The blood drained from my face. I felt ashamed.
I thought she was texting. I snarled, “Is that related to what we’re working on now?” Michelle looked up. Taken aback and off balance, she replied , “I’m taking notes on what you’re saying so I can remember later. I didn’t want to take down the presentation I’m projecting to take notes.” I apologized.
Michelle said, “It’s okay.” “No, it’s not,” I replied. I apologized again. “It’s fine.” Again, I said, “No, it’s not.” I very intentionally made eye contact. I apologized directly, “Michelle, I’m sorry.” “It’s alright, really. Let it go. I probably should’ve said I was taking notes.”
Blameless post-mortems are meetings teams have after a failure of their product. The key part is the blameless. The logic is that we want to find out what really happened so we can keep it from happening again. The entire meeting is supposed to be shrouded in grace. The grace fosters trust by removing judgment. The trust encourages honesty. The honesty and good will held across the team helps the team to get better. The feedback loop this creates leads the team to learn. The more often we get graceful feedback, the faster we learn. The faster we learn, the better the team and the product gets.
This is the type of stuff that my team does. Here I am kicking myself in the ass, assuming my self-judgment will make be get better.
The words left my mouth before I realized it. “I can’t let it go. This is how I get better.” The epiphany percolates. This isn’t how I get better. This is how I punish myself.
I get better by forgiving myself, letting the poison go, accepting grace. There is no true self improvement without grace. Judgment only leads us to stretch ourselves to external standards of others to avoid pain. Whether we succeed or fail, the judgment based system hurts.
In one day, I have not undone decades of learned behaviors (or the neural pathways that produce them). There’s a road to travel from epiphany to reality. Hopefully, I found a path that could save many of the pains of a lifetime.
Can you get better by grace?
I start each day with a thimble full of patience. The thimble was empty.
We decided the day would be TV free for the girls – we have twin 5 year olds. Instead we’d listen to music, sort out the Legos and the playroom and review language and letters. The kids were good all day. Yes, they fought with each other from time to time. Other than the occasional scream or whine, they were good. But the sounds never stopped. I learned how much we’ve relied on TV to keep the kids pacified.
The yammer of two 5 year old kids eviscerates my nerves. The cheap musical sounds that come out of toys for young children is like sandpaper to the inner part of the forearm. I was losing it.
Music droned on from the Disney car they outgrew a year ago. I let Evie know she could take the car into the back of the house where I wouldn’t hear it or I could throw it out. I couldn’t take another sound. I was done.
Eventually we were seated together for dinner. A too rare event. One I cherish as much as rue. It’s a blessing to have the family sit together to eat. Yet it’s no small feat to maintain patience to sit with creatures who seem bent on annoying adults by any means necessary.
We worked our way through dinner with commentary on what’s yucky and questions about whether cuts of vegetables looked like mountains or shoes.
Then it happened. She said it. “Daddy, you’re spending the day with us!” And she was happy about it.
I thought I spend days with the girls regularly. Obviously, I don’t spend as much time with the girls as I think. And when I do, maybe I’m not quite present. Evie’s comment told me something. When I am present – even when I’ve gone through my thimble of patience and my frayed edges are showing – it is meaningful to her. She notices. And she notices when I’m not really there.
After I wrote this I had some realizations beyond my self-obsessed guilt and shame about not being present for my kids:
- The girls’s stare like brainless zombies into the glowing rectangle that is a TV. They disappear into the ocean of dancing pixels and light. Maybe the day without TV allowed the girls’ to be more present and aware of my presence.
- We spent the day at home. We didn’t run around from activity to activity. The continuity of settled time at home may have allowed the time together to soak deeply enough to be nourishing.
- The girls weren’t watching TV that day because of a new direction from leadership. We didn’t run around that day because of a new direction from leadership. Full disclosure – My wife was the one demonstrating most of this leadership.
I woke up to a new reality. I often think I’m giving my family what they need. Attention, focus, vision. I am a leader in my home. Evie’s celebrating my spending the day with the family told me something. I’m not leading like I think I am. The question emerges. Where else is this true? My heart sunk with the answer. Everywhere.
Leading with presence creates presence for others. Leading without presence breeds distraction and diffusion – It’s not leading at all. You can’t lead if you can’t be followed. You can’t be followed if you’re not present -physically or mentally. Some may argue this is true of spiritual presence, t00.
Of course my thimbleful of patience was empty. I was present enough to lose patience. I wasn’t present enough to build it up. Presence is the only way my patience may grow from the thimbleful of a small man in absentia trying to recover from his week to an infinite supply found in strong leaders focused on building a legacy.
After Evie’s wake up call, the girls’ laughter rang brighter to me. I was more playful and graceful. For that moment, I found presence and joy. My thimble was full again. That beats pacifying my kids with TV any day. And all it took was some leadership.
Are you present enough to lead?
I read the quote nearly every day. It dangles at the bottom of his emails. Each time I read it, I feel a flush of regret of the inertia in the past and present; the dread of a future where the truth of the quote compounds with interest.
The quote reads: “Every day you don’t do something, it makes it less likely that you will ever do something.”
What gets in the way of the doing something is either a lack of clarity of purpose or a lack of faith. Some may be uncomfortable with the word faith, try courage or confidence … the willingness to take action anyway despite uncertainty or fear.
The only way to make something happen in this world is to be seen and heard. Risk is required. Faith requires conflict with reality and confrontation of fear. Without conflict or fear, faith is not needed. A life lived with faith is implicitly a life lived with conflict. Faith is a verb. It is what we do in the face of the unknown.
To be seen and heard is to be alive. It is to exert yourself upon the world. Hiding in silence is to die (metaphorically). Slowly. Quietly. It is painless except for gnawing mild awareness that convictions are going unanswered and unfought for. Compromise after compromise, the integrity of the soul tears, fiber by fiber until the soul is compromised. Strips of fabric blow in the winds of life. It’s hard to tell what the strips of fabric once made. After being torn down to strips, we’re not quite sure of who or what we are anymore. It’s hard to know what to risk from this place of uncertainty. This erodes clarity of purpose.
Purpose requires faith. Faith requires purpose. One without the other is pointless or impotent.
I’ve taken to dwelling in shadows in the past few years. There’s been a trepidation about being seen and being heard. It’s turned into passivity. This is a problem.
I am sorry for the times I’ve proven the quote true. Phone calls not made. Visits not taken. Ideas left half baked. Work left unfinished. Risks avoided. Opportunities lost.
I know there’s forgiveness. I need the grace to accept it. And the faith and clarity of purpose to do something every day.
Ellie’s face turned maroon. “I’m angry!,” she screeched. She was playing a board game with her twin four year old sister, Evie.
Ellie gets intense. I’d never seen her this irate. Why was she angry? No other reason than her sister was ahead of her on the board. That was deemed unfair. I calmed her down. She resumed playing.
The girls proceeded to butcher the game. I resisted my urge to control and correct. I let them play on, refereeing only when it was important to call out cheating (as opposed to their misunderstanding the rules).
I glumly thought as they played, “This game is pointless”. It was rules driven with no autonomy or decision making … roll the die, count out the spaces. Roll a ‘six’ on the die, draw a card, do what the card says. Brainless! I lamented I was teaching my kids how to follow rote rules that are stupid and meaningless outside the context of a meaningless game. I was having an existential parenting moment.
Evie was 1 space away from winning. She had to roll the exact number, one, to finish and win. She started to gloat. I warned her, “We don’t celebrate a win until the game is over.” Two die rolls later, ‘six’! She pulled a card that sent her back to the beginning. Evie wanted to quit. “Evie, we don’t quit!,” I said. Evie pushed forward.
Ellie went from foul mood to victory dance mode when she found herself beating her sister. I told her the same thing I’d told Evie, “We don’t celebrate the win until the game is done.” The next die roll, ‘six’! Ellie was sent near the starting point on the board. She flared. “I’m so angry! This isn’t fair!,” she screamed.
I called the game over. There was no point moving on.
Ellie emotionally seized up. I asked from her “Give me your eyes,” to get eye contact. “Give me your eyes.” I repeated. She looked at me. I spoke quietly and slowly. “Do you like how you feel right now?” Ellie said, “No.” “What are you feeling?,” I asked. “Angry,” she replied.
” You have no control over what happens in this game. You roll a die. You pick cards. You do what it says. Your only choice is how you respond.” I pause for a moment. “If you get angry, you lose. If you keep control of yourself, you win … regardless of who wins the game.” “What do you choose? Be angry and lose or control yourself and win?” Her face softened. Ellie relaxed. She chose to let go of the anger and regain her composure. She chose to win.
Most of life is outside of our control. We don’t like to admit this. We don’t choose our parents, the timing of lights on the way to work, whether we’re susceptible to cancer, who we work for (even when we run our own business), or if cilantro tastes good or like soap.
It clicked for me when I coached Ellie to respond differently to the game. We can control how we choose to respond. We are responsible to control ourselves. It’s simple, not easy. It requires our human brain overcome its lower counterparts (primate, mammal, reptile). It requires mindfulness, discipline and maturity. It’s easier for some than others. It’s possible for most.
The kids’ game I deemed stupid and pointless with rules and structure I begrudged exposed this perspective. It wasn’t futile after all. The rules aren’t important. How we respond to them is. That is the real game.
This lesson dangled in front of me elusively for decades. I didn’t grasp it. It took 45 years for me to see and accept what I own – the way I respond to this game called life.
Maybe my kids can learn this life lesson 40 years sooner than I did. Of course, this is out of my control. Patient perseverance as I teach them over and over again … That’s something I’d like to control. And I can.
I closed the last book. They sat there awkwardly. Some looked at me blankly. Others’ minds and bodies wandered off. Mrs. Bush said, “What do we say?” The class mumbled, “Thank you … ,” not quite in unison or unanimity. “What dooo we saayy?!,” Mrs. Bush repeated with greater expectations. The kids screamed, “THANK YOU!”
I was the “Mystery Reader” for Evie’s class. She’s one of my twin 4 year olds. I read 3 books … two too many for the attention span of ten 4 year olds. They tuned in and out like that one radio station you want to listen to while driving along a far west Texas ‘Farm to Market’ road. Side conversations, inspections of hair and clothes, and rolling on the floor were intermittent like static cutting in and out along the drive. Mrs. Bush prodded periodically for politeness to get the station tuned in again. It was humbling being a “Mystery Reader.”
I read books about curious, passionate kids who explore and build things, defining who they are — Ada Twist, Scientist, Iggy Peck, Architect, and Rosie Revere, Engineer. The characters face and overcome rejection, make mistakes, and persevere. Their flowers burst from buds. These are children’s story versions of Anais Nin’s quote, “and the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
I read for nearly 30 minutes (again, too long for these kids). Occasionally, I paused pregnantly. Tears welled. Breath eluded me, stolen by the gestating hope I carry for my girls to be more brave and strong than I have been.
I aspire to create experiences for my girls that might catalyze curiosity, courage, and commitment. Some are bold. Some boring. The experiences and experiments are matches I strike in the windy night of life. Some light. Many blow out. A few may find a fuse and catch. Fuses burn, fuses fizzle. Some may sizzle slowly. The gunpowder that is my girls potential awaits the charge. Me, with anxious anticipation, look to the sky for the colored light and glare while I hold my ears, wary of the blast.
When I finished, one of the boys told me, “That was boring. But I had fun.” Evie climbed in my lap. She hugged me, looked me in the eyes and said , “I love you.” I hugged her back and whispered in her ear, “I love you, too. Be brave. Make mistakes. Learn. Grow.”
She walked away.
One more match lit on a windy Fourth of July.
Lighting up imaginations
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