Wednesday, May 30, 2012

On Becoming Hope Solo


Dear Mackenzie,

A couple of years ago you decided you wanted to play soccer.  So your mom and I registered you at the local AYSO and you were assigned to a team. I remember how excited you were when you got your uniform, how you wore it around the house for days, and how you said you couldn’t wait for your first practice.  

As we drove to the field, my sweet daughter, I started fantasizing about your potential future in competitive soccer and what all that could mean for you. I also started reminiscing about the not so distant past.

On a blistering hot day in July of 1999, three friends and I drove to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, along with 90,000 other people, to watch the finals of the Women’s World Cup.  I’d never been much of a soccer fan, let alone of the women’s game. Yet along with much of the rest of the nation I’d been riveted as the U.S. team defeated Germany, and then mighty Brazil, to advance to the finals.  Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly and others had captured our imaginations and we wanted to experience them, and the moment, first-hand.

By any objective measure the game turned out to be as incredible a sporting event as I’ve ever attended.  Both teams fought valiantly. Many spectators wilted in the sweltering heat and it would have been completely understandable if the players had too. Yet neither side did. Regulation time ended with the teams in a scoreless tie, as did the overtime period.

The fans roared throughout the entire penalty shootout as each side took their respective turns. When Brianna Scurry made a diving save of a kick from one of the Chinese players it felt as if we were in the midst of an earthquake. The very foundation of the stadium was rocked by the foot stomping and by the sound of 90,000 people chanting USA! USA!

And then Brandi Chastain made the final kick of the shootout and the U.S. women became World Cup Champions. The feeling inside the stadium in that moment, and no doubt in front of millions of television sets across the country, was one of unparalleled catharsis and jubilation.

Chastain famously took off her t-shirt and whirled it around as she sank to her knees, and not a single fan left the stadium for a good hour or more after the game.  Players hugged each other. Fans hugged each other.  Players hugged fans.  Fans hugged players. A lifetime’s worth of exaltation and celebration played out in front of me.

In full evidence throughout that match had been many of the life lessons which sports teach us. Teamwork. Dedication. Courage. Perseverance. Hard work. The thrill of victory. And unfortunately for the Chinese team, the agony of defeat as well. 

What Brandi, Mia and the gang left on the field that day, and how they did it, shaped Hope Solo’s generation, is shaping your generation, and will shape all future generations who follow.  The 1999 national team showed millions of young people, and especially young girls, that you can achieve anything and that everything is possible.

From that moment forward, every young woman in this country would know that no limitations exist other than those you allow into your sphere.  That the path you forge is the path you take. These players taught us that grace, power, athleticism and beauty are not mutually exclusive, and that champions come in all shapes, sizes and yes, even genders.

As befits a doting dad, I thought how great it would be if one day you were able to experience a life-affirming event like that World Cup final. Maybe you’d watch Hope Solo make a game winning save at goal during the finals of the 2015 World Cup.  Maybe you’d watch Sydney Leroux bury one from the corner to help the USA win the 2019 World Cup.

I even wondered privately if you yourself might one day become a Mia Hamm or a Hope Solo.  Maybe in the final seconds of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, a young rookie on the national team named Mackenzie Aladjem would pass the ball from the right wing with surgical accuracy to a grizzly veteran named Alex Morgan coming across the middle, who in turn would score the winning goal as time ran out and a delirious crowd chanted USA! USA!

These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as we pulled up to the park.  You were nervous, and since you didn’t know any of the girls on the team your mom walked you over to the coach. We watched you run around during practice and you seemed to be having loads of fun. At one point someone passed you the ball and you took a shot on goal.  Though the kick went wide of the mark you were grinning from ear to ear.  If I didn’t know better I would have sworn you were posing at the point of impact instead of focusing on the ball, but I was bursting with joy and pride nonetheless.  

Team pictures were taken at the second practice, and you were more excited about that than about the practice itself. When the proofs came, you picked several of the shots for us to print, and then happily announced you didn’t want to play any more. Just like that your soccer career was over. 

Periodically you ask me to take you to the park and we kick the ball around, but at least so far that seems to be the extent of your interest in the sport. Unless you change your mind it looks like the 2023 national team will have to win without you.

Yet I hope that the lessons of the 99ers, and their glory, will shine their light on you wherever your life and passions take you. I still have the cutest picture ever of you in your soccer uniform. I may even take it with me to Japan in 2023.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

On How a Spider Saved My Life


Dear Mackenzie,

People always say that the best way for a person to really understand the depth of his or her parent’s love for them is to have children of their own. It’s most certainly true. The prism through which you will view your mom and me as part of your childhood, Mackenzie, will reflect a very different hue once you become a caregiver too.

What could be more fulfilling to a parent, for example, than showing their kids how much they love them by showering them with affection?  The very thought of enveloping one’s child with hugs, kisses and the like is enough to make almost anyone feel warm and fuzzy. For a parent, it doesn’t get a lot better than that. In my experience, however, the converse isn’t true at all. 

A case in point: I still remember how when I was growing up, your grandma would try to hug me or kiss me at the most inopportune moments.  I hated it.  As I got a little older it didn’t feel like quite such an imposition, unless someone happened to be around when she tried to do it.  Then I would instantly shut down your grandma’s public display of affection.  “Stop that Mom”, I would whine. “What are you doing?” Your grandma is no longer with us of course, but what I wouldn’t give today to get a hug or a kiss from her. Publicly or otherwise.

Which brings me to you.

As you hurtle towards your teenage years, and given how willful and fiercely independent you are to begin with, I’m bracing myself for what my own parents and countless others have experienced through the ages. Hugs and kisses will hereafter be only grudgingly tolerated. Eye rolling will become more frequent and dramatic when I try. You’re going to be increasingly embarrassed by my stupid jokes (okay, fine, the whole family gets embarrassed by my stupid jokes but you know what I mean).  It’s already started.

Many years from now you may have a daughter of your own. Every so often she may push you away if you try to give her a hug.  Every so often she may tell you that she hates you, which depending on her age could mean anything from “I’m unhappy you’re not letting me eat a third cookie” to “I’m scared of the big bad world out there but don’t know how to tell you”.  Every so often she may even pretend not to know you when you pick her up from dance class, or she may demand that you don’t get out of the car.

Cognitively you’ll know she doesn’t mean any harm by it. You’ll remind yourself that like all normal, healthy young people she’s trying out different personas and reacting to the world around her. But no doubt it will still sting.

When that happens and you’re at the end of your rope, my sweet daughter, don’t hesitate to call your mom and me. We’ll happily talk you through it if we’re still reasonably lucid.  First we’ll instruct you to pour yourself a nice big glass of wine. That’s very helpful in these situations. Then we’ll remind you that parenting is not easy, and smile to ourselves at the notion that revenge is a dish best served cold.

Then a second glass of wine, this one for me, and I’ll tell you about the time I was so overflowing with love for you that I came up behind you and surprised you with a great big hug and kiss. You jumped off the couch as if I’d just stabbed you with a knife, and started to yell at me. In that moment I wasn’t self-possessed enough to process that your reaction had simply hurt my feelings. Instead I started yelling back at you and told you to go to your room until you were ready to apologize.  

You flew up the stairs crying that you hated me. The whole exchange took no more than thirty seconds but as you might imagine, it shook me to my core. How did an action emanating from a feeling of such love cause that horrible exchange? I sat in shock for about ten minutes, literally unable to move.

Suddenly you screamed “DADDY!!” at the top of your lungs with a tone of pure terror. As I sprinted up the steps you came running out of your bedroom.  “What’s wrong?” I asked, now in full protective mode.  You responded that there was a really big spider in your room.

Your expression was a combination of fear about the spider and of relief that I was there to handle it. I marched in to your room to assert my dominance over the offending arachnid, and when the coast was clear you jumped into my arms with an “I love you Daddy”. The exchange of a few minutes before now seemed like ancient history. As my spirits soared, I said a silent prayer of thanks that God had seen fit to put that spider there, and everything was once again right in the world. Well, maybe not for the spider.

The dynamics between parents and their children are complicated.  It’s the way of the world.  That’s the bad news, but it’s the good news too.

To this day, I sometimes feel badly when I think about moments in my childhood when I didn’t treat your grandparents as well as I should have, especially if it was in response to their showing me love. But now that I have daughters of my own I know first hand, as you will one day, that parents don’t hang on to “I hate you’s”.  They treasure “I love you Daddy’s” instead. And that’s a wonderful thing both for parents and for their children.

Drink your wine, take a deep breath, and tell your daughter you love her.

All my everlasting love,

Dad

Friday, May 11, 2012

On the Arc of the Moral Universe


Dear Mackenzie,

On March 25th, 1965 on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech during which he said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

I have always loved that sentiment.  I believe fervently in its truth and have relied on it during difficult times, even when the length of the arc has seemed excruciating. I hope you will abide by that sentiment in your own life, Mackenzie, and that you’ll do your part to point the moral universe in the right direction.  But how does that work as a practical matter?

When I lecture at colleges and universities around the country I often talk about the so-called “rule of 200”. In our Facebook and Twitter society, this guiding principle might now be more aptly named the “rule of 500”, but either way it basically boils down to this.

Each of us knows about 200 people with whom we interact on some regular basis.  If I do something very nice for you or otherwise help you in some way, you’re likely to tell ten or twenty of those 200 people what a good person I am. But if I do something to harm you or to prejudice you in some way, you’ll tell all 200 people what a bad person I am and then go make new friends so you can bad-mouth me to them too.

Many years ago when I was practicing law, I found myself on the other side of a deal from a very inexperienced young attorney (we’ll call him Dick – not his real name).  Dick was cocky to the point of arrogance, yet as we continued to negotiate it became clear to me that he was in way over his head, at least on one particular but very big deal point. 

I got him to agree to something so advantageous to my client, and so patently disadvantageous to his, that in my heart I knew the right thing would have been to point out his glaring error and teach him the issue for the future. Instead, I called my client and told him what I had accomplished. The client was shocked and delighted, and I went home that night feeling like a hero.

The next morning I got a frantic call from Dick and his boss. Dick was chastened as his boss explained to me very respectfully that their client was furious and was threatening to fire the law firm.

I had taken advantage of Dick’s inexperience and I knew it.  I felt badly, but since I had rushed to tell my client what a great job I’d done so I could take a bow, I now had a problem of my own. Yet I also knew that unless I figured out how to give the other side some relief the deal itself might be in jeopardy. More to the point, Dick’s employment would no doubt be in jeopardy as well, and I certainly didn’t want that on my conscience.

Long story short, I went back to my client hat in hand and disclosed what had actually happened.  After plenty of grumbling, which could easily have been avoided had I done the right thing in the first place, my client relented. The deal now behind us, Dick called me and told me I had saved his job. He thanked me profusely, told me he would never forget my kindness, and promised that for the remainder of his career and mine I would have an endless supply of get out of jail free cards if ever I needed them. Fair enough.

Fade out, and then fade back in fifteen years later.

One day a young agent at my company came to see me in a panic. He explained that he had “fucked up royally” in a negotiation and that one of our clients was about to fire us because of his mistake. I had him explain the situation to me so I could help find a solution, and then asked who was on the other side of the deal.

You guessed it, my sweet daughter.  It was Dick, who by now had become quite successful. I assured my young colleague that this would all work out fine and suggested we call Dick together.  After some small talk I humbly acknowledged to Dick that my young colleague had made a material mistake in the deal, and that as a result we were in grave jeopardy with our client.

To my utter amazement Dick wouldn’t budge. He told us that a deal’s a deal and that our internal client management issue was not his problem.  I was horrified.  When we had called Dick, I’d had no intention of referencing what had happened those many years ago. I simply assumed that the universe was in alignment and that I’d call in my chit with no mention being made of the past either by Dick or by me. But nothing we said moved him, even when I suggested pointedly that I would consider his help a personal favor to an old friend from our early law days together.

Finally I asked my young colleague to step out a minute, and then told Dick that if he couldn’t find it in his heart to help us for the right reasons, he should at least honor the promise he’d made to me fifteen years earlier when I’d stepped up to save his job. He refused, and indeed we ended up losing the client.

Over the years I’ve used this example many times when lecturing about paying it forward, but truth be told I’ve never had it in me to divulge Dick’s real name. Lord knows I’ve been severely tempted.  

Did Dick ever get his comeuppance? I don’t know. Maybe the real lesson here is that it’s not for us to keep the tally. Maybe how or when the arc of the moral universe bends, or even in which direction, shouldn’t be what guides our own moral compass. Maybe our moral energy is best spent on how we conduct ourselves.

And let the universe worry about this Dick or that one.

All my everlasting love,

Dad














Friday, May 4, 2012

On Not Turning a Deaf Ear


Dear Mackenzie,

Listen up.

I’m about to give you what may well be the best practical advice you’ll ever get. 

I’m not suggesting that you can’t or won’t succeed if you don’t follow it.  I am suggesting that if you follow what I’m about to tell you to the letter, you will be simply amazed at how people will flock to you in business and in life. I learned this lesson myself quite by accident and it’s made me a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and a better business executive.  

If negotiating for a living has taught me anything at all, it’s that most people don’t listen during a conversation.  It’s not that people are rude or disinterested by nature.  It’s rather that most people are scared, and insecure, and a little self obsessed.

I’ll give you a few examples just to set the table.

I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but most people are terrible with names. I’m convinced this is because when two people are introduced to each other, subconsciously each is more likely to listen for their own name than the name of the person to whom they are being introduced. The reason why two seconds later most people can’t remember the other person’s name is that they never actually listen for it in the first place.

Here’s another one.  The last time you got in fight with a friend or a loved one, were you actually listening while they told you what was causing their anger and hurt?  Or were you using the time that the other person was talking to formulate in your own head what you were going to say next? 

Active listening is the great competitive advantage in life, my sweet daughter. Very few people actually do it, especially in stressful situations. If you can actively listen to what someone is saying to you when the chips are down you’ll be way ahead of the game. It allows you to stay in the moment and to use real time information in every context.

People are desperate to be heard. It’s hard-wired into the human condition. I have found that outside of politics, people usually don’t even care whether or not you agree with them.  What they do care about is whether or not you hear and really understand what they are trying to communicate to you.

Many, many years ago I attended a weekend therapy seminar with a very pretty friend.  I grudgingly admit that I was far less interested in growing as a human being than I was in spending time with this particular person. Yet in spite of my selfish intentions, the weekend changed my life forever.

At some point during the seminar, the moderator had us all do a mirroring exercise.  Everyone was paired up and told to “role play” the thing they most wanted to say to someone who had injured them emotionally.  So for example, I could pretend to talk to an old girlfriend. If I said, “Sally, you hurt me when you told me we could never have a future together and you didn’t care”, the person with whom I was partnered for the exercise would pretend to be Sally and would say, “what I hear you saying is” and then mirror my sentence exactly. If they got it even slightly wrong, I would re-state what I’d just said until they could mirror it verbatim.

Once it was established that my words and feelings had been perfectly mirrored, the other person would say the words “that makes all the sense in the world to me”, followed immediately by “if I were in your situation I would feel the same way.”  That’s it.  Not a single variation. 

Under the watchful eye of the moderator, the exercise went on for the better part of an afternoon. People were crying, laughing, yelling, and hugging as the cathartic exercise played out over and over. It was as if these were the most profound words anyone had ever spoken. I couldn’t believe it.

Now at the time I was a brash, arrogant young guy who thought he knew everything.  So at the break, I went up to the moderator and told him that with all due respect the exercise was bogus.  I explained that while rote regurgitation of another’s words might work in an artificial therapy environment like this one, it would never work in the real world.

No doubt the moderator had been challenged like this in the past, because he smiled benignly and made me the following offer.  He suggested that for the next thirty days I use the technique in my business and personal life exactly as we had done it that day. He said if I didn’t get results to my complete satisfaction, he would refund my money no questions asked.  Who could pass up an offer like that?

The first few times I tried it I was awkward and embarrassed, certain that someone would call me on my “bullshit”, or ask me if I was on drugs, or worse. And yet to my utter amazement, the more I mirrored what people were saying to me; and the more I acknowledged that what they were saying made sense to me; and the more I suggested that in their position I might feel the same way, the more I got the results I wanted personally and professionally. I became the beneficiary of my active listening, and I was giddy with delight. It was like a parlor tick.

Needless to say I never called for my money back, and I’ve never looked back.  The funny part, Mackenzie, is that if you do this consistently over time, you’ll learn that active listening isn’t a parlor trick at all. It’s wonderfully real. Actually listening to people will deepen your enjoyment and appreciation of them.  The more you listen to people and mirror them, the more genuinely interested you’ll be in them.  And they in you.

Imagine that.

All my everlasting love,

Dad