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.

They Were Everywhere

On bookshelves, under end tables, on the dining room table, behind the sofa, and under chairs. In the hallway, kitchen, bedroom, living room and yes, the closet. They were spread to every corner of our home like the Starks to the kingdoms of Westeros.
Legos, Legos and more Legos. Our home had turned into a literal Lego-land. Constructed sets abounded – tree houses, ski lodges, yogurt shops, pet hospitals, ice skating rinks, pizzerias and amusement parks. While they are in a seemingly constant state of reproduction, their forces had multiplied exponentially recently — the result of birthday parties and Christmas.
In an effort to contain the madness, my wife and I had decided to take matters into our own hands.  Each year, we make our children a Christmas gift (with Santa supplying all others under the tree.)  

This year we decided to make them each a Mobile Lego Cart. It was tricked out with three shelves. On two we affixed Lego baseplates, which would allow them to display their Lego creations, the third had a storage bin, for either Lego pieces or assembled accessories, like cars and planes. Each cart was equipped with hooks for hanging bags of pieces and magnets (some of which were used to spell their names prominently on the cart).

The idea was they could place their creations on the cart, play with them and when done move them to a place that would be out of sight, out of mind for their Lego fatigued parents.
They were things of beauty and our girls loved them. Soon we would learn the shortcomings of our plan.
Our girls are big fans of these Lego sets. Pre-packaged boxes of 400-1200 distinct Lego pieces organized in one to eight different bags with step-by-step instruction booklets that can be up to two hundred pages long. The assembly process takes hours, sometimes spanning multiple days.  A simple bump or knock can send that effort into a heap of bricks and tears.
Now put that on a moving cart.  Oops, sorry  I meant three different moving carts.
Predictably, within the first few hours, two accidents had led to the previously referenced heaps of bricks and tears.
Beyond the tenuous nature of moving intricate Lego sets was the question of real estate. The adage of “If you build it, they will come” was never more true.

Initially old completed sets were moved into their new home only to be quickly displaced by freshly built new sets – a Lego gentrification process forced by limited cart capacity. The building of new sets was so furious you would have thought they were developers in Dubai.
Frustration mounted as did calls for more carts and space.
When I was young, Legos did not come in elaborate sets with instructions.  There were Legos and your imagination. 

You built something and played with it until you were bored. Then you tore it down and built something different. One set could last a childhood.  
Today each set is intended to have permanence. Our children learn the importance of following instructions carefully and take pride in their studious accomplishment.  And they certainly exercise their imagination when they play make believe and insert themselves into the complex worlds designed by Lego but assembled with their own two hands.  
But something seems decidedly different and potentially lost – and I’m talking about more than just space in our home. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

The True Meaning of Eve

For millions of children around the world (and perhaps an equal number of adults), today is a day of incredible anticipation.  For tomorrow, they will wake up uncontrollably consumed by the excitement that comes with presents nestled under and around the Christmas tree.
The very nature of any “eve” is one of anticipation and even anxiety.  As the great Tom Petty once sang, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Its meaning today is simply “the day or period of time before an event or occasion.”  But the word’s Hebrew origin is much more evocative of what is to come. “To breath” or “to live” suggests that “eve” is the very precursor to of our being.
I try to imagine what my mother felt like on Christmas Eve, 1968. The year had been one calamity one after another.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated. Vietnam had escalated.  There were riots in the streets. In this context, already struggling to raise two children on her own, she was now expecting a third.
I can only guess that she felt both excitement and fear. A blind belief that things could only get better and a nagging feeling that perhaps they would not.
The next morning, she watched her oldest son rejoice in seeing his new train set chug around the tree while her two-year-old daughter feverishly tore wrapping paper from one present after another. 
Shortly thereafter, she brought me into this world. To say it was a difficult birth would be an understatement, as I was nearly twelve pounds and breech.
This year is not unlike 1968, as much anxiety and anticipation mark the eve of this holiday. 
It would seem appropriate to take inspiration from the advice that I assume my mother heard while in labor that morning. 

Reminding us to breathe, especially during the difficult times.  

Remembering to offer words of encouragement when someone is struggling, “You’re doing great, you’re almost there.” 

And of course, the solace that comes when our labor is done and we have brought new life into our troubled, beautiful world.

Happy Holidays (and thank you Mom.)

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

What Do These People Have in Common?

Grace is a social worker who bravely intervened to defuse a dangerous situation between a homeless man and the police.

Sean is in prison for stealing guns and trading them for heroin and is a suspect in the killing of Whitey Bulger.

Catharine is a legal scholar who pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment. 

Rachel is the first transgender woman world champion, winning the gold in Masters Track Cycling.

Gary is hacker who was accused of perpetrating the “biggest military computer hack of all time.”

Rebecca is an author, researcher, and Internet freedom advocate.

Kiley is an Olympic aerial skier who finished 10th in the last Olympic games.

Nathan is a former #1 draft pick for the Colorado Avalanche.

Jerrick is a running back for the San Francisco 49ers.

Mark is a political advisor who has honorably served President George Bush and Senator John McCain.

Kate is a comedian and actress.

Bob is writing this post. 
This is a notable group. They come from three different countries and nine different states. They range in age from 22 to 72. Their diversity spans across race, gender, political beliefs and, of course, life outcomes.
What unifies them is their last name — McKinnon (or in some cases the original Scottish spelling MacKinnon).
For reasons, too long to go into, I spent most of my life never knowing anyone personally who shared my last name. 

So over the course of my life, I’ve “collected” this assorted group of “relatives.”  

In some strange way, I have found solace in discovering that there are people out there whose name and ancestry I presumably share.

It is a small but poignant reminder that regardless of our differences, we are connected.

If you’ve never done it, spend five minutes and start googling your last name. Cherish the diversity in the people and stories you find. Seek out differences that make you uncomfortable and others that make you proud.
The roots of our family tree run long are a buried, tangled and beautiful mess.


Thanks to everyone who watched or shared my TEDx talk, How Did You End Up Here.  It is very much appreciated. 

Don’t Turn The Page

I really wanted to write something positive today. Then I saw this.

The first time I had seen that picture was last Sunday.  It was on the front page of the New York Times.  My seven-year old daughter had just crawled up on my lap and asked me who that was. I told her that this picture was of another seven-year old girl who lived in Yemen and because of the war going on in that country could not get enough to eat. She was now suffering from something called malnutrition. 

When my daughter, first leapt on my lap, I turned the paper over as the top of the fold story was about the shooting in Pittsburgh. I flipped it to protect her from that story, not knowing that an equally disturbing one would be revealed on the other side of the paper.

She implored me, “Daddy, please turn the page, I don’t want to look at that picture anymore, it’s scary.” In saying this, she expressed an all-too familiar sentiment we all feel when it comes to confronting terrible news. If we turn the page, it goes away.  Out of sight out of mind.  And so I did.

Later that day, my daughter threw a fit when her peas touched her pasta during dinner. It was a typical outburst of a tired child but I felt a deep rage within me.  So frustrated was I by her inability to put her own discomfort in perspective to what she had seen earlier that morning. How could she forget so quickly?

Well, she is a seven-year old child. What is our excuse?

Some will say we can only react to the problems in front of us and while they may seem trivial to the rest of the world, they are very real at the time. When we are confronted with the more serious suffering of others, our problems are put in perspective and their proportion is adjusted. They become and feel smaller. Fair enough. 

But how perverse is it that the severe suffering of others serves a purpose of making us feel better about our own.

Are our only choices to turn the page or confront the suffering of others and feel better about our own problems?

The picture appeared again in Friday’s paper, with an update.  The seven-year old girl had died – the result of not being able to get the necessary follow up medical care, she so desperately needed.

If that seven-year old girl were in my daughter’s 1st grade class, I would fly off the couch to see how we could help. Instead of staying on it and turning the page.

Here is a link to Doctors without Borders that is active in trying to provide care in Yemen.  If so inclined, you can make a donation in memory of Amal Hussain, the seven-year old girl in the photograph.

Battling for Trophies

Recently my 10 year-old daughter participated in an event called, Battle of the Books. The premise seemed noble. Spark interest in reading by creating a program where students would be given five books to read over the summer.  They would meet as a group to discuss the book and then in the fall, they would gather with students from other schools for a competition based on recalling the book’s content. Sort of like a gameified book club for kids. 

Programs like this can be very valuable in encouraging reading over the summer, where studies have showed student’s reading and vocabulary often decline.
Then I arrived at the Battle.
Held in a high school gym, it had the feeling a live sporting event. Teams from across the county gathered and there was a palpable excitement that was easy to get caught up in. It was clear that teams were taking this seriously – some much more than others.  

While at the event, I heard of the lengths that some towns would go to in order to bring home the trophy.  Some teams had cuts.  Meaning that kids at some point were “kicked off” a reading team – and left home from the competition. 

Other teams had practice sessions to develop their “buzzer strategy.”  Apparently this is a key tactic for being able to be the first to “buzz” in to answer a question. Some even had designated buzzers. 
With a large team and no “buzzer” strategy, our squad did not fair well in the standard metrics of this competition. But when I asked my daughter how she felt about the whole things, her answer was telling.  
“Well, we were given five free books to read over the summer that were really interesting.  And we were able to spend time with our friends talking about books – which was fun.”
It has become the accepted position that competition and the potential for rewards are ideal motivators to drive us to our best.  

But as parents, teachers, business leaders, and even our elected officials – do we too often prioritize winning and competition over teamwork and cooperation? 
New research summarized in this week’s New York Times talks generally about the limits of a rewards based culture and how intrinsic motivation is better for long-term character development. The last line in this op-ed really drives home the point.
Leading thinkers like Douglas Rushkoff are encouraging us to return to our cooperative roots, via his Team Human podcast and soon to be released book of the same name (both are riveting and should be required listening/reading).
Competition can be fun and intense and there is no doubting the dopamine high we get when we reach the top of a podium. Yet, when we “go all in” and see only the trophy it means that some things are left out – like perspective and purpose.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

The Child or The Road?

Uncertain times raise the stakes for raising a child.  We project our own fears upon their future and our anxiety seeps into our actions and ultimately theirs. 

This manifests itself in ways big and small, many of which are chronicled in the new book, The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  (Ironically, the title itself may unwittingly add to this anxiety.)  The book is challenging and tough to read as you reflect on your own actions and life, but it is valuable for that very reason.

It opens with a quote from a folk tale that says, “Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child.”  Let that idea sink in.

We have leaders who we hope will prepare the road well through policy and practice. When they don’t we should do our part to hold them accountable. But the reality is that our control over the road pales in comparison to our ability to prepare our children for whatever that road may hold.  The film Captain Fantastic is a perfect example of how families can do just that – albeit perhaps to an extreme.

In an example closer to home, we’ve been giving much thought to the newfound freedom of our fifth grader who now must walk to school each day. It is a ten-minute journey that includes crossing multiple streets, navigating one five way intersection and walking through a hidden path.

Preparing the road means that we have street lights and stop signs, penalties in place for breaking traffic rules and crossing guards to facilitate crossing the road. Increasingly, some children are given phones so parents can receive updates on their progress or even track it themselves via GPS.  All of these seem reasonable ways to prepare the road for a smooth journey. 

At the same time, what does the child do when the crossing guard is not there, or the lights are not working, or the phone battery dies?  It is then when the test will come as to whether we have prepared them for this road.  Do they know to look both ways?  Can they use their judgment to determine when to cross un-assisted?  Will they know which adult it is ok to ask for help, if they need to reach their parents?

It is natural for any parent to want every road – present or future – to made free from danger.  But the reality is that is an impossible and exhausting ask.

Instead, our only hope is that we have prepared them to deal with the uncertainty that can make life both scary and thrilling.

Are You Bananas?

Yes, you are bananas!
I mean this not in a figurative sense, like you’re crazy – but literally.
Anne Wojcicki is a co-founder of the genetics company 23andMe. In her recent “The Big Ideas” essay in the New York Times, she shared a pretty remarkable fact about how much of our genetic foundation, we share with bananas.
Instinctively, I would have imagined 5 or 10% would have been a good guess.  Think again and read below.
Every living being is made from some combination of four chemicals: adenine, guanine, cytosine and thymine (or AGCTs), and only through a simple reworking of this combination of letters do we have the spectacular diversity of species on our planet. Even with three billion letter combinations in nearly every one of our cells, there is just a 0.5 percent difference between my DNA and the DNA of any other person on the planet…. While a banana, a mouse and a chimp look quite different from each other, as well as from you and me, their biological foundation and ours is still built from those four chemical letters: A, G, C and T. In fact, humans share about 60 percent of their DNA with a banana, 80 percent with a mouse and 96 percent with a chimp. A few simple switches in lettering and your AGCTs could have been the AGCTs of your neighbor or those of a banana.

That’s right you’re 60% bananas. 

Beyond this starting point, over the course of our lives, our DNA is impacted and changed according to environmental factors – hence the field of epigenetics.
In his new book, The Tangled Tree, author David Quammen offers an even more tantalizing look at evolutionary genetics by discussing the idea of “horizontal gene transfer.”  Traditionally we think of genes being passed down from one generation to the next. Horizontal gene transfer refers to the swapping of genes between species lines.
So what does this all mean?

  1. At our very biological foundations we are more alike and connected to each other and other life forms than we realize. 
  2. The environment we share with other life impacts our genetic makeup that we will eventually pass down to our offspring.
  3. Finally, during our lives, we even swap genes across other life forms – often with the explicit purpose of protecting each other from disease.

All of this adds up to a very simple but obvious conclusion.  We are related to every living thing and the nature of that relationship is ongoing and mutually dependent.  So act towards other life like yours depending on it – because it does.
And if you don’t see that maybe you are bananas – figuratively speaking that is. 

Freedom From or Freedom To?

After running around attending to the needs of various kids, I had just poured a fresh cup of coffee, grabbed my book and sat down to relax.  

As if intentionally timing her request to my first sip, my daughter summoned,“Daddy, get me a glass of milk.”  This is the exchange that followed:

“You realize this vacation is for Mommy and Daddy too, you know.  You’ve been on vacation all summer and we just get this week.”
“What are you talking about vacation all summer? We had to get up for camp, make our beds, listen to you tell us what to do.  That’s not vacation. Going away is vacation.”

Weeks earlier I stumbled upon a plaque that said, “Vacation is when you’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it.” It was in essence a definition of a certain kind of freedom.

It is a freedom from responsibility, from directives, from expectations, from obligations, from stress, from danger.

This freedom from is an often overlooked pre-requisite to the more commonly aspirational type of freedom – freedom to….

Freedom to do what we want, to pursue our dreams, to make our own choices, to say or own whatever we desire.

The catch is that you can’t have the second until you first secure the first. Freedom from allows us to pursue freedoms to.

I kept this in mind for the rest of our vacation. There was no unnecessary scheduling, no plans that couldn’t be altered. “You don’t want to go to the beach today, cool.  You want to sleep in – go for it. You want to just play in the backyard all day – sounds great.”

By creating an environment of “freedom from”, they felt the “freedom to”.  Freedom to play, to be silly, and even to help themselves.

On this last point, it is worth noting that I can’t remember a time when my children behaved so well towards each other and with us. It was a remarkable demonstration of how being free changes how we treat others.

In our current political context, some naturally focus on providing “freedom from” – discrimination, poverty, fear and violence.  While others seek to create more “freedom to” – speak freely, take risks, vote, own guns, pursue opportunities.

Perhaps if more of our leaders recognized how intrinsically linked these two types of freedom are, they would behave better as well.