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 #Mindset

My sons,

We live in a world of instant gratification, of content on demand, and of immediate feedback. We are constantly looking for ways to eliminate toil, to remove delays, and to get exactly what we want, when we want it. People are always looking for quick fixes.

Take a look at your reading feed. As I write this, I’m using Medium as the hosting provider, which means that I get daily emails from Medium with suggested stories for me to read. 99% of those stories have headlines like “5 things you need to do to get your life on track” or “3 easy steps to achieve your career goals”. Almost every headline is some small set of steps to get quick results, some hack to eliminate the toil and time needed.

That is not how character is made.

Character is developed slowly, over time. It is intentional. It is a painstaking process. It requires grit, determination, and will. It is the explicit declaration that it is not what we accomplish that matters most, but how we accomplish it. It is the understanding that the journey, the struggle, the road taken to get there, wherever that may be, is of primary importance.

And so we must struggle well.

We must learn to shift our aim to the struggle, the growth, and the refinement of character. Otherwise, we will never be satisfied. By achieving our goals, we are often left empty - it is not the achievement, the attainment of the prize, or the trophy rewarded to us after that satisfies and fulfills; it is the knowledge that we have struggled well.

To some extent, the outcome doesn’t even matter!

Yes, we need a great outcome to set our eyes on, to inspire, to motivate. But ultimately, whether we achieve it or not in the long run is less important. “If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’re still among the stars”. “Life’s a journey, not a destination”. So much conventional wisdom tells us that it is not the goal that matters, but the struggle.

This is why at the end of his life, the Apostle Paul is able to say that “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day”. Beautiful.

Paul knew that the struggle mattered, not the outcome. And so we too need to struggle well. We need to set ourselves up not for success but for a well-fought battle, regardless of outcome.

Building strength

Nature tells us that strength is better than weakness. Whether you’re an evolutionist that believes in survival of the fittest, a capitalist that believes in the best product winning, or simply a compassionate human that believes in helping those that are in need, our world tells us that strength is something to be desired.

We also know that struggling builds strength. Physical strength is built with exercise. Mental fortitude is built with dedicated time and energy spent on development, analysis, and understanding of oneself. Emotional strength is built by experience, by reflection, and by understanding. Every facet of our lives is made stronger by struggle.

It is the very reason that we take on challenges that stretch us, and is the reason why we grow the most when we are out of our depth. It is the process by which we grow, by which we refine. It is the very act of moving life forward.

What does it mean to struggle well?

We know that life has a plethora of challenges that every human needs to deal with, and we know that not everyone handles those challenges well. So what does it mean to struggle well?

First of all, struggling well requires mental fortitude. We must be people of perseverance and determination. This requires us to have a big picture view and vision of our situation so that we can see the value of our struggling and the growth that comes at the end of it. It requires us to take things in perspective of our grander journey, and to both see and play the long game.

This is hard.

Humans are hard wired to look for quick wins, to optimize for the immediate and local, to think about self ahead of the greater collective. With that mindset, people will avoid the struggle and take the paths of least resistance that allows them to get to the greatest gain with the least effort. Resist that.

Next, struggling well requires a framework or an archetype. It is not enough to simply struggle. By struggling without thought, reason, purpose, or framing, we simply struggle without gain (and often without benefit or positive outcome). Instead, we must be thoughtful about our endeavors, and be intentional about the purpose for which we struggle.

When we struggle for the sake of learning, for the pursuit of our passions, or for the advancement of something we believe in, we struggle well. For when the going gets tough we need things to sustain us, reasons to keep us going. It is not enough for us to struggle through by sheer willpower alone; no, that won’t produce the outcomes that we desire. Rather, struggle well for a cause, for a reason, for a purpose, and presently you will discover that after your time of struggle you will have evolved and grown not just despite the struggle, but rather because of the struggle. And we know that for mankind, evolving is life’s greatest accomplishment and its greatest reward.

Lastly, struggling well requires reflection. It is not enough to simply power through the rough times in life. Rather, we must recover, pause, and take time to reflect on our experiences during the struggle so that we can reframe, digest, and evolve as humans. It is that reflection that ultimately brings about our growth.

And so my boys, I urge for you to struggle well. Do not struggle in vain, without cause, reason, or purpose, but rather for a vision grander than the mundane so that you too will be refined in your struggling, and will become better men because of it.

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”.