Category Archives: Change

The Trick to Surviving the Teenage Years

The bases were loaded, score tied and no outs. Bottom of the 10th inning. I was playing catcher. Any infield grounder would be thrown to me. Otherwise they would score, and we would lose.

The batter took a few pitches to try and get a walk. But our pitcher delivered two strikes in succession. Not wanting to strike out, the batter got ready to swing. And on the next pitch he smacked a hard grounder to our shortstop.

The runner on third base took off like a shot towards me. It was a race to home plate: the ball against the runner. The shortstop scooped the ball and hurled it to me in one clean motion. I was ready. A perfect throw, right to my chest. It hit my mitt with a welcome thud.

But instead of staying in the glove, the ball popped out. Instead of prolonging the game, it hit the ground like a dead bird. I dropped it.

The runner scored and the other team went nuts in celebration. I went from stunned disbelief into Charlie Brown. I lost the game. I was the goat. The loser.

The other players were bummed, but handled it well. I couldn’t even hear them. I just walked off the field.

As I departed, my parents arrived and said to me, “What the hell is wrong with you? How could you possibly do that? You should quit this sport. Probably quit all sports. You used to be good, but now you’ve lost it.”

Only….it wasn’t my actual parents. It was my inner parents. And damn, they were angry.


As I write this, I am watching your plane take off with you on it, headed back to school. You turn 13 in four days (today now!), and I won’t be with you during this important transition. So I wanted to write about one of the most important things to learn at your age, or at any age for that matter: being a good parent to yourself.

charlie-brown-football-1

We treat our friends and family with respect (usually) and support (mostly), but the way we “parent ourselves” can be akin to a vengeful god, laying down vitriol to the masses from on high. Charlton Heston epic kind of stuff.

If you think about our inner-child as the joyful, free, life-affirming part of us, the inner-parent is the responsible, life-navigating part. Our work as modern Homo sapiens is to find a good balance. Too much child and we become irresponsible, selfish, candy-scarfing sprites, overwhelmed by life. Too much adult and we lose our zest – sad martyrs trudging through our existence.

Being a teenager is the ultimate test. Thousands of years ago, the teenage years were the time of transition to adulthood; when we finally got to hunt and gather. Now you get put into a school building with other judgmental teenagers while hormones wreak havoc on your bodies. That’s when you need an inner-parent the most.

But our inner-parent, instead of being the benevolent guide, can often turn against us, using our fears to find fault in anything we do. Instead of finding love and direction, we criticize and judge ourselves. “You’re not good/smart/talented enough. You’re broken/flawed/stupid. You’re not as good as [Insert name of person who was better at baseball]. You shouldn’t even be here.”

Could you imagine me saying those things to you? Or you saying that to me? No, it’s preposterous.

So how do you deal with it?

  • See the lies. Remember that the mean things you say to yourself aren’t true. They are oversized amplifications of traumatic events and interpreted narratives from our childhood. I’m sure I have inadvertently contributed to your insecurities, just as my parents did for me, but the storylines that take shape in your brain couldn’t be further from how I feel. You are amazing.
  • Love yourself. You are worthy just as you are. I grew up thinking I only mattered to people when I was achieving. Some people think they deserve love when they are attractive or dramatic or generous. Build the mantra into your life that you are good as you are. Channel Stuart Smalley: “You’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” 
  • Cut your child some slack. It’s good to break out into hysterical laughter, wrestle with dads and dogs (ones you know), run around like an idiot, and enjoy the occasional bag of M&M’s. Humans thrived as a species in part because we have a proclivity for joy when we’re with experiencing life together. Animal psychologists believe that play is not only good emotionally but makes animals more psychologically flexible. (Note: still researching health benefits of M&Ms.)
  • Practice inner-parenting. Actual parents (like inner parents) don’t succeed by instilling fear in their children, but from empathizing and giving the child just enough room to explore on their own. Before coming down on yourself, think about how you would support a friend who had the same challenges you are having, and use that as your guardrail for parenting yourself.  
  • Find your tribe. Hang out with people who love you for who you are, and don’t contribute to the insecurities. People who aren’t afraid to speak their mind and their feelings while respecting the feelings of others. People who celebrate you and make you laugh till the milk and M&Ms come out of your nose. 

We are not binary creatures. While our brains want the black and white, good v. bad, golden v. broken, the reality is that we’re a study in growth and Darwinian adaptability. We change. A lot. 

So on this, your first teenage birthday, and because we’re not there with you, I can only offer this $.02: be a kind, loving parent to yourself, for you have all the potential of the world inside you. And doggone it, people love you.

Happy birthday.

The Most Important Skill

When I was in 8th Grade (your age), I was voted “Loudest and Most Talkative.” I was what one of my favorite teachers called a “Sender” and not a “Receiver” – a one-way freight train of attention-craving prattle.

I was not a naturally good listener. Whether it was in class, meeting people, talking with friends, or even playing sports.

I remember in high school getting on a teammate’s case because he wasn’t staying to work out after practice. For weeks I lectured and guilt-tripped him about it. Then at one point one of his friends pulled me aside and said, “Dude, his Mom is really sick. He needs to help her out.”

As I aged, it dawned on me how much time I spent talking or waiting to talk. I thought I was being a good friend, but I was usually focused on me. Example:

Person 1: “I had a rough weekend. My ferret died. We had to put him down.”

Me: “Yeah, we had to do that last year with our Chinchilla. It sucked. It all started when he caught a flu from our budgie….”

My Listening Stare.
My Listening Stare.

Adults do this all the time. We think we’re empathizing by sharing a related story or experience. But usually we’re redirecting the focus to ourselves without realizing it. Conversations become a mutual rush to share, like two vacuum cleaners going after the same Cheeto.

What changed for me? Two things: one was being on the other side. When I was struggling and my confessions to friends were met with redirections, quick fixes, personal anecdotes and just being blown off, I got frustrated. Second was meeting your mother, who is hands-down one of the best listeners I have ever met. A renaissance receiver.

So I started learning how to be a great listener – to turn my weakness into a strength.

It was quite the rehab, but I slowly transformed. I became a better listener. In addition to the comically intense stare I developed to support my new habit, something surprising happened: I started growing genuinely curious. Not only was I building deeper relationships and making people feel heard, I was enjoying learning about them.

I realized there is a Shakespearean epic playing out inside every person (though some are more like Michael Bay movies in their emotional nuance). And if we can get past our own stories for a moment, we can interact with these living, breathing sagas.

And by bearing witness at a deep level, people light up before our eyes. Nothing draws people to you more than fully, genuinely taking in their experience.

To be clear, it’s fine to share your own stories – it would be strange not to have a good back and forth with friends. What matters is having a genuine curiosity in others, and building the listening skills to get their stories out. As Voltaire said, “Judge someone by their questions, not their answers.”

To me, a good marriage is based on this same ability: having a deep curiosity in your mate’s experience of life and the skills and compassion to bring it out. In focusing on the “other” and supporting his or her growth, we connect with ourselves in a surprisingly profound way and are capable of being together over the long run.

I later learned that Nietzsche expressed the same idea in Human, All too Human:

“Marriage as a long conversation. – When marrying you should ask yourself this question: do you believe you are going to enjoy talking with this person into your old age? Everything else in a marriage is transitory, but most of the time that you’re together will be devoted to conversation.”

My professional life was also transformed through curiosity and listening, allowing me to develop trust and deep relationships with employees and customers. Sales is a good example: most salespeople just machine-gun their agenda to patient eye-rollers, but the curious receivers relate to their prospects, understand their needs deeply, and are remarkably successful.

Learning to be a listener was like discovering plutonium in my personal development. (Or Ruthefordium or Einsteinium. Or one of the elements that doesn’t melt your face.) But as with anything that isn’t a natural talent, I make a lot of mistakes and must keep up practicing.

I see this skill growing in you every day. The depth of your relationships with friends are a testament to it. Keep following that path and the world will open up for you.

 

How to Make Real Change

I remember going to a party when you were four, and we met a guy who worked on Wallace and Gromit. Among many other things, he made the motorcycle and the helicopter.

And that Blew. Your. Mind.

Till that point, W&G was a magical landscape that existed outside of our world. Suddenly the curtain was pulled back and you were with the gatekeeper.

Me: “This is the guy who makes the magic.”

You: “You made the motorcycle?”

Him: “Well, with other people.”  

You: “You can make magic with other people?”

And like that, you were on board.

wallace-gromit-in-a-close-shave

“Making magic with other people” is still a line I love. That’s what this is about.

A Startup Story

Last summer I was bored. I had just sold the startup I was working on (not a winner) and was reacquainting myself with loneliness, frustration and malaise while figuring out what to do next.  

Even my fitness regimen was the equivalent of Saltines and water. The same old workouts and no community.

So I decided to change it up – if I couldn’t figure out my whole life pie at one time, at least I could start on the health slice. And maybe help some other folks along the way.

To start with, my weight had been the same since high school. That’s a good thing for most people, but I was a meathead as a teenager, so had more pounds than I needed for trail running, emails and parenting. I had done many diets, but always went back to my “zone” like a Weeble Wobble (toy from my childhood – look it up and be thankful you are in your generation).

Fitness apps didn’t cut it. Some people may meditate or jump rope when a bot tells them to do, but not me. I love you Siri, but I need people.

So I created a little company with a friend. The idea was an online community where teams of 7-10 people would commit to their goals, log their fitness data, get support from their group and have a high end coach to answer questions and send workouts. As one of the guys said: “Workout nerds keeping each other on track.”

And it worked. Actually, it exploded. The conversations were rich and plentiful, and the changes people went through were impressive. These mini-support groups tapped into the human need to belong. It was a tribe. It was accountability.  

I lost the extra weight and kept it off, changed my diet, did my first triathlon, experimented with workouts, and even curbed my wine intake. Now they’re convincing me to dunk a basketball (or whatever sized ball I can pull off).

It wasn’t “fixing my life” but it was changing a big part of it. And it served as a reminder that it’s no good to be lonely in our struggles.  

The startup has since been incorporated into a larger startup, with more experienced hands guiding it. I’m still a participant, and was happy to see it leave the nest. Karma.

My Point? 

Accountability works. Tribe works. We can make magic with other people.

So when we decided a few weeks ago that we would help each other stay on track towards our mutual goals, I lit up. Not only is this a way to for us to stay bonded while you’re gone, but knowing you’re on the other end of my commitments is more motivation than I could ever hope for. Even if we can’t talk that frequently.

I know your aspirations are about getting home soon (clearly a goal I support). For me, it’s about finding community and purpose again. I know, I’m a broken record about these things. But it’s a lifelong journey and what matters to me now is different than even five years ago. And now having you involved puts gas on the fire to get moving.

I want to be at at my best when I’m around you. And working through my own problems is my version of “putting my oxygen mask on first.” I’m a better father if I’m living a rich and full life. But I also don’t want to hide my journey from you. I would rather you be involved.

Teammates keep us headed in the right direction, distract us from the negative voices, help us navigate, and keep us honest along the way. And hopefully we enjoy the ride a lot more.

Even though I can’t be there, I’ll always be part of your team. I’ll be like Wallace in the sidecar of your aspirations, complete with goggles and leather helmet. Off to make magic.

Why I’ve been Quiet

I did not watch the Super Bowl this year.

While the rest of the country was fixated on Payton, Cam and Beyonce, I watched Doctor Who battle weeping angels and robots with my 12-year old daughter. It was her last weekend at home before going to a residential treatment center in Utah for a few years, and I wanted to squeeze in as much time as I could with her.

Agreeing to send my 12-year old girl to an RTC is the hardest thing I’ve had to do as a parent, maybe the hardest thing in life. It kicked off a month of grieving leading up to a final, explosively sad good-bye.

I won’t go into the details of her diagnosis or what got to this point. But trust me when I say we had tried everything to keep her here with us. Her needs had gone beyond local resources. This was the best and only option, but one we had faith would help her. We can give her a loving, safe home, but not the level of therapy, training and community she needs.

The night before she left I slept in her room with her, both to keep her safe and because I wanted to breathe in as much of her as I could. I only slept a couple hours, but I was with her. My last night with her as a child that I could protect.

tardis2

On her final day, we went for our last walk together, a daily practice we had gotten into over the last few months. We can either go in the direction of the park or downtown. Downtown meant seeing people I knew, so I opted for the park. I pushed her on the same swing I had pushed her on as a kindergartner. I only got a couple swings in before breaking down.

I had forgotten how physical grief was. I feel like I’ve aged seven years over this period. Nobody died – getting the help she needs is overall a positive thing – but I feel drained of life energy.

But throughout this painful process, something unexpected happened: by telling the story, I have had amazing connections with people.

Most of the time, we suffer through crappy life events alone. I’m a big believer of the phrase, “Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t understand.”

But when you crack the seal on what’s really going on, people often respond in kind. I was received with heaping gobs of support and people’s own stories of their childhood or struggles with their kids. I would watch people I barely knew shed the “everything is great, just check out my Facebook pictures” masks of daily life in a matter of seconds.

We have a big hole in our house now. A giant loss of energy that I try to fill in with reading her favorite books (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), writing long email notes to her and taking care of her snake, Neo (who got out shortly after she left, and I thankfully found him in a carpet fold after a few days).

But I am finding solace in our social fabric for the first time in awhile. People I had written off as superficial have transformed in front of my eyes. And I’m learning their backstories and why they are who they are in the world. It’s unfortunate that it takes these life events for it to happen, but I’ll take it.

I’m counting the days till we can visit her in April. In the meantime, you’ll find me on the Dr. Who fan sites.

And thanks for all the support.

To Find Purpose in Your Work, Start Small

Finding purpose in your work is not nearly as easy as commencement addresses would have you believe.

For me, it used to be the bed test: Do I jump out of bed to get after it? And do I go to bed bone-tired but satisfied from doing it? Or would I rather be selling mattresses?

But meaning gets deeper yet fuzzier in middle age, when competence gives way to significance in our priority list, and we wander around asking big, vague questions like, ‘Is this the life I wanted?’ and ‘Am I really going to bed at 9pm’?

Rottweiler And Leash

Why is “the why” so important?

Viktor Frankl answered that question pretty clearly (and before him Nietzsche) in Man’s Search for Meaning where he recounts life as a prisoner in a German concentration camp and how having meaning was the best chance at survival. He then covers his method of psychology (Logotherapy) that revolves around purpose.

This is the bible of why we need a ‘why’ and one of my favorite books. It’s also one of the best “you think your life is tough?” reality checks to read while you scarf down your latte and gluten-free muffin.

“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” – Viktor Frankl

But damn, that’s hard to find. And stressful if we don’t find it, especially with all the pithy online inspirationoise telling us to follow our dreams.

Providing for one’s family is enough for a while, but at some point it’s not just about a paycheck when there are other opportunities to meet our basic needs.

I’m aware that ‘professional purpose’ is not a problem that plagues farmers in Nepal. They know their why. But our country is obsessed with it. And with good reason. Without purpose, as Frankl wrote, we get depressed, addicted and aggressive. Our inner lives become a zoo with open cages.

My Experiment

Last time, I tried to hack purpose by pledging half the money I made towards causes I cared about. That helped, but turned out to be too peripheral if I didn’t enjoy the daily grind.

This time, I’m jumping into stuff I love (“following my curiosity” as Elizabeth Gilbert TED’ed about) and hoping it ends up in purpose. And if not, at least I’ll enjoy the ride.

Perhaps purpose is always there, but gets drowned out by all of the useless voices in my head. Instead of being my co-passenger in a nimble sports car, purpose has been quietly reading a book in the back of a school bus full of obnoxious kids.

I’m still a work in progress, but I’m picking up a few things.  

I feel closer to my purpose when…

  1. I get past my own whiny crap (I save that for this blog) and help others. It’s a Hallmark-worthy sentiment, but it’s true.
  2. I have a healthy mix of childlike joy, where I lose hours without noticing, and adult responsibility where I feel like a part of the tribe. I’m like that triumphant-faced dog going for a walk while carrying his leash in his mouth.
  3. I give up trying to cure cancer. I can make a valuable impact on people’s lives doing what I love and being a good person while doing it.
  4. I don’t worry about what others think. This is an easy thing for me to list as a self-help bullet, but profoundly difficult work. Will dig in here in a later blog.
  5. I crave the results. Yes, the journey is the destination, but without a fierce desire for the endgame, the work doesn’t feel as vital.
  6. I am surrounded by people who give me energy, who push me and make me laugh. It makes the ditch-digging parts okay.
  7. I just start doing stuff. The “What Color is Your Parachute” tests are interesting, but jumping in and doing the work is more enlightening.

The Result? 

Well, it’s not like Indiana Jones using his staff to find out where to dig. It’s more like a kid discovering a big, open playground near his house. By opening myself up to curiosity, I found a bunch of new places to play for awhile –  “life experiments.”

Just breathe. Start small. Follow my gut. Find good people.

And then occasionally I step back from it all.

And I’m reminded that maybe I’m relying too much on my professional life for purpose. Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been consumed with one section of a jigsaw puzzle that is much larger than I imagined.

As Frankl writes, we also find purpose in the love we have for others and in how we give meaning to our suffering.

I love my work, but maybe the process of finding purpose there is what leads us to other parts of that puzzle that we never would have discovered.

And that’s all good work.

The Key to Changing Yourself: Embracing Limbo

Mosquitoes were feasting on us. Dusk was flirting. We were sweaty, hungry and ready to call it quits. When we started the hike early that afternoon it was all laughter and TV theme songs. But spirits had since declined to murderous looks and mumbled obscenities.

Sophomore year in college I did an Outward Bound course in the Everglades. And halfway through the 22-day program of canoeing through alligators and bumping into manatees, our teachers left us to navigate eight treacherous backpacking miles from a pristine beach to a remote, decommissioned airstrip – the only flat, dry place on the island to camp – using plastic compasses and bandanas on sticks. Not an easy task. Kind of like hitting a three-pointer from the stands.

It was clear we were lost. Our newly-minted orienteering skills weren’t up to snuff. I wanted to go back to the beach and eat gorp.

Going through life transitions feels like that: a long, uncertain slog that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Going back to the safety of the known is tempting.

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I’m in that transition stage again. And it’s as hard as I remember.

I know I need a change. But getting to the “new you” means navigating through a dark forest full of fear, doubt, identity issues, practical and financial considerations, and the gravitational pull of your old life. And there’s not even a plastic compass.

In short, limbo sucks.

Life Transitions

Big life changes come slowly (midlife, kids growing up) or hit you like a gut-punch (getting fired, losing a loved one). Or you could just be cleaning your gutters when some inner-voice tells you your life isn’t working.

There’s a great book called Transitions by William Bridges that describes the process of life changes. I’m over-simplifying, but the basic model is:

  1. Death of the old self: Often after an incident (good or bad), we are forced through the emotional train ride of letting go of the old life/self/ideas.
  2. Neutral Zone (the creative stage): The limbo state where we lick our wounds and ask what the hell just happened while slowly understanding our new potential.
  3. Rebirth of the new self: Sometimes without even noticing, our new life takes shape with new energy and focus.

The big challenge for most people is getting stuck in this middle stage. We get scared and want to go back to the known – our pretty little beach with snacks. Limbo means loss of identity, and that’s frightening. If we’re not that person anymore, who are we? Just a ghost in a void. (And if you’re like me, an annoyingly chatty ghost who talks about the struggle with anyone who will listen.)

So we retreat to our old selves in an effort to belong and be on familiar ground again. “This identity worked for me before, so I’m sure it will again.”

It’s why our country loves plastic surgery and trophy spouses – we can’t seem to stop trying to be 27. But that identity no longer serves the same purpose and mostly leads to more pain, and 45-year old men dressing like extras from Jersey Shore.

My Misstep

Doing this last startup was “grasping for the old me” – it was the comfortable enterprise-software-CEO identity, and the team was even in Portland. I got halfway into the Neutral Zone, got scared, and jumped back under the warm blankets of old Dave.

Problem was, that identity isn’t me anymore. I’m still entrepreneurial, but where I get my energy from has changed dramatically, and being in a different location from the team was terrible. Plus, I no longer own khakis.

I don’t regret it though. I had to do something. And I felt what it was to go back to the old. The important thing was to keep moving. Stasis was much more painful. It’s why I now have a (for some reason 80’s-styled) plaque in my office that says, “Keep Making Decisions.”

keep making decisions

It was also important to be open. It’s like that joke about the guy who is looking for his lost keys under a random streetlight he’s never been to because there’s more light there. I was looking for clues in the wrong spot. When I removed those limited assumptions, it became more of a scenic hike with panoramic views and no tourists with selfie sticks.

Speaking of hiking, back to my 19-year old self….

After another hour of drudgery, it was my turn up front with a bandana on a stick to mark the sight line. At that point, I was looking longingly at tree branches as potential beds.

I finally got about 75 yards ahead of the group and stopped to mark the line. In order to get my placement though, I had to move out of the way of a man-made sign that read (I kid you not), “Please Stay Off the Runway”.

I was so tired and convinced we were lost, I wrote off the sign as random human detritus in the forest. I was literally standing on the runway but couldn’t accept it. I read what the sign said to the group because I thought it was funny and they exploded with high fives and hugs. I was confused for a good 90 seconds until it finally dawned on me that we might actually have made it.

Going through a transition again, it’s clear that life is a lot more tasty when I embrace the process fully – to get past the fear and love limbo, to go from bashing myself in the head to enjoying my own company, being open to whatever and to just keep going.

Not only is the destination worth it, but it turns out the hike is pretty sweet if you can keep singing. And you can leave the khakis at home.