Sports are Not a Metaphor for Life

First a note to international readers. In the U.S. the first two weeks in April is many sports-minded people’s favorite time of the year because of a confluence of great events highlighted by the college basketball national tournaments and the tradition-rich Masters golf tournament. There’s also the start of the professional baseball season and the beginning of the professional hockey and basketball playoffs. And this year there’s going to be a pretty special footrace in Boston next Monday, the 21st.

Few, if any, expected to see the Universities of Connecticut and Kentucky play for the national basketball championship. Combined, both teams lost nineteen games during the regular season. Similarly, Bubba Watson looked completely lost on Augusta National’s greens during Saturday’s third round. Most people thought it was Louisville’s, Arizona’s, or Florida’s tournament to lose and Matt Kuchar’s turn to break through in a major championship. Few were shocked when Bubba fell behind by two strokes early during Sunday’s final round.

But Bubba, following Connecticut’s and Kentucky’s lead, rallied to play his best golf at the most important time, and won by three strokes. My takeaway is this. Next week in Boston, pay no attention to who is in the lead at the halfway mark. In fact, don’t place too much importance on who is ahead at the 20 mile mark. In keeping with this sports season, someone unexpected will assert their will on the field over the last few miles. Call me crazy, but maybe even someone not from East Africa.

When I first sketched this post in my head, I was playing around with what, if anything, these athletic contests have to do with how you and I should live. But I was forcing it because athletic competition is not a meaningful metaphor for life. Because only one team hoists the national championship trophy and only one golfer puts on the green jacket each April.

In life, the more our family members, close friends, and co-workers flourish, the better our lives. The key to that is cooperation in the form of mutual support. In contrast, family, friendship, and co-worker competition inevitably results in petty jealousies, anger, and dissension.

And yet, sometimes there are sublime moments of cooperation in the heat of athletic competition. For example, at one of last year’s major marathons, the two men leading the race passed one water bottle back and forth. Maybe they were Stoics even more focused on giving their best effort than finishing first. And often the most awe-inspiring moments are compliments of young athletes, like high schooler Megan Vogel, who flat out reject win at all costs thinking.

 

 

 

 

 

The Sure-fire Way to Increase Conflict in Your Life

Just in case your life isn’t conflict-ridden enough already. Project your definition of success onto others. And then judge them accordingly. They will almost always come up short. This is most unhappy people’s go-to strategy for maximizing their misery.

We forget, over and over again, that other people and cultural groups define success differently than us. Some people’s life goals are material and economic in orientation. They pursue material well-being, even sometimes at the expense of close interpersonal relationships. Other people and cultural groups prioritize family life and friendship more than lucrative work and consumerist lifestyles. 

Amy Chua, of TigerMom fame, and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld have lit a fire with The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. I’ve only read excerpts of The Triple Package, but I’ve listened to a few radio interviews with Chua and Rubenfeld, both Yale Law School faculty. Someone should’ve waved a white towel midway into one I heard on National Public Radio. The criticism of Chua’s and Rubenfeld’s work that interests me the most is that they project a Western, highly educated, well-to-do notion of success onto everyone. Like Chua and Rubenfeld, we tend to define “success” far too narrowly. And then project our thinking onto our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far.

There’s a magical, two-part elixir for this malady. Humility and curiosity. Instead of assuming a common definition of success, we need to learn to ask our partners, our adolescent or adult children, and other people near and far what their life goals are, what for them constitutes success in life. Once we have a feel for that, we can inquire into how they’re doing in achieving their goals.

That defuses conflict and fosters mutual respect.

Pivoting Towards Gratitude

Seventeen years ago I got an unexpected call at work. My 69 year old dad had died from a massive heart attack, in his car, at a red light, on his way to his office. Today, Mother Dear’s health is precarious.

My story isn’t unique because the cycle of life doesn’t discriminate. Baby boomers’ parents are dying every day. How do we avoid being overcome by grief?

My dad’s sudden, unforeseen death taught me important lessons. A few weeks afterwards I realized I had a stark choice to make. Should I continue being upset at the fact that he’d never get to know our daughters, that our friendship wouldn’t continue deepening, that my mom wouldn’t enjoy his company anymore, that a taken for granted future was cut short? Or should I be grateful that he was a great grandfather for a few years, that he was my father for 34 years, and that my mom and him spent fifty plus years together.

I chose to be grateful for the time we enjoyed together. “And,” as Robert Frost once wrote, “that has made all the difference.” In the short-term, this intentional pivoting towards gratitude doesn’t inoculate anyone from tremendous sadness. But it’s indispensable in avoiding longer term paralyzing grief.

On a Thanksgiving Day car trip, the conversation with Betrothed turned to our parents’ declining health. I shared this perspective with her and my related opinion that since our parents are in their early 80′s everything from here on in is “extra credit”. We’ve been blessed beyond belief to have them as parents. We won the lottery of life without having to buy tickets. We’re blessed to have a treasure trove of positive memories with them. We need to consciously choose gratitude by celebrating the quality and quantity of time we’ve enjoyed with them.

As a cyclist, I reminded the Good Wife that I run a real risk of getting hit and possibly killed by a drunk or distracted driver. I told her if I die at 52 or 62, I wanted something from her. I said, “Grieve with gusto. Be as sad as you want for a few weeks or months. But then consciously choose to be thankful for the three or four decades we spent together. For the fact that we met. For the specialness of our friendship. For the team we made. Our daughters (who may be younger or the same age I was when my dad suddenly died) will need that modeled for them. Show them how to choose gratitude.”

How to Find Your Soulmate

Apparently, the first all important step is to figure out the single most consequential thing you want in a partner. For example, maybe they HAVE to be devotees of Ayn Rand, or farm for a living, or be gluten-free. As detailed in a recent Wall Street Journal article, there are dating websites for each of those interests. Soon there’s bound to be meta-websites where someone could zero in on their dream gluten-free, Ayn Rand loving farmer within 100 miles of Cedar Rapids.

The Journal article was nice because it featured people who weren’t terribly optimistic about finding love, but were finding it thanks to these “niche” websites. They were getting along with their newly found partners, marrying, and starting families. Tough read for a tech skeptic like me.

A noteworthy paragraph:

Relationships often work best when people share similar core values and lifestyle goals. The online dating site eHarmony, for example, matches users by personality traits. Yet if two people are too similar, doesn’t the day-to-day relationship suffer from a lack of fun tension and fresh ideas?

I bet that’s a likely unintended negative consequence of delegating dating to computer algorithms.

Besides the fact that she was fine, a large part of my falling in love with Betrothed was the realization that she brought out the best parts of me. Put differently, I was a better person as a result of our friendship. Specifically, her kindness, her compassion, her social conscience, her generosity, her human decency, superseded my selfish, apathetic self. No computer could quantify that instinct.

I think she’d say I’ve enriched her life too. As a team, our sum is definitely more than our individual parts. But it hasn’t been a walk in the park, in part because we’re so different. Now, twenty-six years in, we’re starting to realize maybe our differences are strengths. Instead of failing miserably at changing one another, we’re learning to appreciate what each person contributes to the relationship, the family, the world.

To find your soulmate chuck the lengthy, hopelessly unrealistic check-list and replace it with one two-part question. Will this person bring out the best of me, and together, will we make a more positive impact on the world than we would apart?

Just Maybe The Most Important Thing to Look for in a Friend, Spouse, Work Environment

Generosity? Dependability? Energy? Care? Smarts? Loyalty? Connections? Kindness? Humility? Patience? Optimism? I’ll wait while you cast your vote. . .

My answer came to me Friday night at the Puget Marina off Johnson Point Rd in North Olympia. The Puget Marina has the single best view of the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier of any one place I’ve ever stood. I was there Friday night because Scott, a principal friend, was being celebrated for his ten plus year tenure at a local high school. He’s beloved by his faculty and staff in large part because of his sense of humor. Here’s a little flavor flav of his personality. He’s the guy on the scooter who can’t squat worth beans.

When our new high school grad watched that vid she said, “Our principal could never pull that off.” Few principals could because they’re keenly self conscious, just like people more generally. Most principals continuously worry, what kind of persona am I projecting? Authoritative enough? Professional enough?

Faculty and staff told funny stories all night. There was a moving mixture of laughter and tears. One person said Scott’s greatest talent is being able to switch smoothly from serious to silly and back again. There’s a lot to having and using a sense of humor thoughtfully. I think it’s at least partially learned. Too bad we don’t think, talk, or teach about it.

Day-to-day life is challenging; consequently, pressures continuously build. Humor is an indispensable pressure relief valve. It’s a salve for the super serious and the sad. Or in other words, all of us at times.

Friday night I realized Scott is wonderfully comfortable in his own skin and with those he works. Somehow he’s learned to sidestep the trap of self-consciousness.

I dug the evening because the informal vibe stood in such amazing contrast with my work environment at a university. Sometimes I wonder if PhD stands for Prior humor Disassembled. I challenge you to find a less humorous setting than a typical university faculty meeting. Just brutal. Everyone wondering if they’re coming across as smart enough. Maybe Scott should consult with Deans on how to make their own rap videos.

The other day on my Twitter feed, another reminder of humor’s value compliments of Carrie Brownstein of Portlandia fame. She tweeted, “Walked to my friend’s house to pick up my bike, cycled home, took a bath. Pretty sure I just completed the Portland Triathlon.” Anyone know Carrie? I want to be her friend. Maybe I’ll invite to her a faculty meeting.

Digital Photography, Creeping Narcissism, and the End of the World

Whomever scheduled the Olympia High School prom didn’t care that I should have been at the Pre-Classic in TrackTown USA last Saturday night. The true Head of the Household made it clear that I was expected to attend “prom pictures”. Back in the day, prom pictures meant standing in line during the dance to spend sixty seconds getting a picture or two taken by a professional.

Not anymore. Not even close. Now since you can take as many pictures as you want for free, prom pictures are a digital extravaganza.

We got to Tumwater Falls Park at 6:30 p.m. Five nicely dressed couples and lots of parents sporting expensive photographic gear, along with some sibs, and a grandparent or two. Pictures along the river’s edge. More pictures in front of the falls. More pictures on the bridge over the river. Guys only. Girls only. More pictures involving play acting a martial arts fight. All with an eye towards bolstering one’s Facebook self. Despite being an endurance athlete, at 8:15 p.m., I was byrned out.

For the Digital Photography generation, a lengthy prom pictorial is just the tip of the iceberg. In upper middle class suburbs, you can’t just have your senior picture taken. You have to schedule a shooting with a professional. During the shooting you’ll change clothes, travel to a few different locations, and I suppose, feel special. And don’t even think of mailing a text-based graduation announcement. You have to have craft a photo-montage of your graduate through the years. If you plan ahead, you might be able to use parts of or the same collage in your quarter (you like your child), half (you like your child twice as much as quarter page parents), or whole-page (you truly love your child) year book dedication to your graduate.

This may be more of a female, Tyra Banks inspired thing, but a favorite after-school or weekend activity for many teenage girls? Getting friends together for a photo-shoot. Different clothing, music, serious, silly, inside, outside, five hundred images to choose among, edit, and upload to Facebook.

Look at me. And leave a cryptic comment so I know you’ve seen me. The more pictures taken of them, the more convinced many teens become that the world revolves around them.

This may be the most cynical of my 745 posts. I acknowledge, life is better today than when I attended the Cypress (California) high school prom in 1980. Grandma Byrnes always loves the personal calendar that Seventeen whips up using digital pictures from the previous year. But I can’t help but think there’s a cost to nearly free digital photography. It’s accelerated a child-centeredness that promotes self-centeredness.

The digital photography generation doesn’t enjoy better self esteem or mental health. If anything, the more pictures they take, the less value each one has, and the more self conscious they become.

Look at me. And tell me I’m alright.

How to Help Young Graduates Flourish

High school and college graduation approaches. How will the graduates you know fare in the “real world”?

Historically, parents assumed their children would live more economically secure, comfortable, and enjoyable lives than themselves. Now, as a result of heightened global economic competition, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and higher education and health care inflation, many parents worry about whether their new graduates will live as well as them.

Apart from the vagaries of the national and global economy, and health care and higher education inflation, what will determine how the new graduates fare? Many believe people’s success is a result of their initiative, ability, and work ethic. Others highlight the importance of family background, gender, and ethnicity. I believe it’s both/and. 

But there’s one other indispensable variable—the vision young graduates have of their future. More specifically, how positive that vision is. Can they picture themselves educated, healthy, doing meaningful work, fulfilled? I wish I could interview all four hundred graduates at Olympia High School to discover patterns and themes in their personal visions. “Describe your 25 year old self,” I’d start. Initially at least, many would stare blankly at me, but with follow up questions and disciplined listening, I’d learn a lot.

Parents worry. Incessantly. Will their children be able to afford to continue their education and graduate college? Will they find a job that pays a livable wage? Will they have medical benefits? Are they going to manage money wisely? Will they avoid the pitfalls of addiction? Will they enjoy good mental and physical health? Will they make friends upon which they can depend? Will they be okay? Understandably, many young people internalize their parents’ anxiety.

One thing determines whether a young person enters the “real world” with a positive vision of their future—whether the adults they interact with on a daily basis transmit hope for the future. If young graduates are surrounded by people who live as if “things are getting better” the more likely they are to flourish.

This isn’t just positive thinking bullshit. What does it mean to live as if things are getting better? It means denying one self day-to-day in the interest of the future vision. People with positive visions get up and go to work and save money. They eat healthily. They exercise. Their careful with their money, meaning they spend most of it on essentials. They take care of their possessions. They care for the environment by picking up trash, recycling, and reducing their energy consumption. They volunteer their time to make others’ lives better. They live their day-to-day lives mindful of their children’s and grandchildren’s lives. And other people’s children and grandchildren.

Some young graduates are surrounded by adults—older siblings, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth pastors, neighbors—with positive visions of a better future. Adults who unwittingly teach delayed gratification. Those young grads can’t help but get caught up in the positive momentum. Their grades and test scores aren’t that important. Or how prestigious their college. They’ll be okay.

Others are surrounded by adults living day-to-day without any vision for a better future. They don’t have a feel for delayed gratification, and therefore, can’t help but get caught up in the negative momentum. They’ll struggle.

Give a graduate the best gift possible this year, model a positive vision of the future.

 

Why I Don’t Own a Cell Phone

Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together—Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (2011), is a modern sage. Next fall, my writing students and I will read and discuss Chapter Eight, Always On. Maybe we’ll start with that subtitle. Do we expect more from technology and less from each other? If so, why? Since my first year college students will be card carrying members of the first always on, internet generation, that discussion could fall flat. More how? Less than what?

Dig this excerpt:

These days, being connected depends not on our distance from each other but from available communications technology. Most of the time, we carry that technology with us. In fact, being alone can start to seem like a precondition for being together because it is easier to communicate if you can focus, without interruption on your screen. In this new regime, a train station (like an airport, a cafe, or park) is no longer a communal space but a place of social collection: people come together but do not speak to each other. . . .

When people have phone conversations in public spaces, their sense of privacy is sustained by the presumption that those around them will treat them not only as anonymous but as if absent. On a recent train trip from Boston to New York, I sat next to a man talking to his girlfriend about his problems. Here is what I learned by trying not to listen: He’s had a recent bout of heavy drinking, and his father is no longer willing to supplement his income. He thinks his girlfriend spends too much money and he dislikes her teenage daughter. Embarrassed, I walked up and down the aisles to find another seat, but the train was full. Resigned, I returned to my seat next to the complainer. There was some comfort in the fact that he was not complaining to me, but I did wish I could disappear. Perhaps there was no need. I was already being treated as though I were not there.

Some people are incredulous when they learn I don’t own a cell phone. My students, last fall, for example. One couldn’t comprehend how I grocery shopped without the ability to call home and double check on what was needed.

Some of my friends would say I don’t have one because I’m a cheap, antisocial bastard. Only partially true, my parents were married when they had me. But those charming attributes aren’t the main reasons. I don’t have one in large part because you haven’t convinced me that your lives are substantially better with them. Convenient at times no doubt, but just as often I hear you lament how dependent upon them you are. At least among middle aged cellphoners there’s a nostalgia for simpler times when people weren’t always accessible, people sometimes made eye contact, and you might meet someone new in public.

Of course, ambivalent cellphoners could turn off their phones on occasion, but that defeats the whole purpose of instantaneous accessibility. Everyone expects you’re all in.

I’m sure my daughters are tired of hearing me say that I’m going to buy the next iPhone. I probably will conform sometime in the future, but I know once I take the plunge, my life will change. Thanks to you, I’m just not convinced it’s for the better.