Letters to my sons

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

My sons,

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?

Look up

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.

Be present

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!


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,

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.

  1. Why was this painful?
  2. What happened that didn’t meet my expectation?
  3. 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!


My sons,

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.

Prioritize ruthlessly

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.


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”.


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