Recently, I came across the book by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a first-time elected office holder, titled “The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.” The book chronicles Mr. Sasse’s life as a parent in his native Nebraska. It’s just the kind of common sense thinking that got me thinking about my own experience and how my own conclusions about self-reliance have changed over time.
In a recent interview about the book with NPR, Mr. Sasse said he and his wife shipped their kids to farms and ranches in Nebraska to learn some big life lessons.
“We want them to get dirt under their fingernails,” he told NPR, “and we want them to have to get up at 4:30 a.m. when they don’t want to” because he said he thinks it helps build ‘scar tissue for the soul’. ”
“Persevering and getting through hardship makes you tough, and at our house we celebrate stitches,” he added.
Mr. Sasse also talked about his growing concern about the condition of “perpetual adolescence” that characterizes the current generation of American kids.
“Peter Pan is a dystopia,” he told NPR, “Neverland is a bad place to be. It is good for kids to learn how to work. Right now, we’re acting like keeping our kids free from work is a way to treat them really nicely, when in reality thoughtful parenting wants to help free our kids to find meaning in work.”
What kids need, Mr. Sasse concluded, is to have experienced “that memory of persevering and having gotten through hardship.”
This made me stop and think about when this happened in my life and a memory I have of getting thought adversity and what it felt like when I got to the other side.
It took me back to when I began to build an online education platform. A client once told me at the beginning of the project: ‘I am going to tell you my expectations, pay you what you want, and I only want you to call me if you have problems. Otherwise, I’ll only be in contact about once a month to check in.” It was the most freeing, liberating, yet terrifying moment in my consulting career to date. I was motivated, though, to give this client excellent results based on the working relationship he defined. Do the work. Give me the results. No excuses. When I thought about it, it was a lot like what a coach expects from an athlete.
The scope was to build an online education platform for college athletes. I’d sit at my desk in the house I lived in at the top of a hill and look out the window and watch cars go by. Every day I would get up with the intent to make tremendous progress and every day I got little accomplished.
Once a month he’d check in and ask how things were going. I had absolutely nothing figured out or accomplished but I would say with enthusiasm “it is going to be great, you are going to love this.” The same thing happened the next month. Finally, after month three, still with no ideas or progress, I decided to call the only person in my life who could actually help me through this predicament. My mother.
Over the course of my life my relationship with my mom has changed. Like me, she has a terminal degree, is a lifelong educator, and loves to see people critically think their way out of their own struggle.
So I started the call by saying, “Mom, I don’t need you to tell me how great I am, I just need you to be my mom.” Early in my life she was the person who pushed me, coached me and pulled me when I refused to think for myself. In those days she had shifted from coaching me to being my cheerleader. But today, she would go back to the role of the coach.
I explained to her I thought I had finally promised something I couldn’t deliver. After hearing the whole story and she replied, “son, you need to shut down your computer, go outside, walk around, and become aware of the things that are right in front of you that will help you solve this program.”
While I was hoping for a little more, I followed the advice. Later that day, my wife came home from her job teaching fourth graders at a local elementary school. I was sitting at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. She slammed her bag down on the table and a flip chart fell out of her it and landed in front of me.
It was called Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is a noted, step-by-step process illustrating the hierarchy of how people learn. At the lowest level is remembering and at the highest level is synthesis. “What is this?” I asked. She explained to me what it was. I started thinking about what my mother said and it came to me. “Fourth graders and college athletes – (and I can say this because I was one) they can’t be that much different!”
I went directly to my office and wrote the entire online platform based on the framework in a few hours. “Remember the first time you played football, what that felt like,” it began. Next came understanding, then evaluation, and on and on it went. I completed the project, citing Bloom as the basis point, and sent the straw man to my client. I’ll never forget when he called me excitedly to tell me, “is exactly what we need.”
For many years I thought I learned three valuable lessons from that experience. First, call your mother. Second, frameworks, if you have them, provide predictability, structure and a way out. And third, there’s nothing in the world I can’t do and had experiences that proved to me that there is always a way out.
As I continued to move through the next stage of my life and career I concluded that learning early in life the lessons of self-reliance taught me how to use adversity to accelerate growth. Here is what I mean: What used to take me six years at one stage of my professional life now takes me six months; what once took me six months now takes me six days; and what once took me six days now takes me six hours.
What changed? I struggled and along with it I suffered. Suffering or struggle helps us think better, communicate better, make better decisions, and ultimately become more productive.
Today this story means so much more. Brene Brown, author, speaker and expert in human connection stated, “The goal is not to raise independent adults, but to raise adults that others can depend on.”
And that’s when everything I had concluded about self-reliance came into question.
In that moment I not only had to rely on myself, but also had to depend on my mom and my wife.
And the person who gave me the opportunity was depending on me.