Letters to my sons

"The heart of a father is the masterpiece of nature."― Abbé Prévost

My sons,

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

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

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!


My sons,

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.

Why?

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”.


My sons,

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!


My sons,

Everyone wants to get ahead in life. From a young age, we are told, taught, and trained in many ways to get ahead. Parents do some pretty crazy things to give their children a leg up. People will spend their wealth, their youth, and even their health just to get ahead. Some will even sacrifice happiness, relationships, and their own well being just to give themselves some advantage.

Never mind the lack of balance and priorities of it all (a topic for another day perhaps), but so many of those sacrifices often end up in vain and not panning out. There are countless stories of parents who have “gave up everything” for their children, and yet their “incredibly ungrateful” children squander that gift by rebelling, not applying themselves, or by choosing to do something with their lives that the parents didn’t value and therefore didn’t sacrifice for.

We all want to succeed. Every one of us has a built-in innate drive and desire to move life forward and be successful. It is at the heart of the human experience; that supernatural thumbprint of creating, of refining, of achieving something great.

And yet somewhere along the way that desire starts to fade and fizzle, and eventually disappears in many. What began as a childlike awe and enthusiasm for wonder, for greatness, and for creating and experiencing incredible things slowly is replaced by the need for good grades, for strong extracurriculars, and for studying deeply to get the slightest advantage in our hyper competitive and ultra specialized world. We substitute wondering and wandering for studying and discipline. We slowly but surely deprive our young of the unfiltered, carefree joy of being a kid and insist they focus on academics. We rob them of their range.

Turns out there are all sorts of studies and examples of the benefits of range, especially in our specialized world. From CEOs to brilliant academics to star athletes, our world is full of examples of people who have made it to GOAT status (Greatest Of All Time) in their fields who attribute their success not to a deep and insular focus on their craft alone but rather on a wide range of experiences. David Epstein does a wonderful job expounding on these and many more examples in his book, “Range”, so I won’t do that here. Instead, I want to focus on Range as it applies across your various life experiences in making you well-rounded, balanced individuals who have a wealth of experiences. From academics to sports to music to culinary experiences, I believe that getting a wide range of experiences and having a large set of interests is truly the only way to get ahead and have a rich and full life. Here’s why.

HAVING RANGE EXPANDS YOUR CIRCLE

Having a wide range of interests and experiences expands the set of people that you interact with. Each activity you partake in is an opportunity to engage with someone else that shares that interest, and gives you a natural exposure to a more diverse set of people that can expand your horizons and can push the limits of your understanding.

Having larger circles of people to interact with is always a good thing, as much of life is a numbers game. A larger circle means more opportunity for conversations which brings a higher probability of encountering new ideas and experiences, both of which are essential elements of a rich and full life.

HAVING RANGE EXPANDS YOUR PERSPECTIVE

By encountering a wide array of people, we naturally begin to have our vision expanded. Each new encounter, each new experience is an opportunity for us to see just a little further, feel just a little deeper, understand just a little more. But only if we approach these times with a growth and learning mindset.

In the timeless film Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams famously gets up onto his desk and faces his students as an object lesson to teach them the value of perspective. Seeing the same world from a different lens allows us to challenge our preconceptions and give us a more holistic understanding.

HAVING RANGE LEADS TO A RICHER LIFE

Throughout history, mankind has used many measures to determine the value of life, which in turn impacts our pursuits and endeavors. That topic itself is one worth spending more time to dive into at a later date, but for now it will suffice for us to borrow a line from the Good Book. Jesus tells us that

“I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” - John 10:10

What then does it mean to have a rich and full life? I believe the answer lies in the experiences and interactions that we have.

B. J. Neblett famously said that:

“We are the sum of our experiences. Those experiences - be they positive or negative - make us the people we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the people we are, and the people we become.”

Having range allows us to have a wide set of experiences that shape us. Those experiences lead to more experiences, which over time become the sum of our lives.

My prayer for you both is that you will lead lines that are characterized by deep connection, by rich experiences, and by a broad view and understanding of our marvelous world. I love you boys!


My sons,

Our world is constantly on the go. Everything from fast food to same hour delivery to instant banking, we are a species that is relentless in our pursuit of micro efficiencies. We desire instant gratification and will go to great lengths and pay large amounts to attain it. Millions of people across thousands of companies spanning hundreds of industries all work with the sole purpose of delivering more to you faster, and more seamlessly than before.

We are in such a relentless pursuit of the destination that we lose sight of the journey, and with it the process of learning, and of self discovery.

One of my great mentors said that often we are so caught up in the next big thing; the next promotion, the next big sale, the next accomplishment- that we forget to think about the people that we are becoming. And in the grand scheme of your life, That matters a whole lot more.

As we’ve discussed in the past, the things that matter, the things that last, the things that we’ll remember and want to be known for as we reach the sunset of life - those things tend to be relational. Whether it is directly impacting someone personally or changing the lives of millions through the things we build, we are a relational and social species.

Constantly rushing from one event to the next, we are in danger of reducing life to a string of accomplishments in which the passing of time is marked only by check marks on todo lists. We remove the connection, the deep reflection, and the space to be in awe and wonder at the world around us. I’ve found that in my life many of the most rewarding interactions and the deepest connections have been unplanned, unintentional, not orchestrated.

Have you ever sat down with someone and said, “let’s have a deep and meaningful conversation” and had that actually work? Okay, in all honesty l’ve never tried that, but I can’t for the life of me imagine that would work. Most of my most meaningful and impactful conversations have happened when I least expected them. Connection needs time, and needs the space to spontaneously grow and flourish.

As such, we need to slow down. We need to purposefully pause and give our souls the chance to breathe. Have you ever started on a familiar journey (such as walking home from school or driving to your uncle’s house) and suddenly realized that you’re already there? That’s usually a good indicator that life is on autopilot and that it’s time for a pause to be thoughtful about the routines and the habits we’ve built.

LISTEN

Pausing allows us to listen. It gives us space in an otherwise jam packed life to think, to ruminate, and to process. Our world is filled with noise - media, social media, professional obligations, shuttling kids around from one extracurricular to the next. Our crazy schedule barely give us enough time to sleep enough. Time to think, to listen, and to be aware of what’s really happening around us isn’t even on the list for most of us.

Pausing, then, allows us to really listen. Not just to hear whats going on so that we can formulate our own response, but to really listen. The average person spends more time thinking about how they will respond to someone than they do listening and internalizing what’s being said. This is especially true in America where cutting in, interrupting, and immediately responding before the speaker has a chance to start another sentence is the norm.

BREATHE

Pausing allows us to breathe. When I was a kid playing little league, I used to be a pitcher. I wasn’t bad, but definitely had my share of bad days where my ball control just wasn’t there. I remember one game when I was pitching a particularly uninspired game. My coach called a time out and headed out to the mound to chat with me. He told me that whenever I felt frustrated, I should step off the mound, take my hat off, run a hand through my hair, and take a deep breath before returning to the mound. That piece of advice has done wonders for me over the years. Just breathe.

It turns out that the body is a pretty amazing thing, and that there are many benefits to breathing. Breathing calms us. It creates space for us to think and to process. It allows us to momentarily step back from the situation and assess. It heals, it mends, it expands, and it elevates our countenance.

SMELL THE ROSES

Lastly, pausing allows us to stop and smell the roses. We are so often running from one checked off item to the next that we need others to tell us to relax and take a moment to reflect on our surroundings. Even at work, we need HR to tell us to take our vacations. We need automated systems to harp at us to take time off to recover, rejuvenate, and revive. Never in the history of our species have we been so busy and unable or unwilling to take the time to stop and to smell the roses.

The worst part is that we pass this culture, this lack of balance, and this incomplete view of the purpose of life to our children. We fill our children’s lives with so much noise and activity that they too do not have the space to breathe, and worst of all believe that this is what life is supposed to be.

Even God rested on the seventh day. Jesus’ first miracle was to save and prolong a celebration. My sons, my hope is that by the time you are old enough to read and understand this, we will have raised you as boys who know how to work hard, yes, but who also know how to play hard, to have balance in your lives, and to have a healthy amount of time and space to pause. I hope that my relationship with you both has more play, levity, and joy than it does toil, discipline, and work. I love you both!


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