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. 

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.”

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.

Writing that moves: Posnanski makes like Maddux

My morning in this lovely AirBnB cottage near Venice Beach has been made reading a couple of Joe Posnanski’s pieces. (This west coast time zone had me up early, watching my kids sleep as we continue on our California vacation.)

Posnanski is a sportswriter, but it’s his stuff about fatherhood and family that gets to me. 

He wrote most recently about taking his teenage daughter to see the musical Hamilton. (Go read that piece now. It’s so, so good.)

I’ve never been a big fan of Broadway musicals. I had been underwhelmed years ago by Cats (hated it) and Phantom (meh). But we took our young daughters to see Wicked earlier this year, and I was wowed and truly moved. 

Then I heard some early hoopla about Hamilton and was intrigued enough to listen to the soundtrack. I’ve since listened to that soundtrack repeatedly and can quote key lyrics. And I’ve begun reading the Ron Chernow biography that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda to create a hip-hop infused stage production telling the story of an under appreciated founding father. And I know who Lin-Manuel Miranda is and have watched YouTubes of his commencement speeches and his beatboxing with Emma Watson. And I know I will regret not having seen the original cast perform Hamilton live. 

And Posnanski’s endearing story of taking his daughter to see this show resonated with me as an admirer of all things Hamilton right now and as a dad of daughters. I got all the feels and could imagine sitting in that theater with my older daughter and making a memory that endures.

I then read an older piece of his about taking his daughter to Harry Potter world in Florida. Also a delight and evocative of my experiences with my daughters. 

Posnanski’s writing sneaks up on the reader. He’s just casually unspooling the threads of a story. It’s conversational and earnest. And then—Pow!—without warning you feel something. You’re moved. It’s clear he’s been moved, and he takes you with him. 

The great Braves pitcher, Greg Maddux, my favorite baseball player, pitched kind of like that. He didn’t have jaw-dropping stuff. His fastball was average. He wasn’t imposing. But he was an artist on the mound. He was subtle and cerebral and his pitches moved in surprising, yet strategic ways. It wasn’t power or speed, it was movement and careful, precise placement that was thought through before the batter ever approached the plate. The pitch counts and the innings would unspool innocuously with lots of balls in play and runners scattered here and there. And then, all of a sudden, you had a complete-game shutout. 

Maddux was more of a craftsman than an artist. But the parallel to mastery of a hard skill seems apt to me. 

Movement. Artful placement. Beautiful stuff.  

The key in writing, I think, is to feel something that truly moves you and find a way to express it in such a way that your reader feels that same thing. 

Seems simple, but so few pull it off well. 

More music, more happy

My family recently upgraded our primary television and added a Sonos Playbar as well. It was an expensive addition to an already costly purchase, but it’s proving to be well worth it. (Remember: “The things you use every day should be the best-designed things you can get.”)

We use TV almost exclusively for streaming Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes, and it’s our kids who use it the most. But this new soundbar has us listening to a lot more music.

I’m no audiophile, but the quality of the sound from this Sonos soundbar is remarkable for just a single device, at least compared to what we had before.

And having great audio in our living room and the new Apple TV prompted me to give Apple’s streaming music service another try.

So, we are listening to music more often now, and it’s been a delight. We click on a playlist or album while having dinner or doing chores or winding down for bed, and it’s added a wonderful extra bit of joy to our home.

It turns out that Sonos has been doing research about this and is actively marketing results that show that listening to music out loud in your home has measurable benefits for the whole family.

Their study shows that households that play music out loud laugh more and have less tension. There’s a long list of other benefits highlighted by their research.

I know that turning on music makes us less inclined to retreat into our devices. Cooking and dining together are just more fun with music in the background. We find ourselves often singing along out loud together as we go about our evening routines.

You don’t need a fancy sound system or a sophisticated taste in music to reap these benefits. Just put on some music and tune in with those you share your life with.

 

Adam Grant on what thwarts creativity in kids

This was an enlightening New York Times column by the prolific young scholar, Adam Grant. He highlights research that shows that too much structure and a rules-focused environment are not conducive to sparking creative thinking:

So what does it take to raise a creative child? One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.

Creativity may be hard to nurture, but it’s easy to thwart. By limiting rules, parents encouraged their children to think for themselves. They tended to “place emphasis on moral values, rather than on specific rules,” the Harvard psychologist Teresa Amabile reports.

My wife and I certainly fall into that “average of fewer than one rule” category. I’ve worried that we’re terrible slackers and need to give our kids more structure, like an actual bed time or chores and such.

But, thanks, Adam Grant. We will continue with our rule-free ways.

I do think there’s much merit to establishing a general sense of values and a clear direction and then leaving it up to the kids (or your team or organization) to use their own judgment and creativity to figure out how to proceed on their own. This less controlling approach is more interesting and organic and just more fun, too.

Precise rules and micromanaging might get the results you desire, but it precludes potentially better results you didn’t imagine.