Gift, not Gain

It’s been a pretty scary, crazy year…and we’re only to March. In light of that, I wanted share a book I read recently–Living Life Backwards by David Gibson, which is a study of the book of Ecclesiastes.

The idea of Ecclesiastes is that we’re all going to die. Not cheerful, I know. Particularly in the midst of market crashes, a growing pandemic, and crippling fear. But it’s true, nonetheless. So, knowing this, how should we live?

The answer, and the main message of Ecclesiastes, the author proposes, is this:

“Life in God’s world is gift, not gain.”

So – enjoy the journey. Life is messy and complicated, confusing and scary, filled with missed opportunities and derailed plans. But also delicious food and drink, beautiful moments, and (hopefully) the simple joy of the work we find before us.

Gift, not gain. Perhaps not what we would have planned for ourselves, or strictly in line with our goals. Maybe this gift is more inconvenient than we’d expect, or doesn’t feel like our style. Or, perhaps, doesn’t feel like enough. But – despite the problems we might (with enough scrutiny) find on first glance – it is ours to enjoy, and it’s more than any of us have been promised.

The book was recommended a year ago by my dad, and I didn’t pick up until earlier this year, in January–when I was flying to a close friend’s funeral. I found it helpful–in the midst of the grief–to remember this phrase: gift, not gain. The life we’re given is not something we’re entitled to; instead, it’s for us to enjoy.

Here’s a link to the book, and to a great review thread on twitter.

Take care, and enjoy the day!

Responding to Crisis

The coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US over the last few days. This week, both the NBA season and the NCAA Tournament were cancelled. The public school system in Denver and the local university have suspended in-person classes. Financial markets are plummeting. The government banned much international travel.

In the midst of all that, businesses and individuals are trying to decide how to respond. Here are the lessons I’ve learned about responding to crises.

First – Over communicate. Communication is essential, but always a challenge. In every crisis I’ve ever witnessed, the first reports were always wrong. Yet, it becomes more important than ever to communicate well. If you’re leading a team during this time, consider deliberately over communicating–starting with the most basic information–so that your organization knows the essentials of what is happening and how to learn more.

Second – make decisions based on a wise assessment of the future. In Tomas Pueyo’s spectacular post on the spread of the coronavirus, he points out something amazing about the Chinese government’s response: they decided to shut down Wuhan–population of 11M–based on only 400 diagnosed cases, then most of Hubei, with a population of 58M, only two days later. And, at the moment they made those decisions, the true situation was likely an order of magnitude worse than the diagnoses indicated.

I think a wise assessment accounts for three factors.

People downplay bad news – in the midst of crisis, most people’s first thought is to minimize it: “it can’t be this bad.” As a result, most initial reports will sugarcoat the reality of the situation, and make things seem less severe than they are.

Trends tend to continue – things that are unlikely before a crisis starts are still unlikely after. However, when a crisis follows a well-known pattern, it can be straightforward (but daunting) to extrapolate results. For example, in the US, we know that the flu kills 30-80k people each year–by spreading across 30-40M people. We can expect a similarly infectious disease to follow a similar trend.

Action can make a difference – A crisis presents an urgent and important decision.  And–since information in crisis is tough to come by–clear decisions have the opportunity to make a difference and influence others. For example, the NBA suspending their season was a courageous choice–and made every other organization’s decision to cancel a large gathering easier. Don’t underestimate the importance of a courageous action in the midst of crisis.

Third – Remember your values. Crises cause us to reflect and ask if where we’re supposed to be, doing the work we’re meant to do, in the ways that align with our values. If that’s the case, take the time to be grateful and savor the feeling of serving in ways you’re meant to. And, at the same time, use the crisis as a reminder to execute on the simple, important things that get neglected in easier times. Wash your hands, shore up your finances, focus on what matters, don’t overextend.

Fourth – Know that you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you’re in a leadership role, or actively working in the midst of a crisis, remember to take the time to care for yourself. Sleep and eat at normal intervals, even if you don’t want to. Find moments to smile, be grateful, exchange words with colleagues, and find encouragement or rest, even if it seems unnatural–you can’t give unless you take care of yourself first.

Lastly – there will be times for both massive action and patience. I have a vivid memory of Christmas a few years ago, in 2012. I was still in the military, in a staff job in Afghanistan, and I woke on December 25th to a massive rocket attack our base. As the rockets came in, after we had made it to the bomb shelter, all we could do was wait–the preparations done. But – as soon as the flurry of the attack was over, there was suddenly much to do. Both of these things can be true: as you experience the emotions and changes of a crisis, consider which moment you are in, and open yourself to the utility of both.

I wish you the best as we face this coronavirus crisis in our communities and businesses over the coming months. Take care!

Christmas Plans

“It’s all a part of the plan… more or less” – my nephew

Path to the top of a dormant volcano above Calavera Lake in California

I had an amazing Christmas. We took our six-person family to Oceanside, CA. My wife and I ran up a dormant volcano, our kids played in the Ocean, our whole family went to Legoland, and we had a traditional Christmas Eve cheese fondue dinner. It was a great holiday.

There were also some unplanned rough patches. Everyone got the flu. We had rented a 15 person van for our 14 person party, and at some point, at least 3 members of our group vomited in the van. Our 3 year-old and 5 year-old both soaked their clothes in the ocean at a moment when we didn’t have spare outfits, and had to borrow clothes from the adults.

But – the holiday was amazing, and some of the most magical moments were unplanned.

It feels like a pretty common thing to think about detailed plans for Christmas and the New Year. It can even be a big source of stress.

This year, more than any other, I found myself reflecting on how far the first Christmas was from Joseph and Mary’s plans.

I’m old enough to have some idea how upset I would have been, telling my wife we had to walk 95 miles to a different city in her third trimester, because of a government requirement that happened to fall during that month. Or that the plan I had for a hotel wasn’t going to work. Or that we were going to sleep in barn. Oh – and, by the way, the plans I’d made to take care of her during the delivery of her first child had all fallen through. I would have been completely full of panic.

That string of plans falling through is the story we celebrate during Christmas. Because it all worked out, and because the details–unplanned as they were–were an amazing gift.

Anyway – in the midst of the stress of the holidays, or of everyday life, may we remember that the unplanned and difficult moments or unforeseen obstacles are sometimes amazing gifts.

Thanksgiving & Gratitude

Last night I had an unexpected vacation. There was a snowstorm in our neighborhood–12″ of accummulation!–and, just as the kids went to be bed, the power went out. So we had a fire in the fireplace, snow falling outside our windows, and a house of darkness and quiet, save for the crackling and light of the fire. So we laid down by the fire to enjoy the power outage and the calm blanket of snow outside our window.

Photo by Click and Learn Photography on Unsplash

I enjoyed the break from everything else I might have been doing. And, because of the season, it got me thinking about thankfulness.

Here’s what I learned about gratitude this year.

First – it’s an answer to uncertainty. In the midst of change, ambiguity, and fear, gratitude can provide a path forward and a reminder of what is going right.

Second – it pairs well with patience. Often I don’t see gifts immediately when they appear, and it takes time to understand the blessing that an unexpected event or situation really provided. And, when I’m patient, I’m most able to enjoy the surprises that appear in my life.

Lastly – it shows up in unexpected places. So I need to keep my eyes open, or I miss it.

I hope this week finds your life full of gratitude and thanksgiving. Have a great week!

Here are a few words on thanksgiving that I am enjoying this year.

Doodling

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I start doodling in the margins of my notebook.

Recently, I realized I would get a lot of joy from being better at my sketches. Maybe even learning to draw. So I started putting some effort into being organized and a little more focused about these lines in margins.

So – I thought I’d share the most recent output. I hope you enjoy it.

Have a great day!

Memorizing Books

Today I’m marveling that anyone has ever learned to read.

Mastering a difficult skill often consists of the patience and persistence to learn–and master–a relevant set of subcomponents for the whole.

And patience through steady progress is tough.

Reading is a great example. First, you need to learn all the letters and their sounds. Next, how they fit together into words, how each word sounds, and what it means. Then you need to bring the words together into sentences, and follow their meaning through the course of a story.

Taking only the first level–learning the words and their sounds. The average word is 5 letters long, and the average adult reads at 250 words per minute. So, on average, adults can identify a letter, its name, its sound, and its context in a word, at a rate of 20 letters per second. Pretty incredible.

Mastery is built a little at a time. Photo by Teemu Paananen on Unsplash

Two of my kids are 3 and 4 right now. One of the best parts of our day is reading a bedtime story together. They’re old enough to know all their letters and a few of their words, but they’re not reading yet.

Right now, it’s easier for them to memorize entire books than process letters one at a time.

They have memorized dozens of books. They’re really good at it. In fact, they’ll know a new book after only 3 or 4 readings. But – knowing an extra book by memory doesn’t get them any closer to reading on their own.

May we all have patience when we’re mastering new skills–because patience and steady progress are only way to get there.

The Trees Won’t Trim Themselves

I was visiting a friend this week. She lives in a house on a golf course at the top of a hill. Her back porch faces east, so she has an amazing view of the sunrise in the morning–its stunning.

A few years ago she planted honey locust trees to shade the yard. They’ve flourished, and are now close to twenty feet tall.

But now the lowest branches block the view of the horizon. When you sit on the porch, you can only see the morning colors through the foliage of the trees.

The solution to this is pretty simple. Cut off the bottom branches and she’ll be able to see the sunrise again. But the branches have grown pretty big. It seems like a lot to lop them off.

But the trees won’t trim themselves.

It’s easy for me to notice this: I’ve trimmed trees in my yard recently and was really happy with the result. And when I look around at other 30′ honey locust trees, I can see where they’ve had their bottom 10-feet of branches removed. But if you haven’t done this before, it feels like a lot of change.

Reality is, I leave the low hanging branches on the trees in my life all the time, ducking as I walk by, and dealing with the obstructed view.

May we all make the simple, appropriate changes in our life in response to the growth we’ve had. Have a great day!

Values & Follow through

I’ve been reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography. It’s an incredible book–highly recommended.

I wanted to share the description of his personal values, and how he tracked his performance in each of them. It starts on page 87.

I think it’s relevant for a lot of people because reflecting on and listing out our personal values is a pretty common exercise in leadership and team building courses. The last time I did this was a few months ago, and here’s the list of values, people, and ideas I said were most important to me.

Franklin went through a similar exercise. Here’s his list–notice how concrete, tangible, and actionable they are.

  • 1. TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  • 2. SILENCE. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  • 3. ORDER. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  • 4. RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  • 5. FRUGALITY. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e. waste nothing.
  • 6. INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  • 7. SINCERITY. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and , if you speak, speak accordingly.
  • 8. JUSTICE. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  • 9. MODERATION. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  • 10. CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  • 11. TRANQUILLITY. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  • 12. CHASTITY. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  • 13. HUMILITY. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

It’s interesting me to reflect on the difference from my list. When I list “courage” and “integrity” above, I mean something like “Resolution” and “Justice” in Franklin’s list. And I think many making a list like this would not have an equivalent of “Order”, “Silence”, or “Temperance.”

The most fascinating part of this was the follow-through. To track his progress, Franklin made a notebook with one page for every virtue. On each page, he made a column for each weekday, and a row for each virtue.

Each week, he would focus on a single virtue, trying to improve. And he would track his performance on all 13 virtues, noting any failures–improving over the whole set of virtues by focusing on on per week. He could complete this 13-week cycle of reflection four times per year.

Here’s his template:

Franklin did this exercise for the first time in 1728, when he was about 22 years old. He recorded it for his autobiography in 1784, some 56 years later. Imagine the consistency built over 50 years of this practice!

I hope this encourages you in your efforts to live out your values today. Take care!

Levels of Complexity

I saw this video (10 min) a few weeks ago, where a musician plays happy birthday through 16 levels of complexity.

I thought she did a remarkable job of explaining the structure of how to introduce a complex skill:

  • Named, explained, and demonstrated each new level
  • Applied the skill to a simple, well-known piece (“Happy Birthday”)
  • Reminded that synthesizing is personal, and an expression of her own artistic point of view
  • Connected the foundational components to the end goal

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Often, I see people at work asked to teach a complex skill which takes years to master in a few hours time: facilitating a discussion, understanding data, persuading an audience, or leading a change.  I thought this simple video gave good advice on how to introduce and deconstruct something complicated, while still giving space for the audience to enjoy the journey.

Here’s the link.

Enjoy!

 

 

Remembering Mr. Rogers

I have really enjoyed reading about Fred Rogers this week.

A few recent articles have been inspired by an upcoming movie, A Beautiful Day, which will release in November 2019.   The movie centers on the relationship Mr. Rogers developed with a reporter who profiled him in Esquire.

I grew up watching Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, but I haven’t thought about what that show meant for a long time.  It’s been fascinating to revisit and learn more about Fred Rogers.

I particularly enjoyed this profile in The Atlanticwhich showed how he would transform a statement into a message for his show.  An elegant example of how to simplify a message, frame it to be positive, remove anything prescriptive or exclusionary, and draw a bridge to why it matters.

Here is the process from the article, which I found fascinating:

  • “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. ​​​​​​
  • “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  • “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  • “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  • “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  • “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  • “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  • “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  • “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

If you’re more interested in Mr. Rogers lessons for grownups, here is his 2002 commencement speech at Dartmouth, where he gave the gift of a minute of silent gratitude to the entire class.  I also enjoyed this twitter thread, describing how unusual his philosophy and theology really was.

I hope these ideas encourage you.  Have a good week!