Someone broke into my car the other day and I’m feeling a lot more insulted than violated.
Saturday night, we went to Chinatown and I dropped Jill off to wait for a table while I looked for a parking space. I’m a city boy, so the hunt for a free space on a side street is one of my constant adventures. Also, being a city boy, I always lock the car when I leave; except for this time, apparently.
After dinner, I went to retrieve the car and discovered a ton of stuff on the shotgun seat. The center console was open, as was the sunglass holder, and the car was a mess. Clearly, someone had been looking for valuables to steal.
And here is where I got really, really offended. My invader didn’t find anything worth taking. Apparently, my shades weren’t hip enough and Jill’s spare glasses were the wrong magnification and even our taste in granola bars wasn’t up to the foodie standards of this ne’er do well.
So I started thinking that I’ve gotta up my game here. Yeah, I need to lock the car door next time, but I also need to buy cooler stuff and have the kind of car that thieves really want to break into and the kind of treasure they’ll really want to steal and…
Wait a minute.
Am I so insecure that I care what this guy thinks about me? Am I so needy that I crave the approval of a petty thief? Apparently, the answer is ‘yes.’
Even worse, it was the second time this happened. Several winters ago, some guy stole our car so he could drive to his halfway house—really—where he dumped it. Again, nothing in our car was good enough for him to steal, other than the car, of course. C’mon, man, I had cassettes from Neil Diamond and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and a top-quality plastic windshield scraper. No interest? Dang.
We all react like that at some point or another, giving someone else the power to judge us and convincing ourselves that we deserve their scorn. We succumb to our need for acceptance from someone who isn’t important to us, someone we don’t respect, possibly someone we’ve never met. And yet, for some reason, we fall into the trap of needing their approval, their support, their acceptance.
For all of us, there is a “they” with more influence than they deserve in our lives. It could be a person who owned us in high school, an ex, a co-worker, or a Tik Tok star. It could be a group of people who are hipper or smarter or richer or prettier than we are, at least on the surface. Whatever defines “they” for us, we tend to give them a ton of deference.
For me, this time, it was a petty thief. When you think about it, though, it’s always a thief of some sort. It’s always a person who finds a way inside our heads, messes up our minds, and leaves us to deal with the damage. And they always steal something from us, often at our silent invitation.
Going forward, I’ve got to be more vigilant about keeping the wrong people out of my car. More important, I’ll be working to keep the wrong people from claiming a place in my head.
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A guy I know is doing very well in his career, but he is out of sorts lately because he has to give up the activities that helped him build his business in the first place. He started out as a salesman, but now he’s a manager, which is not nearly as much fun and not nearly as good a fit for his personality.
I’ve written before about the changes we all go through as we move through life, and the lessons of resilience are a constant, but there’s no denying that he has lost a part of himself in the transition. His identity as the guy who could outsell everyone else is being displaced by coach and cheerleader for other reps. He once basked in the glory of a million attaboys, but now he’s the guy who gives attaboys to all the other boys and girls on the team.
The more we talked about it, the more I realized he was in mourning. A part of him, a part of his identity and career had died and he was feeling the loss. Shortly afterwards, I had some conversations with friends who were going through other life changes---divorce, moving, job change—and the patterns were the same. Nobody had actually died, but everyone was mourning a significant loss. It didn’t matter if the changes were their choice or not, or if they recognized the transitions as a move for the better. They were shedding a skin, and their new skins didn’t quite fit.
Maybe that’s a good way for us to look at all the changes in our lives, large or small. We don’t need to get dramatic about it, since it’s not really a death, but recognizing the patterns can help us better with our adjustment.
I had always thought it was George Carlin’s idea, but it turns out it was Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who came up with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. As I talk with my friends about their own transitions, each of these stages seems to be present at one point or another. The order of phases isn’t always the same, but that’s probably normal. Just as there is no right or wrong way to mourn the death of a loved one, there probably isn’t a correct way to grieve over the loss of a job or a hometown. Whatever the pacing, the key is to reach acceptance and peace.
That also shifts the burden of friends and family to keep our mouths shut about how to deal with the death of a life phase. It’s pretty much never appropriate, or welcome, to begin a sentence with, “What you should do is…” and that’s particularly true in the big transitions of life. Truth be told, we really don’t know what someone else should do and we don’t have to live with the consequences of our advice.
I’m eating my own cooking on this one, resisting the urge to share my infallible wisdom about all issues of human endeavor. More than once, I suspect, keeping my opinions to myself has saved me from mourning the loss of yet another friendship.
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I showed up at the final exam about half way into the class, dropped my books and started digging into the essay. After the instructor called time, I told one of my classmates I was late because I had run out of gas on the way to the test.
“Well, you won’t make that mistake again,” he said, and it made me cringe, because it was the second time I’d done it.
It wasn’t the first time, and certainly it wasn’t the last instance of me repeating a stupid mistake. Over the years, I’ve found a way to do the same dumb thing over and over, always vowing and always failing to know better the next time.
Somehow, I am not as bright as a lab rat.
We all like to think we learn from our mistakes, but most of us find a way to resist the wisdom life throws at us. I laugh at the guy who keeps falling for the latest investment craze, but I still think I’m going to get home faster if I get off the expressway and take the side streets. I shake my head as a friend tells me about a new relationship that sounds identical to the last hundred blow-ups, but every so often I’ll think it’s a great idea to split tens at the blackjack table.
I’m intrigued by my uncanny ability to absorb some lessons instantly and emulate a box of rocks about others. What is it that makes us both brilliant and chumps at the same time? Whatever the deep meaning behind our foolish consistency, it’s just another way for God to keep us humble.
We like to think of ourselves as wolves, always learning and always surviving the threats around us. More commonly, we’re dogs, repeatedly running into the patio door. Unfortunately, we never seem to be quite as happy as the family dog appears to be.
My own journey is a triumph of hope over experience. This time will be different. This time I’ll avoid the trap. This time I’ll make it work. Now that I’ve figured it all out, I’ll break the pattern. Ultimately, it turns out, my most infallible skill is my ability to fool myself.
There’s some comfort to be found in knowing that I’m not alone on the journey. As good as I’ve become at recognizing my own destructive tendencies, I’m even better at spotting those patterns among other people. Of course, it goes without saying that their repeated missteps are excessively irritating and impossibly obvious. Meanwhile, I’ve found, my own consistency of errors is charming, possibly even endearing.
Why are my flaws more cuddly than theirs? Hard to say, really, but it’s absolutely true. Regardless, I’ll try to find a way to tolerate all of their failures while making an effort to, um, refine my own charming idiosyncrasies.
I’ll give it more thought later, but meanwhile I have to polish off this pizza and finish a few more beers before I head back to the casino. I know that worked out badly for me in the past, but this time will be different.
It’s never a mistake to subscribe to Dad Writes by clicking here and, even if it was a giant error, it’s one of the most charming mistakes around.
I know a woman who cannot forgive her mom for something her mom did 25 years ago. I know the story, and I understand why it caused her pain, but there’s no point. In the end, she’s fighting with a ghost.
Her mother is still alive, but that mom, the woman who wronged her, is long gone. She looks much the same, but she is a different person from the one who wounded her child. If mom is sticking to her opinion, and her way of expressing it, my friend has a beef with the mom she knows today. If not, though, she’s volunteering to demean her current relationship in the interest of…what? Does she love the pain that much? Is she a big believer in parallel universes where the same person can exist in multiple forms? Is she stuck in a Schrodinger time warp herself, existing as both the person she is today and the person she was a quarter century ago?
I’ve written before that the worst days of your life can also turn out to be the best days, that a setback in one area can create an opportunity elsewhere. Recently, my daughter recalled the time I declined to increase her allowance in college, which led her to find a job, which led to her finding an internship, and a job, and a career… There’s no way to know how things would have turned out if I had acquiesced and increased her funding. Maybe better, maybe worse, but we’ll never know. All we can say now is that things turned out well, so far.
The same applies to my friend, whose attachment to the memory is likely an indication that the incident affected some of her follow-on decisions in life. She’s doing quite well now, so how can we be sure that the sting from her mom didn’t, somehow, improve her life? It’s possible that she made some changes in how she talked to her mom, how she treated other people, how she made decisions that led to more decisions that led to now. As with everything in life, you can’t get one without the other.
I’ve written before about the importance of moving past the missteps, acknowledging that people can grow as they learn more, encounter more, and empathize more with other human beings. During the quarantine period, I had the “opportunity” to review some of my earlier writings and some family videos that I would absolutely not share with anyone today. They aren’t incredibly terrible, but I cringe just a bit at my lack of awareness and the limits of my vision.
As uncomfortable as I am with those entries in my permanent record, though, I’m also gratified to see them. These reminders of my earlier worldview are a marker for my evolution since then. I’m still a work in progress, but I have absolutely grown wiser, more insightful, less judgmental. Or so it seems to me.
Just like my friend’s mom, I cannot go back into my own past and unsay anything. I cannot change the views I held or the way I expressed them. I cannot undo whatever harm I might have caused someone when I was a child and spoke as a child. All I can do, now, is to work on the person I am today and avoid the impulse to do battle with ghosts.
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Through an unusual sequence of events, I ended up investing in a small company alongside a famous financier. It’s kinda cool, since it makes me sound like I must know something about investing, but let’s just say it’s more serendipity than strategy.
Of course, if you want to think I’m an investment genius, that’s okay, too.
Anyway, I was comparing notes on the situation with a friend who's plugged into a lot of business deals, and he expressed some views about how to work with, or around, the big dog in this deal. I took his words to heart, considered how I might respond to various actions, and then I had a flash of insight.
My friend doesn’t know this other guy and he hasn’t worked with him on any deals. He was making some assumptions about the way a wealthy investor would act in various situations, but my friend really doesn’t know one way or another. He could be right, or not, but there’s no reason for me to accept his ideas with any sense of certainty.
But that wasn’t the real flash of insight.
The real lightning bolt was that I was now accepting one of those conspiracy theories that I rail against all the time. I was taking his opinion as fact and incorporating that “fact” into my plans. I’m on guard against this all the time, pointing out the failure of skepticism that turns my friends into chumps, and it took all of ten seconds for me to take the bait from a friend who has solid credentials…but no specific knowledge.
See how easy that was? A person with some standing in the world, maybe a doctor or a public official or a celebrity, presents a statement that’s really just an opinion and we add it to our arsenal of 100% true facts for future discussions.
The reason it slips by us so easily is that we’ve been learning this way all our lives. Mom said something when we were six and we’ve never questioned it since then. We watched a "based-on-a-true-story" movie five years ago and we believe we know all the details. Intellectually, we recognize that we don’t know which parts of the movie were fact and which were fiction, but we have nothing in our brains to refute any of the facts(!?) presented on the screen. Almost everything we think we know about the outside world comes at us this way.
As is often the case in situations like this, my friend’s predictions have not come to pass. He made a general observation that seemed more credible to me because there was a specific name attached, but that didn’t make his observation any more valuable than a general statement from my dry cleaner.
If my dry cleaner had said it, though, I would have discounted the view immediately as coming from someone who isn’t in that particular business. Because my friend is in a related field and knows many investors, I gave him more credence, which was more credence than appropriate.
Lesson learned, again.
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Send this to someone you know who’s been stuffed in the wrong bucket...
I had the opportunity once to visit the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas for a tour and meet with the guy who was running the outdoor fountains at the time. He showed us how the system worked, discussed the ways they updated the sequences to keep it fresh, and generally displayed a ton of enthusiasm for the giant bathtub he played in every day. One of the guys in our group asked how much the hotel spent on the free water show and he responded with pride that the hotel made $millions from his work.
Huh? Anyone on the street could see the show for free, so how was he making money on it? Because, he explained, hotel guests paid a premium for rooms with a view of the show, and as long as he kept them happy, he was running a profit center.
I was thinking about that experience recently when I went to a hospital for a test and the lab had a note on the wall with their “cost center” identification number.
Huh? The lab generates fees for the hospital and those fees help pay the rent. So, really, this is a profit center and the employee is part of the team that drives revenue and earnings. He might not realize it, though, because hospital management has hung a sign on the wall to tell him he's a necessary evil.
It occurred to me that we sometimes do the same disservice to people who are helping us succeed in our own lives. Are there people in our companies, our associations, our social circles, or our families who deserve to be recognized as part of the winning team? Is there someone we're treating as a burden, when they’re actually part of our lifetime profit center?
Like the guy running the water show or the lab tech who’s booking tests, it makes a big difference if we describe people as benefits or as burdens. Too often, we mis-classify people at both their expense and our own. Maybe we should encourage someone to think about themselves differently. Maybe we can change their perceptions of themselves and their place in the world by letting them know they’re builders, not drags.
And, just maybe, we should start with ourselves. Perhaps we are the ones who need to change our personal narratives, shift our point of view, and rethink our contributions to those around us. Perhaps we’re looking at our contributions from the wrong side of the ledger and feeling lesser for it.
Today might be a good day to start.
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Dadwrites oozes from the warped mind of Michael Rosenbaum, an award-winning author who spends most of his time these days as a start-up business mentor, book coach, photographer and, mostly, a grandfather. All views are his alone, largely due to the fact that he can’t find anyone who agrees with him.