All. By. My. Self.

When we enrolled my son in a Montessori school, I was concerned that they would manufacture him to be an introverted puzzle builder who memorized the sequence of pi to the 75th integer and braided whips for leisure. And while a couple of my Montessori hang ups may remain, there is no question that my son’s time in this program has inspired independence and self-confidence.

Video evidence:

Did you hear that at the end?  “All. By. My. Self.”

He takes so much pride in it. HE did it. HE mastered those pesky buckles. Right now he has an omnipresent desire to do all things by himself. He wants to get his cereal in the morning. He wants to carry his own bag to school. He wants to wash the car. He wants to dump the pee from his little potty into the big potty and give his father a heart attack. All. By. Him. Self.

And while ABMS (All By My Self) is liberating for him at the age of three, I find myself going the opposite direction. I’m recognizing I cannot do (and perhaps have not done) anything all by myself.

In my undergraduate psychology class, which I attended at least twice, I was introduced to two words: Codependence and counterdependence

In a nut shell (my therapists friends will forgive me for my brevity)…

  • Codependence: impaired autonomy, fear of separation
  • Counterdependence: over emphasized autonomy, fear of connection

And while codependence is certainly a reality for many, counterdependence is my thang.

And it is a thang that seems highly celebrated in our culture. Psychologists say that you may be counterdependent if you have difficulty being emotionally and physically close to others, have a strong need to be right, expect perfection in self and others, require intensity at all times, and have a difficult time resting. We idolize the Strong Independent Woman, the entrepreneurial 70hrs/week founders, the manic savants, the boot strapping fore fathers, and even give our vote to the brash, workaholic, egomaniacs. We celebrate counterdependence.

New Yorker columnist Joshua Rothman puts it like this,

“In the past few hundred years we have put autonomy at the center of our lives, economically, politically, and technologically; often, when we think about what it means to be happy, we think of freedom from our circumstances… we regard any situation—a movie, a conversation, a one-block walk down a city street—as a kind of prison.”

Rothman’s words are strong but seem to reflect the ABMS glee that my son feels.

As a culture we love stories of the against-all-odds-under-dog, rising up, and using strength and wit to find success. But we don’t always have the same reaction to the story of a pack of dogs or a community of people or a team of employees. There is something romantic to us about autonomy. In fact, publishers are now finding that putting a face on a book cover will help it sell, but put more than one face on the book, and it will not have the same spike in sales.

So are we hard wired to desire extreme autonomy? Is my son’s ABMS celebration evidence of what we are created for?

In our family we have the aforementioned curly topped three year old, and twins (Eve and Ezra) that are turning one in September. Recently my wife and I sat down to create a guest list for the twins’ birthday party. Our criterion for the invite list was simple: who helped us this year. We began with the grandparents, the neighbors, and the life long friends. But soon we were listing names of ex-coworkers and people we had met off of Craigslist. So much kindness.

As we finished the list of 100+ people, one particular evening came to mind. A friend who I had not seen in three years was to come over to our house with his fiancé to drop off dinner. I dread small talk and catching up. At the time I gave very few shits about what was going on in their life and was hoping for a quick hello, a baby photo op, and a thanks for coming.

The doorbell rang. My wife answered the door. She screamed to me “Babe, can you come down here? We need your help bring this stuff upstairs!” They had brought four boxes of diapers, five wrapped gifts, and enough take out to feed an entire dorm. I typed their names on the invite list. My eyes filled with tears.

When you have three kids under three you quickly learn, that even if you feel as though you have up to this point, you cannot do it ABMS.

And this sentiment does not appear to be just personal or anecdotal.

  • Recent research says that you can be stoked on an epic, legit, hella-tight experience, but unless it is shared with others, it brings you little joy.
  • Scientists say that just 30 seconds into our 13.8b history years, particles decided they needed to bond. Not even PARTICLES find lasting value in ABMS.
  • And In Social his book on the neurobiology of relationships, Matthew Lieberman says “It’s hard to find meaning in what we do if at some level it doesn’t help someone else or make someone happier.”

So it sounds as though we were not designed for ABMS. But are there not success stories out there of immeasurable strength and individual contribution? And should we not attempt to do the same?

Even my son, who seemingly did those buckles all by himself, did not really do that by himself. His teacher created the scaffolding for him to do that work. His parents pay for him to go there. We were hired and are paid by managers who could have hired more qualified others. Do you see where I am going?

You cannot overcome your depression without a close friend. You cannot restore a marriage without a therapist. You cannot revolutionize an industry without the wisdom of those who have come before you. You cannot buy a house in the Bay Area without help from your family (or an absurd start up success which requires geniuses beyond yourself). You cannot get a record deal without a lot of someones believing in you. AMBS is a myth.

Yes, ABMS serves us well for a season. It is a skill we need. We need some level of autonomy. We need a sense of self that is not hinged to others (without it we move towards codependence). We need an inner resilience and can do attitude (especially in times of hardship or trauma). But as an adult, ABMS is an illusion created by our egos. Spiritual teacher Richard Rohr calls this mirage the “Imagined Individual Self.” So perhaps in this age of autonomy idolization, what we really need is not increased individual fortitude but a deep gratitude. Gratitude for the ways in which our wellbeing is deeply tied to the efforts and generosity of others.

I know I need this.

Celine Dion (you’ve been singing it already, haven’t you?) says in her song All By My Self “When I was young, I never needed anyone.” It serves us well as we begin to define who we are. But with luck or intention we age and realize we are a mouse in a mansion. We grow up and discover we need pretty much everyone, regardless of whether we want it, recognize it, or appreciate it. We realize that forever

And for this lesson of life, and for all that you have done for me (or anyone else, ever, anywhere), I am grateful. I could not have come to this conclusion…All. By. My. Self.

Failing to Thrive

His eyes were sunken. His stomach shrinking. His ankles thinner than his wrists.  A month ago my second son, Ezra Haines Shappell, was diagnosed with a “failure to thrive.”

I’m nearly certain that 31-year-old me could be diagnosed with the same, but by God’s grace I don’t have a doctor. What “failing to thrive” means for an eight month old is that his weight dipped below the first percentile on the pediatric growth chart, then he didn’t grow for 3 months, and now specialized interventions were required. This diagnosis was the domino for a number of doctors’ appointments and the utterance of words like “endoscopy” and “anesthesia.” Queue parental panic.

I’m not sure if you are on the Facebooks, but it is a sandbox for parents showing off the healthy development of their child. When someone posts Jaxon’s ½ birthday picture and he just so happens to be eating fried chicken off the bone, that is a parental brag. When you read something like “Soeren had a great first day in his culinary class. Best crème brulee I’ve ever had from a one year old!” the parents are trying to tell you that their kid could kick your kid’s ass.

And for the last few months I have felt like most kids could kick my second son’s ass. Literally. Ezra is so small.

But small compared to what? I began to do a little research. The weight curve used by our pediatrician is from the CDC and is based on weight and height information from US born infants and their biological parents from the 60s and 70s. They didn’t have stuffed crust pizza in the 70s. The body has changed, people. Additionally, I discovered another growth chart from the World Health Organization that uses data from other nations and that chart is said to be more in line with a breast fed baby and is easier to translate to children who have lower birth weights (like my twin son, Ezra).

The point? As is most often the case, this official measurement is comparison cloaked in science. I was freaking out because of how my son compared to others.

But this isn’t just about my son. I compare myself to the societal mean all of the time. Am I alone? Size of house, dollars in checking account, number of followers, number of gigs booked, breadth of influence, weight, and proper puffy lip shape are just a couple that we as a society are regularly comparing. And as David Brooks so eloquently stated in his newest book The Road to Character,

“There are always other people who might do better. The most ruthlessly competitive person in the contest sets the standard that all else must meet or get left behind. Thus, everybody else has to be just as monomaniacally driven to success. One can never be secure.”

As long as the measurement of development is external and based on society’s markers, we will always be losing and never secure.  So how then can we measure development differently?

In order to measure development (broadly, not just for bambinos) differently we must see our development as a linked and dynamic process. Development of an infant, of a leader, or even an organization is a process full of ebbs and flows, regressions and retreats. Therefore, the process cannot be picked apart, singled out, and studied as if it is a machine. We are more than the sum of our parts.

When I compare an image of 6 month old Jaxon chowing down on his KFC to my sweet little Ezra gurgling up his breast milk, all I am thinking about is his weight. I am not noticing that Ezra is rolling like a tumbleweed or that he’s increasingly social and vocal. We all fall into this trap. If you say you’re a writer and you haven’t written anything in six months (raises hand, hangs head) then that is data to pay attention to.  But it is not the truth about you. You were likely developing life experiences that could become things to write about. If you are slow to marry compared to your peers, you are not unlovable. Your romantic muscles are developing at a different pace because perhaps you were developing your career. If your organization has not increased revenue this quarter, but the team is more together and you are enjoying the office more, perhaps this is a season for developing the unity required to grow revenue the rest of the year.

As Ezra’s other developmental markers were hit or exceeded what became clear is that while a child may excel in one area, they may need extra time, attention, and intention in another area. We are always becoming, developing into something. Our work is to name and celebrate what is growing, not to compare and lament what is not.

In addition to my myopic focus on Ezra’s skinny baby body, I also lost site of other factors that may have impacted Ezra’s weight gain. Sometime in December Ezra got a cold that stuck with him through March. When we went our first appointment with the Gastroenterologist she suggested that this cold was the cause of his weight dip. Ha! Those Stanford educated scientist expert people don’t know anything! Why would congestion, nasal drainage, or facial discomfort impact his ability to e….OMG. That’s what did it. He was less interested in eating because it was uncomfortable for him to do it.

And as we think about human development or maturity, we must understand that numerous factors can impact learning and growth. Your unreliable roommate may be affecting your performance at school or work. Your anxiety about work may be inhibiting your ability to develop intimacy with your partner. The weather may slow down the building of trust in a loved one. I didn’t automatically think that a runny nose would cause an infant to go from 50th percentile to dropping off the chart, but it did. The factors, both positive and negative, that influence our development are vast and are often less obvious then first thought.

His weigh in was this week. For my wife and I, the results held more drama than anything Paquio and Maywhether could muster. We undressed him. He felt the same. We sat him on the scale. He had gained weight! A lot of it. Triple what she had wanted him to gain. The GI told us we didn’t need to come in again. Apparently the second percentile is thriving-ish. And just like that, Ezra’s regression had turned to progression. The set back took a back seat.

A month ago doctors told Taryn and I to give Ezra more formula, put butter in his solids, and sneak him an extra bottle at night. I guess it worked. But I can’t help but wonder if in order to grow, Ezra’s parents needed a deeper understanding of the non-linear, mysterious, unpredictable dance of development so that we could be more secure parents.

And maybe that comparison-free security is the key to us all thriving a bit more.

Is There Such a Thing as Good Enough?

Something doesn’t feel right. I roll over. She’s gone. My wife is not in bed. I look toward the bedside crib. One of the babies is gone too. The one remaining is crying.

I grab the remaining three-month-old twin. It’s Eve. I take her to the changing table. Unswaddle her. Unbutton the onesie. Undo the diaper. I discover a penis. Turns out I have Ezra.

“Babe, are you in here?” I ask while my eyes adjust to the TV’s glow.

“Sure am!” my wife exclaims while watching Property Brothers. “You know what I think we could do in our kitchen?”

“I don’t know and I’m not sure I care,” I say as I give Ezra to her like a UPS driver hands a parcel to its recipient.

“See you in a few!”

It is 3am. Every night.

When you become a parent you have images of jumping out of bed at each peep your child makes. You imagine tenderly shooshing in their ear as you rock them and sing Jesus Loves Me. You imagine taking hours of time to feed and bathe them. You imagine carefully changing each diaper and cooing in three languages. “This is when their brains are most receptive to language,” you tell your in-laws. I have these images and in some case got to offer these idealized experiences to my oldest son. But for the most part, these perfect parent caricatures haunt me.

The most difficult thing for me to adjust to as a Father of three has been the lack of excellence that I can offer. As I have written before, I am keenly aware of my limitations. But what I did not anticipate is how sad I would be when I feel these limitations. The sadness shows up any time that I cannot give quality time, energy, thought, or effort into my family, work, friends, or home.

Just for a point of reference, as a chore doing middle schooler I used to make sure that the vacuum lines were straight. If I played basketball outdoors I immediately came in and immediately polished every scuff off of my Jordans. When I colored there was NOTHING outside those lines. I sought and executed excellence often. But as my years have grown in number, so has the challenge to uphold these perfectionistic tendencies.

Thomas Merton, a philosopher and contemplative, reflecting on the demands of our later years of life, says,

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

Merton’s words feel trite. They feel like something a monk who sits in front of a candle all day would say. I get that there are times I sign myself up for the “multitude of concerns” and that my own anxiety about excellence can “destroy the fruitfulness” of my work. But what about when it’s work we have to do? What about the deadline at work we have to hit? The trip home we have to take? The gifts that must be bought? What about when it’s two brand new humans in need of diapers and bottles, Merton?

Merton’s words are a good compliment to the work of Donald Winnicott. Winnitott coined the term “good enough mother” in 1953. The term is not as well received today. Today you can imagine a book entitled “Good Enough to Great Enough Mother” with a cover image of a mom in a pant suit, carrying three children, and groceries or something awful. Here’s how Winnicott describes the core of the idea:

“The good-enough mother starts off with an almost complete attentiveness to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with the mother’s failure”

FAILURE. That is a word that I try to avoid at all costs. While the Silicon Valley community is all “look at me I fail all the time, listen to me me talk about it!” I’m like, “don’t fail, don’t fail, don’t fail.” My inability to deliver excellence at all times feels like failing. But what Winnicott explains is that the infant actually adapts to the ways in which a parent cannot meet all of their needs. Winnicott believed that children actually need their parents to fail them in tolerable ways so that they can learn to live in an imperfect and challenging world. The brand spankin’ new human, adapts to the failures of the parent. This is hard wired grace. Biologically our children adapting, maturing, and anthropologically forgiving us for the ways in which we cannot be perfect. And if our tiny brained, pants pooping children can forgive us, then perhaps we should forgive ourselves. Or more specifically I should forgive myself.

What if every time time we fail to offer the quality we would hope to – to our spouse, our church, our job, our friends, and children – they actually grew a little bit stronger? I’m not suggesting we calculate what little we can do to get by because “what doesn’t kill you kids will make you stronger!” but rather that we care deeply for ourselves so that we can care deeply for others and offer ourselves kindness so that it can be extended to others.

“I’m serious about the kitchen,” my wife says weekly. “HGTV has taught me that we could do something for cheap!”

“I’ll hate it if it’s not perfect,” I lament. Winnitott was talking about good enough parents. He never said anything about kitchens.

Impossible Decisions and Miraculous Incisions

I want to write about my wife’s labor and delivery. The problem is that a man, even a well meaning one, discussing the carrying, laboring, and delivering of children is like asking the sun to describe darkness or a Kardashian to explain string theory. But I want to try because this beginning, like most, has taught me much.

Eight months ago, Taryn (my wife) and I found out that she was pregnant with spontaneous twins. This phenomenon has a 1/83,000 chance. As the sonographer discovered the second heartbeat we laughed. As the weeks went on we laughed less. One night after putting our 18-month-old son to bed, I lay prostrate on our kitchen floor, silent, and staring at the ceiling. Taryn walked in the room and asked if I was ok. I was in such shock that I got all existential like a new-agey-burner who had just hit The Playa for the first time. I replied “I feel as though I was asleep and now am awake.”

Over the next eight months the reality of having 3 children under 3-years-old grew. As did Taryn. She’s an amazing baby incubator. Both of my wife’s pregnancies have gone as well as can be expected – until the end. As the weight of baby inside of her peaks, her body responds with increased blood pressure and a decrease in the number of platelets in her blood. These symptoms, in both pregnancies, have prompted doctors to recommend medicinally inducing Taryn.

Some quick backstory – Taryn works in a hospital. Her mom and grandmother were nurses. She’s down with modern medicine and its role in ensuring a healthy baby(ies) and a healthy momma. However, even with twins, she desperately wanted to avoid a C-section. She called it an irrational fear. Seems rational to me. Who wants to be awake while they cut open your stomach and take out what’s in there? So the goal all along was to bring these two smallies into the world the ol’ fashioned way.

On a foggy September 2nd we went to the hospital so that our doctor could monitor Taryn’s blood pressure and platelets. The results were not good. It was time to induce. But in order to induce her and to attempt a vaginal birth both babies would need to be “head down.” Every time I say “head down” I recall the scene in Ace Ventura when Jim Carey emerges from the Rhino. I told you men shouldn’t talk about birth.

The ultrasound technician arrived. She began to scan. Baby A was head down. He had been all pregnancy. Now to find baby B. If head down it was time to induce and Taryn would avoid the C-section and have the birth she wanted. Not head down? Welp, time to “take the pig to slaughter” as Taryn so sweetly referred to the procedure.

“Baby B is transverse,” the sonographer said.

“Which means…?”

The sonographer, the nurse, and multiple OBGYNs explained that Baby B’s position did not require a C-section and that a vaginal birth was still “reasonable.” However, if Taryn were to attempt a vaginal birth and Baby B did not flip Ace-Ventura-style, it was possible that she would have Baby A vaginally and then an emergency C-section for Baby B.  A message to all doctors: if a patient is in a hospital, and something is high risk, like BRINGING TWO NEW HUMAN LIVES INTO EXISTANCE AT ONE TIME, please do not give your patient a choice.

The choice felt debilitating to Taryn and I. We could chose induction and attempt her rightfully preferred delivery but risk stress to Baby B and recovery from two operators. Or choose to face her fears and bare all of the complications of a major operation while being less mentally present and available to her newborn children. The medical staff told us it was our choice. This decision felt impossible.

Many decisions feel impossible. We all have them. Should I leave the job I that pays decently to start a small business based around my passions? Which pre-school should I enroll my daughter in? Should I stay in this miserable marriage for the kids? Should I attend the church with crappy music or crappy doughnuts? Should we do fertility treatments or adopt? Should I leave the bustling city for cheaper housing? Should I hire for experience or potential? To answer these questions, we collect all of the information we can and pressure ourselves to find the correct answer. Then after making a decision, we pull out the scorecard to evaluate whether the decision made was correct based on the outcome. This scorecard is the birthplace of regret.

But often times there is not a wrong or right answer to these questions. Often times decisions have two (or more) equally good answers. In the hospital that day, we felt like we did.

In her Ted Talk, Philosopher Ruth Chang says

In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.”

So what do we do? Flip a coin? That seems more stressful. She goes on,

“When we choose between options that are on a par, we can do something really rather remarkable. We can put our very selves behind an option. Here’s where I stand. Here’s who I am…You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.”

Ruth is saying that rather than sweating or regretting the correctness of our decision, we should make it, own it, and live our life boldly with all of the pros and cons of the decision we made. With this in mind, we don’t have to feel the weight of making the correct choice, we get to feel the freedom of becoming the people we want to be.

Sometime before the sunset on September 2nd, Taryn decided to have a C-section. They scheduled it for 10am the next day.

Then she had a panic attack.

She had hardly closed her eyes before doctors came in at sunrise to explain the procedure. Another panic attack. She wasn’t exactly at peace with her decision.

At 8:30am, for the first time in a long time, it was just she and I in the room. The brave mother of my children looked at me, her face was pale and covered in sweet tears. She said “I don’t want to have a C-section, but I do want to enjoy the birth of these kiddos. Help me.” We squeezed each other on that hospital bed (as best as we could given the 16lbs of baby between us) and cried. We were scared. Unsure of what we had chosen. But it was time for us to become our decision.

I turned on upbeat music. Timberlake I think. She did her makeup. We joked about one of our nurses lisps and how our anesthesiologist was definitely a cross dresser. I started skipping around the room singing about the arrival of Baby A and Baby B – our precious Eve and Ezra. She was still scared. But this was now our story. Her body would carry the scars of this decision. Our children would arrive into an operating room full of surgeons and the sounds of the John Coltrane Pandora station.

And arrive they did. Ezra, gentle and almost forgetting to make a sound. Eve, wrapped in her own cord, grabbed the room’s attention with her ferocious screams.

That day we became a family of five. And my wife became the kind of person that faces her fears so that others can know life. And I, if possible, became more grateful for to be her partner.

Why We Should Busy Ourselves Being Available or Twins and Transformation

When was the last time someone called you a name?

I had the privilege on Monday. A friend told me that I am (let me check the email again to make sure I get it right) a “busy, over scheduled, time strapped, urban-arcisist.” He continued to tell me that he feels like in order to be my friend he has to “schedule our time together as far in advance as a French Laundry reservation.”

Though “urban-arcisist” was wonderfully original, his email didn’t ring true. I spend a lot of time with my family, friends, and neighbors and I do so in the midst of a relatively busy work travel schedule. As our text message conversation continued, my finger pointing pal and I decided on a time to get together, about four weeks out, right after my scheduled Monday afternoon trip to the grocery.

<record scratch>

What? You don’t put your trips to the grocery in your calendar?

I’ve been thinking about busyness a lot. I both strategically and accidentally (a lull in clients) have had a slow summer of work so that my wife and I could prepare our home for the arrival our twin children. I have built copious amounts of IKEA furniture, painted walls, Amazon Primed 500 diapers, and hung the perfect art. That was three weeks ago.

Since then I have had little to do around our home. When I get bored like this I feel useless. When I don’t feel useful I try to appear busy (e.g. filling my calendar with trips to the grocery). And when I try to appear busy I am really just avoiding what it is I wanted to do this season of life – be available.

My twin-gestating-wife is currently carrying around 12+ pounds of inside human, not to mention all of their internal gear. I call her “beautifully disabled” (which I think is ok?) and she needs me to help a lot right now. There are the physical things like putting our two year old in his car seat and carrying the laundry down stairs but there are also her emotional needs (many of which we both fail to intuit). Meeting these needs is exactly why I had wanted to be available this summer, so why do I try to avoid it? The truth is, being available often means being bored and I am scared to death of having that non-doing sloth vibe.

But what I am coming to see is that being available is the act of non-doing so that we can do what is most essential. 

My name-calling friend was correct. I am not physically available to his present needs if I have to flip my calendar to the next month to find time to talk. Admittedly, in the midst of a traffic jam of meetings I am not emotionally available to colleagues and clients. If I start my day hectically sorting through emails and to-dos, I am not spiritually available to any internal promptings. And if not available – physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually – how can I know what is most essential to respond to? And perhaps a more difficult question, what am I missing by avoiding this availability?

Jonathan Haidt, whose brain I want to steal, has done a great deal of research on the difficult to define feelings of “awe and wonder.” In various experiments he has sought to measure an individual’s awe in responses to natural beauty, virtue, art, and interpersonal intimacy. His conclusion is that we all have different levels of availability to feelings of awe, but the one thing was universally true was that those who most often experienced awe…

…arranged their life so they were not rushed. I am very aware that if I’m just rushing as fast as I can and I am not stopping to smell the roses, I am passing up opportunities for awe right and left. I think time pressure is the greatest killer of awe experiences that there is.

Haidt’s research seems to be saying that feelings of awe, admiration, wonder, and deep connection (to the divine, self, and others) are difficult to experience if you don’t make yourself available. You can fill your schedule with Renaissance Weekends, coffee dates, small groups, and play dates and still not experience the awe and wonder of authentic connection with a friend. You can live in the most beautiful place in the world (I would argue my home is up there!) and never wonder at the super moon or cotton candy sunset. Why? Because busyness is the enemy of meaningful experience.

Haidt continues,

What’s unique about awe and wonder is that typically emotions happen to us to make us act in adaptive ways. Anger gets your body ready to fight or flee. Guilt makes you want to apologize. Emotions make us want to do things, but that’s one of the weird things about awe and wonder. They make us passive. We’re frozen — we don’t want to do anything. We just sit and stare, we don’t move, our eyes widen. And I think this makes sense if you think of these emotions as sort of cognitive emotions — emotions about taking in new ideas, new sensations, so basically awe just makes us sit there and take in more, and when it’s over, something has changed about us.

Time pressure definitely makes it difficult to prioritize, be efficient, and perform at your best, but perhaps more disastrous according to Haidt is that it may get in the way of our own growth and transformation. I think it did mine.

Until yesterday.

Yesterday I stood atop our living room coffee table like a tantrumy toddler whining about how bored I was and how I just wanted those two little baby people to come out and play. My wife yelled at me to stop, told me to breathe, look her in the eyes and then said “thank you for making yourself un-available to other things so you could be available to me. It’s exactly where I need you to be.”

And in that available moment a little something in me transformed. I was reminded life is not about a full calendar, but an available one, that I am not my output but my presence, and that in order to avoid more name calling, I need to create an out-of-office message for when these twins do arrive:

Hello! Thank you for your email. I am currently un-available as I am working to be more available.

A Self-Investment Strategy or How a Brogrammer Made Me a Better Dad

I try to avoid eye contact when I pass them on the street. I judge them because of their economic status, their clothes, and their behavior. They are tech bros.

Five years ago when my wife and I moved to San Francisco we were more likely to meet someone who worshipped the lightning God then someone who created the lightning cable. But now our city, and my neighborhood specifically is full of young programmers, courageous entrepreneurs, and brilliant designers. Tech jobs are at an all time high and there is no slow down in sight.

Many SFians are standoffish with the “brogrammers” but rather than rolling my eyes at my new neighbors (or doing this), I thought it kind to forfeit my hubris and get to know one of them.

I met Brad while he was washing his Audi.

Honestly I was just hoping to become the “friendly neighbor” so that he would respond to me asking he and his roommates to tone it down during their weekend long beer pong tournaments (sponsored by The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Shock Top). We small talked about his car, how many roommates he has, and about my big news: the upcoming arrival of my wife and I’s twins. Then I asked him what he did for work. He told me that he was the lead mobile programmer for a very popular dating application. I asked him if he enjoyed his work.

“The company? Sure. The app? Not at all. I don’t care about helping people have one night stands.”

Dating apps are for hooking up? I had no idea.

Then why do you spend so much time working on it?” I asked.

“Because I can make a killing right now. People think that all of us tech people are greedy. We’re not greedy. We’re being strategic. Or at least that’s the way I see it. This bubble won’t be around forever and I want to make sure that I take advantage of it.”

I went on to learn that Brad graduated MIT when he was 20 years old and that he has a passion for international development and urban gardening. Brad is not a greedy gentrifier out to take away all that is good about our city. He seems to be a thoughtful discerner who understands that now is a good time to invest his skills for disproportionate economic return (granted, just his own short term economic gain) that can be leveraged to do work he loves in the future. Oh, how I hope he’s telling the truth.

What surprised me, but shouldn’t have, is that Brad has a self-investment strategy. He reminded me that thoughtful, discerned, effort creates disproportionate results. In this case it is Brad’s invested talent and his growing bank account.

Our conversation also reminded me that you and I are assets. We are full of goodness to be invested. We have hours in a day, calories to burn, conversations to have, insights to bring, and dreams to create. But we can do it wrong. We can invest them at the wrong time or in the wrong people. Or what is more often true, we invest them in too many places. Differently than our finances, investing our selves in too many places ensures that we are a mile wide and an inch deep, not reaping the kind of return we want.

There are other areas of life in which we can apply this thinking — like parenting. Here is another situation in which focused effort, at a specific strategic time, can yield disproportionate results. My friend Elliot introduced me to this graph.

brain growth and spending

Noble prize winning economist Jacques Vandergaag published this graph to show that our public expenditure may be misplaced if we intend to improve human health and wellbeing. I share this not to make a political case for more dollars for early childhood intervention (yes I do), but to invite us to think a bit more like audi-boy-Brad. Ages 0–3 are a never popping “human development bubble.” As the chart shows parents, teachers, friends, and family will have the largest impact on the development of a human life in their first three years of life (and even before).

Yet as a society we spend almost nothing on it and perhaps that is why four out of ten 0-3 year olds are not attaching to their parents, the US is dead last in government supported time offwe send our children to daycare more than ever before (much of which is unavoidable given how much we have to work to afford it), and a new survey shows that Tweeting, Tindering, and Facebooking gets more time than our families.

What if we saw the 0-3 window as the optimal opportunity for a return on our parenting? Would things change? Would we see more traction withorganizations emphasizing the first five years of a child’s lifeWould we have more paternity leave? Change in policy for working mothers on welfare? Would those having children later in life save money for their child’s first years in the same ways we save for retirement? If Brad was in charge I think there would be an app for all of these things.

That Vandergaag graph means something to me in part because I have a two year old. The other part? I have two more twin baberinos who will be here any day now. I often question if I am investing well in the three of them. I wonder if I hurt their college fund when I bought a $300 jacket. I wonder if the 5 minutes that I spent on Instagram could have been better used on practicing counting. When at home I wonder if it would be better to work Audi-Brad-style so that my family did not have to worry about finances in the future. I question my investment strategy daily.

I was reminded I am not alone in this questioning when last week, Max Schireson left his position as CEO of a very successful technology company. His reason? His family. The whole letter is worth a read. One portion that caught my attention was,

I recognize that by writing this I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role. Will that cost me tens of millions of dollars someday? Maybe. Life is about choices. Right now, I choose to spend more time with my family and am confident that I can continue to have an meaningful and rewarding work life while doing so.

Emphasis is mine. There are times in our lives where an investment will yield disproportionate results. Right now Max believes that his life will have more meaning if he leaves this job. A good investor of one’s self does not believe that they can do it all, but that there is a proper time to do a few things well. Think of it like planting seasons. If you plant corn in December you’ll be lucky to get any crop at all. Yet, plant it on a sunny and humid April day and you’ll be eating corn like this guy for months!

So with all of these self-investment trade-offs, how do I/we — parents, entrepreneurs, middle managers, CEOs, photographers, and welp, humans – determine where and when to invest our selves so that we see disproportionate results?

  1. Admit we don’t know much about investing — Someone once told me that “your life is perfectly designed to give you the results that you are currently receiving.” The Vandergaag graph is a great example of this. America’s education system is one of the worst in the developed world. We are designed to be that bad because we don’t invest in development when the human brain is most primed for it! But like the Vandergaag graph suggests, we invest mindlessly. We invest ourselves into people and things often because those who came before us did it that way oreveryone else does it that way. This mindless investing is what is likely to cause regret and confusion (like my personal parenting queries). When we turn off auto-pilot and become aware of the ways we could spend time, money, and energy we will reduce confusion, unleash creativity, and likely find increased return. ASK YOURSELF: How do I currently invest? Why? How could I invest?
  2. Identify the kind of return you want — if we are mindlessly investing, we are likely unsure of the kind of return we want. Most of us pursue a definition of the good life that is up and to the right economically and professionally. But has this not left many of us (like CEO Max) exhausted physically, spiritually, and relationally? We must redefine it for ourselves. And I believe a new definition requires we think about the whole of life — our bodies, our relationship to our family and neighbors, our spirituality, our work, our integrity….the list could go on. ASK YOURSELF: How do I define the good life?
  3. Have a strategy — In How Will You Measure Your Life, Clayton Christensen says, “You can talk all you want about having a clear purpose and strategy for your life, but ultimately this means nothing if you are not investing the resources you have in a way that is consistent with your strategy. In the end, a strategy is nothing but good intentions unless it’s effectively implemented.” A strategy could look like short term weekly goals, employing the GTD system, or better aligning your time to achieve your desired Self-ROI. Each of our strategies will be different and will definitely change, but all good strategies have one thing in common: they are written down. ASK YOURSELF: What must I do to have my redefined good life?
  4. Measure and Adjust — Making the commitment to be a mindful investor of your time, energy, and talent means that we will make decisions, often fail, and learn from them. Life is full of trade offs and sometimes we make bad ones. Or we start making decisions, experience success as defined by broader culture, and forget how it is that we define success. Regardless, it is imperative that we find time and relationships where we can reflect on our “return on self investment” and adjust our strategies accordingly. ASK YOURSELF: Are the “results” I am receiving, the results that I want? What in my behavior needs to be redesigned in order to see different results?

Neither Brad or I have been a dad of three. And though he didn’t exactly give me parenting advice he helped me more clearly see how, when and where, to invest a great deal of my self. He’ll keep building apps and washing his Audi, I’ll be building a home and washing my babies.

Limbic Leadership: Why You Need to Fall in Love With Your Co-Workers

I’m a consultant, not a ceramist. But I knew in my gut I had to start a mug company. Well it wasn’t just my gut. There was another guy’s gut too.

My friend Blaine and I started Our Common Mug almost a year ago. The premise is simple. We are good friends who met in grad school. Our lives have taken us 2,000 miles and two time zones apart. As we struggle to stay in touch, we long for the everyday rituals we once had: like morning coffee. We made a mug, only sold in pairs, that would help remind us (and others) of our connection.

In some ways, the product that we created was irrelevant. We simply wanted to create something — a product, book, experience — together because we believed that our relational chemistry was capable of producing great things.

Many “experts” advise against this. Some tell us to avoid working with our friends and many more say that work should not be expected to feel like a family. I beg to differ. In my experience (and in a growing body of neurological research) working with those you love or loving those you work with is the key to sustainable, fulfilling work. And leaders should take note, because it may help the bottom line.

Our need to connect is biological. Just as we have a need to eat, drink, and sleep we have a need for meaningful social interaction. This need is different than those aforementioned physiological needs as it comes from an entirely different part of our brain — our limbic system.

Our brain is made up of three parts — reptilian brain, neocortal brain, and limbic brain. The reptilian brain controls our survival functions like breathing, eating, etc. The neocortex is the big grayish matter and mammals have a lot of it. This is where we form language and do critical thinking. The limbic system is our emotional center. This is the place in the brain that allows two human beings to connect. You can think of them as Eat, Pray, Love. The three systems work in harmony.

But it is the limbic brain, which lizards and other creatures lack but all mammals share, that is the hub of all of our instincts, hormones, deep preferences and deep feelings. It is the limbic brain’s chemicals – serotonin, opiates and oxytocin — that are the largest contributors to what makes us happy. And the trigger of the limbic system? Social connection.

And yet our WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) culture overvalues the neocortal problem solving brain and has given little thought or attention to our limbic needs. This is especially true in regards to the modern workplace. We work longer hours. Spend more time working alone. Tele-work more. And it’s all making us literally sick. Oh, and we hate it.

For whatever reason we have come to believe that we can enter our high rise buildings, start-up dungeons, and home offices and simply cut off our need for connection. We presume that just as we can fast from a day of meals, we can fast 50 hours a week from meaningful human connection. We tell ourselves that work is solely about getting a paycheck and adding value to the company.

Unfortunately we don’t stop being human when we go to work. Our deepest human needs are always there.

In their groundbreaking neurobiological work A General Theory of Love, the authors say,

“Even after a peak parenting experience, children never transition to a fully self-tuning physiology. Adults remain social animals: they continue to require a source of stabilization outside themselves. That open-loop design means that in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own — not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.

Have you ever met a coworker and thought to yourself “My throbbing limbic system believes that you can be someone that regulates me!” Of course not. It is safe to say that most of us walk into our workplaces believing that it is our self-interest that will help us succeed. We rarely think of our organizations as communities that can care for us and in which we can care for in return. At best we have HR departments that orchestrate faux connection through trust falls and happy hours. When was the last time that you randomly fell backwards and your drunk colleague caught you? Exactly.

I am not suggesting that all of our social needs must be met in the context of work — our romantic interests and partners would be quite upset — but I am suggesting that if the bulk of our time is spent in the work place that we should acknowledge our deeply human needs and listen to them as opposed to pretending they are not there.

Well before we learn to hide our need for others, you can see the limbic system very clearly. Infants, without a fully formed neo-cortex (which isn’t done until 25 years of age. Now do you understand Bieber’s poor judgement?), have a limbic system that is both evolving and is their driving force. Attachment Theory is a vast body of work that looks at this time in a human’s life and at how caregivers activate the growth of the limbic region through emotional availability and reciprocal gestures, sounds, etc. Attachment theory states that everyone is either 1) securely attached (that’s what we want) 2) anxious-avoidant 3) anxious-resistant or 4) disorganized.

Why does any of this matter? Psychologists now claim that our attachment experience influences thinking patterns, physical growth, emotional capacity, life satisfaction, relationships, and work performance.

The more securely attached that a child feels to their parents — or a employee attached to a leader, coworker, or organization – the more willing they are to take risks on behalf of the whole, the less likely they are to bore, the harder they will work, and the more likely they are to defend the integrity of the organization.

I never would have started a mug venture without Blaine. But because of our secure connection to one another I felt safe to put in my own money and time to create something that were unfamiliar with. Because we were strongly attached I worked harder than I would have with others. Because of the base of trust we built, I felt confident in giving of my time and energy without concern for getting something of equal or greater value in return.

Researcher Adam Grant agrees with this. In Give and Take he discovers that doing something meaningful for others is where the giver finds happiness. In other words, happiness at work, just like happiness anywhere else, comes when we meaningfully love.

So why is it that our offices look like cubicle farms? Why is it that we’ve presumed that work is to not be like a family? That value is economic and not anthropomorhphic? By refusing to acknowledge our most basic human needs we are ensuring that for 40+ hours a week we will struggle to find happiness.

So what if instead of learning each other’s Meyers Briggs we learned about each other’s families? What if instead of just sharing our goals and objectives for our business unit, we shared our goals for our lives? What if instead of just collaborating on the next product launch, we collaborated to more deeply understand what makes one another feel safe enough to risk to design an innovative product? What if instead of trying to be Type A executive types, we tried to be more like supportive and available mothers and fathers?

Love my co-rowkers? Start something with those I love? Even as I type this I hear my inner voice saying that all of this is “soft” and irrelevant to business or our happiness. But that’s my big, squishy, culturally informed neocortex talking. And as the aroma of the familiar sumatra coffee hits me, awakening my limbic brain, I take a sip of coffee from my familiar mug, and I recall the goodness that can come when my whole brain is engaged in my work. And I realize how deeply I want the same for you.

Lazy…Err…Restful Thoughts

In the midst of two very slow work weeks, some thoughts…

I am often more concerned with being productive then I am with finding enjoyment or sustaining that productivity. I struggle with resting because I do not feel useful.

Feeling useful often has to do with LOOKING useful. I don’t often tell stories of naps, afternoon book reading, and extra long walks to get coffee. But guess what? Today, I might do all three of those.

Living in San Francisco impacts this. My meetings are sandwiched between the conference calls and board meetings of others. Here busyness implies importance. We marvel at Marissa Mayer taking only two weeks of maternity leave before returning to work as the CEO of Yahoo and then we poo poo her for sleeping through a meeting. We are cruel.

My obsession with productivity keeps me hurried and in search of more to do. It seems that hurry and busyness are the enemies of connection – to self and others.

Are we too ambitious? Not enough? Regardless of the answer, we often only consider ambition through the lens of our work. How can we reclaim ambition for all of life? How can I be a more ambitious dad, husband, son? More ambitious neighbor?

I feel much better about how I spend my time if I am in control of it. Time and energy are important resources. They’re all we’ve got really. Allowing others to tell you how to spend them almost certainly ensures you will resent your days.

We’d rather others decide how we spend our time because we don’t want to do the hard work of defining our values and goals and then aligning our time and energy to achieve them. Not you? Oh. Just me then.

Staying present with a two year old for an entire day is nearly impossible. I try, but just can’t do it. I often day dream of sending emails about widgets and reading tweets. What the hell.

Articulating anything – feelings, thoughts, life patterns – is nearly impossible without distance and perspective. When lost in a sea, it’s impossible to appreciate the waves.

When work is slow, it’s amazing how much I care about the Japan vs Colombia World Cup Match.

Fights, Flights, and Frames

The same seven picture frames hang empty on our hallway wall. They’ve been that way for over 6 months. A friend came over the other day and thought that the stock images in the frames were our extended family. They are not our family, but are beginning to feel familiar as such. If they were digital frames I could fill them with over 300 different photos of Benton eating pasketti. But these silly analog picture cases require effort. I have no time to find the perfect photo, have it printed out, pick it up, and then orient it in the frame.

Well that seems silly, doesn’t it? Putting photos in frames is not nearly as hard as I just made it sound. Honestly, there are probably 11 different San Francisco startups that will size, print, touch up, and deliver my Instagram photos to me (all such companies will likely be acquired by Yahoo). So why do I leave them empty?

A clue. On a Christmas time Southwest Airlines flight to Phoenix, my 20-month-old son threw a fit. He was upset because the armrest did not come equipped with the remote control that he was accustomed to when flying Virgin America. A bit stunned, Taryn and I started doing the math on how many flights our young son had flown. He would have more frequent flyer miles than you. Guaranteed. He should be pre-check. He’s been on 36 flights.

Disjointed stories perhaps, but as Taryn and I listened closely they were telling us the same thing – you two are cray.

Thus going into 2014 we decided that we were going to be more intentional about being home and present in San Francisco. We decided we were going to finish projects, such as the picture frames, which make our house feel like a home. We decided we were going to do more Bay Area travel and stay away from planes.  We wanted to get more connected to our neighbors and church community.

So…we didn’t do it. The frames hung empty. I have an unfinished coffee table in the garage. We flew to LA and Phoenix already this year (Benton has acquired numerous SWA free drink coupons). We didn’t listen to those stories. We remained at the pace and lifestyle we had grown accustom to.  To paraphrase Parker Palmer, we were too busy telling our life what we were going to do with it, to listen to what it was telling us to do.

Then on February 7th our life grabbed a megaphone, a couple of crash symbols, and with Fran Drescher’s nasally tone screamed to us that we were expecting twins. TWINS. TWINS! Two babies at one time!

Of course this news is a great gift. Taryn and I are so excited to have more curly headed charmers running around our house. And I am going to have a daughter who I will one day walk down an aisle (which explains why at a recent wedding I wept like a baby during Butterfly Kisses). But having three children under three years old is a gift and a significant limitation. Our future family won’t even fit in an Applebee’s restaurant booth, let alone a row of an airplane.

Your friend Chaz says that limits (like blood alcohol, speed, the law of gravity, etc) are meant to be broken. Cicero, the great Roman orator and philosopher, famously says that in order to be free one has to surrender to a set of limitations. Cicero is smarter than Chaz. Parker Palmer agreeing with Cicero says,

“When I consistently refuse to take no for an answer, I miss the vital clues to my identity that arise when way closes – and I am more likely both to exceed my limits and to do harm to others in the process”

You can listen to your life – its gifts, surprises, limitations, and liabilities – or you can fight them. In my experience, fighting against the clues, insights, and out right declarations that your life gives you leaves you sick, broke, tired, and lonely. And that is only the cost to you. When we exceed our limits we do disproportionate harm to our families, teams, and organizations. None of which they deserve.

Have you been sick for months with no medical explanation? Listen to that. Has eight hours of sleep avoided you for the second week in a row? Listen to that. Can’t remember the last time you and your spouse shared a glass of wine and a candle? Listen to that. An inbox over 1000? Listen to that. A painting or poem that has sat unfinished for over a year? Listen to that. Where are you most alive? Where are you most drained? What pisses you off? What fascinates you?

Listen to it all. Get real close. Grab a stethoscope even. Take notes. And do what it says.

We have no flights booked for the rest of the year. There are pictures in the frames. Things are changing. I have not met the Shappell twins yet but they are already talking to me. Already teaching me things. Already transforming me. But I had to let them. I had to listen.

A Life with Promise

“Keeping a promise, could be a, if not the defining act of moral maturity”

Californians only wear a suit if it is the swim variety, but I recently made an exception.

In suit and tie, I ran out the door to begin a week of business travel. I slid my wallet into my pants pocket and ran into two pieces of paper. Finding something in the pocket of rarely worn attire is a lot like Christmas if all the gifts were wadded up and looked like something discovered in a mummy’s tomb. I quickly unfolded the papers and found that each contained the thoughtful, playful, passionate words of two lovers. They were the vows of the bride and groom who I married the last time I wore that suit.

I texted the groom to ask if he wanted them back. He said “yes.” Smart man. Who says chivalries is dead?

For fear of losing them, I decided to carry the vows with me for the remainder of my business trip. Physically carrying the life long promises of two individuals was kinda spooking me. What if I lost them? Were they void? At one point I took them out of my pocket to make sure they were still the vows and not a couple of airport massage-chair receipts. Yup. Still with me. Still valid.

I don’t know why these pieces of paper felt so important to me, but it was if the spoken wedding day words or even their spirit didn’t matter. There was something important about the specificity of the written words, of the ink on paper, of the hands trembling as they held this specific paper that wedding day. Their promises mattered and the details of those promises oddly mattered to me.

I made a promise not too long ago. Standing in line at San Francisco’s Tartine bakery, after years of moving from Phoenix to Seattle to New York, my wife and I made a covenant to the city of San Francisco for five years (granted, I would make a promise to about anyone or anything while eating a morning bun). This was a big commitment for us. To that point we were wanderers and liked it that way. But we wanted something different, got specific (length of time, details of what we thought it meant to be committed to a place, etc) about the vow we were making, wrote it on a napkin, and ordered another slice of quiche.

Five years later with our promise now fulfilled, we drove by Tartine and my wife exclaimed, “we kept our promise. That was easy.”

It has been easy. So easy that I had forgotten that our termed commitment was coming to an end. Interestingly many of the vows that I keep are the ones that I forget making. The problem with that is that the vows I break are also the ones I forget making.

Pick up a newspaper or open Circa and you will see an abundance of ambiguous, vague, and empty promises. Brands promise “excellence”, leaders promise change, churches promise community, lovers promise forever. But what do these promises mean?

My understanding of a vow or a promise is that it reveals our intention to try to do something. It is not a guarantee for the future (for the future is not ours to control, nor do we know what the future us is going to desire), but rather a promise expresses our intentions to maintain certain activities or feelings into the future. Writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures this idea when talking about the vow of marriage says…

“It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.”

It feels backwards, but it makes intuitive sense to me. It is not love that keeps Taryn with me in sickness and health. My wife has seen my body do some nasty shit when I am sick. It wasn’t her romantic feelings toward me that kept us connected during those times, it was the promise of marriage!  It is not our opulence or SF’s ease of living that has led Taryn and I to buy instead of rent, stay in our neighborhood rather than bouncing around, and raise a child in a home without a yard. Rather, it was the promise we made that demands specific actions. Promises are not just thoughtful prose, but it is in fact our promises that create work for us to do.

This is why I feel the details are so important. If a promise is not a guaranteed future state but a hope or aspiration, if it is the promise that fuels our activity, then we need to be thoughtful about what we vow. Without the specifics of wedding vows couples may have divergent ideas of commitment. A company who does not define what “winning in the marketplace” means will lack clear priorities and employees will wander. A leader that promises change may paint a stunning vision with a broad brush, but without the details of that plan, the promise feels hallow to all who believed in it.

As a society we swear in Presidents, have wedding ceremonies, do public baptism and make pinky promises because we intuitively know that promises are an accelerant to our desired lives. For when we promise boldly, we sustain bold living.  I believe that some of us under promise because we believe life happens organically or by chance and do not want to impose structure on our unknown futures. I believe more of us ambigu-promise because we’d rather the comfort found in the illusion of a secure future then having to work harder, sacrifice more, and risk greater to live out the details of our promises.

But I have come to believe that the results you want – in love, work, or faith – are just one good detailed vow away.

Oh, and all of the really hard work that follows.

So promise to (really) stay at your job for another year.  Promise to finally finish redesigning the den. Promise to find a therapist. Promise to record the full album. Promise forever to your bestie. Promise to live simply.  Promise to attend church regularly. Promise to engage your neighbors. Promise to forgive. Promise to promise boldly.

______________

Two 22 year old kids – spawn of republicans, church workers, Sun Devils – got married eight years ago today. I don’t remember exactly what Taryn and I’s vows said and at times I have lamented that we didn’t write them our selves. But we were 22. We didn’t know what we were doing.

I wish we had our vows written down. And I wish I had them in my pocket.