Letters to my sons

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

Posts tagged with #Discipline

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,

We all have different characters in our lives, and each one plays a specific role and occupies some amount of space within our social circle. Some of these characters bring joy to our lives, some bring insight, some bring comfort, and some bring companionship. Each relationship is unique, and each person adds different things to our overall experience.

It has been said that friends may be friends for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. Some friends are in our lives for a reason; whether it’s to help us learn something, for us to go through an experience together, or simply because we’re classmates for a particular class, there are some people that fulfill their purpose and then exit our lives almost as quickly as they entered. Others are here for a season; perhaps they are there to walk with us through a season of change, or to help shoulder our burdens through a season of pain, or to be our sounding board in a season of growth. Finally, there are a small number of friends that are around for a lifetime; they endure through thick and thin, and support and encourage us through all the best and the worst that life throws our way.

It is this lattermost group that is not only the most difficult to find, but also the most difficult for us to be.

In my life, I’ve only got a handful of friends that I think will be with me for my lifetime. As I consider these friendships, I realize that each of these friends has a common trait shared among them. They are and one people.

If you’re basketball fans, then you’ll know that in basketball, “and one” means that after you make a shot and get fouled, you have the opportunity to add to your score. Similarly in life, “and one” people are those who “add to your score”. They are people who take whatever you do, think, or say, and add to it. When you tell an “and one” person your idea, they want to add to it, to riff on it with you, and to push you to think more. They say “yes, and you can also do this-and-that too!”. A few things that are common across all of these people:

THEY FOCUS ON THE POSSIBLE

While “and one” people may see the negatives, the roadblocks, the hurdles, and the potential pitfalls, they choose to focus instead on what could be. They ask questions, provide support, cheerlead, and encourage us to expand on our ideas, to push past our perceived limitations, and to achieve more. Because of their focus on what could be, they give us that boost that we need to move forward.

THEY FOCUS ON YOU

We’ve all known people who listen to your story only long enough to remind them of some experience they’ve had that then causes them to interrupt and share with you. “And one” people focus on you. They are good listeners. They are there for you; not for themselves.

THEY HELP US BUILD MOMENTUM

We are by nature creatures of great inertia. “And one” people help us build the momentum that we need. They get excited about our ideas and create a virtuous cycle of forward thinking. They take our budding ideas and give them light to nurture.

Not only is it important to surround yourself with “and one” people, it is also equally important for us to learn to be “and one” people for others. I’m a big believer that a life well lived is one that impacts, influences, and inspires others to be the best version of themselves that they can be. “And one” people do this naturally. A few thoughts on how to become more of an “and one” person:

DON’T COMPLAIN

As Dale Carnegie posits in his book https://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Friends-Influence-People/dp/0671027034, we ought not to complain. Yes, life may provide us with a series of unfortunate circumstances and events, but complaining doesn’t do anything positive for us in the least. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have hurt, upset, or angry feelings; rather it is to say that we ought to practice self control such that even when we’re overcome with those feelings we don’t complain.

By not complaining, we begin to orient our thinking along a positive track instead of a negative one, and in so doing become more able to see the positive in others.

THINK ABOUT OTHERS

It has been said that humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. When we spend less time thinking about ourselves and more time thinking about others, we begin to think about the possibilities for their lives and endeavors and are more ready to support and encourage them.

BE “FOR” SOMEONE

Champion someone. Decide that you will become their biggest advocate. Be for them. As you take on this task you will find presently that not only are you able to espouse their great qualities but you are able to more readily see opportunities ahead of them to build on those qualities.

My sons, life is too short to be lived alone. Surround yourselves with people that are “and one” people, and be “and one” people for those you surround. Encourage one another, spur each other on, and move life forward together. I love you boys!


My sons,

There are all sorts of philosophies, books, and articles written that dance around the topic of discipline. Life hacks, tips and tricks, short cuts, scheduled regimens - everyone is trying to figure out quick and surefire ways to lead a more productive and successful life. I definitely don’t profess to be an expert on these topics by any means, but I do want to share with you my thoughts and experiences on what has worked for me, and what I’ve found success in.

First of all though, we need to define the difference between discipline and habits, because while they are entirely related, they’re not the same. In fact, I believe they’re two sides of the same coin.

DISCIPLINE

Discipline is the ability to take action in accordance with a particular system of thought or belief. It is the ability to fight against one’s natural state of inertia and take action. It often is used interchangeably with will power, and tends to be associated with doing things that go against our natural selves.

For example, we associate discipline with the ability to refrain from eating that second slice of pie, or the act of choosing to go home instead of continuing on with your mates late into the wee hours of morning.

HABITS

Habits on the other hand, are the actions that we take without much thought or intention. They are our body’s default actions, our programmed auto-responses to stimuli and situations. They are often overlooked and not thought about precisely because they are automatic, and our conscious mind therefore does not detect them.

I’ve read several great books on the topic - the two foremost authorities being “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, and “Atomic Habits” by James Clear. They both define habits as being a multi-part function. The cue prompts us to crave the thing in question, which causes us to respond to the craving and gain the reward for our action.

For example, after dinner (cue) we desire to end on a sweet note (crave) and therefore procure a dessert (response) which makes us feel satisfied (reward).

• • •


Leading a more productive life then, requires both discipline and good habits. It is not enough to rely on sheer force of will to make lasting changes in one’s life. Nor is it possible to build great habits without some semblance of discipline. We need both working in tandem to permanently affect our behaviors.

Both Duhigg and Clear propose means for tweaking that multi-part function to change our default behaviors. By changing the cue (ie avoiding the casino), changing our craving (ie learning to make a delicious yet healthy snack), changing our response (ie deliberately leaving your cash at home), or changing the reward (ie buying yourself a treat after working out), we can make lasting changes.

In order to tweak any of those parts of the function though, we require discipline.

Change tends to go something like this:

  1. You determine you wish to make a change in your life, one that is not currently a natural occurrence
  2. Your discipline allows you to overcome the natural inertia of it initially, and your zeal for the change propels you forward
  3. You tweak one or more of the habit function to incentivize the right behavior
  4. Your discipline allows you take the right action the first few times
  5. After a few times, the habit becomes solidified and you’ve changed your behavior

My boys, I wish nothing short of a rich and fulfilling life for you both, and I am convinced that the path to that is through actively and intentionally changing our behaviors to reflect the character that we wish to embody. Being productive, being successful, building deep connection, and having rich and meaningful experiences are all deeply connected to the character that we have. My prayer for you both is that you grow up to be men of great character, men that are continually seeking to learn and grow, and men that love, support, and encourage one another on this journey. I love you boys!


My sons,

Much has been said about time management and how it impacts our productivity. There is a plethora of books on the topic by a variety of experts and researchers. There are blogs and life hacks written to help you categorically improve your productivity by tweaking a few things or by buying into some concept or movement. There is nothing for me to add to those volumes except to say that I believe time management is but a plan that one formulates. There remains the question of executing said plan.

Enter focus.

Focus is not merely the act of fixing one’s gaze on something, although it does begin there. No, focus is much more than that. It is the channeling of one’s power, the amalgamating of one’s energy, the collecting of one’s senses that, once collected, are brought to bear on the object of one’s gaze. It is the culmination and application of a disciplined life, of a mind that has endeavored to command the body. It is the single most important and impactful force in the world.

Focus is a multiplier on human impact. It is a force that when honed and deliberately practiced will multiply every endeavor you undertake. It has no boundaries and does not discriminate against its area of application. It is a skill, a tool that can be applied to the loftiest of aims or the deadliest of schemes. And it can be learned, trained, and grown.

Every human has the ability to apply focus, and almost certainly has at some point in their life. Each of us has undoubtedly experienced some situation that set off our body’s fight or flight response. In those situations, our body naturally focuses in on the perceived threat. It blocks out unnecessary noise and becomes tunnel visioned on the immediate danger, even blocking out our rational thought if it is not trained to handle the situation.

Short of constantly putting ourselves in life threatening scenarios, how do we build and develop more focus? How does one learn to harness its power and apply it to suit our needs and aid in our endeavors?

DREAM BIG

Often the biggest enemy of focus is distraction. Distractions are all around us. People will very often attempt to remedy this by either removing the distractions or by removing themselves from the distracting environment. While this is not at all a bad strategy, it is insufficient. There will be many times in our lives where we will need to harness the full power of our focus but will be unable to control or modify the environment to remove the distractions.

When we dream big, we create a large distance between the grand, epic vision and the small, often unimportant distractions. When our gate is fixed on something grand and inspiring, the little things that distract us lose their power over us.

PRACTICE

Focus is a skill. Like every other skill, it can be learned, cultivated, and improved. And like every other skill, the way to do this is to practice.

Start small. Be deliberate. Just as you would set aside time to practice your piano, your curve ball, or your speech, set aside time to practice focusing.

Pick something you don’t want to do, that you would naturally procrastinate on. Pick a reasonable interval (say 5 minutes). Use a timer. Then go. And repeat. A lot.

MAKE IT A HABIT

It is said that the journey of a thousand steps begins with a single step. Profoundly simple, the idea here is that we need to start small. We apply this principle to building habits - start small, start with a single step. In doing so, we create small wins that allow us to continue our journey and to take on bigger things.

Focus on something small, for a short period of time. Make it a habit, and presently you’ll discover that your threshold of focus has greatly expanded.

• • •


If one reasonable measure of a life is the impact it has had on others and on our world, then surely force multipliers like focus are important tools for us to pick up along the way. My hope for you boys is that you fix your gaze on the unseen things in this world and stay steadfast, focused on the things that help others and help to make the world a better place.


My sons,

Life is an adventure. It is beautiful. It is breathtaking. It is full of joy, of triumph, of victory, of mountaintop experiences. It is also full of sadness, of loneliness, of gut wrenching sorrow. It is about the journey and not the destination.

The Good Book tells us that “in this life, you will have trouble.” It’s not an if, it’s a when.

Composure, then, is the manner in which we meet that trouble. It is the perspective we take, the peace (or lack of) we have, and the mindset we embody. It is the expression of our true selves, our inner core, our self discipline, our grace.

As you know, we’re currently in an unprecedented time in our world. In an era where global travel is incredibly accessible, individual freedoms are at their prime, and technological advancements have created an expectation of connection and information, an outbreak of this magnitude has been difficult to contain. The death toll is nearing a half million, with hundreds of thousands of new cases still being confirmed. There is currently no known cure or vaccine, and much of the world is living in self-quarantine.

It’s very easy to feel that things are unfair, to feel hopeless and helpless, to feel that there isn’t anything we can do.

In these situations we are presented with a choice. We can choose the path of self-pity, of externalization, and of blame, or we can choose the path that is steadfast, that is bold and courageous, and has the resolve to go through this painful refinement of our character and come out stronger. We can choose the mindset of merely surviving, grasping at any means to do so, or we can choose the path of flourishing and prospering despite our circumstance.

The difference between believing things are unfair vs unfortunate is subtle but important.

When we feel that things are unfair, we believe that things are outside of our control. We absolve ourselves from blame and from responsibility for the situation, and we believe that there is nothing we can do to influence the outcome. We believe that undesirable things are being done to us. We position ourselves as the victim, and fixate our mind on a position of self-pity.

On the other hand, when we feel that things are unfortunate, we remove blame from some unreachable or invisible actor that has it out for us and instead focus on the situation itself. We recognize that we live in an imperfect world, and that inexplicable things happen. We take the perspective of recovery, of advancement, of moving life forward. We see ourselves not as helpless but as capable and able to change our stars. We have self-compassion, taking the necessary care for ourselves so that we can recover and thrive despite our surroundings.

This difference, while subtle, end up causing ripple effects in our mindset and in the actions that we take. Over time, it affects our constitution, our demeanor, and the way that we approach the world. That in turn impacts the interactions and relationships that we have, ultimately deeply impacting our lives. And so I encourage you the next time you find yourselves in unfortunate circumstances to think of them as just that; unfortunate circumstances. I pray that you have the discipline and mental fortitude to direct your reactions so that not only will you survive, but will thrive in those times.

I love you, my boys.


My sons,

We’re currently in the middle of a global pandemic. It’s something that this world hasn’t seen in quite some time, and is something that I sincerely pray you won’t have to experience again in your lifetimes. There are many tragic stories of loss, of separated loved ones, of devastation. There are also many stories of hope, of perseverance, of strength, of unity, and of support. The impacts of this pandemic are both global and local. Globally, our economy has taken a huge hit, our social structures are stressed to the point of breaking, and our government is struggling to act decisively and swiftly. Locally, we are practicing social distancing, staying home with our families and going out only out of necessity.

It has not been an easy adjustment for many.

I recently finished a book called “A gentleman in Moscow”, by Amor Towles. It is a wonderful and beautifully written book that seems poignantly relevant in our current world situation. The book is a novel that follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who after the revolutionary war ended in the 1920s is convicted of such. He is forced to live out his days as a “Former Person” within the confines of the Metropol hotel, not being permitted to ever leave its premises.

The book chronicles the life of the count, who first sets foot inside his new quarters in the prime of his life. He immediately has the realization that in order to survive the constant mental assault and boredom of several more decades in this space, one must have resolve, determination, and fortitude of mind. As we walk through his early days of captivity, he quickly establishes a regular routine that provides him the much needed structure of a productive life. As he settles into that routine, we watch him evolve from a person who is striving simply to survive to one that is longing and looking for ways to thrive.

It is that mental fortitude, that singular belief that in order to flourish, one must overcome one’s current situation that allows the count to positively thrive for decades in such a small space.

“Our lives are steered by uncertainties, many of which are disruptive or even daunting; but that if we persevere and remain generous of heart, we may be granted a moment of supreme lucidity - a moment in which all that has happened to us suddenly comes into focus as a necessary course of events, even as we find ourselves on the threshold of a bold new life that we had been meant to lead all along.”

I certainly don’t profess to know the secrets of mental fortitude, nor do I know by what magical coincidence or stroke of good luck I have been blessed with some measure of it. I do however know the secret of building fortitude, of building strength. Exercise. Just as our physical bodies require exercise and a healthy diet to build strength, our mind requires exercise and a healthy diet of positive inputs and interactions.

I’ve discovered a few key things that have done wonders for me:

  1. Read. Reading not only develops our creativity, but it challenges our mind to imagine, to ponder, to think deeply about topics and situations that we may not have had the chance to face yet. It allows us to develop the ability to empathize with a character, to reason with an author, to dream wondrously with the protagonist, and to suffer deeply with the fallen hero.

    Reading also gives us the opportunity to build relationships, to dialog, and to discuss with friends new and old the topics and virtues of the latest book that we’ve read. Read for enjoyment, read for self-development and self-improvement, read for knowledge, and read for perspective. Read fiction to dream and paint canvases in your mind. Read non-fiction to be challenged, to think critically, to ruminate, to reason.

  2. Meditate. Meditation builds focus of mind, and trains our discipline. It allows us to process our thoughts, to understand ourselves, and to listen to our innermost mind.

  3. Write. Writing causes you to elaborate on your thoughts, to organize them, and to provide structure to them. Regardless of whether your writings are read by three people or by three hundred, writing builds your ability to expand on a thought and to nurture and bake an idea in your mind. We all have the spark of creation within us; let it be a tool to help refine your mental process.

Jesus tells us that “in this life, you will have trouble”. That is a certainty. Those with an ample supply of mental fortitude are the ones who are able to not only survive, but to thrive in those troubles. And that’s my hope for you today, that you both would be strong men, physically, emotionally, but most importantly mentally. That you would have the strength of mind and discipline of heart to achieve all that you set your sights on.


My sons,

We live in a world that is quickly commoditizing skills, assets, experiences, and capabilities. Globalization began with goods; starting with raw minerals and materials and eventually expanding to finished products. Then came services; the ability to have offshore call centers for example. Then came ideas and philosophies; the internet has made mass proliferation of thoughts and ideas instantaneous.

Just about everything you can think of that is outside your body can be exported to you in a matter of days, if not sooner, and if desired, can be replicated fairly effectively and efficiently.

That leaves our minds, our opinions, our beliefs, and our convictions as the last bastion of our unique selves.

There’s a scene from one of my favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption where the incarcerated main character Andy Dufresne, played by the marvelous Tim Robbins risks his life boldly stepping up to one of the prison guards to offer his services as an accountant. After dangling Dufresne’s body over the edge of the roof where they were standing, the guard relents and accepts Andy’s help. In exchange, Andy asks simply for two buckets of beers for his fellow prisoners currently working roof detail.

His prison mate Ellis Redding, played by the legendary Morgan Freeman narrates, speculating that the reason Andy pulled off such a stunt was simply so that he could feel human again. That sitting up on the roof in the hot sun with a bucket of beers allowed him and his fellows to remember what it meant to be free men; and that was a beautiful thing.

Our beliefs, our convictions, our values - these are things that can never be taken from us.

And so it behooves us to be critical of them. If men are defined by what they believe in, what they stand up for, what they are passionate about, then you must be critical of those things. Do not allow the world to imprint them on you unwittingly. Be intentional about defining and refining your beliefs. Debate them with trusted peers. Meditate on them. Reflect and expound on them. They are the things that make you unique, and are the things that will ultimately drive the direction of your lives!

My prayer for you is that the two of you will be steadfast in your beliefs; that when the winds of the world blow, they will find you firmly grounded in beliefs that you have thought out, debated, and formulated as a culmination of your experiences, your relationships, and your critical thinking. I pray that the two of you would have a relationship where you can be that sounding board for one another. May you both grow to be men of bold beliefs, strong convictions, and non-extinguishable passions.


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