Category Archives: authenticity

The Fatal Flaw of High School Romance

My memory of dating in high school is as fuzzy as my memory of BASIC code, the computing language they taught back then. So as a way to reconnect with lost neural pathways, I combined them: my memory of high school dating, expressed in BASIC.

    • 10 INPUT “Is someone showing interest in me? “; A$
    • 20 IF A$ = “Y” OR A$ = “y” THEN GOTO 40
    • 30 IF A$ =  “N” OR A$ =  “n” THEN GOTO 120
    • 40 PRINT  “Commence awkward flirting and date at Bruce Willis / Tom Hanks movie and/or mini golf.  “; U$
    • 50 INPUT “She’s amazing. She reminds me of [insert movie star] and I am smitten. Does she still like me? “; A$
    • 60 IF A$ = “Y” OR A$ = “y” THEN GOTO 80
    • 70 IF A$ =  “N” OR A$ =  “n” THEN GOTO 140
    • 80 INPUT  “Has two months time passed yet [emotional ceiling reached and/or unnecessary drama unfolding]? “; U$
    • 90 IF A$ = “Y” OR A$ = “y” THEN GOTO 110
    • 100 IF A$ =  “N” OR A$ =  “n” THEN GOTO 40
    • 110 PRINT  “It’s me. Not you. Good bye.’ “; U$
    • 120 END

According to the folks who study brains, the prefrontal cortex, which controls our executive function and rational brain, isn’t fully developed until age 25. Teenagers are still working primarily through their amygdala, which is an almond-shaped, primitive fear-alarm buried in your brain – your emotional lizard-wiring.

It’s science. Teenagers are nuts.

In my case, high school love consisted of a week of blind infatuation followed by a month of confusing interactions, followed by a desire to move on but not knowing how. I never understood my mates and they didn’t understand why I chose to live in a turtle shell of emotional avoidance.

And it wasn’t just me. Everyone in high school had their own soap operas: from “I can’t let my partner out of my sight” to “my identity is wrapped up in my mate” to “I’m too good for any one person.”

It doesn’t help that kids in this country are raised on a “happily ever after” Disney diet of perfect relationships: find “the one” or suffer a life of misery. In my experience, the only Disney connection to actual life is that evil mustaches are awesome.

We learn the hard way that happiness with, and knowledge of, ourselves precedes happiness with another. But we also learn that self-love is an elusive beast.

Do you remember The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein? And its sequel, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O?  I used to read them to you on my lap when you were five.

“Oh I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece
I’m lookin’ for my missin’ piece
Hi-dee-ho, here I go,
Lookin’ for my missin’ piece.”

A key idea was that we are never “completed” by another, and that attempts at that goal are misguided. We shouldn’t try to check the box on “happily ever after,” but instead accept that humans will always want more – that it’s the journey that makes us feel alive, not the condition of being whole.

What we need are partners in growth.

But in high school, our needs for acceptance are so strong, we tend to see our mate only in relation to ourselves, and we can construct an image instead of seeing the the raw material. That, coupled with the emotional, amygdala stew surrounding the relationships make them wildly challenging. 

I say chill and enjoy the ride….to the extent possible, of course. 

Appreciate people for who they are inside and demand the same in return. Have long conversations in diners about life, hypocrisy, big ideas and the tortures and wonders of love. Instead of trying to find “the one,” let high school serve as the rich backdrop for your mind, body and soul congealing into its early adult substance.

That said, it’s okay to ride the wave of teenage love: the big feelings and drama and dopamine hits that cause judgment to fly out the window. That’s also part of the growth. And frankly, feelings of love will happen to you whether you want it or not.

Just recognize love’s messiness and have friends to catch your fall when relationships end. And do the same for them. The demise of relationships are not a reflection of you, but the necessary sandpaper of life. It’s the growth happening.

And as you get older?

Your prefrontal cortex will strengthen. I met your Mom at 25. (Or, to be clear, I was 24 and rounded up to 25 when I first met her because it sounded older.)

At that point, you know yourself better. And you can make smarter decisions on mates. And maybe, just maybe, you find someone whose strengths, flaws and quirks you find fascinating; someone who makes grocery shopping awesome.  

I believe that great relationships are driven by the “big conversation” – a long, interesting dialogue woven through life, where mutual growth explodes like a new planet being terraformed. Where mutual individuation is the core, not completing something missing in us. Where we roll together into the future…

“I think you are the one I have been waiting for,” said the missing piece. “Maybe I am your missing piece.”

“But I am not missing a piece,” said the Big O. “There is no place you would fit.”

“That is too bad,” said the missing piece. “I was hoping that perhaps I could roll with you…”

“You cannot roll with me,” said the Big O, “but perhaps you can roll by yourself.”

So enjoy, explore, ride the wave, and learn to roll by yourself alongside others. High school romances are ephemeral, but the love for yourself will never go away if you tend to it.

120 END

Letters to Ellie: The Practice That Matters Most in Life

I saw your letter to future students, where you told them how to handle being at a treatment center:  not dwelling on what was or what could be, but to just be in the present and do good work.

I could not have been more proud of you in that moment (dumb presence joke). You innately deciphered the code to a good life: that we are capable of happiness if we let go of our attachments and feel the grass we’re standing on. 

jumping

They don’t teach this in school, or at least they didn’t when I was a kid. I didn’t even spell presence without a ‘ts’ at the end when I was your age. We were too busy memorizing rocks and battle dates, and meditation was in the realm of carob-chomping, sandal-sporting, Cat Stevens-esque groovykins. Not what you talked about with your football buddies.

Core to this ability is the knowledge that we are a conscious being wrapped in a body and mind. If we were in one of your dystopian sci-fi novels, we would be able to inject our consciousness into different host bodies (Obama, Ryan Gosling, Burmese Pythons).

The body has the thoughts, emotions and cravings that get in the way of freedom and happiness. This is what the Buddhists practice: dealing with suffering. Not denying suffering, but understanding and transcending it. The only thing certain is change, so be at peace with it.

On the one hand, suffering comes from the past telling us who we are (entrepreneur, artist, snake-lover, life of the party). Good and bad memories and patterns become our ego narrative. It’s not that we need to block out fond memories or deny our past – the problem is when our connection to history causes our suffering. Just read my old posts for a not-so-subtle nod to this “who am I?” pain. 

On the other hand, we have “if only” longings for a better future or the pleasures we think will make us happy. “If only I was (thinner, funnier, had my daughter at home, better at summarizing thousands of years of spiritual history in a short blog), life would be better.” 

It’s not that we can’t enjoy the fruit of this life. The problem is when we crave those pleasures at the expense of enjoying the moment.

You’re learning on your own to be aware of these thoughts and feelings – seeing them arise, and then letting them move through us.

Remember in Cincinnati when you, Hazel and me watched the highway looking for cars of a certain color?  Then for some reason, we would tackle each other when that color came through? That seems like a better way to witness our thoughts and emotions coming through us – like cars on a highway. Or as Eckhart Tolle says in The Power of Now, watch them like a cat looking at a mouse hole.

Mindfulness has become a big industry for our oversaturated lives. And that’s a good thing. Western culture rewards bigger/better/louder, especially with a big megaphone for the whole planet to shout into. To deal with the cacophonous reminders that we’re not good enough, people need meditation in the workplace, books, internet gurus. I’m glad we’re getting it, but it took crisis mode to get us here.

As a kid now, it must be incredibly hard, especially in your situation. I remember suffering at your age: wanting a girlfriend, wanting to be younger again, wanting to be better looking, popular, funny. Much of the years 12-18 were a mix of unbridled fun mixed with self-torture for what I didn’t have. If I had more practices and teachers back then, I would have saved myself a lot of pain (or is that “if only” thinking?).

Since my 20’s, I have meditated. I’m not enlightened by any means, but I practice. And when things start to suck, I find solace in my slowly-improving abilities to connect with the moment: watching my thoughts, counting breaths, repeating a poem, and life activities like jogging on the mountain, staring at clouds or even eating (poorly) with my non-dominant hand.  

Ultimately this is applause for you. You have intuited something powerful and vital in this always-on, mostly-depressed world; something that spiritual teachers have been preaching for thousands of years: instead of running off to the woods, we can have a uniquely human utopia inside ourselves with practice.

You are choosing to be happy, one of the most important and hardest decisions we make as humans. And that is more than I could ever hope for you.

Letters to Ellie: The Biggest Predictor of Success? We all have it.

I’m still energized from a visit to see Ellie last weekend. This letter came out of discussions around having a goal and a roadmap to keep the faith during difficult times. I hope you enjoy.


A lot has been written about grit lately, the courage and resolve to keep going despite challenges and setbacks. The ability to run marathons instead of sprints. 

A TED talk a few years back by Angela Duckworth (and now a book) claimed that grit was the best predictor of success in kids, not talent or intelligence. Since then it’s become a bigger meme for the TED-regurgitating smugsters. But with good reason – the evidence showed pretty conclusively that kids who persevere go on to do big things and are happier as a result. 

I agree wholeheartedly. But in my experience, a lot of us have grit. Perhaps all of us. It’s not a binary condition that some kids have and some don’t, like being a Belieber. I think it’s more like a reserve gas tank that we all have, but only opens when the purpose switch is flipped and we journey through life deliberately. 

a_long_journey_home_-_800x600

For many “successful” people in the world, grit comes from pain. Trying to make whole what was missing for us as kids. Trying to fight that shame gives people access to that reserve tank. Kids get messages like “you’re not good enough,” “you’re not as driven as your sibling,” “you’re different from the rest of the family.” That either winds ‘em up like a toy robot or winds them down into a spiral of self-doubt, sadness, chemicals and an over-reliance on others. 

Maybe pain isn’t the ideal source of purpose, but in my experience it’s okay. It’s the movement that matters. Movement leads to experience, insights and discoveries. A lot of my early motivations were based on vanity and insecurity (now try getting the Simple Minds song from Breakfast Club out of your head). It’s not necessarily a bad thing and comes with the territory at that age. And it ultimately led to a better place. 

For instance, someone may have felt shame as a child for not being smart enough. Instead of burying her feelings, it forced her to study like crazy, graduate and go on to an Ivy League school and highly respected job. To prove herself. 

After four years of working 80-hour weeks, she starts to question why. The only people who question her intelligence now are in her own mind. She imagines herself running a race only to discover there are no competitors or spectators. 

But along the way she traveled great distances, met people, learned how to get things done in the world, and discovered a deep-rooted desire to help others. She leaves her job and starts a nonprofit, now applying that same grit to a different problem. 

Maybe she still has things to prove, but she’s accessing a deeper reserve tank and deeper sense of self, and that will only continue.

I know a lot of people just like that. 

It’s why I got sad a few years back when I lost a sense of purpose outside the family. I no longer knew how to access my tank. I worked on a lot of “stuff,” but didn’t have the reserve power to keep it going. Only upon falling down, did I realize how important it was to work with and help people I loved and respected. Falling down was its own instigator of growth and movement, though it didn’t seem that way at the time. 

Our brains get dopamine hits when we accomplish little things on the way to bigger things. We gain strength and confidence when we work towards goals that matter. I write a lot more blogs now that you are the purpose. You give me access to the reserve tank. 

That’s why I believe strongly in your desire to have a big goal and a roadmap. We’re wired for that. If you have a life where your raison d’etre is constantly known and growing, with large and small goals and the tank to keep working towards them, I would feel like a charmed parent. 

Because eventually, when we have worked through the big “missings” and pain and insecurities, we no longer need a reserve tank at all. Instead we gain access to an infinite energy source, where life is a constant, humming connection to ourselves and others. Like Neo at the end of The Matrix when he could see the Matrix for what it was and no bullets could hit him anymore. 

That’s the beauty of it all: if we channel our pain to propel us forward, we survive, thrive, and eventually find ourselves on an more enlightened plane of existence.

To wrap it up: 

  • We all have grit, including you for SURE. I’ve seen it.
  • We must use our pain and suffering to drive us forward instead of turning inside ourselves and self-destructing. 
  • When we keep moving, we get the dopamine hits along the way and we keep growing and learning. 
  • As we continue to grow, we let go of our selfish dramas and move towards a deeper energy. 

And all of this is stuff I have learn again and again. Rinse and repeat. So don’t be hard on yourself. You’re already way ahead of the game. 

Letters to Ellie: What I Would Change About My Younger Years

Another life-lesson excerpt from my letters to my daughter. We finally got to see her a few weekends ago for the first time in two months. Amazing.

When I was your age (12) I got into martial arts. I mean, really into it. Karate Kid had just come out, and tae kwon do studios were everywhere. I wore kung fu shoes to school, memorized the Bruce Lee movies, practiced moves on unsuspecting kids at recess, and even referred to myself as The Master (sigh). 

Bruce

Lots of seventh graders have identity issues but I was a one-kid carnival show. Karate-guy was just one of many, in between breakdancer (complete with peroxided ducktail), skate punk, survivalist and weightlifter. Probably a rodeo clown and beatboxer in there too. 

I wanted to be respected, included, loved. And if I didn’t get that love, I would go all kung fu on myself. I had the shame of not being good enough, so struggled epically to earn people’s respect and to have them as friends. I just didn’t know how to do it. So it usually backfired as I willed these ridiculous characters into existence. 

As a younger adult, that fierce desire to fit in was still there. No more ducktail or nunchucks, but I still hungered for the drug of outside validation. 

This led to insufferable traits: boasting, raging and, perhaps most destructive, assuming the personality I thought would impress people, aka the “chameleon.” 

For business people, I would channel Richard Branson; for spiritual folks, Alan Watt; for hipsters, the guy into artisanal pickles and rare records. I could be anybody I thought they would like. One time I caught myself acting like someone into auto racing. As you well know, nothing could be further from my natural interest map than NASCAR.  

Most people work hard to look good socially, but stay true to their feelings. The chameleon will shape-shift for anybody and any situation. An indiscriminate Gumby selling out their feelings for inclusion. 

Awareness of the problem is a big step. But I would still find myself swept up into social situations without seeing it happen and I’d reflect on it later like Dr. Jekyll with a Hyde hangover: “Argh, I did it again, didn’t I?”

The bigger work was understanding why it was so important for me to impress. What happened that created this fierce desire to be admired. And ultimately realizing that my ego will get in the way of my happiness, both by setting a high bar for self-measurement and by making my happiness contingent on others. 

It’s that self-excavation work that helps us enjoy ourselves. Just like in Hollywood, we learn to love the bad guys when we know why they ended up that way. From Gru to Freddy Krueger, the backstory makes them sympathetic. 

So my advice would be to get to know yourself apart from egoic images. Catch yourself when you’re trying to impress and ask why. The more you learn to love your wacky, inner self, warts and all, the more you can let that self lead the way in life. And ironically, the more people will be attracted to you. 

“I’m not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to mine” – Bruce Lee

Letters to Ellie: The Power of Canned Spam

In my continuing series of letters to my daughter, who is away for awhile, some thoughts about why humor is vital to a good life.

I was a class clown when I was your age (12). From cartoon impressions to soap opera soliloquies to Three Stooges slapstick, I prioritized laughs over academics. Getting laughs made me feel like I belonged and could other people happy.  

I prayed early on to the comedic gods through Steve Martin and Monty Python records. The other kids weren’t really exposed to English comedy, so they just assumed I was obsessed with Spam. 

silly walk

It irritated the teachers to no end, especially since they got used to my sister’s straight-A ways before me (“Are you sure you’re Kristin’s brother?”). 

It may have been due to my parents getting divorced early on and my home life getting messy. It’s a widely-held belief that comedians all have troubled childhoods (just try Googling it), but this was the 70’s and 80’s and divorce-driven latch-key lifestyles for kids were rampant. So in theory, the whole class should have been an ensemble improv sketch. 

Whether or not I was trying to make up for a difficult home life, making people laugh stuck with me. I was never a genius at it, but learned early on how well life flows when information exchange is wrapped in comedy. Like those peanut butter pill pockets you give to dogs. 

It can go too far, and many people use humor as an escape or coping mechanism. That’s why humor shouldn’t lead the way but play a supporting role. Just look at John Stewart or John Oliver. They have been changing the world by delivering news in a comedy pill pocket. The news is what’s important, but the delivery leads to smiles, not furrowed brows. 

Having run companies, I’ve seen how cultures can develop through humor, assuming of course that the organization is succeeding. No amount of pizza parties, “mixers” or joke emails are going to create a good culture when you’re not doing well. But if that company is succeeding AND has a wit and wisdom that surrounds its work, amazing things happen. People feel connected to something that opens up a part of them that hasn’t come out before. Everyone feels in on the joke and will do anything they can to help the company stay on top. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic because, in times like this, humor can be hard to access. I certainly has been for me. The wind is out of my sails and I’m missing one of my favorite riffing partner (hint: you). 

But all the more reason to seek out those people who can help add a silver lining by being our partners in laughter. People who not only get your humor, but improve it, who make you laugh, who make you love yourself when you’re with them. The people who understand the power of “Yes, and…” That’s when life is great.  

If you can’t find them right now, that’s okay. It’s just a flesh wound. I’ll send you a coconut. 

Letters to Ellie: Being Real

The outpouring of support I got from my last post on my daughter going away to an RTC floored me. Friends from every phase of life offering love, reflection and empathy. A reminder that the connected era isn’t all bad.

What it also did was open up even more stories – heartbreaking but all-too-real situations that my friends are dealing with every day: death, divorce, mental illness, learning disabilities. And a common theme of feeling alone.

opendoor

It’s not easy being a remote parent, but one of the channels for me is that I get to send letters to Ellie every day during the week. While a lot of the content is light or focused on specific areas of her interest, I also try to infuse them with what I’ve learned in my first half of life. And on the heels of that experience of reconnecting with people, I covered the topic of real conversations in one of my recent notes to her, part of which is snipped out below. 

Enjoy. And thanks for the inspiration.

One of the things that’s top of mind for me right now is real conversations. It’s one of the reasons your Mom and I are together. We both want authenticity in our life and relationships. We crave it. 

And the shorter life gets, the less patience I have for “empty calorie” conversations. 

Just to be clear, I’m not saying “I don’t do small talk.” That would be even more insufferable than publishing my blog. Light conversation serves a valuable purpose: it’s conversational warm-up and an easy way to hang with people you’re just meeting. And it’s great while doing other activities. I’m not going to wax philosophical with other parents while waiting for the bus.  

I’m talking about when long conversations and social events never get past (in my case) microbrews, vacations, workouts, humble-work-brags, remodels, and kids sports; and (in your case) Kardashians, Taylor Swift, apps and whatever else is being meme-d about these days. 

I’ve always sought out real interaction, but often forget in the course of daily life as ego and busyness get in the way. However, when I published the blog post, the response I got was amazing. It drove home how little we share what’s really going on, and how much time is spent on the useless wallpaper of life. 

If those interactions aren’t paying the bills, helping others or making me happy, what’s the point? And why is it so hard to maintain the authenticity in our lives? Do we need difficult times to make authenticity happen or can we keep it up in good and bad times? 

I was going to events because I was supposed to, because they would stroke my ego, or because I just needed to be social. It may have felt good in the moment, but only made me more disappointed in myself as I sold myself out. And I was other people’s empty calories because I was doing the same thing. 

So like other times in my life, I have become a calendar sculptor: chopping off people and items that don’t pass the filter, and seeking out the environments where I feel I can be myself and others respond accordingly. 

I known you’ve felt similarly about some of your friends – that they can be stuck in superficial territory. I think it’s okay to have friends like that, but you need to be careful. In some cases, it may just take awhile for them to open up. Or they may have different expectations of how much to share. Life teaches a lot of people not to share. It’s scary and you can get hurt easily. But we need to keep trying. 

So keep looking for your deep-peeps. And be bold in opening up with who you are inside. Not being yourself around your friends and family takes it toll as we have nowhere else to turn but inward with the built up emotions. That leads to a fun mix of aggression, repression, addiction, depression and more. And the more you open up, the more you’ll realize they’re probably struggling with a lot of the same things. 

I know you know a lot of this already. You’ve got a very good intuition in this area. But wanted to share my thoughts as it’s something I would love to have told my neurotic 12-year old self.