on the ability to think logically and make decisions based on that logic. As a computer scientist, that was an incredibly valuable trait. Personality tests also confirmed this bias (the typical software engineer tests as an INTJ as their Myers-Briggs personality type). It took much learning through painful trial and error and several rude awakenings for me to realize that I in fact am a highly emotionally oriented person that masked (and rationalized) much of that in logical thinking.

Next, we need to understand that these strong emotions prevent us from learning. Learning is often greatest in pivotal/crisis moments, and strong emotional responses left unchecked will push us quickly into fight or flight mode instead of allowing us to learn from the experience. Remember that the important thing is to acquire knowledge and have it paint a true and rich picture of the world in which you need to make decisions. That requires an open mind, something that harmful emotions prevent.

Learning before deciding

Once we foster an environment of learning in our lives, we can freely realize and accept that learning must come before deciding. In order to make the best decisions for our lives, we must realize that decisions ought to be the process of choosing which knowledge should be drawn upon from the variety of inputs and alternatives that we’ve thoughtfully considered, and not solely based on how we feel at a given moment. If we do not learn, then our pool to draw from is very shallow, and our decisions will be reflective of this.

Learning is the act of taking in many inputs, thoughtfully considering them, weighing them against our values and principles, and creating a strong basis for us to make decisions. The stronger that basis the greater our ability to not only consider first order consequences but second and third order ones as well, which in turn allows us to make better decisions and allows us to have more confidence in them.

This is why we need a range of experiences.

From having a diverse group of friends to being exposed to a wide array of ideas and thoughts, from trying new foods, sports, and experiences to spending time reading about topics that you’re not immediately interested in, building a wide range of perspectives allows us have a larger pool to draw from when we consider our options. This in turn allows us to make better decisions.

Have the courage to make the choice

It’s not enough however, to just know what the right decision is. Often the case with hard choices is that the thing we don’t choose has a negative impact on our situation, so we must be ready for that. The reality is that there will be benefits and consequences to every option that we consider, and often the best decision is one that comes with a lot of cost.

The second order implication is that not making the right hard choice may be less painful at the onset but often has a much more painful outcome in the long run.

And therein lies the rub.

We often think only about first order consequences to things and make our decisions based solely on those. The problem is that the second and third order consequences often not only have a more lasting impact but a larger magnitude of impact as well.

Consider an example.

You have a friend who has done something to upset or offend you. You have the opportunity to discuss the situation with your friend and share with them how you feel. What do you do?

The first order considerations for dealing with the situation is to consider the immediate conversation. This will be an awkward conversation, and may hurt your friend’s feelings. However the second order consideration is to think about the long term health of your friendship. Despite this being a difficult conversation to have in the immediate term, the long term benefits are that you will build a stronger friendship based on trust and honesty. The converse is that your friendship will suffer without the conversation, and will eventually fade into another one of those acquaintances that we all have many of - you know the type, where you politely say hi and make small talk when you occasionally bump into each other and avoid all depth and meaning in the relationship.

It takes courage to make the right decision.

And so my boys, I pray that not only are your lives characterized by much learning and a diverse range of experiences and inputs that lead to great decisions, but by the courage and fortitude required to make those decisions in spite of the cost of not choosing the alternatives. May you find the strength needed to choose well, and may you find the comfort and support needed to support your decisions.


My sons,

We live in a world filled with conflict. Whether we’re talking about global conflict between countries, national conflict between two parties, local conflict between two rival groups, or personal conflict between two spouses, our world is full of conflict that happens at every scale at every second. Much of that conflict, unfortunately, is handled poorly and causes divide.

We grow up being taught that there are two sides to every conflict, that conflict must be adversarial, and that there are winners and losers. We glorify that concept and even create such lasting impressions in movies, literature, and eventually in our minds.

Glorious scenes like the one from The Rock where Major Baxter (played by David Morse) points a gun at the head of General Hummel (played by Ed Harris) and says, “like he said General, you’re either with us or against us”. Even the Good Book highlights this in Romans 8:31 where Paul writes “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

As a result, this “us vs them” mentality is rampant everywhere from our schoolyards to our political systems. While this may be a useful psychological technique to generate polarization for furthering one’s end, I would argue that this is an unhealthy way to live. Instead, I’d challenge you to reframe your thinking and instead internalize the belief that

There is no “them”. Only “us”.

Since the days of Cain and Abel, our world has been divided. And since Cain and Abel our world has had much bloodshed, hatred, and poorly handled conflict at every scale.

Conflict isn’t bad

Now, I should start by stating clearly that conflict isn’t bad. Rather, I believe that conflict is very healthy and when handled productively is a huge benefit to humankind. But that’s a big condition, for us to handle conflict productively. There is no way to handle it productively if we believe that there are sides, if we believe that there are winners and losers. Instead, we should adopt the mindset that there is no “them”. The person sitting on the other side of the table isn’t our enemy. We shouldn’t be looking to win in our arguments with our spouses.

As a result, many of us try to avoid conflict. Because we’ve had negative experiences with conflict and don’t have great tools to resolve conflict productively, we try to avoid it. Our safety mechanism is to avoid and deflect. Even for those whose default is not to deflect, avoiding conflict tends to be a favored approach.

But there ought to be nuances there.

There should be a difference on what we’re having conflict about. There should be a difference when we can have conflict in a healthy fashion. There should be a difference when the thing we’re conflicted over is the pursuit of excellence. This type of conflict is good for us, and assuming we’re able to work through it well in a healthy, trusting, and communicative environment, we should not only not avoid conflict but should actively welcome it (and perhaps pursue it!) in this context.

We need to learn to see conflict as a healthy part of our growth, our development, and our learning. Because we know conflict is a regular part of interaction with others, we need to create an environment where vulnerability and honesty are prevalent, and we’re on the same side of the table. This is the first and foremost requirement, for without honesty and vulnerability there is no connection and real conversation. And disconnection brings about adversarial tendencies and perspectives.

Next, we need to be thoughtful about our conversation and our debates. We need to be willing to adjust, to accommodate, and to understand one another. This requires a degree of empathy, but it also requires patience. Patience to hear the other person’s point of view, as well as patience to thoughtfully consider whether or not the opposing view in front of you actually is something you can resonate with.

Lastly, we need agreed upon ways to decide if we can’t agree. This is critical for the long term health of the relationship. This agreed upon manner must be fair and equitable so that no one walks away with feelings of building resentment over time.

Being open minded

So how do we move to a place where we’re able to healthy sit next to one another at the table instead of at opposite sides?

By being open minded.

Open minded people want their ideas debated and challenged so that they can be refined. Open minded people realize that they don’t know everything, and in fact know very little and have a lot to learn. Open minded people view their lives as a journey with others; one where we’re all in this together to search for and discover the richest life possible.

Open minded people tend to:

  1. Seek feedback regularly and honestly
  2. Be vulnerable and humble in their approach and perspectives
  3. Ask a lot of clarifying questions with the goal of furthering their understanding
  4. Enjoy disagreements as an opportunity for learning
  5. Sit next to someone and look for ways to expand their thoughts

Closed minded people don’t want their ideas challenged because they take them as idictments. Closed minded people tend to:

  1. Get frustrated when they can’t get the other person to agree with them
  2. Are more likely to make statements than ask questions
  3. Focus on being understood rather than understanding others
  4. Ask leading questions designed to trap others to see their point of view
  5. Sit across from someone and look for ways to shut down their opinions

Value unity

Lastly, value unity. There is so much division and derision in this world without our adding to it. In my life, I’ve had my share of unifying moments and dividing ones both as the victim of those moments and the instigator. Sadly, in my youth I’ve too often been the instigator of dividing moments, most (if not all) of which are very regrettable. Many of those dividing events were driven from principle, from hurt, from self-preservation. It took a lot of pain and work to learn that whatever satisfaction I got from those actions was always short lived and ultimately not conducive to me learning to become the man that I desired to be.

Instead, I’ve been learning to see the value of togetherness, of building unity, and of being a peacemaker. Despite it being hard, unintuitive, and often very frustrating, I’ve learned that unity and connection is far better than being right, than being justified in my righteous indignation.

Turns out a life of togetherness is much happier, much richer, and much more fulfilling than a life that is proven right often but regularly lonely. Turns out acceptance, understanding, and compassion is far more rewarding than one of validation, vindication, and judgment.

And so my boys, I urge you to learn at whatever age you can that there ought to be no “them”. No matter who you imagine sitting on the other side of the table, no matter who you think is standing in the way of your goals, no matter who you believe has it out for you, I can assure you that you will have much better conflict resolution and lead a much happier life if you think of those people as “us”.


My sons,

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
Cowardice Courage Rashness
Shamelessness Modesty Bashfulness
Pettiness Munificence Vulgarity
Sulking Assertion Rage
Fierce independence Vulnerability Neediness

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.

Perspective matters

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.

Wrong.

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.


My sons,

Bad stuff happens. At work, at home, in our relationships, in our world. That’s just a simple, unavoidable fact. C’est la vie, as our French-speaking neighbors would say. That’s life. In fact, the Good Book clearly indicates that this is just the reality that we’re going to need to live with. Jesus tells us that “in this world, you will have trouble.” (John 16:33).

Bad situations are simply a given - there isn’t much we can do about that. Sure, we can try our best to avoid them, and we may even be successful for a time. But you can’t run forever, and you certainly can’t live a meaningful and fulfilling life by running away from anything and everything that could potentially turn into a bad situation.

How we respond then, is of critical importance.

We must realize that bad situations won’t get better with bad reactions! Unfortunately, left to our naturally selfish inclinations we will generally react poorly to situations that don’t match up to expectations. Put differently, if we don’t intentionally do something about it, we will all react poorly to bad situations. I’ll go further and posit that many of us actually go beyond reacting poorly to reacting terribly.

Think of the uncontrollable anger you feel when someone cuts you off, or abuses using the HOV lane. Think of your irritation when someone cuts in line in front of you, or when the last of the boba was taken by the order right in front of yours. Whatever your vice is, whatever the situations that set you off are, we all naturally react poorly to bad situations.

But those bad reactions don’t actually make the bad situation any better! In fact, they generally make things worse! Not only is the situation unfortunate, but now it’s an unfortunate situation with an ill-tempered (and often ill-mannered) person in the mix! To add insult to injury, once there is one poor reactor in the mix, their negative reaction will generally set off a chain reaction of negativity with others who have the unfortunate circumstances of being in those bad situations with them.

And then all hell breaks loose and you hate life for a while.

The beauty of humanity though is that we can train ourselves to respond differently. With effort and learning, we can develop the ability to interject in that split microsecond when our brain first acknowledges the unfortunate circumstance and our body flies into action.

But first let’s discuss a few less-bad but still not optimal alternatives to responding well.

Avoiding bad situations

We know that bad situations are hard. They can be painful, physically, mentally, or emotionally. They can cause strain on our bodies, on our relationships, on our productivity, and on any number of other dimensions. They can derail us and feel like we’re being slammed by a train that no one saw coming.

It’s therefore natural that people will try to avoid them.

There is a flip side however. None of us have crystal balls, and therefore can’t predict when bad situations will happen. Attempting to avoid them altogether then, will mean that we’ll end up avoiding a bunch of things that we think might turn into a bad situation, but may not. In fact, what we think could be a bad situation might actually turn out to be a life changingly wonderful situation.

By constantly choosing the path of avoidance, we inadvertently remove opportunities for greatness as well. We remove ourselves from opportunities to be loved. We preclude vulnerability. We trade a rich and full life, filled with ups and downs, for a mediocre one, filled with, well, not much to speak of.

Clearly that’s sub optimal.

Blaming someone/something else

Next, we can choose instead to blame someone else, to have a constant scape goat for the situation. “Oh if only Suzy didn’t set this up so poorly. Gosh I wish she was more competent”. “If only they increased the skill level required to have a license, there wouldn’t be these incompetent drivers all over the place. Stupid government.”

One American rock band sang that “everybody knows that the world is full of stupid people” in their 1995 one-hit wonder song, “Banditos”. So much easier to blame everyone else.

The problem there is that by blaming anyone and everyone for the bad situations that happen in our lives, we relinquish control of the situation, and therefore are unable to make the situation any better! If we ignore it, blame someone else for it, try to minimize our believed impact, or any other number of avoidance strategies, we position ourselves as victims with no recourse but resignation and resentment.

Clearly also sub optimal.

Working on yourself

Instead, we can work on ourselves. Rather than reacting instinctively, we need to respond thoughtfully and intentionally.

Let’s unpack that.

Reacting is what you do when a situation occurs and you simply let instinct take over. There are many instances where this is a wonderful thing, and training our reactions, lowering reaction time, and leaning into our natural responses is what we want to do: playing sports, driving, having a snowball fight, dodging stray shopping carts or snowboards barreling down the hill towards you.

However, there are just as many instances where reacting is not the right thing, where our fight or flight instinct will actually get us into an even worse situation. Conflict with spouses, being cut off by an unaware driver, receiving critical feedback, and many more.

Mindfully creating space

As a result, we must learn to be mindful. There are many benefits to mindfulness, and there are tons of articles, ted talks, books, teachers, and philosophers out there where you can learn more about that. I’m not going to cover that here. However, I will focus on one element of mindfulness that I think is apropos here, and that is the ability to create space.

Mindfulness creates the space for you to respond thoughtfully instead of reacting instinctively. It injects an imperceptible space in between which allows you to have the space necessary to be thoughtful about your response. It gives us the room and the tools to decide how we respond instead of reacting out of instinct.

By injecting a brief pause in between our brain’s decision to act vs our body’s reaction, we can rewire our actions despite our initial internal reaction. This allows us to respond in a way that is congruent with our beliefs and our values.

Using that space to your advantage

It’s not enough just to create space. We need to know what to do with that space. This is where learning comes in, and why it’s so critical to have constant streams of inputs into our lives.

These inputs - be they articles, books, TED talks, podcasts, videos, or even rich conversations - are the basis by which we learn to respond better. We need to ensure that our inputs expose us to a wide range of ideas and topics. In his book “Range”, David Epstein outlines why we need a range of inputs and experiences, what range does to our brains, and how range helps our responses in seemingly unrelated areas.

His premise is that the dynamic nature of the world that we live in requires a flexible and fluid approach. While the traditional thinking around 10,000 hours of practice at a single skill may hold true in a static environment (for example playing the piano; pianos haven’t changed substantially since early inception some 300 years ago), success in a dynamic environment requires flexibility and adaptability that can only be improved by a wide range of experiences and inputs.

Of course, it is not enough to merely have inputs. One must process them in order for them to be of any benefit. It is a widespread understanding that you haven’t really learned something until you can teach it to someone else. The reason here is that in order to teach, one must go beyond ingesting input to the place where one can synthesize their own output. It is this processing that allows true learning to take place, and allows our inputs to take a hold in our lives.

Taking responsibility

It is true that some of us have a natural constitution that causes us to be more impatient than others. Some are born into more patient and calm environments, some are born with genetic disposition towards calmness. But those are all starting points. We must go beyond blaming our circumstances and take responsibility for our own development.

We are no longer children. As such, we have the same 24 hours in a day that everyone else does, and the same ability to intentionally use those 24 hours for our own improvement, our own development. We all know people (or at least have seen characters in movies) that have poise, that are good in crises, that handle life like it’s easy, even when it isn’t. These people are able to do that not because they may have been blessed with a calmer constitution, but because they have also taken the time to learn and to train themselves to be calm and collected under pressure.

My sons, my hope for you is that you realize that bad situations get better only with good responses, and that those responses can be learned, can be trained, and can be improved upon. Like everything else, our ability to respond thoughtfully is a skill that anyone can learn and can practice. Let’s learn together.


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