What Do You Do When You’re Wrong?

In response to last week’s post, several readers wrote me to point out an error. I incorrectly wrote, “Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool.”  

In reality, he invited Officer Clemmons. Mr. McFeely is white while Officer Clemmons is African-American – not a minor point considering Mr. Rogers was trying to make a statement about integrating public pools.

My initial instinct was to hope no one else noticed and ignore it.  

Ultimately, guilt made me own up to my mistake, email the readers who pointed out the error and send this mea culpa. The net result was not only a personal relief but also some excellent exchanges with readers – even netting a book recommendation. What originally felt threatening instead felt liberating.
 
A few weeks earlier, my middle daughter had given me a master class in apologies.  Around bedtime, she had completely lost her cool about something that seemed trivial at the time. She said some hurtful and hateful things, including that I was “the worst Dad ever” and she “never wanted to read with me again.”  Both of which stung, especially since we’ve been having an absolutely awesome time reading a book series called The Unwanteds every night for months. She ran into her room crying, slamming the door.

Several minutes later, a notebook came sliding out from under said slammed door. In her two-page note, she walked me through every nook and cranny of what she was feeling and why she acted the way she did. I went into her room, her apologetic words in my proud hand, to tell her how brave it was to share her feelings so directly and purely. I asked if we could read theUnwanteds and so we did.
 
In the spirit of President’s Day, both examples, reflect these words from Lincoln:

My old Father used to have a saying that ‘If you make a bad bargain, hug it all the tighter.’
 
Owning our mistakes has always been hard, but it seems even harder today. We don’t allow much space for forgiveness. 
 
Saying sorry, admitting when you’re wrong. These are really, really hard things.  Yet we put every potential apology through the lens of judgment instead of understanding.  A world that seems more about gotcha, than “I get you.”
 
The problem is that when we don’t feel safe to own our mistakes, both parties suffer.  Apologies come either half-baked or not at all. And no one is able to move on.
 
There is something poetic about the imagery of hugging our mistakes all the tighter.  Just imagine, if we could all hug ours as tightly as a nine-year-old.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

You Can Do Hard Things

This is a phrase my wife has recently used several times with our children. When I first heard it, it immediately struck a chord.
 
As a child, most things seem a little hard at first – tying your shoes, getting your own breakfast, reading a book, riding a bike.
 
It is by only by doing these things ourselves, that we eventually master them and what at first seemed hard eventually becomes second nature.
 
It is to easy to forget this simple lesson. In the name of expediency, we answer the call to “tie my shoe”, “get me breakfast”, or “read to me?” 

Our lack of patience denies them the opportunity to overcome a struggle and independently solve their own problems.
 
Ironically, we at the same time, serve them empty pabulum that “nothing is impossible” and “they can do anything.”  This is while we simultaneously deny them the skills necessary to achieve even the most mundane goals.
 
“You can do hard things” is a realistic invitation to meet life where it is – right in front of you.  

Life, after all, is hard and as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “nothing worth having comes easy.”  So day-by-day, we work to do hard things. When we master each, we feel rewarded and energized to take on the next hard thing. This is a fundamental part of learning, living and growing.
 
Conversely, well-intentioned calls like “nothing is impossible” and “you can do anything” can ring hollow. For those of means, it seems like an entitlement (since we may have shown them that things will come to you regardless of your effort).
 
It is also a little tone deaf to those who face constant adversity.  Their lives are filled with hard things and  everything seems impossible and overwhelming considering their circumstances.
 
For different reasons, it creates unrealistic distant expectations when what is needed are smaller invitations for mastery.
 
My youngest daughter loves baking shows and occasionally helps us in the kitchen. But until recently, she treated breakfast as if she were in a diner – ordering what she would like as her parental waiters obliged. 
 
On Wednesday, she poured her own cereal, spilling just a little drop of milk in the process. Smiling she looked up and said,  “see, I can do hard things.”
 
One day a bowl of cereal, tomorrow maybe it’s tying her shoes. Whatever the next hard thing is, she will be just a little more prepared to tackle it.  And that I suppose is all we should ask.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

What Will You Leave Behind in 2018?

With 2019 right around the corner, it is customary to look forward.  To set goals, create plans and, of course, make resolutions.  It is also an opportunity to reflect and look back.

Recently a friend told me that during a recent yoga class, the instructor asked everyone to reflect on the question, “what do you need to leave behind?”  In other words, what mindsets, behaviors or habits do you need to change if you want to be able meet those goals, follow through on those plans and keep those resolutions?

For some, it is easier said than done. The weights holding them down cannot be willed away.

Challenges like illness, mounting debt, and lack of opportunities can be debilitating and difficult to simply “leave behind.”

For others, limitations are of our own making. We form habits that are incompatible with the energy required to be our best selves.  Our thoughts are subject to mindsets that make excuses, deflect responsibility, and limit our options.

So as we say hello to 2019, what will you say goodbye to in 2018?

For me, it’s sayonara to sacrificing sleep, excessive time online, and a mindset that too often relies on validations from others.

Imagining how much more I could accomplish with more energy, time and internal motivation creates a vision of a 2019 where more goals are met, plans kept and resolutions realized. 

Some may say this seems simplistic and Pollyanna-ish but so too would thinking that I could accomplish much of anything vital without first leaving something unnecessary behind.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

What Our Dogs Can Teach Us About Moving Up

As I write this, my two-year old Cairn terrier mix, Scout, is sitting on my lap. Occasionally, he rests his head on my right forearm, making the act of typing a more delicate matter.

The benefits of dog ownership are well documented. They improve both our physical and mental health, reduce stress, increase our sociability, confidence and sense of responsibility and generally just make us happier.  But what can teach us about moving up in life?

Let’s first state the obvious. Like any species, dogs also experience inequality. 

Some are born stronger, faster, healthier and smarter than others. Environments vary greatly as some are raised in warm, loving and well resourced homes – meaning dogs eat only the best food, go to doggy day care and camp, have lavish toys and of course, those questionable sweaters.

Other less fortunate dogs may live in homes where they are abused or find themselves homeless – at risk of being picked up and euthanized – if they don’t find new homes (approximately 57% of dogs who enter shelters are killed, a total of 1.2 million annually).

Outside of being adopted into a “better home”, dog’s social mobility is non-existent outside of the relative mobility of their owners. They are essentially stuck on whatever rung of the ladder they are born into and their movement is directly tied to the family that owns them.

Yet to watch a dog each day is to be exposed to multiple lessons in adaptation and good living. 

Dogs always wake up on the right side of the bed, enthusiastic to start the day. Their morning walks ensure that their day gets off to a happy start. Their enjoyment of nature elevates their mood.  They take the time to stop and smell the roses (and for that matter everything else). Someone once wrote that in every sniff lies the entire world – so rich is their sense of smell. 

Dogs also make time for their friends – always seeking to stop and say/smell hello. They are honest with their feelings and not afraid to let you know what they need. Each dog has an innate need to play each day for at least 10 minutes. If they don’t their mood suffers. They love to be in the company of others but also sometimes just want to be left alone. 

They eat three meals a day and, after a long day, understand the importance of a good night’s sleep (the average dog sleeps between 12-14 hours a day).  When they are loved, they love right back, and of course their sense of loyalty is astounding.

It is easy to take our dogs for granted, I know that I do and often feel guilty for losing my patience or not taking Scout to dog parks or longer walks. But we should be grateful for the many ways they make us happier and perhaps even look more closely to see what they can teach us about being better people.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

How To Tell The Truth

My six year old daughter stepped off the bus with a very long face.  “Daddy, you’re going to be so mad at me. I did something awful at school today.”
 
Embarrassed, upset and ashamed, it took twenty minutes for her to work through her tears and tell me that she got in trouble for talking in gym class. A crime that was punishable by sitting alone on the stage at the front of the gym. A second infraction would bring with it the much-feared trip to the principal’s office.
 
I first thanked her for telling me the truth. Then I told her I was not mad at her and there was no need to be afraid of further punishment.  
 
When we talked about what she had learned from this, she said to “not talk after the whistle at gym class” and perhaps more importantly that she “should never be afraid to tell me the truth.”
 
When we are young, telling the truth, if not always easy, comes naturally. Lying is a learned behavior. Children begin to tell ridiculous fibs as early as 3 or 4 and graduate to more complicated and believable lies at 7 or 8.
 
Research shows
that people lie for a number of reasons but most will fall into two buckets:  to protect ourselves or to promote ourselves (see this fascinating chart breaking down our motivations for lying.)
 
The average person tells a few lies everyday. People who lie more often have shown to have a more active portion of the brain that is associated with reward processing (e.g. it makes lying worth it). Another study demonstrated that according to brain activity, the more we lie the less stress or emotional discomfort we feel about lying.
 
In other words, as we get older, telling the truth becomes harder and lying becomes easier.
 
Which brings us to the events of last week.
 
Our credibility is a window into our character. If we cannot be trusted to tell the truth about little things, like why we got in trouble in gym class or how much we drank in high school, it will call into question our ability to tell the truth on more substantial issues.  

I trust my six year old to tell me the truth, a belief that was reinforced this week shortly after she stepped of the bus.  I wish I could say the same for anyone who might someday ascend to the highest bench.

 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Help!

John Lennon once referred to Help! as one of only two true songs he ever wrote with the Beatles (the other being Strawberry Fields). In contrast, so many of his other songs felt “phony” to him.
 
Both the lyrics and the backstory behind this Beatles’ hit contain many truths about the nature of help, and how hard it is to both give it and ask for it.
 

The song was written during a difficult time in Lennon’s life. He was depressed, felt overweight, and was struggling with his first marriage.
 
These very real and deep feelings were obscured by the upbeat melody. How effective was masking this cry for help? Lennon and McCartney first performance was in his living room – to Cynthia, Lennon’s afore-mentioned first wife.  Her response, “I like it. It’s very nice.”
 
The song begins by stating that who is providing the help matters. (I need somebody. Help, not just anybody)

The lyrics go on to show how the realization that we need help changes over time. Going from “so much younger than today I never needed anybody’s help in any way”  to “My independence seems to vanish in the haze”  and (But) but every now and then I feel so insecure  I know that I just need you like I never done before.”

The song points to the uncertainty of whether help is even possible, “help me if you can I’m feeling down” and the importance of being there for someone, “I do appreciate you being ‘round.”  The idea that your presence is valued even if you can’t help, seems implied.
 
And of course, it acknowledges that someone needs to want help in order to receive it “Now I find I’ve change my mind, I’ve opened up the doors.”
 
The desire to either seek help from or give help to those we love is instinctive.

Yet, how many of us have been in a position when we could not bring ourselves to ask those closest to us for assistance?  Or perhaps even worse, felt at a complete loss to find a way to help those we love the most. 

Each is a different form of help-less.
 
Originally, the song had a different title as there was another tune by the same name. That is until someone suggested adding an exclamation point. Hence, the official title Help!.  While I’m not usually a fan of this particular punctuation mark, it seems appropriate that a song about such a maddening topic, screams at you to listen to its truths.

Have a listen.

 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Why I Can’t Stand To See You Suffer

Several weeks ago, I was leaving Grand Central Terminal.  As I was going up a very long staircase, a young Asian woman was descending in the opposite direction on the escalator. Talking on her cell phone, I noticed a single tear slowly trickling down her cheek.

My initial inclination was to turn around and walk down the 40 steps or so to ask her if she was ok – her pain was that palpable. Thinking twice, I thought better of being some stranger chasing her down to intrude into her personal affairs.  Yet, something about the suffering of this tear-inducing phone call haunts me a little still.

When we see suffering, we are moved to want to end it. Research suggests one reason why is that when we see someone in pain, it activates the same regions of our brain that fire up when we experience pain ourselves.

In fact, the more acutely we feel pain ourselves, the more acutely we will be able to feel the pain of others.

This reciprocal relationship shows both the capacity and limitations of our empathy.

Naturally, we hope to minimize pain and suffering in our own lives. But does this also mean that we look to minimize our exposure to the pain and suffering of others?
 

Ask yourself this: In the last month, what have you done to end someone’s suffering and what have you done to avoid someone’s suffering?

One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller.

“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.”  

It is in many ways a hopeful reminder of our collective resiliency.

Yet perhaps ironically, Keller also wants us to hear that before the overcoming can happen, we must be willing to see the suffering. Despite how painful that might be.

Full of Fluff?

It is one of the most influential social science research studies ever conducted. For the past thirty years, it has served as a foundation for most work on the subjects of willpower and grit.  
 
The Marshmallow Test, as it is referred, was a simple experiment that offered kids a marshmallow to eat.  However, if they could wait 15 minutes – while sitting alone in a room with the marshmallow in front of them – they would earn a second marshmallow.  Years later the researcher, Walter Mischel followed up to see how the kids who participated were doing. Those who delayed gratification and earned a second treat were found to have significant benefits ranging from higher test scores, better educational outcomes, fewer teen pregnancies etc.
 
Over the course of time, there have been follow up studies that have thrown some wrinkles into these conclusions.  One demonstrated that a child’s level of trust in adults also had significant impact on their decision to wait.
 
A new study goes one step further, threatening to undermine most if not all of the original findings. It turns out that the major driver determining whether a child waits is not their innate willpower or grit, but their background – specifically their parent’s education and wealth. 
 
You see once controlling for demographics they saw no difference within certain groups. Children of educated parents did no better later in life whether or not they delayed gratification.  Similarly, there weren’t differences among children from low-income homes regardless of whether they had the willpower to wait.
 
The implications of this new research are far-reaching. The original study is a linchpin in child development and whole cottage industries have sprung up trying to develop grit and willpower in children – especially those from lower income backgrounds.
 
What is most interesting to me is why we were so willing to accept the initial premise.  Apparently there have always been some elements of the original research design that begged questioning.  And the idea of controlling for demographics is a long held research practice.
 
So what took so long?
 
We are a nation built on the idea that if we put our mind to it we can do anything. That we are the primary drivers of our own life and where there is a will there is always a way.
 
The Marshmallow Study fit so neatly into this bootstrap narrative, it is easy to see why it was so appealing to people across the political spectrum. It appears to be as clear an example of confirmation bias as you’ll see.
 
Did we really believe if we could train more kids to resist marshmallows, they would be able to escape poverty and overcome the myriad of real world challenges that come with it?
 
Escaping poverty is hard work and requires incredible will. But, as this study shows, it not an child’s will that needs developed. It is ours.  

Are You a Taker or a Giver?

A recent study observed groups of people in public settings.  They recorded that every ninety seconds someone does something for someone else. Hold a door.  Pass the salt.  Fulfill a random request. 

Interestingly, only one in every six instances included someone saying thank you. 

Some would say this is a classic example of some people who are selfish or ungrateful. While others are by nature are more selfless and altruistic.

Or to put it another way, there are those who give and those who take.

But before passing judgment consider this nugget. The roles being played were fluid. People would both give and take. The same people who performed a nice gesture also didn’t say thank you.

Rather than being proof of bad manners it was actually evidence of strong social connections. People gave because they know eventually they would take. Others took knowing they would later give. 

It was the fluidity that we see in our closest relationships. We sometimes say thank you, especially with larger gestures, or in situations where we want to model good behavior.  But other times, we would just accept the kind gesture without acknowledgment and the giver would be cool with it.  Why?  With the ins and outs of everyday life there are unwritten rules and expectations about reciprocity.

But with low levels of trust or weakened social bonds, the strands of reciprocity can splinter.  We see people who maybe take more than they give or visa versa. The takers are saying, “I don’t trust you to give back.” The givers are thinking “if I give more maybe they will too”, and when they don’t they grow more resentful.

This can lead to a slippery slope where relationships between partners, within families, communities, companies and entire societies disintegrate.  Leading to seemingly intractable issues around inequality and fairness.

On this Memorial Day, we have to look no further than to our soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice – their lives. They did so knowing that the person next to them was willing to do the same.

In all of our relationships, it is healthy to examine how each of us gives and takes.  Is there balance or are the scales beginning to tip too far one way or the other?

These are important conversations that can be a starting point to a healthier balance.  Perhaps you’ll realize that if someone isn’t saying thank you, it’s not because they aren’t grateful but because they feel so close to you that the appreciation goes without saying.

This Is Impressive

Pride is a feeling of pleasure derived by the acts or qualities that we admire. It is natural to take pride in our own achievements or from those closest to us.

To be impressed is an altogether different matter. It is a feeling imposed on us. It represents something so unusually good that we can’t help but remember it. It suggests something has been forcibly pressed upon us in such a way to leave a lasting mark.

This distinction was made evident this weekend on two different occasions involving my family.

I am proud that my oldest daughter puts herself out there by performing in a local theatre group.  But I was so impressed by her recent unforgettable performance as Scar in the Lion King. She so thoroughly immersed herself in a role that was so unlike her own personality that she became unrecognizable to me.  Without inhibition and with such confidence, she was remarkable. I was so impressed that a ten-year old could do this.

A few days later my wife completed a three-month course to become a certified volunteer firefighter. The training easily involved 10-20 hours of additional work each week. It was a combination of bookwork (the text was over 1000 pages) and hands on drills (think hoisting ladders, tying various knots while wearing cumbersome gloves and controlling pressure filled water hoses).  I am proud that she is choosing to serve our community in this way, but I am more impressed by the strength required to learn and master so many new skills.

Sadly, the use of the words pride and impress are both in decline over the last 150 years – but the decrease for impress is more precipitous.

Perhaps we grew weary of people superficially trying to impress us or  jaded by the steady stream of things to be impressed by that we take them for granted.  (How do you top walking on the moon?)

At the same time, when we are impressed a indelible mark is left.  It changes how we will forever see that person and how we see ourselves.  

The desire to leave a mark is a powerful one.   Remarking on his new role as Pablo Picasso, Antonio Banderas said,  “I still don’t think I have done the thing I will be remembered for.”

It makes you wonder, “Have I?”

There are so many opportunities to both be impressed and make an impression. Both require us to be open to new experiences, to dare to push our own limits and then persevere to reach them.

May your week be an impressive one.