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 #Habits
If there’s one thing in the world that I wish to be known as, it’s this; to be a lifelong learner. Over and above every other possible thing, I hope to be remembered as someone who was always learning, always looking for great inputs, always considering those inputs against his current perspective, and always willing and ready to have a mind shifting conversation. No matter what the realm we’re considering; be it relationship, engineering, management and leadership, spirituality, or even health or politics, I hope to have the attitude and mindset of one that is learning, all the days of my life.
This is because the world we live in is incredibly vast, and gets increasingly more complex with each year that passes. So much so that it is impossible for any one person to see it all, know it all, experience it all. The wealth of knowledge and wisdom that is collected, refined, and passed down through generations is awe-inspiring. There is much richness contained there that we ought to tap into in order to further accelerate our experience.
We were all born with an innate drive for progress. Whether you’re a creationist that believes that this is the breath of God in you or an evolutionist that believes that this trait is what made our forefathers fittest to survive, it is undeniable that we each have a spark; a special, mystical force within us that compels us forward.
And learning is the very core of that.
So then, if it’s so important, why do so many of us struggle with it? Not only in our formative years where we’re expected to learn, but in our later years where we have choice and as such choose not to continue? Why have we been so ill-equipped to truly be lifelong learners?
How we were trained to think about learning
When we were young, our education systems taught us that learning was for a purpose, and that purpose was the same for each of us. We were taught that learning was for the purpose of passing exams. Because ultimately, if you do well on exams, then you’d have a leg up on life, and you’d be able to succeed and have a great life.
And so everything we did at a young age revolved around this simple idea that the goal of learning was success. The process was laid out simply as learning -> acceptance to a good college -> get a good job -> have a good life.
That simple idea framed everything. It impacted what we read and how we read it. It caused us to think of writing as a means to that end. It changed how we research and expanded on our ideas. It engulfed the first 20+ years of our lives with an all-consuming requirement that most of us don’t realize is wrong until much, much later.
Allow me to restate the obvious just for completeness: the goal of learning is not to pass exams.
Why we learn
There are many intermediate goals that we may have in our lives for which learning is a required part of the journey (yes, passing exams is one of those). However, I would propose a more lofty goal.
The goal of learning is to gain wisdom, knowledge, and perspective that we can then apply to every facet of our lives.
Each of us has our own path to forge, our own destiny to follow, and our own legacy to leave. We each want to live a great life. We desire many things for ourselves; success, love, greatness, wealth, happiness, relationship. The list is long but distinguished for each of us, but at the end of it all, we each want to know that we lived a rich and full life.
At a young age, we believed that life to be about maximizing self, especially in comparison to others. We strove to be on top, to beat others. We loved (and for many, still love) being right a lot. This is because being right has a lot of beneficial side effects.
Not only do we get the pleasure of knowing that we were right and did the right thing, but we get reinforced by a number of forces both internal and external when we’re right. We may get praise when we’re right. We may be rewarded. We may gain trust and earn respect from our peers. We may be seen in high regard in our community.
Taken with the right attitude, there is nothing wrong with being right a lot. In fact, society on a whole moves forward by people striving to be right and to do the right thing. However, there are two ways to be right a lot. One is to learn a lot. The other is to never leave your niche.
It is good to leave your niche.
Disagreement as you learn
Only a fool assumes they know everything. Wise men know the limits of their own knowledge and are thirsty for more. They leave their niches in search for more wisdom and knowledge. They endeavor to learn; from experiences, and from others.
It is human nature to think about ourselves. Everyone can do that. However, it is unnatural (ie not sinister, but simply not natural) for people to think about others, to see things from their perspective, and to thoughtfully disagree in a way that encourages communication and facilitates joint learning.
As such, we must learn to appreciate (and develop!) the art of thoughtful disagreement. When you are able to find someone that can disagree with you thoughtfully and unemotionally, hold on to that - those people are rare!
Remember that it is pointless to be angry at a disagreement. Disagreements should not be seen as threats but rather as opportunities for learning and for refining one’s perspective.
How we learn
Ultimately, learning boils down to taking in new inputs, analyzing those against our current system of thought and belief, and determining how we adjust those beliefs in response to the input. These inputs can be new experiences, new ideas, or new rumination and insights gained about existing ideas.
There are three major ways to get new inputs: reading, ruminating, and living.
The traditional method of learning has us reading a text in order to strengthen a given argument. It starts with the assumption that the argument is true and then leaves us to confirm that. If you want to learn to be a better leader, read a book on how to lead. If you want to learn to cook well, read a book on how to cook.
As simple as this approach is, it’s insufficient at best and outright wrong at worst.
There is so much more to reading an article, book, or passage than the singular idea that one is trying to develop. With this top down approach, we throw out other sub themes that may be incredibly insightful for us.
A quick example that many of us have done. You’re reading a leadership book. Why would you care about the author’s anecdote about social justice? Just skip that and move on.
This type of top down learning is incredibly inefficient, and promotes echo chambers of confirmation bias.
Learning and insight must come from the bottom up. It is done by developing many ideas bottom up and seeing which ideas and arguments develop naturally, and then following those threads to their natural conclusion. It is from those naturally developed arguments that our thinking evolves and our beliefs and convictions are shaped!
As such, we should read for the sake of discovering something new. If we approach our reading as an act of discovery, we not only remove that confirmation bias, but we welcome diversity. Finding contradictory points and arguments now becomes exciting, because the our approach values and promotes diversity. This then impacts our enjoyment and subsequently our desire to read more, which impacts our opportunities for greater learning.
What do you think about when you think of the term ‘ruminating’? If you’re like me, my mind conjures up images of standing at some great height, with the camera angle pointing upwards at me as I stare reflectively off into the distance. Some pensive soundtrack is playing, like Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Bach’s Cello Suite in G Major.
Of course, life doesn’t actually happen that way.
Much of the time, ruminating can be tough. For even the most well-intentioned ruminator, this endeavor if left undisciplined and untrained can quickly devolve into an aimless wandering of the mind, much akin to a daydream.
In his book How to take smart notes Sonke Ahrens describes a wondrous system that utilizes the discipline of writing as a refining tool for our thinking. At a young age, we were trained to write for the purpose of validating learning. We wrote exams and papers to demonstrate that we indeed learned the topic at hand.
Ahrens argues that we have to change our mindset to one that views writing as a generator of learning. Writing causes us to learn, causes us to study, causes us to debate, converse, and participate in the public realm of knowledge. When we write, our brains think about what we’re attempting to write about, and formulates connections with all the other inputs that we’ve got floating around in there.
It is this act of synthesis that accelerates our learning. In order for the brain to write down a tangible and meaningful statement, it must consider our vast amounts of inputs on a topic and summarize it into something useful to be written. This is the very act of focusing our ruminations. It is directed. It is intentional. It is disciplined.
We often overemphasize this one by chalking everything up to “learning through life experience”. Yes, life experience gives us many inputs. It gives us many opportunities for which new ideas may be encountered. It provides many challenging situations for us to endeavor to overcome.
But all of these opportunities require the right framing. They require the right mindset. They require courage. They require us to lean not on the understanding of others.
We must have the courage to use our own understanding. We cannot truly learn and understand if we are always applying knowledge only in the fashion by which we are instructed! Life experience allows us to extrapolate our knowledge into real experiences, and to learn how we can continually do better.
Have an open mind
I’ll leave you with one final thought; approach life with an open mind.
Often, the most profound lessons in our lives come from the most unlikely places. Remember that there are lessons to be learned everywhere. Having an open mind allows us to learn from anything and anyone, to take the lifetime of learnings from others and to add those to our own journey.
And that ultimately allows us to be the best selves that we can be.
Tags: #Learning #Mindset #Perspective #Habits
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:
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!
Tags: #Character #Connection #Discipline #Encouragement #Habits
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 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 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:
- You determine you wish to make a change in your life, one that is not currently a natural occurrence
- Your discipline allows you to overcome the natural inertia of it initially, and your zeal for the change propels you forward
- You tweak one or more of the habit function to incentivize the right behavior
- Your discipline allows you take the right action the first few times
- 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!
Tags: #Discipline #Habits #Character #Purposeful Living #Intentional
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.
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?
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.
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.
Tags: #Habits #Focus #Character #Discipline
You’ve both often heard me talk about having discipline, being efficient, and living intentionally. Without a doubt those are great things to work towards and to cultivate in your lives. Yet as with most things in this world, there is a balance that when struck correctly brings out an undeniable beauty. That balance is the skillful art of creating space, and knowing when and how to do so.
The finest art is that which speaks most loudly to you. As the observer, yours is the only opinion that matters. Regardless of the artist, the medium, the subject matter, the artist’s intention as they created the piece, or even the opinions of the critics, the finest art is that which speaks most profoundly to you alone as the one experiencing that art.
Truly great art leaves space for the observer to explore, discover, and to savor.
It has been said that art is that which you leave out. It is the space created for you to fill with your thoughts, your background, your experiences, your worries, your struggles, and your triumphs. And once filled, it is the gentle nudge that begs us to deeply contemplate.
This concept is one that transcends art and finds its home in many other areas of life. In sports, coaches tell their players to train hard before the game and then to clear their head to give space for their instincts to take over. In love we give space to those we love to allow them to work out their feelings and choose to reciprocate. In music we have natural breath marks, spaces intended to allow the mind to settle and root itself on a mood or theme before being whisked away again. In friendship we share our thoughts and opinions with our friends and then give them the space to choose their own path while we support them wholly. Even in the act of Creation, God rested on the seventh day and made space.
Space to remember
It is with great intention and reverence that we create space to remember. At funerals we create a solemn space to remember the deceased and the life that they led, their impact on us, what they meant to us. At memorials we create an aura of silence to honor the dead and their sacrifice. At graduations we prompt our graduates to pause and reflect on their accomplishments in preparation for what is to come.
Space allows the heart to reminisce, to slowly and deliberately consider that which we are remembering, and to place ourselves in the midst of that experience once more. It allows us to experience more deeply, to love more deeply, to honor more deeply.
Space to heal
We need space to heal. The body cannot heal if we continue to put pressure and strain on our injury. The heart cannot heal if it is constantly being battered and under attack. The mind cannot heal if we continue to relive our trauma without the space or the tools to rewire our thinking. The soul cannot heal if it is not given the time to receive nourishment. When we have broken relationship, we instinctively ask for time and space to think, to ponder, and to heal. Without ever being taught, we know this. Deeply.
It is in that space that we are able to choose to heal, that we are able to take action towards healing. It is not a coincidence that many cultures have mourning rituals that specifically call for time and space to mourn. It is not a PR stunt for companies to offer bereavement time to their employees. It is because the space allows us to mourn, to remember, to honor, and then to integrate the reality of loss into our lives.
Space to grow
As a species, we are wired for growth, for forward movement. It is no wonder we have so many metaphors and images for growth. Perhaps one of the most common and well known images is that of spreading our wings and flying. We know this. We feel it. At a very early age, we instinctively spread our arms wide as we imagine taking flight and going to places currently out of our reach.
The beauty and glory of that image is not only in the jubilant and expectant pose we take, but also of the space around us; the space to explore, the vast horizon spread before us, the breathtaking view of the mountain we are about to soar over.
Human beings are meant to grow, and we need space to do that.
And so I urge you to create space. It may seem counterintuitive. It may feel awkward and unnatural. It may appear destructive at worst and not helpful at best. But we all need space. As you navigate your lives, my prayer for you is that you learn when you need space, how to skillfully create it, and how to confidently and unapologetically take the space that you need.
I love you boys.
Tags: #Habits #Introspection #Character #Forward #Space
Something I’ve always valued is retrospection and introspection. Looking back at our experiences to learn from them, and looking within to thoughtfully consider the choices, decisions, and actions we’ve taken are two very good habits to build. As with any habit, it’s best to start building them early and when one doesn’t need them yet. Taking a page from Robert Redford in Spy Game:
“When did Noah build the ark, Gladys?”
“Before the rain.”
Looking back on this year, it has definitely been one for the history books with all the unexpected twists and turns. It’s been a trying year for most, full of challenges, upset routines, and new and very real fears. It’s brought folks face to face with many insecurities: meaning, purpose, relationship, isolation. It has caused many to look forward, to desire a different future, and to even take action towards making that different future happen.
As we think through those new beginnings, I want us to consider a few important things.
The future is decided by optimists
I’m not just being optimistic here myself, hoping for a future that is defined by optimists. The future will always be decided by optimists.
Why? Because it’s human nature to desire inspiration, to follow those that are inspiring. We are wired to move life forward, to strive for a tomorrow that’s better than today. Optimists paint those pictures, tell those stories, and dream of those grand and epic scenarios.
We aren’t attracted to pessimists. We may resonate with their negativity, and we may seem to connect over a shared disdain, fear, or dislike, but ultimately they don’t attract or inspire us in the long run. It’s the optimists that attract us, and ultimately it will be the optimists that change the world for the better and decide what our future looks like.
Be FOR other people
Coming out of this isolating time, I would challenge us all to be more for other people. We’ve already had enough focus on ourselves this year. Let us make tomorrow more about other people than ourselves. Let us make it a time where we think more of others, do more for others, care more for others, and love others more.
It’s never too late to start
Lastly, it’s never too late to start making the changes you want to see in yourself! If I’ve learned anything at all this year, it is that it’s never to late to get started.
You may have had a rocky start. You may have rough soil to work with. You may have spent years down a path that you’re not happy about. But that’s okay. We move life forward, one step at a time. Tomorrow isn’t defined by what you did yesterday; it’s defined by what you set your mind to do tomorrow. So as we start this new beginning, my challenge to you both is to start it by being optimistic that the best is yet to come, and by setting your minds on being for other people.
Happy new year!
Tags: #Habits #Introspection #Character #Forward #Movement