3 Career Lessons I Learned From My Family

6 Oct

Being a good writer is synonymous with being a lousy father. That’s the takeaway from James Wood’s recent essay in The New Yorker about the awful parenting skills of some of 20th century America’s greatest authors – Saul Bellow, John Cheever, Bernard Malamud and William Styron.

“Can a man or a woman fulfill a sacred devotion to thought, or music, or art, or literature, while fulfilling a proper devotion to spouse or children?” Wood asks. “The novel may be the family’s ideal almanac, but only a handful of great novelists of either gender had a successful family life.”

And yet I know of many outstanding writers whose track records with their families are excellent. My guess: If you ask them at the right time – not, for example, when a juice box is exploding in their face – they’ll tell you that having a family has been great for their career. It can be for you, too, regardless of your profession.

I’ll leave it up to my wife and kids to rate my skills as a family man, perhaps after bribing them with a spa package and a hamster, respectively. But there’s no question that my own career has benefited greatly from their presence.

Before marriage and kids, I had loads of free time, so much that I literally didn’t know what to do with it. And so I spent 7 or 8 unfocused years slogging through a career that left me uninspired. Then we learned our first child was on the way. Suddenly I found time to conduct a job search, change careers and buy a house, all in about three months. Why? Because the reality of pending fatherhood instantly created focus. Busier than ever  after my son was born and getting by on maybe five hours of sleep a night, I also launched what has become a rewarding side career as an essayist, blogger and author.

Career Lesson: Know that you’re capable of much more than you typically imagine (unless you’re a great novelist who drinks four hours for every one that you write).

For the other two lessons, please follow me over to The High Calling, a great site about the intersection of faith and work.

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My Daring Experiment with Losing Focus

29 Sep

“Focus!”

It’s something I say to my kids at least a dozen times a day, sometimes a dozen times in the span of five minutes as we battle through homework, review proper etiquette with the toilet seat and try to get out the door to school.

“Without the focus that I’ve perfected,” I want to tell them, “how will you grow up into the hyper-scheduled, tunnel-visioned, perpetually frantic adult we want you to be?”

So when my wife spontaneously offered me a few hours of free time a couple weekends ago, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it. This opportunity wasn’t on my to-do list, nor had I focused on the best way to maximize its full value.

So I did what I usually do in these situations – race to the nearest bookstore.

I felt like a swashbuckler, or an older, balder version of my carefree college self, sauntering into Barnes & Noble with time on my hands and only the vaguest notion of what to do with it. “I will go where the spirit moves me,” I vowed upon entering the store.

The first thing I spotted was a new biography of Lawrence of Arabia, cleverly titled Lawrence in Arabia. Flipping through it reminded me of my longstanding, if long ignored, interest in the Middle East. I was born in Saudi Arabia, where my dad was on assignment with the U.S. government.  So I wandered to the back of the store, stumbling upon several shelves of fascinating books about the modern Middle East that required careful examination.

“You know, I really love to read,” I thought, holding a tome about a CIA-led coup in Iran. “Hopefully my kids will too.”

Which reminded me – my son is supposed to read at least 40 books this school year. That’s a lot of books, and I wanted to have some good recommendations in my hip pocket in case his momentum – or, dare I say, focus – slows at some point.  So my next 30 minutes were spent combing the children’s section – a bit self-consciously by the way. Was it just me, or were a few of the moms looking a little suspiciously at the unshaven, swarthy guy who was patrolling the kids’ section without any kids and snapping photos with his iPhone? Nevertheless, I emerged with a bunch of shots of books that my kids might find interesting.

Having left that part of the store before the police were called, I passed a shelf labeled Parenting. “Hmm,” I thought. “I’ve been a parent for nine years now and have only read one or two books about how to do it. That could explain some things…”

On these shelves, I uncovered a promising volume, Teach Your Children Well, on how to raise kids who are the exact opposite of the kid I was – those not obsessed with trophies, grades and acceptance letters from elite colleges. It immediately went to the top of my reading list, 30 years too late for me but perhaps still helpful for my own family.

On the way home, I wondered: How many cool connections and inspiring moments and new ideas do I miss in a typical day simply because I refuse to relinquish control and allow things to follow their own course?

There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it though. My list for that evening had three or four things on it, and it was time once again to focus.

 

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A Daily 5-Minute Cure for Our Own Pride

12 Aug

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as ambitious people, even if we have no designs on higher office or covet the nicest clothes or lust for a promotion, we all have our own little plans and dreams and schemes. There’s always something we’re chasing. And that’s good — without the thrill of the hunt, we wouldn’t have much incentive to get out of bed. There’s a fine line, though, between the healthy pursuit of worthwhile goals and the tendency to think too much of ourselves when we achieve them.

I remember getting a little too impressed with myself back in high school, as I angled to get into colleges. I went to bed every night plotting about how I could polish my resume a little more and woke up the next day thinking the same thing. With an elite degree, I was sure, I’d escape my hometown, the future would be glorious and I would never lose my hair.

Then one afternoon my philosophy instructor (you know who you are, Mr. Cleary!) played Kansas’ bleak tune “Dust in the Wind” as part of a unit on existentialism. It was the most depressing song I’d ever heard — an anthem to the futility of life in general and our own in particular. If all I am is dust in the wind, I wondered, why does it matter if I’m named co-editor of the yearbook and get second place in a writing contest? Since my attention span at 18, however, also shifted like dust in the wind, I quickly set aside these troubling thoughts and got back to buffing my admissions applications.

But I really like that song now, and I find it far more comforting than depressing. Against the yawning backdrop of time and the cosmos, our own lives really are pretty insignificant. Whatever we accomplish will, in all likelihood, be forgotten within a generation or two. Depending on how you view it, that reality is either crushing or freeing. I choose the latter. If we take ourselves and our projects and journeys a little less seriously, we have more time to assist other people with theirs. We also leave ourselves more room for surprise in our lives. Those are two keys to real satisfaction.

If you are a spiritual person, you might also draw this conclusion: our first and only real task here on Earth is prayer.

So I still have my own ambitions, like selling my book and keeping this blog going and defending my fantasy football championship title. But I’m trying to keep the overall unimportance of these tasks in perspective, and here’s how I do it: Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes for about five minutes a day.

This is the book Kansas must have read before it wrote “Dust in the Wind.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” the author keeps repeating. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” The insights into human nature here are unerring. Last night I came across this nugget in a section about the riddles of life: “God has made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes.”

I wonder if he’s still laughing about my college applications.

The Perfect Prayer for a Busy World

29 Jul

I devote an entire chapter in my book to the importance of living in the margins – those unfamiliar places in the physical world and within ourselves that make us a little squirmy or downright anxious. The only way to keep growing, I argue, is to regularly spend time doing things that make us uncomfortable. Otherwise, we just stick with what we know, and that’s a sure-fire recipe for regression.

Sometimes I even take my own advice.

A couple months ago, we joined my wife’s sister and her family for the contemporary service at their church in Arlington, Va. This was a margins experience in many ways. We’re Catholic and the church is Presbyterian. The church is small and intimate, while our home parish in North Carolina is vast and ideal for hiding. Also, I had to transport my dress pants 300 miles without wrinkling them.

But we really knew we were in the margins when a full band, with a drum set and electric guitar, appeared on the altar and blasted through the opening hymn. My kids, raised on a diet of mild Catholic processionals, occasionally spiced up by a subdued maraca, cast me stunned looks that all but asked, “What the hell is going on here?!”

I withheld judgment because my sister-in-law and her husband are great people who take their faith as seriously as we take ours and because the pastor of Little Falls Presbyterian Church, Matt Merrill, is awesome. How did I know this? Because in the program for that day’s service, he had written the following “corporate prayer of confession,” which we recited together:

Our lives are cluttered, Lord Jesus,
by too many things
and too much to do.
We are driven by the need to succeed
and distracted from our service.
We have often lost our way.
Forgive us.
Let us, like Mary,
find the one thing that is needed
and sit at your feet. Amen.

I have never seen a prayer anywhere that captures more succinctly and honestly the daily battle within my own heart and the general struggle of living in a hyper-connected world in which so many of us judge our success solely by how much we get done. This prayer is perfect.   

I cut it out and stuck it in my wallet.

I try to read it at least once a day. When I do, this prayer reminds me of what life is all about – and how, without a modest excursion into the margins, I never would have seen it.

When Even You Are Tired of Yourself

17 Jul

Unless you are following this blog with extraordinary devotion, you might have overlooked a recent trend here at Messy Quest: I’m not writing as frequently as before.

The reason is pretty simple: after more than a year of promoting The Messy Quest for Meaning via interviews, speaking events and blog posts, I’m tired of hearing myself talk.  And, as some of you know, I don’t really enjoy talking all that much in the first place.

So I made a deal with myself; this would be the Summer of Listening and Learning, not because I’m all that high-minded but because it’s a guaranteed way to shut myself up.

About halfway through this experiment, here’s a short list of people and things I’ve learned the most from:

1)      My great wife: If we’re honest, most of what passes for “listening” to others is really just a pause in which we’re already formulating the next uninformed thing we’ll say. This self-defeating principle applies, sadly, at work and at home. As summer came roaring toward us, my wife floated the possibility of hiring a nanny for the kids this summer instead of shipping them off to day camps. I kept dismissing the idea without really considering it. After all, it wasn’t what we typically did! It was expensive! She tested it anyway. It worked and also proved affordable and has made summer a lot better for all of us.  Now I’m trying to take credit for this innovation – and paying a lot more attention to her other ideas.

2)      Some great authors: I read very little while writing my own book, and now I’m making up for it. Some amazing books I’ve read over the past few months: Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, a collection of short stories about love and death in the Third World by Ben Fountain; Beautiful Ruins, an epic, wise and frequently hilarious fictional love story spanning several countries and 50 years by Jess Walter; and Reading My Father, a devastating memoir by the youngest daughter of Sophie’s Choice author William Styron. Suffice it to say, Styron was a great writer, but I’m glad he wasn’t my dad.

3)      Some great television: I barely watch any, though sometimes my wife can cajole me into joining her for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy if the snacks are tempting.  I do, however, always make time for Mad Men, a phenomenal show about the advertising biz in 1960s Manhattan. With its final season coming up next year, I’ve decided to go back to the beginning this summer by re-watching all the episodes from Seasons One and Two, which ran so long ago that I barely knew what a blog was (in other words, 2007 and 2008). The characters in this show offer a fascinating window into the ambitions and contradictions in all of us. They also provide a cautionary tale about what happens when you strip your life completely bare of spirituality. It’s a messy quest for meaninglessness, if you will.

I could go on. But that would defeat the point of this summer. And in the spirit of listening, what books, shows, people, blogs or other things would you add to this list?

Bono’s 3 Rules for Career Reinvention

3 Jul

Just the other day I saw a photo of Bono, famed front man of Irish rock band U2, celebrating his 53rd birthday. Later this year, he’ll have more reason to rejoice with the expected release of U2’s 13th album.

Which made me wonder: How is it that U2, which formed in 1976, is not only still around but thriving long after all of its contemporaries – even REM – have left the building?

Much of the band’s enduring success, I think, has to do with Bono’s extraordinary skill at reinventing himself and his work – and therein exists a few valuable lessons for all of us as we seek to remain fulfilled in our own careers:

No. 1 – Remove your shades: Bono almost never takes off his sunglasses, but he’s a master of stepping back and taking an unfiltered look at things. U2 catapulted to superstardom with The Joshua Tree, a spare, serious record driven by the band’s passion for social activism. Just a few years later, it completely altered its sound with Achtung Baby, a slickly produced, loud, apolitical album. Some fans thought the band had sold out. I thought instead that its members had recognized a clear reality – The Joshua Tree was so good that U2 would never make a better album of that type. So it needed to challenge itself with something new and different. Similarly, have you mastered some of the fundamentals in your own work? If so, what can you do now to stretch yourself in new directions, even if it means leaving behind the security of a particular task that you do well?

To read the rest of this post, please follow me over to The High Calling, where there are always great discussions going about the intersection of faith and work…

Personal Reinvention: The Beef & Broccoli Principle

21 Jun

As part of our Mother’s Day celebration last month, I volunteered to make a dinner that was sure to be a hit with the entire family – a Chinese beef and broccoli dish.

My wife, probably wanting to ensure that this special meal didn’t turn disgusting on her special day, volunteered as my sous chef. Using a fairly simple recipe I’d found on the Web, we ended up with a winner. How do I know? Both kids asked for seconds.

Last week, we decided to do it again. Having lost the original recipe, I tracked it down again online and forwarded it to my wife so that we could get started as soon as I got home from work. I expected some high praise for my foresight but instead received a disturbing reply: She was on deadline with a major work project. I needed to make the entire meal myself this time.

My remarkable success a couple years ago with beef and barley soup gave me confidence. But as I soon learned, making a big pot of soup that simmers gently for three hours is one thing. Dealing with a pound of sizzling beef strips – and the ensuing smoke and scary frying sounds when you’ve been a little too liberal with the vegetable oil and underestimated the messiness of corn starch – is another.  

This story ended happily, albeit with a couple of wide open windows airing out the kitchen. The kids confirmed this triumph by asking for seconds once again.

It was not an insignificant experience for someone who has been thinking a lot lately about reinvention, overwhelming though it is. I turned 40 about six months ago. After 35 years, my parents are preparing to move out of the house I grew up in. And my 10th anniversary with my employer comes up in September.

These are all important milestones, and they all have something in common: they’re much more about the person I’ve been rather than the person I might yet become.

So I’m noticing a need to shake things up a little, but not in the way a 40-year-old guy might do it in the movies by quitting his job or getting a new car or going bungee jumping. All those things are clichés. Plus I’m too cheap and cowardly to try them.

I do know that the human brain, and mine in particular, prefers small, incremental changes – the kind that don’t overwhelm you and are more far more likely to stick. Let’s call it the Beef & Broccoli Principle. It does not require hoisin sauce or crushed ginger. It merely involves doing little things that push you out of your comfort zone and, subsequently, expand your skills and confidence.

It’s probably too ambitious to do something like this every day. But attempting something new every week is more practical; give it a try. If your efforts involve cooking, just remember this. When the directions say two tablespoons of vegetable oil, don’t toss in one more for good measure. Recipes are not always the best way to experiment with reinvention.

What You Miss When Your Windows Are Closed

12 Jun

In our old house, the windows stayed closed.

They were old, and only two of them had screens. And after a spastic bird bolted down our chimney, popped out of the fireplace and started flapping around the living room one February afternoon, we could never quite get over our fears of what might fly in through an open window.

Our new house has lots of windows and lots of screens, and our six-year-old daughter makes it her personal mission to let in as much fresh air as possible. I’m starting to enjoy that.

Just the other night, I was sitting in our family room with all three windows wide open. It was dark outside and pretty quiet, except for the rumbling of kids shouting insults back and forth upstairs.

A breeze wafted through the backyard, insects chattered, somewhere down the street a car door slammed. The calming sounds and scents of late springtime nights took me back to my parents’ screened porch growing up, where I’d rock lazily on the swing or read with my feet propped up on the brick wall – and which, after so many years of living with the windows shut, I missed more than I ever realized.

I’ve talked on many occasions with an uncle who is a Catholic priest about the struggles and false starts we face in finding our callings, how we often miss the hints and whispers that might just get us on the right track. The world is noisier and more distracting than ever, and that’s definitely part of the problem.

But the challenge also goes deeper than mere commotion and our ability to filter it. It’s also about our lost capacity for listening.

I like to get things done, and pride myself on efficiency and productivity. When you have a young family and two working parents, you have to be ruthless in blocking out distractions if you want to do more than spin your wheels. And my own ruthlessness with time has made possible a satisfying career, close involvement with my family, the writing of a book and the maintenance of a mediocre tennis game.

But there’s also a price for being hyper-focused.  It sometimes feels like my life is a little too tightly sealed, like I’ve left no room to hear the unexpected.  For a writer or anyone who relies on messy thoughts and ideas for a living, that’s not what you want. It was, after all, the many hours spent lazing around on my parents’ porch with books that nudged me toward a writing career.

You want those surprising gifts – the sudden bolts of insight and startling clues, the slowly unfolding notions that might just lead somewhere.

So lately, I’ve been blogging less and reading more, sometimes sitting in silence doing nothing at all, rolling down the windows in my car and turning off the radio.

At the end of the day, it’s a little tougher to count up my achievements. The good news is they also seem to matter less.

The Art of Tree Removal & Brain De-cluttering

23 May

If you haven’t paid to have a tree removed from your yard recently, here’s a tip: It’s expensive.

If you decide to have a dozen trees cut down, it’s really damn expensive.

Still, when we moved into our house last fall, we knew it had to be done. The backyard resembled a forest – and not the inviting Disney kind filled with enchanted animals. With a canopy so dense it looked like midnight back there by lunchtime, not to mention several trees that were dead or otherwise poised to devastate our house, the job couldn’t be delayed any longer.

So when the tree removal crew showed up last week, I was determined to get my money’s worth out of the spectacle. And they really put on quite a show – scrambling to the top of 80-foot maples, rigging an elaborate rope system that swung 300-pound logs safely to the ground, dropping entire trees without so much as nicking the play set, carport, or even a square inch of fence.

Even more impressive was their speed. In 10 hours over two days, the crew took down 12 trees, ground about 20 stumps and cleaned up the entire mess. By the time they were done, our backyard looked transformed, with just about the right balance of sunshine and shade.

The whole experience got me thinking, “The inside of my brain probably looks the same way my backyard used to look – overcrowded and tangled, disordered and desperately in need of a serious pruning. What if it looked instead like our new and improved backyard?”

If that sounds appealing to you, here are three helpful lessons derived from last week’s tree-removal spectacular:

1)      Enlist help: When we first considered this project, my wife suggested we could cut down some skinny trees ourselves. “I have no doubt I could cut them down,” I replied, “but I can’t guarantee where they will land.” Some might call that lack of confidence. In the business I work in, we call it self-awareness. So we brought in some experts to help us decide which trees should stay and which should go. Similarly, if you’re trying to de-clutter your brain, don’t try to do it yourself. Get some close family members or friends involved. They’ll probably be better judges than you of which habits, assumptions and obsessions need to be removed from your head.

2)      Pay the price: As I mentioned, tree work isn’t cheap. Likewise, doing a real clean out of your brain comes with some costs – like time and effort, not to mention the potential pain of discovering some unflattering things about yourself, or having someone else point them out to you. It can also be slow because the answers often aren’t easy. I, for example, have spent the past several months gradually taking stock of things. But that’s all part of the process of becoming a better version of yourself.

3)      Re-assess: After the first day of work, my wife and I initially gaped in wonder at how much better the yard looked. The crew had done everything we’d wanted. Then we paused and took a closer look. The yard really did look better. But it was also obvious that the job wasn’t done. With some trees gone, we could see more clearly that some of the remaining ones didn’t fit and would probably need to come down eventually anyway. So we had them work on those the next day. Once you’ve decided what you want to de-clutter from your brain, don’t quit as soon as you do just those things. Take a little time to examine the new terrain and see if there are still things that don’t need to be there. That might just allow some new seeds to grow.

2 Great Reasons to Relive Your Childhood

9 May

Last weekend my brother and I spent some time in Pennsylvania helping our parents empty some things out of the house in which they’ve lived for 35 years.

At one point, I came across a set of small wooden, colored blocks with the alphabet spelled out on them. They’d belonged to my dad when he was a child. My brother and I had played with them, too, growing up, so I set them aside in a box full of things we wanted to keep.

A couple hours later we were all taking a break on the back porch.

Dad: Did you come across those old wooden blocks of mine?
Me: Yes, I put them in a box of things I’m taking back to my house.
Dad: Let me see those first; I might like to sell them.
Mom: We shouldn’t sell those! Let’s keep them in the family.
Brother: I agree with that. Let’s hang onto them.
Dad: But they’re my blocks!
Me: I’m going inside to eat some potato chips. Y’all sort this out and let me know.

Eventually, I retrieved the blocks from my car, and my dad eagerly dug them out of the box. “I just spelled “CAT,” he exclaimed a minute or two later.

I could hardly mock him. My brother and I had already spent at least half an hour admiring our old Millennium Falcon, TIE-Fighter and X-Wing Fighter from our Star Wars heyday. They’d been stuffed away in the basement for the better part of three decades. Rediscovering them instantly took us back to our own childhoods. That’s a place where we should all spend a little more of our time – and there are at least two good reasons why.

First, it’s fun.

True, even my own kids are older now than my brother and I were when these toys showed up in our house as Christmas or birthday presents in the late 1970s. But there’s a kind of pure joy and wonder – a feeling we don’t experience enough as adults – that comes from seeing something that reminds you of long-ago good times. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s a lightning bolt reminder of where you came from, a throw-back to days when you didn’t take yourself and your problems quite so seriously.  

Second, and even better, reflecting on what enthralled us as kids can help us lead a more meaningful life right now.

Obviously, you don’t want to ever put too much stock in the whims of children, whose interests can change ten times in the course of an hour. But the things we were drawn to deeply in our youth can be highly accurate markers of what we are meant to do with our lives. We all know people who liked to draw and became architects, or kids who liked to take things apart and became engineers, or hawked candy on the playground and went into sales.

It’s worth asking ourselves some basic questions, no matter how old we are today: What did I like most about being a kid? What were my dreams? What happened to them?

This is a simple technique that can yield some worthwhile and surprising insights. It might just get us thinking about what matters to us most, from an entirely different angle.

And while you’re working on that, I’ll be setting up my Han Solo action figure in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. Or maybe playing with my dad’s blocks. He decided to keep them for himself.