5 Life Lessons

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It has been a momentous week for our family. There has been a confluence of major life events for Alex and Matthew. Alex graduated from college this past Saturday (August 22d) and Matthew heads to Texas for Air Force basic training this coming Monday (August 31). 

The best thing about having a large and close knit family is all the time you get to share with one another. The big events and the dinners and the games and concerts and science fairs. Also the quiet moments spent watching movies or talking on the back porch.

The hardest thing about having a big family is that knowing that gradually all of that will come to an end. That the table that was once full will slowly lose one person at a time, until - eventually - it’s just a table. Because as much as you may want some things to always stay the same, the truth is that nothing lasts forever. Everything that begins ends.

Willie was the first to leave. His unique needs made him first. And that was hard. Alex left next, first for college and then back and then to get married and start life with her own family. Now it is Matthew’s turn to leave and start his life as an adult with his own goals and his own responsibilities and his own dreams.

I have been thinking a lot about the lessons I have tried to share with my kids as they make this transition. The stuff I wish I had known. These are things that I share with them too, but.... they are still kids. And even more to the point, they are MY kids. I wouldn’t have listened to some old fat guy giving me advice when I was 19. I am not sure they will either. I appreciate that, actually. Old fat guys can be full of shit. Especially this one.

Yet these are lessons that I think are important. These are lessons that I have tried to share with them. And now I am sharing them with you.

Life Lesson #1

Life is a team sport.

There are lots of things you can do by yourself. You can read. You can think. You can meditate and you can plan. You can do a lot of preparation for things alone. But when it comes time to actually get stuff done, you will need other people.

You will need family and friends. People who will support you and be there for you no matter what. You will need a community that builds you up and encourages you. You will need colleagues who challenge you and push you to get better. You will even need critics and those who doubt you. They will help you keep your fire and passion alive. 

Sometimes the people in these groups will overlap. Sometimes they won’t. You can learn something from every relationship you have. Invest in relationships. Build them and tend them. And know when to walk away if they become toxic.

Invest in the success of others. Understand that all of us are always smarter than one of us. Remember that wins are collective. Always take full responsibility when things go badly. And when things go right, share all the credit. Be a good teammate.

The relationships you build will mean more to you than any of your other accomplishments. 

Life Lesson #2

You get out what you put in.

No matter what situation you find yourself in, the more you invest the greater the return. I am not talking about money which, frankly, has never really been of central importance to me. I am talking about things like family, friendships, relationships, and calling.

There is a famous maxim that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. This idea was popularized by the writer Malcolm Gladwell who generalized from a study of musicians and it is, more or less, complete bullshit. Even the author of the study quoted by Gladwell said that 10,000 hours was a completely arbitrary number and using it to generalize all expertise is misguided. Gladwell did it anyway because that is kind of his thing.

While the number is wrong, the sentiment behind it is not. It takes practice to get good at something. Anything. It takes practice to get good at a job, it takes practice to become a good friend, it takes practice to be a good partner. It takes practice to get good at anything worthwhile.

That means that when you start anything, chances are you won’t be very good at it. That’s okay. None of us are very good at anything when we start. 

What I do know is that when something is important to you, and you invest the time and attention to get better, you will. And it doesn’t matter what it is. What you give your time and attention to will grow. If you focus on making healthier choices, then usually you get healthier. If you focus on getting better at something, you usually get better.

This works negatively too. If you focus on all the ways that you are unhappy, if you focus on failure and trauma, then eventually that will become all you can see. If you practice being unhappy, you will be more unhappy. 

As with any rule, there are exceptions. You can’t “positive think” your way past debilitating depression. You can’t “grit” your way past serious trauma. To work through setbacks like this takes commitment and work. It’s not easy. Much of life isn’t.

And. You get back what you put in. If you go into situations with an open mind and a generous spirit, you will grow and learn things about yourself and the world. If you practice to get better at something, you will usually get better. So make good choices about where you decide to put your efforts, and where you pay your attention.

Then do it. Whatever it may be.

Life Lesson #3

Remember that stereotypes are mostly worthless.

I once saw a comedian tell a joke about stereotypes. “I love stereotypes,” he said, “they save time.” This is undoubtedly true. Stereotypes save time. And our brain LOVES shortcuts. It has to do so much, it is constantly looking for ways to make life easier. It looks for simple explanations, and if it can reduce another person to a type, it will. It’s simpler that way. 

Throughout your life and your experiences your brain will constantly try to reduce people to stereotypes. It will encourage you to make sweeping generalizations based on race, background, status, money, location... all of the many ways that we sort and define our fellow human beings.

And I can’t caution you enough.... tell your brain to fuck off when it does this.

The reason is twofold. The first is about you. YOU are in charge of your brain, not the other way around. It may feel like you can’t control your thoughts and feelings. And that is certainly what your brain will tell you. It likes its autonomy. It is easier to take its shortcuts and do what it wants without you being all controlling. Sometimes, you have to remind it that you are in charge. You make the decisions with your brain’s input. You also have to listen to your heart and your body and the people around you and the natural world and the universe and all the other things that can help influence and guide you. Your brain is just one voice.

The second reason to tell your brain “no thank you” when it wants to reduce people to stereotypes or situations to cliches is because no one and no thing - no one, NOTHING - ever perfectly fits the stereotypes. If you have met one person.... you have met one person. And every person, every situation, is unique and novel. If you allow them to be categorized or defined by a template that exists in your brain, then you will miss many of the best parts of being alive. And you will for damn sure miss the best parts of other people.

Your brain evolved as a pattern recognition machine. Honor that. It is what kept your ancestors alive. It is what led to you being here. And it is incomplete. You can and should see so much more.

Take people as they are. See the unique humanity in everyone. Know that everyone has a story. You will be amazed at much of what you learn.

Stereotypes are mostly useless. See the unique beauty in every person and situation. Your life will be richer for it.

Life Lesson #4

Question everything.

One of the things that you learn pretty quickly as an adult is that information comes at you pretty quickly. And from every direction. You will be inundated by it, buried under it, overwhelmed by it. It will come from people who care about you, and people who don’t. It will come from foolish experts and brilliant amateurs and every possible permutation of offline and online personality.

Some of what you will encounter will be good advice. Some things you learn will serve as guideposts for the rest of your life. Some will be personally and spiritually fulfilling.

Most won’t. Most of what you hear will be at least irrelevant. Some will be dangerous or misguided. Sometimes the lamps lighting your way lead you on a path straight to self-destruction. And you won’t know until you get there.

Question everything. Don’t take anything for granted. Never assume that someone else will ask, or that someone else will take responsibility. When you hear something ask yourself if it is true, if it reasonable, if it is kind. Do you agree with it? Do you agree because it is true or do you agree because it’s what you want to hear?

Turn things over. Look at them in a new light. Constantly check in on your assumptions. Try your best to make as few assumptions as possible. Know that incompetence is more frequently the source of bad information than malevolence, but malevolence is definitely a thing.

Be willing to change your mind. There are those who will tell you that changing your mind makes you look indecisive or weak. Those people are.... wrong. Being willing to see the world and change your assumptions is the hardest thing you can do. It’s easy to believe the way everyone else does, or to block out things you don’t want to hear. Questioning the world is the strongest thing you can do.

Never stop asking questions. Never stop looking for better answers. You will be better for it.

And so will the world.

Life Lesson #5

Never compromise your core values. Be flexible on everything else.

Of all the lessons, this is perhaps the most important. 

It can take a while to determine the things that you value the most. And some values may adjust or change over the years. Some won’t. As long as you have questioned your beliefs and found them to be true, what matters is that you find the things that you believe in most deeply. Determine what your values are.

No one - parents or peers or religion or society or rulers - can dictate to you what your values are. Although, goodness knows they will all try. Some for good reasons, some for less than noble purposes. Ultimately, however, YOU decide what you believe in. You get to choose what truly matters to you. 

When you figure it out, when you know what you value most, then never ever compromise it. Never lessen your belief or your passion because it is not fashionable, or because you might get in trouble. Stand up for what you believe to be good and noble and honorable. 

It should be a short list. It should be focused on things that are eternal. I believe that The Golden Girls is the funniest sitcom in TV history. I will have an argument over that with any drunk in any dive bar in America. I am not fighting somebody over it. I am not going to jail because of it. Passions and preferences are important, but they aren’t the same as values.

My values - things like my family, my integrity, selfless service, racial and social justice - are things that I will fight over. Things I will risk well being and comfort and friendship for. These are things that I have sacrificed for. I have sacrificed my body and my mind (both quite literally) and even parts of my soul for. If necessary, I would lay down even more for these things. They are my core values.

Find yours. Live them. Fight for them. 

And remember that everything that is not on that list - the things that are preferences or passions - is negotiable. They can change. You can grow in your thinking. Someone may convince me that The Golden Girls isn’t the best sitcom. I mean, they won’t. But they can try.

The stuff we like and think and believe can change over time. Your core values may adjust or deepen or go in a slightly different direction. I used to think that patriotism was a core value of mine. It is. But not at all in the same way it was for me when I was 22. Be flexible. You will grow and change. That is a good thing.

Find your values. Fight for them always.

As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I can’t encourage you enough to become a subscriber. 

See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.