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Sunday morning Stoic: Why before how

“Why?” is THE question.

Drill down to your Why. 

You may find you have to rethink everything. 

Discard the superficial answers—the ones handed to you by others and the ones that don’t hold up to the scrutiny of brutally honest inquiry and genuine, everything’s-on-the-table curiosity.

Once you’ve found answers to your Why, answers that are legitimately your own, you have a foundation that can help you persevere no matter what circumstances you encounter.

*Two things: Victor Frankl walked the walk as a concentration camp survivor in World War II. His book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is a true gem of insight and wisdom. 

And, this @dailystoic Twitter stream is excellent. It’s connected to Ryan Holiday’s forthcoming book, The Daily Stoic, which is a sort of daily devotional of Stoic wisdom and encouragement. 

Checkmate

On the drive to school with my sixth-grader this morning, I asked her about some of the school activities she was considering.

I suggested the chess club. “Too many boys”, she replied. 

I came back with what a great mental discipline chess can provide—mastering strategy and learning to think a few moves ahead. 

She veered into a tangent about how some people see life like a game of chess, planning their moves and competing to win. 

I said, “But life is not a game that you win. You just get to enjoy playing.”

She responded: “But dad, YOU are winning at life.”

Me: (speechless)

Checkmated by an 11-year-old. 

If this is it

What if this is it? 

Paradise—right here, right now.

As far as we can see in this vast universe, there is no place like this planet, no place like our home.

It’s filled with abundance and wonders far greater than the cruelties and sorrows.

Too many of us are living for something beyond this life—head in the clouds and hope deferred.

But what if we lived like this is it, like this is our only shot and we only have each other?

Sunday morning Stoic: Change is the constant

Meditations 4.36:

“Constant awareness that everything is born from change. The knowledge that there is nothing nature loves more than to alter what exists and make new things like it. All that exists is the seed of what will emerge from it. You think the only seeds are the ones that make plants or children? Go deeper.”

Change is the rule, not the exception. The appearance of stability and constancy, wherever it may seem to exist, is an illusion.

You like the way things are? Brace yourself. This won’t last.

Dissatisfied with the way things are? Patience. This won’t last.

I can try to resist this reality (and I regularly do—we all do), but that approach is an exercise in futility.

Better to ride the waves of change than swim against them.

Beware of advice

“Beware of advice, even this.” –Carl Sandburg

via Scott Berkun

Learn all you can from the experience and wisdom of others, but ultimately you have to live your own life as best you can on your own.

Or not.

Career goal: Spark more smiles

I laughed with delight when I first saw this tweet. 

It made me think fondly of people I know who light up a room with their kindness or humor or enthusiasm. 

And there just aren’t enough people who are like that. 

The thing is, though, everyone could be like that. 

Why so serious, bro? Why so numb to the wonder and the possibilities all around you?

How can you be that person that sparks smiles and generates even little jolts of joy?

“O wondrous creatures, by what strange miracle do you so often not smile?” –Hafiz

Parents as gardeners, not carpenters

Psychology professor Alison Gopnik has a book coming out tomorrow about the parent-child relationship, and her recent essay, A Manifesto Against ‘Parenting’, in The Wall Street Journal is brilliantly provocative.

She suggests that too many parents see themselves as carpenters, mistakenly thinking they are shaping and building toward a finished product. Instead, she says, parents are more like gardeners, nurturing and protecting and making space for children to grow into their unique potential.

From Gopnik’s essay:

Instead of valuing “parenting,” we should value “being a parent.” Instead of thinking about caring for children as a kind of work, aimed at producing smart or happy or successful adults, we should think of it as a kind of love. Love doesn’t have goals or benchmarks or blueprints, but it does have a purpose. Love’s purpose is not to shape our beloved’s destiny but to help them shape their own.

This resonates with my experience as a parent and as a leader in any capacity. Create the conditions that bring out the best in your kids and in those you serve as a leader. Then get out of the way as much as possible.

There’s a stanza in Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet that has stuck with me since long before I became a parent:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

 

You may give them your love but not your thoughts.

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

Sunday morning Stoic: On getting away from it all

Meditations 4.3: 

“People try to get away from it all—to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like. By going within.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul. Especially if you have other things to rely on. An instant’s recollection and there it is: complete tranquillity. And by tranquillity I mean a kind of harmony.

So keep getting away from it all—like that. Renew yourself. But keep it brief and basic. A quick visit should be enough…”

I just spent the past week getting away from it all at the beach with my family. Coming home is bittersweet. Bitter, for the loss of the carefree leisure. Sweet, for the return to the comfortably familiar.

But the tranquility of getting away is always just a breath away. Right here, right now. 

No beach required. 

My beach read: The Name of the Wind


I had been shuffling through an increasingly large stack (hard copies and e-books) of partially read books, dipping in and out without making much progress on any one book.

For my week off at the beach, though, I decided to go all in on this fantasy novel, The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. 

And it’s been terrific. This was the debut novel by Rothfuss, and it’s living up to the near universal acclaim it received. 

It is beautifully written with clear, evocative prose, and it tells a compelling story filled with characters worth caring about. 

When the world seems too much with you, there’s nothing like a change of scenery. Take a vacation if you can get away. But at least, give your imagination an adventure with some invigorating fiction. 

Sunday night Stoic: Welcoming wholeheartedly whatever comes

Meditations 3.4:

“Someone like that—someone who refuses to put off joining the elect—is a kind of priest, a servant of the gods, in touch with what is within him and what keeps a person undefiled by pleasures, invulnerable to any pain, untouched by arrogance, unaffected by meanness, an athlete in the greatest of all contests—the struggle not to be overwhelmed by anything that happens. With what leaves us dyed indelibly by justice, welcoming wholeheartedly whatever comes—whatever we’re assigned—not worrying too often, or with any selfish motive, about what other people say. Or do, or think”

What if I accepted whatever already is as though I had chosen it, that it was somehow part of my master plan for improving my character and furthering my evolution?

Resistance to what is is futile. I only have control over how I respond to what is.

So, when something dreadful has occurred—or even something that’s just simply annoying—I can choose to welcome it wholeheartedly and make the most of it as an opportunity to learn and grow and move forward.

Conversations aren’t contests: Good listening is more than just waiting your turn to speak

Adam Grant recently tweeted a link to this Harvard Business Review article, What Great Listeners Actually Do. It’s based on research on what truly effective listeners consistently do.

Excellent listeners don’t just listen quietly, nod occasionally, and summarize what was just said. Instead, they engage and ask thoughtful, encouraging questions. The research suggests being a trampoline, not a sponge:

While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are someone you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.

It’s not about simply politely waiting your turn to speak while giving the impression that you’re trying to understand the other person.

I know I think I’m pretty good at nodding and seeming engaged while in my brain I’m crafting what I’m going to say when it’s my turn to talk.

I have the best conversations, though, when I’m genuinely present, when I listen to truly understand without much thought given to being understood myself.

Most of us probably think we are better listeners than we actually are. What most of us are good at, though, is appearing to be good listeners.

Listening takes effort and discipline. Next time you’re face to face with someone, ramp up your focus. Tune in as closely as you can to the other person. Ask excellent questions as you attempt to get at what they mean and where they’re coming from.

Be a trampoline that enhances the energy they’re giving you and takes you both to a higher level of understanding and connection.

 

Relax already: David Letterman on ego and perspective

David Letterman reflects on no longer having his television show:

“We did this television show—my friends and I—for a very long time. It’s probably like anyone else’s professional pursuit. When you are doing it for so long, and for each day—I have always likened it to running a restaurant—because you get response to the day’s endeavor immediately. Either from the audience or the ratings, but you know as early as the next day how you did.

And because of this introspection, you believe that what you are doing is of great importance and that it is affecting mankind wall-to-wall. And then when you get out of it you realize, oh, well, that wasn’t true at all. (laughter) It was just silliness. And when that occurred to me, I felt so much better and I realized, geez, I don’t think I care that much about television anymore. I feel foolish for having been misguided by my own ego for so many years.”*

When you are in the middle of a thing—your job, an organization, or some silly drama—it seems gigantic and so obviously important.

But if you could zoom out and view it from some distance of time or space, that thing that seemed like a big deal would be revealed for what it is—a tiny blip, a miniscule drop, an otherwise insignificant thing in the vast scheme of all the things.

Not that when you’re in it you shouldn’t give it your full attention and your best effort.

Just know that everything changes, and every thing, ultimately, is quite tiny in the context of all that is.

The thing that stresses you or weighs you down as you trudge home or as you start your day is probably not as big as you imagine.

This, too, no matter how important it may seem in the moment, shall pass.

The center of the universe is everywhere, but you are not the center of the universe.

Relax already.

 

Humans are the worst, and the best

Often, when I hear some terrible story about what someone has done to someone else, I exclaim to my wife, “Humans are the worst!”

And because we are supposed to be a rational, conscious being with a conscience, we really ought to expect better behavior from our fellow homo sapiens.

In the big scheme of things, though, we humans are just toddlers on the world stage.

The dinosaurs ruled the planet for millions of years.

Modern humans have been around a mere 200,000 years, and we’ve been at the top of the food chain for only a very short while.

Our direct ancestors were just another species of animal (of course, we still are merely animals), and not a very imposing or impressive one, for most of our timeline.

We didn’t figure out agriculture until 10,000 years ago.

And science didn’t begin to take hold until just 500 years ago.

Our big brains evolved into this wondrous asset that empowered us to conquer the world and write poetry and experience awe and joy and laughter. It also enabled us to suffer and inflict suffering like no other species on the planet.

Certainly, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.

But it has been a short time. We’re new here.

We are only now beginning to find our footing. We will stumble and go backwards here and there and routinely make a mess of things.

But we are not who we used to be. In spite of the headlines, the reality is that humans have never been more at peace with each other than they are now. (That may say more about how primitive and brutal we have been than about how enlightened we have become.)

If we don’t destroy ourselves before we get it together, we surely will eventually get it together.

Here’s hoping the better angels of our nature mature quicker and evolve faster than the parts of us that give our species a bad name.

Humans are the worst, but we have it in us to be the best.

You are the message

“Your kids… They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” –Jim Henson

via Austin Kleon

What you consistently do and how you act, that’s your message.

What you say is pointless if it’s not in sync with who you are.

Even kids—especially kids—can see through empty words.

A student, not a teacher

The great Greek philosopher Socrates is a character in the novel I’m reading, and in it he refers to himself as a student, not a teacher.

The best teachers and authors I’ve encountered have had that mindset. You are learning with them, not just from them.

The wiser you become, the more you realize how little you know.

We all should consider ourselves perpetual students, willing and eager to keep learning and pushing out the ever growing boundary of our ignorance.

We will find more opportunities to awaken possibility in ourselves and in others by humbly continuing to search and inquire and reexamine as a student of life than by trying to pose as a master.

 

 

Current fiction: Pressfield’s Tides of War


Non-fiction by day, fiction by night. 

I enjoyed Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, his excellent novel of the battle of Thermopylae. 

His non-fiction masterpiece, The War of Art, remains a key influence in my approach to the creative life and is one of a few books that merits rereading regularly. 

Fiction has been missing from my life recently, so I’m embarking on this story set in ancient Greece. A novel at night is a great way to end the day and nurture your imagination. 

Obama’s greatest legacy: Family

From a Washington Post article I read on Father’s Day about President Obama’s remarkable commitment to his family:

Soon after being inaugurated, Obama established what New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor has called “an unusual rule for a president.” As he informed all his aides, he vowed to have dinner with his family five nights a week. That left just two nights a week for out-of-town fundraisers or dinners with fellow politicians.

At 6:30, Obama and his wife sit down with the girls for a family dinner without any outsiders — not even Michelle’s mother, Marian Robinson, who typically retreats to her own “home” on the third floor of the White House.

The evening meal, observed Obama’s former body-man Reggie Love, was treated “like a meeting in the Situation Room. There’s a hard stop before that dinner.” While aides sometimes call him back to work at 8:30 or 9, they rarely dare to go upstairs to bother him during the sacred dinner hour.

On most days, Obama also eats breakfast with his daughters. And as part of his commitment to his girls, Obama has been reluctant to visit Camp David, since various school activities typically require the youngsters to be in Washington.

Obama is extremely proud of his résumé as a parent. He boasts of having read aloud with Malia all seven volumes of the Harry Potter series; in his first fall in office, he also managed to read all of Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi” to Sasha. But performing as a head of household did not come easily to him. As this supremely self-confident man acknowledged in 2006, “It is in my capacities as a husband and a father that I entertain the most doubt.”

Remarkable!

Even in his unimaginably demanding role as President of the United States, Obama created a system for prioritizing what is most important to him—his family.

If we know that quality relationships are the key to a happy life (and they are), why shouldn’t we all build systems, habits, and routines that prioritize our connection with family and friends?

Whether it’s nightly dinner with your kids, a standing date night with your spouse, or regular meetings with your closest friends, build barriers around what may be the most significant commitment of your attention, the time you devote to the relationships that matter most.

You are not running a country. If Obama can do it, you can, too.

In summer…

11227682_0f70b4e1d9_b.jpg

Image by **Mary**

It’s day one of summer.

And it’s day one of my commitment to seize the season and make the most of the warm weather and longer days.

Work less. Play more.

Make a list of adventures that you can only take on in summer.

Read in a hammock. Walk barefoot in the grass. Go jump in the lake.

Go places. Do things. Daydream.

Eat real food. Cook it over real fire. Have real, face-to-face conversations with people you love.

Embrace your primal nature and your connection to the natural world and to your senses.

Life is more radiant and more visceral in summer. Don’t sit it out as you tune out in your artificial escapes.

Make contact with your life right here, right now. In summer.

“‘Cause a little bit of summer’s what the whole year’s all about.” –John Mayer, Wildfire

Noise, noise, noise, noise, noise!

Grinch.jpg

So much noise right now.

There’s always something to read or watch or click, and most of it adds no real value while taking up precious space in our brain and often adding unnecessary worry and stress.

Information overload is a thing, for me at least.

Here comes the weekend, though, and a chance to step away from the stream of chatter that is hard to escape during the week.

Put the phone down, EJ.

Be quiet. Be bored.

Let your “streams” and “feeds” go untended.

These glowing screens are a modern miracle, but they can too easily divert our focus from what is right here, right now.

The world will go on just fine without your sharing or liking or commenting on whatever combination of one’s and zeroes might fly by in your absence.

Play. Breathe. See. Listen. Feel.

Step away from the noise. Step into real life.

Have a happy analog, tactile, unplugged weekend.

Kitchen tools list, updated

My sister-in-law is getting married later this year. Knowing I’m the primary cook in the family and knowing I’m a little too obsessed with finding the right tool, whether in technology or in the kitchen, she asked me to give her a list of essential kitchen tools for her wedding registry.

I was too happy to oblige, and I thought others might find this list useful as well.

I am no chef, and my skills are rudimentary at best, but I do care a lot about using quality tools that get the job done and are a delight to use.

The list below is made up mostly of tools I own and use, though some just represent categories, and the particular maker is less important. If you’re setting up a kitchen or want to expand your collection of tools, you might find something useful here:

  • Chef’s knife – You don’t need a lot of knives. Most cooks really only use two or three on a daily basis. But the Chef’s knife is the #1 kitchen tool. This Misen knife won’t be available till later this summer, but I’ve preordered one for myself already. It gets rave reviews as having the quality of a $150 knife for less than half that price. A workhorse chef’s knife that I use almost every day is the Victorinox Fibrox. It’s $45 and is very popular in restaurant kitchens. If you want to splurge a bit (and why shouldn’t you on the most important tool in the kitchen?), you can’t go wrong with a Wusthof ($117 German blade) or a Shun ($140 Japanese blade).
  • Paring knife
  • Steak knives – I like that the edge on this one is straight, not serrated. These won’t mangle that gorgeous steak you’ve grilled.
  • Cutting board – Our main cutting board is a work of art (it was a gift) and is so impressively heavy and rugged. It’s as beautiful as it is functional. Oil your wooden cutting boards periodically to keep the wood in great condition. We also have an Oxo cutting board. It’s good to have two or three. I cut meats on the polypropylene boards and everything else on the wooden board. Bamboo boards are a good choice, too.
  • Sharpening steel for knives – Steels don’t actually sharpen knives. They do straighten the edge back into place, though, and keep knives sharp. It’s good to edge your knife before or after every use. You will need to periodically have your knives professionally sharpened.
  • Magnetic strip for knife storage – The best way to store knives is on a magnetic strip mounted to the kitchen wall. It’s best not to keep knives in a drawer. And a block takes up counter space.
  • Cast iron skillet – Lodge is the most common brand you’ll find. But I’m excited about this Kickstarter project, the Field Skillet, which promises a lighter, smoother cast iron skillet. Pre-ordered.
  • Enameled cast iron skillet – Comes in a lot of colors and is my go-to for so many tasks—sautéing, chicken parmesan, frittatas, pancakes…
  • Oxo tongs – I use these often, and in all three sizes.
  • Microplane graters – The fine and coarse graters get used almost every day in our house. (Pre-grated cheese is wrong in many ways. More expensive, coated in starch to keep it from sticking, less fresh, and less delicious. We keep a block of parmigiano-reggiano and use it regularly. My 11-year-old loves it and is sadly disappointed whenever she encounters what passes for parmesan in other kitchens.)
  • Salad spinner
  • Turner and spatula
  • Grill spatula
  • Weber grill – We have a gas grill, too, but I use this classic Weber charcoal grill more often.
  • Weber chimney starter – Lighter fluid is not necessary, nor is pre-soaked charcoal.
  • Coffee grinder – Coffee people only use whole beans, freshly ground, of course. This is the grinder we have, but the Baratza has a bit more acclaim.
  • Garlic press – Unitaskers are not ideal, but this garlic press is a beast and one of my favorite tools.
  • Whisks – You’ll want a small and a large whisk.
  • Measuring spoons and cups
  • Oxo measuring cup set – Love these. I remember my mom first seeing one of these in my house years ago and being so delighted by the clever design. I gave her mine on the spot.
  • Half sheet pans – We have at least four of these. So useful, for food prep as well as baking and roasting.
  • Thermometer – This is THE thermometer to get if you’re willing to splurge. One of my most relied on gadgets, especially for grilling. $100
  • Dish towels – We use these lint-free surgical towels in the kitchen. Lots of color options.
  • Pepper mill – Never use pre-ground pepper when you can get 100 times more flavor by grinding it fresh.
  • Pizza stone – We use this for homemade pizza, and my wife also uses it for some of her cookies.
  • Simple Human open kitchen trash can – One of my favorite purchases in the past year. Who knew a trash can could be so delightful? It looks terrific, and the fact that it doesn’t have a lid turns out to be crucially awesome. Lids add a layer of friction to throwing something away, and lids get dirty.

 

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