Why We Travel

Our family just returned home from a family weekend trip to the town of Frankenmuth, Michigan. Frankenmuth – as the name suggests – is a bit like a small town was scooped out of the Bavarian part of Germany and transplanted in Central Michigan. My wife and I stopped by Frankenmuth on our way to Traverse City in the summer and we concluded that this would be a fun place to bring the kids for our Christmas trip. I don’t think I’m spoiling the blog post here to tell you, dear reader, that we parents miscalculated the kids’ embrace of this little trip. Put simply, we missed the mark.

Scooped out of Bavaria

I started drafting this post in the hotel room the morning of our departure. As I sat down to write, three of our four kids were staring creepily into their personal device screens with headphones in. The older two kids were sharing a sofa, which means they were within 2 feet of one another, and yet they were in their own little worlds. As I watched them geeking out, I sat for a moment pondering the failure of this trip.

We reserved a suite in a hotel with a water park, replete with kids’ adventure areas, multiple water slides, a lazy river, and an old fashioned indoor pool and hot tub combo. Right next door was Bronner’s Christmas World, which is an out-and-out extravaganza of Christmas consumerism. If nothing else, it is worth a walk through to see the nearly countless ornament combinations in terms of color scheme and thematic character. The town of Frankenmuth is well-decorated year-round, and although it could be accused by more cynical travelers of being a bit of a tourist trap, it has a quaint charm that draws people in.

Before we think more deeply about this failure of ours, let’s first talk about the magnitude. Our daughter didn’t bring a swim suit. The two youngest boys brought swim suits, but each was at least one size too small. No one brought sandals or any form of cover up. In essence, this trip wasn’t really on their minds. All of the kids turned us down when we offered a walk down town in the well-lit evening to see the Christmas decorations and to pop in and out of the nearly 20 fun and unique shops on the main street. Instead, they opted to keep their noses in their individual devices in the hotel room. The three boys spent an hour in the water park. Our daughter went out with me the morning before we left to pick up breakfast for the family. But other than that, it was a pretty dismal showing.

Where did we go wrong? The last several years, we have had fun trips to some great destinations that they’ve really enjoyed. Have we lost them? Has the internet cyborg finally mind-melded with our children to the point of no return? I resisted the temptation to get angry and tell them off. “Your mom and I planned this trip for you and now you’re going to enjoy it!” But that’s self-serving. Yes, their devices can be like black holes, but we’ve overcome this digital inertia before.

In short, we missed the mark because my wife and I were drawn in to the quaintness of this town and we projected our 40-something perspective onto the kids. “Oh they’ll love it,” we told ourselves this summer. “We can take them shopping and get them tickets to the water park and they’ll have a blast.” The truth is that our kids mostly don’t like shopping and they rarely go for swimming these days. This caused me to start thinking about why we travel in the first place. Now wiser from a failed journey, I think I have it.

We travel so the uniqueness of the new experiences will pull us out of our routines and to challenge us to think differently about the world around us. Frankenmuth didn’t do that for our kids. Don’t get me wrong, Frankenmuth is a lovely town. But given our kids’ historical travels and experiences, there was nothing new enough for them to overcome the tractor beams of WiFi. Are they spoiled? Debatably, yes. Could we, rather, should we have predicted the outcome? Absolutely. Next year, we may not travel with the kids. We might be coming to the end of a cycle with them where our interests are just too different to pull together. However, if we decide to travel, the uniqueness of the new experiences must be enough to pull them out of their routines. Because if not, it isn’t worth the time and energy.

Taking a Zero Day

In hiking parlance, taking a zero day means taking a day off. It isn’t often that I take a day off of running, especially with a long race coming up. I am preparing for a 50k trail race, which is the first time I’ll officially run longer than a marathon. To support the extra ups and downs of a trail race, I recently added 3 mile stair workouts with a weight vest and the change in training strained some muscles in my arches. I did my best to run through it, but the pain kept increasing as I put in miles on my other runs. So… time to take a break.

Taking a break from 6-days-per-week running after eight months should be easy in theory. As in, I could simply not run. But breaking a habit, even a habit that takes effort, is leaving me feeling adrift at the moment. This weekend, I found myself feeling stuck – almost paralyzed – and quite unproductive. It was like I had a computer program in my brain that said, “run” and when the “run” program didn’t execute, I struggled to figure out what was next. Instead of just skipping it and moving on to the rest of my chores, I sat stewing on the fact that I couldn’t run. I’d flex my feet and wince at the pain instead of simply moving on. What a wonderful opportunity to use a bit of mindfulness practice to overcome my faulty program!

First, sit with it. Instead of fighting reality, I took the opportunity to sit with the discomfort of the break in routine. I sat in meditation and worked on settling my brain. I found that I was stuck on repeat. “I just want to run. But I can’t. Stupid foot. Why did I have to overtrain? Maybe if I flex it, it will feel better.” Rinse and repeat. I thought through my attachment to the task of running. Really, I was attached to the expectation of being pain-free. I wanted things to be different than what they were right now. Instead of repeatedly berating myself to accept what was, I decided to focus on what I could do. Perhaps an anti-inflammatory or some ice or a bit of massage therapy? So after breaking the mental cycle of wanting to run pain-free, I decided to make a to do list. First, I’ll use a tennis ball to put pressure on the affected areas. Then I’ll follow that up with some ice. Finally, I’ll take some ibuprofen at bed time to calm the angry muscles. Satisfied with a plan, I was starting to let go of the attachment.

Second, take action on what I can do. I put my plan into action. I grabbed the tennis ball and put as much pressure as I could stand on the affected area. Rolling it over and over for about 5 minutes. The logic here was that I probably made the small muscles in my arch area “angry” with all the stair work and needed something to break up the knotted tissue. After some rather intense moments, I got an ice pack and applied 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off cold therapy for a half an hour. Nearing bed time, I took some ibuprofen and called it a night. The next morning, my foot was feeling significantly better.

Finally, accept the progress and use it as motivation to continue on the path to recovery. This morning, I decided to take another zero day. Two in a row? Yep. My wife and I took the kids skiing this morning for our second-youngest child’s birthday, so it served as a nice distraction. After we got home, I resisted the urge to attempt a run and – even better – resisted the urge to go back to stewing about not being able to run. Instead, I folded laundry, I tidied up the kitchen, I wrote my first blog post in a month, I caught up on televised soccer matches from the day, and this evening I’m going to watch a movie with my lovely wife.

Who knew a zero day could be so much fun?

Does One Bad Apple Really Spoil the Whole Bunch?

I’m currently fascinated by Bad Apples. Bad Apples the metaphor for people, not so much the fruit. But of course there are corollaries. So the first question at hand is, “does one bad apple really spoil the whole bunch? For fruit, the answer is yes. Because ethylene. But what about people? From my experience, the answer is also a resounding yes. But don’t take my word for it. Check out this University of Washington study overview, which defined Bad Apples as “negative people as those who don’t do their fair share of work, who are chronically unhappy and emotionally unstable, or who bully or attack others.” They found that Bad Apples elicited coping mechanisms in other employees such as “denial, social withdrawal, anger, anxiety and fear.”

I know, I know, this is not really new. The saying exists for a reason. However, it does set the stage for some further inquiries I’ve been making around Bad Apples. So stay tuned for the Bad Apple series as we explore Bad Apples in Sports, how to deal with Bad Apples in your circles, and how to avoid becoming a Bad Apple.

That’s Curious

Be curious, not judgmental.                                                                                                                     -Walt Whitman

Simple but powerful. I coach my team to think this way. I do my best to live this way myself.

Today, we received some shocking news at work. It was interesting to watch everyone – myself included – go through the gyrations of processing the information. Most of us were inclined to judge. As I mindfully processed, I remembered Whitman’s sage advice. Instead of getting invested, I treated the news as data. I learned more about the world today through this topic. It allowed me to still feel deeply about the matter, but to minimize the disruption and get back to my day.

I hope your excitement is positive, but in times where it isn’t, perhaps this simple quote can inspire you to be able to accept the Truth of the situation and deal with it head on.

Let your hair down

Sometimes, you have to let your hair down. This is week three of my marathon training. Tonight I should have lifted weights while I let my legs recover from yesterday’s interval training. But instead, I came home, did a couple of chores, and then took my better half out to our favorite local eatery for Spanish wine and our favorite dishes.

Like the kid in We’re the Millers, I’ve got “no ragrets.” Not even one. We had a lovely evening and now tomorrow I’ll be doubly motivated to knock out my tempo run after another busy day at work.

Are you motivated after letting your hair down? Or are you more of an “inertia person” who once is at rest stays at rest?

The Business of Relationships

My wife and I are both on our second marriage. Neither of us intended to be divorcees. Everyone in our families’ prior generations stayed married, so neither of us knew what divorce looked like. Given that second marriages are even more likely to fail than a first marriage, my better half and I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about what went wrong and how we can work together proactively to keep our marriage healthy and happy. While there are countless tomes written on the topic, I’m going to offer up a rather business-minded approach to the successful components of a long-term relationship. With this approach, I’m also going to skip over what I consider to be table stakes for any committed romantic relationship: mutual attraction, love, fidelity, honesty, and communication. Because let’s cut to the chase, if even one of these is missing, there’s no foundation upon which to build a long-term romantic relationship.

My wife and I have found that the for a long-term committed relationship to work for a long time, the relationship needs some things that are pretty important in business. Of course, we are both process engineers who have worked in a variety of industries, so there’s an inevitable business environment bias here. But, we’ve also gone through a good bit of couples therapy in our prior relationships, read several books on the topic and applied them, and – now because of our experience – helped counsel many friends and family members going through similar crises – small and large. Oh, and my wife is more than two-thirds through her Masters in Psychology from Harvard University. So… this isn’t a slap-dash-throw-some-stuff-on-the-wall idea. These ideas are tried and tested in many circles. So let’s get to it.

  1. Couples need a shared vision. This already sounds like business school, doesn’t it? Bear with me. Let’s say one of you wants to be a medical doctor – or already is a medical doctor. That’s going to mean long hours away from home and very likely being on call. How does that fit with the partner’s goal of being a school teacher with summers off to go hike the Appalachian Trail? Well it might work, as long as consistent togetherness isn’t your main objective. Let’s look at another scenario: One of you wants to have a daily driving automobile that reliably gets you from point A to point B and then to also have a flashy sports car in the garage to take out on sunny weekends. Your partner wants to be a social worker who primarily helps children. Again, it can work, but its going to take a lot of discussion and compromise. Generally speaking, social workers don’t make a lot of money for flashy sports cars. Carried forward, social workers who want to help children also probably aren’t prioritizing pricey non-essential vehicles. See the rub? In both of these short scenarios, the couples do not have a shared vision of where they’re going. I can speak from my own experience that in my first marriage, we did not have a shared vision of where we were going. One could argue that we got married too young before we had a chance to figure out what our shared vision was. But I know lots of couples who met at 16 or 17 years old and have had very successful relationships now 25 or 30 years on. In all of those cases, they had a shared vision of where they were going. To discuss this with your significant other, I like the Be, Do, Have model. For the sake of brevity, I’ll say it this way: Each individual needs to decide who he or she is going to BE (the kind of person with what values, etc.), and based on that, what he or she will DO (what profession), which will in turn dictate what each will HAVE (material possessions and the like). So many people do it the other way around: they start with what they want to HAVE, which then dictates the budget and determines what they need to DO, which then begins to inform who they’re going to BE.
  2. Couples should have a shared Culture. If there is a yang to the yin of the vision, it is the culture. It informs where you start and how you go about pursuing your shared vision. Culture – unless it is being actively developed like in the corporate world – usually comes from one’s family of origin. Family of origin sets the stage for how individuals will communicate, work together, problem-solve, raise a family, and so on. It isn’t an insurmountable problem to have very different families of origin, but as my wife and I have both learned from experience, when times get tough, we race back to what we learned growing up. I’ll contrast my first and current marriages again for illustration. In my first marriage, our respective families had very different ideas about budgeting and bill-paying, about child-rearing, about the balance of power, and about negotiation tactics used in the relationship. I thought these matters were surmountable, but they caused a great deal of stress and arguably the downfall of the marriage. When I contrast that with my current marriage, our respective families of origin are magnitudes closer to one another. While each of our Mothers and Fathers have very different personalities, their approaches to the relationship overlap a great deal. This has helped my wife and I work collaboratively to blend and raise a well-adjusted family with four kids, run a household budget that not only pays the bills but offers up self-actualizing activities to each of its members, and to support one another as we pursue our shared vision for our family. Differences in family of origin are able to be overcome, but it takes a lot of work. I personally start with educating myself. Here is a list of books that might help. But after education comes the tough work of problem-solving.
  3. Problem solving can save the day. In both of the cases of Vision and Culture, couples who are equipped with the skills and committed to the cause of solving problems can overcome almost all set-backs. Interestingly, problem-solving is not a universal skill in the professional world much less the ewy gooey world of romantic love. In fact, this was another point of contention in my first marriage. My ex-wife repeatedly rebuffed me for trying to analyze our issues for root cause and corrective action. She would say, “this is a relationship, not a business.” I can’t fault her. I’m sure many people feel the same way. But while my first wife was satisfied with an accuse-argue-apologize cycle of addressing matters, I was not. I like solving problems. I don’t like futile repeats of past conversations and I don’t care for stalemates. So again, even our tools and commitments to overcome our differences in our vision and our culture simply weren’t there. When contrasted with my wife now, again, it is a world of difference. My wife is an industrial engineer and a natural born problem solver. She can meet me at my nerdiest point. While we started out with strong overlaps in both our vision and culture, those things aren’t permanent. As we each grow and take on new challenges, our vision and the associated goals grow and change. In these cases, problem solving saves the day. We’re able to collaboratively work through these new ideas and grow together because we have the skills to do so. While I could start a whole new blog and completely geek out on problem solving in all types of settings, I’ll offer up the following primer.
    • Clearly state the problem, starting with what, when, where, and how often. Avoid “who,” any assumed intent, and “always” & “never” statements if you can. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t respect me because you always load the toilet paper roll backwards,” you might offer up, “I notice that the toilet paper roll gets loaded in different ways, sometimes over the top and sometimes unrolling from the bottom.” The second statement takes the “you” out, it takes the assumed intent of not respecting me out, and it takes out the language of “backwards,” even though we all know the right way to load the toilet paper is over the top. 
    • Confirm the measurement. It is important to confirm that everyone is measuring the matter the same way. Something like, “When the trash has been packed into the bag so tight that it takes a shot of compressed air to get the bag out of the bin without ripping it apart, I think it is over-full. What do you think?” You will be surprised at how often we simply don’t measure things the same way.
    • Agree on a standard. This is very much related to the measurement problem. If there isn’t agreement on what “good” looks like, it is nearly impossible to measure it. This can get tricky in domestic situations because we all have our quirks. Dirty dishes in the sink and untreated spots on the carpet drive me bananas. My family thinks I’m a control freak, and, well, they’re right. But in the balance of power, I can’t bully my way into it. We all have busy lives. So it might be that the only option for my daughter was to grab a quick bite after school and then head to work while leaving her dish in the sink to soak. So, it is a process.

In closing, I hope you’ve already achieved domestic bliss. If you’re in the process of a long term commitment, perhaps the lessons I’ve learned through my own failures can help you build a healthier and happier relationship. Best wishes!