Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: essentialism by Greg McKeown

Living in a fast paced world, seeking to find something else to add to our schedule to get us ahead? Greg McKeown has a radical proposal for you, “do less”. In his book essentialism, McKeown lays out a case for limiting the things we do in order to have a greater impact in what we choose to do. He offers a four part strategy to help begin “an essential way of life”.

The first portion of the book is devoted to the essence of essentialism. What does it mean to carefully choose what parts of our lives may be essential and what parts are not? Next he shifts his attention to exploring what things may be essential for our lives. Are there things we are leaving out of our lives that could make us more fulfilled and productive? The third portion of the book is dedicated to eliminating things from our life that distract us from the essentials. (This was the most challenging part of the book for me, but the most rewarding one.) McKeown closes the book by looking at how to execute the plan. How can we grow to the point where the essentials in our life become almost automatic?

The book is a wonderful addition to the leadership books you may have on the shelf, but is a great book for personal growth in general as well. We all need greater clarity, our daily stress levels attest to that. essentialism offers good insight on how to organize our thoughts and then organize our life. If you are looking for a book to kick off your Fall, essentialism would be a great choice.

20 Albums In 20 Weeks: Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins (with Special Guest Blogger: Neil McLamb)

My march through 20 albums in 20 weeks continues with an album from my college days. It would be crazy, however, for me to write a review on this album when I know an authority on all things Smashing Pumpkins. So, I've invited the expert himself, Neil McLamb to weigh in on Siamese Dream by The Smashing Pumpkins. Also, if you are not reading his blog, you should start right now! You can find Neil's blog here.

I am honored to be guest-writing on this blog. To top off a great invitation, Michael asked me to write a review of one of my favorite albums. The band who released this album is also my favorite band: The Smashing Pumpkins. Siamese Dream, released in 1993, was the bands’ second album. They were hugely influential during the “alternative rock era”, and this album in particular was the first to have such a heavy influence.  

What They Think

Siamese Dream debuted in the Billboard top ten. It sold over six million copies. A total of four singles were released. Coming from an album with 13 songs (14 if you bought the version released in Japan), four singles is an amazing testament to the quality of music Billy Corgan, James Iha, D’arcy Wretzky, and Jimmy Chamberlin were able to create. The album has been considered not only one of the best albums of the 90’s, but one of the best of all time according to Rolling Stone magazine. Rumors abound that Corgan was difficult to work with due to his demand for perfection. Despite relationship issues he may have caused in the process with his fellow band members, his drive to produce the best material obviously paid off.

What I Think

The opening track begins with an incredible introduction: Chamberlin on drums. Few people can play drums like this guy, and this song allowed him to flaunt that ability. What follows his intro is the rest of one of the most popular songs ever produced by the band: Cherub Rock. It features the “wall of sound” that became synonymous with much of the Pumpkins’ music. This “wall of sound” is beautifully unique and is somehow more soothing than one would ever think a mixture of loud guitar fuzz and distortion could ever be. More subtle tracks are present on the album, like Disarm, Spaceboy, and Luna. No matter what instrumental backing, the quality and depth of the lyrics are consistent. Corgan has a knack for writing good material, and he intertwined his lyrics (along with a little help from Iha) perfectly with the music they produced for this album.

Favorite Lyric

Wrapped my hurt in you
And took my shelter in that pain
The opiate of blame
Is your broken heart, your heart

So now I'm all by myself
As I've always felt
I'll betray my tears
To anyone caught in our ruse of fools
(from song Soma)

Where It Fits

This is honestly an album I cannot get enough of. I love the shorter songs as well as the longer, more “epic”, tracks like Soma that seem to build momentum until you reach the soft, mellow ending that transitions you to the next song. Each time I listen to Siamese Dream, it seems as though I can pick up on new intricacies in the music I never noticed before. I’m a bit old-fashioned, so despite the fact that each track stands great on its own, I highly recommend experiencing this album as a whole, from track one to the end. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Are Good Activities Damaging Your Family?

Great families don’t just happen. They require thought and effort. The same is true of any grouping of people. You can have great athletes and not have a great team. Companies can hire the best and the brightest and still go bankrupt. Families can be composed of great fathers, mothers, and children and still not function well together as a family. While you can’t run your family like a company or football team, there are similarities that need to be noted. Greg McKeown in his insightful book, essentialism, explains one of the things that families have in common with all teams and companies:

“With no clear direction, people pursue the things that advance their own short-term interests, with little awareness of how their activities contribute (or in some cases, derail) the long-term mission of the team as a whole.”1

It’s the natural instinct of all people to do what they think is best. It may not always be the best decision, but it seems best at the time. Our kids will do what they think is fun, or will make them more popular, or will gain them praise from a coach or teacher. Parents might put in the extra hours that will get them a promotion or raise at work. They might also join clubs or activities for their children that they think will best prepare them for later life. None of these decisions are bad per se. The problem for most families is that while their decisions may be good for individual parts of the family, they do nothing to make the family better as a whole.

We are quick to rail against basketball players that are selfish and never pass to teammates. They may score 60 points a game, but their team suffers. We get angry at CEO’s who give themselves lavish raises while their company struggles. We ignore, however, all of the hours and dollars that are spent on individual persons in our family, while the family grows weaker and less effective.

Is your family doing a lot of good things that may be damaging the family as a whole? Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

What is our purpose as a family?

Some companies exist to make money, others exist to raise awareness for issues they feel are important. Many companies don’t know their true purpose (don’t worry about figuring out which companies those may be, they won’t be around long anyway). The purpose of a company drives the behavior of a company. In the same way, the purpose of a family will drive the actions and decisions of that family. If you don’t have a clear purpose, you have no way of knowing if you are winning or losing.

Will the activities we have on our calendar help us fulfill our purpose?

Once you know your purpose, you can use it to gain greater clarity about what to do with your time. There are a thousand good options to engage in every week, but only a few that are best for your family. Having a clear purpose allows you to find those things and commit to them. Understanding your purpose also allows you to say “no” to things that seem good without feeling guilty or unsure of yourself.

Does my family know our purpose?

Having  purpose is useless if your family doesn't know it. Your family can’t support their purpose if it isn’t talked about and explained from time to time. Clear purpose makes discipline and sacrifice possible. For example,  it’s hard for your teenager to  not obsess over new game system he’s been wanting. It’s easier to put off getting it if he knows that the family is saving up for a great vacation in a couple of months.

These questions aren’t easy and will require a good deal of thought and communication in your family, but they are critical to your success as a team. A clear sense of direction also makes the journey a lot more enjoyable. So, set aside a couple of hours on your calendar this week and begin asking the hard questions. You’ll be glad you did!

Photo Courtesy of Death To Stock Photo
1- Greg McKeown, essentialism (New York, NY: Crown Publishing, 2014)

Thursday, August 20, 2015

20 Albums In 20 Weeks: Leaving Eden by Carolina Chocolate Drops

American folk music and bluegrass has stormed back into popularity in the past few years and no band has played with more skill or force than the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

What They Think

Leaving Eden received four stars from both Rolling Stone1 and The Guardian2. The album is generally praised for its musical skill as well as for Rhiannon Giddens’ vocals. Most people compare the album favorably to the group’s earlier album Genuine Negro Jig.

What I Think

The album grabs you with force from the first song “Riro’s House”, and never really lets you go. The music is soulful, emotive, and contagiously fun. Giddens is a vocal powerhouse, and has just released a solo album that is equally powerful entitled, Tomorrow Is My Turn.

Favorite Lyric

No work for the working man
Just one more empty mill
Hard times for working men
Hard times harder still
The crows are in the kitchen
The wolves at the door
Our fathers’ land of Eden is paradise no more.
(from song Leaving Eden)

Where It Fits

I love this album and will return to it often. Even if you aren’t a folk or bluegrass fan this is an album that you should spend some time with. Incredible vocals, accomplished instrumentals, and passionate delivery makes this album essential for every music lover’s library!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

How Much Is Enough: Why We Burn Out

I ran long-distance races for my track team in high school. I wasn’t very good, but evidently neither were a lot of people in my conference. So, I could be counted on to finish third or fourth at most meets and get a few points for our team. I remember clearly the nightmare of each lap of my 2-mile race. After two laps I would ask myself, “Why didn’t I run the 800m?” After four laps I would ask, “Seriously, why could I not have run the mile race?”  One thing I did like about track and field was the clarity. There was no question about how far you needed to run. The finish line was clearly marked. The laps were loudly counted as teammates cheered you on. You knew exactly how far was far enough. You might not be able to get there as quickly as you liked, but you knew when you had done enough.

Knowing when we have done enough can be a challenge for many of us. I stumbled across this line from Barbara Brown Taylor’s great book, Leaving Church that I can relate to, and maybe you can as well:

     “No matter how many day planners I bought, none of them told me when I had done enough.”1

Our relationships can always benefit from more time and energy. Work always has more tasks for us to complete. We can always come in a little bit earlier and stay a little bit later. The chores around the house are never ending. We can read more, learn more, achieve more. There is always more. When we always pursue more, we inevitably believe that we have not done enough. That sort of compulsion, though often applauded in our society is destructive. To avoid the burnout of endless striving, we have to make some choices:

Choose Who

There will always be an abundance of people who want your time and energy. If you don’t make choices about who you want to get your best time and most focused energy, then life will decide for you. Are the most important people in your life getting your leftovers? Is it possible that the people who need you most, see you the least?

Choose What

There are an infinite number of things to do every day. You will only get a few of them done, no matter how productive you are or how hard you work. You have limits. If you can’t do it all (and you can’t), then you need to choose what gets done and what remains undone. It’s easy to do what is most urgent each day rather than focusing on what is more important.  Remember, urgent doesn’t always equal important.  

Choose When

You are a very different person at 9am than you are at 2pm. You are different later that night after dinner. When you do your important work and when you engage your important relationships matters a great deal. You want the best of you to engage the things that are most vital. It’s possible to waste your most clear and energetic hours each day doing things like returning email or scrolling through Facebook. Email and Facebook aren’t bad, they are just not likely your most important priorities today. 

Choosing with clarity what "enough" means for you is the key to avoiding burnout and stress. No one knows what matters to you more than you, so take some time today and make some choices about how your are spending your time and energy. When you have done "enough", take some time to be thankful for the opportunities and choices you have! 

1- Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church (New York, NY: HarperCollins 2006)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How To Fight Poverty In 2015

Many of us have heard about CEO of Gravity Payments Dan Price, implementing a plan to raise all of this employee’s salaries to $70,000 over the next three years. Price is personally bearing the weight of the pay hikes by dropping his salary from $1 million to the minimum $70,000. 1 The hope is that the new pay scale will help improve the emotional well-being of his employees. It’s hard not to admire the move that Price has made. In a world where everyone seems out to get all they can, it’s refreshing to find a leader who is willing to sacrifice for the well-being of his entire team.

The experiment at Gravity Payments has caused many to leap another idea:  if somehow, everyone could have the same amount of money, wouldn't poverty be eradicated as well as most crime and injustice? This thought is very attractive. After all, the overwhelming majority of people on our planet despise poverty and would love for its misery to end. But would giving everyone money solve the problem?  While it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, it wouldn’t solve the problem.

The problem of poverty has existed as long as humans have existed. The issue is addressed as God gave structure to what life would look like for the nation of Israel in the Jewish Torah (or Christian Old Testament). In chapter 15 of the book of Deuteronomy we read that God also despises poverty. It also indicates that poverty will not ever completely go away (at least not until God sets everything right when Jesus returns to the earth). God’s plan for Israel to deal with poverty  was simple and direct. The plan combined generosity, restoration, and responsibility.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.” 2


The people were to “open wide their hand” to people in need. They were instructed to give generously to those who were hurting. They were to give even though they might not be repaid.3 There was a practice in place that if someone lost everything and could no longer feed themselves, that they could sell themselves to a neighbor or friend. They would then work for that person for 7 years and be fed and housed and receive a modest income. At the end of that time they were released and the “owner” was instructed to give to that person, animals from his own flocks, grain from his own silos, and wine from his own presses.4  Not only was the person fed and clothed when he couldn’t have done those things for himself, he was mentored for 7 years by a person who was thriving financially, and he was given enough to make a fresh start for himself once he left. That’s breathtaking generosity.


That sort of generosity leads to restoration. The person who only 7 years ago had nothing, now has crops, supplies, and animals of their own.  More importantly they now had the chance to make it on their own. They could work for themselves. They could plant as much as they like and tend their animals however they thought best. They were not only given means but also dignity and confidence.


That led to a period of responsibility. They now were on their own. It was theirs to make or break. They had to work for 7 years to get this new start and they would now have to work to multiply their crops and herds.  Generosity without restoration and responsibility is futile. Money itself isn’t the solution. It’s helping people gain the skills and strengths to provide for themselves and possibly others that reaps long term rewards.

The challenge of this plan is that it can't come through government mandate. The writer of Deuteronomy warned against the bitterness that can arise out of giving grudgingly. Enforced generosity can create as many problems as it solves. The only stable answer is people who are willing to give compassionately and freely. This is where we as Christians must step up. The point for us today is clear. There will always be poverty, so we must always be generous. We must add to our generosity a vision for restoration when possible. We must help, but always allow people to be responsible for themselves as quickly as possible. 

Photo: By Alex Proimos from Sydney, Australia (The Hand  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
1- See New York Times article here
2- Deuteronomy 15:11 (English Standard Version)
3- Deuteronomy 15:9 (English Standard Version)
4- Deuteronomy 15:14 (English Standard Version)

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Best You Possible (And How To Get There)

“If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
                                                                                -Abraham Lincoln

I love this quote by Abraham Lincoln. The man was a walking tweetable moment. I’ve chewed on this quote in the past, pondering how to best prepare myself for whatever challenges or opportunities that awaited me in the future. The more I’ve thought about this quote, the more I realize that its application needs to be much more focused that I had originally thought.

Trying to prepare for anything that might come in life can be really exhausting. There are so many possible challenges that the future might spring on us, that it’s hard to know how to best prepare.  We end up wearing ourselves out by trying to prepare for all possible outcomes. In the end we are tired, and still feel unprepared for whatever might lie ahead.

Once we realize that we can’t focus on everything, we often choose to focus on our weaknesses. Our weaknesses are always more visible than our strengths, often creating shame and doubt inside of us.  So, we frantically jump in and try to get better at things that we are no good at and probably don’t enjoy. The time we spend on weaknesses though is very often wasted time. We can spend hours and hours of work on something we are not good at. The reward we get for all of that hard work?  We are ok at something we hate doing. No thanks.

What if, rather than trying to become good at everything, we focused on the few things that we are already gifted in and passionate about? What if we sharpened the tools that we used the most and that we most enjoy? Time spent trying to improve in things we are passionate about is always more enjoyable and more productive. 

So, the question is: what gifting or skill are you actively sharpening? What passion or talent is it that makes you feel alive when you are doing it? Are you working to maximize those strengths? If not, how can you begin to “sharpen the ax” that you use the most?

You were made with a unique set of talents and skills. You have experienced a collection of moments in life that no one else has. You bring something to this planet that no one else can bring. So, instead of trying to be everything, why not just be you? Be the best you possible, and look for ways to grow in that every day. You'll never regret time spent "sharpening the ax".

Thursday, August 6, 2015

3 Ways To Have Healthy Debates (Without Being A Politician)

Depending on when you are reading this post, either the Republican primary debate is about to happen or has just happened. It’s been all over the news, possibly because there’s not a ton of other news, or maybe because there are 72 candidates. For all of their hype, political debates rarely deliver what they promise. The hope is that we would be able to get straight answers and information about candidates that would help us be more informed as voters. Normally the avoidance, posturing, and jabbing back and forth doesn’t give us anything we didn’t already know. But what about in our own relationships at home and with friends, is there a place for healthy debate? Can facing the issues we disagree on make us stronger? It can if we remember these three things:

Explaining Helps, Trying To Convince Does Not

There is a difference between explaining your thoughts and trying to force your opinion on someone else. The first inspires further communication, the second shuts it down. It’s human nature to want to convince someone of your point. After all, you are very convinced of its truth or merits. When you push too much without considering someone else’s thoughts you've made the argument more important than the person.  Take a deep breath, explain yourself and what you think to the best of your ability and then give the other person a chance to do the same.

Focusing On The Issue Helps, Getting Personal Does Not

When we have heated opinions and disagreements it’s easy to stop talking about the issue at hand and to begin talking about the other person. This incredibly damaging practice is called an ad hominem argument. “What’s wrong with you?!” and “What kind of person could think that?!” are usually an indication that you’ve stopped debating the issue and are attacking the person. Nothing destroys relationship quicker than personal attacks.

Talking Helps, Ignoring Does Not

Disagreeing isn’t something to avoid. It’s an honest part of every relationship. If we are not disagreeing about something somewhere then we probably aren’t being honest. Healthy doesn’t mean sameness. It’s ok to have differing opinions. That sort of friction is often the cause of a lot of growth in relationships.  Damage comes when we avoid talking about things that matter to us because we fear that we will disagree. That sort of stagnation leads to frustration and weakened relationships.

Debating ideas can be a good thing if you are courteous and have honest expectations. It can be a healthy tool for families and friendships. (Just don’t expect the politicians to be good role models for debate etiquette!)

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

3 Times That Saying Yes Will Damage Your Family

We live in a world of yes. We have more options and more freedom than at any time in the history of the world. Thanks to the ease and relatively low cost of travel as well as the all encompassing reach of the internet, we can have experiences that would have seemed impossible for our grandparents. We can work in one city, take guitar lessons in a second, grab dinner in a third, and then travel home in a fourth. We can do an insane amount of things in one day. With all of the opportunities around us that we can say "yes" to, it's becoming very difficult to say "no". While all of these opportunities can make our families stronger, they can also have an adverse affect. Here are three times that saying yes may damage your family:

Saying Yes Without Looking At Your Calendar

You see your child's teacher coming across the parking lot. Before you know it, she asks, "Hey! Can you help out with the PTA fundraiser next month?" Before you have a chance to really think it through, you say "yes". After all, your child benefits from what the PTA does. Shouldn't you carry your weight? Without seeing how much time you have, you add another time demand to your calendar. You know from experience that if you work hard and juggle well, you can make it fit. But, is it a good idea? Just because you can doesn't mean you should. Your time is your one unrenewable resource. Once it's gone it's gone. So, you had better take time to think before you give more of your time away.

Saying Yes Without Looking At Your Budget

We often see budget constraints the same way we see time constraints. If we work hard enough and balance carefully enough, we can fit it all in. That's just not true. Cutting things a little close this month or throwing something on an already bulging credit card may not seem like a big deal, but it all adds up. One of the biggest sources of conflict in marriages today is money. Nobody plans to have money troubles, they just say "yes" a little too often.

Saying Yes Without Looking At Your Family Goals

We have goals at our jobs, goals about our weight and the food we eat. We set goals concerning our money. We rarely take time to establish goals concerning our family and what we would like it to be. Every decision you make about time, money, and career will affect your family. Most of us would admit (or at least say) that our families are our top priority. If that is true, then we need to examine our goals for our family before we say "yes" to anything. Just because something is good doesn't mean that it's the best decision for your family.

Being able to say "no" at the right times is one of the best ways you can prioritize and protect your family. It's not always easy, but it's always worth it!

Photo Courtesy of Death To Stock Photo

Monday, August 3, 2015

20 Albums In 20 Weeks: Kintsugi by Death Cab For Cutie

I’m a little behind, but my latest week-long obsession was Kintsugi by Death Cab for Cutie. The title of the album comes from the Japanese art of restoring broken pottery. It is thought that the damage that something has gone through is an important part of its history and not something to be hidden or ignored. Lead singer/writer Ben Gibbard had been through his share of ups and downs prior to the album release and his experiences impacted the songs heavily.

What They Think

Most critics seem to think that Kintsugi is an above average album, but nothing overwhelming or ground breaking. It debuted in the top 10 on the US Billboard Top 200 Chart and had moderate commercial success.

What I Think

I liked it better than their last album, Codes and Keys, but not as much as Transatlanticism, which is one of my top 10 favorite albums of all time. That said, I really enjoyed getting lost in this album. It is a great example of an album that requires time to digest. Death Cab For Cutie has a unique sound that mellow yet engaging.  By the end of the week, I had grown attached to several of the songs.

Favorite Lyrics

You sent a photo out of your window in Paris
Of what you wish that I could see
But someone’s gotta be the lighthouse
And that someone’s gotta be me
And I hope your absence makes us grow fonder
I hope we always feel  the same
When our eyes meet past security
We embrace in the baggage claim.

Where It Fits

It’s an enjoyable album that will have a place in my rotation, especially in the Fall (Death Cab music is great in the Fall). Kintsugi is worth a listen, but it will take a few times through for the music to sink in and have it’s impact. I think it’s worth the patience!