A Kick In The Throat

The key changes in my life have been triggered by a single event that stood out in my mind. My daughter kicking me in the throat was a life changing event. The kick was a clear indication that my approach to parenting needed to change.

In my professional life, I evaluate myself on a simple criteria – am I being effective at helping people achieve their goals. As a negotiator, I’ve trained myself to stay focused on my desired outcome, rather than any emotional responses.

As a parent, the “kick” triggered two realizations. First, I was being ineffective. Second, I needed to focus on my desired outcome.

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How’d I get kicked?

I was tired, my wife was tired and my daughter was tired. All that fatigue was a recipe for disaster when we gave some physical encouragement for Lex to brush her teeth.

It became clear to me that if I’m going to be an effective parent then I need to take responsibility for not being tired. So the first change was cutting down my physical fatigue (exercise & training) and putting the pieces in place to reduce my mental fatigue (business). This change is hard for two main reasons:

  • I have a core belief that I need to train two hours every day for personal sanity and vanity
  • In my business, I feel obligated to my team

As it turns out, the beliefs may not be based on reality. My body is holding out pretty well and I’m fortunate to work with great people.

The second change was the most difficult. Acknowledging my role in creating my daughter’s behaviour. My sentimental side wants my three-year old daughter to act a well-adjusted 25-year old – stable, loving, calm, rational, loyal, supportive.

Reading that sentence, it’s obvious that a three-year old is never going to act like at 25-year old. It is not obvious to my emotional, sentimental side! When I hear the internal dialogue, “why can you just…” then I know that I’ve fallen into a mental trap.

So how can I modify my behaviour to get a more effective result for my daugher, my wife and my myself?

I asked my friends. The act of asking, and a couple good nights sleep, made me feel better. That’s worth repeating – ask for advice in difficult situations – the act of seeking help is comforting.

Some of the tips were more helpful than others. At one end of the spectrum:

  • Break their spirit early
  • Two cans of Guinness per night
  • You get what you deserve
  • Do your best to stay married
  • Try not to get fat

At the other:

  • Treat it like investing – manage for the long term
  • Create a love of books – reading is a valuable skill and engages their minds
  • She might forget if you blow your stack but you won’t – act as if she’s going to remember every-single-thing you do

The single most useful piece of advice was: split the world in two with Lexi-decisions and Daddy-decisions. When something is a Daddy-decision be prepared to withstand whatever it takes to follow through. When something is a Lexi-decision, let her make the call and let it roll.

Be clear, be consistent, don’t offer choices when none exist. When combined with compassionate love, it’s an effective strategy.

Simple, not easy.

 

 

 

40 Months of Fatherhood

On EnduranceCorner.Com, I’ve written about Fit Pregnancy. The linked article ends with tips that the athletic parent-to-be can apply to the first year of their parenting experience. This series will touch on what happens after that first year.

I have two book recommendations that helped me pull my thoughts together on parenting: How to Love by Livingston; and Beyond Religion by the Dalai Lama. Neither of these books is a how-to-manual for parenting.

The books are useful to help me figure out the sort of father/husband I wanted to be. My longest term friend told me that I’d make a good dad because it will be OK when my kids find out who I really am. I enjoyed the statement but didn’t understand it until six years later.

As a baby, my daughter didn’t challenge my identity. With my wife, a part-time nanny and family available – our first child represented a scheduling challenge (for Dad). Create space, ensure you get enough sleep and life can roll along, pretty much, as before.

In many dual-career households, you could structure parenting as a scheduling challenge. Daycare across the week, creche at the gym for workouts, babysitting coverage across the weekend – all designed to create space for mom/dad to live their pre-kid lives. Now that I’m on the inside, I understand why many parents go down that route.

Here are some principles that have been guiding me:

Like your marriage, your parenting style only needs to work for you. Over the last year, I considered, “Who is Dad?” I’m fortunate to have shifted away from an identity as an elite athlete before my daughter arrived. For me, the constrained years of early fatherhood are incompatible with elite performance.

TIP: If your spouse tends towards anger (or any anti-social behaviors) then the constraints of parenthood will enhance this aspect of their personality.

The media, and our in-built sentimentality, are poor roadmaps for parenting decisions. The books I recommend are about healthy love and secular ethics. Livingston also discusses people we don’t want in our lives. Love and ethics are rarely discussed in Western education, but essential for young people to navigate their lives.

TIP: I have a recurring sentimentality that the family should sit around in a loving circle and sing Kumbaya. The media-driven ideal of a perfect family distracts me from being an effective parent inside a functional family.

You can’t do it all. In my coaching business, I’m constantly reminding athletes about choices and tradeoffs. From the time your first-born turns two until your final child enters first grade, dad is going to be constrained. That’s 2010-2018 for me (42 to 50 years old) and over a decade for my wife (mom’s life changes from conception).

The young family “constraint” will be determined by the role that you choose to have in your kids’ lives, as well as your choice in spouse.

I’d been on the planet for 40 years when my daughter was born and had failed to come across clear writing on this constraint! My wife and I are glad we waited but I was an accident, rather than foresight.

I’m changing my life to embrace the realities of fatherhood.

#1 – Am I going to have a role? While I was figuring out the sort of parent I wanted to be, there were days where I considered (briefly, very briefly) checking out. I certainly understand why many parents find themselves overwhelmed, or uninterested, in the job.

#2 – If I am going to have a role then how to build trust? Just like all areas of my life: clarity, reliability and love – built by shared experiences over time.

#3 – Why am I doing this? When I gave myself freedom of occupation in my 30s, I didn’t choose to open a preschool. For personal sanity, my role is going to be limited but consistent and material.

#4 – What am I good at? In Hawaii, once a week, I spent the day with my daughter. For my daughter, Daddy Day was about getting ice cream after nap (that’s how she describes it). For me, it was a chance for conversations about the world with a three-year old. I’ve found one thing where I can be exceptional – I’m looking for others.

TIP: I suspect that the greatest value to me, as a parent, may be minimizing regret – our ability to impact situations is consistently overstated. Regret often stands out when my friends talk about their parenting experiences.

A great quote from a parent in her 60s, “my relationship with my kids is mixed but I know, in my heart, that I did my best.”

As a parent, I’m getting better each year. I can see improvement and that’s motivating. By the time my kids are teenagers, I should have it all figured out – just in time to be clueless again!

 

Sabbatical Best Practices

What can we learn from people that follow their passion and choose the road less travelled?

In conducting my interviews, I realized that the best advice could be applied immediately. I didn’t need to leave my life to apply my friends’ best advice. This week, I’ll share two tips that we can apply now.

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Outcome Focus — some quotes to set the scene:

  • I’d made a little money, I was unemployed and I had some things I wanted to do. Once I gave myself permission to do anything, my bucket list came together very quickly.
  • Don’t seek to find yourself, before you start the journey, know what you want to get done.
  • I gave myself five years to get it done.

Those quotes come from friends that climbed Everest, changed careers and won Ironman triathlons (not all the same person!).

Listening to them, it struck me that outcomes are an effective way to organize a life. Champion athletes are excellent at honing their lives down to a single outcome focus.

I’ve made a shift and created an outcome list that is related to my Top Ten List. The benefit of an Outcome List is it helps me filter opportunities and prioritize. It also gives me comfort when I need to say “no” or focus elsewhere.

Filter through your desired outcomes. What are you trying to get done?

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Re-entry Strategy — before you leave, give thought to your return; because…

  • I didn’t plan on going back but I took a leave of absence in case I changed my mind
  • I had no idea where I would end up but I had a clear idea about the people that I wanted to keep in my life
  • I wanted to change direction but discovered that I was most valuable staying in a similar field.
  • I took a break to discover that my replacement had taken my job, permanently.

High quality opportunites are rare. Think very carefully before you leave a world-class organization, or burn a bridge with anyone.

With that in mind, the best ideas that I received for staying in touch were:

  • Schedule something fun to share with the key people in your life
  • When you do something unique, write about it
  • Consider researching a new business opportunity for your current employer

Each of the above, creates options within your life.

Related to the above, in my 20s, I had the opportunity to attend business school. I declined because I realized that I was exactly where I wanted to be. I was living my desired outcome.

Most my friends that took sabbaticals re-discovered how much they loved their current life (that they thought they needed to change). They were grateful for an effective re-entry strategy.

Genuine friendships, based on shared experiences, have tremendous value.

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Advice From My Peers

I’ve been conducting interviews with my friends to get their best advice on what they’ve learned so far.

The discussion has been centered on advice for people taking a sabbatical but, I’ve discovered, most people rarely pause to consider how to direct their lives. So we talk about the key transitions that have shaped them. Having an inner circle that runs from elite athletes to CEOs, I have been able to chat with folks that share values while living in different socio-economic segments.

Most of what I learned in my first 40 years is summed up in PMarcA’s series on career planning (Intro, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). The best tip from PMarcA, be open to “drop everything” opportunities (see Part 1 for specifics). Somewhere, I learned to spot these and I find them irresistible. I’m in the process of transforming my life to take advantage of one that’s popped up.

If you follow PMarcA’s career advice (and apply the financial tips that I share here) then you will have a choice for significant personal freedom in your 30s or 40s. The exact timing of this freedom will depends on when, and if, you choose to have kids (more on that soon).

Life, and opportunity, have a shelf life. There are windows to follow our dreams; become elite athletes; start a new business; spend time with grandparents; and watch our kids grow. If we don’t grasp those opportunities then the window closes. New windows will open later, but they will be different.

One of the key things that I failed to appreciate in my early-30s was the shelf life of my physical power. I’m extremely grateful that I gave myself a chance to go for it as the lessons of my 30s are no longer available for me. At 43, I look at my young family and will be making changes to apply the same lesson in a different phase of my life.

Looking to my 50s, factoring in a further waning of physical power and remembering how, as a a teenager, I felt about adults 40+ years my senior – I suspect that the tug I feel towards my first career will get stronger. While living in the present, I keep an eye on the future.

My successful friends advise me to put yourself in the middle of people that are what you want to become. Is it any wonder that my dream of winning Ironman Canada brought me to Boulder, Colorado?

This is also good relationship advice, and the true gift from Boulder (my wife is far superior to any race victory) I turned myself into the person I wanted to meet and went to where a lot of those people were living. We have a much better shot at meeting a high-quality athletic spouse at 2pm at the pool, than 2am at a bar. Surprised that it took me so long to figure that one out, but grateful that I lucked into it.

When I look at my friends that have an enviable lifestyle, regardless of wealth, they follow their own advice to simplify as much as possible – I wrote about downsizing last week but this runs deeper. Specific quotes are:

  • get rid of anything that sends you a bill
  • you don’t realize the energy that something takes until you get rid of it
  • new experiences, not more stuff
  • give yourself the space to focus on doing one thing really, really well
  • say no, a lot

It’s important to remember that a simple life isn’t financial management. While it will save you money, the largest payoff is not financial.

With kids in my life, creating simplicity runs completely counter to what society tells me I ought to do – juggle marriage, fatherhood, career and athletics, while seeking to provide the best home life I can afford.

However, I’ve been spending the last three weeks sharing a bedroom with my daughter, my infant son is sleeping in a walk-in closet and a family friend is staying in our loft.  We’ve gone from 1,550 sq. feet per person (Boulder) to 340 sq. feet per person (Hawaii). I’m surrounded by natural beauty, living out of half a suitcase and couldn’t be happier.

Keep it simple, do it now, be true to yourself.

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Managing Personal Satisfaction

Last week’s post started the transition from looking at the financial cost of decisions (housing, education, supplements) to considering a deeper question of how to “manufacture” satisfaction and happiness.

We often hear that money can’t buy happiness but that ignores the reality that money CAN be used to increase personal freedom as well as purchase unique experiences – both of which link strongly to personal satisfaction.

If you’ve read Kahneman’s book then you’ll find his explanation why the following seem to work well for creating personal satisfaction. I’m going to share practical techniques that I’ve used to change my life – usually for the better but also to mitigate when life shifts against me.

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Take pain in large doses and quickly because the direction of movement, not the size of the movement, is what dominates how we feel. 

My best example of this tip is to downsize every few years.

Voluntary downsizing — In 2001, I moved to New Zealand and managed to live on 5% (five percent) of my 2000 cost of living in Hong Kong. My life satisfaction went way up due to an increase in fresh air, exercise, personal freedom and fitness.

Surprise downsizing — In 2009, my family was facing a 95% reduction in our income. I cut 90% from my personal expenditure and 50% of my family’s expenditure. That time my satisfaction went down (the cuts were painful). However, we quickly adapted to our lower expenditure and our satisfaction fell much less than our expenditure.

Setbacks, both planned and unplanned, can give us a new appreciation for things we take for granted: nature, spare time, personal health, friends and family.

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Be aware that the attraction of remote possibilities and an aversion of certain losses will skew your decisions. Take pain decisively and eliminate your underperformers.

I touched on this last week with regard to relationships. However, it applies in all areas of our lives. A good test for whether you should cut losses is “how does this situation/person/job/choice make me feel about myself?”

We have a tendency to hold onto under performing situations because we will favor a remote chance of success over the certainty of crystallizing an existing loss. We also anchor on past investments of time, money and emotion that are already gone within a situation.

In my life, the most dangerous under performers come with high fixed costs and emotional attachment. Examples include prestige assets (boats, cars, homes) and investments that can cost you money if they underperform.

Within investments I’ve been caught by: high fixed costs; unexpected cash calls; and leverage. You’ll find these risks in: early stage companies, capital intensive businesses, cyclical industries, vacancy rates, and businesses with inventory that loses value quickly over time.

It goes against human nature to take pain quickly but it is a useful habit to reinforce, especially when investments, or relationships, are off target early.

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Because happiness is relative, make incremental positive gains visible.

Athletes: get out of shape each year but not out of health! Build fitness slowly and make your gradual progress visible to yourself.

Finances: each month increase your core capital (low risk, low volatility, visible). I built a habit in my teens of saving 10% of everything I earned. The habit served me well and I grew accustomed to watching a small, incremental increase each month. Even with a stable net worth, you can reallocate capital (say, towards a college fund for your kids) and achieve satisfaction.

Benchmarks: choose targets that you can hit every single day. Create a habit of keeping small promises to yourself. Every day that I get up before 7am scores me a “win”. Every day that I do some form of exercise scores me another “win”. Daily wins reinforce my self-esteem and strengthen my will, when required.

Motivation: frequent smaller gifts are far more valuable than infrequent larger gifts. Small gifts are particularly effective when not expected. I’m most generous on the 364 days a year that aren’t Christmas.

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Priming and Framing – each of these gets a chapter in Kahneman’s book, so I won’t repeat his findings but I will tell you how I use my automatic mind to shape my life:

I use cues:

  • As an elite athlete, I had a sign that said “The Best” on my car’s speedometer.
  • The door to my bedroom had the splits to a 8:29 Ironman visible for more than a year before I got it done, perhaps I should have written down 8:24!
  • When my daughter is difficult I ask myself what the Dalai Lama would do. The reference to Buddhism confuses me a little bit, makes me less aggressive and I pause before following my automatic response to follow aggression with aggression. Break the chain, break the chain!

I seek, and spend time with, people that are relentlessly positive and unreasonably loyal. The flipside is avoiding liars, gossips and those with confused minds.

I buy photos and paintings that remind me of my favorite places and hang them where I see them often. You can tell a lot about someone by what’s stuck on their fridge, or printed on their t-shirts. It doesn’t need to be a Monet to have a positive impact.

All of these tips can work against us when inverted. Stress priming and framing for failure are extremely common – most prevalently through the news media and advertising, which feed on fear and lowering our self-esteem.

Look around where you spend your time, what do you see?

Choose wisely.