Wake up calls

On the eve of my 39th birthday, I’m still working to embrace the benefits of stepping out of my comfort zone, and embracing a beginners mind. Unfortunately, I’ve often internalized the message that I’m supposed to have things figured out (at least by now), as a father, as a husband, friend, etc. It makes it difficult to see and seize the opportunity that comes with approaching life as a beginner. Which makes this past week even more remarkable for me. Through a confluence of events, I was forced to reckon with what happens when we fail to see life through the eyes of a beginner. And, because of my daughter, I was able to catch a glimpse of the amazing experience that’s just on the other side of approaching life as a beginner, which usually happens outside your comfort zone.

First, the cautionary tale. One of our dear friends had an emergency, which really was the culmination of events that had been building up to this particular moment. As we all rallied to their side, it dawned on me that this was an opportunity to view my own mental and emotional health through a totally new lens. Whereas in the past I perhaps would have ignored my own triggers, over the past few years I’ve become awakened to the reality that I can’t continue to live my life in a compartmentalized manner. We’re all integrated beings, and what happens to us spiritually, shows up in our physical, emotional, and mental lives (and vice versa). To me, this was a clear warning: sometimes if we’re either unwilling or unable to wake up to what’s happening in and around us in life, life gets to work waking us up.

As if on cue with this growing realization, while at my daughter’s school this week I struck up a conversation with another dad I’d just met. I happened to notice that we had the same shoes (brown Jordans), so I introduced myself and we ended up chatting for a while. As we began to talk about our kids experiences with the non-traditional schooling environment, we ended up discussing a wide range of topics including death, spirituality, and our faith traditions that we both were raised with. During our conversation he made an interesting statement. He said, believing something is not the same as knowing something. At the time we were talking about the importance of being open to learning from life experiences and paying attention to what life has to teach you in this moment.

Earlier that day, because of my daughter, I got a glimpse of how I want to spend the rest of my days, experiencing more of life through the lens of a beginner. First, in order to fully appreciate this story you have to understand that my oldest daughter Riley is our most reserved, quiet, thoughtful, smart, and independent child. As a toddler she would freak out around large groups of people, it was so bad for a while that she couldn’t even stand to be in the sanctuary at our church during service. She’s since grown out of her severe opposition to crowds, but she’s still not a fan of public speaking.

At her school, one of the quests she was on for the past few weeks involved designing and implementing her own business model. The goal was for her and her peers to get real world feedback and ultimately pitch their business idea to a panel of “sharks”, i.e. real world entrepreneurs to earn investment dollars for their start-ups. She’s really into pets, so she designed a business around training customers on how to train their pets.

Because of my own experiences as a entrepreneur I was invited to provide feedback to her classmates early in the process and I’ve got to say, what I saw was pretty early in development. Most ideas weren’t fully baked, their pitch skills were still a work in progress, it was a mess as you might expect (except for a few kids who had already launched their ideas and you could tell they were used to this). As for my daughter, well she was definitely nervous, unclear, and just genuinely didn’t seem as if she wanted to be there doing any of it. But, like the rest of her peers, I gave her feedback and went on about my way.

Days later, time came for the group of middle schoolers to pitch their ideas to a roomful of community members, parents, and a panel of sharks. I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I didn’t expect was the person who showed up that evening. It was like seeing a different side of my daughter. She started off asking the audience questions, she made eye contact, she was clear and engaging… and she won second place! Granted, I’m biased, I think she should have won first, but that’s a far cry from not even thinking that she would place.

I asked her on the ride home, what did you decide to do differently? She said two things: first she decided to just go for it and talk to people about her idea. Ever the practical one, her assumption was, how bad could it be? Second, she decided to personalize it. My favorite part of her 2 minute pitch was a new twist I hadn’t heard during the practice I attended earlier in the week. She told the story about how she got the idea for starting her own business to help people because she sees her mom doing the same thing, (starting her own business to help people) and she wanted to be like her.

Now if that doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, I don’t know what will. I was and still am so proud of her. Proud that she’s experienced what it feels like to be right about herself. She bet on herself and it paid off. Imagine if she hadn’t tried? I think about all the times when I am too afraid to put something out there into the world, an idea, a project, and what I lose as a result of the non-attempt.

Riles and I with her investment check after the exhibition

She reminded me that the beauty of approaching life as a beginner is that you’re not expected to be the best on your first attempt. In fact, it’s ok to fail, failure is more expected (and perhaps necessary) than immediate success. Riley also made me reconsider the messages I was sending her about my own approach to success and failure.

According to Dr. Laurence Weinzimmer, co-author of the 2012 book, The Wisdom of Failure: How to Learn the Tough Leadership Lessons Without Paying the Price. “We’re paid to succeed. We’re judged on our successes. We’re promoted on our successes. We’re rewarded for successes, and we’re penalized for failure. It’s a difficult topic.” Add that to being black and constantly on guard against imposter syndrome issues and it gets harder and harder to authentically model appropriate responses to failure.

It’s the reason why I’m working on actively putting myself in situations in front of my girls where I have to model being a beginner. Two years ago I attempted to learn how to swim, then a global pandemic began and that ended my attempt. Tomorrow, on my 39th birthday I will be taking up swim lessons again, with the girls (who already know how to swim), there to cheer me on while I do something that has terrified me for most of my life.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, writes, I wanted to subtly expand my definition of self beyond the obvious user tags of parent, husband, knowledge worker. I wanted room for play and experimentation in a life with little room for error. That phrase, in a life with little margin for error, struck a cord with me. I need more margin for error in my tightrope of a life, and perhaps that margin is found outside my comfort zone. What if opening myself up more to being a beginner helps me find it?

To paraphrase Nietzsche, what does not kill you makes you a better parent. To children, parents are the ultimate experts. But can we be beginners as well? I’m about to find out.


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