“Pass the Portmanteau” (Or, Trying Something New This Thanksgiving)

Confused by the title? A little scared? Good, that helps with the digestive process, or so I’m told. But don’t worry, purgation is sure to follow.

Given that today is Thanksgiving, you can probably guess my topic: Thankfulness.

I got to thinking about this topic due to a long time, recurring concern that I never really take meaningful time, during the big family meal on Thanksgiving Day, to talk about what I’m thankful. For example, if you were to sit down by me around the table and ask “What are you thankful for?”, I’d probably fumble and fidget around and then give you some stock, droll answer about “salvation” and “freedom.” Mind you, I don’t consider either salvation or freedom to be “droll.” If anything, I’m trying to highlight what is surely my failure to treat them other than as quick, throwaway responses. Furthermore, at the risk of painting them in your mind as bad, selfish people, I’ll tell you that my family, and my parents in particular, have raised me to think, speak, and act in ways that demonstrate an attitude of thankfulness. So, you could say, “Thanksgiving is just a day, stop being so hard on yourself.” Maybe you’re right. Still, the feeling persists, and I want to do something about it, and this post is an attempt to get at that “thing” in both immediate and habit-forming ways.

First, let’s start by defining our terms. You may have noticed that I only used the term “thankful,” or a variation of it, in the last paragraph, when I could have substituted “gratitude” or “appreciation” more or less appropriately. They’re close enough in everyday usage to merit some inclusion to see if they really do mean the same thing, or if any attempt on my part to distinguish between them is just my creating distinctions without differences. Because I know you will do this anyway, I will go ahead and quote you “chapter and verse,” the definitions of each word from Webster’s Dictionary. In alphabetical order, they are:

Appreciation:

  1. a feeling of being grateful for something
  2. an ability to understand the worth, quality, or importance of something

Gratitude:

  1. the state of being grateful
    1. Webster’s defines “grateful” as being “appreciative of benefits received” or “affording pleasure or contentment” and “please by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort relieved
  2. Thankfulness

Thankfulness:

  1. conscious of benefit received
  2. expressive of thanks
    1. Webster’s defines “thanks” as “kindly or grateful thoughts” and “an expression of gratitude”

To be honest, I’m left almost more confused by the circular references, so in order to gain some clarity I’m going to arrange these words according to how I use them and in a way that makes sense to me. If you don’t like it, then go write your own article on thankfulness. (Or is it gratitude?)

I want us to picture these three terms not as being used interchangeably, but in a kind of ascending order, like a pyramid, starting at the bottom with Appreciation, moving up toward Thankfulness, and then finally reaching Gratitude.

Appreciation is, I think, largely an emotional state, a feeling. It’s that “warm fuzzy” you get when someone does something nice for you, usually just a small act of kindness. Or maybe it is not an action performed, perhaps it is the way the sun shines through your window in the morning. You can appreciate that. It’s not meaningless, but also that’s about as far as it needs to go.

Thankfulness is a level above that. You’ve gone from a feeling to some mental engagement. You’re conscious as to why that action or that experience made you feel appreciative, and you can think how you might be less better off had that thing not been given to you or happened to you.

Gratitude is, to me, the highest expression of this idea. I think our usage of the word validates this. For example, we say things like “I [do this] to demonstrate my gratitude…” After feeling, and then thinking, we’ve got to act. It could, depending upon what the situation merits, just be a verbal expression of gratitude. (Yes, we do “say thank you.” This is not an airtight argument, I’m fully aware.) But I do think that, beyond just words, true gratitude must change your behavior in some way. If it’s that important to get to that level, it should change your life, even in a small way.

Going back to the pyramid: one layer is built upon another. The lowest, largest, and probably most frequent experience, is of Appreciation. The next level up, on the foundation and feeling of appreciation, is Thankfulness. It’s smaller, not necessarily because we have less to be thankful for, but that we only have so much mental resource to devote to thankfulness in the way I’m defining it. It’s a process of choosing, and not an easy one. Finally, the pinnacle of the pyramid is Gratitude. It requires both previous levels in order to reach it, and it is by definition the smallest area in the diagram. Not everything in your life can be life-changing. If everything is, then nothing is.

Now that you’ve got a visual, I want you to do something else with it. Let it go. Or at very least don’t get too attached too it. Why? It could suggest – to an extent I do not intend – that Gratitude is a process, that you must first Appreciate, then be Thankful, in order to finally be truly Grateful. Emotion, then Reason, then Action. That is far too linear. I much prefer a holistic view of the idea of gratitude, where the lines are, not blurred, but blended. It’s an integrated approach. It’s being…

Integrateful.

Yep, there it is. I’m pretty sure I can hear you all exhaling. (Did you even know you were holding your breath??) Ingrateful is a portmanteau, in case you’re just joining us or trying to catch up. It’s a blending of two words to make a new one, and something that I try to do as often as possible, much to the chagrin of my friends. (It’s not cathartic sighs of relief I hear from them. It’s their complete lack of surprise at what I’ve done here that is, indeed, deafening.)

But seriously, I chose that “word” for some specific reasons. First, it worked linguistically – I mean, it kind of works, right? You could maybe say it. My only other real choice was “thinkfulness,” but that seemed too easy. Second, as I outlined earlier, I think that Gratitude is the highest expression of this idea, and therefore the most appropriate choice for inclusion. It was at the top of the pyramid for a reason. (Full disclosure: if you Google “integrateful,” you will find a designer on Etsy who goes by that name, but I really and truly came up with this term independent of such search. Just let me have this one, ok?)

Now, why practice being Integrateful? And what does it have to do with our larger theme and purpose in this blog, the Conditions of Success?

I hope that there is not great need to make the case for why appreciation/thankfulness/gratitude is so important to a good and happy life, and to being successful. (I’m only going to use “integrateful” only sparingly from here on out. I don’t want to try your patience, and I’ve had enough Portmanteau. Got to drive home, after all.)

Here are two good reasons to practice gratitude:

First, if you are a Christian, you kind of don’t have a choice. The concepts of grace and gratitude are directly related. John Piper does a great job explaining the relation of the two words in a very old sermon, now available on his DesiringGod.org site. (Unsurprisingly, the article was posted on Thanksgiving!) The sermon is an exegesis on 2 Corinthians 4:15, in which Paul says, “It is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

Piper shares the following:

“Almost all English translations miss a beautiful opportunity to preserve in English a play on words that occurs in Paul’s Greek. Paul says, “It is all for your sake, so that as charis extends to more and more people it may increase eucharistian to the glory of God.” The Greek word for thanks is built on the word for grace: charis becomes eucharistian. This could have been preserved in English by the use of ‘grace’ and ‘gratitude’ which show the same original root. So I would translate: “It is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase gratitude to the glory of God.” The reason this is important is because when we try to define thanks or gratitude, what we find is that it has a very close relationship to grace. Unless we see this relationship, we really don’t know what gratitude is.”

I have nothing I could possibly add to that, other than that you can, and should, read the rest of the sermon here: http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/grace-gratitude-and-the-glory-of-god

Second, Wikipedia (in its entry on Gratitude) tells me that the study of how feelings and actions of gratitude and thankfulness relate to human happiness has been emerging in the field of psychology since the early 2000s. I’m inclined to take their word for it. It stands to reason, to me, that thanking people and showing gratitude is a good thing – both for the grantor and the receiver. It’s the old “the more you give the more you get” mindset. This term Integrateful is intended to communicate just such a virtuous circle – the emotion creates the environment for thinking which spurs action…and on and on and on. One feeds the other until you no longer can – nor need to – distinguish between and among them.

The connection to Success I want to draw is maybe a bit tenuous, at least theologically, I freely admit, but here it is: I don’t think God rewards ungrateful people. He may choose, for reasons we can never fully comprehend, to NOT punish some people who act that way. But there’s nothing to suggest that being an unappreciative jerk is grounds for blessing. What should be easier to agree with is that we as human beings have limited patience for people who consistently demonstrate a lack of appreciation, thankfulness, and gratitude. For me, I guess it just comes down to this: if you practice gratitude, including in some of the ways I’m about to describe, then I think you’re creating Conditions of Success for yourself. I believe God will reward your efforts, people can largely overlook mistakes and faults, and you will find opportunities for living a happy, successful, and even more grateful life.

To conclude our time together, I’ll share with you some things that I am going to do starting today, and going forward, to practice gratitude and make it a habit in my own life. I encourage all 4 of you reading (I must have gained a reader since last time) to do the same.

  1. Over your Thanksgiving meal, with friends, family, whoever is in attendance, talk about how each of you understands and uses the words Appreciation, Thankfulness, and Gratitude. If you like, you can spend several minutes having a laugh at my expense about “Integrateful.” Then, go around the table and share what you’re thankful for. Sound hokey? Well, have you ever done it? IAt least as far as memory serves me, this will be a first for me and my family. I think it’s going to be a great thing.
  2. Something I’m going to do for the 3 weeks leading up to Christmas: a 21 day No Complaints challenge. There’s probably a bunch of variations to this that you’ve heard about, but I first learned of this from one of Tim Ferriss’ podcasts. I found this overview (with links) on his site. See here: http://fourhourworkweek.com/2007/09/18/real-mind-control-the-21-day-no-complaint-experiment/ (Note: there are a few expletives in the article, thought I would give you a heads up in case you don’t like that.)
  3. Incorporate Gratitude into your morning routine. Try GEBY, which stands for Gratitude, Exercise, Breakfast, and You. I got that from James Altucher’s podcast, an interview with entrepreneur and investor Noah Kagan about his experience losing out on a lot of money in the Facebook IPO. Cool story, which you can listen to here: http://askaltucher.com/noah/. (Similar warning: there’s a good bit of language there. If you don’t like hearing it, then I suggest you do not listen.) Whether or not you choose to incorporate the EBY parts into your daily preparation, or not, taking time each morning to list out a few things, big and small, that you’re grateful for TAKES WORK. Seriously, I’ve been trying this exercise for a few months, with a fair amount of consistency, and I can tell you that it’s tougher to do than you think. I have so much to be thankful for, but to sit down, calm your mind, and focus on this takes practice. Try it as part of your devotional and prayer time, and, if possible, ask someone to keep you accountable to doing this.
  4. Tithing. You gotta do it. It is a command to those of us who are believers in Christ. I will tell you that I’m pretty consistent with this – giving 10% of my net income to the Church or another faith based activity/group – but I do skip out. Purposely. Lately, having just bought a house, I’ve been trying to rebuild the savings fund as well as buy some new things for my place, and that money that I should be tithing ends up going there. That’s not right. Tithing is a demonstration of gratitude and faith, and is essential to a successful life as a Christian man or woman.
  5. Time tithing. This is a new one to me, but maybe it is not to you. I’m going to try it. As with tithing your money, there’s some debate with whether you base this on your “net” or “gross” free time (whatever that means I’m not sure), but here’s how my calculation breaks down: let’s assume each of us has 6 to 10 PM each weekday as “free” time – it’s after work and before bed. 4 hours per day times 5 weekdays is 20 hours. Add to that 8 each on Saturday and Sunday (since you’re not working) and that equals 36 total hours. 10% of that is 3.6, rounding up to 4. Just to make this simple, let’s call it 3 or 4 hours per week. Can I do that and will I do that? Give 3 or 4 hours of my precious free time to God? I’m going to try, and I’m asking you all to ask me how I’m doing with this in the coming weeks and months. What about you?

This is starting to get serious, huh? I mean, I’ve written 4 blog posts, which at least equals the most time and efforts I’ve ever dedicated to a writing project like this. And now I’m asking myself and you all to start taking action with me, to doing things that I think will radically change our lives if we commit to them, helping us not only understand success (finally!) but also being prepared for it.

More soon…

-Fred

Let’s Get Down to Busy-ness…

Last week I became fully aware of something: I’m busy all the time. My schedule is full, every day and every night, with personal and professional obligations. So, I did what any unmarried man in his late twenties would (and should) do upon such a realization: I promptly called my mom to talk to her about it.

Now, I’m of the mind that this is a good problem to have: barely one year into a new life in a new place, and I’m very much not bored.

In an effort to better understand what this newfound “busy-ness” means, I’m trying to think of it in context of our topic here, the conditions of success. Right now, I think it is both a condition and a product of success. I’m blessed by God with new opportunities, which I try to make the most of, and that I believe creates a kind of virtuous circle. You could call it a network effect, or “escape velocity,” or even “critical mass,” if you prefer.

You can look at it as having a downside as well, in terms of opportunity cost. You have to give up the potential benefit of one thing in order to pursue another. That’s like anything in life, which is itself a series of trade-offs. The busier you are and the more in-demand your time is, the greater the stakes – both good and bad, generally speaking.

This leads me to asking myself: Am I spending my time in the right ways? Do I need to budget my time better?

(insert record squeak) Hold up. Do you see what’s going on there?

Thanks, Timmy. But we’re all at fault here.

Something is not quite right, I think, with the vocabulary we use to talk about time. It’s all economic-icky and financial-ey. “Time is money,” we say, and to a certain extent that is true. And while I have yet to offer a coherent definition of what I believe success IS, I’m so far convinced that it is not, solely, determined by wealth.

Rather than than talking about ways to budget and manage my time, I want to get out of the weeds and take a philosophical flight back in time in order to get a little perspective.

So, class, let’s turn to Book Four, Chapter One of the Nicomachean Ethics, where Aristotle discusses the Generosity, the virtue dealing with money. It is, he says, the mean condition (think “golden mean”) between stinginess, a deficiency, and wastefulness, an excess.

And though I know you’ve got your copy out in front of you, I’ll quote a few selective passage to give you a sense of what he says:

  • “Actions in accord with virtue are beautiful…; the generous person, then, will give for the sake of the beautiful, and in the right way[.]”
  • “But generosity is meant in relation to one’s means, for the generosity is not in the amount of what is given, but in the active condition of the giver, and this depends on one’s means.”
  • “[K]eeping precise accounts is chintzy.” (Ok, full disclosure, this quote is actually from the next chapter, where Aristotle discusses the virtue of Magnificence, but I still think this holds up because the subject matter is really the same, only the order of magnitude differs.)

Now, I’ve shared all of this good ol’ (literally) thinking with you because, as we’ve established, we are in the habit of talking about time in terms of money, and I think we can apply these ideas to our schedules.

We should be generous with our money AND our time, which, as we’ve just read, means that we should be using both in proportion to our means. For me, that’s one thing. To you, all 2 or 3 of you reading, this may be quite different, especially if you are a husband/wife and/or mother/father. We have certain obligations in common, and others unique to us. But all can be directed – not just managed – by this same virtue, generosity.

To be perfectly clear, it does not mean that we have full leeway to shrug off doing what we know we must because “we don’t live by a strict schedule. “ That’s dumb. A proper practice of generosity with one’s time requires quite a lot from us, doing the right thing, in the right way, in and for the right time.

Our time is not just valuable, then; it’s beautiful. Or, rather, we should act in ways that make it so.

More soon…

-Fred

“Marathon in the Garden of Good and Evil”

This past weekend I ran my first marathon. (Okay, truth be told I ran a half-marathon, but let’s not get bogged down in details here.) As the name of this post may suggest to you, it was held in the beautiful old-world town of Savannah, Georgia. Call me Cusack, but she really charmed me.

Midnight Garden 1

While walking through town on Saturday afternoon (yes, I could walk after the race…), and then on Sunday on the long drive home to Atlanta, I got to thinking about how the experience of running a (half) marathon relates to the conditions of success. I’m pretty sure that I’ve arrived to two nuggets of truth about success generally, and the conditions surrounding it that we choose to accept or to reject in our lives. This is still pretty rough, but I’m going to give it my best. Here goes…

First, distance running is like a tangible intersection of preparation and Providence, those two principles (alliteration, for the win!) we’re demanding that you accept as a prerequisite to reading this blog.

Preparation, in this case, is training. Almost anyone can go out and “run” a mile. Maybe even a 5K. Little if any training would be required. Run, walk, crawl, roll, whatever, you could probably get it done with only minimal short term injury, such as chafing. Anything above that distance, and you can forget about it. You’ve got to put in some time and miles to complete, and even more to compete. (See what I did there?)

How does it relate to Providence? Well, we all have a physical nature – genetics, biology, whatever you want to call it, I believe it was granted to each of us by God. We all know what distance runners tend to look like. People like that have natural physical advantages in distance running, which also reinforces and is turn reinforced by training and preparation. (Sidenote: you couldn’t swing the ghost of dead cat – and there are many of them in Savannah – without knocking over an ectomorph this past weekend.)

It’s when you bring these two things together that you get someone who is really successful at running marathons. It takes both. I think this idea generally holds up in any situation, including non-physical activities. Individuals have natures and proclivities toward certain things, and when they apply their time and efforts toward that skill, they tend to be very successful at that thing. It’s important to remember that there’s a negative aspect to that as well, as we all have tendencies toward certain vices that can be encouraged, often unintentionally.

One final thing before moving on…remember that “tension” that Brandon wrote about in his post? (“At the intersection of God’s power and our ability we find a tension.”) Well, that tension is palpable in distance running: it’s called lactic acid.

My second point is this: long distance running can help us define success, if only by helping us understand what it is not. I do not think running, like success in general, is a zero-sum game, as in some 18th century theory of mercantilism. If I win, you lose. And vice versa. If your “piece of the pie” gets bigger, mine shrinks.

My reason for saying this is that the vast majority (I’d go as far as to say 99%) of runners in a given marathon field are not competing to be the absolute winner of the race. The question asked one to another prior to the starting gun is “What’s your PR?” (PR being “personal record.”). Because you’re (usually) not running to win the race; you’re running to beat yourself. And that’s a working definition of success, both here and elsewhere in life.(1)

It’s possible, in this case, for every single person in a field of tens of thousands of runner to be successful, though not necessarily winners, at least in the narrowly defined sense of the term.(2)

Success is found in recognizing, and cultivating, those places in your life where preparation and Providence meet. Both the recognition and the cultivation are essential to a full understanding of the depth and breadth of your potential happiness as a human being. We’re going to get into this more, I promise, but right now I’m at the intersection of lack of a lack of sleep and over-thinking all of this.

More soon…

-Fred

Footnotes:

(1) Think about the world record marathon time: it’s a measurement of excellence used to evaluate your own performance. If it didn’t exist, how would you know that your time is “good” or not? Or, if you want to kick this up a notch, there’s always Jesus Christ to consider, with Him as the foremost example of the standard of perfection against which to evaluate ourselves morally. As Christians we don’t believe we can ever attain that, but we should be trying anyway.

(2) I hope this goes without saying, but in case it does not, I in no way want to undermine the idea of having “winners” and “losers,” particularly in the areas of athletic competition.

Don’t Be Alarmed

I was lying in bed this afternoon… just kidding… this morning and fighting off that first alarm. It was a real doozy too. Super loud. When my head hit the pillow after I finally won the battle by hitting snooze (that alarm clock has no chance against my determination to sleep), the name of our new blog popped in to my head.

It might be a little deep for the early morning, but I started thinking of everything I’ve learned over the last few years. Some of you reading this will know that I went through a very painful divorce as I approached the ripe old age of 30, and that I made the decision long ago to learn everything I could about myself instead of wishing or pretending it didn’t happen.

I found, through the recovery process, that I was often paralyzed by fear. I hid behind my insecurities. I missed the true relational depth that comes from courage. I also learned that true humility comes from courage, and that attempting to build a wall between myself and pain only intensified the pain.

At the intersection of God’s power and our ability we find a tension. God wants healthy marriages for us, but we have responsibilities that are tied to that health. The same is true in everything we do. God may want something for us, but we must choose our own steps too.

God put this world in to motion with a curious set of rules. The prudent path (Aristotle’s definition, not our cultural definition) to success is almost always clear. The results? Those are never guaranteed.

The fact that we can work hard at something and fail keeps most of us paralyzed. So what can help us overcome that icy feeling of helplessness? Lamentations 3:21-30 and Proverbs 6:6-11 both set up the expectation that we should work hard AND trust in God.

I know that God will supply ALL of my needs. I also know, or can learn, the prudent path. So why not step out in faith? I am not guaranteed safety, but if I fail I’m assured of provision beyond what I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). If I succeed, I’m also assured of provision beyond what I can ask or imagine.

Sometimes it’s fear that holds me back, sometimes it’s laziness, but that’s really fear too. Courage is the thing I need, and 2 Timothy 1:7 tells me I’ve already been given that by God.

I’m getting married this spring. It’s going to be different this time, because I learned so much from the last time. I know that I dropped the ball on some big things in my last marriage, and I am determined to be more courageous; which means more intentional, and more available than I was before.

It’s going to be a battle every day, but if my daily defeat of the alarm is any indication, we shouldn’t have any problems. – Brandon

What Does a Success Smoothie Taste Like?

We all want to be in control, right? To know that our hard work, our effort, is what makes or breaks us in life?

Winston Churchill, who knew a thing or two about success and failure, said “It is never possible to guarantee success; it is only possible to deserve it.” I like that, and I want to believe it.

But what happens when “fate” intervenes, when God in his Providence decides to strike you down – or build you up – and that notion of control, of human agency, shatters?

At the end of the book that bears his name, in chapter 42, all Job can do is bow in the dirt before God and say “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”

Then, later in Scripture, the apostle Paul tells us: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Put all of that in a bottle, blend it, pour it in a glass, and you end up with a big grey blob that you spend a lot of time trying to choke down because it’s healthy for you.

What you’re reading here is my first “formal” attempt to digest it.

The best I can do right now is this:

I believe that Providence and our own preparation meet every single day, requiring that we acknowledge God’s as Creator and Ruler of our lives while taking responsibility for our actions within the circumstances He creates for us.

I have serious doubts about my ability to unpack that in a way that’s both helpful to me and interesting to you, whoever “you” are that’s reading this. But I’m going to try.

I’ve asked two friends, Brandon and Kyle, to join me in this work. By and large you should find us united on the important principles, and having more than a little variance on how that all works out each day in our individual lives.

It’s going to get personal, at least for me. I can’t say the same for what Brandon and Kyle are going to contribute, but I’m more than pretty sure that, taken together and looking it at it over a long arc, it will be both fun and useful for us all.

Call me a “grateful go-getter.” I hope that made you laugh. You can choose whatever words you like to describe it, but if you’re reading this in a serious way, you’re doing so because you want to be your best personally and professionally while never forgetting that God is the Ultimate Source of any effort we can put forth.

I would wish us both luck, but luck’s got nothing to do with it, right?

More soon…

-Fred