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My first major purchase as a new second lieutenant was a Gemeinhardt flute. In my world, it was the same as getting that fancy new sports car. It had a solid silver head joint, French hole (open hole) keys, and the B-natural foot attachment. If you don’t know what any of that means, it’s okay. It means I went beyond your normal student instrument. Gemeinhardt classifies this flute as an “intermediate” instrument. It was an expensive purchase at the time. 

I made that decision because my flute has always been a centering influence on me. I play and all that matters is the music. The flute I had, purchased when I was in 7th grade, basically fell apart my junior year at The Citadel and I had to play a borrowed flute for the rest of my time there. Therefore, I invested what I could for a new flute. I wanted one that would last much, much longer. 

Last night I broke it back out. It had been a while since I had played it. I realized something was “off.” And I thought about why that was. It was the lack of playing. So I played. It hurt. My embouchure is weak from lack of practice. My diaphragm isn’t used to sustaining a steady air pressure any more. And my lung capacity is down. That’s always been an area I’ve struggled. I’ve had to do specific exercises to improve my breathing and my ability to play longer between breaths. But it was a good kind of hurt. The calming influence was back. The satisfaction of that exertion felt wonderful. 

Sometimes, in the midst of our stressful lives, we have to go back. We have to return to what calms us, what helps us find balance. Simple routines or pleasures often do this for us. For me, it’s playing my flute. I had forgotten about it. It’s a wonder to me how that is even possible. Yet, it is. But I have my flute out again. And I’m good once more. 

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I picked up Terry Crews’ book Manhood: How to Be a Better Man – or Just Live with One after listening to a Tim Ferriss podcast with Mr. Crews. In the podcast, Tim Ferriss was referring back to the book as he interviewed Terry Crews. There were a lot of questions about overcoming the past, learning from his mistakes, and trying to heal past hurts. As a result, I wanted to give it a read. I wasn’t disappointed.

Son of an Alcoholic

As I read through Terry’s account of dealing with his alcoholic father, of trying to please him yet being afraid of him, I thought back to my own childhood. I experienced much the same thing. I’ve never been good at putting it into words. Terry does a great job explaining what that situation was like. If you’re close to someone who has come from a similar background, then this may be eye-opening for you.

Taught the Wrong Image of Masculinity

I love how Mr. Crews covers what he was taught was the image of a man. Most of the behavior he was taught we would label immaturity, selfishness, an inability to admit mistakes, and a complete unwillingness to be vulnerable. Many of us have grown up with this as the image of masculinity. It all comes to a head after Terry admits to his wife about a sexual encounter he had about 10 years before. She knew something was wrong. She finally forced the confrontation about it. The truth came out. At that point, Crews realized how much hurt he had inflicted upon his wife and how foolish it was to hide it. However, he was confronted about it by another male and here’s how the conversation went:

“What are you doing, man?” He said. “Why did you tell your wife?”

“Dude, I had to be honest. I had to be real.”

“Man, never,” he said. What is your problem? That’s man code, brother. You don’t tell.”

“Well, if that’s man code, I’m not a man, then, because I’m not living that way anymore,” I said. “I can’t do it. How could I be a man if I lived that way?”

Starting Over

At the end of Mr. Crews’ NFL career, his family’s financial state was a wreck. It continued to worsen even as a former teammate tried to help out. Then it reached a point where his teammate couldn’t help any longer. That was when Terry came to the realization that he basically had to swallow his pride, take what work he could find, and put in the hours. We see Terry Crews the TV/movie star and Old Spice model. However, what we don’t realize is the struggle he and his family went through to get there. In Terry’s own words, that pain was self-inflicted. He didn’t just have to start over with regards to employment. He also had to start over with respect to his understanding of what was important. In other words, he had to reboot on what really mattered.

It’s Raw

Terry doesn’t come out of this autobiography looking like a hero or action star. That’s the public image of him. Rather, he is raw in his description of his life. He talks about the issues with his parents. He shows us a moment when the physical violence of his dad came to a boiling part and Crews finally gave in and got physical back. Rather than being a moment of triumph for Terry, he reveals how empty he felt, how defeated giving in left him. He holds himself accountable for the mistakes he made. He explains his thinking and how flawed it was and how he couldn’t see it at the time. The whole book is this way with regards to his life and the mistakes he has made.

An Encouragement

Despite that rawness, there’s a message of encouragement throughout the book. Here’s a guy who talks about the fact that he’s still trying to heal past wounds with folks. But we see cases where things have been restored, if only partially. We are given a glimpse of how personal triumphs have come from the depths of failure. And we are constantly reminded that even a man we see as a star is very much a flawed human who is working hard to improve himself, that he needs to improve himself, and that though it is hard, he’s making progress. And he’s making progress not because he’s a star, but because he is working hard to do so.

A Recommended Read

I definitely recommend this book if any of those above points have hit you. If you’re looking for a gossip book or a book talking about the high points of Terry Crews’ life, this isn’t it. He talks about high points, but they are in context with his failures. With respect to gossip, there are cases where he talks about other individuals, especially his struggles with particular folks, but those are in context with his failures, too. It was definitely an encouragement to me. It has caused me to think hard about some aspects of my life which need improving. And that’s the point of the book. It says it right there in the title.

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Failing Fast

When I talk about education and the best teachers I have ever had, I always talk about Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams taught Honors Algebra II / Trigonometry and our class was a mixture of 10th and 11th graders. Despite it being a math class, and an honors one at that, we almost never had homework. Yet when it came time for the tests, we all did well. Compared to previous honors mathematics classes, it appeared that we did better in that class than in the others I took.

In IT, especially when we’re working under a Lean approach, the idea is to fail quickly. Failure results in more information. If we’re not going along the right path, we want to know that as soon as we can so we can garner knowledge and start again with the benefit of that knowledge. In thinking about Mrs. Williams’ class, I realize that’s what she was doing. Here’s why I say that.

Traditionally, a teacher would lecture for most of the class period and work a few sample problems on the board. Then there would be a homework assignment when we tried to remember what we had been taught hours earlier and we were then on our own. The problem with this approach is that most students don’t know if they are failing at the concepts and techniques until they turn their homework in, it gets graded, and then returned to them. This may take several days or even as long as a couple of weeks. The problem with this approach is that they are building upon faulty knowledge. They may think they understand the techniques and concepts but they don’t. And as a result, they likely need to “tear down and rebuild.” The exception, of course, is the kid who looks at the homework and realizes he or she doesn’t have any idea about how to proceed. However, the feedback to the teacher is much slower than it needs to be. It will take at least 24 hours from the time the concept was taught before the teacher is made aware that the student has an issue.

What Mrs. Williams did was have a short lecture. She took 10-15 minutes of the class period. The rest of the class was spent working problems on the board, 3-4 at a time. We would take turns going up and working the problems. Then we’d look at the problems and correct mistakes as a class. In other words, we failed fast. We failed at the board. But we failed in a supportive, team environment where failure was expected and not used to judge but to gain knowledge which could then be immediately applied. We did this every day. Well, Monday-Thursday. We progressed at such a rapid rate that Fridays in her class were usually free days. Not only did we grasp what we needed to know, we did it faster than the traditional method.

This is the huge advantage with failing fast. However, failing fast has to be paired with the idea that failure isn’t a negative but an opportunity to learn. Failing isn’t seen as a black mark but rather another measurement point. It doesn’t just apply to IT, as my example shows. Failing fast is good, when used correctly.

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Life Principles

“Many principles are universal.” – Sebastian Marshall, Gateless

This got me thinking of a simple question I ask myself periodically: what are the principles by which I live my life? At first, this seems easy. However, what do I really live by? When I’m facing extreme hardship, what principles come to the fore? After all, these are the true principles by which I live my life. Anyone can play nice when everything is going well. But what kind of person am I when things aren’t so rosy?

“Yet others are intangible, unintuitive, and elusive.” – Sebastian Marshall, Gateless

It’s not just that some principles are elusive. The circumstances when we apply those principles are also elusive. One of the lessons I learned from my first year at The Citadel is that the person I’d like to think of myself as and the person I actually am are not the same. Put into the crucible that is the fourth-class system, I learned quickly my idealized self was far from my actual one. 

The good news is that I learned I had goals to aim for as I attempted to better myself. The hardship of a plebe year, actually the next three as well, gave me an idea of how far away I was from most of those goals. The reality is that I’m still a good ways away from some of them. That’s okay: I can continue to move forward every day (an idea from the Hagakure). 

Have you ever stopped and asked yourself the question I asked myself again: what are the principles by which I live my life? And have you paused to think about which principles show themselves when you find yourself stressed, tired, and/or in trouble? How far are you from your ideal you? And how do you get from the person you are to the person you imagine yourself to be?

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It was a play I had seen many times before. It was also a play that I had been involved in many times in the years I played soccer. The ball comes into the goal area high in the air from the side. As a defender you go up to head the ball away as well as attempt to deny any players on the other team an opportunity to get a clear strike on the ball. You take a bump, you fall to the ground. You get back up and play on. 

But what if you don’t? What if this routine play leaves you on that ground paralyzed from the waist down? It wasn’t a particular hard hit so you have no reason to think there is anything wrong. But then you can’t move or even feel your legs. What goes through your mind at that moment? That’s what this young lady experienced:

Caroline Cashion vows to come back

When the news came through the parent forums for The Citadel (my son is a cadet, following in my footsteps), along with a link to the game recording, I took a look. It was a routine play. It wasn’t a particularly hard hit. Defenders make that play and get hit like she did at most levels of soccer. And they pop back up. But she didn’t get back up. She stayed down. 

With regards to this young lady, the medical prognosis is an optimistic one. However, it’s still a reminder that even in a routine moment, the unexpected can occur. Folks who know their days were counting down have reminded us to appreciate each moment, to not take anything for granted. This story is a reinforcement of that message. What grains of time are you letting slip through your fingers without awareness?

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I was getting into the elevator and touched the rail at the back. It reminded me of a different rail in a different elevator – a memory now over 25 years old. The elevator was in the science building at Coker College. My physics and electronic classes at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics (SCGSSM) were on the third floor and my physics professors’ offices were on the third and fourth floor. Therefore, I rode that elevator a lot when I was carrying equipment and the like up and down the floors.

The memory brought back other memories, including how much our professors invested in us. Beyond teaching us the core academics, they were always around the campus and an integral part of our lives. We were high school students at a residential high school away from our parents and they became like a second set of parents for many of us. They shared their interests beyond academics. They invited us to their homes. They showed up for our activities, even if they weren’t directly engaged in them. They checked in on us when we were having a difficult time. And they listened to us.

I am thankful that my professors at SCGSSM were so involved. I know I have achieved a lot of the successes in my life because of them. They were the definition of mentors, regardless of academic subject. For instance,one of my history professors, Dr. Carlanna Hendrick, and one of my physics instructors, Dr. Clyde Smith, taught me more about how to treat people with dignity and respect than they did their academic disciplines. Considering how much they invested in me academically, that’s saying something. Dr. Hendrick’s teaching made my later honors-level history courses in college easy. Dr. Smith’s investment is what led me to pursue a degree in physics and also meant that for the first year at The Citadel I was the physics student who had almost no physics classes because I had credit for them before stepping foot on The Citadel’s campus.

If you have the ability to mentor someone, consider how you might impact them wholly. While both Dr. Hendrick and Dr. Smith are first-rate instructors and experts in their chosen subjects, their influence of us went well beyond the academics. This was the case for the majority of our professors and we, their students, are better for it. Realize that as a mentor you can have a similar effect. Don’t just focus on the area of expertise that you’re being consulted for. Share with those you mentor. Invest in them. Believe in them. And help them grow in more ways than you can imagine.

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Do you know about the JABBAWOCKEEZ? They are a dance group that have been around for some time now and are recognized as one of the best in the business. Their ability to tell a story as well as their preciseness with small movements are their trademarks. Here’s an example:

This performance consisted of a lot of new movements. Note that they’ve added splitting the group and performing the same movements to show to multiple facings to accommodate an arena as opposed to a stage. That’s an innovation. Most dance groups focus on one facing. 

In fact, they are constantly innovating. This video even shows coordinated movements for entering and exiting the performance. Think about that for a moment. How many groups actively practice for parts other than the main performance? 

Their previous movements are performed incredibly well in this performance.  That’s to be expected. However, there’s a lot of new stuff to go with the old. Those new movements are comparable in quality to their previous body of work. That takes an incredible amount of practice. These guys invest in that work to polish their innovation. I’ve never seen a performance of theirs where something new is done to less than their previous work. They improve their innovation, which always starts raw, to match their current level of performance. 

There’s a lesson in all of this: we must innovate, but we must do so with a high degree of skill. Innovation poorly performed is arguably no better, possibly even worse, than not innovating at all. 

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