Tag Archives: change

How to Handle the Unexpected

In 2000, when your Mom and I were in our late 20’s, we had a crisis of purpose. We had done our time in the working world and, desperate for something more authentic (and facing a demolished economy), we decided to pursue our passions. She applied to art school and I to film school.

We both got into our top MFA programs: Yale in Connecticut for Mom and University of Southern California (USC) for me. Both great schools. Bully for us! But our geography skills were clearly lacking during the application process.

We were about to be married. Living on opposite coasts just wasn’t an option. So after lots of counseling, I accepted that her need was more deeply embedded than mine and acquiesced to join her on the East Coast.

But I didn’t go lightly. I wallowed in self-pity as I imagined shoveling Connecticut snow instead of basking in LA sun with the top down. “It’s not fair!” I whined, albeit with what I believed was a more adult presentation.

I was a soon-to-be husband and hoped-to-be father. Not the time to be a petulant victim.

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

Life rarely goes as planned. From flight delays to deaths in the family, our coping skills are constantly tested. Sadly, most of our culture is distracted, superficially-focused and lacking the modeling and rituals to deal with surprise events. From the executive berating his waiter to the neighbor griping over your hedge being two inches too high, people complain, run away or seek others to solve the problem.

When I was young, I would also fall into magical thinking as a way to deal with change or hardship. I would imagine going back in time or trading all my savings to not fall down the stairs and hurt my back. That worked about as well building a swimming pool in my yard.

Your Mom and I were married two weeks before her grad program started. So two days after a whirlwind honeymoon where I almost lost my hearing (long story), I drove from San Francisco to New Haven, CT to meet your Mom, find a job and start a new life.

I arrived on the night of September 10, 2001.

Needless to say, the next day didn’t go according to plan. My train never made it to Manhattan. The country had suddenly looked a lot different.

Dealing with Surprise Changes

The challenge of unexpected changes is to see them objectively, not through the lens of emotion, which turns otherwise manageable events into Shakespearean dramas.

I read recently that life can often come down to a choice between anxiety (uncertainty) and depression (stasis). Always choose anxiety. Anxiety is growth and, despite the pain, how we feel alive.

That means not running away from situations, but dealing with the uncertainty and change directly, as hard as that may be.

Some tactics that have helped me:

  • Appreciate: Remain calm. We often look at unforeseen events with an emotionally-skewed, negative lens, but most events aren’t as big a deal as the Chicken Little character in our head makes them out to be.
  • Integrate: There will be plenty of emotions. Embrace them and let them flow through you; like a fast-moving highway, not a traffic jam of suppression.  
  • Meditate: Reconnect with the truth that all things are always in flux, and find a calm mental space that allows you to accept and live with that fact.  
  • Contemplate: Consider the situation fully, understanding all the implications, both positive and negative.
  • Congregate: Hang out with good people who understand these ideas and practice them. Find inspiration, peace and solidarity in others.
  • Advocate: Don’t sit idle but speak out and engage thoughtfully. Repeat the serenity prayer if that helps: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
  • Don’t Wait: Stay busy. Like a tennis player who hits balls all day, busy-ness makes managing challenges second nature. Not having that skill ensures a lifetime of being tagged in the head and cowering.
  • Graduate: Find a way to accept and embrace the new and move on. And maybe reward yourself for working through it.

When you were asked last summer to characterize me in a short quote, you said, “This is it. We’re doing this!”

I could have died at that moment…in a good way, that is.

For all of my shortcomings (and the list is massive), if there’s one thing I want to impart on you and your sister in this brief life, it’s to do life fully. That means not retreating or being crippled by the unexpected, but facing it head on – the way you ran directly into the ocean waves as a little kid.

The week after 9/11, I finally was able to take the train into ash-filled New York to meet some friends from SF. Still shell-shocked from the events, we managed to talk about turning their little open source project, Jive, into a company together.

With no other options in this decimated world, I shook hands on a new opportunity.  

We got the company going in a small apartment in the city where I would sleep on the foldout couch after working all day. They would work late and sneak out while I slept. And I would take the train back to New Haven on the weekends.

It was a time of massive changes, some under my control and some not. I had to learn how to get past my own fears and selfish needs – to not be paralyzed, but to understand and accept the changes and move forward. To be an adult.

Nine months after starting, Mom and I got to finally live together….in Brooklyn, where you were born.

And over the next eight years, we turned Jive into a great company. It had the creativity I needed plus camaraderie and good values. It shaped me.

And while I didn’t ever do the film school thing, I was okay with that. I like my own story better.

 

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.

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.