Learning something new

As you know I decided to start my own business. It is a new adventure for me and requires that I learn a lot of new skills. Learning something new can be a challenge. The reality is that it takes time to learn something new. In fact, according to some experts, it takes at least 20 hours to learn something new. In this TED talk author Josh Kaufman explains the learning process. It is worth watching.

We live in a culture that is big on figuring out better ways to do things. Hacks, shortcuts, and cheat codes seem to be all the rage these days. I am a big fan of learning. It is one of my strengths. I look for ways to learn things quickly, but I recognize that you have to put in the time. I am experiencing that fact first hand right now as I download new software tools and teach myself several new skills. It is taking some time. I am making steady progress and will get there. During your lifetime you will need to learn many new things, so I want to pass along a few observations based on my own experience learning new things.

Starting out is usually ugly

When you start something new you do not know what you are doing, and it shows. It is going to be ugly. I remember the day Jill and I decided to play tennis together. She is good at tennis. She has played for years, taken lessons, and knows how to play the game. I, on the other hand, have played very little, never had lessons, and don’t really know how to play the game. As you might guess – it was ugly. She stood on her side of the court and simply hit the ball over the net repeatedly while I ran around like a madman trying to figure out what I was doing. An odd thing happened the next time we played. My play improved, just a little each game, and we actually ended up having a competitive game. I still have not beat her in a game, but I bet I could if I practice on a regular basis.

It takes awhile to go from the worst to good
It takes awhile to go from the worst to good – expect a rough start.

Practice takes time

If only 20 hours is required to learn something new, then it should be easy to learn new things quickly. Right. The reality is that 20 hours is actually a fair amount of time. As Josh Kaufman points out in his TED talk, you will improve a lot the first few hours – which is great. But, you will need to press on and keep practicing if you want to actually get proficient. Riley – you are learning to drive right now. The DMV requires that each driver spend many hours behind the wheel before you get your license which is a good thing. Every driver knows that it takes awhile to learn how to drive and get used to the various speeds and obstacles that you will encounter. Put in the practice and get your 20 hours in. Don’t rely on hacks or cheat codes to make you proficient.

How did the Beatles get so good at writing and playing music - lots of practice.
How did the Beatles get so good at writing and playing music – lots of practice.

Get the help you need

The good news about our modern culture is that you can find help easily. We have numerous ways to connect and communicate with others. When I announced that I was going to start my own company on Facebook several friends reached out to me, offering encouragement, and potential help. Many of them have experience that will help me a lot, so I plan to talk with each of them. In addition to your own friends, experts exist, coaches are available, and the really good news is that you can find most of them online these days. In fact, you can learn a lot from others, and get help for free. Youtube is a goldmine of information. You may remember the time when I could not figure out how to change the tire on our old Lexus (it had wheel locks that the manual did not mention), I went to Youtube and found a video that explained how to do it. Most of these tools did not exist when I was your age. Take advantage of them. Leverage the expertise of others, and get the help you need.

I hope that both of you learn new things on a regular basis. It will help you grow and become a more rounded person. Gavin – you are excellent at playing the guitar. I encourage you to keep learning and become an expert. Riley – you are a great soccer player. I hope you keep playing later in life. It is a great sport and will bring you a lot of joy. Scoring a goal never gets old. Trust me.

Learning never exhausts the mind.
– Leonardo da Vinci

Dunkirk Reveals Human Nature

War is hell. We all know that – at least I hope we all know that. We are reminded on a regular basis about both the horrors and heroics of war. Bottom line – it brings out the best and the worst in mankind. We have many books, movies, television shows, videos and monuments all aimed at giving all of us insights about war, and what it is like. As you know, I served in the military, but I never deployed into combat. I did spend many years preparing for it, studying it, and learning about it. Based on what I know and have learned from others – we get unique insights into human nature by learning from previous wars.

Occasionally a movie comes along that reminds us how awful war can be. Dunkirk is one of those movies. It is a grim reminder that WWII did not start well for the Allies. In fact, it was a military disaster on all fronts. The Germans were able to conquer much of Europe quickly. I watched Dunkirk last night, and really enjoyed it. The director lets history tell the story and attempts to personalize it by focusing on a small group of individuals who are caught in the action – soldiers and civilians. The movie is intense, and I think it points out three things about human nature that are worth reflecting on after watching the film.

We are all selfish

The battle of Dunkirk focuses on the fact that a large part of the British Army was surrounded by the Nazis early in the war and needed to be evacuated back to England before it is annihilated. It is a dire situation. The movie does an excellent job portraying how bad things were for the British. The enemy is closing in. All the British are trying to get out of France, and the only way out is via the English Channel. There are not enough ships for everyone. Time is running out, so various characters in the movie start to take matters into their own hands. It is an “only the strong survive” type situation which leads to selfish behavior. It should not be surprising that people get selfish. It is in all of us – the will to survive. It comes out especially when the stakes are high. Putting other first is a difficult choice to make, and does not happen naturally. Usually our basic instinct is to take care of ourselves first. Something to think about anytime you are in a tough situation. Look for this behavior in others, and monitor it in yourself.

We can all be heroes

The evacuation of Dunkirk ended up being successful because of the extraordinary deeds of many average people. The British government send out a call for help, and many answered. The film focuses on one family who joins in the action and plays their part in the evacuation despite many challenges. The director does a nice job keeping these everyday participants anonymous during the action. He does not treat them like superheroes. They don’t have superpowers or any special abilities. They simply do what is necessary to get the job done. The same holds true for many other participants to include the Air Force pilots who fought bravely to keep the evacuation ships safe. Remember – heroes come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and backgrounds. Don’t be fooled by Marvel and DC comics – there is no real Superman or Wonder Woman. They are not coming to rescue us. Rather it is up to normal people like you and me to be heroic when called upon.

David Bowie was right - we can all be heroes.
David Bowie was right – we can all be heroes, if just for one day.

We can fight another day

When WWII begins – the Nazis are prepared. No other country really is ready and it shows. Dunkirk is a pivotal point in the war. The French are defeated, and England evacuates in order to prepare for a potential invasion. British leadership is forced to make some really tough decisions. They are outmatched, and they know it. They need a new strategy. They decide to do something a little different than normal – they celebrate their retreat from Dunkirk. Normally in military operations, any retreat is seen as a loss and should not be celebrated. But, British leadership realizes that the evacuation allows them to fight another day, and fight they will. The movie ends with Winston Churchill’s stirring speech that finishes with “we will never surrender”. Anytime I hear this speech – it inspires me. Also, it reminds me that some days you will lose. In fact, you may need to retreat, regroup, refit, and prepare to fight another day. Notice that I did not say quit, but live to fight another day. It is a perfectly suitable strategy in some situations.

If you have not seen Dunkirk – I suggest that you do. Below is a link to the trailer for the film. Hopefully, you get a lot out of the film like I did.

How to spend the summer

We are in the middle of summer – the weather is hot, the days are long, and you do not have school. You have more free time than usual during the summer, so the question becomes what should you do with all this free time. When I was your age I did many things during the summer to include sports, travel, work, and spending time with friends. I recommend that you do something similar. Don’t waste the months sleeping late every morning, watching endless hours of Netflix, and texting back and forth with your friends. Instead, I recommend working hard, having fun, and doing some physical training.

Get a summer job

Working hard is an important habit to gain during your younger years. I am a big fan of getting a summer job. The work itself may not be exciting, but that is not really the point. The experience is what matters, and earning a little extra money is not a bad thing either. I worked several jobs during high school and college to include delivering pizza, helping out at the local movie theater, and cleaning up at a sheet metal plant. Each job was different and taught me new things. I developed the habit of showing up on time at work, learned the importance of interacting with customers, and how to get stuff done without having to be constantly monitored. This summer Gavin is working and learning many of these same lessons, and earning some money for college. Riley – you will start working next summer.

Gavin at the beach in Duck, our favorite town in the Outer Banks.
Gavin at the beach in Duck, our favorite town in the Outer Banks.

Have some fun

The summer should not be all work and no fun. You have extra time, so enjoy some of it. When I was your age I had the opportunity to go to Europe multiple times to see and experience a different part of the world. I met a lot of new people, experienced new things, and really expanded my perspective of the world. Luckily for both of you, I still enjoy traveling and already take you to Europe during the summer. I plan to continue taking you there each summer. Both of you have also been able to spend a lot of time in the Outer Banks at the beach. We have great memories from the many years we went to Duck. I encourage you to consider doing more of this as you get older, and the summer is one of the best time to go. Other things I enjoyed doing at your age during the summer was going to the movies, seeing the bands I liked in concert, visiting the beach, and hanging out with friends. I know that times have changed a lot, so I am not saying you should do the same things. Rather, make sure you enjoy your time off. Some of my best memories from my youth are from the summertime.

Riley at Heidelberg Castle, one of the cities we visited last summer.
Riley at Heidelberg Castle, one of the cities we visited last summer.

Get in shape

Summer months offer you an excellent opportunity to spend some time getting into shape. One excuse I use a lot when it comes to physical training is that I don’t have the time for it. That is not true for either of you this summer. You have plenty of time, so make it happen. The weather is perfect for getting out there for a swim, a bike ride, or a run. Going to the gym is another great option. I was on the local swim team at your age, so we would spend most weekends at swim meets which took a lot of time. As you know, I never pushed you to be a swimmer since neither one of you were very interested in the sport. But, that doesn’t mean that you should lay around the house doing nothing. Nowadays, I do some of my hardest training during the summer months. I recommend you do the same.

Trust me when I say that it is not likely that you will have more free time on your hands than you do right now. At my age, you get vacation days that you have to use wisely. With that in mind, I highly recommend you spend a little time thinking about how to spend your summer and make it happen. Fall will be here before you know it. When someone asks what you did over the summer, avoid having to answer, “nothing”. A better answer would be I earned some money working, went to Europe, and got in much better shape.

Summer nights and my radio
That’s all we need baby don’t you know
We celebrate when the the gang’s all here
Hot summer nights that’s my time of the year

– Van Halen

Lessons from the Tour de France

July is here and that means it is summer time. A major international sporting event that happens every July is the Tour de France. It is the most important bike race in the world, and it is brutal. It always has been. Basically, 200 bike riders race all over France until the winner is declared. This year the race includes 21 different stages that cover over 3500 kilometers. The graphic above shows even more statistics about the race. I like the Tour, and enjoy watching the race, even though cycling is generally boring. Just a bunch of bike riders peddling around the countryside. One of the reasons I enjoy the tour is that it teaches many lessons that you can apply in life. Here are three that come to mind.

Life is a team sport

Many people think that the Tour de France is an individual event due to the fact that there is a single winner. The overall winner is awarded the coveted yellow jersey. The reality is that every rider belongs to a team, and it takes a team to win. No single person will outperform everyone else. Instead, you need the help of your team whether it is drafting off them on the flats, or following behind them on the climbs. I think life is a team sport also. You will need help along the way, and be willing to help others. To go it alone would be a tragic mistake, and lead to misery. Life is tough. Don’t go it alone.

Teamwork is critical for success in the Tour de France.
Teamwork is critical for success in the Tour de France. No one wins without a strong team.

Keep peddling, especially in the mountains

The Tour is a really long race. Day after day the riders have to cover hundreds of miles. Some have compared riding the Tour de France to running a marathon every day for three weeks straight. Ouch. One of the things that make the Tour so difficult is the mountain stages. All the riders have to navigate up and over towering mountains to include rides in the Alps and the Pyrenees. I have driven a car over some of these mountains and they are really tall – up in the clouds. Some riders specialize in climbing, but these stages are tough for everyone. If you are a sprinter, the mountains are especially difficult, but they still have to ride over them. They are not allowed to skip these stages and wait for the next flat course. I have watched these stages for years, and I remain amazed that anyone can make it through the mountain stages.

Profile for a Tour de France Mountain Stage. This one includes three mountains.
Profile for a Tour de France Mountain Stage. This one includes three mountains.

I think there is a parallel in life in that we all will face tall mountains, obstacles that we have to get over. How do riders get over the mountains – they just keep peddling. They use different techniques, different gears, and different approaches to make it over. It is not always pretty. In fact, for many, it is rather ugly, but they make it. Sometimes we have to do the same thing in life – head down and just keep peddling. Don’t quit, keep moving forward, dealing with what life throws at you. The easy way out would be to quit. Many people do. But, I want to encourage you to keep peddling, even when it gets ugly. You will find joy after you reach the peak, and enjoy the ride down the back side of the mountain.

Play by the rules

It is well known that cycling has experienced many scandals over the years. The most famous is Lance Armstrong, who used to be a hero of mine. Lance “won” the Tour more times than any other rider, and became a sporting legend around the world. But, the reality is that all those victories are tainted. They were taken away because he cheated to win. He broke the rules repeatedly, lied about it, and was finally caught years later. He has been dealing with the shame of these revelations the past few years. Many years ago, I was a big Lance fan. I wore a live strong bracelet, read the books he wrote, and really enjoyed watching him ride. But all that admiration was based on a lie. Learn a critical lesson from Lance, and that is to play by the rules. No victory is worth breaking the rules, and cheating to win. In life, you will be tempted to cheat, to bend the rules in your favor. The reality is that many cheaters don’t get caught. Even so, don’t fall into this trap. It will take away the joy of victory, and you will always know what you did, even if others never find out.

For anyone not familiar with the Tour this video helps provide some context about why it is the most challenging bike race in the world.

Travel Journal – Lessons from French Culture

This summer we visited France, spending numerous days in Paris, Normandy, Brittany, and a few other locations. We saw a lot of great sites, and were able to experience numerous dimensions of French culture. Like almost every country in Europe, France has a unique culture. Well, it is just very French. I will not pretend to be an expert on French culture (I don’t even speak the language), but I have visited this beautiful country numerous times and have taken note of a few things I really like about French culture…and a few things that I would not emulate. Please note that I am not trying to stereotype an entire country’s culture based on my limited exposure. Rather I just want to note some things that you will remember from our recent journeys that I think can inform how we live our own lives. First, three things that I enjoy about French culture.

They enjoy a good meal

Let’s face it, the French know how to cook tasty food. As you can tell from my size, I do not have the most sophisticated palate, but I do eat like a King when I am in France. The list of French foods I enjoy is long, but not endless. I really enjoy croissants, croque monsieur, escargot (yes – the snails are delicious), baguettes with cheese (not the really stinky blue cheeses), onion soup, steak and mussels with fries, beef burgundy, andouillette, and crepes to name a few. Just typing that list makes me hungry. To be fair there are several dishes I don’t like such as liver pate, tartare dishes, or creme brulee. French food enjoys a good reputation worldwide, and it is well deserved.

Cafes are a great place to get French food at a reasonable price, especially in Paris.
Cafes are a great place to get French food at a reasonable price, especially in Paris.

They look good walking around

France, particularly Paris, is known for its fashion. You notice this walking around Paris and other cities. Simply put, I have seen few French dressed like slobs. You can tell that most people spent some time thinking about what they are going to wear before going out the door. We here in America tend to be much more casual than many countries. I am not saying that is a bad thing. Rather I am saying that it is probably worth investing some time and money into looking nice. I used to dress really casual all the time, but try to dress more appropriately these days. I don’t think you would ever witness a French person walking around in their pajamas, and I have seen more than one person in Reston Town Center who looked like they just rolled out of bed.

They appreciate art

We saw so much great art in France. Their museums are full of masterpieces. In fact, the Louvre has so much art that I would never attempt to see all of it during one visit. The Orsay has a wonderful collection of impressionist art. We visited Monet’s house in Giverny. The garden there was as beautiful as you would imagine. I see their appreciation for art spilling into the colors and designs they use in everyday life. I am not an artist (no talent at all), but I do notice how prevalent art is throughout French culture.

This video includes more lessons learned from our trip.

French faux pas

France is a great country, but not all is sunshine. There are a few things I will note that could use improvement in France. Some of these are obvious, so I will not elaborate in detail.

1. Many people still smoke. The negative effects of smoking cigarettes are well known, but I guess the French don’t care. I was surprised by how many people still light up cigarettes on a regular basis…to include with coffee over breakfast.

2. Many people are working less. The short work week is a reality, and many stores are closed during lunch hours. Trying not to judge, but it just seems like the French work ethic is much different than ours. Granted, Americans probably work too hard, but it is noticeable.

3. The dog poop. I know it sounds crazy, but there is dog poop all over the place in many cities. For those who have been to France, you know this is true. For others, it is probably shocking. It seems like no one invented the plastic bag to pick up dog poop in France. Pay attention when you are walking around, or else you may get an unpleasant surprise.

As always, I enjoy traveling and learning from other cultures. In case you are looking for a humorous perspective on French culture, check out the video below from a YouTube travel channel that I watch on occasion. Yes – he talks about the dog poop too.

Tips for Traveling – France

As you know one of my goals is to visit Europe on a regular basis. In fact, we have taken a vacation there the past three summers. This year we went to France. I thought it was a great trip. We saw a lot of great art, walked through awesome cathedrals, strolled through half-timbered houses, visited historic sites like the D-Day beaches, ate wonderful food, met new people, created memories, and learned a little about what it is like to be French. There are a few specific reasons I like to travel and enjoy showing you different parts of Europe. I think it is important to see other parts of the world. More importantly, you learn a lot while you travel. You learn things about yourself, about others, and how the world works. Below are three travel tips from our most recent trip to France. They are focused on the trip itself, not what we learned from the French while there…that will be in the next blog post.

We started our France adventure in Paris. A truly unique city.
We started our France adventure in Paris. A truly unique city.

Have a plan

Detailed planning helps make the trip go smoothly and creates lasting memories. Traveling is not easy. Things will go wrong. In order to avoid our vacations becoming a chaotic mess, I spend a lot of time planning the trip before we board the plane. You know this – you have seen the slides I create that describe the trip in detail. I know my approach is kind of geeky, but it seems to work really well for us. Some would argue that it is better to just “wing it” when it comes to travel. The idea is to show up without a plan, and just “make it up as you go along”. I am not a big fan of this approach, especially when you are traveling as a group like we were this year. I would rather invest the time researching and planning so that we make the most of the trip. The last thing I want to happen is for us to spend a few weeks in a country, shell out a lot of money, and not really enjoy it. To avoid this scenario I will map out the route, design an overall schedule, and a basic agenda for each day.

Don’t plan every minute

That does not mean that every minute of every day is planned in advance. Rather, I like having a basic structure so that we get to see what we want to see and get the most from each day at a pace that is comfortable. We always leave time on the schedule for unplanned excursions that arise during the trip. For example, this year we decided to drive down the Normandy coast rather than take the main highway. It was a beautiful drive full of amazing sites that we would have missed.

Do some research

Use the resources that are available to stay organized and avoid mishaps. There are a lot of great tools available nowadays to help you plan for travel – books, websites, blogs, videos, etc. For example, I use booking.com for our hotel reservations. This website allows me to search for hotel rooms at all the cities we will visit. It includes reader reviews, photos, and detailed descriptions. The site allows me to track all of our reservations in one location. I almost always book rooms with a free cancellation policy, because you never know when you plan will change and you need to cancel a room. I also use trip advisor for researching but rarely will book rooms through their site. There are several great websites like kayak and google flights to use when buying plane tickets. Let these sites do the searching and tracking of prices for you. It is amazing the price difference you may see in flight prices.

Staying longer to save money?

For example, this year we stayed an extra day because it was cheaper to pay another day for the hotel room than to fly on a Sunday back to the states. YouTube has a ton of travel-related content that is useful. I will watch numerous videos to extract tidbits of information about where we are going, what to see, and what to expect. Lastly, investing in a travel book is worth it. The reality is that a trip to Europe costs thousands of dollars, so it makes sense to spend the $30 on a good travel book about the area that we are visiting. As you know, I am a huge Rick Steves fan. His books, TV show, website, and videos have taught me a lot about travel and saved me a lot of grief while wandering around Europe. This year, we spent a lot less time waiting in long lines for tickets based insights gained from his France guidebook.

Jake, Jordan, and Riley in the Versailles Garden. It is huge and full of fountains.
Jake, Jordan, and Riley in the Versailles Garden. It is huge and full of fountains.

Don’t be an ugly American

Live like a local when you can. One of Rick Steve’s mantras is to try to live like a local while you travel so that you actually experience the culture. It is easy to stay in comfortable hotels away from the action. Many enjoy this type of travel. I prefer to see what life is like for the locals. It is much more interesting than being holed up in a fancy hotel built for foreign travelers. For example, based on Rick’s recommendation, we actually stayed at Mont St. Michel for one night. Sure – it was expensive, but it was worth it. I knew that we should arrive late in the day as the day trippers were leaving so that we could experience this unique site without hoards of tourists around us. We did, and have many awesome pictures to prove it.

Live in a neighborhood

Another good decision we made was to spend multiple days in the Rue Cler neighborhood in Paris. We stayed in a funky modern hotel and were able to see how the locals live in this pedestrian zone part of the city. Each day we ate breakfast at the local bakery where locals sip their coffee while eating a croissant, chatting with their neighbors about current events, and smoking cigarettes. As you learned the French still smoke a lot. At night we ate and drink in one of the local cafes watching Parisian life pass right in front of our eyes. I felt like we learned a little about what it is like to actually live in Paris – one of the greatest cities in the world. For anyone considering visiting Paris, this video gives more insights about staying near Rue Cler. BTW – the best croissant I have ever eaten came from the bakery on this street. It was dripping with butter and goodness.