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
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.
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.
I remember when I was 10 or 11, my dad, the ever-avid soccer enthusiast, decided he wanted to coach the youth league soccer team I was a part of.
By that age, my perfectionist tendencies were already budding. If I couldn’t do things perfectly, I’d get so frustrated and want to give up. I’d get disappointed and fume if I did not perform according to the level I believed I was capable of.
My dad recognized he had a special opportunity to do what coaches do – use sports as a vehicle to instill life lessons that apply outside the context of the sport.
He began every practice with a reminder. “Remember why we’re here. We’re here to play a game and have fun. If we can’t have fun, then what’s the point?“
Every practice he’d hammer that point home.
Every time anyone on the team would get frustrated (including myself), he’d remind us.
Before games, he’d remind us.
During half-time, he’d remind us.
Win or lose, he’d remind us.
In the car, on the way home, he’d remind me.
Over and over and over again.
As my dad’s Alzheimer progresses, I’ve been reflecting on stories like these. I search for the memories I want to keep alive. The lessons learned that shaped me and continue to influence me for the better.
In my search for a purpose-driven life, I’m trying to find the stories that gave birth to that idea.
My dad had known a truth about life and how to live it joyfully. He loved his career, he loved his family, he loved to travel, he loved food and he loved to be surrounded by loved ones.
He was clear on what was important to him. He always seemed to have lived as if he knew the true purpose of life.
He lived it beautifully. He made a point to have fun and live it to the fullest.
And at the end of my journey, I hope I can say the same.
Because, we only get one life.
If I can’t enjoy it and have fun, what was the point?
Spirituality is the deep human longing to experience the transcendent in our ordinary life – it’s the expectation to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary, the miraculous in the mundane, and the sacred camouflaged in the profane
J. Pittman McGhehee
This past Christmas my wife took our 5 year-old daughter to a local shop and let her pick out a couple of things to gift me.
Aside from upgrading my office decor with some serious swagger – including, but not limited to a heart-shaped painted stone, a porcelain jewlery holder in the shape of a dog and a gel pen with a blue kitty cat figurine resting atop with its tail functioning as the clicker (don’t worry, the feelings of jealousy you’re experiencing are completely normal) – she also bought me a brand new pair of thick, soft novelty socks.
This prompted me to ponder on the utility and value of things and how they can evolve over time.
As a child, socks would often be relegated to one of two piles: 1) the “accidentally misplaced in the garbage” pile or 2) the practical gifts that I’d begrudgingly accept.
As an adult, however, a pair of new socks makes me feel like I’m a descendent of the French monarch living in the Palace of Versailles.
Slipping my feet into a new pair of soft, thick, plush socks feels so indescribably gratifying, like something that is best left for the privacy of my sanctum.
It’s on the same level as the feeling of wrapping yourself in a fluffy new bath towel or a flight attendant handing you a hot towel to freshen up or napping in a hammock on a perfect spring day.
By no means do I think I’m transversing to some higher level of spirituality through these moments, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a moment of experiencing the extraordinary in the ordinary.
And the more mindful I am, the more I find these moments are available to me.
Part of the process of Being – of finding fulfillment – is realizing these moments exist in the mundanity of life.
“Your brother may have saved my life,” my sister says as she finishes telling the story.
We both pause to process the reality and weight of that statement.
“That’s heavy shite!” My sister breaks the silence, and exclaims playfully.
I’m flabbergasted. I had completely forgotten about that story. It had been a serendipitous encounter many years ago but hadn’t made a lasting impression.
Let me rewind back to the beginning.
My sister had called to share an encouter she recently had with a mutual high school teacher – a teacher we had both been fond of.
They had run into each other out on a walk. During their conversation, the teacher recalled the following story to my sister.
It had been many years prior. His spouse was suffering from some serious health problems. He told my sister that that period of his life had been incredibly difficult. The uncertainty of whether or not his spouse would pull through was a heavy weight.
It was during this period, that he had been walking the streets of Chicago. He was lost in thought thinking about the uncertain road ahead. When out of no where, he heard someone scream his name in excitement from up ahead.
He broke out of his thought and looked up. He heard his name shouted once more with even more excitement.
He noticed it was me.
I, joyful at confirming the person I was seeing was indeed a beloved teacher, ran up to him and gave him a big honkin’ bear hug.
By some chance encounter, fate decided that on that day, during that exact moment, on a crowded city street, I would run into an old high school teacher and he an old student.
He told my sister, “Your brother may have saved my life that day.”
I’ve been reflecting on the power of this story for a couple of days now. When my sister told me it, I felt my existence validated and (if I’m being honest) It. Felt. Grand.
But, I wanted to be careful and find the true lesson from it, something other than an ego ass-kissing.
After noodling on it for a while, it reminded me that the little things can often have the biggest impact.
Because, the beauty of life is often found in the little things.
If something as simple as a hug and a little expression of joy made that big of an impact, we must be intentional about the little things.
We may not have control over much in life but we can control the little things – how we show up, how we serve others, how we define what the day means.
Focus on the little things. They have the literal power and possibility to make an impact in a big way.
Suffering for the sake of suffering is a fool’s choice.
And I had been a fool lately.
I’d had some tough workdays. The kind of days that make you doubt the path you are on. The ones that cast a pretty big cloud and bleed over outside of work.
I was letting them spill over into the most sacred and scarce moments of my day – time spent with my family or time spent engaged in regenerative activities such as sleep, exercise and play.
One minute I’d be watching my daughters do something silly and the next I found my mind drifting back towards work.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night and work would pop into my head and shine like a blinding neon light, kissing any chance I had of going back to sleep goodbye.
Or I’d be at the gym in the early morning, I’d remember something about work and start worrying about the day and lose focus on my workout.
I would let myself suffer in advance or relive a difficult day outside the boundaries it existed rather than being present in the moment.
I would get irritated. My patience became nonexistent. Every little thing would rub me wrong and I’d get dramatically mad and curse the gods for being drunk on ambrosia.
I was allowing these bad days to encroach on the best parts of my day.
I needed to figure out how to free myself from this hostage situation.
Philosophy Meets Application
Over the past year and a half, I’ve been working with a fitness and nutrition coach. One of the things we always talk about is the discipline of controlling what you can control.
Control the number of calories you consume.
Control for your macronutrients.
Control for hours of sleep.
Control for your daily movement or exercise.
Control for doing the minimum effective dose.
Control your emotions and assess results objectively.
Focus on the key inputs that drive results and do your best to execute on those, ignore everything else.
This focused mindset has yielded impressive results in my fitness and nutrition.
I wondered…could the same principle apply to the shadowed mindset I was experiencing from work?
Perhaps I was focusing on the wrong things. Was I trying to control things outside my control?
Upon examiniation, I found that I was trying to control for clients emotions – did they like me or were they upset? I was trying to control for the types of problems I hoped to solve that day but didn’t. I was too attached to expectations about how the day should go.
Instead of focusing on the things within my control – was I showing up and contributing to the best of my abilities, did I help my team grow, was I setting the right leadership example – I was focused on the wrong things.
When I realized this, I recalibrated my internal score keeper to focus only on what I could control. Once this shift in mindset occurred, I noticed a couple things that hadn’t been clear to me before.
When I didn’t maintain clear boundaries that helped me live in the present (like being intentional to not check work email after hours), that lack of discipline shifted my focus to things outside my control.
The mornings I woke up and dove straight into the maddening world of social media or the infinite news cycle, my focus would shift to a mindset of comparison or outrage. I was starting the day at a mental deficit. Goodbye self-esteem and empathy.
Over the next couple of weeks, I found that controlling for what I could control didn’t eliminate bad days. Rather it helped me quickly assess if I was focused on the wrong things.
Once I noticed it, I could refocus and start again.
The discipline is in learning to ignore the outcome of the day, which can be as predictable as a spider monkey that’s just chugged a Four Loko.
Instead, it meant focusing on the critical few things within my control.
I found that I got to decide what the day meant by what I focused on.
Several years ago, my parents, my wife and I took a trip to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. It was a breathtaking 4-day adventure through the Andes mountains ending at Macchu Picchu.
The hike was done in a small group of about 20 tourists along with guides and porters. We’d eat meals and camp with this group, and naturally got to know several of them over the course of the four days.
There was a couple from Spain that we bonded with during our time together on the hike. We talked about reaching Macchu Picchu and how excited we all were to see it on the final day.
As a child, my family spent our summers visiting relatives in Peru. One such summer, my parents decided to take us to see Macchu Picchu via train from Cusco. I remember it being nothing short of spectacular.
But, I did have a regret from that first visit.
Nestled next to Macchu Picchu is a neighboring mountain, Huayna Picchu. This mountain offers visitors the opportunity to traverse an Incan staircase to reach the top for a once in a lifetime view of Macchu Picchu and the surrounding mountain valley.
Alas, half-way up the mountain, my cousin decided it was above his comfort level and became an immovable (and terrified) object. It caused us all to turn around without ever reaching the top of Huayna Picchu. As pre-pubescent boys go, I was beyond frustrated. I knew that I had missed out on an incredible adventure. And it stayed with me.
I vowed that if I ever came back to Macchu Picchu I would not miss out again.
And now more than 10 years after living with this FOMO, I was hiking towards Macchu Picchu.
For four days, all I talked about was how I would not miss out on climbing Huayna Picchu. I was so incessant and passionate about it that I convinced the Spanish couple to join my dad and me in climbing the peak.
The day arrived.
We made it to Macchu Picchu and I had but one singular focus.
My dad, the Spanish couple and I headed towards the trailhead of Huayna Picchu.
I felt the excitement building as I made it closer to the entrance of a decade’s long regret I was finally going to make right. I felt as charged up as (I imagine) the Kool Aid man must feel in the moment before he’s about to bust through a wall to shower unsuspecting thirsty children with his juice contents.
But when we arrived, the trailhead had been closed to limit a backlog.
We had just missed the window by a couple minutes.
Thankfully, our guide was with us and convinced the park employee to let us through if we made it worth his while. I don’t recall the sum, but it was a meager price to pay to finally fulfill a childhood regret.
Unfortunately, the Spanish couple hadn’t prepared for this and didn’t have enough to cover it.
My dad and I saw the excitement they had begin changing to disappointment.
My dad would not have it. He had enough to cover them and offerred to pay for them. He did not want them to miss out on this. He insisted on it.
You could sense an immediate tension with the couple, a tension I’ve noticed in myself. A rigidity that occurs when others show us generosity – as if we are not worthy of it or we feel like accepting it is imposing. As if somehow the idea of someone showing us generosity is absurd.
My father, however, sensed this tension and said something that helped disarm it.
He shared a lesson he had learned early in his life from his dad, he said “Listen, my dad used to tell me, hijo, sometimes, learning to accept generosity is just as important as being generous.” He paused, and asked them “Please let me do this for you?”
And that was it. The tension evaporated. And they accepted his generosity graciously.
I learned that day that generosity is not about you. It is an act in service of others. Generosity is both giving of ourselves AND helping others recognize they are worthy of it. Both are equally important.
Generosity need not be grandiose in nature. This particular act was a small gesture that made a lasting impact. My father saw it as an opportunity to gift this couple with an experience that would last a lifetime.
That is the power of generosity.
And it lives mostly in the small opportunities that each day presents us.
P.S. If you’re wondering if the wait had been worth it? It was better than anything I could have expected.
And out of the blue, my daughter Isla proclaims, “I hate red and blue and pink and purple!”
Taken a bit aback (considering these have been her favorite colors ever since she could speak), my wife replies, “What!?!? What do you mean? I thought those were your favorite colors.”
To which Isla replies, as indifferent as if she’s discarding a used paper cup, “Not anymore, I hate them!”
“Hate is a strong word for something that was your favorite,” says my wife. “Tell me, why don’t you like them anymore?”
“Well, they were my favorite, but then I realized – WHAT about the other colors? Like orange and yellow and green,” responds Isla. “They’ve never even had a chance. So I want them to be my favorite color now!”
And that was it.
She changed her mind a complete one-eighty and carried on living in this new reality with conviction.
Since that day, when I ask her what her favorite colors are, she doesn’t stray. She changed her mind and committed to it wholeheartedly.
This is a simple story that I think illustrates a larger idea.
Perhaps a part of reality is simply a reflection of what we believe in with conviction and what we commit to.
Perhaps, to make a contribution, we must first believe we are a contribution.
To overcome feelings of inadequacy or being less than, we must believe we are worthy of love and love ourselves unconditionally.
This isn’t fake it until you make it. Because you aren’t faking it.
You’re just making a choice to believe and commit to something different, something better.
Why walk when you can go for a run and get more done – more distance and more exercise in less time.
In my mind, a walk was the equivalent of mailing a handwritten letter. WHY would anyone use such an inefficient and outdated method to accomplish an end.
The pandemic changed all that.
I’ve come to love walks. My wife and I make it a point to end the workday with a family walk. It makes for a nice transition from work mode into family mode. And it’s been an opportunity to slow things down and live in the present.
But, my unhealthy obsession with efficiency still creeps in from time to time…
Just the other day, we were getting ready to go on a walk.
My daughter decides she wants to bring her scooter instead of walking. The scooter is disassembled. I ask my daughter to bring me the handle and the board so I can put it together.
My daughter takes her sweet time, as 4 year olds are wont to do. (How is it that a length of 25 feet can stretch to be a marathon’s distance when a 4 year old has to traverse it?)
As she nears me, my daughter realizes the bottom half of the scooter, in its disassembled form, looks like a skateboard. This realization interrupts her current task. She’s forgotten she is in the process of bringing me the scooter to assemble and instead wants to try and ride the “skateboard.”
But, she’s four. She has no idea how to ride a skateboard.
That doesn’t stop her.
She puts her feet on it while keeping her hands on the ground and begins to rock it back and forth with her feet.
All the while I’m getting frustrated. What should have been a 30 second task to assemble the scooter is turning into what feels like an Odyssean journey.
It doesn’t take long before the “skateboard’ slips and she kicks it far away.
At this point my frustration is turning into an agitated velociraptor. It thinks she’s purposely stalling and wasting time. It has to wait even longer for her to go get the errant “skateboard.”
I lose my cool and snap at her, tell her “Don’t do THAT! Just bring me the bottom half”
Without missing a beat, my daughter replies, “…but then it wouldn’t be fun!”
That instantly disarms the velociraptor.
And I’m reminded to not take life so seriously.
There’s a time and place for efficiency. But NOT everything needs to be on a schedule or reach an end goal as quickly as possible.
So, I laugh at my daughter for her astute observation. I assemble the scooter.