The Beautiful Mystery

On a walk the other day, my oldest daughter turns and asks, “which way are we going, Papi?”

I’m not sure,” I replied.

But you’re the adult, you always know where we are going!” she stated with the passion of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. 

Seeing an opportunity to expand her perspective, I replied, “I don’t always know where I’m going. Sometimes I prefer to leave myself open to the possibility of the moment. Not everything needs to be planned out.

She looks at me unsure what to make of my response and goes back to walking.

A hard life lesson learned has been knowing when to plan and when to be open to the present moment and let life unfurl as it occurs. 

If all we do is plan, we miss out on the present. 

If all we seek is certainty then we are blind to possibility. The beauty that’s born from the mystery evades us

Silver Linings

Without them, we suffer for suffering’s sake. 

With them, they give life meaning. Suffering has purpose and it’s ours to define. We become the author rather than the narrator. We search for the meaning hidden in the struggle. 

They help us put gratitude into practice. 

They give us pause to be mindful that we don’t have to accept the default script in our head. They give us agency to define what the moment means.

They have power to define reality.

Watching my father deteriorate to Alzheimer has been one of the most paradoxical experiences of my life. On one hand, it’s heart-wrenching to watch the person that shaped me most become a shell of himself and lose his light. And yet, it’s also provided an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with my mom and siblings. It’s been both the hardest experience of my life and an opportunity to cultivate gratitude in abundance. 

Without the silver lining, we focus only on what we lack, all the while being blind to all we have.

Mise En Place: What Cooking Taught Me About Effortless Flow

Mise en place has its origin in French culinary. It literally translates to “put in place” or “everything in its place.

The technique requires gathering all the ingredients and equipment you need, prepped and in the form you’ll need them, before you begin cooking. 

When learning to cook, this concept helped me refine my amateurish chaotic approach. 

Before applying mise en place, I felt rushed. I always wanted to enjoy cooking (because I loved great food), but didn’t feel like I was learning to cook. I was hustling from one task to the next, never stepping back to see what I was trying to accomplish. Often, each task took longer to prep than the previous step required to cook and I’d overcook my food. 

There’s nothing enjoyable about mushy broccoli, burnt oven-roasted vegetables or dry chicken breast with a texture similar to day-long chewed gum. Sure, I’d stomach it down because it was edible and I didn’t want to have to cook again, but there aren’t many instances where I would have preferred standard airline food to a home cooked meal.

I’m biased towards action, often times to the detriment of planning. 

Mise en place slowed me down. It helped me see cooking as a workflow. I began to see cooking similar to a math story problem. Before tackling the problem of cooking, I had to have all of the variables identified and organized so I could step back and see the big picture. With everything in place, I began focusing exclusively on application and technique. 

Mise en place removed the noise by reordering my order of operations. It helped me get better at cooking. Mise en place showed me that the task was not the source of discontent but rather the process I was utilizing.  

Learning to slow down and prepare before taking action made the rest of the journey flow effortlessly.

Mise en place may have its roots in cooking but it’s a concept that can be applied beyond the kitchen.

Redirecting fear to eat its own tail

I wish I could have been a musician and songwriter. 

Rather, I wish I would have at least given it a shot. 

I’m under no delusion that I would have had a chance to make it. Statistically, the odds were not in my favor. No, I wish I would have given it a shot to have learned how to take a chance on myself earlier in life. 

Was I a great musician? Not exactly, but I mistook skill for connection. There were signs, glimmers, that my creativity was connecting with people…at least enough to consider, “hmmm, maybe this is something I’m good at and enjoy, so why not give it and myself a shot.”

But I didn’t.

I don’t regret it. What’s done is done. The past is only a teacher to learn from. I see it as a story on a continuum of a challenge I’ve tried to overcome my entire life. 

I’m a people pleaser. It’s a strength in many situations but a source of fear in others. In my musician quest it became a source of fear. Because that journey went against the American-dream narrative. It didn’t conform to the story of success I’d grown up around. I wasn’t confident enough to own my divergent journey and push back against the prevailing narrative. 

I avoided the risk and stayed the safe path of approval.

Twenty years later, this continues to be a challenge the universe puts before me. But, time has gifted me more of these experiences. With a larger data set, I’ve had many pivotal moments where I owned my journey and pushed through the fear of what others thought. 

It’s never easy. But there’s a gift of deeper self-awareness that comes from overcoming fears.

I’ve become more attuned to this fear. 

I have a rule for this fear that’s served me well to combat this fear:

When trying to decide between which path to take, the one I consider rejecting because I fear what others will think of me for taking that path is often the right choice.

Lean into your fear. It has something to teach you that avoiding it cannot.

Know Thyself (Via Negativa)

To know thyself, is the beginning of wisdom

Socrates

Identity is a puzzle we spend a lot of our lives chipping away at. There are an unlimited number of choices to explore around who we are or who we want to be.

Identity infers something we are. It is additive. We search through life experiences to understand who we are by finding the characteristics and values we identify with. And once identified, we define and absorb them into our identity.

But, too many options can paralyze us from making a choice (see The Paradox of Choice). This is the struggle in trying define our identity based on the presence of certain ideas. Defining who you are takes a lot of guesswork, reflection and time to sift through which ideas fit best.

Identity can also be chipped away at from the inverse approach – by removing options, by determining who we aren’t. 

I’ve found that defining who I am not is much easier. By removing possibilities, I get closer to the truth of who I am. I eliminate a world of options in one direction and reduce the choices I have available.

The absence of something still defines a thing, just from a different perspective. 

In my twenties I made a decision about my identity as it relates to my career. I’ve always wanted to make an impact with my work, I just didn’t know what that meant early on. 

My first job was working for a large financial institution helping other large financial institutions make more money – not the kind of impact I envisioned. And even if it was, the size of the organization made it difficult to make the kind of impact I wanted to make. It was the embodiement of little fish in a big pond. 

These realizations were the first seeds I planted that helped me put constraints around the direction I would take my career. Large organizations immediately came off the table. Organizations whose purpose was fixated on creating abundance for those who already had abundance were also removed from future consideration set.

I still had no idea what I wanted to do or how I wanted to define myself via the work I did. 

But, I took ownership of my identity via negativa. And, I suddenly felt one step closer to knowing myself. 

Best Day Ever!

We recently spent a week at the lake with family. My wife (in all her infinite wisdom) thought it’d be a good idea to sign our oldest, Isla, up for a summer camp. We found a three day nature camp through the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. 

About a week before it was scheduled to begin, we began talking about it with Isla so she would get used to the idea and (hopefully) get excited about attending. 

It had the opposite effect.

She complained that she wouldn’t know anyone and that it would be so boring. She argued it was going to take her away from time with family and she was convinced she wouldn’t have any fun. There was whining and there were tears with all the dramatic flair that I’ve come to expect from a five year old. 

As the first day of camp approached, her attitude towards it persisted.

We dropped her off. And we waited…hoping she’d enjoy it so we wouldn’t have to hear her complain for the duration of her camp. 

The time to pick her up had arrived.

We sat, awaiting her arrival, with bated breath.

As soon as she entered the car, her first words were “Best day EVER!” 

My wife and I were beyond excited to hear all about her experience despite her initial protests.

All her worrying and complaining and arguing had been in vain. All that energy expended had been for naught. And while my wife and I both knew she would love it, it was easy for me to brush off her worries as childish concerns. 

Yet, how often do I suffer in advance? How many times have I obsessed over a worst case scenario, letting it occupy a large percentage of head space, for it to never come to fruition? How often do I worry about potential difficult conversations becoming heated?

The end result may not always be “best day ever,” but very often things don’t go as bad as I imagine or turn out better than expected.

There may be 30 years that separates my daughter and me, but the challenge of living in the present and not suffering in advance is one that is not unique to her. 

This is the true responsibility of being a parent or a leader (the lesson is the same). The struggles we face and our own shortcomings influence the struggles of those who look up to us.

Those we lead become a mirror that reflects us. 

The Evolution of Failure

As a child, I failed often. The world was still new to me and I learned through trial and error. Because the world did not expect much from me as a child, failure became part of the growing up process. 

In my teens, failure became a tight rope to walk. In a search for where to fit in, failure was something to avoid lest I wanted to be ostracized to lower social status or face the prospect of a bleak future.

In my twenties, failure was internalized. The advent of social media showed me all the ways I was a failure. Every friend I saw succeeding where I failed, felt personal. Try as I might, I could not avoid failure and each new failure felt heavy. The weight of failure brought with it a growing fear of failure – a fear that held me back for years.

Now in my thirties, I’ve experienced failure in many different forms. I’ve suffered the range from life changing failures to minor failures soon forgotten. The passage of time has shown me failure is part of the process. It is a step on the journey, something to overcome rather than something we are. 

As it was in childhood, failure is nothing more than part of the growing up process.

Failure is the obstacle. And the obstacle is the way.

An Important Distinction

I’ve been fortunate to have mentors and leaders help me along my own leadership path. Their support was pivotal in helping me achieve a leadership role.  

When I became a new leader, I had a desire to pay it forward and help those on my team achieve the next stage of their career. However, I failed to realize that not everyone was as biased towards action as I was. 

I found myself in a situation where some weren’t interested in progressing or they were but they never took action, they just talked about it. I spent a lot of time confused about how best to help. I remember feeling like I was failing as a leader. 

It took me a couple years to mature on my leadership journey to realize I failed to make an important distinction. 

Leaders are responsible for helping you identify what skills need to be honed and helping you navigate how to to get to your next promotion or career-level. 

Leaders are not responsible for getting you your next promotion or figuring out the next chapter of your career.

You own that.

A leader can’t make you want it or do the work for you. But, they can show you how to get there – if you want it.

The distinction is subtle, but important, so responsibility of who owns what is clear.

The Gift of Childish Hope

The other day I asked my kindergartner what she wanted to be when she grows up. The answer is the same it’s been for the last year. “I want to have my own bakery and serve cookies and cupcakes and donuts!” she replied with delicious conviction.

It made me recall the dreams I had when I was a kid. I dreamed of being a cartoonist for Disney. I loved to draw and wanted to make it my life’s work.

The thing I remember most was that when others asked and I answered, there was no doubt – much like there is no doubt in my daughter when she exclaims she’ll own a bakery. 

To see someone with a level of self-belief that hasn’t been stamped out by the struggles of life is an innocent and beautiful form of hope.

I know that as she gets older that hope and belief will inevitably taper down and adjust to whatever life throws at her. 

There will be a point where her grandiose thinking of childish pursuits will need to face the realities of her innate talents. Her skills may not overlap with her childhood dreams.

She’ll be faced with the choices we all have to make as we come into adulthood.

But, whatever profession she decides to pursue, I hope she retains that part of childhood hope that we could all use more of. 

A belief that we can. A belief in ourselves. A belief that no matter what the world throws at us, we’re still going to have unreasonable dreams for ourselves. 

It’s this hope that pushes us to make our highest, most generous contribution. 

My daily routine of staring death straight into its baby blues

What you’re looking at there is my life – from beginning to end – in a simple picture.

It’s a visual representation of how long I’ve lived and how much I have left (should I die an old man).

It’s an extension for Chrome called Mortality.

I see it every day – multiple times a day in fact. 

It’s a reminder that life is impermanent and death is inevitable.

I think it’s important to be reminded of that often, but not because I look forward to dying. 

Death is a reminder that this great party of life can’t go on forever. At some point, all the guests have to leave and you’ll get ushered out. 

Until then, it’s worth the reminder to get the most out of your time  – give love generously, build connections, contribute and make it memorable. 

Perhaps, it’s a bit morbid. But, I hope to meet death with a smile on my face knowing I lived life fully rather than confront it staring back at an unfulfilled life. 

Death is life’s greatest motivater. 

It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this.