I was a quirky kid. Those of you who know me now probably find that shocking. Or, maybe not. But, yes, it’s true -- I was a quirky kid. One of the defining moments of my childhood was the result of a quirk. To this day, I remember the moment vividly -- probably because I received a fairly severe admonishment from my fourth grade teacher. I was accused of looking at someone else’s paper while taking a spelling test. But.... well. The truth? I was looking at my neighbor’s paper. Just not for the reasons you might think.
You see, the first instruction the class was given for that particular test was to “write your name on the upper right hand side of the paper”. Simple as that instruction was, it caused me great consternation. No, I knew my right from my left. (When I was in the second grade, every morning after we said the Pledge of Allegiance, I would push my right sleeve up over my elbow, having just used that right hand to place over my heart which gave me confirmation I had the “right” right, and I left the “left” sleeve down to help me remember my R’s and L’s throughout the day. When it was warm and I wore only t-shirts, I’d use the same mnemonic device, but with my socks instead. By the fourth grade, though, I had right and left memorized. Quirky, I know.)
This simple instruction -- "write your name on the upper right hand side of the paper" -- made me sweat every time, regardless. Serious confusion engulfed my brain and a battle inside it ensued. Did the teacher intend for me to write my name on my right hand side of the paper or the right hand side of the paper as if I were the paper? If she had simply said “right” instead of “right hand” I believe I would have understood more clearly, but “right hand” implied ownership of the handedness – and even though the paper itself had no hand per se, if it had had a hand, it would have been, in fact, on my left hand side. So, I did what I thought I had to do – I looked for confirmation on my neighbor’s paper. I just needed to see where he wrote his name…. and I got caught. Being nine years old, I was fairly inept at explaining why my eyes wandered, so I accepted the consequences.
See what I mean? Quirky.
I mention this because of another quirky childhood story which was recently unearthed from the crevices of my brain. This one stems from back in second grade as my class was putting on a “Mother’s Day” event. All our mom’s were invited into our (kinda) beautifully decorated classroom. My classmates and I had made cakes and other barely recognizable pastries that looked exactly like they were made by seven year olds. For this event, each student stood in the front of the room, held up their hand-drawn picture, and pontificated about the greatness of their mom. There I was, in the front of the room (my right hand sleeve pushed up; the left one down), and I read off my reasoning for why my mom was so great – “She takes care of me when I’m sick”.
On our ride home, my mom asked me why I had chosen that particular idea to illustrate why I loved her so much. She seemed disappointed. And I understood. My proclamation of love for my mom was kind of crappy. But the truth was, I had had a really, really hard time trying to put into words why I loved my mom. I mean, not only did my seven year old vocabulary have some severe limitations, but the complexity of explaining why my mom was the greatest, best, most awesome mom in the whole world in one or two sentences was paralyzing. So, I looked at what my neighbors were doing (are you sensing a theme here?) and kind of went with the general consensus of “mom’s take care of us”. If it was good enough for Bobby and Kim, who sat at my table, it was good enough for me.
The problem was that it really wasn’t good enough. And I knew it. I knew it, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I didn’t have the words. I was incapable of explaining what I felt inside.
I’ve come to find that the game was rigged from the start. It wasn’t my answer that was the issue; it was the question being asked. “Why do you love your mother?” Biologically, the human brain is not wired to answer this question.
Long story short, our caveman ancestors had different everyday concerns than does modern man. Whereas we bitch and complain about work, never having enough money, laundry piling up and the neighbor being a drunk, the first humans on earth had to deal with other life issues like defending themselves from tigers, how to get some sleep and not be some bear’s breakfast, carrying things around before we figured out the whole “wheel” thing and having a love/hate relationship with fire.
Talking was not the strong suit of the caveman. Grunting worked just fine to express their needs. They had very real emotions, just like their modern day brethren: fear and love being two of the strongest, but they did not have the capacity or need to communicate those emotions in words. Emotions existed to help them survive.
As we developed into our more modern form, circumstances in our lives have changed considerably. Our brains have developed more abilities – the ability to communicate developed out of a need to form more complex communities. We still had the “caveman” core – the Limbic brain – which controls things like emotion, motivation, long-term memory, but we also added an outer region which allowed us more communication and reasoning skills.
So, the Limbic brain, where emotions form, has no language functions itself. It wasn’t designed for that. Has anyone ever asked you why you love your spouse, and while you know you do, you have a difficult time coming up with the words to describe why? Your Limbic brain knows you’re in love but it isn’t real good at using the more complex and developed communication centers of the “outer” brain. (For anyone with actual medical knowledge reading this, please forgive my simplification in this explanation. My outer brain is not nearly developed enough to adequately explain brain function.) So, literally, there is a biological reason that the seven year old me couldn’t put into works why I loved my mom so much.
This limitation of the Limbic brain was brought to my attention in a book I’m reading called Start with Why by Simon Sinek. It’s about how certain leaders and companies achieve great things while others, who seemingly are more capable, fail. Mr. Sinek’s premise is that it is not WHAT you do, but WHY you do it that determines your success.
For example, Mr. Sinek discusses how Apple has dominated in a technologically saturated world. Ask yourself this – What does Apple do that Dell or HP couldn’t? They are all “technology” companies, right? Yet Apple dominates, innovates, and leads the space while Dell and HP simply follow. Why? Mr. Sinek’s explanation is that Apple has a very strong WHY while the other two focus on their WHAT.
Dell and HP think of themselves as computer or technology manufacturers. They build very good machines which help people in their everyday life. That’s WHAT they do.
Apple is a company that from day one wanted to challenge the status quo and make people’s lives better through the use of technology. Everything they do is built around that notion. It empowers them to break the rules. Consumers love the results because it is designed with their exact wants and needs in mind. Because Apple has that strong WHY, they can innovate and have built a cult like following who loves them for it.
Having a WHAT can be explained in words – WHAT's live in that outer core of brain. Having a WHY is emotional. WHY's live in the Limbic brain. And when you get an entire organization with that same emotional belief system, you get amazing results.
There is certainly a lot more to this explanation that those few paragraphs above, and I don’t think my brief explanation does the book justice. If you’re interested, here is a link to a TED talk from Mr. Sinek on this subject. Trust me, he does a FAR better job of explaining this concept than do I. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sioZd3AxmnE
Reading the book lead me to thinking about my parenting skills. It occurred to me that these same concepts are very relateable to raising a child or children. When I first applied this concept to parenting, I almost dismissed it, thinking, “my WHY is that I want to be the best parent I can possibly be to my kids.” But that isn’t a WHY. That’s a WHAT.
To get to my WHY, I needed much more introspection – and maybe some therapy, but that’s yet to be determined! Communicating WHY's doesn’t come easy. Did I even have a WHY or was I just going through parenting my kids because that’s WHAT I thought I was supposed to do?
After much thought, I do have a WHY. I’m not sure I have an easy-to-communicate, boiled-down WHY that I could print on t-shirts or coffee mugs, but I’ll try. My WHY involves doing everything in my power to ready my children to be successful and happy adults.
Again, this gets very complicated because there are so many limbs on the tree that grows out of my WHY. Thinking it over, painfully, I’m fairly certain my parenting WHY stems from my own failures to be ready for life as an adult. I don’t blame anyone but myself for that, and I eventually did grow up and figure some things out, but to say I was a “late-bloomer” would be a kinder description than one I would likely give.
Here is how my WHY affects my parenting. I’m very big on applauding not simply achievements but just as equally (sometimes deliberately more predominantly) focusing on and accentuating the work involved to create the achievement. For example, we recently received our kids’ second trimester report cards. Jack, again, received straight A’s. As I’ve discussed in previous blog posts, Jack is dyslexic. Back in third grade, Jack struggled and struggled with every school assignment. Spelling tests were torture. It frequently took us four or five hours a night to complete homework. But, Jack persevered and adapted. He was the hardest worker I’ve ever seen. I’m telling you honestly, I could not have done with he did – he worked and worked and worked. He never complained. He put his head down and just worked. And he started to see the results. Eventually, he fully adapted to the point that most people are unaware of his reading issues, but that work ethic stuck with him. He knows what it takes and he earns those A’s.
For Will, life has been easier on the school work front. He started reading young and it has never been a challenge for him. In fact, school, in general, has never been overly challenging for Will. Sure, there have been assignments here and reports there that tested him, but for the most part, Will has always been able to get by on his wits. Then, fifth grade happened.
Fifth grade has been the first time Will has been truly challenged. The work has been harder and more complex. And there is more of it. A lot more. All of a sudden, things didn’t come quite so easily for Will. Now, he didn’t do poorly, but on his first report card, there were a few B’s – something Will has never seen before. He was upset.
So, we had a talk and I told him the truth. This was one of the best opportunities that he had in life. He had a choice. He could keep doing things the way he was, using his natural skills, and he’d likely still get A’s and B’s – a maybe an occasional C. Or, he could push himself. He could learn to work through issues. He could learn to never accept “good enough”. He could focus on his effort rather than taking things easy.
Will accepted the challenge. This wasn’t easy for Will. He had to admit he had an issue – Will has a pretty high opinion of Will, so to admit there was an issue was a great leap. And over the next few months, we (Blythe, Will and I) worked together a lot on his homework – more than we had ever done before. In the past, Will would get home, cruise through his homework and jump onto whatever Xbox game was en vogue at the time. Now, he would bring his homework to me, I’d show him where he needed more effort, I’d give him examples of how to improve his work, and I’d push him, sometimes to his frustration point, to not accept mediocre. There were several times when he was angry at me for calling him out, but he always did the work, ultimately. And he admitted to me that he really didn’t know what “complete” assignments looked like before we started this. It started to gel.
So, when Will’s 2nd Trimester report card also had straight-A’s, we were beyond thrilled. And I made sure to celebrate Will’s hard work that led to these results.
This is a part of my WHY. When I was young, my report card was also celebrated – but generally for the results on the paper, not the work involved in getting them. I took away that “being smart” was a real attribute. I had no idea that “being smart” alone got you nowhere in life. Only combined with hard work does your brain capacity help you in any way. My work ethic was lacking when I was a young adult. I just “got by” because I thought “being smart” would ultimately be my meal ticket (literally). It was a hard lesson for me to learn…and now, as a part of my WHY, I try to ensure my kids understand, when it’s easier to instill, rather than later in life when the lessons hurt a lot more. I can proudly say that Jack, Emma and, now Will are well on their way to having a significantly developed work ethic that could rival an adult’s. When Sam is old enough, he, too will hear my message. It’s a part of my WHY so he’ll have no choice but to hear it in everything I do…
There is, of course, a lot more to this WHY. It is my desire to expose the kids to as many facets of the realities of life as I can. Another example – no one’s fault but mine, but I was not prepared to understand money issues as a young adult. Money issues – salaries, bills, mortgages, credit, etc. – were never discussed around my house, and I never asked. It took me a long, long time to understand the realities of money and how it affects your life. I feel fortunate to have been employed in positions that have allowed us to have a lifestyle we truly enjoy, but in my younger years, there was a lot of hard knocks I wish I could have avoided.
I spend as much time with my kids as I possibly can. It’s easy because I love being around them and being with them is as much for me as it if for them. But it also comes from my WHY. I want them to know they have value and they should never feel devalued in their worth. I spend time to help them understand just how valued they are and to be proud of it. Of course, I don’t just “tell” them over and over and over how valuable they are. I try to show them – having real conversations with them, inviting them to spend time with me, going places together, asking their opinions and truly engaging their thoughts. Having real interaction about things that are important to them. That’s how they can come to understand their value.
There are plenty of other examples of how I live my WHY, but I won’t bore you with them here. The great thing about a WHY is it comes out in everything I do… even writing a silly blog about being a dad. Or posting on Facebook some funny family interactions. Or playing with my kids. Even jokingly embarrassing my kids in public because I’m, you know…quirky.
So, I challenge you today. Parent or not, think about yourself and the things you do. Think about what drives you to make decisions and take action. Sit down and put into words, the best you can, your WHY. I can promise you, going forward, it’ll help bring clarity to your life.