Tag Archives: life

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.

 

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: How to Know if You’re a Good Rebel

We got to visit Ellie last month (first time I had seen her in two months), and it was amazing. During one of our conversations, we talked about what it meant to be a good rebel versus a bad rebel. This letter came out of that discussion.

Last night I had a football dream. (I know…sports–groan–but stick with me.) I was playing linebacker on defense and wanted to destroy the other team’s quarterback. I could see his eyes – he was cocky and taunting me. I wanted to take him down. I maneuvered around the backfield looking for the perfect line to blitz.

But another member of my team looked at me, saw what I was doing, and pleaded for me to cover the outside, not attack the quarterback. It was like telling a starving man not to touch the cheeseburger in front of him.

As hungry as I was, I relented and did my job covering the outside. I let the other players blitz, which forced the quarterback to throw an errant pass in my direction. I dove for the interception….

In doing so, my IRL body jolted awake in bed with a racing heartbeat.

But I was psyched – I’m pretty sure I made the interception! Maybe I’ll make All-Dream-League this year.

football

Why is this relevant?

Here’s my topic: when I was your age, I thought I was a rebel. When I felt disrespected or patronized, I would lash out: yelling at refs, coaches, teachers and anyone else who would get in my way. 

Problem was, I wasn’t doing it for what I thought was right for the world. I was doing it for my own selfish interests. For what made me look good.

And I didn’t understand the consequences and collateral damage I was causing. I was alienating myself from friends and creating rifts with adults through my typhoon of rule-breaking, yelling and petty battles.

The desire and ability to stand up to people ultimately served me well. But it took a while to harness it for good.

Part of being a good rebel is to stand for something: to have a belief, a voice and the passion to see it through. From singers to artists to athletes, rebels can reshape our understanding of what can be and cause us to question our assumptions. 

The other part is to work change from within, instead of constantly fighting the power directly. Collaborate with people to get things done. Prince was a rebel. He created groundbreaking music and inspired a generation of musicians. But he also worked for Warner Brothers and Arista music to get his albums out. He chose his battles on the dance floor.

“It’s not wise to violate rules until you know how to observe them.” – T.S. Eliot

What finally changed it for me was football: working with coaches and players I respected and giving myself fully to a larger goal than my own selfish desires. I didn’t agree with everything, but I played by the rules because I believed in it. And once I was a part of it, I could influence change from within. Trying to change from the outside is like trying to force political change in a country without speaking the language.

And those are some of my happiest moments: being a source of strength for other people on a good, shared mission, one that’s bigger than any of us.

I know you’ll have the same moments. You’re a natural leader, a strong voice, and a great rebel.

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. 

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.