This is my problem: I am constantly in a state of learning. Usually, this is in the form of books, articles, and podcasts. Occasionally, I will go to the “experts” in social media.
A constant state of learning is not a bad problem. In the fields where I desire to become an expert, I must stay up to date on current trends while maintaining a good historical knowledge. But because I have an insatiable knowledge to learn more, I find that as soon as I digest one bit of information, I am moving on to the next. And while all this learning is beneficial, something is missing.
Practice and Training
What is the purpose of this knowledge? It cannot be solely for the sake of having more knowledge. Knowledge should only be the first step. To be effective, it must be the catalyst that leads to understanding and then to wisdom. Meditating on the words may help to imprint it onto the soul. But to get the most out of what is being learned, one must practice and train.
Over the years, I have read how to become rich, run faster and become stronger, and how to generally be a better person. If I applied everything I have learned, I would have an impressive financial ledger, be super fit, and dog-gone-it, everybody would like me. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead, vast amounts of what I have read has been lost because it was never implemented. And later, when I read the same topic presented by a different author, I find myself wondering why I didn’t employ it the first, second, or third time around.
Are there consequences to this feeble attempt at learning? Indeed, there is. Not only does it create a massive amount of wasted time, but it also creates another problem. The content which I once found so insightful and potentially life changing might get replaced by new knowledge, knowledge which may run contrary to the original. In fact, I may find myself knowing both sides of a coin but unable to apply either side.
So, how do I get better? I must slow down. I must take in the theoretical and put it to the test through practice and training. And this needs to occur in almost every facet of my life: body, soul, and spirit. I desire to improve. I desire to be the most complete human being that I can. To do this, I must go beyond mere learning.
That’s why the philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.
The conversation was inevitable. Tensions were high and coming to a head. The current path was no longer conducive for both of us to walk.
As with most everything else I do in my life, I visualize the way I think it will go down. Will I be able to keep my emotions in check? Can I stay calm? And if it comes to blows… Okay, maybe that is a little far, but one must be prepared, right?
Visualization turns to obsession. Obsession becomes neuroticism. Blood pressure rises in anticipation. Anticipation results in a loss of productivity, and then later, in a loss of sleep. And like many conversations I have imagined in the past, this one never happened.
I am an old man and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.
The fantasy I have created in my mind results in a reality of needless suffering. Anxiety for an unknown future is silly. Just like the good times, I have found a way to survive the bad times. Usually, I came out fine, maybe even a little stronger. Did I need to suffer in advance? Did the suffering change the event looming on the horizon? Did the event even happen? The answer is obvious and yet, I continue the same preposterous ritual of premature suffering.
The future has not arrived. I can prepare for the future by building my anxiety, running through countless possible scenarios, and then exacerbating the threat by giving it more attention than it deserves. Or I can prepare by doing the work required of me in the present moment. The activities of today demand my attention. The victories in the here and now are the stepping-stones that will see me through tomorrow. I cannot cross the bridge of the unknown until I arrive at the threshold.
He suffers more than is necessary, who suffers before it is necessary.
Seneca, Letter #98: On the Fickleness of Fortune
Twain and Seneca provide the proof that I am not the only one anxious about future events. There may even be a chance that we are in the same predicament. If so, then I implore you to turn to the present and let the events of tomorrow rest until they become the events of today. Prepare for tomorrow by attending to the work required of you today.
I get chills when I open with that sentence. Too often, I use it. So much I should have done, could have done, or would have done. Gazing in the mirror of the mind’s past, I see the wrong turns, the balls dropped, and the opportunities missed.
Things without remedy, should be without regard; what is done, is done.
There is no going back. To study history is to learn from the past, not to rewrite it. We learn in the hopes of not repeating the same mistakes. Experience is a wound not to be reopened. We let the scars of our shortcomings heal. The marks remind us to either go a different direction or to be more skillful in our next attempt. To stay in the past is to reopen the wounds of our mistakes and allow them to fester. Therefore, we must move forward.
But not too far.
Yet, I cannot help but go there anyway. I gaze at the clouds and see only the silver linings. I believe I can touch them. My excitement for tomorrow’s victories is so great that I relish the hit of dopamine flooding my brain. This intoxication, sublime in its fantasy, carries me on wings to the greatest heights. I could stay in this bliss forever, which means I must leave it with all haste. This drug, this dream, is beautiful. But it is an addictive trap that will keep me from where I belong.
The greatest obstacle to living is expectation, which depends on tomorrow and wastes today.
I hit play on the music. Again, I meditate. A daily practice that I fear I will never master. I want to go to the past. I long to explore the future. I belong in the present. Here is where I exist yet spend the least amount of time. The present is where my scars lead my footsteps. My actions bring me closer to the clouds I envision. If I cannot stay in the present, my hopes of the future will remain as only hope—distant, ephemeral, and without substance. My work can only be done in the present.
Creation. A divine, all-powerful Being set a plan into motion through which the whole universe came into existence.
Evolution. Bang. Out of nothing came something and through billions of years of randomness and chance, here we are.
I have always believed I was a created being. My existence on this earth is for a purpose. Regarding evolution, I believe we have adapted over the years, but the greatest adaptation occurs in one’s lifetime. I have evolved from the child I once was. I evolved again from an irresponsible young adult to the mostly responsible older adult I am today.
Being an “evolved” individual was something I considered a remarkable achievement. But if evolution is an improvement through chance, then maybe my progress is not as wonderful as I hoped. It may have been the slowest way to get from my starting point to my desired destination. This was a thought that never occurred to me until I read the following passage from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future:
Actually, most everybody in the modern world has already heard an answer to this question: progress without planning is what we call “evolution.” Darwin himself wrote that life tends to “progress” without anybody intending it. Every living thing is just a random iteration on some other organism, and the best iterations win.
What’s this book about? Peter Thiel explains, “Zero to One is about how to build companies that create new things.” Most new companies are not doing this. Instead, they are only copying other companies, which can be limiting factor in how successful they will be. As I read this book considering my own business, I cannot help but wonder how it also applies to my own life. And if I treat my life as a business, do I want to leave its growth and development solely to chance? To evolve is to move from point A to an unknown point B. Even though B may be better than A, is it the B I truly want?
What is the better solution? Creation. Creation is a plan. It is visualizing the point B and then designing a path that gets me there. Nothing is left to chance. Of course, fortune does play a role offering a good turn here or an obstacle there. Yet, the planned destination remains the same. I improve as I get closer, but this is not evolution. It is a part of the plan. It is a part of the life I am creating.
Our lives are too short and too precious to leave it to chance. To get to the place we desire, we must plan it and then relentlessly execute it. And maybe along the way the plan gets revised. That’s okay. Create the next iteration. Adapt, adjust, and continue to execute.
Is the world too complex, or did we make it that way? What about our lives? Have we made it harder than it should be? And when it comes to a relationship with God, did we keep it simple, or did we allow all the laws, statutes, and bureaucracy to dictate the nature of our relationship?
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
All the laws and customs broken down into two: Love God and love your neighbor.
From a scientific standpoint, the tree is a super-complex system. But long before man devised the science, the tree already knew the requirements to survive: earth, air, water, and light. With these simple ingredients the tree could dig deep, grow tall, and give back to nature. It could do its job.
What would God have us do? Would He have us live a faith so complicated that failure was all but imminent, a faith that would turn people away from Him because it was too hard? The prophet Micah would say otherwise. In fact, he wrote that there were only three requirements that God wants from us:
This is both an internal and external act. It is the path to righteousness. What is righteousness? It is right thoughts and right actions. Without vigilance, we can and will deviate from our true path in life. None of us are perfect, but we can get better. We can improve daily and get a little closer to where we should be.
How do we do it? We can start by following these words from Anne Frank:
How noble and good everyone could be if at the end of the day they were to review their own behavior and weigh up the rights and wrongs. They would automatically try to do better at the start of each new day, and…certainly accomplish a great deal.
Keeping a journal. It is a practice that many of the greatest thinkers in history implemented. If at the end of each day, we put our actions up for review, how much better could we become? And then in subsequent days maybe we would find ourselves a little more mindful of our actions. In time, patterns would emerge identifying areas of improvement.
Wow, I am really quick tempered! How can prevent making rash and ill-advised decisions?
Here, this behavior was fun in the moment, but the repercussions far outweigh the benefits.
I let this bad thought linger in my mind for too long. What could I have done to switch gears towards more productive and fruitful thinking?
Journal Item #1: Did I act with justice in my thoughts and in my actions?
I’ve learned that people will forgive what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
I love this quote from one of America’s most beloved poets. And when I think of my actions from the past, “how I made others feel” far outweighs any other achievements.
Recently, I was asked to officiate an upcoming marriage. Sadly, my first thought was, “Why would they pick me?” Being my biggest critic, I know my flaws and imperfections and can’t imagine why this young couple would honor me with this duty. But then, “how I made others feel” came to mind. For almost twenty years I have been a good-standing member of this family, I have helped where I could, and I have tried my best to encourage and improve the lives of those around me. I may not think I have done enough in this world, but maybe I have left an impression in how they felt.
Can I say everyone I have crossed paths with would feel the same way? Not a chance. I was once a foolish young adult and have hurt plenty of people along the way. And those crimes lacking in mercy and kindness still haunt me to this day. I try not to spend my life worrying what others think about me, but if I am not liked, I don’t want it to be due to a lack of kindness.
The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
Acts of kindness. Loving mercy. This is the second of God’s requirement for us. Doing so costs us very little but could change the lives of those we meet. By letting go of our pride, by not allowing perceived slights against our persons to be vindicated, and by being mindful that we are all fighting a hard battle, we can ease, or at least not add to, the burdens of others. We can have peace in our own lives as well as give peace to those in need.
Journal Item #2: How did I love mercy on this day? What small acts of kindness did I give? How did I make others feel?
Walk Humbly with God
A student could someday overtake the master, for they are both human.
I have had the honor of walking with those I considered a master. Powerful leaders, mentors, and respected family members. Though someday I would hope to be like them, maybe even surpass them in some way in the future, I would never in their presence try to overtake them. I would let them lead and humbly walk a step behind. This is my place, and I know it. It is a matter of respect and one of humility.
But who could walk with God and have hopes of surpassing Him? Who could think they could do it better, to be greater? To walk humbly with God is to know one’s place. He is the ultimate teacher, mentor, and leader, and we as students and servants can only hope to stay in step and remain in His presence. It is a walk. It is a journey. It is a relationship.
We can petition but not command.
We can praise but not curse
We can be the good stewards but not the master.
Journal Item #3: Did I walk humbly with the Lord on this day? Micah’s words are profound yet simple.
Why should we complicate these words to the point where we lose our ability to follow them? “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.”
Right off the bat, I love the writing style with which the author presents this information. And regarding that information, adhering to the materials will have a profound impact on my life.
Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.
Greg McKeown, Essentialism
How many days have I woken up with a general idea of what I would like to accomplish? How many times did I go into a weekday or weekend with an exhaustive to-do list? Since I build in planning time into my schedule for these two endeavors, daily and weekend, I say nearly all the time. But, and this is a really big but, how often do those items get crossed off the list? Unfortunately, not as often as I would like.
Too often things come up. I have a bad night’s sleep, I get lost in social media or unproductive reading, or I fail to say no to something that is not on the list. Tasks get pushed down the list, pushed off until tomorrow, or rescheduled into the next weekend. In essence, I procrastinate. I lose my sense of urgency and fail to accomplish the mission.
Because I am a fox and not a hedgehog, I never accomplish the one big thing. Sadly, I am a non-essentialist. I overachieve in the unimportant and grossly underachieve in the things that matter most.
Since reading Good to Great by Jim Collins and now The Essentialist, I have started asking myself these two questions every morning:
What activity is essential?
What is the one thing that I must work on that will get me closer to what matters most to me?
For any activity that falls outside of that activity, I must ask myself whether it is a part of my plan. I must weigh the activity according to its cost versus the benefits.
What will it cost compared to other activities on my list?
Will this detract from the things that matter most to me (family, personal growth, business)?
If the activity generates a greater cost than the benefits, why would I consider doing it? For example, I am a sucker for gathering knowledge for the sake of having knowledge. I used to tell myself this was for the purpose of being as well-rounded as possible. This was great in the past because I did not have a clear direction of where I wanted to go in life. But now that I have a very clear direction, how does non-pertinent knowledge bring me closer to my intended destination? It doesn’t. Therefore, my time would be better allocated to the pursuit of knowledge in my field. I would rather be a master of my craft (hedgehog) than a mediocre jack-of-all-trades (fox).
How do I do this? in a nutshell, I must determine what is essential. From there, I must learn to eliminate all the nonessentials. On paper, this is an easy formula for success, yet the reality is not so easy. It is a skill requiring vigilance and practice. If this is something I can master, which I believe I can, then my to-do list will have many less items on it and will be far more achievable. This will get me down the road and closer to my intended destination with less deviations along the way.
We can all purge our lives of the nonessential and embrace the way of the Essentialist—in our own ways, and in our own time, and on our own scale. We can all live a life not just of simplicity but of high contribution and meaning.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” -Archilocus
The fox is crafty and intelligent. He can create elaborate strategies to gain a hunting advantage over the hedgehog.
The hedgehog on the other hand is simple. He knows how to do one thing. When danger is on the horizon, he will roll into a prickly ball.
Ask me a few months ago which I would rather be, a hedgehog or a fox, I would have said a fox. Why not? A fox can do so much. Not being a one-trick pony, he can use the full array of his skills to plan, strategize, and execute. Why be simple when you can be complex? Complex is alluring, even sexy, whereas simple is just that, it is simple, maybe even a bit boring.
I have lived my life as a fox. And now I wonder, where has it gotten me? I can perform a multitude of odds and ends but not well enough to make it a profession. I can spout off a ton of random knowledge, yet who would be willing to hire me as a consultant? Even worse, I can dabble here and there on a plethora of projects. How many of these get finished? Not enough! As much as I try to be a fox, I have never successfully hunted a hedgehog.
Oh, that I was a hedgehog! What would it be like to know one thing perfectly? How excellent would it be to execute, without flaw, one single task? The foxes may scoff, but they will never be able to compete with a hedgehog. A handyman may be able to perform a wide array of activities, but will they be able to compete with a master carpenter?
As I look to a new business, the allure is to do a little of everything. But touching upon a little of a lot will prevent the mastery of one. Do I want to be an amateur dabbler, or do I want to find mastery in the one big thing that will take my little upstart from mediocrity to excellence?
Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.
In the book Good to Great, author Jim Collins writes about businesses that employ the Hedgehog Concept. These companies made a transition from being average to leading their respective industries. To do so, they found the intersection of three circles based on the following three questions:
What can you be the best in the world at?
What drives your economic engine?
What are you deeply passionate about?
Understanding and finding the intersection between these three questions, one can determine where to put the focus. This is the essential business of the hedgehog. Everything else should be ignored.
Each day is another link in the chain. Chains are no good if the links are weak. We can’t go back and fix our chain, but we can strengthen the newest links as we go along. We can build our links to handle a greater load, to be more resilient against outside forces, and to bolster us in times of need. We can create our chains of destiny to serve us and others when the need is the greatest. Everyday we forge a new link which means everyday counts. Throwing in a bad link every once in a while will do us no good. How can we build this chain?
What are our options? They are too numerous to count. But every choice matters; every decision counts.
The choices you make today will be your biography tomorrow.
One day, David decided to stay home. This was a choice. His country was at war. As the king, he should have been the one leading his men out to battle. In those days, that was his job. Instead, he made a self-serving choice that cascaded into a chain of subsequent bad choices. Laziness led to adultery which then led to murder. What started with one choice ended with a decree from God that the sword would never leave his house (2 Samuel 11-12).
Hopefully, the choices we make will not be as catastrophic as David’s. Yet, they can quickly spiral downward if we do not remain vigilant.
Maybe, it is too simple to believe it is true. But here it is: We become what we think about (Emerson). If our minds are focused on violence all day, then in time we will become desensitized to it. We will begin to justify it in the behaviors of others. Eventually, we will even be able to justify it in our own behaviors. The same could be said for all the vices–slothfulness, drunkenness, gluttony, lust. Thankfully, this also holds true for the virtues—wisdom, discipline, justice, courage, love.
So, when we think about adding quality to our lives or subtracting undesirable traits, it begins with our thoughts.
Persist in visualizing the ideal man you are determined to be, and always think of yourself as you are ambitious to become. This mental attitude will help you to match your dream with its reality.
Orison Swett Marden
Thoughts will set into our minds the types of people we wish to become. But at the end of the day, they must harmonize with our actions. Action is the testimony by which the world will view us. The houses we build in heaven are constructed by the works we do on earth. This is the Karma we set into motion while dwelling in our bodies. Every action has a reaction. Jung said, “You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.” Not our words and thoughts, but what we actually do. This is the mark by which we will be known.
Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.
We cannot control the outside forces that fate imposes upon us. Weather, fortune, and the deeds of others are often fickle and inconsiderate. Despite this, we can determine to be champions in this life, not victims.
Day by day, what you choose, what you think and what you do is who you become.
I look in the mirror. Whether good or bad, I only see what I want to see. My eyes only see what they have been trained to see. Everything else mysteriously gets dismissed. I find it amazing that a still image rarely matches what I saw in the mirror.
I take another bite. Today, the food looks good. It is pleasant to the senses and delights the palate. Sadly, it is not the best choice of food from a nutritional standpoint. Therefore, I will tell myself to only eat a little. Tomorrow, I am going to have a different opinion. Tomorrow, I am going to look back and wonder what I was thinking. Why did I pick that and why did I eat so much of it?
It is Sunday afternoon. I am feeling a little tired and decide to take a short nap (probably from all the food I ate). I set the timer for twenty minutes and get up two hours later. What happened?
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.
It is easy for me to look around and mentally note everybody else’s flaws. Why is that person so self-delusional? Don’t they know how foolish they look? Why do they eat such garbage and so much of it? Why aren’t they more active? Instead, they are just wasting away the time God has given them.
How is it that I am not so quick to notice my own flaws? In the moment, I acquiesce and give in to my base desires. These are the same desires that I am quick to notice and question in others. Yet, I have fooled myself to such an extent that I can no longer see these same behaviors in myself. The first principle is to not fool myself. Unfortunately, I have broken this principle too many times to count.
How do I improve knowing that I am so easily fooled?
Have a plan. Without one, I am lost.
Have a partner. I need someone to hold me accountable. Even more important, I must listen when someone calls me out.
Check my ego. My ego says I can get away without consequences. It wants me to compare myself to others in a way that only points to my perceived goodness and to their inherent flaws.
To not fool myself is no easy task. Yet, it can be done. It requires vigilance and an honest appraisal of my actions.
A Tuesday night soccer game. Before the game, I was a little worried how our team would play. We were missing three players and would take the field with one less player than our opponent. At game time, I realized neither team would have any substitutes. It would be eight versus nine with the winner standing at the top of the league standings.
After 5 minutes of play, we went down 1-0. The star player on the other team scored the first goal. Oh no! This could get ugly fast. Yet, our team didn’t surrender. They never gave up and continued to run and play hard. Our defense collected themselves and became relentless in their pursuit of the ball. And in the proudest of dad moments…
My son, Alec, began to shine. He coached his teammates on what to do and where to go. He took over on offense with multiple break-a-ways. He employed a few tricks that left the defenders watching him as he passed them by. After the dust settled, Alec had four goals on the tally sheet. We won 4-1.
Sometimes, a player gets lucky. Other times, a player just has a little more natural talent. But this performance wasn’t luck. It wasn’t natural talent. So, what was it? What separated him from the rest of the pack?
Having conceived of his purpose, a man should mentally mark out a straight pathway to its achievement, looking neither to the right or the left.
Last season, Alec was good. He was one of the four best players on the best team in the league. He finished the season with one or maybe even two goals. He was happy to win and happy to provide key passes to the goal scorers. But he wanted more. He wanted to capitalize on the “oh so many close” shots. Last season was when he started to really get hungry.
During the offseason when he wasn’t in school or wrestling, Alec was outside kicking the ball until the sun went down. He would bring his iPad outside with him, watch a video, and then practice what he saw over and over until he learned the skill. If the weather kept him indoors, he was watching more videos, watching games, or playing soccer on his Nintendo Switch. Soccer was his focus, and it was laser sharp.
Of course, I love to see his work bear fruit. But what impresses me the most is seeing his work ethic. He found something he is passionate about. And to become the best version of himself, he never looked to the right or the left. He marked out his pathway and began the journey only the most dedicated are willing to take.
I spend so much of my time teaching and working with him. But watching him practice, I realized he was really teaching me. At his age, I never worked as hard as he did. And as an adult, I tend to waver from one pursuit to the next. I am a middling Jack-of-a-bunch-of-stuff, but a master of nothing. Alec, on the other hand, is on a path to mastery that I can only hope to be on one day. He is becoming my inspiration to be better, to try harder. Maybe, there will come a time that I can be like him.