Plurality – Stop trying to be just one thing

Several years ago I led a research study exploring the thoughts and perceptions of middle- and high-school students as they relate to attending college. This is a pretty fascinating topic because most of the US population doesn’t get a college degree, yet almost every middle school student believes they will go to college. I think the actual number was 98%.

It turns out that these students have remarkably little knowledge or planning to actually attend college or any form of higher education.

  • Do they have a preferred school? Oh yeah!
  • Are the grades good enough to get into that school? Don’t know
  • Do they have a backup plan if they don’t make that school? Ummm, no
  • Have they thought about how much money it will take? Nope

Still, this lack of knowledge did almost nothing to dissuade them from believing (not hoping, but believing) that they will attend college.

They had no idea how it was going to happen, but dammit, they were committed.

We labeled this phenomenon “Plurality of Thought.” Some people challenged our labeling and asserted that this was cognitive dissonance. However, cognitive dissonance refers to the negative feeling born out of conflicting beliefs.

The thing with plural thoughts is that even though they should conflict, in the mind of the holder, they don’t. They very peacefully coexist.

And you know what? Sometimes that’s okay. In fact, there may even be a lesson there.

The older I get, the more I believe that an authentic life requires the acceptance of this plurality.

A group of us were having dinner recently and a friend was talking about her family and the death of her dad. Now, to set the stage this friend is a successful professional and works for a well-known company in a high-level position.

I knew that her dad had passed away, and like most adult children, she was involved in an increasing level of his care before he passed. What I didn’t know was that her dad suffered from alcoholism and even spent time in prison while she was growing up.

This gets me because based on those facts, her assumed path would not be good. Maybe we would assume drugs, maybe we’d assume she’d end up in prison herself. Certainly, we wouldn’t expect her to grow up to become a successful woman with a great career and a great family.

She made a comment that really stuck with me. She said her dad being in prison doesn’t define her, but it is a part of her.

I couldn’t help but be taken back by the grace of her comment because I think a lot of people (myself included) spend too much effort trying to be a single thing. And instead of accepting the plurality, we become hindered by the dissonance.

Since sharing the experience of losing my son, several men have reached out to me to share their experiences. Some had a child in active addiction. Many were in bad relationships or dealing with a divorce.

All these men are successful and all of them have some pretty fucked up stuff in their lives. So, what is their reality? Are they successful professionals? Or people dealing with some really heavy stuff? I think the answer is both.

I think there is authenticity in acknowledging both. Pretending the shitty stuff isn’t there…well, I don’t know what that is even called. Hypocrisy? Bullshit? I don’t know.

Focusing on it though, letting it define your total being, that seems like a one way ticket to failure.

I think my friend said it best. It is part of you, but it doesn’t define you.

Remembering Kent Taylor – a good man gone too soon

Like many people in Louisville, I was surprised to hear about the passing of Kent Taylor, the founder of the restaurant brand Texas Roadhouse.

I never knew Kent, but by all accounts, he was a great person. There is no doubt that he was a successful businessman. If you’ve never eaten in his restaurants, by all means, you should. There is a real niche for steaks that are prepared well, but not at the level or price point of a Jeff Ruby’s, or Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. His reputation in Louisville is somewhat legendary as well – big personality, successful business, generous person. By all accounts, just a good guy.

Several people have posted messages, tweets, or posts about Kent and how the city lost an icon with his passing. All those things are true. There really is nothing that can be taken away from this man and his accomplishments.

What bothers me about the people doing the posting is that they gloss over how we lost this legend. We lost him to suicide! Let that sink in for a moment. A great man, loved by the community, successful in business, was lost to suicide.

If we only focus on the greatness of the person, it removes our responsibility to consider how we may have been able to help. It also sugarcoats the travesty of the loss. This man didn’t die of old age, not through a car accident, he wasn’t skiing at his favorite lodge – doing what he loved. No. He was lost through suicide. How the actual fuck does that happen?

If we cut through the bullshit, here is the thing with suicide –

  • There is a person – a real living human being; with hopes; fears; dreams; a family; a past, present, a future; and pain
  • This person looked at the world in front of them – their future
  • This person considered the pain they were in
  • Then, this person made the decision that the pain they were in today was worse than the potential reprieve of tomorrow
  • And, they decided to end their life to end that pain
  • And now they are gone

We often view suicide as if it is the cause, but the reality is that suicide is the last tragic symptom of pain. The cause of death may be suicide but the cause of suicide is pain.

The family and the company have kept many of the details surrounding his death quiet, and they should. Suicide is tragic enough, we don’t need to be macabre spectators to the details. I don’t know any more of the details surrounding the suicide than what has been shared in the media, and there is no reason to recount those here.

As I said, I never knew Kent. But here is what I would say to him now.

My Brother,

The world failed you, and for that I am sorry. I do not know the pain you were in, or how well the reports portrayed your day-to-day experiences. However, I know you were hurting. I know you were in pain. And while the world recalls your accomplishments, I choose to focus on the loss of you and the things that made you make that choice. I acknowledge your pain, and I grieve for how you must have felt. Hopefully one day the research you funded will help others so that they don’t have to suffer as you did. You are a good man, and the world will not be as good without you in it. I hope you have found your peace, I hope you have found your quiet.

To my friends reading this, I ask you to think deeper. To honor the man means that you must recognize the pain that preceded his loss. You can honor that pain without glorifying it, but ignoring it only diminishes that person’s toughest challenge. We can be better than that.

And if you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, please reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available to provide free and confidential support 24/7. They can be reached toll free at 800-273-8255 or by chat.

Sprints, Marathons and Boxing

COVID-19, and all of the events of 2020 have gotten me revisiting some of the ideas around grit, determination, tenacity, and the like. In my office I used to have a framed print that said something like “everything is possible for those with enough persistence.” I suppose this is true, but it seems a bit fantastical and lacking in day-to-day pragmatism.

But there is clearly value in the virtue of persistence.

So how do you apply this persistence? And when? Does it apply to all situations? What if you are in a crappy job? Or a crappy relationship? Should you be persistent then? Presumably, that answer is no.

Further, is persistence the only meritorious virtue in the game of getting through difficult situations? That doesn’t seems reasonable either. What about tenacity, or resilience?

As I pondered this dilemma – particularly in light of all that has been thrown at us in 2020 – I felt that I needed to go to the core of the meaning of these three words. I’ll spare you the repeat of the dictionary, but generally speaking:

  • Persistence is doing the same thing repeatedly, without giving up.
  • Resilience is the ability to recover quickly.
  • Tenacity is reevaluating what you are doing to continue your progress.

All these traits are valuable, but I’d argue that they are most effective when applied to specific situations.

As you’ve maybe seen on other parts of the blog, I used to be an avid runner. I can adequately claim successful completion of distances from 5K to marathons. Although, I definitely prefer half-marathons or below. Marathons just never were my distance.

On the other hand, I never boxed. And while I took Tae-Kwon-Do, when my boys were younger and in the class, I don’t really think that counts.

But here’s the thing, the three different sports and their analogous counterparts in day-to-day life also require different approaches.

Sprints (think about 5ks), I would argue, need persistence. They are short, there isn’t a lot of time for course corrections, and to do well, you just need to go close to full throttle for the entire duration. If things get tough, usually the best strategy is gut it out and push through. They are over pretty quickly, so just do the best you can.

Marathons on the other hand, are long – 26.2 miles to be exact. And when you are running those miles there will be good miles and there will be miles that suck. And, not all the good miles are early and not all the miles are at the end. To me, the last mile of a marathon always felt the best.

But here’s the thing, you can’t get through a marathon with persistence. Some people will say that you just need to ignore the pain the whole way, but that is silly because most people don’t hurt in the beginning. You need to stay hydrated, but that requires a different approach on mile one than on mile 18, when the temperature usually increased.

Tenacity is your friend on a marathon or other long distance challenge. It recognizes that things are different at miles 1, 6, 18 and 26, and prompts you to respond to the situation at the time so that you can keep moving ahead. And, similar to tenacity, it also recognizes that you can’t stop. Your timer begins when you cross the start line and it doesn’t stop until you cross the finish line. Walking, running, sprinting, that clock keeps ticking.

But most of life’s situations, I would argue, aren’t like either a sprint or a marathon. Many times they are more like a boxing match. You have a rough week at work, but you take the weekend off. You have a tough project you need to get through, but at some point it ends.

Maybe you treat the project like a sprint, maybe it’s a marathon, but they are all within that boxing match. And boxing matches take a different skill. Those require resilience. And here’s the thing about resilience, it recognizes the downtime, it recognizes the importance of breaks.

If you are boxing or sparring, the bell dings and you go. Whether that round goes well or poorly, a few minutes later that bell dings again, and you stop. Your ability to utilize that downtime and come back refreshed is a big determinant in how well you do in the next round.

Life has a lot of downtime. Nights, weekends, staycations, vacations, even lunch breaks are downtime that you can use to recharge. Resilient people are able to use their downtime to recharge effectively so they come back refreshed for the next round. They recognize that now matter how bad a week is, it ends in 168 hours. Then, the calendar turns and another week begins anew.

I think resilience should be given more credit than it currently receives. I’m not against tenacity or persistence, but in most of life’s situations, they aren’t enough. And while all these tools can be helpful, resilience should be part of your life’s strategy.