Ground The Helicopters
I often look back, admittedly through a rose-colored lens, at how easy-going our childhoods seemed to have been. In many respects, life is different now. We can argue about whether this sea change is for the best, but it’s beyond dispute that our lives are pushing the outside of the stress envelope. How did life get so stressful, and why are well-intentioned parents and our smart device-dominated world frequently making things worse?
When our children are little, we buy them one-way tickets on the Success Express. They toddle aboard this bullet train, “win” T-ball trophies, and then prep for sixth grade admission tests. As the train accelerates, signs that say private school, Ivy League (OK, OK...and Stanford), and grad school flash past. We simultaneously shield our children from failure, and exert rigid control over their lives (and ours), pushing them to pull straight A’s, and to gallop and code through extracurricular activities to pad their CV’s.
Ironically, the more obsessively we plan our children’s futures and shield them from inevitable setbacks (we derisively call them “failures”), the more we reinforce in our kids our own silly narratives: “Failure is unacceptable,” “An A is average,” ,and “I will be happy when…” But when will the Express finally roll into the Happiness Terminal? The answer is that we and our kids are already there. We need to remind ourselves that when is now.
Having outlined the problem, let’s explore some mind-sets that will open the door to a deeper understanding of what matters, replace the myth of control with the strength of resilience, and pave the way to the mindful focus of living more often in the moment.
Learn to like and to take responsibility for ourselves.
While we endlessly seek praise and affirmation from others, no one is more critical of us than ourselves. This self-disdain is misplaced. We are not impostors. We didn’t get where we are by accident. Don’t believe the pretenders. Everyone gets scared: CEO’s, bosses, peers, and teachers. We also have the selfish habit of casting ourselves in the role of victim, whose ego and insecurity endlessly point the finger of blame at others. When our team loses, it was the goalie’s fault. When the VC’s reject our idea for an app., we tend to blame our colleagues. STOP. We can only take authentic, humble pride in our achievements when we have the integrity and courage to own our mistakes.
Life is unpredictable, and will inevitably serve up challenges, no matter how much frantic control we struggle to exert. As Henry Adams said, “Chaos is the law of nature, order is the dream of man.” Control eventually falls apart. Resilience is our salvation. It is not just the ability to “bounce back.” Resilience is a discipline and a virtue, developed over time in the forge of inevitable failures and hardship. Working through suffering leads to wisdom, courage, and enduring strength. Despite what innovative “thought leaders” smugly declare in TED talks, they probably don’t love failure, and we don’t have to either. The key is to learn and grow from failure, not to be terrified of it.
Let’s not wait for a tragedy before we realize that we have thrown away a lot of precious days focused on what doesn’t matter that much, or never actually happens. Do the math: Multiply the difference between your life expectancy and your age by 365. The product is fewer than you imagined, isn’t it? Each of those days is a new blessing, a time to live with integrity and hope as life unfolds. Stay in the middle of the river, and welcome where the current takes you, ready for, but not dreading, the next set of rapids. As we take our resilience tool out of the box to chip away at life’s messes, we need to stop and look - with profound empathy - beyond our own circumstances, at how incredibly difficult life is for billions of people on the planet we share.
Fortified with perspective, draw up a two-column list. On the left, jot down the scary things that jolted you awake at 4 am last year. Then, check off on the right which of those scary things actually happened. I will bet you a ticket to Wimbledon that there are very few check marks on your list. When problems do jump out from around life’s blind corners, fight the urge to control. Instead, lean into the challenges with resilience, a light heart, and a focused mind.
Focus on progress, rather than chasing perfection.
The key point here is that perfection and excellence are related but, in important ways, separate concepts. Seeking excellence through the methodical mastery of our crafts is joyous and liberating. Seeking perfection is the tortured path to paralysis and indecision. The toughest decisions are often the easiest because each side of the issue is a strong choice. Don’t flip a coin, but don’t ruminate endlessly either. Make the decision and move on. When writing, get something down on paper (sorry, GenZ’ers and Millennial’s, I meant screens). Once the skeleton of the piece is outlined, you can start the fun process of fleshing out and honing what may have first seemed to be embarrassing pap.
Of course, goals are important. I am not advocating a life of unfocused indolence. But once we set realistic goals, let’s turn to the process. Curiously, we will have a better chance of reaching the goal with competence and grace when mindful focus supplants the fear that we won’t accomplish our objective. Remember, the only days during which we can’t get anything done are yesterday and tomorrow.
Recruit a SEAL Team.
Mother Teresa said that loneliness is the leprosy of the modern age. She wasn’t talking about solitude. Solitude is valuable time spent to contemplate and meditate. Loneliness is scary isolation. We need the company of other humans to help us feel less alone. Don’t choose them at random: Recruit a Supportive, Energizing And Loving (SEAL) Team, made up of people you trust such as a mentor, friends, a therapist and teammates. Maybe even a family member. Empower your SEAL’s to challenge you with empathetic constructive criticism, and to support you with merited praise. No obsequious enablers, please. Put a big dog on the Team. No yappy ones that travel in strollers and chest-packs, please. Cats are optional.
Limit device time and media consumption.
We live in an increasingly isolated, device-driven, social media-dominated society. It has narrowed our attention span and creative energies to 140 characters. I am taking bets on when video games – violent and sometimes misogynistic virtual narcotics - will become an Olympic sport. If smartphones and social media are not addictive, I don’t know what is. Try asking someone (or yourself for that matter) to put the device in a drawer for an hour.
Many children and teens spend at least nine hours a day on their screens, checking social media up to one hundred times every twenty-four hours. Rehab centers for device addiction are springing up around the country. The chronic neck pain caused by bending down looking at screens for “likes” has entered the medical lexicon as “Text Neck.” A growing number of executives who used to peddle the virtual needles that smart devices represent, and the e-narcotics of social media through which they flow, are now focusing on getting their kids to stop using.
Turn the devices off, put them in another room (preferably under lock and key), and have a family dinner. No judging. Play games. Make up silly Country Western songs (redundancy alert). Enjoy each other in person, not by liking others’ avalanche of selfies, and fervently hoping they will like yours.
Recharge Your Batteries.
Carving out time away from the job, school and homework is critical to how well you do them. Take vacations off the grid. I know the former general counsel of a Fortune 100 company who takes three to four weeks off every year, during which he is unreachable. Exercise five days a week for at least twenty to thirty minutes. If I had the space, this sentence would be in seventy-two point font. Sleep eight hours a night. I like this soothing New Zealand Prayer:
It is night after a long day.
What has been done is done.
What has not been done has not been done.
Let it be. The night is for stillness and rest.
These proposals may seem more revolutionary than modest, and should be adopted slowly and with care. Take small steps. Invest everyone in the process. We should expect setbacks as we master the craft of living with a light heart and a focused mind. Avoid regrets about yesterday; keep fear of the future at bay. Of course, that’s easy to say. We won’t achieve this right off the bat. However, mindful attention to the process, and the ability to learn authentically from failure, are the keystones of true success in this life with which we have been blessed. To borrow a phrase from Rumi, out beyond the shadows, the morning sun lights the green meadow of hope. I will meet you there.
Copyright, Cameron Stout 2018