What’s Your Source – A Game

In my early 30s, I gave up climbing as a favor to my family. It was a choice that left me starved of my core need to exercise alone in nature. The “gift” I gave my family had the unintended consequence of starting me down a path that lead to triathlon, as well as my divorce.

Do you know what provides deep personal satisfaction?

Anger, drug and alcohol abuse, fear, depression, gluttony… in my life, these are a sign that I’ve fallen away from a life with meaning.

As a husband, and father of three young kids, I can feel good about putting marriage and family first in the short term. However, if I lose track of my own needs then I end up depressed, angry and full of resentment for the people I was trying to help!

Here’s a game that you can play to stay on track.

Think of yourself and fill in this blank 2 or 3 times…

I am most myself when__________

In my case, I came up with when… I’m riding, uphill, at altitude, in a forest, on a cool day.

Another visualization was when… I’m standing on a ridge line, far above the valley, in the sun.

Another… I’m standing in a forest, it’s snowing and very quiet.

When I see my essential self, I tend to be alone and up high. Mountaineering was a good fit for me.

Then shift your focus to your spouse. In my case…

Monica is most herself when__________

You are likely to find that you skew your view of your spouse based on how you see yourself. I saw my wife swimming (alone) in a pool.

After you’ve had a chance to think through each other, compare notes. I found out that I got my spouse-vision completely wrong!

Monica’s self-image surprised me (at first) because the visions were about helping people. She’s in a good spot as a mom and swim coach – those roles are how she sees her true nature and consistent with some profiling that we’ve done (Myers Briggs).

I hadn’t realized that swim coaching was feeding a core aspect of her personality. It turns out that coaching is a source of energy, satisfaction and meaning for her. It was an important realization for our marriage – we’d be smart to keep that work!

With a young family, you’ll be tempted to lose yourself for the benefit of the kids, or your spouse. You will need your spouse’s support to keep your essential nature in the marriage. The visualization game is one way to start the conversation, and far better than the trouble we cause ourselves when lost in a relationship.

If you keep a daily dose of your essential nature then you’re likely to be a better, and happier, parent and partner.

And now, I’m off for my walk in the forest (uphill, alone, at dawn) after writing my article (quiet, alone, sharing).

It’s important for me to remember that the value of time alone isn’t in the leaving. The value lies in my ability to continue to do work in the world.

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Further Reading: How To Make Love All The Time by De Angelis (yes, I read it)

Moving Through A Depression

Tropic Coffee

You might have seen the Slomo video piece a few weeks ago. I shed a tear when I watched the documentary as it touches the sadness of middle age. 50 is coming and I can feel that I’m spending my ‘middle’ worrying about money and getting yelled at by my kids.

The challenging thing about depression, or any of my other irrational feelings, is my inability to shake them via conscious thought.

Sharing my fears and concerns helps put them into a more rational context but my cure is always based around actions, rather than more thinking.

I smile when I re-read the paragraph above because (of course) thinking about “thinking too much” doesn’t work!

What does work?

Most helpful was the realization that I needed to make my life more difficult, while not adding stress.

I did this by purchasing a light alarm clock and changing my life so I get up two hours before my kids, who are thankfully good sleepers. By pulling the two hours from the end, to the beginning, of my day – I was able to write, exercise and sit without disruption. Writing, silence and exercise are the best antidote to the despair that I feel around kid noise.

In the heart of winter I reached out for help and attended a parenting workshop. The workshop gave me insight on how fantastic my kids are – nothing like listening to other parents to make me grateful for my own kids! However, despite my kids being normal (and desirable), I find their noise debilitating and draining.

What about the noise?

Some families cope by having constant background noise (TV and radio). For instance, the best parent that I know wears a radio walkman while she works in her house.

Other families ‘cope’ by yelling at the kids and emotionally beating them down. Effective, but not me.

I’ve been wearing earplugs to take the edge of the most intense moments, which rarely add up to more than 90 minutes a day.

People that cope well with noise will tend to find my choice of earplugs rude. Their reality is incapable of understanding what kid noise does to my internal life. I ask them for forgiveness and share the story of the great parent with the walkman.

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My son goes to school with the child of a social worker, who shared that her professional training hits a wall when she meets the reality of her own children. Her advice: stay two-steps back from the breaking point.

In applying this advice, I dropped lunch time workouts and replaced them with working in an absolutely quiet environment. This change took a lot of fatigue out of the back-end of my day. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday – I was swimming so intensely that I’d be mentally flat in the afternoons and exhausted by the evenings. Swapping my swim training into an early morning forest jog does nothing for my athletic fitness but it makes a huge impact on my overall mood.

Not swimming is complicated (in my head) because my swim coach is my wife and not spending time with her triggers my fear that my marriage will end and it will be my fault!

So…

The other bit of stress release is to tell my spouse the whole truth with how I am feeling, especially my fears (spending concerns, that I’ll act when I feel despair, that she will leave me, that I’m not a good man).

I have persistent themes that build internal stress – these all get shared with her (and pretty much everyone through my blog).

Most of this is article is to remind myself what to do – I had a tough 48 hours and started writing at 5am in a quiet house!

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What makes a difference?

Do something physical and spend a bit of quiet time in advance of the most stressful times of your day. For me that means short, solo, moderate workouts in nature done early morning and late afternoon. Each workout is short enough that the endurance coach in me wants to repeat the entire thing. Physical release and balancing the noise of my home life with quiet periods in my work life.

For the parents that deal with commutes and live in crowded cities – I don’t know how you do it. I’d be at risk for heavy self-medication and persistent deep sadness.

If you’re in that position then wait it out and don’t act on despair.

If I take responsibility for doing what I know works then I always move through a depression. When I’m really beat down it means that I’m very close to things improving.

See the beauty in the good moments.

Coffee Break

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Serious athletes might find value in an article I wrote about athletic depression and training mania.

How Far We’ve Come

CryI love this picture. Mom’s rushing out of the house, baby Lexi is scarlet and everyone has a sense of panic.

Back then, my daughter’s crying could reduce me to tears. With her younger sister, I’d calmly put her down, let her chill out (or not) and keep moving forward.

My two favorite baby mantras to remind myself that nothing is wrong…

  • Babies cry
  • When they are crying, they are alive

Barf

Here’s another good scene. My first solo overnight trip with my daughter. She’s wearing my hoodie because she just barfed her Mac & Cheese all over herself, her car seat and our van. Good times!

This was a key moment for me. I knew that I could quit and no one would blame me. Instead, Lex and I decided to stick with our plan to overnight and visit the zoo. She still talks about the bad Mac & Cheese – it was orange and man (!) did it stink!

When you’re in the craziness of the day to day, be sure to look around and see the progress that you will make.

Give your kids what your parents need.

I’ll Be Happy When

Tucson Camp

The article is not about my friends in the photo.

I put them in the article because we’re happy when we ride together. So… I will be happy when I ride with my friends.

That’s a start.

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A story about a friend that, like me, can struggle with happiness. In his case, extreme athletic success leaves him feeling empty. To top it off, he has a large public profile which leaves him exposed to the people that hate us for no reason.

We spent an evening talking and I shared the best things that I learned by leaving a career that paid me a lot of money.

If you’re not happy with your current success then you’re unlikely to be satisfied with more.

In a couple years, you will forget why you needed to change and trick yourself into coming back to something that wasn’t able to satisfy you in the first place.

Be sure to write it down.

All of these apply to my life. I’ll be happy when…

  • I graduate from school
  • I get into school
  • I’m promoted to partner
  • I run sub 60, 45, 40, 35 minutes for a 10K
  • I race sub-9 at an Ironman triathlon
  • I get my weight under 190, 180, 170, 160 pounds
  • I win a race
  • I win another race
  • I win a world championship
  • I pay off my loans
  • I borrow more loans
  • I save $1,000 / $10,000 / $100,000 / $250,000 / $1,000,000 or more
  • I find someone to love me
  • I buy a big house
  • I sell a big house
  • I own an Alfa Romeo Spider
  • I sell an Alfa Romeo Spider

Make it real, write it down, see how it makes you feel. This tip works like magic!

When you do it, PAY ATTENTION.

Did it work?

After 30 years of ticking off goals, I’ve come to see a pattern that amuses me.

  • I have to admit that achieving goals fails to provide lasting satisfaction
  • There seems to be chronic dissatisfaction stalking one side of my personality
  • But I tell myself that’s OK because dissatisfaction helps me strive towards my goals
  • And by achieving my goals…
  • I’m likely to continue to be dissatisfied

And, I watched my wife and kids – who are deeply happy.

And, I realized that the “things that make me unhappy” don’t happen all that often. Just like the happy things, they are temporary. What makes them linger is carting them around afterwards.

And I could see my internal voice constantly tempting me towards dissatisfaction by saying I need to get more and more stuff done.

Here’s what I know is likely to work most days – run in the morning, write, ride in the afternoon. Between those three things, do what needs to be done, ideally by helping others.

Zoo

Miniature train rides (above) also seem to work well – for us and the train conductor! I’m happy for that guy.

What’s your formula?

Helping Kids Under Stress

While a certain amount of tears are inevitable, half of my kids’ meltdowns can be diffused by a simple technique.

  • Ground Yourself – two deep breaths for me
  • Slow It Down – give both of us a chance to chill
  • Mirror It Back – being understood is a basic human need

You’ll be amazed at the healing effect this has on the kids (and adults) around you. I’ve tried to make this my default response pattern and it works great.

The opposite method (quick automatic reactions) escalates most situations.

Let your kid be the hero – give her a chance to show you that she can handle whatever she faces.

Here’s a simple script…

  • Daughter takes a spill and is on the edge of a meltdown.
  • Dad: Wow! You just hit your knee
  • Daughter: Sniffle, sniffle
  • Dad: That must have really hurt when you hit your knee. You need ice?
  • Daughter: It’s OK Dad, I’m alright
  • Dad: You are a strong girl, Lexi.

I’m amazed by the number of times that my kids comfort me when I acknowledge what they are feeling.

Should You Borrow?

Last year, 50% of my cost of living was related to preschool fees and childcare expenses.

This cost can be a source of anxiety, especially when faced with a grumpy toddler. Interestingly, the only cure appears to be: (a) train morning and night; and (b) write an article during the day. If I do that then life seems pretty good.

Another way to counteract the anxiety is to raise enough cash so that I’ve funded my childcare expenses from now until my youngest is in school, five days a week.

I’ve been looking at borrowing against an investment property. Even though it is irrational to borrow (now) to reduce anxiety about a future expense, I’ve been thinking about putting a loan in place.

Here’s my advice to myself. You might find it useful as debt markets improve for borrowers.

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Should I borrow?
Generally no.

However, there are some exceptions that have worked for my family.

Housing – A 30-year fixed loan for a well-located home that has a cost of ownership (mortgage, taxes, insurance, repairs) that is materially less than your cost to rent. If you are unlikely to move for a decade then this type of loan can be a great deal.

There’s a lot in the paragraph above: location, buy vs rent analysis, likelihood of staying put and ability to hold long-term. To stack the deck in your favor, each of these characteristics is essential.

Saving – some folks struggle to save. So a mortgage, particularly a shorter duration one (like 15 years), is a form of forced savings that would not otherwise happen. Still, being locked into a location for 15 years is a big commitment, and inappropriate for most young people.

With real estate, on average, I’ve sold within three years. As a result, the investment return is greatly reduced by the large fees and expenses. To encourage myself hesitate, I assume that I’m losing 10% of the purchase price immediately after I buy. This makes it much more attractive to rent, and if that goes well, then buy small.

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The freedom that comes from a debt-free life is empowering and, my willingness to do “no deal,” has saved me from many expensive errors.

My hit rate on offers has been less than 35% and I’ve been fortunate to miss out on some deals.

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I’ve been thinking about taking out a loan on an investment property that I own. So, I asked my financial adviser his thoughts and he came up with:

Borrow to buy income

Borrow for specific purpose, say, in advance of money coming in later that will repay the loan

Borrow early in one’s career to buy assets that can be used to good affect and which will likely appreciate – eg home mortgages // but remember that being able to move at short notice can be a great way for rapid career advancement

Borrow to avoid selling assets at a bad time market wise – this one is huge and why I like to have a line of credit available to my family (as well as at least one year’s living expenses held in cash)

Borrowing to supplement cash flow is dodgy unless you know how cash flow is going to increase thereby enabling you to repay – this is the classic way the we end up underwater with credit card debt.

In private equity we had a saying – never fund operating losses. In other words, force yourself to cover your cost of living. If you can’t do that then scale back your living. With my childcare costs, I’ve been running an operating loss for five years and it is a source of stress. More debt, to facilitate more spending, is rarely a cure for financial anxiety.

It’s tempting to borrow when the debt markets are good. I’ve found debt to be most useful when:

  • It sits in a company and is non-recourse
  • It is fixed-rate and used to purchase assets that can generate a significant premium to my cost of finance

Where things have gone well, I’ve tended to take a binary approach. I will either invest in a highly leveraged company or, in the case of my personal portfolio, invest in the assets directly, without additional debt.

The key thing to remember is you don’t need to borrow and it’s awful to trade your freedom for something that doesn’t cure your condition.

Aside from professional education, most ‘things’ don’t make a difference – especially when compared to the health benefits of living a lower stress life.

Five Years A Father

Denver Zoo Spring Break 2014Five and a half years into parenthood, what stands out.

First, you don’t need to make the kids a priority. Babies, toddlers and preschoolers are extremely effective at expressing their needs!

Second, I’d strongly recommend being a binary parent with your core values. If you’re not into physical and verbal abuse – give yourself a blanket no hit and no yell policy. This saves you having to decide if a situation merits abusing your kids or spouse.

It’s surprisingly easy to fall into abusive habits. I’m a lot more aggressive than I realized pre-kids. Part of why I volunteer is to atone for the remorse I feel with regard to my thoughts about my children!

Don’t worry about the difficulties. Everyone deals with the same stuff and our minds do a good job of forgetting about misery. Two practical tips here…

Spend time listening to other parents talking about their situation. It will always make you feel better.

When fellow parents ask how you are doing, answer them “I’m OK now” or “I’m good now” or, perhaps, “I’m great now.”

The second tip is an effective tactic to avoid carrying the past into the future. Only a small minority of moments will be truly miserable. These moments can be high energy and, therefore, easily remembered. I can be bring myself to tears if I focus on my strongest memories of despair. Not a good habit. On the flip side, when things get so bad they become funny, those are the memories that make a marriage.

A Flower For DaddyOne of the most surprising things has been the moments of pure bliss. Sometimes I get so happy that my body tingles. Transcendental experiences.

Christmas 2013Take a lot of pictures. Print out the pictures that trigger joy in you – I can feel my heart as I look at the photos that I share this week.

It’s not possible to have too many positive triggers. There are days, and nights, when you’ll need them!

Screen saverBased on our home life, there are three things that you, and your spouse will be tempted to let slide: sleep, marriage and health.

Further, you’re likely to get so washed out, that you’ll be grateful if your spouse drops sleep or health to make your life easier.

Carving out time to maintain your marriage is inconvenient. However, it’s essential to avoid finding yourself lost. Your kids are going to keep on rolling either way.

Laugh as a family.