Don’t Quote Me: On Grown-ups and Numbers

Years ago I read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic, The Little Prince. There are many memorable lines in that book, but I think of one quote regularly because it’s so true.

*The Little Prince was written in French and translations vary; since my French skills are horrendous, I’ve simply picked my favourite English version of this quote.*

Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters. They never ask: ‘What does his voice sound like?’ ‘What games does he like best?’ ‘Does he collect butterflies?’

They ask: ‘How old is he?’ ‘How many brothers does he have?’ ‘How much does he weigh?’ ‘How much money does his father earn?’ Only then do they think they know him.

If you tell grown-ups, ‘I saw a beautiful red brick house, with geraniums at the windows and doves at the roof…,’ they won’t be able to imagine such a house. You have to tell them, ‘I saw a house worth a thousand francs.’ Then they exclaim, ‘What a pretty house!”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

Too often I fall into this trap; when the kids come home from school I don’t think to ask if any of their classmates collect butterflies or stamps or what games they like to play. I’m far more likely to know what each parent does for their career or where they live or the sibling structure in their household.

We think we “know” people by learning a list of facts. But as every child intuits, this simply isn’t true. We know people by learning about their likes and dislikes; we know people by discovering their emotional cues; we know people by engaging with them in shared experiences; we know people (and places) by paying attention to what makes them uniquely beautiful.

While the modern social disconnect may play a role in this tendency to focus on metrics, it also seems to be an age-old consequence of growing up. And that’s a shame. Because we’re all so much more than just numbers – in a bank account or on the scale. Wouldn’t relationships be so much richer and more satisfying if we spent less time discussing numbers and more time asking questions about what really matters?

Your turn. What does your voice sound like? What games/activities do you like best? Do you collect anything? Do you have pretty flowers in a backyard garden?

Header photo by Casey and Delaney on Unsplash

Am I Tackling a Branch or a Root?

I don’t subscribe to many newsletters, but if I could only choose one to receive it would be James Clear’s 3-2-1 Thursday.

I’ve taken so many quotes from this weekly (short-but-insightful) collection of thoughts. From a recent newsletter, the following:

Remove the branches of a thorn bush today and you’ll avoid a scrape this year. But next year, you’ll face the same problem again.

Remove the root of the bush today, and the entire plant will die.

Are you solving problems at the branch level or the root level?

James Clear

I read this on a day I was literally cutting back thorn bushes and lamenting my lack of proper tools to get at/destroy the roots. I was doing all sorts of unpleasant work but was limited to a temporary solution (removing the branches). It blanketed the entire task with a sense of resigned defeat because the roots – the most important area for me to address – were still thriving below the surface.

In life when something is routinely frustrating or gets in the way of my productivity or life satisfaction how often do I try to tackle the problem “above ground” at the branch level? (That was a rhetorical question, by the way, to which I sheepishly answer: often.)

Am I willing to endure the misery (usually short-lived) of tackling the issue at the root? Though, if I’m being honest, I’m not always able to differentiate between a branch and a root…

As for those pesky real-life thorns on our property (that have now punctured/ruined two soccer balls), we have plans for a backhoe to come and remove them at the root.

Is there anything you’re currently attacking at the branch level that you’d like to eradicate further down, at the roots?

Header photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cherry Blossoms: Fifty Springs Are Little Room

For starters, I’m not a poetry buff. Much of it – modern and otherwise – goes over my head. But every once in a while, I’ll stumble across a poem that has staying power. For example, I have deep sentimental attachments to Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening (Robert Frost) and Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (William Butler Yeats) and get a thrill each time I hear them.

And such is the case with Loveliest of Trees by A.E. Housman.

I’m jumping back to the (slightly melancholic) theme of the brevity of life. It is sobering to think that This too shall pass, but I contend this mindset can also motivate the pursuit of rich intentionality in our choices. Memento mori, right?

(I can’t be all wrong; Susan Cain has just put out what is sure to be a bestseller on the power of a “bittersweet” outlook in life; Oliver Burkeman is making the circuit discussing time management for “mere mortals,” working with a figure of ~4,000 weeks).

Where I live, cherry blossoms are in bloom. And Housman is right – they really are the loveliest of trees. It’s a short season, so I make an effort to remember which houses boast the best blossoms and direct my walking/driving routes by these locations.

Life is short and even if I get every single one of those 4000 weeks, for events that happen cyclically, like enjoying the brief – but breathtaking – wonder of cherry trees in full bloom, there are limited opportunities to enjoy the experience.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman

I, quite likely, have fewer than 50 springs remaining. I almost certainly have fewer than 50 springs where I’ll be fully mobile. Perhaps, at some point, I’ll no longer live in a part of the world with cherry blossoms.

Which makes me more aware of my privilege in seeing them this year. It could, after all, be my last.

And they are lovely.

So let’s go – out of our way if need be – to see the “blossoms” when they’re in season. This might be literal blossoms on a cherry tree or to make time to cuddle a friend’s new baby (I can assure you that, too, is a fleeting experience).

Laura Vanderkam and Diane from Life Off Headset have both blogged about the beauty and abundance of cherry blossoms in DC lately. Are you enjoying blossoms – of any variety – where you live? More generally, are there any activities/events you can never get enough of? How can we best use our remaining “fifty springs” to enjoy the beautiful things in life?

Header photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Don’t Quote Me: Let’s Make Better Mistakes Tomorrow

I have the following scribbled down on a sticky note (of the electronic variety) on the home screen of my laptop:

Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow.


I’m not sure where I stumbled across this quote, but it’s a great sentiment.

I’m going to make mistakes. Today, tomorrow, the day after that. Sometimes mistakes are made out of ignorance, or jealousy, or plain bad luck. But by learning from the mistakes of the past, instead of becoming heavy baggage that weighs us down in the present, they can be leverage for making wiser decisions in the future. Failure and mistakes can breed change and growth.

So here’s to making better mistakes tomorrow…

Don’t Quote Me: What Am I Saving My Energy For?

I’m a huge fan of Laura Vanderkam. She provides me with a steady stream of practical inspiration and many “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments.

Last weekend, in her Week’s Worth newsletter (highly recommend), she discussed a recent family vacation. She described the effort it took to arrange the logistics and identified some hiccups (a toddler wake-up at 3:30 am; a hurricane). Nevertheless, she encouraged readers to prolong the fun of summer by seeking out memory-making events.

Sometimes (often), it’s worthwhile to put in the extra effort. There will undoubtedly be obstacles (even without a toddler in tow) but almost certainly the memories created will endure far longer than opting out of adventure and sitting home on the couch binging Netflix (though a good binge session can be pretty fun).

And then she asked:

In the long run, what are we saving our energy for?

Laura Vanderkam

At various other points, Vanderkam has suggested that when we say we want more time, what we really want is more memories.

I keep circling back to values, but I think I underestimated their importance in determining the hierarchy of my priorities. What do I value? If it’s memories and relationships and connection and adventure then, at the end of the day, what am I saving my energy for when opportunities present themselves to pursue those ideals? Why put the kids to bed early to read a book on how to better connect with my kids when they’re awake?

This reminds me of one of my favourites modern parables. I’ve seen this produced in various formats (without a conclusive attributable author).

It’s a long one, but I think of it often.

the parable of the mexican fisherman

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked.  Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna.  The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “only a little while.” The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos.  I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and, with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats; eventually, you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part.  When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire.  Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I know this parable encourages us to embrace what we already have, but more broadly I think it speaks to identifying what we value. What do we want out of life? What are we saving our energy for?

Maybe it is to announce an IPO. To launch a business and build an empire.

Maybe, like Laura Vanderkam, it’s a trip to Maine.

Or maybe it’s sleeping late, fishing, playing with the kids, enjoying an afternoon nap, and spending evenings in the village sipping wine and jamming with friends.

Don’t Quote Me: Less But Better – Advice for Decluttering and Life.

I’ve been talking about clutter all week. And while I’d never label myself a minimalist, I appreciate many of the sentiments and motivations that are associated with the movement. One of my favourites is the idea of less but better.

For years, true to my frugal nature, I bought exclusively inexpensive shoes. If I happened to find a second-hand pair of high-quality footwear it felt like winning the lottery. So I mostly bought things that were uncomfortable or unfashionable or unreliable (often all three).

When I first met my Danish sister-in-law, one of the first things I noticed was how few pairs of shoes she wore. They were high quality, neutral, fashionable, and comfortable. Less but better.

When I was a teenager, my aunt and uncle bought me authentic Italian gelato. The (expensive) serving was tiny! But wielding that ridiculously small – yet adorable – spoon, I savoured every bite. I had grown up on store-brand ice cream, the type of treat you eat in big quantities. The gelato was less but much, much better.

Less but better.

Greg McKeown

I could pass along all but my favourite outfits in the closet.

I could give an experience-based Christmas gift, instead of filling a bag with cheap trinkets that will break quickly or get relegated to a junk drawer.

I could choose to focus on fewer friendships, but spend more time and effort investing in those few, instead of spreading myself thin with many superficial relationships.

Less but better.

Don’t Quote Me: Commit, Reset, Commit Again

As a (somewhat) reformed dieter, I know all about “The Start.” The enthusiasm, the optimism, and then the frustration when something (usually myself) stands in my way. I make a list of goals every January. I make daily/weekly commitments to being more patient with the kids…sigh.

But our (so-called) failures don’t define us, our ability to recommit does. We like to think of decisions, journeys, goals with having clearly defined start and finish lines.

Falling down doesn’t mean the race is over. It also doesn’t mean you have to head back to the starting blocks.

It’s not Start, Fail. It’s Commit, Reset, Commit.

I’m currently reading a biography of Olympic champion Eric Liddell, famously depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire. In part because my father was a Baptist minister, and because this is just an exceptionally well-made movie, Chariots of Fire was a movie I watched repeatedly in my childhood.

In one scene in the movie (that differs moderately from the true account), Liddell gets knocked down early on in his 440-meter race. He gets up shakily and looks around a bit, befuddled before seeing his coach urging him to get back up and race. Since I’m writing this story, you know how it must end. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds (his opponents were over 20 yards ahead of him), he went on to win the race (and collapse and remain unconscious for 30 minutes from the sheer exertion of it all).

The core lesson: having to stop or reset doesn’t automatically end the game. It doesn’t mean you have to start over or admit defeat. Maybe you’ll have to work a little harder, or the finish line might be a bit further away than anticipated, but this isn’t indicative of failure – it’s part of the process!

Every day I drive to work, I try to hit as many green lights in a row as I can. But if I hit a red light, or even five in a row, I don’t turn around and go back home. I just try again from there. I still try to see how many green lights I can hit.

Andrew Samis (discussing overcoming addiction)

If your first start-up fails – you can still be an entrepreneur. If you eat an entire bag of chips in one sitting, you can still be a healthy eater. If you skip a week of morning runs, you can still run a marathon one day. If you go a month without reading a book, you can still be a bibliophile. If you lose money on your first investment, you can still attain financial freedom.

And, if you have to formula-feed your infant, they can still be a doctor someday.

Don’t Quote Me: Food, And the Choices I Make Around It, Do Not Indicate My Worth As a Human

There is no cheating, there are decisions. There is no failure, just consequences.

Food, for many of us, is a very weighty subject (in every sense of the word). How much we eat, what we eat and where (take-out in front of the TV; sitting around a table with family), how we eat (quickly, emotionally; slowly, mindfully) – these can occupy significant mental headspace.

It’s tempting (and can, in some cases, be helpful) to carefully examine our own behaviours around food; it can be easy to start labeling patterns as good vs. bad, healthy vs. unhealthy. While choices do matter very much, what, how, where, and when we eat does not have to be a statement about our worth or significance. It doesn’t have to be some damning aspect of our personality that defines us.

I love this quote from Melissa Hartwig Urban’s (the co-founder of Whole30) book Food Freedom.

You do not cheat; you make a choice. You do not fail; you make a choice. Your choices do not define you as a person. There is no guilt, shame, or punishment, only consequences.

Imagine, for a moment, that your food is just food, and that your choices are just choices. What you eat is not a statement about your self-worth, your value, or your significance in this world.

Melissa Hartwig

Imagine – food being just food, choices being just choices.

Food for thought indeed…