Quotes – A Well-Ordered World

The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge. Such extension of knowledge lay in the investigation of things.

Things being investigated, knowledge became complete. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy.

From the Son of Heaven down to the mass of the people, all must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything besides.

~Confucius

Looking Back On A Year Gone By

To Our Little Lion,

The allusion to a New Year reflection post is intentional, as is the suggestiveness of the title that time is moving past us at a regretfully quick speed. Although the first few weeks and months of your life you were changing every single day, the change appeared more gradual and more difficult to notice. Around six months, the pace of change accelerated and after a year you are already entering your personhood and the volume of change occurring is almost impossible for us to note with any detail.

Whereas in the past I sought to document some of the specific observations about your behavior and development that stood out to me, this time I want to share with you about an episode along the way which was particularly trying for the Wolf and me. I want you to understand what happened and how we came to our decision. Finally, I want to do some reflecting but not about you, rather, about us.

When you were born you had some trouble forming a proper latch when you were nursing. It took us several months to figure out that you had a minor and surgically correctable condition called a “tongue tie”– essentially, the fibers underneath your tongue connecting it to the floor of your mouth were a bit too taut for you to control your tongue the way you need to to make breastfeeding easy for you and your mother.

Eventually, with the help of some of our medical consultants, we realized what was going on and had the short (2 minute) procedure performed at a local dentist’s office. However, it took some time afterward for you to develop the strength and dexterity in your tongue necessary to nurse without difficulty. For five or six months, the Wolf was completely dedicated to pumping her milk for you which was then fed to you in a bottle. She had to do this six to eight times a day, for twenty to thirty minutes at a time, and then you had to be fed afterward. It was very hard for her and she was very sad and even angry at times as she learned to accept her choice, which was to provide you with a diet that was largely (75%+) still her breast milk — “the best milk” — even though you couldn’t get to it on your own by nursing. She made that choice because she believed you really needed her and it was important to your immunity, your brain and body development and long-term, your intelligence, health and well-being. It was a difficult challenge, and it was an opportunity for her to form an even stronger bond with you.

Eventually you gained the strength and ability to resume breastfeeding. You were taken back off the bottle and formed the relationship through nursing with the Wolf that she had hoped to have with you from day one. It was a great relief to realize she could give up the pumping routine and just enjoy feeding time with you like that… we were concerned it might never be possible.

Unfortunately, it took us some time early on to understand what was going on with your feeding and during that time you were undernourished. Then, as we made adjustments, you rapidly began gaining weight and strength. Perhaps because of this, your gross motor development was different than the average infant and you were considered, on a relative basis, to be slow to develop your sitting and crawling.

Because of the trying ordeal with your feeding early on, the Wolf and I decided it was important to get more checkups with your pediatrician than we otherwise would bother with because our principle is to not visit with medical professionals unless something seems to be wrong. At the time of this visit, nothing seemed to be wrong, just the opposite, you seemed very happy, healthy and growing every day. But we were fearful because of our early experience and we wanted to be sure. So your mother took you in for a checkup.

The visit with the doctor was uneventful until the pediatrician noticed you were not sitting up. She became extremely alarmed and said that this potentially indicated a major problem for your health and that you needed to be screened by specialists right away. She didn’t offer many other details beside that and was not willing to entertain questions or curiosities from your mother and me. She claimed she had never in her practice seen a child your age not sit up on their own.

To say this was hard for us to believe would be an understatement. I began calling some of the screening agencies she recommended and tried to understand what it was they wanted to do with you and why it was necessary. I tried to get names and contact information for the specialists who were actually knowledgeable about the specific concerns the pediatrician had for you so I could consult with them directly and skip a step. The more I dug, the more confusing the process we were referred to appeared to be and I began losing confidence in the pediatrician’s recommendation.

Your mother and I spent a three week period feeling absolutely awful. We were worried for you. We felt alone and vulnerable, not understanding what was apparently wrong and not having anyone in an authoritative position we could turn to to just ask questions. We were leaning towards taking the pediatrician’s concerns seriously, after all, we had been wrong in not recognizing your earlier nutritional challenges. On the other hand, it was hard to avoid the sense that we were facing a choice of believing her or our “lying eyes”, as you seemed otherwise to be a cheerful and ever-changing infant.

It seemed like a defining moment for us, and for you and for our relationship with you– to begin to see you symptomatically, as somehow “wrong” the way you were, or to have faith that if you were not showing signs of distress or pain you would develop in due time in your own way and that would be fine.

We did manage to visit with an occupational therapist for a consultation, skipping the strange screening process that was recommended to us. The occupational therapist observed you for a half hour and told us that she saw nothing to be concerned about, that she believed you would learn to crawl and sit up with time and that we could choose to work with her to accelerate the process through therapy if we liked. She seemed confident but we still had some uncertainty, what if you did not? What if there really was a problem and you got further and further behind developmentally, whatever that meant?

Ultimately we decided to wait. The very week the pediatrician raised the alarm you got yourself into a crouching (pre-crawl) position on your own, without any encouragement or assistance from us. Your body just told you to do that. As the weeks went by, your crawling changed and you began pulling yourself up against furniture. Eventually you sat up on your own and began playing and manipulating objects in that position. Today, you are on the verge of walking, spending more and more time every day pulling yourself up on furniture and ledges and practicing standing. It’s clear your body just keeps telling you to try this and you are gaining strength and confidence with each attempt.

In hindsight, there was nothing to worry about. You got there and you are getting there, on your own, in your own way. What might’ve been a disastrous path toward treating a “condition” that didn’t exist and becoming the ward of a variety of specialists and other agents that have no business interfering with your health and development at worst, or a subtle transformation in our own perception of you as somehow “flawed” and not okay as you happen to be at best, is instead an already seemingly distant but painful memory. As difficult as it was to go through, it certainly has given the Wolf and I increased courage to be patient with you and to look to the good in you, to focus on what you are capable of right now and what’s going well for you than to dwell on what you can not yet do or to focus on potential items of worry. It has consequently reduced our stress as parents a great deal to have experience to back this mindset.

So now, a reflection about us as parents.

When I watch other people interact with you, I am always surprised to see how much of what they do and say seems to be about them than about you. What I mean by that is, they seem to be playing out their needs and you are an object utilized in the goal, rather than they are thinking about your needs and treating you as the subject of a relationship they have with you.

What seems to be true of them could of course be true of us, your mother and father. And its something I think we need to be the most mindful of in our interactions with you.

Many people conceive of parenting as a project in filling up an empty vessel. Whether that vessel is to be filled with love, values, knowledge, experiences or anything else, the implicit idea is that the child is empty and the parents’ job is to put things in. The result is a “full person”, a wholesome, well-balanced individual.

We think you’ve got almost everything you need to be who you are. It’s inside of you, just waiting for the right time and place to come out. We can feed you, clothe you and care for you in any other way you need us but the real development work is done by you, not by us. In fact, we can interfere and get in the way of your natural development quite easily, but it is difficult to impossible to think of ways we could improve upon it.

The ways in which we would be tempted to interfere would be the ways in which we feel incomplete as ourselves. What we want to pour into you are the things we wish we were in touch with ourselves. If we feel empty in these ways it becomes more likely that the time we spend together is less about getting to know who you are and more about getting to know the distant parts of ourselves. The danger is that we use you like an object on this quest for self-knowledge.

The true heavy-lifting we can do as parents is to keep working on ourselves. If we can model whole, complete, satisfied individuals to you through our own lives, we give you an aspirational development goal that is in alignment with our parenting goal. If we spend at least as much time working to become the best versions of ourselves we can be as we do trying to be “better parents” with more tips, tricks, techniques, tools, knowledge, experience, values, resources, etc., we will be of far more value to you as you grow than we would be if we convinced ourselves that giving you things or putting things into you could make up for the existential emptiness we demonstrate to you with our daily lives, lives you are intimately aware of because you are right beside us the whole time.

What’s interesting about this for us to realize is that this is actually best for us, too. But since our goal is to live with empathy and look for ways to cooperate it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that what’s best for you is also best for us.

Review – 1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years

1,2,3…The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers 3rd Edition (buy from Amazon.com)

by Irene Van der Zande, published 2011

A friend had recommended “The Toddler Years” as a resource for continued learning and practice with regards to piloting RIE from infancy into childhood. And indeed, the book is similar in format, structure, tone and event content to works we’ve read previously and enjoyed such as Your Self-Confident Baby and Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect. Much of the material and insight in the book comes via childcare practitioners at a day facility in Santa Cruz, CA and the book has a preface by Magda Gerber. This is definitely “RIE-approved”.

As I was reading this book and noticing the similarities, I asked myself, “Why do we do what we do [as parents]?” When we first learned about RIE and NVC, it was easy to get overwhelmed with all the new DOs and DONTs in terms of behavior and lose sight of the goal. The goal is not to follow some set of rules, arbitrary or otherwise, or even to be Good Parents as some kind of exercise in living an ideal, but to live our lives in relation to our children a certain way– to treat them with the kind of respect we’d hopefully treat any other adult.

As I was reading the scenario-specific counsel in this book, I realized that “what to do” in any of these situations shouldn’t be mysterious. We can get to the answer quite easily by inverting the situation and asking ourselves what we’d do if an adult acted like a child? How would we treat that adult? With condescension, disgust, frustration, anger or worse, violence? Or would we practice patience, understanding, offer our assistance and respect their needs and choices as much as we could?

That being said, these lessons about commonly occurring parenting dynamics are indeed helpful pre-practice and may result in the thought processes and related behaviors becoming more intuitive and flow-y rather than flustering or rehearsed.

Choice

Just like all of us, toddlers are happier when they have some control over their lives. This also makes it easier for them to accept what they don’t have a choice about.

The first act of a child’s life, being born, is a set of circumstances the child itself had no choice in creating. Nor is the child aware of its lack of choice, in this situation or any others, for some time after birth. Nor even is the child capable of exerting any influence over the course of its life, via choice, even if it was aware of the choices that existed.

But over time the child’s life becomes increasingly defined by choice both in terms of awareness and in terms of action. It is no wonder then that “choice” is an important theme in the development of the life of the toddler and that we as parents and caregivers can render a great service to our children by giving them choices whenever we can and being understanding with them when they react against the situations where they lack choice but might like to have one for whatever reason.

One way to offer choice is via closed questions, that is, “Would you like to have an apple for your snack, or a banana?” versus “Would you like a snack?” The reason to offer closed questions is because it encourages the child to make choices we can live with. It can be easy to get bogged down in the subtle reality of how little toddlers have to choose about their life at times– we know they NEED a diaper change but they don’t WANT one, etc. Using closed questions frames the choice around taking a positive action the caregiver believes is necessary and hopefully avoiding fighting and antagonism over choices that don’t exist.

Similarly,

When there is no choice, we need to be careful not to offer one by mistake.

Saying, “We’re going to Grandma’s, it’s cold outside, do you want to wear your jacket?” might elicit a “No!” and a frozen child, when what we really meant was to offer a closed question such as, “Would you like to put your jacket on yourself or would you like me to help you put it on?”

Feelings

Spend a lot of time giving children names for their feelings.

As adults, we have a certain awareness of our feelings such that we can distinguish one feeling from another, the intensity of the feeling, its source and perhaps most importantly, we can label our feelings in order to communicate about them more clearly. (This is the ideal with adults, anyway… any student of NVC is aware of just how limited even many adults’ capabilities are in this regard!)

With young children it is different. Feelings might seem to come from nowhere and shock or surprise. They might seem uncontrollable. One kind of feeling of a high intensity might seem similar to that same feeling at lower intensity (ie, just “good” or “bad”, pleasant or unpleasant) and there is most of the time no sense of the character of a feeling and the name it carries. Talking about feelings with young children and repeating the names of the feelings we observe them experiencing can help a toddler start to gain mastery and awareness of their feelings.

Children need to understand their feelings. They need to know their uncomfortable feelings are just as important as their pleasant feelings. By accepting these feelings, we teach our toddlers to accept themselves and each other.

The goal of many parents and caregivers seems to be to raise a child who only experiences good feelings. Feelings of pain are warded off, “Oh you’re alright, nothing happened!” as are feelings of shame or fear, “Be a big boy, don’t cry!” Perhaps the motivation is to provide children with that ideal experience, “childhood innocence”, as long as possible and to protect them from reality which is sometimes disappointing, frightening, infuriating or just plain unfair.

But accepting some feelings and rejecting others leads to self-repression and a certain kind of schizophrenia. There is the “me” that has feelings which are acceptable to the adults and caregivers in my life, and there is the “not me” that has feelings which make them uncomfortable, which seems to pop up in my life at the most embarrassing times. Helping children to experience all their emotions as equally valid allows them to build confidence in the unity of their self.

Limits

Limits can be stated in firm but respectful words. We can do this by using what is called an “I” message. That is, instead of saying “You must do this” we can make it clear that we are speaking for ourselves:

“I want you to be gentle.”

“I need you to help me get your clothes on.”

“I don’t like it when you run away.”

We can talk about what the child is doing rather than using blaming or labeling words.

Some people find parenting with respect challenging because they equate it with a kind of “anarchy” and the giving up of their authority even in matters of safety or in enforcing their personal preferences in their own home or life. It can be hard enough to adjust to living with a messy spouse, for instance, now a diabolical two-year-old is supposed to reign over me?

This is a false dichotomy. Respect is a two-way street. And imperative to having respect and giving respect is to be clear about who is respecting what. Using the “I” technique makes it clear that limits have to do with individual needs and don’t involve arbitrariness or authority.

Building Confidence

Children who are confident in their ability to learn through practice are more likely to grow into independent people… making things happen rather than waiting for things to happen to them.

We learn to be action-oriented in our lives or we learn to wait for a rescue that isn’t coming.

There are two models of failure and its significance that humans can internalize according to recent psychological research. One model is failure-as-feedback, in which failure indicates that an action was not performed properly to achieve the desired result with the possibility that it could be performed properly with further practice.

The other model is failure-as-wrongness, in which failure indicates that a person is not appropriate to a task at hand in some existential way and their inability to achieve success in this instance is evidence of their wrongness or lack of completeness as a functioning person.

It is imperative that children have opportunities to practice actions, to experience occasional failure, and to be encouraged to try again in order that they build confidence in themselves and in the model of failure-as-feedback. Without internalizing this principle, they are apt to experience a life of growing self-doubt and confusion on a fundamental personal level.

Presentism

Toddlers live in the here and now. Yesterday is ancient history and tomorrow might as well be next year.

How wonderful that toddlers can remind us that the present is all we ever have! As adults it is so easy to live with regret, or to drift through the present ever-anticipating the future.

Of course, they may serve us these reminders in unpleasant ways with their seeming impatience, or their repetitious requests or insatiable demands for things they’ve already been given before. But it’s important either way, for our own sanity and enjoyment of life, that we remember that they only behave this way because the present urge is the only one they know at this moment in their life.

Sleep

Give warnings before bedtime so the child has a chance to finish playing.

Not only do small children seem to sleep fitfully at times, but they also go to sleep fitfully. And sleep seems to creep up on them and snatch them when they aren’t expecting it. One moment they are playing with their toys and screeching with gaiety, the next they are rubbing their eyes and ears and about to topple over with sudden onset of wooziness.

Adults can help children anticipate the future, and their own need for sleep, by following bed time rituals which include buffer time and light warnings that sleep is coming and it is time to begin winding down.

The “S word” – Sharing

Toddlers do not learn to share by having grown-ups make them do it. Having to give up a toy makes a toddler feel angry, not loving.

Why do adults think sharing is so important? Is it simply mindless repetition of their own childhood experience? Is it a social or cultural imperative tied to recent historical developments? Is it a way to feel equal while ignoring that we are not?

Sharing is not in the vocabulary of small children although, curiously, property rights are! The individual child’s property right, at least. While there are many ways to respect small children by thinking of them and treating them as capable of something they have not yet mastered, sharing seems to be one of those things that does not lend them respect or enjoyment when it is expected of them.

In our home we don’t care for sharing as a principle. So avoiding the “S word” will be relatively easy for us!

Tantrums

If a toddler finds out that having a tantrum is a way around our limits, the child may start throwing tantrums all the time.

Another idea that is interesting about tantrums is that they belong to the child, not to the parent. It is easy for the adult to assume a tantrum is a demonstration of a critical failure in their parenting, rather than a critical failure in the emotional regulation of the child. Of course they often come at the most inopportune times as well, right before trying to leave for an errand, or out in public amongst a bunch of gawkers.

Even during a tantrum, the child is experiencing an emotion they are truly experiencing and it’s worth it for parents and other caregivers to practice patience and understanding in these moments, validating the emotion even if it is disagreeable and talking through it with the child, along with giving them space to express their emotion, to exhaustion if necessary.

Toilet time

The time to start toilet learning is when our toddlers show signs of being ready, like:

  • having dry diapers for longer periods of time
  • letting us know that they’ve pooped or peed in their diapers
  • showing interest in sitting on a toilet or potty chair
  • wanting to wear underpants
  • disliking wearing wet or soiled diapers

The book does not call it toilet “training” for a reason. This is not a rote memory behavior or even a reflex. It requires conscious effort and it has a psychological root. Being ready to use a toilet for elimination is an egotistic decision and like many other similar experiences in life we can help the child by waiting until they’re ready rather than expecting to do something they’re not yet capable of or don’t see any benefit in themselves.

Eating and weaning

Toddlers will eat when they’re hungry, but might not eat much.

Toddlers need to eat more often than we do. Their stomachs are smaller.

Toddlers like to have choices.

Meals are served outside whenever the weather permits.

One thing I thought could’ve been added in this section is the observation that sometimes toddlers will eat quite a bit! In fact, too much and too fast if you keep putting food in front of them. We are learning to offer one piece of food at a time and waiting until our Little Lion requests more (with reaching, grunting and looking for the food). Even then, we try to pace things as his belly is bound to fill up quicker than his brain gets the signal that it’s time to stop.

Successful parenting

It helps to remember that, just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect parents or children. There are no perfect families either, even if they look that way from the outside. It’s not our job to be perfect, but to do the best we can.

I’ll let that one settle in on its own.

It’s healthy for our children to see us having interests besides our families.

It’s also healthy for our children to see us acknowledging their needs without actually fulfilling them, instantaneously or at all. New parents often forget that it’s okay to use the bathroom, even if it means a crying child. And these kinds of over-permissive decisions can extend beyond those first few months to picking the child up whenever it beckons, interrupting a rhythm or flow in some household chore to immediately respond to the child’s request, etc. The child isn’t always going to get what they want in life and it’s okay to model that now, in toddlerhood. Just realize you may hear a bit more crying and whining as a result of your decision.

Being polite by acknowledging people socially is an adult need, not a child’s.

Teaching children to wave hello and goodbye, to high-five, to smile or “be nice” to strangers who greet them and to say please and thank you may seem cute but it is not necessary and it may even be unsafe (why undermine a child’s instinctive apprehension of strangers?)

Some people who do not understand that children are individuals and not objects can find it frustrating and demeaning to deal with an “aloof” child. Why is it so important to this person to be acknowledged by a tiny toddler who is more interested in drooling over their toys? What does their need for acknowledgement and validation-in-existence truly imply?

Guilt keeps us looking backward and feeling bad about what we should have done instead of looking forward and feeling good about what we’re going to do next.

This idea is tied to the failure-as-feedback model. If we are always learning and growing, as the toddler is, and we want to model this as normal, we would do well to focus on what we’ll do next and not to obsess about the past.

Enjoying your child

Childhood passes quickly. And it never comes back. “They won’t need me as much as they do now.”

A truly bittersweet thought. To acknowledge that the pain, discomfort and disruption of being always needed is ephemeral; but so too is the joy, confidence and excitement of being the center of a young person’s world.

4/5

 

Notes On Reading With Our Little Lion

The Wolf and I have been a bit negligent about reading with our Little Lion to date. When he was just out of the womb, I spent the first few weeks of life reading through “Our Oriental Heritage” from the Story of Civilization series, while the Little Lion and the Wolf breastfed to sleep. We made a lot of progress– we got through all of Ancient Egypt and most of the Mesopotamian cultures, through to Persia. I think we stopped right around Ancient India.

Many things got in the way when we set the book down and forgot to come back to it, not just one thing. But the most important reason in my mind is that it seemed like our Little Lion developing his other skills and capabilities was more important than trying to read every day. Eating, sleeping, walking (me + stroller + doge), rolling and crawling, etc. Reading was one more thing that seemed to have limited benefit on a relative basis.

I know all Good Parents read to their kids everyday, even when they’re not paying attention or can’t sit still on their lap. I also know all Good Parents do Tummy Time. We didn’t do Tummy Time. And we didn’t read to our Little Lion every day. So we might not be Good Parents. We’ll see.

One thing we do with our Little Lion is we talk a lot. We listen to music. We have adult conversations with one another, using adult words, and with our Little Lion, using adult words. We talk about our emotions and we don’t hide from him when we aren’t getting along with ourselves, each other or other people. His home is partially bilingual (trilingual… but I can’t seem to catch a break on getting that third language spoken more frequently than the second!) so our Little Lion is getting a lot of exposure to language.

The Wolf and I are big readers. Even if we’ve been negligent so far with our Little Lion, he will have no questions about whether he’s living in a literary household. Some day he’ll read our reviews on this blog, and hopefully contribute his own! He will see the Lion and the Wolf reading all kinds of things, nearly every day, often for long stretches of time. If he grows up hating books, I don’t think it will be because we didn’t do a lot of story time for the first ten months of his life.

That being said, our Little Lion seems like he’s able to get some benefit from being read to now and seems like he can actually enjoy the interaction actively. So we’re diving in a bit on this one now, reviewing potential titles to add to his library. We’re also thinking about principles for selecting books for reading and principles for how to benefit from reading together. Here is what we have thought about so far.

Principles for Selecting Books

  • Avoiding fantasy themes until much older; no books that depict characters or events which could not possibly be witnessed in real life
  • Emphasizing characters, events, animals, natural environments, that our Little Lion has a good chance of experiencing in his present location; there is plenty of time, as he develops and over the course of his reading career, to explore places and things beyond “home”
  • Emphasizing people, emotions and simple story lines with vivid images (real, or highly realistic is fine)
  • Action emphasized over values and meanings, though values and meanings we agree with are okay (things we’re not okay with: PC culture, sharing is caring, collective inclusion and individual exclusion, embedded authoritarian messaging)
  • Baby-centric narratives are okay for now, but modeling relationships and older people is okay, too
  • Questionable– “fairy tale” type stories like Aesop’s Fables. The Fables characters are animals, who usually talk, the emphasis is on the lesson and the action, not the talking animal, but the animals could easily be retold as people to make the stories useful
  • You can’t know if every book is appropriate ahead of time, it might take flipping through a copy at a book store or actually trying to read it after buying it to figure out it’s a joke

Principles for Enjoying Reading Time Together

  • Try it when everyone is well rested
  • Okay to read “the same thing” over and over, especially if baby chooses to do so; it’s new to them!
  • There’s more to story time than being read to or following the story; touching, looking, making noises, tasting, etc. are all part of the experience
  • If baby doesn’t want to sit on the lap and read actively, he can be read to “passively” while he plays, crawls, etc. in a safe space nearby
  • The adults can read “children’s books”, or read their own books that fall within these guidelines (actually much more likely with an “adult” book), whatever they’ll be interested to read with the child
  • Act it out and get animated if you like; tell a good story!
  • Use the book as a prop to tell a different story if you like, especially if it has limited text and can be easily modified
  • Talk ABOUT the book as much as you READ the book; discuss what’s going on, see what baby is reacting to, ask baby questions about the story; as baby gets older, you can both evaluate what you read afterward, and do critical reviews of “joke” books you’re sorry you read
  • Read baby history and the classics when desired (we’ll be working our way back through the Story of Civilization, and through some Shakespeare as well)
  • Don’t feel compelled to finish any book you start or to stop baby from “interrupting”, let baby do what they will and work with it; if it’s too distracting, try story time another day; the goal is to be together, not to “read” together
  • Understand that reading to “passive” baby is a specific activity and shouldn’t replace actively observing baby’s playtime or come to dominate such interactions

Beyond this, we’ll be treating it like a science experiment and expecting a lot of learning from failure!

A Tale Of Three Video Game Players

This past week I attended an event peopled mostly by engineers. Many of the engineers were trained as mechanical engineers but now work in companies on the forefront of engineering science– data and software-driven companies.

A topic that came up with several participants was the woeful state of education systems in the US, but not for the standard lament of their failure to properly teach the “STEMs”, but because of how efficient they are at killing creativity and the spirit to tinker, two things every engineer considers to be key to their mindset and personality.

Related to this lament were concerns about young people and screen time. There is a belief, backed by a lot of scientific study, that screen-based activities such as TV, video games and social media, breed passive minds because of their overstimulative effects. These engineers were concerned that many children will miss an opportunity to become creative and mechanically-oriented because their formative childhood years are increasingly dominated by interaction with media that treats them like a malleable consumer rather than a tool-wielding, problem-solving creator.

I share this overall concern, partly based in logic, partly based in my browsing of the scientific literature and partly based off my own personal experience. It has informed how we’ve approached the use of screens in front of our Little Lion– short story, we try hard not to use them at all in his presence, and frequently discuss how our habits and routines will need to change as it gets more and more difficult to use them only in his absence.

However, talking about this with the engineers got me thinking about three people I knew when I was younger who were video game players who all ended up with different life outcomes.

The first person I remember as a video game player growing up spent a lot of time playing games. Most of the times I visited him at his house we’d end up in front of the TV, usually with me watching him play something I didn’t have or that he was better at than me (an archaic form of the “Let’s Play” phenomenon). This went on for multiple video game generations, from the Nintendo SNES to the Nintendo 64. Over the course of our friendship we spent hours accumulating in days in front of the TV, playing games.

We also played outside a lot– handball against his garage door, riding bikes around the neighborhood, meeting up with other kids and hanging out. This friend was in Boy Scouts and was frequently found on camping trips on the weekends. He eventually made Eagle Scout. And he played team sports as a child, mostly soccer, until high school when he became an accomplished water polo player.

The second person I remember did not play many console games when we were younger. He was the first person who introduced me to PC gaming. I distinctly remember the weekend his family purchased an extremely economical “eMachines” brand PC with a Celeron-processor (read: slow) and a copy of the already almost decade-old Civilization II game. We stayed up until 2am, mindlessly punching keys trying to figure out how the game worked, for whatever reason we never thought to try reading the manual even though we were good enough readers to have done that. When we finally figured it out we were so excited we stayed up another 3 hours feverishly playing the game until we were so exhausted we passed out on the floor in the study where the PC was situated.

This person also introduced me to the card game “Magic”, and later in the era of the Xbox and complicated networking technology he was known for hosting Halo LAN-parties where he’d talk several other people into bringing their Xboxes and TV screens to his house where up to 4 supporting 4 players each could be networked together for a raucous neighborhood get together.

We, too, spent a lot of time riding our bikes around town together, he was also a Boy Scout and eventually an Eagle Scout, competed in soccer and other sports while younger and water polo in high school. Throughout his childhood he was extremely mechanical, building and racing offroad RC cars and RC gliders, camping and helping his parents rebuild and maintain an International Harvester Scout truck.

The final person I remember as a gamer growing up probably spent the least time overall playing games of the three, but it was definitely part of his life. I remember the time he brought his SNES over to my house and how jealous I felt seeing all the cool games he had that I did not. We also spent a lot of time riding around the neighborhood on our bikes, but a bit more aimlessly than the other two. With him we’d ride around until we found some mischief to get into, while for the first two bikes were a means of conveyance to other destinations and activities we were into.

He played soccer and basketball as a youngster, and in high school he did some cross country and track before giving up on team sports and, to some extent, giving up on his studies as well.

What happened to these three individuals who all played video games growing up?

The first one graduated high school with an excellent GPA after excelling in our school’s “magnet” math and science program. He was accepted at Stanford where I believe he studied engineering and may have continued playing water polo. He was hired by Accenture, the consulting firm, and I think has had a lucrative and enjoyable career.

The second one also graduated high school with an excellent GPA and also excelled in the school’s math and science program. He was accepted at MIT and studied mechanical engineering. I believe he went into a specialized mechanical field and has also had a productive and enjoyable career so far. Both of these guys are married and have families of their own now.

The third guy was a slightly sadder story. He seemed to burn out before high school ended. I don’t think he ever made it to college and last I had heard, he could be found around the beach on his skateboard with a very long beard and the nickname of “Jesus” because of his appearance. He may have even spent some time in jail for some pretty minor stuff I’d call “mischief” or “bad luck” rather than some kind of anti-social or menace to society kind of antics.

What I find interesting about all of this is that I never would’ve thought of the impact of video game exposure as children to their life outcomes until I had spoken to some of these engineers. Truly, what seemed to be more consistent in terms of impacting the drive and personality of each of these guys was their family lives. The first two guys grew up with siblings, their parents stayed married and they had what I’d call strong family cultures and values, even though they were slightly different from my own.

The third guy was a latchkey kid whose parents stayed together but it seemed like an awkward pairing and he’d regularly ridicule them behind their backs. It’s not clear what values their family had or that they even got through to their son about them.

Early video game exposure didn’t seem to stop the first two guys from having other interests and being mechanical and outdoorsy (Eagle Scouts) nor athletic (water polo, a terribly demanding sport). They seemed to be creative and had strong engineering minds (math and science outperformance) despite the stimulating effects of video games.

I don’t think I’d blame video games for “Jesus’s” life going down the tubes, either. As I mentioned, he played games but probably spent the least time with them. He was a decently intelligent individual and certainly didn’t struggle with math and science as subjects, he just didn’t seem to care much about them, school in general, or even apparently his life.

What I take away from all of this is that video games and screen time may not be “good” for a child’s development and may be distracting or counterproductive in terms of generating a passive vs. active mind and a consumptive vs. productive approach to stimulation. But looking at these anecdotes, it’s hard to draw the conclusion that video games or screen time necessarily would prevent a person from achievement in these areas.

More likely, natural ability mixed with a supportive family environment and complementary family values and lifestyle choices seem much stronger influences over future engineering talent and ability than how much time a child spends with screen-based gadgets.

Reflections On Your First Six Months (Or So)

Hello Little Lion!

Another 90 days (+/-) have passed since we last wrote and we thought it was time to catalog a few observations once more.

You went on your first cross-country trip by commercial jet in April. We decided to invest in a stroller and car seat system that were more travel-friendly and it was definitely worth the money. While we were a bit anxious about getting you and your equipment through security, onto the plane and then back off on each leg of the journey, the thoughtful design of our purchase made that part of the trip relatively stress-free, and believe it or not we got a lot of support and patience from the people in the TSA and the gate agents and flight attendants. You of course managed to fill your diaper several times before, during and after the flight but Papa Lion figured out how to get you changed in the tight quarters fairly quick and by the third time he felt like he was a pro and could do anything!

Our friends and their little daughter were so happy to get to meet you and spend some time with you while you were still little.

You slowly started to lose all your birth-hair over the last few months as it was replaced by new hairs you’ve grown outside the womb. You came into the world with a full head of fairly thick and long hair, and the way it fell out was so funny and left you looking wise beyond your years– you developed a “Philosopher’s crown” of long hair on the side and back of your head with a big bald spot on top. It’s now all replaced, except for a light patch on the back of your head where you pivot around to look while on your back. And also, your extensive original side burns, which remind us of the style of the Orthodox Jewish men.

Your teeth started coming in at four months! You have seven along the top and the bottom right now and you continue drooling and fingering your mouth so we think there are more. You’ve fattened up considerably from when we last checked in. We’re sorry to say we hardly recognize your early baby pictures, because we realize they are a glaring example of our first mistake as parents– not understanding how important it was to get you some extra supplementation with formula feeding. We really agonized over that decision and how to go about it but the encouragement to do so was unanimous from the professionals we consulted with along the way and they were absolutely correct. The tongue-tie you were born with just made it impossible for you to be a purely-breast fed baby.

Your mother, the Wolf, has worked tirelessly since your birth to pump for you so that you still get your primary nutrition from her breast milk, something we know is specially formulated just for you and your needs. We are happy that you shot right past our ignorance with her extra love and care for you and at this point no one would ever suspect you had started out the way you did if we didn’t tell them. You’ve had one minor cold that led to a few days of coughing and runny nose but aside from that you’ve been disease-free, cheerful and growing in weight and strength every day. Whereas last time we checked in you still looked and felt in our hands like something new and fragile, now you have some “heft” and chunkiness that makes you stand out as your own person.

Your mobility development as been amazing for us to watch! You learned to roll over a few months ago and just in the last week you have begun spinning on your stomach. You’re not yet scooting or crawling but that’s where you’re going next. By rolling and pivoting, you can get to a lot of places. We can no longer set you down on the middle of your play area and expect to find you there a few minutes later. And we’re having to get more and more creative at bed time in corraling you on the bed because you like to roll around a lot now as you continue practicing mobility in your sleep. We lay you down one way and come in at our own bed time to find you have rotated a completely different way.

You started sleeping through the night a few months ago, and we were so grateful to get a few weeks of mostly uninterrupted sleep. But you’re still growing and changing, and you’ve “regressed” to wakefulness at night again as you’re sensitive to our movements and your own, which are many. Sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night, talk to yourself and coo and play for fifteen or twenty minutes and then decide to go back to sleep! It’s really cute, but really challenging for us to get our rest right now. We’re never mad about it, though, we know this is what we should expect and we understand how important it is for you to keep growing and changing and we know we’ll get back to a place where we can all sleep peacefully. Eventually.

One thing we are so satisfied with right now is your incredible focus and self-reliance while playing. Your concentration and ability to emotionally self-sustain have grown over the last ninety days and it is very easy to lay you down on your mat and see forty-five minutes pass before you need an emotional recharge from us. Your toys are simple things– plastic hair rollers, wooden rings, rubber “muffin wrappers”, colorful bandanas, a geometric “wire frame” ball with holes for your fingers. You like test the properties of these toys in endless ways, handling them, chewing them, squeezing them, turning them around and around and looking at them from different angles, combining or swiping them past one another. Your at a stage where simple things that allow you to repeat and refine an operation over and over again are plenty stimulating for you. Every now and then you’ll look for our eyes, to see if we’re near, or to see if we’re watching, but mostly you like to just focus on what you’re doing intently.

Your verbalizations have changed, too. Cooing, quick breathing, incoherent chattering and shrieking. Oh yes, the shrieking! Sometimes you will use all your might to summon your voice and expel

 

(at this point, several weeks ago, you woke from your nap, I set my laptop down and failed to return to this post and complete it. So I am posting it as is… because you’re now 1.5 months older than when I wrote it and a lot of changes have taken place again!)

Thoughts on Constructing A Library

I am going to jot a few notes on the subject of library (as in, personal book collection, not edifice) construction that I’ve been considering lately.

When reading stories of intellectual and political figures of the past, such as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, I realized that possessing a substantial library of works of interest and fame was part of standard operating procedure for literate men of the past. When I say substantial, I am talking about private collections numbering ten to twenty-thousand individual hardbound volumes, or when traveling, taking one or two trunkloads of books with the traveler to aid in research and study.

It’s a pretty different commitment to book warehousing and travel from having a few shelves of things you’ve read, or grabbing a couple books and stuffing them into your suitcase for an upcoming flight. Even in the age of Kindle, it’s akin to having a multi-gigabyte device dedicated solely to storing your library.

I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve read so far in my life, and it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to include childhood picture books in the same measure as thousand page social philosophy treatises. But even if you excluded everything I read before age 19 or 20, which is probably the point in my life where I got “serious” about reading and was mostly reading non-fiction for information and analysis rather than fiction to pass the time or have my imagination stimulated (although, like many teenagers, I did manage to consume Atlas Shrugged during this “non-serious” period), I would still feel comfortable saying the number is “thousands”, especially if you include partially read titles. Probably less than five thousand, but definitely more than one thousand.

I don’t have most of those titles in my possession. Over the last seven or eight years, I consumed many works (especially about business, investing or economics) digitally, and over the last two years I have become an active “purger”, selling, donating or simply tossing books I didn’t bother to read, didn’t bother to finish or didn’t think I’d get any additional value out of in owning them. Most of what is on my shelf at home right this moment are either unread-waiting-to-be-read, or read-and-coming-back-to-them titles. I guess you’d call the latter “reference” titles, but I actually have few reference titles and I mean more of the idea of doing a full-reread to see how my understanding and appreciation of what I previously deemed a worthy title has changed as I’ve changed.

I wonder if purging is a good approach for a few reasons. One is that I have a child now, and hope to have more. I like to think I’ve spent a lot of time reading and sorting knowledge contained in books and I’ve wasted my time on many in order to find the few quality gems, the essential titles in some field that can quickly give one a nuanced understanding of the major and minor issues alike in some discipline. This time I’ve invested is a sunk cost, and being able to hand over a ready-culled library of the “classics” and “greatest hits” to my children and grandchildren seems like part of the social capital of our family.

A problem I have with this logic is that I found a lot of these books by exploring specific questions I had prior to reading them. I arrived at the good stuff through a meaningful epistemological journey that probably would not be as valuable or even as coherent as it was if I had leapt straight from my starting inquiry to the most elucidated truth in the best book. I had to fight for the knowledge I came by and do my own hard thinking and analyzing as I went. Handing someone a ready-constructed library of “essential knowledge” lacks context and it also lacks respect for their own curiosity.

Similarly, as the RIE-philosophy of infant care-giving reminds us (I think derived from Montessori), when you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance to discover it himself. There’s something cognitively valuable in the act of discovery that inheriting a library might obviate.

On the other hand, “on the shoulder of giants”… so perhaps my issue will see farther than me if they start not at the starting line, as I did, but far beyond the finish line in another race entirely.

Another problem with purging is that we are quickly losing a sense of literary history and context with the rise of Google and Amazon. With Google, we convince ourselves that anything worth knowing can be easily searched for, and that it isn’t important to understand the source or genesis over time of certain ideas, only what the latest conclusions are. With Amazon, we come to understand the literary universe as being composed of recently published, hot-selling titles (usually rehashes of old ideas, reformulated for the latest audience fad or interest) and a few older works deemed “classics” because they don’t manage to offend anyone. There are literally hundreds of thousands of titles people used to read, adore and consider categorical in their respective field that aren’t in print and that are essentially invisible to modern readers unless you know what to look for. There are also thousands of titles that reflect the losing side in a historical conflict, of ideas or arms or otherwise, that are not considered “truthful” simply because that side lost. Those are perspectives worth thinking about still if one wants to hone one’s critical mind and maintain a level of scientific objectivity in one’s thinking.

So I worry that some of the great stuff I’ve come across, my children will simply not see if I don’t keep it in my library for them. Especially if they are about ideas I think are important and honest, but which end up “losing the battle” during our lifetime and become non-PC. Down the memory hole!

Storing all these books has an economic cost. There is also search costs in looking through them when seeking a title out if they’re too numerous. And while I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on books over the years, I’ve mostly acquired paperbacks. I wonder if these are durable and can stand the test of time.

I am currently not resolved on the question of “To construct a library for myself and my posterity, or not?” One thing I do know, is that there is something wrong with a home (or office!) that contains no books, or that contains only books selected by others and not by oneself, or received for promotional reasons alone. It would be a major mistake to raise children in a place where books weren’t an ever-present part of their surroundings, even if the total quantity and methodology of selection behind the “library” remains in a negotiated state.

Review – Baby-Led Weaning (#review, #books, #parenting, #babies, #children, #food)

Baby-Led Weaning: The Essential Guide to Introducing Solid Foods-and Helping Your Baby to Grow Up a Happy and Confident Eater

by Gill Rapley, Tracey Murkett, published 2010

If you pay close attention to certain parenting and child development texts, you are likely to notice one of two paradigms at work– the exogenous development approach and the endogenous development approach. Those are fancy words I just thought up to say something simple, which is that you either believe children can develop pretty well on their own, with parents simply playing a nurturing, supporting role; or else you believe that children are mostly helpless to develop on their own, with parents playing a primary, directorial role.

The idea of “Baby-Led Weaning” (BLW) falls firmly into the endogenous development model, along with other philosophies we fancy such as RIE for parent-infant communication and relationship building, self-esteem centered personal growth philosophy, Montessori for educational and pedagogical practice, and nutrition-based health and well-being (ie, vaccine-skepticism). People who take the BLW approach to transitioning their infant to solids, aka “adult food”, see linear continuity between the infant’s ability to feed themselves at the breast and the later skill of the toddler being capable of feeding themself at the table. The BLW user asks the question, “Why should there need to be a period in the child’s eating skills development where they regress to parental intervention with mush and spoon?”

The actual practice of BLW doesn’t require more than a paragraph to describe. So long as your infant has reached the motor skill maturity to sit up on their own (or you are willing to prop them up on your lap for the duration of their “meal”), you can put a small variety of 2-inch long, stick-shaped food items from the adult meal in front of them and let them choose what and how they’d like to eat. If they want more, you can offer them more as they go. The first few weeks and months of learning to eat actually consists of them “playing” with their food by exploring taste, texture, smell and other properties of the foodstuffs– only later do they discover that the food is nutritious and helps to satiate their hunger. Plan on letting them discover at their own pace, cleaning up the inevitable messes and continuing to provide most of their sustenance by breast or bottle until they’re fully capable of getting the majority of their calories and nutrients from shared family meals, likely past the one year of age mark.

That’s really it. While there are certain foods that are easy to choke on (grapes not cut in half length-wise! hard nuts which are difficult to chew! pieces of fish or animal flesh with sharp bone fragments!) and things children may develop allergies to if exposed too early (honey! dairy! peanut butter?!), like the risk of rolling over and crushing an infant via co-sleeping being almost nil for a family that does not consist of alcoholic cigarette smoking fat asses, BLW is essentially safe and the risk of choking is overblown. It turns out that infants have a gag reflex that begins near the front of their tongue and not the back, and most “choking” actually happens with spoon-fed infants wherein the eating utensil circumvents the natural choke-avoidance mechanism and allows food to get into the back of their throat when they haven’t fully developed the muscle control to swallow.

Like most endogenous approaches, the biggest challenge for parents and other adult-caretakers is having patience to let the infant explore at their leisure and behave as comes naturally without thinking they need to get involved and add something to the mix for any reason other than safety. The temptation to “help” the child learn to eat or to show them a more “efficient” way to get the food into their mouth, for example, must be avoided if the child is to develop the important motor skills of controlling food with their hands, not to mention the need to let the child determine that food is safe and enjoyable to eat. Chewing and sucking endlessly on the same piece of sweet potato stick may not seem like an effective way to eat one’s meal for us, but for the infant it is an essential part of figuring out “What is this?” and “What can I do with it?” Infants are highly empirical and don’t really have an ability to learn by causal explanation and the provision of logical theory. They need to just do stuff on their own.

The book is much longer than a paragraph because it spends a lot of time repeating itself, calming potentially frayed nerves concerning overwrought risks, relating a series of “BLW Stories” of parents who did it with their small kids and had success, and interjecting numerous verbatims from happy practitioners seemingly at random in an attempt to build credibility in the approach. This last bit is likely aimed at female readers– sorry moms, but your cultural appropriation model is highly consensus-based due to evolutionary biology.

A good primer for anyone interested in the approach, though you can skim-read it.

3/5

Review – The Snowball (#investing, #books, #business, #review)

The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

by Alice Schroeder, published 2008, 2009 (condensed and updated)

This is my second reading of The Snowball. I enjoyed it almost as much as the first, five years ago, and definitely took away different things from this reading than I did last time. At that time, I was just finishing my “personal MBA”  deep-dive into value investing and was interested in Schroeder’s Buffett bio mainly for the information and insight it would yield into Buffett’s approach and track record as an investor. I was surprised to come away from that reading realizing that the book was a moral parable in the form of a man’s life (an incredibly successful, well-known and near-worshipped man) and my second journey through the book was more focused on the question “How should I think about living my life?” than the question “How should I think about investing?”

I found the book most exciting to read and most interesting personally in the exploration of Buffett’s origins and the detailed narrative about the first twenty years of the partnerships that proceeded his investment in Berkshire Hathaway. As the story wore on and it became more about managing what he had and dealing with the consequences of choices wrought long ago, I found myself losing interest, particularly as the Salomon and Long-Term Capital Management sagas carried on for a mind-numbing fifty-plus pages in total.

Buffett’s childhood was far more unusual than I cared to notice in my first reading. He was obsessed with business, investing and the impact of statistics in life not just from a young age, but in ways that were extraordinary even for someone to be described as “doing X from a young age” would imply by itself. Obsessed is not a word I use lightly here. The young Buffett was probably an odd creature to be around, even for people who loved him or found him interesting or were of unusual talent and ability themselves. This seems confirmed in later years when so many people familiar with him describe feeling exhausted after spending just a few hours with him. It helped me to realize how unfair and pointless trying to compare yourself to a person like Buffett is.

When asked by Bill Gates, Sr., at a dinner what single word they’d use to describe the outcome of their life and their success, Buffett said, “Focus.” As Schroeder describes in many places in the book, and especially at length in the final chapter, “focus” means something completely different when Buffett says it versus anyone of lesser ability and different personality. When Buffett says “focus” he means “to the exclusion of all else, with relentless, all-consuming energy, without tiring or being distracted.” There is no balance working behind the scenes. He gave up a lot of “normal” things most other people would insist on or desire in distinction to that which they were focused on, not as a sacrifice but as an inevitability of his personality.

The most obvious and tragic is his relationship with his family and his relationship with himself. Most other people who are driven towards success in their field and the monetary rewards that typically come with it offer up the excuse of their family as their motivation, honestly or not. This wasn’t the case for Buffett, and achieving supremacy in his profession and in his personal net worth really didn’t do anything to enhance his relationship with his family or the way he cared for them. It is indicated on numerous occasions what kind of tradeoff he would’ve had to make to be more involved with his family, and he never did it. It’s an excellent reminder for someone who sees themselves as driven to achieve that these tradeoffs are real and accepting a “lower rate of return” in one’s efforts is a necessary (and happy?) price to pay to maintain a relationship with one’s family, which itself is valuable.

Buffett’s relationship with himself is also instructive in this regard. Many people wonder how money can’t solve most problems, and why people who are super wealthy continue to eat poorly, exercise infrequently and maintain the same limited psychological state and insecurities they possessed before they achieved glory. The answer again is simple– in the drive toward massive wealth, things get set aside and often it is the improvement of the self as a holistic unit that is set aside first in order to claim excess in one aspect.

Of course, we can’t expect Buffett to be perfect. Nobody is, and the point of mentioning this isn’t to point out the man’s flaws, but to explain them. You can’t have Buffett and have these issues resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. They come with the territory. If you want to be “focused” like Buffett, plan on neglecting your family and yourself, quite a bit. That’s only a judgment if you think those things are objectively more important than wealth or self-actualization in the area of generating wealth. That’s not really a judgment I want to make here and I think it misses the point.

Yet, Buffett’s flaws make for a fascinating lesson in a different way. Though Buffett was unusual, and exceptional, and completely driven toward a single-minded purpose from a young age, the path was far from certain that he would need to tread to get to wherever it was that he would end up going. It’s easy to sit here today reading a book published almost ten years ago, recounting events that unfolded over the past eighty, and see what was inevitable as inevitable. But Buffett made mistakes. Many of them, along the way. That’s what’s truly remarkable, that he made mistakes and still arrived where he did. It’s a good salve for a person carrying around the perfectionist fallacy. Give it a rest and get going, you can make some mistakes and still end up alright if Buffett is any example.

I love reading stories like this, stories of flawed people of unusual ability who managed to achieve something heroic even if their life wasn’t truly ideal. I love knowing it can be done. I love knowing what the pitfalls and the tradeoffs are, so I can be mindful of them myself. I love the way I can give myself permission to not achieve what they achieved (in kind or in magnitude) having the benefit of hindsight to see what it truly took that I can’t give, or won’t.

But most of all, I just love watching someone create something from nothing. That creative energy is uniquely human and what I admire most about our species and this little project called “civilization” that we’re all tinkering away on. The Snowball is not as great an investment manual as I originally thought it was (for that, I’d recommend Buffett’s BRK shareholder letters, along with or after reading Graham’s Security Analysis and The Intelligent Investor), but it is an epic moral profile and a captivating read overall because of it.

4/5

Review – Grinding It Out (#books, #review, #business)

Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald’s

by Ray Kroc, with Robert Anderson, published 1992

Reading through the stories of great entrepreneurs, business people and politicians like Cornelius Vanderbilt or Warren Buffett, it is easy to find a sentiment much like this one from Ray Kroc:

Ethel [his wife] used to complain once in a while about about the amount of time I spent away from home working. Looking back on it now, I guess it was kind of unfair. But I was driven by ambition.

I find this sentiment remarkable for a few different reasons.

The first is how common it is. It seems to suggest that achieving “great things” in a particular field of enterprise is not possible without neglecting one’s family and other personal relationships in favor of the “productive” relationships and activities.

The second is how little awareness of this tradeoff many such people seem to possess, at least until they reach the end of their life and all their glory has already been gotten. Then, as they contemplate their state of affairs, either looking back on the empire they built or ruminating regretfully now that they are deposed (violently or voluntarily), they seem to re-evaluate how they spent their time and decide they came up short in considering family time less important than it should have been. They also seem to be either disconnected from the damage they do to their children and their psyches, or else try to evade such recognition– I think Ray Kroc mentioned his daughter all of two times in this 200 page telling, and while his daughter may not have been critical to the story of building McDonald’s, you’d think she would’ve provided enough value and motivation in Kroc’s life to merit more than a couple passing mentions!

The third is how excusable such high achievers seem to find their behavior to be in retrospect. “But…” is a permission word. It negates what comes before and offers cover. Yes, Ray Kroc was unfair, but… It suggests a different moral framework for studying life or a particular circumstance, one in which the rules don’t really apply and the ends justify the means.

The fourth is what a temptation these great projects must’ve provided to these people, to ignore their family, their health or any number of other values. If I was a successful paper cup salesman but stumbled upon the idea of McDonald’s myself, could I have resisted the temptation to build it and in the process knowingly give up my family, friends, physical well-being, etc.? It is perhaps easy to sit in judgment of another person’s efforts and decisions when the attraction of my own responsibilities is relatively less compelling. It’s easy to go home to my family at the end of the day as they typically offer me more interest and excitement. But would that be the case if millions of dollars and a global business organization hung in the balance? That I don’t know for sure, and perhaps you can’t know until you’re tempted with it.

But that leads to the fifth point, which is to consider whether a story like Kroc’s and McDonald’s could be told any other way. What if in the first 27 pages of the story of this business the quote above was not to be found, nor anywhere in the 173+ pages that followed? What if Kroc didn’t get divorced (twice), didn’t have a string of health issues along the way, came home and kissed his wife and daughter on the forehead five nights a week and spent most of each month at home and around town rather than around the country? What choices would’ve needed to be made differently to support that outcome, and how would the company look different either internally or competitively if that had been the case? How big would Berkshire Hathaway be if Buffett had raised his own children and loved his first wife more considerately instead of reading so many damn books and annual reports?

To ask may be to answer, but it’s frightening (hopeful?) to think otherwise.

Besides neglecting important obligations and personal considerations, what else do stories like these seem to tell us about those who achieve outsize success?

Incredible stamina seems to be part of it. They don’t just work hard, they work all the time. But again, it’s hard to know if this is part of the person, part of the responsibility and opportunity, or both. How would a person not work hard and often at something they didn’t love to the point they were mesmerized by it? Enthralled is a good way to describe the state of mind in relation to the idea of the thing being pursued here.

Also, simplicity. Maybe it’s the bad ghostwriting designed to break the story down for a lowbrow audience but the way these people talk about what it is they did, they rarely come across as great geniuses, though they’re often wits (Buffett is a notable exception here, and Vanderbilt was clearly “sharp”, a word for cunning back then, though it wasn’t clear he was necessarily “intelligent”, while it was clear he was no buffoon). The grand strategy and complexity is often seen in hindsight, knowing how the story ends and having years and years to tell it and thus accumulate various trappings which may or may not be integral to the success. In Kroc’s own words, it was all about Quality, Service, Cleanliness and Value and then spreading it across the land. Their financing was complicated, but it’s not clear it needed to be, especially if the company was less levered and less insistent on growing as fast as it did. Being focused seems obvious, yet important enough to mention it.

Where does that leave me? If there’s a way to build a legacy that doesn’t involve neglecting one’s family and health, perhaps by being more patient, moving more slowly or being less obsessed about the outcome, that is the kind of legacy I want to build. And I have to wonder what kind of personal insecurity or individual idiosyncrasy or whatever it is, that I seem not to have, that would not allow a person to make that choice given the alternative.

But if the only way to make things great is to trash some other part of your life and leave a smoking crater behind, a crater that’s especially painful in the vulnerability of old age, then I guess I better prepare myself mentally for more humble achievements. I’m just not interested in those kinds of tradeoffs and I don’t understand how such achievements could be satisfying without a family to enjoy them with and the sound mind and body necessary to experience it all.

3/5