During the 1990s, I enrolled in night school to get an MBA. My dad was pleased because this effort would expand my skill set and hopefully enhance my future career opportunities. My mom was pleased because this effort would expand my dating pool and hopefully enhance my future marriage opportunities.
I graduated three years later (still single – sorry mom), and received a piece of paper that said to the world, “I have smarts! I have skills! I have several thousand dollars in student loan debt!” Along the way, I did learn some useful stuff. Like how to read a financial statement. How to prepare a sales forecast. How to use Deming’s PDSA Cycle to complete process improvements. How to cook the books of a multi-national corporation and retire with a boatload of embezzled funds to an uncharted island somewhere in the Pacific.
Ha, ha! Just kidding about that last one. I actually don’t have a retirement plan at the moment, unless you count the fact that I am thinking about giving up my weekly Starbucks Venti Mocha Frappuccino and using the extra money to buy lottery tickets. And yes, as a matter of fact, I am fully aware that this is a sorry excuse for a retirement plan. I have smarts, remember?
But anyway, over the last few years, I’ve been working on another MBA: Master of Being an Auntie. Brady, my pint-sized teacher, is awesome, the dress code is super casual (goofy socks optional), and I won’t have to go into debt to complete the program. Well, probably not. In addition to tempting me with offerings that cover my usual vices (books and music), Amazon now insists on sending me regular e-mails filled with awesome books and toys that Captain AmeriCute would like. During the holiday season, I pretty much end up eating off of cardboard Prime boxes because I can’t find my dining room table.
Some of the knowledge I’m gaining in my new MBA program has been a little random. I can now identify a Saturn V rocket. I’ve brushed up on my Spanish to try and keep up with Brady’s growing vocabulary. I know the names of all the pups on the Paw Patrol. But other parts of the program have imparted much broader life lessons. Here are a few…
1. Choose Kindness. Last year before Christmas, Brady and his Mommy (my sister) went to Wal-Mart. As they walked through the parking lot, Captain AmeriCute (who is usually rather reserved around strangers) suddenly became very animated, waving and saying hello to someone driving a white Buick. Brady’s Mommy turned to see an older gentleman in the driver’s seat. Rather portly. White hair. White beard. Although it’s been a couple of decades since my last statistics class, I don’t think I need to do an odds ratio calculation to determine that being an older portly gentleman with white hair and a white beard is highly associated with small children mistaking you for Santa Claus. So the driver of the white Buick had probably experienced this reaction once or twice (or a hundred times) before. Now, he could have easily ignored Brady. Or rolled his eyes. Or honked his horn. Or made a hand gesture that I hope Captain AmeriCute doesn’t learn for another 10 or 15 years. (Especially not from me). But instead, he rolled down the window, and boomed out, “HO! HO! HO!” That one tiny act of kindness made Brady’s day. Maybe even his week or month. (Although his Mommy did have to do some quick thinking to explain what exactly Santa was doing at Wal-Mart and why he was driving a white Buick instead of a sleigh.) So during those brief interactions where we have a choice to be rude, to be apathetic, or to be kind, it’s good to choose kindness.
2. Have Some Compassion. Psychology’s Attribution Theory provides a framework for how we explain behavior. In general, we chalk up our own boorish behavior to temporary external circumstances beyond our control, while we assign the blame for OTHER people’s dastardly deeds to their fundamental character. For example, YOU are a fine, upstanding citizen. That meltdown in line at the post office was a highly unusual event that occurred because your significant other recorded over the last episode of Downton Abbey, you lost all the photos on your Mac when you upgraded to El Capitan, and after doing the math on the new Starbucks Rewards Program, you’ve realized that you won’t earn your next free drink until the 2024 election cycle. And when the postal worker informed you that they had sold out of Harry Potter stamps, well, that was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. That guy in front of you, however, had HIS meltdown because he’s a jerk. With my new MBA, I’ve learned that Attribution Theory also applies to (a) Kids You Love and (b) All Other Pint-Sized Humanoid Life Forms.
Brady and his parents once took a trip to visit my brother-in-law’s family. On the way back home, they had a long car ride to get to the airport, and Brady was buckled into a child safety seat that left him with only slightly more range of motion than Ralphie from “A Christmas Story” in his winter coat. (Straw #1). He’d missed his nap. (Straw #2). And his eating schedule was off (Straw #3). Captain AmeriCute was still coping fairly well by the time they boarded the flight and found their seats. Brady loves anything with moving parts, and he was happily opening and shutting the window shade on the plane as they waited for the flight to depart. Open. Shut. Open. Shut.
Suddenly, the woman behind him complained, “PLEASE make him stop doing that. It’s hurting my head.” So Brady’s Mommy asked him to stop playing with the window shade. (Straw #4…aaaaaaaaand….WHOOMP! Camel Down!) The situation escalated to DEFCON 1 fairly quickly from there – screaming, wailing, thrashing around, the whole dog and pony show. My sister turned to my brother-in-law and said, “I hope she likes this better.”
So the Kid You Love is screaming on the plane because he is tired of being cooped up in a small space, exhausted, hungry, and ready to go home. That Other Pint-Sized Humanoid Life Form is a tiny sociopath who will probably grow up to be a (choose one) computer hacker/thief/dictator/telemarketer, and his or her parents are too (choose one or more) stupid/negligent/incompetent/distracted/inconsiderate to care that the little tyke’s tantrum was obviously carefully timed to specifically ruin YOUR day.
I like to think that understanding this Pint-Sized Humanoid Life Form version of Attribution Theory has made me a better, more compassionate, less judgmental person. And it’s definitely made me a less cranky traveller.
3. Live in the Moment. I own a boatload of books and CDs about mindfulness. Mindful breathing. Mindful eating. Mindfulness at work. I’ve probably spent enough money to fund a retirement that doesn’t involve games of chance with extremely poor odds, nor giving up my Starbucks Venti Mocha Frappuccinos. (Hmmm…maybe I could still afford to buy lottery tickets if I just switched from Venti to Tall). But the most helpful mindfulness instruction I’ve ever had is to just watch Brady as he goes about day-to-day business. When he’s happy, he’s happy. When he’s sad, he’s sad. When he’s angry, he’s angry.
As we get older, we learn to block our feelings, which I guess in some ways is a good thing. I mean, you don’t want to go to work and burst into tears at a team meeting because your boss just took the last Boston Crème from the doughnut box. That sort of thing goes on your permanent record. But on the other hand, we could probably eliminate much of our own self-destructive behavior by actually feeling our feelings instead of denying them or attempting to numb them by eating MegaStuf Oreos until we hurl. (Which…um…I’ve heard that some other people might do when they are upset.)
When Brady’s really engaged in an activity, he is 100% focused. He’s not checking his e-mail, trying to remember if he paid the electric bill, mulling over a thorny work problem, or obsessing over the fact that none of his Facebook friends “reacted” when he shared that hilarious tap-dancing Labradoodle video. He fully experiences every single moment, without getting in the way of his own joy.
Then once Brady’s interest is gone, there’s no going back. This can be both good and bad. On the plus side, he can enjoy five absolutely blissful bites of cupcake frosting and then leave the rest of the cupcake completely forgotten on the counter when he’s ready to move on to something else. (Which makes me slightly question whether we are actually related, except for the fact that he goes for the frosting first). Occasionally, though, this quick shift in focus results in his toys disappearing and eventually being re-discovered in highly unusual places. Like the Avengers alarm clock that turned up behind the couch. Or the Emma Wiggle figurine that was eventually located – to everyone’s complete bewilderment – inside a Ritz Cracker box. But for the most part, watching Brady just live his life is the best mindfulness seminar ever. And it’s way cheaper than travelling to the Himalayas.
4. Think Outside the Box. I heard this phrase a lot during my original MBA; it likely originated with the nine dots puzzle. But still, those of us with backgrounds in accounting and finance tend to think INSIDE the box. Well, except for those few who worked for Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco – and NOW they think inside the box. Literally. While wearing orange jumpsuits.
I love reading books and watching movies and plays. But I generally prefer to sit on the sidelines as a spectator, while someone else does all the creative heavy lifting. Brady, though, loves to BUILD stuff. And not just puzzles and Lego sets with clearly defined parameters. (Although he does like those things, too). When the words, “I want to make a…” come out of Captain AmeriCute’s mouth, my initial reaction is usually a sinking feeling in my stomach and a little voice in my head that says, “Oh, crap, we’re not going to be able to do this, and he’s going to be disappointed. Crap. Crap. Crap.” But you know what? We put our heads together and something always works out. The top of a shoebox turns into an X-34 landspeeder, which we use to re-enact the “These are not the droids you are looking for” scene from Star Wars. Then the entire shoebox (with a small hole cut out of the top) becomes the Death Star’s Bay 327, with Obi-Wan Kenobi disappearing through the hole as he is struck down by Darth Vader and “becomes one with the Force”. And later, a piece of construction paper gets colored with crayons and then wadded up in a ball to double as the “Crumbled Darth Vader Helmet” from The Force Awakens. I’m slowly learning that when we leap, the creative net will appear. Time to tell that skeptical little voice to take its own leap – preferably of the “go jump in a lake” variety.
5. Have a Bias for Action. I recently spent a day with Brady and his “Gra” and “Dadat” (my parents). For the first part of our visit, Captain AmeriCute’s eyeballs were practically glued to the computer screen watching videos on YouTube, including one clip of two guys buying Star Wars merchandise at Target. I really wanted to detach him from the computer, so I suggested that we all go to Target so that Brady could pick out a new Star Wars toy for himself. (Side note: when Brady’s Mommy heard about this, her reaction was, “And this seemed like a good idea to you? You wanted him to stop doing something, so you decided to buy him toys?” Well, um, yeah, it did seem like a good idea at the time. But now that you put it that way, maybe not so much.)
Anyway, we got to Target, and Brady picked out a tiny Chewbacca that “talked” (in Wookiee) when you pushed a button. He loved it. He couldn’t wait to take it home. But halfway to the counter, he stopped in his tracks. With a totally panic-stricken look on his face, he blurted out, “I don’t want Chewbacca! I don’t want Chewbacca! I want Finn!” So we trudged back to the Star Wars aisle, put the Chewbacca back, and found a Finn action figure. Finn made it all the way to the counter and is still in regular toy rotation. (So apparently, this WAS the action figure he was looking for.)
In their classic book, “In Search of Excellence”, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. cite a “Bias for Action” as one of the key attributes of successful organizations. Companies with a Bias for Action avoid layers of bureaucracy that slow down progress. Instead, they make decisions quickly to get products and services out into the market – and then handle refinements as needed. Amazon.com is a great example of embracing this approach in today’s market; a Bias for Action is actually one of their key leadership principles. (Of course, the whole Bias for Action thing tends to work better when you are selling books, clothes, and DVDs as opposed to, say, airplanes or defibrillators).
Brady knows exactly what he wants and goes after it. Sure, sometimes he changes his mind five minutes later, but he is always moving forward. Grownups, on the other hand, tend to be plagued by “Analysis Paralysis”. After a 12-year relationship with my current tennis racquet, I need a new one. But I’m afraid to commit. What if I buy one and then decide I hate it? What if I buy one and then change my mind as I’m walking out the door? Note to self: Get a grip. Seriously. We’re not building airplanes here. Buy a freaking racquet. Any racquet. Worst case? I can always plant my feet on the way out of the tennis shop and scream, “I don’t want Chewbacca! I don’t want Chewbacca! I want Finn!” Then I can go back to the counter and get the racquet I really want. I just need to remember to use my inside voice. Because the local tennis community here is pretty tight, and well, you know…people talk.
So when will I graduate with my Master of Being an Auntie? When Brady starts grade school? When he becomes a teenager? When he learns to drive? I don’t know. But I have no doubt that I have many more lessons to learn as our relationship unfolds.
Thank you, my pint-sized friend, for being such a great teacher. You’ve inspired me with your creativity, your determination, your enthusiasm and your authenticity.
You make me want to be a smarter, kinder, more compassionate person. To be less judgmental. To stand on my desk and shout, “Oh Captain, My Captain AmeriCute!”
I just need to remember to use my inside voice.