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The Thirteen Year Safety Net

HighWireWalkerIn the 1970’s Philippe Petit walked a high wire strung between the Twin Towers in New York City.  It was an amazing feat that was a result of a slow but steady progression of skill and daring over years.  The film “Man On Wire” is a great documentary about the planning and execution of his walk.  A slight warning that if you are afraid of heights, you may feel uneasy.  Even though you are safe from any imminent danger, you may feel dizzy or tingly based on the images.  I cannot imagine how Philippe Petit felt during the walk, over one thousand feet in the air without a net!  Sure, he had years of experience and successful walks but the scale of this endeavor dwarfed everything else.  It is easy to look at Philippe and say that he is special, talented or even crazy.  Closer to the truth is probably that he was passionate about pursuing something to an extreme level.  The use of a net negates the entire reason that he was walking in the first place.  Under no circumstances and am I suggesting that a tight rope walk from dizzying height should be be in anyone’s future (I’m one of those people who tingles just seeing the photos).  I am suggesting that the intersection of passion and stakes is a place of power.  It’s someplace that we need to become more comfortable going to.

Unfortunately at the moment, we seem to be faced in the opposite direction.  The formative years of youth and adolescence are spent with nothing but safety nets around.  Whether it is literal foam padding to avoid injury or systems that are meant to insulate young people from failure, responsibility or any other stakes that could injure physically or emotionally.  The dichotomy of these systems are interesting because they protect in the short term and potentially injure in the long term.  Finding the balance of those two extremes is the name of the game.  Philippe did not start out on the roof of the World Trade Center.  Those stakes would have been overwhelming.  His passion for walking the tight rope also would not have grown if he never went higher than six inches off the ground.

For each one of us, we have things that could grow into passions but we are afraid to raise the stakes.  Failing, looking foolish and uncertainty are being trained out of our young people.  We have given many young people a “safe space” but the counterweight needs to be put into place as well otherwise we do not have a creative space.  All creation is messy, uncertain and possibly even dangerous.  We are born from a series of chances taken with an element of risk.  So to protect our future generations from that risk is robbing them of what is to be human.

As I often say to my players, “to be a leader, you need to go first”.  So if you have young people in your life, be a model of a balance in both passion and risk.  Perhaps you also need to break out of the foam rubber because comfort and security are things that many of us desire.  Unfortunately they also allow for little emotional intensity which is what passion is all about.  Go!  Take a chance!  Maybe even a small one and be an example for those onlookers who need someone to show them what is possible!

Philippe didn’t leap but he had to take a step off the edge and you can too!

Pete

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Fatherhood Entrance Exam

FatherhoodI have a very clear recollection of the day that I passed the test that told me that I was ready to be a father.  I was on the bottom floor of my in-laws’ house on a lake in Virginia.  A strange sound came from outside that I didn’t recognize.  A few seconds later my wife screamed my name.  It was the kind of scream that I knew something was wrong.  I jumped up and sprinted out the door.  When I reached my wife on the deck outside, I quickly found out the source of the sound and why she screamed.  Our dog, Kelme, was pinned down by another dog that was attacking him.  The two dogs were about ten feet below the deck on the rocks that sloped down toward the lake.  Without a moment’s hesitation, I jumped over the deck’s railing and dropped the ten feet landing next to the two dogs.  Luckily my sudden appearance and loud shouts were enough to scare the dog off without my having to fight him.  I picked up Kelme and raced him to the vet with my wife.  His wounds were very minor and he made a full and energetic recovery.  It was after that incident that I knew for sure that I could be a father.

KelmeNot everyone gets that type of real life test that tells them something important about themselves.  Generally people have to take a leap of faith that they can handle the situation.  The phrase there is not unimportant, “leap”.  I can’t say for certain whether I would have gotten the same type of self-assurance from that situation had I run down the stairs to Kelme’s aid.  The jump was important because it separated me completely from safety and put me directly into harm’s way: both from the rocks and the dog.  The willingness to take the risk of the leap was key.  Lives don’t need to be at stake.  Broken limbs and dog attacks don’t need to be risked.

The keys to any endeavor of creation: child, book, movie, relationship, song, poem, etc. are the leap and the foregoing of self.  Neither is particularly easy to do.  Leaping requires a detachment from the stability of the known world for something much more uncertain.  Putting something else before ourselves is also an exercise in chance.  With both, fear is a major opposing force.  While fear is an emotion that is intended to protect us from pain, it is often the force that keeps us from living fully.  A full life is one that requires creation and therefore risk.  There are no diplomas, courses or tests that can prepare you to live fully.  It is something that needs to be done on the fly everyday with consistent action.  The act of leaping may never become completely comfortable but it may just become completely worth it.

Leap today!

Pete

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Care Enough to Lose

IMG_2192It was January 2nd 2003.  A clever little trick of mine to always remember the day that I proposed to my wife 1/2/03.  As I waited in her apartment with dinner ready and candles lit, I was extremely nervous.  That feeling was only compounded when she arrived.  Then I started to ask and I could feel my legs shaking.  This was gut-wrenching but necessary.  The fear and the nerves came from risk.  The risk of putting myself out there and the possibility that the answer could be “no”.  It ended up going in my favor but I think that risk is an important factor to the things that really matter.  You need to care enough to be willing to lose.

Perhaps it is part of being American or the popular culture of my youth but the idea of the underdog or long shot is ingrained within me.  The Rocky movies were an unofficial soundtrack to my young life.  The story of a nobody fighter who takes on the undefeated champion.  He knows that he is going to lose before the fight even happens.  That is the risk that the people who truly care must take.  The men who signed the Declaration of Independence knew the risk of the pen strokes but chanced the loss of life for something greater.  Elon Musk risked the wealth he had accrued in order to start a solar energy company, an electric car company and a space company.  Each venture had very long odds.  Those odds are not the ones taken on by a man looking to turn a quick profit.  They are the risk of a man who cares about the change he wanted to make in the world.  These are just three examples of caring enough to risk losing.

I’ve heard it too many times to count “What grade do I need to get on this quiz to bring my grade up to a __________?”  The lack of the math skills from my young students is not the most troubling part.  The most disheartening part of this question is the refusal to put forth any effort until a concrete exchange has been mentally negotiated.  Effort will only be employed if the target seems reasonably attainable.  This is not a statement about educational malaise or the disconnect between schools and our modern society.  It is a reflection on a pervasive attitude toward loss.  No one should fail.  The ref or the coach cost us the game.  The aversion to loss seems to be correlated to risk of losing one’s self.  If I give my all and fail, then I am not worthy and that is too much to bear.

In a world where we are better insulated from death than ever before in history, it is the death of our image of ourselves that we seem to fear most.  Much like the avatars that represent us online, we have created mental pictures of who we are.  Most of us will defend that image regardless of its accuracy or usefulness.  Playing within the boundaries of that existence may be comfortable but is the lack of risk truly safe?  More than likely the risks that truly matter are worth taking because they force us to stretch.  Reaching out into the void is not a failure if it is done with true intention.  Failing to reach out is the bigger loss because the possibility of knowing yourself better and having what you actually wanted is left on the table.  Don’t aim to lose but don’t only play if you know you’re going to win.  All of the true joy on the back end lies in the fact that you risked yourself on the front end.

Have a great day!

Pete