As parents, it’s tough to know whether we are doing a good job. What criteria should we be using? What are the valid points of reference? Should the definition of success vary from child to child? Who should be doing the assessment?
It’s a minefield riddled with rabbit holes.
All I really have is my opinion. And it goes as follows – the word parent covers a wide range of roles. First and foremost we are provider and protectors. Beyond the most basic of needs (food, shelter and clothing), love and support become the most valuable things we can offer. The only things that compare in terms of utility and value is providing our children with what is useful. For me that means mental models and frameworks with which to assess and approach the world. It is an education we are in an unparalleled position to provide. We are after all the voice and the example behind this teaching.
In life there are fundamental principles that govern how people make the most of their lives. My thoughts constantly revolve around how can I teach them to my child over time so that they become part of who she is. I have given this question and others related to it a lot of thought since her birth four years ago.
This post is my attempt at distilling the 10 most critical lessons I hope to ingrain within my child. My goal was to create a list of the best values and skills I can teach her (and the future siblings we hope she has) to prepare them for a world that is changing more rapidly than ever before. I wanted to present each timeless lesson with a focus on the principles and actions at their core. While some things constantly change, there are fundamental elements that remain the same. In order to make this post as valuable as possible for everyone reading it, I have tried my best to add actionable steps and resources for each of the 10.
This post started with a list of 40 lessons I had brainstormed and discussed with others. The remaining 10 lessons are the result of progressive elimination and revisions. These are lessons built on principles. That was vital for me. Tactics may change and renew, but principles last forever.
I am writing this post as a parent, just like you. I am still learning and growing in that role, but I am committed to being the best parent I can be. I plan on teaching these lessons and their underlying principles to my child and any others I can. My goal in writing this post is to share them with all those parents that are raising their own little miracles. Armed with this knowledge they can create better futures for themselves and others. We can each do our part to help the world by raising happier, healthier and more effective children.
- Your brain is the greatest computer on Earth. Learn how to OPERATE it or be at its MERCY.
Our brain is the most intricate and complex computer on Earth. It is the result of millions of years of evolution and adaptation. We are still in the process of understanding the profundity of how it works. Within it’s cells is an ability to create something beautiful and useful from a wide variety of random inputs. This creation has benefited humankind for centuries.
The problem is that there is a price to be paid for all this creation. Energy. And lots of it. All that thinking and behind the scenes work our brain does running our body and its systems burns a lot of calories. Although our brain represents only 2% of our overall body mass it consumes approximately 20% of your daily caloric intake. As you can imagine this ratio created issues for our ancestors. Food sources used to be scarce and unpredictable. Any spare energy was to be conserved for foraging and hunting. Life depended on it. This made energy consumption a survival skill. Our brains adapted by mastering shortcuts in order to minimize the amount of energy used. Unbeknownst to us, these shortcuts (or patterns) are often exploited by others to influence our decision making patterns. Luckily, understanding this and harnessing that knowledge provides us with tremendous benefit. Think of it as a user manual for our brains.
Our brains like EASY. Easy requires little to no energy and effort. This often works in our favor unless of course you are trying to get anything difficult or worthwhile done. This is why it is easier to procrastinate on YouTube rather than do something productive or creative. That is especially true when we know something is important. Thinking about it is hard work. Resisting the urge to procrastinate to focus on a task at hand takes effort. It is the type of effort that creates and builds.
One of our brain’s most incredible skills is the ability to focus. As trite as that sounds, the ability to consciously eliminate the 1000’s of things that are tugging at our focus to concentrate specifically on one thing at a time is as close to a super power as we possess. This must be cultivated at a young age and practiced. Multi-tasking is an overrated load of crock. Believing otherwise can be costly. Real power comes from focused effort. Think of a magnifying glass (focus) harnessing the power of the sun (our brain power).
At its core, our brain is powered by two motivating factors – our desire to avoid pain and our desire to experience pleasure. We have a natural inclination to seek pleasure and do whatever we can to avoid pain. When it comes down to it, all things being equal our brain values avoiding pain over experiencing pleasure. This is what caused our Neanderthal ancestors to run from the Sabertooth Tiger rather than stick around to eat the ripened berries. This value system kept us alive.
The real questions is – how can we use this to our benefit and help our children do the same? By establishing and redefining what we associate pain and pleasure with. Want an example? How about running? Running a marathon requires tremendous investments of both time and effort. They are grueling. There is pain and there is suffering involved. This is unavoidable. Even with those facts widely known, people continuously sign up for them. Those wackos even pay to participate! Many sign up and run multiple times a year. Why? It turns out that these people have found ways to associate immense pleasure to preparing for and participating in marathons. Where others see pain and strain, they see pleasure and accomplishment. It gets them through the training. It allows them to say ‘No’ to the cheesecake and ‘Yes’ to the apple. The same story goes for writing a book or building a business. Pleasure can be associated with anything worthwhile. There is power in that. And that power is ours.
Another crucial thing to understand is that our brain hunts for answers. It is built to solve problems and fill gaps. Therefore, asking the best possible questions of ourselves and others helps us get the best possible answers. Our subconscious mind works beyond our awareness to create solutions and ideas based on the questions we ask. This can be very dangerous if we choose to ask the wrong questions of ourselves (disempowering or defeating). For example, asking yourself ‘why am I such a failure?’ will inevitably put your brain on a mission to find answers to that question. Your subconscious will not rest until it satisfies your query. You will have lost before you even started. Asking empowering questions or far fetched ones can harness our natural ability to create solutions and connections we never would have discovered otherwise. Always try to ask the best question you can and teach your child to do the same. The results can astound you.
ACTIONABLE STEP – Have your child come up with 5-10 ideas every day.
Generating empowering thoughts and ideas is a valuable lifelong skill. Like any skill, it gets built and improved over time. Famed investor and author James Altucher refers to this skill as exercising the ‘Idea Muscle’. Like any muscle it can be strengthened and trained. An excellent way to build this skill is to have your child think of and/or write 5-10 ideas a day. You can do this with them at the dinner table or while on a walk.
What types of ideas should you focus on? The only limiting factor is your imagination. Great examples include ‘5 ways to make class at school more interesting’ or ‘5 toys that kids my age would love to buy’’. The point of the exercise is to build the habit and reflex required to generate ideas. The deeper the practice the more valuable the skill. The ability to think of ideas – concepts, solutions or ways forward will never be an obsolete skill.
- You Are Your Habits – Choose Them Wisely
I highly recommend Charles Duhigg’s brilliant book ‘The Power of Habit’. It is must read and understand material for everyone. Habits are human. Every single one of us engages and runs through countless habits every single day (all day). They are an ideal example of our brain’s affinity and ability for shortcuts.
Habits form naturally for everything you repeatedly do (another example of our brain’s shortcuts). All such tasks required some level of attention and thinking initially. This could be learning to button your shirt or hitting snooze on your morning alarm. With practice and repetition these processes and steps become progressively easier over time. We begin to perform them with less and less perceived effort. Eventually our brain’s desire to eliminate unnecessary thinking automates many of these processes to the point where we do them automatically. There is little to no conscious thought.
Indulge me for a second and think about how you put your shirt on today. Did you button it from the top down or from the bottom up? When did you put it on? Before or after putting on your socks? Does anything vary in your routine from day to day? Chances are you had to take a minute and give this some degree of thought. That’s because how you put your shirt on isn’t something you have given much thought to in quite some time. It has become habit.
If video was taken of you putting on a shirt 25 different days over the course of a year, the similarities and exactness of your routine would shock you. Habits are essential to what we spend our time doing. Our kids are no different. Our brain predisposes us to habits because they are shortcuts. They minimize the work and cognitive load on your brain. As discussed earlier, his ability has gotten us to where we are today.
There are essentially two types of habits; good (positive) ones and bad (negative) ones. For most of us, distinguishing between the two is fairly easy. The most important thing to understand is that good habits can be introduced and cultivated. Bad habits on the other hand MUST BE replaced. A bad habit cannot simply be starved until it no longer exists. For long lasting change, a replacement routine must be adopted.
ACTIONABLE STEP – Understand how to BUILD good habits and REPLACE bad habits.
All habits are comprised of ‘building blocks’ that that can be broken down as follows:
Cue – the event that triggers the habit. Almost all cues can be broken down into the five following categories;
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately Preceding Action
Routine – the habit itself, a sequence of actions or behaviors that happen automatically. This is the behavior you want to shape or change.
Reward – the driving reason behind the routine, the positive reinforcement at the end of the routine. Over time we develop a craving for the reward and therefore continue with the habit.
Craving – the craving is the underlying driver behind our behavior/habit. At its core it is either driven by a desire to gain pleasure or to avoid pain.
To understand how to optimize and test all of the above ready Duhigg’s post on How Habits Work.
- Learning Without Applying is USELESS
The old adage that knowledge equals power is a dangerous one. Having knowledge and failing to apply it is like having a Ferrari and never turning it on. It won’t get you anywhere. Learning is a skill and should be thought of as such. It must be cultivated and practiced. Knowing how to learn the right things and apply that knowledge well is a super power. It will literally change your child’s life.
It can be argued that in this day and age of disruptive technological change the ability to learn quickly and apply that learning effectively will be the most valuable skill to possess. It allows you any opportunity you desire because you can learn the requisite skills or ‘recipe’ to take advantage of those opportunities. Our children should understand that. So should we.
To be completely honest, there is a good chance that the job (or career) your child will have as an adult is nothing more than a niche occupation or a developing technology today. The job may not even exist.
Don’t believe me? Let’s put things into perspective. Did you know that several months ago Google allowed open access to TensorFlow, a software library for machine learning (artificial intelligence)? This access allows anyone with the right learning and application of that learning to download free code that they can use to build their own self-driving car. A single smart and correctly educated person can now do it. Don’t believe me? It has already been done. 5 years ago billion dollar companies on the cutting edge had to dedicate a whole team of their people to attempt that.
Our world is at a tipping point that will require rapid and effective learning more than any other time in history. Did you know that by the year 2020 40% of the American workforce will be freelance in nature? Gone are the days of bloated staffs and redundant work forces.
Luckily, this same tech disruption has also greatly increased the quality and accessibility of educational resources. The online courses available today are wide ranging and better suited for emerging trends and technologies. This includes free resources from our greatest schools (edX from Harvard and MIT) to disruptive platforms like Khan Academy. The barriers to entry that stymied our generation (institutional, financial, geographic) are being removed brick by brick. The only thing that will matter for our kids is what they know and the value they can create by applying that knowledge. I would be worried if I was the Dean of a large and established university. Skills such as communication, marketing and learning will be more valuable than ever. They will be needed for all work that is meaningful in any way.
ACTIONABLE STEP – The 48 Hour Rule
Encourage your child from as young an age as possible to teach the new concepts or lessons they learn (in school or elsewhere) within 48 hours of learning it. No need for full lessons or detailed diagrams. A few minutes to explain the basics or fundamentals (preferably with an example) should be ample. The ability to teach material ensures that it is properly understood and retained. It is also one of the most fundamental ways to apply what has been learned in a positive way. There is value in being able to take something and distill it enough to teach it to someone else. Sharing is caring.
- Time is the Most Valuable Resource on Earth
You owe it to your child to teach them how valuable their time is. It is the most valuable resource on Earth, and they have more of it than almost anyone. Time trumps everything else because without it there is nothing else. If they fail to see time in that light they will never respect it the way they should. If they are unable to respect their time, why should anyone else?
This is not to say that things like health, money and relationships are not valuable. They certainly are. They color our days with accomplishment, feelings and love. But ask yourself, what would these be without the time to spend building or enjoying them? Money is made and lost each and every day. It is a renewable resource both on a macro and micro level. Your children should know that. Ditto for relationships. New ones can be established and old ones rekindled. But what about yesterday? Or that amazing day your child was born? How can you bring that back? How can you repeat it? You know the answer as well as I do. You can’t. Time is our only non-renewable and non-replaceable resource. This makes it our most valuable.
Let’s try something. Let’s assume that you are blessed enough to live for 85 years. To put this into context the average Canadian lives for 81.25 years. Can you guess how many days you would have lived when it is all said and done?
85 × 365.25 = 31,625.25 days of living
That’s all. I hope that number hits you in the gut as hard as it hit me. Talk about a wake up call. Imagine you were allocated that same 31,625.25 as a lifetime salary that could never be replenished or grown no matter what. You couldn’t invest it for a return or borrow from others. It gets worse. Now imagine that at any given time that money could be taken from you unexpectedly. There could be a severe accident or a disease. I think those constraints would cause you to think long and hard about how you spent every single dollar (DAY). You should think about it as hard as you can. There is no chance you will ever be able to get it back. Each day and the minutes that comprise it should be thought of in that way. Spend that time doing things that you love. Give your children the gift and permission to do the same.
The most important thing to know about time is that the only thing that matters is what you do with it. Will you spend it thriving and creating? Or will you spend it surviving and consuming. Choose wisely. Raise your children to choose wisely.
ACTIONABLE STEP – Reflect on the Day
Ask your child to reflect on how they spent their time on that particular day. I am not implying they be mini-CEO’s who are ruthless with their daily schedule. Most of what they get done should be stimulating and entertaining. That is the wonderment of being a child. We as parents can learn a lot from it. It would help us enjoy or time more.
This exercise simply serves to get them into the habit of thinking about how they spent their day. Was it spent doing the things they enjoy doing? Was there anything they did that they could do without? Could they have made better use of their day? The better the questions, the better the realizations that come from the corresponding answers.
Another wonderful thing to do would be watching Steve Job’s commencement speech to Stanford’s graduating class in 2005 about how to live. Tell them he created the iPad if they are reluctant.
To Be Continued…