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 posted in 2019

My sons,

One of the most beautiful things about the human race is that we have infinite potential. Throughout the ages we have faced seemingly insurmountable problems, only to have those problems solved and conquered. Time and again the next generation of our species is able to push the limits of what is currently believed to be possible and launch us into yet another age of hyper growth.

The reason we are able to accomplish so much as a species is because of the men and women who have an insatiable curiosity and propensity for learning, for experimenting, for getting a grasp on the current limitations of thought and then pushing beyond. These men and women change our world because they are curious, because they refuse to accept the status quo, and because they deeply believe that there is more.

Arguably the most important of DaVinci’s 7 principles, curiosità is defined as

an insatiably curious approach to life and an unrelenting quest for learning.

It is the foundation of progress and advancement, and is one of the most distinguishing characteristics of what it means to be human. It is a trait found in every meaningfully influential person in human history, and is at the core of being able to empower people.

What does it mean to be insatiably curious?

One of the worst sayings in our recent history is this: curiosity killed the cat. It didn’t. Stagnation did. Laziness did. Stubbornness did. An inability to adapt to the changing environment did. Curiosity is the life blood that sustains us, that pushes us to be better, to learn, to discover the boundaries, and to push through.

Being curious means to wonder, to go about one’s day and have questions pop into consciousness. Most of us do this without thinking about it. “Why did that rude driver cut me off?” “How do they make this tea taste so good?” “I wonder what my manager thinks of my performance right now?” These are harmless (and unimportant) questions that often don’t lead to anything other than a brief pause of consideration.

Being insatiably curious means one continues down the rabbit hole to ask question after question until clarity finally dawns. It means one asks bigger and broader questions until the underlying themes emerge. It means one is unwilling to accept unsatisfying answers and instead puts in the hard work to discover the truth.

And that, is the definition of learning.

What does it mean to learn?

At Amazon, one of our most important leadership principles is the principle to learn and be curious. It is one of the most important because without learning we cannot make progress. It is also one of the hardest to measure, as learning often begins with an internal shift in mindset, in approach, in perspective.

When we are unwilling to accept unsatisfying answers and are unhappy with our limited cursory understanding of a given topic, we begin to dig. We pull on threads. We follow trails. We ask questions. We seek experts.

We do all this so that we can update our mental models. Our brains create models that we apply to every action and interaction that we have. These models are used to frame the way we understand the world, the way we interpret information. As we learn, we refine these models and sharpen our focus to see our surroundings more clearly.

How to instill curiosity and inspire learning

To be quite honest, I don’t know the answer to this one. I suspect there is no one size that fits all, as what inspires each of us is different. So in an attempt to start the conversation here, I will share a few things that have inspired me over the years and attempt to draw some conclusions from them.

As Luke Burgis describes in his best selling book Wanting, much of what we desire is actually a mimetic (aka copied) desire and not a self-initiated one. We are not as original as we believe ourselves to be, and instead inherit many of our desires from the models that we have in our lives.

Something I have been very blessed to have in my life is a number of great models who have modeled curiosity, learning, and deep thinking to me. My father instilled this in me at an early age, and I often remember him at his desk reading, studying, learning. My older brother continued this model for me into my teenage rebellious years, and as an adult I have had the distinct pleasure of being mentored by several lifelong learners.

I have also had the great advantage of resources. Never in our world’s history has access to information and knowledge been so easy! Public libraries, 2-day shipping on practically every book still in print (and many not), access to podcasts, docents, and other experts are all things that are widely available to many.

While it is true that there is an overwhelming abundance of noise in our environment, with a little effort one can distinguish the signals of learning amidst the noise and can discover the voices of the truly curious. Fostering curiosity and learning therefore must consist of providing both motive and opportunity. It is our job to lead by example, to demonstrate curiosity and learning in all that we do, and to create an environment in which those we lead can have that curiosity encouraged and explored.

A cursory study into the great minds of our era will uncover their insatiable curiosity applied to a variety of topics. Einstein. DaVinci. Edison. Gates. All of these intellectual giants applied their significant mental prowess across a vast array of topics and subjects and as a result were able to draw across a wide range of learnings as they slowly but surely changed our world.

Let us follow in their footsteps and inspire (and be inspired by) others to be curious, to learn, and to slowly but surely change our world.


My sons,

I love to travel. I love the feeling of waking up in a place that isn’t home, hearing sounds, seeing sights, and smelling things that are completely new and beautiful in their uniqueness. Whenever I travel, there are always three things on my list that I can’t miss that to me give me a snapshot of culture: food, architecture, and art.

Each new city I visit and each new country I step foot in, I always make sure I experience their food - both modern and traditional, from holes in the walls to fancy fine dining. I always spend a day with my camera capturing snapshots of their architecture. And I always find some way to experience their art, be it museums full of paintings and sculpture, opera houses, symphony, or local theater. I firmly believe that there is so much beauty in the vast numbers of cultures out there, and while I have been blessed to experience many, there are still more that I have yet to discover and witness.

But of all the wonders that I’ve seen, of all the sights, scenery, and marvels that I’ve been blessed to experience, there is nothing more beautiful than the human spirit. No created thing, no picturesque landscape, no natural phenomenon can quite compare to the beauty of that spark that is within all of us. There is nothing quite like the shine of that spark when it shines, nothing quite as bright as seeing the dignity, honor, and nobility of the human spirit.

Conversely, there is nothing so heart breaking as seeing that spirit stamped out, restricted, and silenced. As Al Pacino famously pronounced in his legendary speech,

“There is nothing like the sight of an amputated spirit; there is no prosthetic for that.”

So how do we ensure we combat this? How do we lift people, elevate their spirits, and enable them to be their best? We’ve been discussing what it means to empower people recently, and I would posit that empowering people is synonymous with enabling the human spirit to be its best.

An external lift

We all begin life with the same small spark, that same thread of humanity that is characteristic of our species. In the beginning, that spark is fragile. It has infinite potential, but needs nurturing, needs nourishing to be the best that it can be. It is strong but malleable.

At the start, each of us needs an external lift. We need an environment that cultivates, that nurtures, that fans that tiny spark into a bright light. Over time that spark will be much stronger and can sustain much, but each of us requires someone to lift us, to point our eyes upwards so that we can see our potential, can dream of the stars, and can have the confidence to reach out to grab them.

Whether this comes in the form of an involved parent, an inspiring mentor, an encouraging sibling, or a trusted friend, each of us needs has pivotal moments where we need someone to show up for us and to hold us up until we are able to stand on our own again.

Building confidence

As caregivers, coaches, and mentors, there are several key things we have to be aware of when we embark on this journey of building up others. First and foremost is that we have to care personally. This key element amplifies everything we do with those in our care. People look towards us for guidance, yes, but before they can gain anything from us, before they will listen to us, they need to know that we are in their corner. So if you’re reading this and the person in your care doesn’t deeply know that, then your first task is to drop everything else you’re doing and make sure that they are convinced beyond a shadow of doubt that you are for them.

Constancy

Constancy is defined as the quality of being faithful and dependable. As a coach, it is incredibly important for us to be a constant for those we are coaching. Remember that for many, there is much going on in their lives that we are unaware of. Those we coach need to know that this is always a safe place for them, and that no matter what else happens outside the sphere of our time together, this time, this place, this space will be constant.

This is one of the keys to the many wonderful and successful sports programs that help underprivileged children. For many of those children, seeing their coaches week to week is the only constant in their lives, and they are able to cling to that constancy and find strength in that. They are able to lean on these men and women who become pillars for them to stabilize their lives.

This trait applies to any kind of coaching we want to do! Whether we’re talking about career coaching, youth work, or even raising confident children, our ability to build confidence in them requires us to be a constant in their lives.

Consistency

Not to be confused with constancy, consistency is about providing the same message, the same set of values and principles in all our interactions. As coaches, our message needs to be consistent. We need to show those we are coaching that we apply the same standards to everything that we do.

People need structure. We need to know that the bar is the same for everyone, and that the same standards will be applied to everyone. In order for us to be confident, we need to know that we can meet or exceed the bar, but how can we do that if we feel the bar keeps moving? As coaches, we need be consistent in our application of our standards. Yes, we can acknowledge the fact that people may be at a different skill level, but accommodating a different skill level and lowering the standards are very different things.

A big part of growing, learning, and developing confidence is failing, and gaining wisdom and insight from our failures. Analyzing what went wrong and adapting our actions is a critical part of learning. Knowing that our adjustments will accomplish a better result next time is a key component of confidence. As Thomas Edison famously said,

”I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Yes, we need to support and encourage those we coach when they fail, but they need to know that we have not lowered the bar just to make them feel good. Remember that making someone feel better is just a salve for the current pain and doesn’t actually help them grow. As coaches, we need to hold the line and let them know that they have missed the mark. Be gentle, but firm. The message must be consistent.

Expect more

One of the best tools we have as coaches is setting the bar. In order to build confidence in others, we need to know what they’re capable of, and then we need to start nudging the beyond that. They need to know that we expect them to accomplish more, that we believe in them.

There’s a key nuance here though. We’ve all seen those memes and heard stories of parents, teachers, or instructors that set impossible standards that those in their care cannot reach. This is not that.

If our goal is to build confidence in others, then we first need to take the time to really understand their current capabilities. Not only that, but we need them to know that we truly understand where they’re at. To coach someone well, we need to earn their trust, and they will never trust us if they don’t believe we care enough to really know them and to know where they’re at.

Only when we’ve demonstrated that we care, that we understand, and that we are constant and consistent can we begin to raise the bar.

As coaches and mentors, we have the great privilege to help others grow and to confidently push the boundaries of their capabilities. We also have the great responsibility to be thoughtful of those in our care. Our words have the power to encourage, to lift, and to build confidence, but they also have the power to destroy and to tear down. Let us learn to build others up together!


My sons,

We’ve been talking about how to build effective relationships lately, and have spoken at length about being consistent in our relationships. Today I want to talk about trust, why it’s one of the most important elements in any relationship, and why without it every relationship will begin to corrode and fall apart.

We’ve all been there. Things are humming along smoothly and we’ve got satisfying and fulfilling relationships and experiences, when all of a sudden - WHAM. Something comes way out of left field that we never expected, and from someone whom we once believed was a trusted companion, a faithful ally, a friend of many years.

What happened?

The most likely culprit is that we weren’t discerning about those on whom we placed our trust. This is common when we’re young - we tend to trust those we simply spend time with. However, as we get older we ought to be learning discernment and ought to know that those who we’ve been with the longest may not in fact be the most trustworthy. And so we’re disappointed. We hurt. We cry silently and in the recesses of our own space. We begin to become callous to others, and have a much harder time trusting others. For if we were burned so painfully once, surely it could happen again with some other trusted companion right?

Sadly, many of us fall into this path, with the majority of our newfound adult relationships never achieving the same level of trust, the same type of deep connection, or the same vulnerability of shared experience as those from our childhood.

It does not have to be this way.

What is trust?

First, let’s start with a definition. What is trust?

Trust is many things to many people, but I think when we boil it all down, trust is simply having a firm belief that another person has strong character and has your best interests at heart.

The first half of that statement is something that we tend to have blindspots for in our adult lives. We tend to give the benefit of the doubt too much. Especially for those with whom we have had many shared experiences, we tend to fall into the mistake of not verifying that the other party is worthy of our trust. We overlook youthful indiscretions as simply that; youthful indiscretions and not an indicator of underlying character.

That last bit is important too. The other person must have your best interests at heart! This means that there’s an investment there, there’s a care and connection there. It’s not enough to know that someone has high moral character (although that is incredibly refreshing in our world today), but we need to know that they have our back, that they’re for us, that they are invested in us.

Discerned trust vs foolish faith

In my younger years, a preacher once shared an anecdote about faith that has stood with me over the years. He said that no matter how strong your faith is, if it’s in the wrong thing, it doesn’t matter. Similarly, no matter how weak your faith is, if it’s in the right thing, it makes a world of difference. For example, you could have an unwavering faith that a thin piece of ice will hold up your body weight. Or you could have a small amount of faith that a 30 foot sheet of ice will hold up that same weight. In these examples the object of your faith is of paramount importance.

So it is with trust; the object of our trust is incredibly important.

And yet many of us fail to do our due diligence when it comes to those upon whom we place our trust. We will inadvertently place our mental wellbeing, our day-to-day happiness, even our financial stability into the hands of people for whom we have not vetted their trustworthiness.

That is the definition of foolish faith.

The unfortunate reality is that we’ve all fallen into that trap. We’ve all foolishly given our trust to someone undeserving, and many of us have been burned by it. It therefore behooves us to ask the question of why. Why do we find ourselves in these situations when we surely ought to know better?

I’ll posit that it is because we are wired for relationship - deep, meaningful, strong connection. Deep down, we crave the benefits of trusted relationships so much that we take short cuts. We’re impatient. We skip our diligence. We ignore red flags. We tune out wise council. Each of us longs to belong, to have someone we can turn to where we know that they are for us. And that is a beautiful thing.

But we must apply discernment and critical thinking. We must keep our wits about us and determine objectively whether a person is truly trustworthy, is truly someone desiring high moral character, and is truly for us.

Becoming a trustworthy person

Somewhat counterintuitively, one of the best things we can do to find trustworthy people is to become a trustworthy person. This is because the more focus we put on traits of trustworthiness in ourselves, the more we’re able to see those traits in others. The more sensitive we get towards things like honesty, empathy, and integrity, the more we will develop a second nature that warns us when those traits are missing.

Being a trustworthy person means to desire the best for others, sometimes in spite of themselves. It means challenging those you care about, but with love. It means caring about their well-being above all else. Remember that it’s not about whether or not they like you; it’s about whether or not you are doing your best for them, and are doing it in a way that isn’t cruel but instead is thoughtful and kind while being honest and truthful. You are challenging them because you want the best for them, not because you want them to like you.

Being trustworthy also requires gentleness. It requires us to remember that when we are trusted, we have a strong ability to impact our relation’s emotional state, and indirectly their confidence in themselves. Especially when it comes to romantic relationships, we often under estimate the ability we have to build up or tear down others. We forget that we mean a lot to them, and that our words have great impact on them.

It is critically important for us to be gentle in our words to others. Challenge with love. Correct with care. Rebuke in private, with tenderness.

It is also important for us to reaffirm those we love in front of others. This allows them to feel special, and allows them to experience us being proud of them. Whether we’re talking about our children, our partners, our siblings, or simply our friends, we go a long way in earning their trust when we genuinely affirm them in the company of others.

This isn’t to say that we sit around blowing sunshine up people’s asses - no, our affirmations and praise must be truthful, honest, and well-deserved. People can detect bullshitters, and can detect what Kim Scott calls “manipulative insincerity” - people who pull their punches, who shower undeserved praise, and who ultimately care more about being liked than everything else.

Rather, when we reassure others, we hint that we see vulnerabilities and potential weaknesses, and we tell them that it will be fine, that we see them and believe in them. We tell them that we are in their corner. We assure them that we can separate the action from the person, that our care is for the well being of the person.

And so, my sons, I urge you not only to be discerning about those that you trust, but to also think about how you can be trustworthy to others. Be men of principle, but have grace to others that fall short. Have high standards, but love others through them. And above all else, be for others.


My sons,

From the moment of birth we are exposed to a vast array of environments. These environments have a wide range of variations. They can vary in formality, in size, in structure, in purpose. They can be professional environments of learning and productivity or personal environments of friendship and trust. They can be seasoned environments such as a childhood friendship that has aged well over time, or can be young and temporary environments like a hasty summer romance that burst into view only to fade from existence with the falling of the leaves.

Regardless of their variation, every environment we are in has the potential to be incredibly empowering and life-giving or to be terribly oppressive and stifling. Further, an environment can change drastically and quickly, sometimes without warning and seemingly without reason.

But there is always a reason. There is always a cause. Whether intentional or not, environments (or their modern, professional term “culture”) are shaped by a myriad of factors.

We’ve been discussing the concept of empowerment lately; today we’ll take a deeper look into empowering environments, their key ingredients, and how as leaders (official or otherwise) we can intentionally shape them.

What is an empowering environment?

There are many definitions out there of what empowering environments look like, and there are many contexts to which they apply. Each of these definitions has their uses and merits, and I’m not going to dispute any of them; rather, I’ll offer what I hope to be a useful generalization that applies across all walks of life.

An empowering environment is one in which every individual is free to express and to act in a respectable and appropriate manner without fear of retribution and unjust response. Said environment promotes the equality and equity of all its members, and creates space for meaningful dialogue and mutually beneficial encounters.

Said simply, an empowering environment is one where you can be yourself without fear of being judged unfairly.

Empowering environments have a number of things in common:

  1. They promote diversity of thought and opinion. Regardless of background or experience, empowering environments value the thoughts and actions of any individual objectively. They foster open and unbiased discussion and allow all ideas to be considered, regardless of their origin.
  2. They are supportive of mistakes. Empowering environments allow for mistakes to happen, and are built in such a way as to value mistakes with the knowledge that mistakes are a part of the learning process. There is no fear of retribution; rather there is praise for a chance taken, an idea investigated, and a calculated risk attempted.
  3. They are nonhierarchical. While there may be a physical hierarchy in place (for example manager/direct report relationship), those hierarchies are not leveraged as a value judgment, rather as a job description. Empowering environments allow for the truth that great ideas can come from anywhere in the organization or group.
  4. They allow for dissection to be expressed productively. Every group contain members who have differing opinions. Whether this is in the context of a family unit, a professional team, or a group of friends, there will be situations that arise in which members disagree. Empowering environments allow those disagreements to surface and to be discussed in a productive manner, and provide rules for tie breaking as needed.
  5. They foster and facilitate trust. Perhaps most importantly, empowering environments are one where trust is valued and nurtured. As a relational species, trust is one of the most important and valuable commodities we have. Empowering environments foster that trust, and readily promote and value the building of trust across its members.

What does an empowering environment do for its members?

Some of us may not have ever taken the opportunity to stop and think if we’re in an empowering environment, and as a result may not realize how drastically different and how immensely transformative such an environment can be. So let’s first take a look at a few symptoms of a truly empowering environment, with the understanding that this isn’t a black and white thing; there may be many environments and situations that we find ourselves in that are somewhere along the spectrum of “richly empowering” and “soul suckingly oppressive”.

A list (definitely not exhaustive) of ways to know one is in an empowering environment:

  1. One never has to question how their actions may be perceived. Now, I don’t mean the type of environment where one can be a jerk and not care about the consequences. I mean simply that if one takes a reasonable action that is well-intentioned and is intended for the good of the company/team, one never has to worry if that action will ruffle the wrong feathers, will come back to become personally detrimental, or will cause a chain of politically-focused events of which one will never know the details but will feel the impacts of their consequences. Empowering environments are psychologically safe environments where one can express themselves, can disagree, and can healthily move on regardless of the outcome.
  2. There is trust amongst the members. Trust is an underrated commodity in our professional and personal interactions these days, but it is the most important underlying fabric for any highly functional society. Without trust there can be no shared goals and wins. Without trust there can be no close relationship. Without trust there can be only marginal victories that are wrought with suspicion and underlying/hidden motives. Empowering environments not only value trust but actively seek to create trust amongst its constituents. This means that there are active actions taken to build trust, to reward those that earn trust well, and to constructively rehabilitate those that don’t. Trust is part of the leadership culture, and is an active action that leaders take steps to promote, grow, and cultivate in the group.
  3. One can spend 100% of their time on value-add for the organization. This one is nuanced, and may be controversial, but my belief is that in empowering organizations, one can spend all their time on what they do best without need of “managing up”, with the full trust that those in leadership positions recognize great impact and value to the group without the need for one to self-promote. This isn’t to say that communication of one’s efforts is unnecessary; rather this is to suggest that the communication is necessary for collaboration and effectiveness, and not for visibility and perception. We will expand on this concept in a later post, but for now suffice it to say that when one is in a truly empowering group, the term “managing up” disappears from view.
  4. The culture is one of abundance and not scarcity. It is true that scarcity breeds certain beneficial traits, but my opinion is that it breeds too many negative and undesirable traits that makes that view a dated and clearly insufficient view. (For more, Lazlo Bock writes a great exposition on this in his book, Work Rules. In contrast, a culture of abundance allows members to truly celebrate another’s successes and advancements without comparison or fear of one’s own opportunities. Leaders that own cultures of empowerment ensure that their members do not feel as though membership is a zero sum game.

Cultivating empowerment

So as leaders (of organizations, teams, families, friend circles, or any other type of leading role) how do we cultivate an empowering environment?

The short answer is that this is hard, and that there are no definitive answers. The answers depend on the environment that you’re in, and the members (and future members) of that group.

As someone who has spent the majority of the past two decades building teams, let me share some of my thoughts and ideas that have worked well for me(always open for debate, and self-identified as a small set of data points of which I’ve sought to compare with the greats; Bill Gates, Sheryl Sandburg, Satya Nadella, Ray Dalio, Bob Iger, Bill Campbell, Kim Scott, and many, many others).

It starts with you

I cannot stress enough how much of building a culture starts with you as the leader. If you want to cultivate an environment of empowerment, you have to first be someone that empowers others. As Julius Campbell (played by Wood Harris) puts it in Remember the Titans, one of my all time favorite movies:

“Attitude reflects leadership, captain.”

To build an empowering group culture, you have to model that for your group. Be self-critical. Examine your actions, your motivations. Surround yourself with believable people who will challenge you, support you, and most importantly will call you out on your bullshit.

In order for us to empower others, we must truly internalize the belief that enabling their success is better than accomplishing our own. We as leaders must value the organization and the group more than we value our own progress. We must be happy to be made obsolete as our team grows and as future empowered leaders step forward.

But most of all, we must be transparent. We must own it. When we make mistakes - this is explicitly not an “if” but a “when” - we must own it. We must be accountable and transparent with our group that we’ve taken a misstep.

Empowering cultures enable autonomy, but also promote accountability. The more we demonstrate that to our groups the more readily that culture seeps into each member and solidifies.

Surround yourself with people that amplify that empowerment

Make sure that those you surround yourself with are bought in and also care about the culture that you’re creating, and are themselves empowering people. Remember that the company we keep not only is a reflection of ourselves but is also a reinforcement of our values. We become more like the people we engage with regularly.

Be quick to get rid of the bad eggs

It only takes one bad egg to spoil a dozen. Remember that as a leader, team and culture are your most important priorities. As hard as it is to make the call to remove an egg, it’s your responsibility to do so. Do so quickly, but do so fairly. Get a few validating perspectives from your believable people, and then act.

Often what seems rash or an overreaction at time in fact in hindsight seems painfully obvious. More often than not, leaders wait too long to get rid of the bad eggs, and by the time they do much of the rest of the batch has already spoiled. Act swiftly.

A final thought

There are many dramatically different looking empowering environments out there, so it is impossible to describe any recipe or archetype to which all will adhere. I suppose the best way to describe an empowering culture is a phrase blazoned in history by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I know it when I see it”.


My sons,

In our culture today empowerment has become a buzzword. Whether we’re talking about empowering women to learn and raise their communities out of poverty, empowering young children and students to reach for a better life, or empowering young employees to speak their mind for change, empowerment it seems is everywhere. And rightly so! Empowering others is a great thing. But what does it actually look like? What does it consist of?

In its formative years, empowerment tended to look like someone in a position of power - a manager, a parent, a mentor - simply expressing that they want the individual to feel empowered. I’ve heard many times in my career phrases like “I want to empower you to make this decision”, or “you should feel empowered to make changes here”.

Sounds great, but utterly ineffectual.

At Amazon, Jeff Bezos baked into the company culture the belief that good intentions, while noble and good, are alone insufficient. The intention needs to be there, yes, but that can’t be where it stops. There needs to be more - a follow up, a plan of action, a concrete mechanism that we can turn to that ensures the good intention happens.

What does feeling empowered look like?

For any individual to feel empowered, there are a few key conditions which need to be met. The individual must be in an environment or culture that is conducive to them taking action, making mistakes, and adjusting accordingly. They must have an internal confidence that allows them to strike out and act. They must have a curiosity and a desire to learn so that they can internalize the feedback that comes from their actions in order to change, evolve, and grow.

When people feel empowered, their eyes light up. They hold their heads higher. They stand up straighter. They maneuver within their environment without fear. They are focused on the future because they know that they can impact that future. They have hope because tomorrow is not determined for them; rather, it is dependent on them.

Let’s look a bit deeper at these conditions.

An empowered environment and culture

Whether we’re looking at a workplace culture, a family environment, or a group of close friends, an environment of empowerment is a life giving place that allows us to flourish and grow. Cultures that support empowerment do not place arbitrary restrictions and requirements on classes or groups of people dwelling in that environment.

This means that there are no criteria that exist that don’t provably impact the decision making process. For example, ethnicity, gender, and tenure at a company have no direct correlation to the strength of one’s ideas for a new product launch. Age, birth order, or position in a family tree have no correlation to the validity of one’s understanding of education. Religion, belief systems, or cultural background have no correlation to one’s ability to drive. A culture of empowerment does not have restrictions like these.

While these traits may appear to be correlated, empowering cultures dive one level deeper to determine what’s actually impactful. It used to be the case that tenure was a strict requirement for many things. However many empowering environments have recognized that tenure itself is not a key requirement. Tenure typically is correlated with experience, with wisdom, with knowledge, and with understanding, but it is not a strong correlation such that in many environments tenure has been removed as a criteria.

Environments that foster empowerment are ones where requirements are strongly correlated to the thing the requirements are applied to. It is our job as leaders and managers to regularly reevaluate our requirements to ensure the environment we build fosters the culture we want to have.

A few quick thoughts on how we can do that (more on this next time!):

  1. Have believable people that you regularly get feedback from. Make sure that these people know that their feedback should be honest, is valued, and will not cause retribution. And make sure they have the context from which to provide that feedback.
  2. Be transparent about the evaluation process. Share what people are being evaluated on. Provide them the details. Be honest. Stack ranks happen - let’s stop pretending they don’t. Treat people like adults and accept responsibility for when things aren’t fair.
  3. Give credit where it’s due. A good rule of thumb is for each piece of recognition you receive make sure you’re giving at least 5 times as much credit to others. None of us are self-made, so if you believe you deserve that credit and no one else does, you’re wrong.

Internal confidence

People need confidence to learn. They need confidence to know that they can get this, that they are able to progress. They need to believe in themselves, that they are capable of change, of improvement.

It is not enough to put someone in an environment that is an empowering one. It is not enough to give them resources, to encourage them to speak out, and to create a safe space for them to do so. They have to believe that they can, and that they have something meaningful to offer. And we have to enable them to have belief.

The moment a person stops believing that things happen to them and starts believing that things can happen because of them, they begin to see the world in a different light. They begin to believe that they can shape their stars, that they can chart their own course, and that they can make the world better. It is that moment that Melinda Gates calls the moment of lift.

In her book with the same title, Melinda describes the moment of lift as

“a moment that captures grace. Something happens to relieve us, to release us from pain, from burden. It is extrinsic. We cannot lift ourselves. We must be lifted.”

Beautiful.

It is that powerful grace that has the ability to set us on a different course and to truly lift us out of our current circumstances. To truly empower people we must lift them up. We must move them into a place where they begin to believe in themselves. We must help them to see that when the tides of circumstance loom overhead that they can stand against them.

A few thoughts on how we can help build confidence in others (again, more on this in a future post!):

  1. Be specific about praise. Saying “great job!” is absolutely useless. Tell them why. What was great? What did they do that was great? Why was it “great” and not “good”?
  2. Hold people accountable. When someone makes a mistake, let them know you hold them responsible. When we are honest in our accountability, people will know that we are also honest in our praise.
  3. Be generous with your time. Chances are people who you give feedback to don’t fully understand it. Take the time to explain it to them thoroughly. Remember that just because you’ve been thinking about it from many angles for a long time doesn’t mean that they have the same context. Be patient and walk them through it. Make sure they really get it before you move on.

Curiosity and learning

An unfortunate reality of our world is that our education systems are broken. They incentivize the wrong things. They promote memorization, short term recall, and specific application of a concept to a specialized problem space. This in turn creates a culture where we dread learning, mostly because we have an inaccurate understanding of it.

Learning ought to be a lifelong activity and endeavor. It is something that we expect of our children. It is something that we allocate the first quarter of our lives to. It is something that successful people do all their lives.

As children, we are born with an innate sense of curiosity. From a young age we are curious about everything and anything under the sun. We stick things in our mouths, we put our chubby little fingers into wall sockets, and we’re mesmerized by anything new. We want to be like our older siblings, our parents, our role models. We want to progress forward. We are curios and want to learn.

And yet as we have gotten older, we’ve lost touch with that curiosity and have lost the sense of wonderment and joy at learning new things. Instead we prefer to fill our time with meaningless trifles such as celebrity gossip and the vast amounts of time-wasting things all around us. We’ve lost the ability to be in awe of things, to marvel at things, to be amazed by things, and to be infinitely curious about them.

So how do we spark curiosity in ourselves and in others? A few thoughts (and again, more next time!):

  1. Build in time to slow down. Whether it’s meditation, going for a walk, or just simply dedicating time to sit and enjoy your morning cup of coffee, slowing down allows our minds to wander and wonder.
  2. Don’t answer a question, even if you know the answer. Whether we’re talking about employees, children, or students, sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is to not give them the answer even if we’ve got it. Let them stew on it. Let them consider what they know. Let them surprise themselves (and maybe even you!) with their thoughts.
  3. Put yourself in awe-inspiring places. Whether you’re taking the time to travel and see things or you’re surrounding yourself with some awesome people, know that your environment and your surroundings slowly but surely impact not just how you think, but what you think about.

By instilling a curiosity in people, lifting them so that they have the confidence to act on that curiosity, and putting them in an environment that values, supports, and encourages those bold and brave behaviors, we can create the necessary conditions for creating more empowered people. And this is a great thing, because empowered people are the ones that can change the world.


My sons,

Relationships make our world go ‘round. No matter how we slice it, no matter how we try to automate things and put impersonal systems in place to remove the human element, we cannot escape the fact that at the end of the day, we are a relational species and relationships make our world go ‘round.

So how do we set ourselves up for success in all manner of relationships, be they personal, transactional, business, romantic, or familial?

There are three closely related things that I believe are the foundation to any great (substitute your choice of word here depending on the relationship you’re thinking about - perhaps “effective” or “efficient” for work relationships, “passionate” or “steadfast” for romantic relationships etc) relationship: trust, communication, and consistency.

I’ll tackle each of them in separate posts, but today we’ll talk about consistency.

Neuroscience tells us that our brains are big pattern matching machines based on our mental models. When we notice a particular stimulus our brains use our mental models to create an expectation. This happens millions of times in an instant. For example, when I pick up my coffee cup, my brain expects my hands to feel the smooth porcelain of the cup. If I then run my index finger up the handle, my brain expects to feel a handle protrude from the cup base and for the handle to be cooler than the body of the cup.

All of these expectations happen an immeasurable amount of times per day, and yet we don’t notice any of them. Our brains are trained to explicitly not draw our attention when the expectation matches our mental models.

However, when something doesn’t match, when something isn’t consistent with our mental models, our brains raise alarm bells. For example, if I ran my finger up what my eyes detect as a steaming porcelain cup but feel a cool fuzzy feeling instead of a hot smooth surface, then my attention gets snapped to that difference. My brain has detected that something is wrong, and it immediately gets my attention. This attention is expensive. It takes me out of my flow. It derails my train of thought. It disrupts my current task and demands immediate attention.

Expectations in our relationships

This same principle is true of our relationships as well. Our brains create mental models for every relationship we have, and every interaction in those relationships. Whether it’s ordering coffee with the cute barista at my favorite coffee shop, sending a note to my manager with some bad news, or chatting with my partner about something interesting I’ve read, my brain has mental models and expectations for each of these interactions.

And when those interactions match the model, my brain is free to engage, to conserve its resources, and to continue with the low hum of activity that is always going on in the background (for me, that background activity typically is “listening” to some song in my head). However, if the interaction isn’t consistent with my expectation, my brain goes into hyperdrive.

Hyperdrive itself is not a good or bad thing - it’s just a thing. It is our body kicking ourselves into high alert, which is an ability that has served humanity very well in our evolution. For example, suppose I’m out camping in the woods after dark and I hear rustling nearby. My brain will kick into high gear, triggering my fight or flight instincts and being extremely aware of indicators of whether this is a run-for-my-life situation or if this is a funny-anecdote-to-tell-later thing.

While hyperdrive can be incredibly exhilarating (think of the anticipation in the last few seconds of the roller coaster cart climbing before the inevitable large drop), it is also exhausting. It uses up much of our body’s energy, our mental capacities, and our attention quota and drains us dry. (Incidentally, this must be why hormone-crazed teenagers are always tired and sleeping all the time…!)

When those that we’re in relationship with are inconsistent in their behaviors towards us, they cause us to stay on high alert and awareness. While some spontaneity may be welcomed, there is a difference between spontaneous and chaotic. Effective, mature, adult relationships should not be chaotic. Life itself gets incredibly busy; let us not add to that by tolerating or enabling relationships where we are (or are causing others to be) expending extra effort to handle the inconsistencies.

Our natural desire for equilibrium

Our world is designed for equilibrium. Whether we’re talking about our scientific and physical world (high school remembrances of Chatelier’s principle aka The Equilibrium Law come to mind) or our relational life, our world naturally trends towards a steady state. It’s as wired into our natural world as much as it is into our brain chemistry. We desire order.

For example, human psychology tells us that in the midst of crisis, we will seek some semblance of normalcy, and will often make a number of short term optimizations that will allow us to take a step closer to our steady state. People in trauma will often cling to the one thing in their life that reminds them of normalcy and allows them the illusion of consistency in their lives.

While we may desire the occasional burst of spontaneity, at the core of it we desire relationships where we know what to expect. We highly value traits like steadfastness, loyalty, constancy, and reliability. People who exemplify these traits cause us to feel safe, to feel secure, and to feel like we belong.

Consistency in your professional life

It is incredibly important to be consistent in your professional life. Like it or not, we all have brands. Just as corporations have brands that come with expectations and implications, we too all have our own personal brand and are known for some set of traits. We may not always be aware of how we’re viewed or what our colleagues think of us, but we all have brands that follow us around from job to job and impact us in often unseen and unforeseen ways.

And brands are hard to change.

It therefore behooves us to think about those brands, to be consistent in our establishment of them, and to be reliable in their execution. As a hiring manager, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had a referral from a colleague that went something like “you need to have this person on your team - they do X, Y, and Z things, which is a perfect fit for what you’re looking for!”. We establish those brands by being consistent.

Consistency in your parenting

I learned very early on in parenting that setting expectations with children helps them to be their best selves and allows them to navigate the world in a healthy and confident way. It turns out that telling our children that we’re going to leave the birthday party in 5 minutes, or that daddy is going on a work trip and will be back in two days allows them to prepare themselves for the situation and confidently be prepared for what’s to come.

And this makes sense - as adults, we would hate being jerked around and told we have to leave immediately, or told that we have to take a business trip with no end date specified. We want to know how to plan our lives. We want to know how to prepare our emotional beings for what’s to come.

From the earliest age we build mental models. We learn to model the world and then extrapolate what we expect based on those models. We learn that touching a steaming plate will burn our little fingers, and that pushing our younger sibling will cause them to cry. These models help us navigate the world, and give us confidence to explore and to discover.

As parents then, it becomes incredibly important for us to be consistent with our children. Whether we’re talking about praising great behaviors and demonstrations of great traits, rewarding strong outcomes, disciplining and correcting bad attitudes and behaviors, or enforcing guidelines and boundaries, one of the best things we can do for our children is to be consistent.

Consistency in your relationships

There are all sorts of sitcoms, clips, and shorts that poke fun at the inconsistent individual. From pithy and memorable frameworks like “the hot-crazy scale” from How I Met Your Mother to the comical caricatures of the free-spirited crazy younger siblings, popular media is replete with examples of chaotic, unreliable, and inconsistent people and the challenges that they bring into their relationships of any sort.

These characters often end up in unfulfilled relationships and circumstances, and have a much more difficult time building deep and meaningful connection with others. They end up regularly disappointing those that rely on them, and over time prove themselves to be unreliable and untrustworthy.

And so my boys, my hope for you is that you are consistent. That you are consistent in your thought lives, your love lives, your community lives, your professional lives, and your family lives. I hope we can learn together to be ever more consistent and dependable, and can come to rely on one another as we navigate this life together!


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