Posts posted in 2022
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We are a relational species. Whether you believe in creation, evolution, or some mix of the lot, we are intrinsically relational beings. Creation tells us that in the beginning was relationship. Before God created the world, the Holy Trinity was in constant relationship. Evolution tells us that our ancestors survived not because of ingenuity or cleverness, but because of their ability to work together to conquer beasts and circumstances far fiercer than they.
Every culture in the world has myths and legends, and they all revolve around relationships. Every person is born wired for relationships.
And yet so many of us are lonely.
Despite being in the most connected time in human history where our ability to communicate not only spans any distance on earth but even distances off the planet, and despite so many having access to various mediums, technologies, and products designed to connect us, we find ourselves lonely. No matter how evolved our species claims to be, no matter how many revolutions and evolutions we have of culture, of mind, and of our social fabric, we still find it difficult to make deep and meaningful connections.
Almost a century ago, Dale Carnegie wrote an invaluable piece of knowledge into committed human history in the form of his timeless book, How to win friends and influence people. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend reading it, as it provides an almost too-obvious set of rules and recommendations for how to create the ability and space for connection with others. Written in 1936, the book is as relevant today as it was then, and has impacted millions of people in this past century.
And yet so many of us are lonely.
How do we make connections amidst all the noise? How do we find real, deep, meaningful relationship amidst the superficial facades of social media and social brand engineering? How do we cut through the layers of stuff that we think others expect of us and get through to the real human underneath it all?
Admitting that we desire real connection
First and foremost, we need to admit that we desire real connection, and that we don’t currently have it (or have enough of it). It’s a pretty hard thing to do, in a world where people regularly track the number of followers, likes, and retweets they’ve gotten on an hourly basis. With all those followers, with all these likes and faves, how can one possibly be lonely and lacking real connection?
Relationship researcher Brene Brown describes real connection as relationship that is based on vulnerability and trust. She further defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It is that exposure, that willingness to lay it out on the line, that ability to say “here I am with all my strengths and flaws” and know that we will not be judged but rather will be accepted; that is what creates real connection.
Why is it hard?
Real connection is hard to make because there’s a whole lot of fear and shame running around in our world today. One of the down sides of this hyper connected world is that there are so much more transparency into our lives and so many more points of feedback that can make any risk we take seem daunting. With the advent of social media, one’s social blunder that was experienced in person by a small few can quickly become the next viral video in our social circles, with hundreds, thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people providing unsolicited judgment of our action.
That makes it really, really hard to put oneself out there.
In his Paris address in April of 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become the most quoted speeches of his career, which many have now taken to calling “Man in the Arena”. In it, he says:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Why we need real connection
Centuries ago, Confucius wrote that “It is nearly impossible for the quality of your life to be higher than the quality of your friends”. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn elaborated on this by adding an urge for us to “look at the five people you spend the most time with because that’s who you are”.
Our friends aren’t only there for our enjoyment, to shoot the breeze with, to go on life’s journeys with, and to revel and celebrate with. They are there to challenge us, to grow us, to sharpen us. They are there to refine us and help bring us back to the right path when we falter. They are there to support, to encourage, and to be a shoulder to lean on when we are weak. They are there to make us better because of the time we spend with them.
By connecting with others, by building real relationship that is built on vulnerability, on trust, on shared experiences, we allow others to breathe life into us, to shape us, and to mold us. In walking with others, we invite them along for the journey of self discovery and refinement, and are able to become better together.
If we want to have a great life, if we want to have grand adventures and rich experiences, then we need to ensure that the quality of people that we do life together with is incredibly high!
My sons, I want nothing more than for you to have great lives characterized by deep connection and by fulfilling adventures. Those lives must be lived with others in an environment that encourages trust and vulnerability. Those people are hard to find, and those relationships require work to cultivate. More importantly, being someone with whom others want to connect deeply with is hard work! And so my prayer for you is that you do the work, that you learn, that you evaluate, and that you continue to refine your perspectives on relationships and connection. And above all, my prayer is that you find those connections that will last you a lifetime.
Our world is one that is characterized by options. Across every aspect whether large or small, we have a plethora of choices. What type of car would you like to purchase? Which post-secondary school do you want to attend? Which of the 83 bubble tea shops in the area would you like to go to today?
Don’t get me wrong - many of these options are great for us to have (can you imagine back in the day when everyone drove the same Ford Model T in Black?). But with all these decisions to make, it becomes critical that we develop a framework of how to decide which options to choose, and more importantly how to know when to stop thinking about or trying alternatives.
And nowhere is this more important than choosing what to do with your time.
Bruce Lee one famously said that
“I don’t fear the man that has practiced ten thousand kicks once. I fear the man that has practiced one kick ten thousand times”
I’m not suggesting that we stubbornly stick with a choice simply because we’ve made it (ie sunk cost philosophy), nor am I suggesting that we should never consider alternatives and should never sample other options. I am, however, suggesting that there is much value in sticking with something for some measure of time so that you can achieve some level of mastery of the thing before moving on.
The cost of long term recall
The primary problem of constantly cycling through alternatives is that our brain’s long term recall is much more expensive than short term. This means that we benefit from recalling something that has recently been accessed, and we pay a heavy price for pulling up something that we haven’t accessed recently.
Further, moving things from short term to long term takes energy for the brain to do. In his book Why we sleep, Matthew Walker describes the process and energy required for our brains to actively move things from short term to long term storage, as well as the lossiness of it (if we don’t sleep enough, our brains will simply drop things out of short term and “lose” it; and let’s be honest, most of us don’t sleep enough).
As a result, when we cycle through alternatives instead of focusing on one at a time, we constantly incur the cost of long term recall and short term loss.
Our unconscious mind
When we dedicate ourselves to a consistent effort, we allow our unconscious mind to do its work forming connections and relationships between things that our conscious mind is unaware of. It is these connections that form the basis of excellence and mastery. It is these connections that allow our body to finely tune itself to accomplish the task at hand, regardless of whether it is a physical, mental, or emotional task.
By allowing our unconscious mind to do its work, we create a virtuous cycle; as the mind creates more connections, our dedicated conscious mind works more effectively and efficiently, which in turn accelerates the rate at which our unconscious mind is able to create even more connections.
As our unconscious mind creates enough connections to get us out of firehose drinking phase (you know, the phase where you feel like absolutely everything is new and you need extreme focus to get even the smallest thing right), it is able to not only form connections within the given effort but with adjacent efforts as well. This means for example that as we focus on learning how to read music, our unconscious minds will begin drawing relationships and parallels to learning languages, to mathematics, to logic, and to critical thinking.
This is why learning something new, such as snowboarding, riding a bike, or how to cook is most effectively done when we spend a straight week learning and practicing rather than spreading those five days out over a year-long period. Anyone who has tried to learn to ski by going once a year will instinctively understand this!
Dedication or discipline?
A natural question that arises is whether the learning is accelerated by dedication to the thing itself, or by the discipline needed to stick with it. It is true that discipline and dedication are closely related, but what is the actual causality of the relationship? We are often told that disciplined people are able to be dedicated to their craft because of the myriad benefits of discipline. While there may be some truth to that, I believe the reverse is a much stronger causal relationship.
Dedication breeds discipline.
When we are dedicated to an effort, that dedication begins to grow and touch other areas of our brains. It drives passion, it produces drive, it ignites creativity, but most importantly it creates the opportunity for discipline. When we approach our dedication in a thoughtful and organized manner, we create the space for disciplined habits to form.
It is this space that separates super successful people from the rest.
These people are able to apply discipline and thoughtful, meticulous thinking onto their pursuits and as a result are able to create sustained, systematic progress and improvement, which in turn breeds a deeper passion and dedication to their pursuit.
Discipline then becomes the accelerant to our pursuits. It allows us to be in better control of our choices, our decisions, and our growth path. It allows us to methodically plan out a sustained trajectory for learning. It aids us in overcoming the inevitable hurdles that will come our way.
This virtuous cycle is one that has manifested itself throughout the ages in all of the prominent contributions of our species. Every leap humanity has taken, every new frontier that we’ve crossed, and every new disruptive discovery have all had immense hurdles for us to overcome. And every one of these hurdles has been overcome because of the dedication and discipline of our forefathers before us.
My sons, dedication is one of the most powerful forces humanity has at our disposal. It has the power to transform lives, to build new worlds, and to repair broken relationships. It is my deepest desire for both of you that you learn to harness its power for your own lives, and that you surround yourselves with like minded people that will push you further and challenge you deeply. May yours be lives filled with a range of pursuits each characterized by dedication, passion, and discipline.
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.
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:
- Seek feedback regularly and honestly
- Be vulnerable and humble in their approach and perspectives
- Ask a lot of clarifying questions with the goal of furthering their understanding
- Enjoy disagreements as an opportunity for learning
- 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:
- Get frustrated when they can’t get the other person to agree with them
- Are more likely to make statements than ask questions
- Focus on being understood rather than understanding others
- Ask leading questions designed to trap others to see their point of view
- Sit across from someone and look for ways to shut down their opinions
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”.
The French have a lovely phrase - “la joie de vivre” - which loosely translates into the joy of living. This phrase has been floating around in my head all week, and as I sit on the deck of the S. S. Catherine, docked presently in Avignon on the Rhône River, I thought I’d share some of the thoughts that have been marinating.
What are you about?
We are constantly bombarded with a steady stream of messages telling us what we should do, how we should dress, what we should think about, and what our lives ought to look like. These mimetic models come in the form of ads trying to sell us not just a product but a lifestyle, curated and idealized Instagram photos showing us that our friends have it all, and everything in between.
So how do we find signal in all that noise? How do we find out not what others think we should do, but what we want our lives to be characterized by? How do we find that joie de vivre that allows us to live lives consistent with our values in a way that brings us a daily and sustained joy?
First, we need to look up. Someone once said that
“If you’re never looking up, you’re always just looking around”
There is immense value of having a viewpoint which transcends the mundane. Life is a series of connected moments that may at many times seem random and disconnected. It is up to us to add value and meaning to those moments such that over the course of our lives they string together to build a beautiful tapestry of our history.
By constantly looking around us and never looking up at the loftier things, we reduce our lives to the mundane and meaningless drivel of existence. However, if we deign to look up every so often and fix our eyes on the grand, we turn that mundane existence into rich and meaningful life. We begin to see our place in the grander scheme, and are able to take things in stride.
Looking up gives us context. It puts our lives in perspective. It allows us to see that we are a part of a greater whole. As the saying goes,
“If the vision is big enough, the details don’t matter”
If we’re able to see the grand story of Life with a capital “L”, then we are able to see our our lives fit into the picture, and when we’re able to do that the little bumps along the way seem to matter much less.
No matter what you see, no matter what the bigger picture looks like for you, no matter what piece of the big puzzle you believe you ought to play, live it. Run towards it. Constantly refine it. Nurture it. Engage with what you see upwards so that you can know what you value and believe and can therefore apply those things all around you.
Having a sharper view on what we’re about is but a starting point. We need to apply that understanding to our present reality.
From a young age we’re taught to think about the future. Even before children enter a hyper-competitive school system young parents are constantly trying to give their children a leg up by signing them up for enhanced learning classes, math camps, language lessons, and everything under the sun that they can manage to afford and cram into an already-too-busy schedule.
Kids are then ushered through a grueling 12 year program designed with one single purpose in mind: college acceptance into the best school that you can both afford and qualify for. The next four years after that are designed to mold you into the perfect cog to fit into the American economic machine so that you can make good money and have a wonderful life.
Well what is that wonderful life? Having a family and kids of your own of course. And once you’re past parenting your own kids through to college, you’re saving for retirement to make sure you can end life well.
Surely somewhere along the way life itself must actually be lived, right?
While none of these things themselves are bad (I’m not at all advocating for us to abandon education) they are incomplete. They are not the only important thing in life. They are not even the most important thing in life.
It is good to think about the future, to plan for it, to be prepared. However, that needs to be balanced with living in the moment and being present.
Focus on each moment
To be present, to fully enjoy that joie de vivre, we need to learn to focus on each moment and to be present in it.
It’s worth explicitly pointing out that we should only begin focusing on the moments after we’ve taken the big picture context in mind. This is because the big picture context acts as a lens through which we filter each moment and allows us to view them with the right perspective.
It is in our nature to see the worst in each moment, to see fear and danger everywhere. This is an evolutionary imperative and has worked well for millions of years in keeping the human species alive. As such, it is a trait that we automatically apply to every situation, regardless of the fact that there are no longer bears, tigers, and other natural predators out to get us.
Filtering our experiences through the big picture context allows us to strip out that initial reaction and see each moment through the lens of our values. It is through this lens that we should focus on each moment, allowing ourselves to fully feel, fully embrace, fully love, fully cry.
La joie de vivre doesn’t only mean happiness; rather, it means a richer experience of each moment, happy or otherwise. By focusing on each of these moments, by being present through them instead of thinking about the next ones, and by releasing ourselves and allowing ourselves to fully be in them, we are more able to experience a richer, more vivid, and more sublime world.
My sons, my hope for you is that you’ll be able to experience life fully, that you will have no regrets about how you responded to the situations and circumstances that life threw your way. I love you boys!
It’s been said that personality is how we show up every day, but character is how we show up on our worst day. If that’s true, then it behooves us to think about each of the two and to understand their impacts on our decision making and ultimately on our lives.
Personality is about our preferences expressed. It is the set of default actions we take when we are at equilibrium, when we are able to behave as we’d like to.
Our preferences are ever- evolving, and are a product of many complex inputs. There have been many studies and books written on the topic (a great one I read recently is Wanting by Luke Burgis) showing that as much as we’d like to claim originality and uniqueness for our desires, many of them are in fact mimetic (fancy word for copied).
Turns out human beings are great imitators. This is something we start immediately at conception, and is something we carry with us all the way into adulthood. It is a fact that is at once both our greatest strength to be capitalized upon and our largest weakness that can be (and is constantly being) exploited.
It is the reason social media products have had such a meteoric climb, and why many experts in human psychology, productivity, social sciences, and education alike agree in limiting (or- even removing altogether) this form of input in our lives.
Briefly explained, the theory of mimetic desire states that human beings seek models to imitate and to serve as our guide for navigating the world. As children, we imitate our parents and are strongly impacted by them. As we grow and are exposed to more complex interactions, we naturally adopt other models into our lives seamlessly and often unconsciously and unknowingly.
These models affect our preferences and by extension our personalities. We must therefore be incredibly diligent and vigilant in choosing and identifying our models as they have great impact on how we show up and interact on a regular basis!
Character on the other hand is not an expression of our desire, but rather of our values. It is how we show up on our worst day when we’re out of steam and don’t have the energy to put up our facades and our defenses. It is what we do when we believe no one else is watching.
We should first note that often what we attribute to character is actually personality. The majority of our relationships don’t have the depth such that true character shows up. Our observations and experiences of others may give us glimpses into their values which in turn give us something to base our expectations of their character, but most of the time our brains want confirmation bias.
It is therefore critically important that we pay attention not to the surface level things and interactions that occupy the majority of our regular observations but rather to the typically less obvious signs and signals of underlying character.
They say that you can learn much of a person’s character not by how they treat their peers or superiors but rather by how they treat those who in some form are beneath them. This can be how they treat their subordinates, people that seduce them (waiters, flight attendants, grocery baggers etc), or people that they are ahead of in life (children, college students, new hives etc) .
These things are worth paying attention to in the people we surround ourselves with because we become like those are associate ourselves with. We mimic the behaviors of people we like and admire, and for better or worse we will typically grow to admire those we spend a lot of time with.
The million dollar question then, is how do we impact our character?
1. Surround yourself with people of great character.
Remember that great character is more rare than great personality. Therefore when you find someone of great character, over index on that. Keeping in mind that life’s a journey, not a destination, it therefore behooves us to find folks that journey well.
There are many who are quite enjoyable to do the good times of life with, who are great at enjoying the shared times of levity together with, but there are far fewer who will journey well with you.
2. Accept the fact that hardships will come. Learn from them.
The Good Book tells us that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), and that “we rejoice in our suffering because suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance (produces] proven character” (Romans 5:3).
Realize that trials are a part of life, and are a great tool for us to develop our character. So don’t avoid them. Don’t try to minimize or sweep them under a rug. Lean into Them.
Difficult, I know. But worth it.
3. Read. Study. Learn.
By immersing yourself in the thoughts and efforts of others, and by regularly thinking about and attempting to apply the things you learn, you will slowly but surely move the needle of your own character.
Finally, remember that life is a marathon, not a sprint. Be ready for the long haul and keep that perspective in mind. My hope for you is that you run a good race, and that you run with a great team of coaches, supporters, and cheerleaders who not only help to shape your already wonderful personalities but who labor with you to refine your character as well. I love you boys!
From early childhood, we’re taught that exercise is good. Outdoor play and physical exertion is built into every school curriculum from the minute we’re conscious. Exercise is our body’s way of developing, of building muscle, of growing. We’re taught to lean into the soreness, to relish and nurture the pain because pain means our muscles will be rebuilt stronger.
The problem is that many of us don’t exercise our physical bodies. We’ve become lazy, sedentary. Worst of all, we’ve allowed that lazy and sedentary mindset to carry to our mental and emotional lives! This trend is creating not just physically unhealthy humans, but mentally and emotionally unhealthy ones.
Our physical bodies need exercise. So do our mental and emotional ones.
Many of us make New Years resolutions to exercise more, to go to the gym, to eat healthier, and to snack less. It’s a well documented reality that gyms and other physical fitness institutions see an annual surge in memberships and attendance at the start of the year. We know that it is in our own best interest to physically exercise and to keep our bodies healthy.
So how do we carry this through to our mental and emotional lives?
No pain, no gain
This is true not just in the proactive sense (ie you have to work for something that you want) but also in the reactive (ie when life gives you lemons). Building the body is obvious pain - physical discipline, eating well, lifting weights, physical exercise.
In the realm of the mind, pain is a little less obvious. Frustration, mental struggle, embarrassment, shame, failure - these are all pains of the mind, and are things that we need to lean into.
I remember when I learned how to snowboard. My instructor would cheer each time I fell because it meant that I was pushing my limit. Then he’d come over and reflect over what caused the fall with me so I that I could hone in on that feeling and identify it next time so that I could adjust how my body responded to it.
If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits. If you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential.
Reflect rather than avoid
As humans, we have a tendency to avoid pain. From an early age, we’re taught that fire = pain, so we avoid fire. While this may be a perfectly reasonable and rational philosophy for the physical world, our minds naturally extrapolate this concept to the mental and emotional world.
This is a mistake.
We need to train ourselves to develop the habit of being reflective of pain. Just as we exercise our physical bodies and grow from the pain, we need to grow from the emotional and mental pain too. Whether we’re talking about a bad breakup, failing a test, or being embarrassed publicly for some piece of incorrect knowledge which you were certain of, we need to lean into the pain and reflect on how it has impacted us.
When we reflect on our pain, we’re able to examine several things.
- Why was this painful?
- What happened that didn’t meet my expectation?
- How did I react?
By regularly thinking through these things, we’re able to evaluate whether we’re happy with our responses, and from there build a desire for change. And just like we build exercise plans like doing crunches and planks for strengthening a targeted physical area, so too do we need to build a plan for dealing with our emotional and mental pain.
We should note explicitly though, that this is contradictory to our base animal instincts. Evolution tells us that over the past several millennia, human beings have survived due to our evolutionary instinct of fight or flight. This goes against both of those!
Learn to be mindful of your responses
Human beings are instinctive and reactive. This is frequently a praiseworthy trait. We pay athletes millions of dollars because they have above-average reaction times and have honed those reactions to be favorable. However, this too is a trait that can cause us as much harm as good when applied in the emotional and mental realms.
Anyone who has been in a relationship, be it familial, platonic, romantic, or otherwise, knows what its like to react negatively to someone else. Often those reactions come out as anger, irritation, aggression, avoidance, and a myriad other self-preserving and negative things.
Instead of reacting automatically to stimuli, we need to train ourselves to mindfully respond. Mindfulness doesn’t just give us the ability to acknowledge what’s going on, but also gives us the space to thoughtfully respond. It doesn’t mean we’re passively allowing the world to just happen, but instead 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. It creates the space for us to do that by training our emotional beings to identify the feelings and impacts of a given situation and to give us but a breath of space before taking action.
That breath may well be the most invaluable space in our lives.
We value people who are able to respond well under pressure and are able to stay calm. Mindfulness helps us choose our response so that we too can take actions that are honorable, noble, and consistent with the people that we want to be.
My sons, in this life you will have pain. And while I wish I could take that pain in your stead so that you can live pain-free and happy lives, I know that it is in that pain that you grow. And so my prayer is not that you would live a painless life, but that you would be reflective in that pain, that you would have people in your lives that can share those pains with you, and that you can learn from those experiences so that you can mindfully live your best lives possible. Love you boys!
We are all blessed with the same 24 hours in a day. Father Time is unbiased In this regard (though some may question His fairness in His numbering of our days). Whether rich or poor, young or old, big or small, male or female; we each get the same 24 hours to apply to a day.
We explicitly say apply here because some may choose to inefficiently lose it, some may choose to squander it, some may choose to invest it, and some may choose to thoughtfully spend it.
Being unintentional with one’s time
When one doesn’t thoughtfully consider how to apply one’s time and apply good intention and boundaries around it, we may inadvertently lose much of it without having anything to show for it in the end.
We all know of that person who may have the greatest intentions to be incredibly productive with their afternoon, but on her way out she remembers that she had a half written email from the night before she wanted to finish, so she sits at her desk to finish that up. In doing so, she sees an ad for that thing she had been wanting, and, seeing no harm, clicks on it and spends a little while tangled up in articles and videos about It. Realizing that a half hour has gone by, she then gets up, resolved to go about her day, but in the 30 minutes since, she notices that the clouds have come in more than she had thought, so she decides to put on a sweater. In going to her closet, she realizes that the laundry needs to be done, so she begins that. Starting her laundry reminds her that some dishes from the previous day are still in the sink, so she begins to clean them. Pretty soon, her entire afternoon is gone and she still hasn’t gotten out of the apartment to do the productive things she had intended to do in the first place.
You might argue that some of those things are good. The laundry needs to be done, the dishes need to be washed, so why is our heroine being frowned upon?
The answer lies in our ability to direct the course of our lives.
Back to our heroine. If we take individual time slices of what she ended up spending her time on and simply tally the time she has “wasted” (more on wasting time later), she may measure up quite favorably. Doing the dishes, doing the laundry, finishing her email correspondence - those are all useful and necessary things, and do effectively move her life forward. Time spent on ads and videos may be arguably useful as well, especially if those activities lead to more clarity and ultimately a purchase decision on something.
When we take a step back however, we see that our heroine has not intentionally moved life forward in any measurable way. Her initial intention was to be productive with her afternoon, which we assume to be an afternoon spent in activities that move the macro needle of her life forward (for example studying, learning some new skill). We may be tempted to give her a pass this time, as her overall time was spent usefully, and in this single instance it may be fine for us to do just that.
The problem arises when we look not at this single slice of her life but when we apply the principle to all (or at least, the majority) of her days. Without the skills and the tools to combat this type of approach to life, we may quickly find weeks, months, or even years have gone by without our explicit direction. Worse, we may decide that the ability to have any input into the grand scheme of our life was a farce to begin with and remove our hands from the wheel altogether.
So what do we do?
Increasing our time
When it comes to our professional lives, it is pretty common for us to think about how to maximize our time. We have trainings and seminars about how to be more productive, and our teams are always trying to optimize processes so that we can be the most efficient in our application of the time we allocate to our professional endeavors. (I’ve recently shared a few thoughts myself on the matter: here and here).
How do we apply similar principles to our personal lives so that we can get the most there as well?
Think Big first
This might be a bias from me working at Amazon long enough to adopt the “Think Big” terminology, but it’s the right term to use here. We must first start by thinking big, thinking long term, thinking grand. What is it that brings us satisfaction and fulfillment in life? What is it that causes us to have that Joie de vivre we’ve heard so much about? What is it that makes us tick, the thought of which brings a smile to our face and an inner warmth in our hearts?
Once you’ve figured out what your “big” is, remind yourself of it daily. Whether you like mantras, sticky note reminders, hung phrases above entryways, or scheduled conversations, you need to remind yourself of your “big” frequently. It needs to be always hovering close to the top of your mind so that you can channel it and recall it instantly.
Our brains need regular reminders of what’s important. We are lazy by nature. Humans are creatures of inertia. When left to our own vices, we always choose the path of least resistance, both physically and mentally. By reminding ourselves of our “big” regularly, we create an environment that aids us in our thinking big and gives us natural prompts to orient our lives accordingly.
It’s worth calling out that there can be many big things in your life, and some of those things can be contextual. That’s totally okay! Put your reminders and in appropriate places in your life so that you have the right frame of mind for the right context.
Once you’ve determined your big things, you then need to ruthlessly prioritize everything else under them. I say ruthlessly because it’s often easier (and much less effective) to say that a number of things are as important as one another.
This is the burning house test, but for your own initiatives (if your house was burning down and you could grab one thing, what would it be?). Remember that if everything is important, then nothing is important. You can only have one best friend. You can only have one top priority.
“But wait!”, you say. “What if I have qualifiers? I have a best work friend and a best childhood friend!”. That’s all fine and good, but taken to its logical conclusion, every person could be “best” in their own category, which means that every friend you have is some type of best friend. This of course makes the title “best friend” utterly meaningless.
The same is true of our priorities. While it is tempting to say that my top work priority is such and such, and my top personal priority is this and that, this still fails the burning house test. Given you have a finite amount of the singular most precious resource in the world (ie time) which you can only allocate once, where will you allocate it?
Now, I’m explicitly not suggesting we starve any of the lower priorities. This isn’t a serialized, only work from the top down type of list. But when push comes to shove and we have conflicting things to do, ruthlessly prioritizing will allow us to drive our life’s course in a direction consistent with our values.
Plan for (and value) rest
The Good Book tells us that on the seventh day God rested “from all His work which He had done” (Genesis 2:3). He instructed His people to observe the Sabbath. He intended for us to rest. For some reason that has gotten lost in translation in modern day America, and we’ve somehow begun mistaking slacking off for rest.
First, we think that after a long week’s work, we owe it to ourselves to veg out in front of the TV and call it rest. It isn’t.
Next, because we think resting and slacking off are the same thing, we think that those who rest are slacking off, which our workaholic culture tells us is an ineffective use of our time.
I had a European coworker say once that they don’t want our American workaholic culture to be carried over onto our Europe team. (For those of you who read that and think, “those Europeans are slackers”, I hope this section speaks particularly strongly to you)
Let me begin by asserting that:
Resting is not slacking off
We need rest. We were made to require it. It is healthy, necessary, and nourishing to our bodies and our souls.
Rest is not simply ceasing to work. It is not slacking off or shirking one’s responsibilities, nor is it passively sitting on the sidelines and letting life do its thing.
It is active. It is intentional. It is thoughtful. It is practiced.
We are all wired differently. We have different motivators, different passions, different fears. And we all rest differently. What is restful to one may be stressful to the next, and vice versa. Just as we must spend the time and effort getting to know what our dreams are, what “big” means to us, so too must we spend the time to know what rest looks like for us, what that soul-nourishing, rejuvenating rest is.
My sons, our world is increasingly hectic. We are bombarded by countless vies for our attention. The world gets smaller, more connected, and more noisy everyday, with a million and one things trying to steal your time. My hope is that you learn to manage your time well and stay in the drivers seat of your lives, so that you can live the lives that you dictate, that you desire, and that you strive for.
To some, our world today may look bleak. We are at the end of the second year of COVID-19 life, with the world still teetering and toying with the idea of reopening. In an ever evolving story with what seems like as many setbacks as victories, this pandemic thing certainly isn’t over, already amassing almost 6 million deaths. In the midst of all of that we have the various racial hate crimes that have sprung up on top of an already volatile world.
Closer to home, the stress added by this quarantining pandemic life has caused much unrest, emotional instability, anxiety, and hardship. Many people have lost jobs, have been forced out of homes they can no longer afford, and become increasingly dependent on an insufficient system.
The Good Book is pretty clear that this is expected:
“In this life, you will have trouble. But take heart! For I have overcome the world.” - John 16:53
Our history books, religious texts, and novels are all replete with characters that have experienced much hardship. Characters riddled with flaws and insecurities for whom life pulls no punches. Characters who in spite of huge diversity and against all odds emerge victorious. Characters like King David, George Washington, Maverick, Maximus, and even Frodo Baggins - all of them had the odds stacked against them and still emerged victorious.
It isn’t that there was no fear or self-doubt; no, these characters all displayed a healthy amount of those. Nor did they have redeemers come to deliver them from their circumstances with some overwhelming force. No, the reason these great characters were triumphant was internal. It is their mindset, their approach to the situation. Their ability to see the pitfalls all around them, “bogies like fireflies in the sky”, and say those two simple words: “and yet”.
Those two words change the equation. They change our entire outlook. Those two small and simple words have a world of impact because they reshape our posture. They take us from the defensive (and occasionally defenseless) posture full of fear and dread for what’s next to one of hope and determination that “this too shall pass”.
With that shift in mindset our entire being changes. No longer are we helpless victims of circumstance; we are confident owners of our destiny. Yes, we have been dealt a rough hand. But it is our hand to play, our hard work to put in, our hope to place and hold on to.
I love the story of Horatio Spafford, the man who penned one of my favorite songs. A prominent and successful lawyer, Spafford lost his 4 year old son in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Shortly thereafter, he and his wife planned to take their 4 daughters to London. Due to complications with his business, he was delayed but sent his family ahead. They were shipwrecked, and his wife alone survived the tragic accident, and sent him a telegraph containing two words: “Saved. Alone.”
It was on the ship he took to rejoin with her that he penned these famous lines:
“When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when Sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”
Imagine for a moment that voyage. Imagine Horatio leaning against the railing looking out to an endless ocean, tears streaming down his cheeks as he finally has a moment where he is forced to rest. Imagine the grief, the anguish, perhaps even the anger at the injustice of it all. The long journey with nothing to do but to think, to remember, to commiserate, to mourn.
Somewhere on that journey through endless water, through memories, through heaving sobs and pain; somewhere on this man’s journey dealing with the unimaginable those two little words spark a light. Small and flickering at first, that light grows and spreads, illuminating the man’s soul until he is able to say, “and yet, it is well with my soul”.
How do we get that? How do we ensure that we’ve got a fertile environment where those two little words can sprout and take root?
EXPOSE YOURSELF TO A RANGE OF PERSPECTIVES
It is human nature to believe that in times of adversity we are alone. It is a natural fear, and a common worry. Even when we are not physically alone, even when we have some blessed friends who want to shoulder our burdens with us, we will often push them away believing that they do not, can not understand. We believe our experiences to be singularly unique.
Chances are, they are not.
By regularly exposing ourselves to a range of perspectives and trying to understand them, by listening to the stories of others, we see that in fact we are not alone. Others have struggled with many similar struggles that on the surface may seem different but in reality have a lot more similarities than we may have originally thought. In seeking to understand others we allow ourselves the space to believe that we too may be understood and may not be alone, and can therefore not only withstand and weather the storm but can see that this too shall pass.
DO THE WORK TO BE SECURE OF YOUR IDENTITY
Identity is important. It is hard work. It is that which we believe about ourselves. It is the thing that gives us inner strength. There is great power in one’s identity.
When we are secure in our identity, our value, our self-worth, we can respond to adversity not by deeming it unfair, not by dwelling on the fact that we did nothing to deserve this. We can instead respond by seeing the event as unfortunate, and know that despite this, (“and yet”), we will still move forward and thrive.
SURROUND YOURSELF WITH POSITIVE AND RESILIENT PEOPLE
I would be remiss not to mention this out. We know that bad company corrupts good morals. We know that passion is additive and contagious. We know that our environment greatly impacts not only our choices but also the connections we make and the experiences we have that ultimately govern those choices.
Thus by surrounding ourselves with positive and resilient people we are able not only to learn from them but to be changed by them. In witnessing their resilience, in walking with them through their struggles we prime ourselves to do the same.
My boys, life is not going to be easy. It wasn’t meant to be. There will be challenges that help refine you. There will be hardships for you to endure. My prayer is that you will face them, understand them, and be able to say those two small but powerful words, “and yet”.
Much has been said on the topic of grit, perseverance, and persistence. In fact, I’m sure I’m devoted some (or much!) time toward the topic myself. However, today I want to talk about the point at which grit and perseverance become negative. Today I want to talk with you about when too much grit becomes an inhibitor to change.
But first, let’s talk about grit and its benefits. There have been many books, expositories, and beautifully inspiring tales of grit as a noble and victorious trait. As men, these tales give us hope and motivate us to follow their example. We often hear stories where perseverance in love, in the epic journey, in business, and in friendship is described not just as a wonderful trait but as the wonderful trait.
In business grit is seen as an incredibly valuable and rare trait. We have all heard the successful startup founder who only survived past the hardships of startup culture because of the grit that allowed them to ignore the naysayers and press on when others might (and in fact did) turn back. We are taught to persist, to persevere, and to stick to our guns. We are told that being the last person standing on a sinking ship is a noble and honorable thing and is something that will be rewarded. We often witness these stories being used to depict loyalty and determination, two great traits of leadership.
In love we are told that we must fight through thick and thin for our partner. As men, we are told that women want to know that we will be steadfast in our devotion to them. Even the Bible tells us the story of Jacob working 14 years to earn the hand of his beloved Rachel.
So how can I possibly think that too much grit may be bad?
The short answer is that by having too much grit, we may miss out on something that matches us much better. By sticking with what we’ve got regardless of the situation, we may inadvertently miss something that is a much better fit. This is an age old dilemma, and I’m certainly not saying that we should always be on the lookout for something better. Rather, I am suggesting that there are many nuances here for us to think through, many concepts, factors, and considerations for us to keep in balance.
EVERY CHOICE HAS AN OPPORTUNITY COST
For every choice we do make there is the cost of the possibilities that we didn’t choose. The choice of staying with what we’ve got, of having grit to stick it out is still a choice, and still has a cost associated with it. Having too much grit may cause us to stay with something that we ought to be seeing instead as a learning opportunity for a short period of time, after which we ought to move on.
Let’s take love as an example here. There are many good reasons why we should have grit and “dance with the are that brung ya”. First, let’s be crystal clear on this point - BE LOYAL AND FAITHFUL. There is a deeper circle in hell for cheaters and disloyal people. In love, we must be honorable men.
That notwithstanding, there is much we learn from each romantic endeavor, and the experiences we have and the mistakes we make ultimately help us grow and learn so that we can evolve as people. Having too much grit and staying too long then becomes a hindrance for our growth.
The million dollar question then, is how do we know when we ought to stay and when we ought to go? How do we know when we’ve hit that threshold and need to move on? A few thoughts on that one.
CHECK THE FIT
This one is going to sound a bit like I’m simply saying to use your intuition. That’s because that’s basically what I’m suggesting. Our intuition is a collection of wisdom our bodies collect from a wide range of sources. Intuition comes from our subconscious processing a wide range of experiences, inputs, thoughts, and feelings that we may not consciously realize, which is why it is so important for us to have range. Our intuition is our whole being - not just our conscious mind - coming together to provide direction or what we ought to do. Trust it.
Chances are, if it looks like the pieces don’t fit and if it feels like you’re trying to jam a square peg into a round hole, they don’t, and you are.
SEEK ADVICE FROM TRUSTED ADVISORS
There are cheerleaders in our lives that are always on our side, who will always sympathize with us, who will laugh with us, cry with us, be angry with us, and take on the world with us. I’m not talking about these people.
Rather, I’m talking about people of wisdom, of character, and of proven ability who can offer sound and unbiased advice. People who have demonstrated their care for you, who know your values and are respectful of them in their advice. Advisors.
CHECK THE PAIN
Pain is our body’s way of telling us that something’s not right. while I’m not saying to run at the first sign of pain, I am saying that pain is a good indicator that something needs to be adjusted. Pay attention to that. Certainly different people have different pain tolerances, and there are circumstances in life that may require a higher tolerance than normal, but in general pain is a good measure to pay attention to.
My boys, if there’s one thing I want for you it is to live a well balanced life. One that has grit but also allows for change, for new experiences of learning. One that is filled with love but has also experienced the loss and heartbreak that teaches us a deeper and richer appreciation and experience of that love. I love you boys!