A Successful Life

I want to see you game, boys, I want to see you brave and manly, and I also want to see you gentle and tender. Be practical as well as generous in your ideals. Keep your eyes on the stars and keep your feet on the ground. Courage, hard work, self-mastery, and intelligent effort are all essential to successful life. Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike.” – Theodore Roosevelt

I count the opportunity to raise my boys, to encourage them into manhood, as one of my greatest privileges in life. We have succeeded as parents, and as a generation, if we hand over a world which has increased because of our stewardship. Conversely, we have failed if the world is diminished as a result of our presence and influence.

Roosevelt’s notion of the “strenuous life” is one which appeals to me immensely. Nowadays we might say “live hard and play hard,” but so saying draws an unhelpful distinction between work and play. Life is one thing. To live it strenuously, you must be willing to accept the challenge that life brings in every area of your living.

By this I do not mean that you have to try harder to overcome lethargy, bad habits or areas of personal weakness, in fact, I think we have the problems we have as individuals and as a nation because of all this trying, which is simply a manifestation of working harder and not smarter.

Life is inherently intelligent, coordinated and forever burgeoning. The key to building character rapidly, efficiently and sustainably is found in learning to let the stuff of life flow more freely through you in a particular area of function. In other words, you need to learn to let better and while giving up the arduous and often painful attempt to try harder.

We as a species have grown to be distrustful of life, despite its constant efforts to keep us in business. Life will come through if you yield to it, if you turn your back once and for all on the desperate attempts to control it. Life is trustworthy. Character flaws are nothing more than restrictions in the normal flow of life. Once the flow is restored, so too is the quality of character which naturally clothes that phase of life expression.

The Ascending Spiral

There exists a remarkable parallel between raising children and schooling horses. Both horses and people move through a period of intense physical development in their youth, followed by mental and emotional growth and maturation.

Handled rightly, this process oscillates back and forth between tension and relaxation. In the moment it might feel like you are going back and forth, but getting nowhere. Zoom back sufficiently, however, and you will see that the overall movement, despite the oscillations, is ever onward upward like an ascending spiral. Conversely, if it is mishandled, growth in any one or all three of the areas is stunted, at times temporarily and occasionally permanently. These stunted areas form “cysts” which typically come to the surface at the most inopportune times.

Classical horseman Egon von Neindorff astutely observed in his excellent book The Art of Classical Horsemanship that:

The horse’s obedience can only develop from trust and understanding but its continuance depends on the horse and the rider’s combined discipline. The rider’s mistaken leniency with the horse or himself will not be without side effects. Only the rider’s patience and knowledge combined with methodical and simultaneously individual increases in demands, accomplished without haste, will protect the horse from being overtaxed. This approach will prevent the many battles and facilitate solving unavoidable problems that may arrive.

You’ve no doubt heard a parent talk about the “terrible twos” or roll their eyes when talking about their unruly teenager, but the fact is that had the foundation been better laid in the “wonderful ones” in the first place and the pre-teen years in the second, it is very likely that the weeds would not have taken over the garden of the child’s expression. It is almost never the horse’s fault. He may have unwittingly become part of the problem, but trace it back and you will see an error in development. Look carefully and you will see that something was glossed over, improperly set or missed along the way.

When these flat spots in development are revealed, it is best to look first at yourself as a parent to find the causes of a child’s disobedience. A basic, foundational element of parenting was likely missed and must be addressed, healed or repaired if there is to be further sound and sustainable development of the child.

The same principles applies in riding. When you increase your demands and receive an evasion or a disruptive reaction of some type instead cooperation and progress, you must take the time to analyze and discover exactly where the fault lies in the foundation. The answer will likely be something more basic that you would like to admit to yourself, so be prepared to address it humbly, carefully, respectfully and completely before expecting much more from the horse…or the child!

One final point: never discipline a horse or a child in anger. To do so is an absolute violation of the sacred responsibility entrusted to both parents and riders. Discipline is of course necessary, but a parent or rider who poisons the tip of the arrow of correction with anger will invariably do more harm than good. Trust built up over years can be violated by one false move in this regard, so please, take note.

Energy, Discipline, Spirit

Managing people, like training horses or parenting, is all about harnessing energy and teaching discipline, while preserving spirit. The best managers, like the best trainers, possess a remarkable capacity for empathy and their high expectations are never lowered by sympathy.

I have no doubt that there is a marvelous spirit resident within each and every person on earth, a spirit that must be properly clothed to highlight its finer qualities. The connection to spirit (not the spirit itself!) can be broken by overly severe discipline or conversely, by the absence of discipline.

A broken man, like a broken horse, has lost the connection to the spirit that animates him. The spirit is still there, as is the form until death, but the flow of life, energy and passion between the two is reduced to a trickle.

Nurturing or restoring that connection is my life’s work. Whether working with people or horses, my great hope is that the spirit of the one with whom I am privileged to associate at any given point in time is allowed to be magnified into dignified expression. Dignity requires control and restraint, both of which are the product of discipline.

The uncontrolled expression of spirit is doomed to burn out its vehicle expression. The overly-controlled expression of spirit is muted and impotent, dull and uninspiring. There is a golden mean in expression, a flowing state in which body, mind and heart are aligned and poised to give birth to brilliance. And that mean is available to every single person on earth.

Whether I’m managing, riding or simply being a father, inspiring that brilliance is one of my central concerns.

What about you? What concerns do you fill your heart with before you look into the eyes and thereby the soul of another, regardless of their individual story, of your history with them or with how you feel at the moment?

Big Decisions

My sons, aged 5 and 6, had an interesting conversation at breakfast the other day. They got on the topic of thinking and feeling somehow (I came in part way through) and my youngest made the declaration “Daddy, feeling is definitely more important than thinking!” My oldest, who is as siblings often are wired completely differently than his little brother, looked at him quizzically and countered with “Seriously? Daddy, thinking is definitely more important than feeling.”

I had to laugh as I often do when listening to my little rascals pontificating on the deeper questions in life and I must admit I was a impressed with how sure each was of his own opinion on the matter. When they turned to me for confirmation of their respective beliefs, I did my best to explain in 5 and 6 year old terms that thinking and feeling are two complementary parts of a larger whole. In other words, both were important to effectively handling the decisions – both small and large – that we all face in life.

Decisions are best made when your heart is untroubled and your mind is at peace. Decisions have a funny way of driving a wedge between heart and mind or of disturbing one or the other or both. The larger the decision, it seems, the greater the potential for upset.

Those who have achieved mastery in self-expression have learned to keep both mind and heart at peace no matter how high the stakes or complicated the decision at hand. Those who have yet to become masters in this way (note to self: this is not an exclusive club…both “intellectuals” and “feeling” people can attain mastery) tend to struggle mentally or wrestle with their feelings as they approach the forks in the road of life. “Struggling with” always implies “subjection to” and such subjection invariably leads to a loss in perspective.

Everyone desires an optimal outcome but effective decision-making is hampered when heart and mind are troubled or impaired by unrelieved tension. Optimal outcomes are sometimes achieved when heart and mind are under duress, but only by means of dumb luck.

More often than not I’ve found that unrelieved tension seeps into and begins to restrict heart or mind when decisions are squared against short-term desires or wants. If you fail to take your life’s purpose into account whenever you make a decision you are much more likely to go off on a tangent or to miss the opportunity to get back on track. When you are off-track, tension tends to build. Remember being lost in a car with your parents on a road trip?

Your heart and mind provide you with valuable tools and critical feedback as you approach any decision. It matters not if you see yourself as a “thinker” or a “feeler” because heart and mind are naught but the prisms through which the “you” that you are refracts and is magnified out into the world around you.

A builder would assure you that his tools must be sharp, clean and well-oiled for the job to go as well as it can. Why would it be any different when it comes to the tools of heart and mind that you are blessed to have at your command?

Where I grew up we didn’t…

You’ve no doubt heard conversations in which people define themselves, defend their positions and deride others with the statement “Where I grew up we didn’t…” What follows is usually some anecdote that serves to make a point which carries the weight of precedent and by extension, history.

While it is certainly true that you are defined in large measure by your childhood experiences, you needn’t let the days of your youth define the years of your adulthood. Every child has the opportunity to rise above the strictures of personal and familial precedent. The idea that you don’t, that is, that you have a station in life and that you are better off respecting the envelope of possibility you were born into is outdated, outmoded and utterly false.

Your life expression rightly emerges from the inside out and is radiant in nature. Just as you had your start in the confines of your mother’s womb, when you continue to cooperate with life rather than struggling against it you will go through successive periods of rebirth into a larger sphere of living and influence. Life’s inclination is to move upward and outward, not downward and inward.

Adolescence is one of those critical periods of rebirth. Teenagers, full of the spirit of life, are typically hellbent on defining themselves. The longing to know who they are and what they are here to do burns in their hearts and minds, but they typically lack the tools and discipline necessary to navigate the pressures of labor and birth present in this important phase of life. As such they need a doula or a team of advisors (typically other than their parents) to help keep them on the path to self-revelation.

Parents who do not allow the lives of their children to expand do a tremendous disservice to the child. They create an artificially self-limiting environment that is deficient in critical nutrients as no parent or parents are so complete in and of themselves that they can provide everything their children need. Most parents who do this to their children feel well-justified, typically on the argument that they don’t want to miss the child’s youth, which, dear readers, is fundamentally selfish reasoning that is ignorant of the process by which individuality is nourished into being.

In an imperfect world it is highly unlikely that any child will have a perfect childhood. There will be deficiencies, mistakes made and imbalances that become more obvious as the child grows older. You are wise, then, to recognize that your childhood experiences should not limit or define those of your children. This is not to say that your children will be “better” than you, neither does it mean that their purpose is to beat your records. True individual expression is not relative, it is absolute.

Parents would be wise to provide the safe and controlled growing room by means of which their children can see beyond the blinders imposed by immediate family, relatives, societal norms and cultural mores. Individuality loses its unique and original character whenever life expression is stuffed into a preformed box.

As you can imagine, there are implications for parenting, education, business organizational theory and more to this notion of personal development. We, in all of our human brilliance, have elected the familiarity and comfort that dribbles from the status quo over the newness and richness that flow abundantly from a more dynamic, organic approach to living. Life is never static. Neither should we be.

On Parenting and Flying

Prepare for the unknown, unexpected and inconceivable . . . after 50 years of flying I’m still learning every time I fly.” ~ Gene Cernan

I’ve learned a great many lessons as an aviator over the years, all of which have left me a better pilot. What I didn’t expect, however, is that those experiences would also improve my parenting skills.

Here are a few of the lessons I discovered in the air that, properly heeded, can make a you a more capable parent on the ground:

  1. A good pilot doesn’t manhandle the controls. A good many pilots are “Type A” personality and they must learn to resist the temptation to force the aircraft to submit to their will. Most aircraft are inherently stable and as such respond more favorable to a gentle touch. Lesson learned: Just as a thumb and a finger on the yoke are almost always more effective than two clenched fists, finding the least forceful intervention when dealing with children provides for an overall smoother experience for both parent and child.
  2. A good pilot uses all available resources. This is true in both pre-flight planning and during the flight. In small aircraft a pilot may even enlist the help of his passengers to keep an eye out for traffic on a busy day. Lesson learned: children love to participate, long to be helpful and love new challenges. Look to include them creatively in what you are doing, especially around the house. And don’t be afraid to ask for help from others who have more experience than you.
  3. A good pilot stays ahead of the aircraft. Many aviation accidents occur because an inexperienced (in relation to the craft or the mission) pilot gets behind the aircraft in his thinking. This is an uncomfortable and unsafe position that every pilot finds himself in at some point in his flying career. In such critical moments he must take a deep breath and say to himself: “Fly the airplane.” Lesson learned: Your children are going to get out ahead of you every now and again. Don’t sweat it! You’re an adult and there is no better time than this to take a deep breath and bring your experience (both to-do and to-not-do) to bear on the situation.
  4. A good pilot learns not to let distractions consume his focus. Distractions are inevitable. A strange noise, an unfamiliar sensation, an unusual sequence of events can happen when you least expect it (if not during every flight over large bodies of water). Take note, keep it in perspective, but don’t forget to…yes, you guessed it…fly the airplane! Lesson learned: Be willing to be surprised by your children. They will inevitably come to you out of left field, despite your best attempts at making them good little girls and boys. Stick to the basics where you can…there is no replacement for a loving, caring and attentive parent. By the way, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected with your children. They will love it!

As I mentioned previously, parenting is a sacred trust and there are many lessons which can be translated from other activities in your life if you are observant and keen to connect the dots. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

On Parenting and Falconry

While I am inclined to favor the cultivation of personal responsibility over the imposition of regulation, I cannot help but note the irony of the fact that to practice the sport of falconry you must first obtain a license that comes only on the completion of a challenging and comprehensive written examination and a two year apprenticeship, while no test of fitness is ever imposed on prospective parents in the interest of the child.

Although those with ornithophobia might take exception to the following claim, raising children is more dangerous, demanding and complicated than caring for a raptor. And while I risk offending the sensibilities of my fellow falconers, I am fairly confident that a well-raised, well-rounded child is more important to the future of our planet than a well-manned bird.

That said, I would love for there to be an abundance of both well-mannered children and well-manned birds on this planet and I do not believe that the two are mutually exclusive. As one of roughly 4,000 falconers in a country of 307,000,000 people, it is my great pleasure to share a few of the many valuable lessons I’ve learned while practicing this remarkable sport, lessons that have influenced and hopefully enhanced my approach to parenting:

  1. Raptors are highly sensitive creatures. In my observation, raptors meet calmness with stoicism and agitation with frenzy. Only a falconer who has mastered himself is capable of subduing the intensity of a wild bird of prey. Lesson learned: when you are concerned to extend control, never act out of reaction. Exerting a radiant influence compels lasting agreement while forcing the matter secures only temporary acquiescence.
  2. Raptors recognize patterns that you might otherwise miss. Raptors live and die by pattern recognition and falconers must take great care in the patterns they establish with their birds. Lesson learned: children are always watching, listening to and learning from their parents, whether they acknowledge them or not. There is no “off-camera” or “off-the-record” when it comes to raising children. You are always live and you must, therefore, take great care with your thoughts, words and actions.
  3. Raptors are never fully tame and are therefore always potentially dangerous. The relationship between falconer and bird is largely based on food, though some falconers, myself included, suspect a deeper bond. Lesson learned: while children can learn the art of civility, parents are wise to always leave room for the occasional irrational outburst. Take care not to allow flat spots to develop in the child’s character and when weaknesses are detected, don’t always go straight at them. Character flaws are not permanent and they can be back-filled with careful and thoughtful intervention.
  4. No two raptors are the same – physically, mentally or in personality. Every bird must be approached a little differently. Similarly, each species has its stereotypical traits, thought there appear to be more exceptions to the rule than followers. Lesson learned: The same strategies and tactics used with one child, say a first child, may not work on the next. Parents must be light on their feet, capable of tailoring their approach to the necessities of the child and of the moment. The failure to do so results in a parent seeming arbitrary, ineffective and out of touch.
  5. Raptors respond to respect. A falconer must be firm, but gentle with his bird in every interaction. Remember, these are highly perceptive creatures. Lesson learned: Respect is more than a mental concept; it is an non-threatening acknowledgement that carries a gentle, complementary energy. Respect should be the cornerstone of any and every relationship and consistent respect bequeaths the spirit of reverence in a way that no other combination of words or actions can.
  6. Raptors smell fear. Well, maybe not, but they do seem to pick up on timidity and fearfulness. When they do, they tend to exploit the openings provided thereby. Lesson learned: never end a command or exclamation directed at a child with the word “okay” (typically punctuated with a question mark). For example, “Go to bed, okay?” not only exposes your expectation and fear of an argument, it is the grammatical equivalent of a “kick me” sign with an arrow pointed to your derriere. You know what is best for the child. Deliver it with assurance so that you are not already behind the eight ball when you make an inevitable, yet less obvious mistake later on.

I hope that we can continue to refine our approach to educating future parents so as to obviate the need for regulations designed to protect or promote “family values.” Regulations are the coarsest form of managing human affairs, for regulation is the formal acknowledgement that we have temporarily given up on the idea that collective internal governance is possible within that sphere of activity.

Parenting is a sacred trust and there are many lessons which can be translated from other activities in your life if you are observant and keen to connect the dots. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!