Expectations

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This past weekend my youngest daughter was married.  It was a wonderful ceremony for a very special couple.

As with many marriage ceremonies there were the typical highlights.  I got to walk my little girl down the aisle.  I gave her to her new husband.  I watched them take their vows.  I saw them introduced as one.

But another highlight was watching my oldest daughter, Sarah, give what I thought was the most tender, loving and insightful toast to her little sister.  I was so moved, I asked her to write it down (being the actor that she is, she operated without a script).

Here’s what she said:

When I googled How to give a Wedding Speech I was told I was supposed to introduce myself.

So, I’m Sarah, sister to Michelle and Jesse, daughter of Jerry and Sanderijn, wife of Jeffrey and mother to three sons.  And now, I am Elan’s sister-in-law, too.
Actually, in the past 10 years I’ve been the one introducing people into our family either by marriage or birth so I would like to take a moment to thank Michelle for helping me out on that.  I can only have so many kids.

Michelle and Elan, as this is your wedding, you will hear a lot of advice about marriage.  Last night at the rehearsal dinner we talked a little bit about marriage advice, and I said I was saving mine for today:

I will start with a quote from Barry Schwartz: “The key to happiness is low expectations”

Well, I’m not going to go that far.  But I think the key to a happy marriage is actually no expectations.

You see, marriage isn’t what you expect it to be.

Marriage, is fluid, it changes.  Just like you are fluid, and you change. You may find yourself waking up one morning thinking that marriage isn’t what you thought it would be… but that is okay, that’s good.  Marriage has stages just like you do, and if you let it, it becomes what it needs to be at that time.

When you set your expectations on your marriage and each other, you limit each other, you don’t allow each other to grow, you don’t allow your marriage to grow,  and you don’t allow each other to change together.

So, love each other without expectation, be kind to each other without expectation and care for each other without expectation, and then you can see how wonderful marriage can be.

Because it is when you have no expectations, that your life together and marriage will exceed even your wildest expectations.

As I listened to my daughter’s sage advice, only one word came to mind.

Amen!

 

Dad

My dad

A story about my father on Father’s Day.

I was seventeen and wanted to buy a Fender Rhodes electric piano.  One problem.  I didn’t have the cash to buy it outright.  And since I wasn’t eighteen I’d need Dad to sign the papers so I could finance the purchase.

Know this.  I was a hard worker.  The day I turned 15 I started working as a stock boy in the linen department of the Maison Blanche just up the road from East Jefferson High School.  I took other jobs too.  Worked at a health club out at the lake front.  Worked as a greenskeeper at City Park Golf couse.  I was no slouch.  I was a hard worker.  At least I felt I was.

I remember making my case.  I forget whether it was at home or in the car.  That was where my Dad and I had a lot of our best conversations – either in the den of our house with Dad on the LazyBoy and me on the rattan couch or the two of us sitting (unbuckled) on the felt bench seat of a Ford Fairlane.

I laid it all out.  I had nearly one hundred dollars, good for well over twenty percent of the purchase price.  How I’d save money over the coming months and make the monthly payment.  How I’d finance the ongoing expenses.  How I’d save for this and spend for that.

I was thorough.  I was confident.  I had it all figured out.

I could tell Dad was genuinely interested in what I was saying.  He wasn’t much interested in the substance of it all but seemed fascinated in what I was trying to accomplish, and how I thought I could make it work.  But Dad, being Dad, couldn’t help but probe and test in a number of different areas.

Did I really think that spending all this for an electric piano was the best thing I could do with the money?  Were there any other alternatives?  Would I actually follow up and dedicate time to playing the piano and making it all pay off?  Did I really think there was any future or benefit in playing in a band?  Would I devote time and energy to make it successful?  And if I thought I could, how was I going to do that and still work, be a member of umpteen social organizations, stay on the high school golf team and meet the other obligations that I already was having a hard time meeting?

As usual, Dad was cutting to the heart of issues I was ill prepared for.

And the more Dad pushed, prodded and probed the more testy I became.  Finally, there seemed to be nothing left of the logic or practicality of my plan.  My beloved Fender Rhodes was quickly becoming an empty, silly, foolish exercise.  So I blurted out:

“Look, Dad, I’m paying for all this.  It is my money and it is what I want to do.  I’m paying for it.  I’m working for it.  I’m not asking you for a handout.  Besides, it is not going to cost you anything.”

Dad smiled.  Dad smiled a grin that at the same time expressed both admiration and pity.

I could tell that he was delighted by my drive and independence.  But I also knew from his face that he was disappointed that I was missing something very fundamental.  There was something I wasn’t getting.  Something very basic that Dad had hoped I would understand, but I didn’t.

Dad went quiet.

Then he smiled at me and said in a very deliberate but kind and loving tone.

“Son, let me explain something to you.  It is all my money. 

I’m not saying that to make you feel bad, or to make me feel good.  It is just the way it is.

You may think that you’d be paying for this.  That’s not quite right.  Whatever you spend, your Mom and I have to make up for somewhere else.  Whatever you spend on this is money that you don’t spend on something else … car insurance, school expenses, clothes … the list can get pretty long.

Now I want to help.   I admire that you want to work and earn and save money to make it happen.  But don’t ever think that when you spend money on something like this it isn’t costing other people money.  It is.  It always does.

One of the biggest mistakes is to think you are independent, that what you do doesn’t affect someone else.  It does.  Especially when it comes to family, time and money.  Because what you spend in one place, is something that you don’t spend in another place.  It’s all one. 

Of course Dad was right.  I wasn’t close to being self-sufficient.  And our family wasn’t wealthy.  I was a young, dependent child with the fantasy of making one transaction “independent” of everything else.  It doesn’t work that way.

My Dad’s line – it is ALL my money – taught me a lot about life.  It was a recognition that things are always more linked and related than people think.  People imagine being able to isolate or compartmentalize themselves and their actions.  Being “ownable” only to themselves.  It doesn’t work that way.  One action almost always impacts or influences something else.

Dad had the same view about family and faith.

Family is recognizing that everything you do affects the family members around you.  Everything.

And faith means that every day is a gift not a right; every action, a blessing not an achievement.

Thanks, Dad.

Wonder

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Yesterday I came home and went for a walk with my one-year-old grandson, Marlowe.

In the next 90 minutes Marlowe reacquainted me with something we all had once and have, to our detriment, lost.

Wonder!

It took us about fifteen minutes to navigate the stoop down to the sidewalk.  Marlowe’s better at going up stairs than down them.  But it wasn’t that it.  There was an iron handrail that he had to grab.  He stopped and tugged on it a bit.  Slid his hand down the cool metal.  Gave it a big whack a couple of times.  Then he turned to look at me with a big toothy grin.

Wow!

I’d never seen anyone appreciate and marvel at a simple metal hand rail like that.

We ambled down the sidewalk.  We stopped at a patch of grass and I showed Marlow how you can pluck a blade and roll it between your fingers.  And for the next fifteen minutes that is exactly what we did.  For Marlowe, each tug, each blade, each twist between his chubby fingers was an absolute joy.

Amazing!

He spotted some bird fiddling with the leaves and debris in a neighbor’s gutter.  His hand shot out and he pointed to the birds.  “BAH!” he said.  “Birds,” I replied.  “BAH!”  “BAH!”  “BAH!” he squealed.  Each was said with utter astonishment.  I’m sure it wasn’t the first time he saw a bird, but it sure seemed like it!  And so we sat for God knows how long, just looking at the birds punctuated occasionally by Marlowe’s “BAH!” after which he would turn to me with an expression that read, “Wow, Grandpa, did you see that?  Whoa!”

There were plenty of other adventures.  A branch became a broom and Marlowe intently and joyously learned how to knock things off the sidewalk with it.  Ants were this astounding phenomenon that we followed with glee and delight.

And every time he would look at me and his whole countenance could be captured in one word:  Amazing!

One of Louis C.K.’s more famous skits is called “Everything is amazing and nobody’s happy.”

I think why that skit became so popular is because it is true, and we know it to be true, and we’re somehow sad that we’ve lost that sense of simple wonder and delight that is the world around us.  We analyze and quantify and qualify everything until we have squeezed to death and blinded ourselves to the essential amazement that lies in just about everything.

In a recent lament, writer Anne Lamott said about our data-driven lives, “What this stuff steals is our aliveness,” … “Grids, spreadsheets and algorithms take away the sensory connection to our lives, where our feet are, what we’re seeing, all the raw materials of life, which by their very nature are disorganized.”
The world around us is truly amazing.  It is only when we approach it with curiosity and wonder that we really see it, and begin to relearn what it is to be human.

So thanks, Marlowe.  You’re truly amazing!  And so is everything else.

Measurement

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A cup of flour, half a stick of butter, two tablespoons of sugar …

5’ wide and 20’ long with a drop of 2’ for every 7’ in length …

An increase in top-line revenue of $10 million with profit margins of 20% by …

Measurements.

Every part of life seems to have them. From cooking, to business, to home improvement.

I’m a planner. This means I’m in the business of the research behind communications campaigns. When I talk to clients there is the inevitable question: “How are we going to measure success?”  To which I almost always answer, “Define for me what you think success looks like and I’ll tell you.”

The answers vary. Some see success as getting the right headline in the right publication. Others talk about changing people’s opinions about certain things. Others about generating business and increasing sales. Some even suggest that “no news” is indeed the “best news.”

What is success? And once defined, can that be measured?

People ask that a lot.  And it is more difficult than you think.  Take the matter of education.

Recently I came across two articles in the same issue of the New York Times.  One dealt with primary and secondary schools and the debate over something called the Common Core.  These proposed “standards” (a word that is inherently dependent on the concept of “measurement”) have been so controversial that they’ve united both far left and far right in opposition.  A second, was about President Obama’s suggestion that colleges and universities be “measured” for their success.  Not surprisingly, college administrators were aghast.

Education.  Why can’t we measure it? We measure everything else. What makes education so special?

One the one hand it is pretty simple. At the end of the day, can the person read, write, calculate, reason, think?  If they can’t, then they haven’t gotten an education. They might have gone to school and gotten a lot of other things – a good experience, healthy relationships, perhaps even a healthier, stronger body; but they haven’t gotten an education.

On the other hand there are those who say that simply relying on how well a student does in the “three Rs” is too narrow an interpretation of the idea of “education.” That all that other stuff matters too.  It is just harder to measure.

The dilemma in measuring education is that you end up having to measure people.  And that’s not easy.

Unlike cooking, construction, and accounting, measuring things that are inherently human are, as we see, controversial. Why?  Because while measures of human characteristics can suggest things – they can be indicators – they always fall short of what it really means to be a human being. Things you can measure are part, but only part, of the human recipe.

People are more than numbers.  But, that doesn’t mean that numbers don’t mean anything.

We often associate poverty with unhappiness. But, I know poor people who are exceedingly happy.

We often associate illness with misery. But, I know ill people who are joyous and upbeat.

We often associate illiteracy with being stupid. But, I know of people who aren’t very articulate or book smart and are quite wise.

None of this means that things like poverty, illness, and illiteracy – all things you can measure -don’t matter. They do. They matter a lot, actually. It is just that we’re more than that.

How do you measure faith, hope and love? Because those are the things that make us human.

It is the immeasurable that is the most meaningful.

 

Photo via flickr

Love

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Last weekend I attended the marriage of my sister-in-law.  The wedding brought together a good part of my family.

I looked around and there were all shapes and sizes of Johnsons and Batelaans and Coles and Blumbergs.

They came from Asia, Europe, Africa and America.  There were brown, black and white folk.  Some were affluent, others financially struggling.  There were Christians, Jews, and atheists along with a healthy group of people who are still figuring that one out.  Some were outgoing and talkative.  Others shy and laconic.  Young.  Old.  All shapes and sizes.

It was an amazingly disparate group.  But at the same time one of the most united I’ve seen.

And yes.  The uniting force is love.

And it is not just children who love their parents and parents who love their children (which seems to be increasingly rare).  But it is love that goes beyond beliefs and lifestyles and personalities.  A love that goes beyond any expectations of benefits.  Love beyond obligation.

Just … love.

I believe that is the world God wanted when He created it.

And I smile because God’s blessed me with a tiny but delicious morsel of just that with my family.

FITBIT

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RIP:  FitBit

I gave up.

My Fitbit band sits on my disheveled desk face down in the havoc that is my basement.  It is there with its plastic arms pointed emptily toward the sky like a dead bug one would find in a room corner.

Rest in peace.

My wrists are now bracelet free.  No more “tap, tap” to check on my status.  No more checking on my iPhone app for my daily step count.  No more waking up by wrist vibration.  (That last one was actually pretty cool.)

And I feel better for it.

I don’t know if FitBit will make it.  A lot of people like it and have fun with it.  But it didn’t work for me.

First, it told me things I already knew.  I would sit and pull up my FitBit data.  “You walked / ran a lot steps today!” it would report.  “Yup, knew that,” I thought.  Another day another check with the app.  “You didn’t do squat today,” it scolded.  “Yup, knew that,” I thought again.

I’m a pretty active guy.  I run, work out, stay pretty active.  I also am a modest work-a-holic.  I travel a lot.  I am forgetful but good with short-term memory.  I typically can recall what I did each day.  That is, I’m quite aware of how active I am.  At least I think I am.  FitBit wasn’t telling me anything that I couldn’t figure out with a few seconds of focused thought.

Second, FitBit didn’t give me any particularly insightful analysis as to why I was sedentary one day and hyper-active another.  Perhaps I was expecting too much.  But it would have been great if there was something there that said, “you know, every time you miss your morning run then you’ve a 50% chance of being a couch potato all day.”  Or something like that.   But again, that would be information that I could figure out without strapping an electrode to my wrist.  Fact is I already know that if I don’t do my morning run there’s a 50/50 chance there won’t be any workout in the afternoon.

Finally, I came to the realization that the wristband was more a lifestyle and fashion statement than health device.  At least for me.  I wore it because I thought it was a cool thing to do.  I guess it is.  But I also found it to be a pain in the ass.

Experts say that wearable technology – particularly wearable fitness technology – is the new, new thing.  I guess so.  They are experts, aren’t they?  But it so far isn’t working for me.  My observation is that these types of things work for those who are either very competitive or very complacent when it comes to fitness.  If you are competitive, you enjoy posting step counts on Facebook pages and challenging those “so you think you’re fit?” friends.  If you are complacent you need something like a string around your finger to get you to remember to do your workout.

I am both but would prefer not to have a machine constantly remind me.

Smug

When I first saw this I was with my wife and our friend Denise was over at our house.  When the commercial ended, Denise said bluntly “What was that?!?”

When I saw it again I had the same reaction.  And I guess a lot of others have as well.  GM executives have had to go to great lengths to defend it.  GM’s advertising director Craig Bierley says that the piece has been “misperceived.”  I don’t think so.

Why the uproar?

Well let me tell what does not upset me.

I’m not upset about the ad’s American exceptionalism and the dig on the “other countries” that take long vacations or enjoy cafes.  That’s been around for a long time.  My wife was European (now American).  We’re used to the jabs back and forth.

I’m not upset about the ad’s continued promotion of the American “myth” that if you work hard, play by the rules and gut it out everything will be ok … that you’ll end up with a beautiful spouse, adoring children and a house with a pool in Malibu.  The actor even says definitively “it’s that simple.”  Of course it isn’t simple.  More importantly it isn’t true.  For every Horatio Alger success story that you give me I can personally introduce you to one or two people who have done all of what they have (and more!) and are poor, struggling, and need help.  But again, I’m used to that.

And I’m not upset about the ad’s blatant consumerism.  In her searing piece in the Huffington Post, Carolyn Gregoire writes:

The opening shot shows a middle-aged man, played by the actor Neal McDonough, looking out over his backyard pool, asking the question: “Why do we work so hard? For this? For stuff?”  As the ad continues, it becomes clear that the answer to this rhetorical question is actually a big fat YES.

But consumerism and advertising have long been married.  So nothing new there.

No, what upsets me about the ad is the attitude it embraces and, indeed, celebrates which can best be summed up by one word:  Smug.

Smug.  According to one definition, excessive pride in oneself or one’s achievements.

More than capitalism, consumerism, and exceptionalism, this is what this ad celebrates.

A celebration of being “smug.”

My good friend Bob Deutsch, a well-known thought leader in human behavior and advertising – once told me once that good advertising has three qualities.  People see themselves in it; people are affirmed by it; and people are empowered by it.  If that is what is happening with the Cadillac ad, then I agree with Ms. Gregoire that in describing the American dream this ad portrays the American nightmare.

Even the great industrialists – the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Carnegies – had a sense of charity.  And one of the icons mentioned in the ad – Bill Gates – has now turned his attention exclusively to matters of philanthropy.  Charity and capitalism used to go hand in glove.

But this ad from the nation’s largest auto maker and one of America’s most icon brands, ignores that to celebrate the opinionated, the abrasive, the dismissive, the derisive.  You almost are waiting for the guy to say “And if others don’t like it … f— ‘em!”

That’s not the America I know nor the America I want.

The urban dictionary describes smug as being “happy with ones self when others are not”.  It is no coincidence that pride was labeled by Dante’s as the most damning of sins.  “Smug” is not only absent humility, it is disdainful of others.  It goes beyond a lacking of compassion and empathy.  It borders on the sociopathic.

That’s not something I’d want my brand to be about.

Apologies

 

proper apologies

Something is happening to apologies.  I don’t find them as much as I used to.

A report will be late.  Something won’t get done.  Or it will get done incorrectly.  Someone says something harmful.  Or takes an inappropriate action.  And more often than not when I raise this with a person what I’ll get is a blank stare and an “OK.”  Maybe a question to the effect of “So what do you want me to do?”

Nothing wrong with a blank stare.  Nothing wrong with asking what I’d like them to do about it.

But no apology.

Am I asking too much?  I’m not asking anyone to grovel.  No need to tear your clothing and douse yourself in ashes.  Just makes me feel a bit better and give me a sense that you understand that you messed up.  Just so I know that you know.

So why are apologies disappearing?  I’ve got some theories.

First, they increasingly aren’t received well.  Apologies used to be viewed as the path toward forgiveness.  And forgiveness was the path back to wholeness and community.  Today, apologies are viewed less as the first step toward reconciliation and more as weakness.  That is, nowadays people often use someone’s genuine confession as a club to whack them upside the head.

All quite sad, really. I remember a rather infamous event at a business meeting when I apologized to a client for running late on a small and somewhat inconsequential element of a project, promising that we’d do double duty to catch up.  What I saw as a small acknowledgement sparked a client explosion.  He harangued me with a series of screams along the lines of “how can you …?” “how could you …?” “explain to me why …?”  “I demand an answer …!”  If that client was the only measure, I’d likely never apologize again.  The broader point is this: if apologies are disappearing perhaps it is because society isn’t embracing the apology as it ought.

Second, the apologies we do see are pathetic.  What apologies am I talking about?  Lance Armstrong.  Tiger Woods.  Paula Dean.  Anthony Wiener.  Need I say more?  Not exactly role models, eh?  If those were the only examples I had of a person apologizing, then I would never apologize either!

Finally, there may be a link between the decline in apologies and that of religion.  Let me explain.  A generation ago in the United States, religion was mainstream.  And as most of that was Judeo-Christian religion, there was a very common practice that most people learned through their weekly trip to the synagogue or church:  asking for forgiveness.  It was an apology of sorts.  It was a weekly recognition that you messed up.  In the Anglican tradition it was framed as messing up in “thought, word, and deed.”  And you asked God for forgiveness.  Then things are better.  You do that throughout your growing up and it becomes a habit.  A lot of young people today don’t benefit from that practice.

Whatever the reason, I’d ask that we bring back authentic apologies.  Let’s celebrate them, embrace them, reward them.

And if you think I’m way off.  If I have offended you, your faith, or your generation in any way.

I apologize.

Ideas and Execution – It isn’t the What, it is the Why

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Here’s a life lesson from the Franciscans.

I, along with a lot of other people, have gotten pretty curious about St. Francis.

To say St. Francis was an interesting guy is a mild understatement.  Born into affluence in the 13th century, Francis renounced his wealth and family to follow his faith in God.

And like for so many people back then who lived lives larger than life (did I just use a variation of “life” 3 times in a 5-word phrase?) it is hard to tell fact from fiction.   Biographer St. Bonaventure described St. Francis as the “second Jesus.”  As noted in Wikipedia, it has been argued that no one else in history was as dedicated as Francis to imitate the life, and carry out the work of Christ, in Christ’s own way.

So the BIG question for the Franciscan order after St. Francis’ death was simple:  “How do we be like St. Francis?”  Think of it as a Middle Age version of “I want to be like Mike,” or “what would Jesus do?”

On one side were literalists.  For them it was nothing less than doing everything EXACTLY like the good St. Francis.  On another side were the idealists.  For them it was less about having the habits of St. Francis (BTW, that pun was intended!) and more about having the mind or spirit of St. Francis.

The latter won and for good reason – both existential and historical.  On the existential front, doing everything EXACTLY like St. Francis presented numerous problems.  Let’s take something as elemental as geography.  St. Francis wore a simple robe with a rope belt.  So what do you do if you live in say, Sweden?  Live in subzero temperatures with only a cotton robe and belt?  I don’t think so.  Then there was the historical.  St. Francis walked everywhere.  Good luck with that if you find yourself in LA.

But there was another thing.  Those literalist Franciscans were following the wrong thing.  They were following the HOW.  What folks really liked about St. Francis wasn’t the HOW, it was the WHY.

The idea is always more important than the execution.  It is why I don’t read all those articles that start “X ways to …” fill in the blank.  People get obsessed about the HOW.  What they should be obsessed with is the WHY.

That is why (wordplay intended) Simon Sinek’s TED talk is one of the most popular of any online TED talk.  Sinek’s even made a business of it.  What?  You haven’t seen it?  Well you should.  (Not only because of the content but also because he does NOT use PowerPoint.)

After 20 minutes watching this you’ll understand.

So my question for you:  What is your “why” in your “golden circle?”

Time

alarm clock ccLast Saturday I went to a memorial service for a young man named “Jack.”  He was 20 years old.  A beautiful young man who  I knew from church youth group.  He was quiet and soft-spoken (at least around me) but had the most wonderful smile; it was a caring, loving grin that covered not only his face but seemed to consume his entire being.  His eyes suggested he was seeing something wonderful and amazing every minute.  A beautiful young man.

At his memorial service the opening scripture was from Ecclesiastes.  It was a passage that most of us would recognize.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, …; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. 

Here was a young man who left us after only twenty years.  His time was so woefully short.

Time is one of the most valuable and irreplaceable things we possess. We can’t buy it.  We can’t build it.  We can’t borrow it. Yet it is one of the things we squander most readily.  We waste time.  We spend it doing silly things, stupid things, harmful things, but most of all we spend our time doing meaningless things.

We hoard our money.  We invest in and insure our stuff.  We cradle and caress our prized possessions.  But so often we squander our time.

I am not one to look back and I am not one to live with regrets, but if I had one regret (actually, I have many) it would be to reallocate the time I have spent over the last 57 years.

I haven’t been the best steward of my time.  Writer Malcolm Muggeridge entitled his autobiography “Chronicles of Wasted Time.”  That could certainly be the title to my autobiography, perhaps many others as well.

My children are growing older and are moving on with their careers and families.  And I (often painfully) realize that I won’t be able to get to do those days over when they were home.

With every day, I realize that the most precious gift I can give my children is my time.  Moreover, with every day I realize that the most precious gift my children can give me is their time.

Time forces choice.

While in Thailand, I was talking to my daughter, who is 24, and she spoke to me of all the things she wanted to do in her life.  Marriage, travel, teach, learn languages, raise a family, join the Peace Corps.

How am I going to do all these things, Daddy? she asked.  I told her what my Dad told me:  You can do anything you want.  You just can’t do everything you want.  There’s not enough time.

The Bible tells us that God blessed one day of the week, the Sabbath, and made it holy. That is, He tells us that time is holy.  Those precious hours, when I set aside my work and busyness to focus on my relationships with God and my family—this is God’s most precious gift.

Let’s not waste it.