Letter to a 13 year old boy

I can hardly believe you are thirteen years old. I remember how nervous I was to hold you for the first time when you were a baby, thirteen years ago—you looked nervous too! And I remember when I turned thirteen and how I felt, and I wondered how my life would change now that I was a teenager.

I know it’s kind of weird (that’s me!), but I asked a bunch of people what kind of advice they’d give you, now that you’re thirteen. I asked our family and our friends. You know some of them really well, and others you only kind of know. I guess when you read this years later, you probably won’t remember who everyone is, so I made some notes to help with that.

I have some advice too, as usual. These days it feels like I don’t see you as much as I’d like, so I’m writing down all the stuff I wish we could talk about together, and we will eventually, I guess. I should tell you first, though, that I’m really proud of who you are and the adult you are becoming. I really admire your intelligence, and your sense of humor is a great indicator of that. I am constantly impressed by your athleticism because you make the hard stuff look easy (but practice still helps, right?). I am always in awe of how easily you make friends, and keep them. Did I already say I love your sense of humor? I love you so much, and I’m so proud and happy to be the father of such a cool son.

Here are a few quotes that I really like…

  • “To go fast, you need to be good. To be good, you need to go slow.” (unknown) I like this quote because it’s a reminder of how important it is to go slow and practice, and get better, so that when you really need to “go fast” those skills will be available.
  • “Nothing in life matters quite as much as it does while you are thinking about it.” (Daniel Kahneman) Kahneman is a psychologist, and this quote reminds me that the things I think are super important, or scary, or make me feel anxious, definitely aren’t as big of a deal as they seem at that moment. And that has ALWAYS proven true when I look back at those thoughts a few days later.
  • “If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional, wait until you hire an amateur.” (unknown) This one makes me chuckle, but it’s true. Pros know what they’re doing, and they know how to avoid the expensive mistakes that amateurs make.
  • “In work, do what you enjoy; in family life, be completely present.” (Tao Te Ching) The Tao Te Ching is a book, not a person. The text dates back to 400 years before Christ, and a lot of the advice in there is still relevant. Do what you love, and when you’re with people, don’t let your mind, eyes, or ears wander away from them—be present.
  • “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” (Simone Weil) Ms. Weil was a philosopher and an activist. This quote really cuts through the crap and names the truth. You can always get more money to give away, but your attention is very limited and valuable. Be aware of where you spend it, and also be aware of when others spend their attention on you. It’s kind of another way of saying the same thing as the previous quote from the Tao Te Ching.
  • “Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general.” (Mark Rippetoe) This one makes me laugh, but it’s also true. Rippetoe is a strength coach from Texas, and he’s funny and blunt. When you spend time getting stronger, you’ll be a more useful person in the world. Not just physically, but mentally too because spending time under a heavy barbell forces you to learn about yourself.
  • “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” (Ian Maclaren) Being kind to other people costs nothing (other than patience), and what you get in return is more kindness. We rarely know what other folks are dealing with, so it’s always a great policy to just be as kind as you can manage.
  • “Bear and forbear.” This is translated from the Latin phrase, “Sustine et abstine.” and it basically means to handle the hardships that come your way, and that there’s no need to add to other people’s hardships, or whine about your own. This quote comes from a group of people known as Stoics.

Speaking of Stoics, there was a guy named Marcus Aurelius who lived about 2,000 years ago. He was one of the emperors of Rome, and pretty much spent all his time at war. He had tens of thousands of soldiers under his command. Each night he wrote in his private journal, and surprisingly this journal has survived to this day. It’s called “Meditations”, and it’s his private notes to himself about how he did each day, and how he could do better. A LOT of people find this little book to be very valuable to them. There are other Stoics to read as well: Seneca and Epictetus top the list.

There’s a saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. For you, for a lot of years, three of those people were mom, me, and your little brother. As you get older, you’ll make your own choices about who those five people are, and your choices will affect how other people see you, and the opportunities that become available to you. That’s both unfair, and true. People will see who you spend time with, and they’ll assume you are similar. Spend time with brilliant athlete-scholars, and you’ll be seen as one, and treated accordingly. Spend your time with potheads, and you’ll be seen as one, and treated accordingly.

There are a few more things that I think are important for you to have heard sooner rather than later. A lot of this stuff seems like common sense, but you might be surprised by how uncommon “common sense” actually is.

Math and science

  • Science should be fun and interesting. Like Adam Savage said on Mythbusters, “Remember kids, the only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.”
  • Learn about the Pareto Principle, also called the 80/20 rule. This basically means that just about anything can be split into 20% of something affecting 80% of something else. See if you can spot this happening with homework, or sports practice…usually the first 10% and last 10% will take up 80% of your time and brainpower.
  • Learn about what’s called the “bell curve”, or “normal distribution”. This is the idea that everything falls into a kind of pattern. Imagine all the 13 year olds in the world. A few are really tall, a few are really short. Most are pretty close to the same height. That’s a normal distribution. Almost everything fits this pattern, and knowing this will help you get a better idea about whether things are awesome or average.
  • Learn to distinguish between causation and correlation, because this is a really common way that people get tricked into believing things that aren’t true. Causation means there’s a direct relationship between an action and a result: if you eat ice cream (cause), your mouth will get cold (effect). Correlation means things happen together, but there may not be causation involved: drownings increase at the same rate as ice cream sales (obviously selling more ice cream isn’t the cause of more drownings, but in the summer both things increase).
  • Learn about the scientific method, and practice on yourself with food, sleep, hydration, exercise, etc. Keep track of results by writing them down. The scientific method just means that you test theories by experimentation, and close observation. For instance, you might wonder if you pitch better with just 4 hours of sleep (that’s called a “hypothesis”). So you’d experiment by observing your pitching performance after 4 hours of sleep, and comparing those results with your performance after 8 hours of sleep. The comparison is called “analysis” and helps you determine whether your hypothesis is correct.

Thinking and talking

  • Figure out how to be a critical thinker, and practice on adults. This might piss them off. Don’t let that stop you (but don’t be a dick about it). Critical thinking is a lot like the scientific method, because you’re always evaluating statements against your own knowledge and experience to see whether there are flaws in the logic and reasoning.
  • Learn to tell the difference between opinions and facts, especially when adults are talking. Everyone likes to pretend their opinions are facts. There’s even a saying, “You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts.” Adults make this worse on young people because they want young people to believe that everything that comes out of an adult’s mouth is a fact. It’s not. Use critical thinking to help tell the difference between an opinion and a fact. But don’t be a dick about it.
  • Don’t automatically trust authority; require evidence of one kind or another that the authority is worth your trust. Again, smile while you do this, and don’t be a dick about it.
  • There are things called “logical fallacies.” These are basically tricks with words that people use to make you believe things. If you can learn to identify logical fallacies, people will think you are a warlock. There’s a great list here: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

Money

  • Learn about compound interest, and how to make money work for you instead of you working for money. Compound interest is the idea that your money makes a little bit more money on interest. Say you put $100 in the bank and that becomes $110 because of interest. Now you’re earning even MORE interest on $110, but you only put in $100.
  • Spend less than you earn. If you can learn to live on half of what you earn, and save the rest, you won’t have to work for money for very long. Very few people have the discipline to do this, including me.
  • If you have to choose between a poorly made thing that doesn’t cost much, or a well made thing that costs more, buy the well made thing. This is more of an opinion than a fact, but I think the well made thing will last longer and you’ll spend less time and money shopping for a replacement. Just remember that price isn’t always an indicator of quality.

Human performance and psychology

  • There is a phenomenon called a “plateau”. It means that when you practice doing something, you get better really fast at first, and then you stop getting better at it. This is normal. It’s also frustrating, and that’s normal too. If you think creatively about the situation you can usually break out of it and continue to make progress, but the new progress is usually slower than before. That’s also normal.
  • Sometimes our minds get all wound up and we start feeling anxious and worried. If that happens, try to pay attention to just one specific thing. Usually that will calm down your mind.
  • When someone does or says something that really bothers or upsets you, it’s easy to imagine that they are an awful or evil person, or that they are out to get you or something. That’s almost always not the case. Usually the other person just has a different perspective, and they aren’t intentionally trying to hurt you or make you mad. Figuring out their perspective really goes a long way to fixing the conflict.
  • There are so many explanations for events, but usually the simplest explanation is the one that’s closest to the truth. It’s too easy to invent all kinds of scenarios in our heads, but most of those scenarios add in a bunch of junk that just isn’t there. Incidentally, this is how a lot of conflict begins—people make up flawed explanations for events, then assume it’s the truth. Then they’ll do/say something to piss you off because their assumption is messed up. Keep an eye out for this, and don’t fall into the same trap.
  • Perception is reality. That is, always assume other people see the world differently than you see the world. Always work hard (communicate, negotiate) to reduce the difference between your version and their version.
  • When you are looking at a pile of paperwork (homework, whatever) and feeling overwhelmed, start with the item on top. It can only be three things: trash, save for later, or an action to take right now. If it’s trash, throw it away. If you can do it in 2 minutes or less, do it right now. If you need to save it for later, learn about the 43 folders system. This works with a lot of stuff, not just paper.
  • There are things called “cognitive biases” which are ways that human brains behave in order for us to try and make sense of the world. A lot of times these cognitive biases are basically our brains telling us lies because it doesn’t know what else to do. If you can learn to identify these cognitive biases in yourself and others, people will think you are a warlock. There’s more info about cognitive biases here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases

This was a pretty quick note to write, but it was 46 years in the making. I am telling you all this stuff because it’s what I wish someone had told me when I was your age. I wouldn’t have understood all of it, but I would have picked away at it over time until I did understand, and it would’ve saved me a lot of time. I really hope these words help you in some way, and that you’re able to build on this and pass along something even better someday.

I guess I’ve rambled enough here. I love you.

—Dad

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