Letters to my sons

A collection of thoughts and lessons I've learned along the way for my little men,
and anyone else that's interested.

My sons,

We live in a world of deteriorating standards. Across the board, our world’s standards seem to be slowly but surely dropping. Whether we’re talking about personal standards (ie standards of excellence, of learned behavior, of understanding and tolerance of others) or corporate ones (ie corporate responsibility, loyalty towards employees and customers alike) it is easy to see things degrading.

Gone are the days when people sought excellence purely for excellence’s sake. Excellence is now a means to an end, and its pursuit is one for which people are always trying to find shortcuts and hacks. Excellence sought for excellence itself is passé. This is because there is an ever shrinking set of circumstances in which one seeks those that are excellent. Instead, we now seek the popular, the trendy, the viral. The leap to a hyper-connected world that technology is shrinking everyday has had the unintended negative side effect of overloading us with so many choices and alternatives that our pursuit of excellence has been replaced.

We now seek to be just “good enough”.

Because excellence isn’t rewarded. Because who cares if someone else is better, so long as you’re more popular and are good enough. Because our shrinking attention spans have an increasingly difficult time telling the difference.

And yet it’s there.

In the recesses of our minds, in the quiet place that still occasionally gets a small amount of attention, in that faintest of voices that is getting harder to hear as each year goes by, we know that there is a difference. We know that excellence matters. We know that humans are capable of much more. We know that we are capable of much more.

Why having high standards is hard

Our world has become increasingly more complex. There are more things to do in a given day than ever before. More requirements, more demands, more complexity to each of those demands. More inputs that we need to stay on top of, more trendy waves that come and go that we need to ride. And yet we still have the same 24 hours in a day that our ancestors had.

As such, things get missed. We try to cut corners. We don’t have the time to look deeply into things, so we find substitutes. We find believable people and trust their recommendations. We look at facades and veneers and try to judge books by their covers. We find ways to make progress and make decisions despite not having the time to fully consider all the options. And slowly but surely, we move towards a space where popularity and perceived excellence matters more than actual excellence.

And slowly our standards drop. Not maliciously but unconsciously. Not intentionally but unobtrusively and unnoticed.

Our attention spans have lowered so much that headliners pass as news, twitter passes as a worthy news source, and reading the top 5 customer reviews passes as doing our own product research. We are no longer concerned with excellence. We have replaced that with a concern for “good enough” performance. Who cares if one has an excellent product so long as the one we do have is good enough and performs well enough to fool the average observer?

Surely there is a better way.

It turns out that despite the slow and steady dampening of our senses, our world on a whole is still able to recognize excellence in those rare moments that it appears. While it unfortunately will take a crisis moment for this awareness to surface, we by and large are still universally able to recognize these rare moments of excellence when they appear. Because of the increasing rarity of these events, their impact becomes disproportionally large; a fact which the keen observer internalizes as an incentive to demonstrate excellence, which in turn drives the desire to actually be excellent.

Why it’s hard to hold others to a high standard

Keeping standards high is hard. It is unnatural (nothing sinister here, just simply not-natural) and difficult, and over time can become taxing and seemingly not worth it. Anyone practiced in discipline knows that keeping standards high comes at a price. Often that price is a hard trade off that our natural selves don’t want to accept. Sometimes that price is a difficult trade off that not only impacts ourselves, but others around us as well.

As such, we don’t want to inflict those trade offs on others. We are often very eager to give people passes, to lower the expectations, to extend grace - this is especially true for those that we love! This is natural, but is also harmful for a number of reasons that immediately surface once we apply any amount of critical thinking to our actions.

The dangers of relaxing our standards

In not holding our loved ones to high standards we do them a disservice as they will presently come to believe that the lower standard is sufficient, which will end up hindering their personal growth and progress. Often this is done with the best intentions! When someone we care about performs below their capacity we are brought to a crossroads that we perceive to have two possible outcomes:

  1. We give feedback and hold the bar high and as a result cause hurt, force an uncomfortable conversation, and potentially damage/ruin the relationship.
  2. We let this instance slide and opt instead to offer less direct feedback, hinting at or implying a performance issue while protecting the relationship.

When faced with these decisions, we will often pick the latter option both because we want to maintain the relationship and because we typically aren’t equipped to have a critical conversation in a manner that is clear, direct, and yet kind.

It is also worth noting that both of these outcome descriptions only consider short term consequences. Yes, it is true that providing hard feedback will cause someone hurt in the short term. However, when done correctly, clear and constructive feedback will benefit the individual much more in the long run! We have to be long game players!

It behooves us therefore to learn how to give great feedback in a way that is clear, specific, and most importantly, kind. Because we care for people, we ought to want the best for them, and holding the line for them when it counts will help us toward that end.

Loving people through high standards

High standards are critical for people to grow. This is true in both our personal and our work lives. We must be tough on people. We must keep our standards high. Especially for those we care most about and are most invested in their progress and growth, we must keep pushing them and raising them up.

But we must love people through it.

Sometimes those that we’re tough on aren’t used to it. Sometimes they hate it. Sometimes they lash back out at us. Sometimes they choose to ignore us and move on with their lives. Sometimes they cut us out completely, unable to see past their own hurt.

But we must love them through it.

Remember that being tough gives us the opportunity to demonstrate love and care for people, and that loving and caring for people allows us to be tougher on them. This is a virtuous cycle that is hard to start but incredibly valuable when done right.

As I write this, my eldest boy is 9. He is in little league. It’s been hard for him, as there are some kids who have been throwing a ball daily since they were 3. He hasn’t. But he has potential, he has drive, he has the desire to play well. At one of the early practices he made a bunch of overthrows past the first baseman’s head.

I could have pat him on the back and told him, “good try!”, but that wouldn’t be enough. As our famous little green friend says, “do or do not; there is no try”. So I hold the standard. I tell him the reason he is overthrowing when others on his team are hitting the mark is because he hasn’t practiced as much as they have. I hold the line.

But then I love him through it. We start a new ritual together where everyday after school we go outside and throw the ball for 30 minutes. We watch videos on how to throw more accurately and with more power together. We practice wrist motions to snap the ball on release. We do this everyday for a month, and his throwing drastically improves. He makes some clutch throws during games and throws out a bunch of runners from long distances. He has found a new pride in his craft, and loves baseball even more now. We’re going to work on hitting next.

In everything, be it parenting, coaching, mentoring, managing teams, or simply being a friend, we need to hold our standards high, but we need to love people through it. And we need to surround ourselves with people who will hold us to those same high standards, and will love us through them too.

My sons, I have so much love for you both. And yet I want to hold standards high for you. My prayer is that by the time you read this, that you’ll be able to look back on your childhood and see that daddy had high standards for you but he also loved you strongly and walked with you through it all.



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