Keeping It Civil

Woven through Harvard’s Justice Course is Professor Sandel’s view on the best way to handle civil discourse. We can use Sandel’s tips to make ourselves more effective and remain clear headed in potential conflict situations. I’ve been trying to make his tips a habit for how I deal with my kids.

The first thing that I noticed was, aside from ripping a supreme court justice by name, Sandel makes his arguments using the words of others. He’s not seeking credit for a point of view. This gives him space to change his mind in light of new information. Across the course, one senses his opinion but, on a wide range of issues, we never really know.

Being able to change direction is valuable because we suffer from Consistency Bias – a desire to stay-the-course based on previously held positions. There’s also tremendous social pressure to avoid change. Collectively, we find something comforting about a refusal to change.

Next Sandel, acknowledges that there are some issues (abortion, gun control, same-sex marriage) that are unlikely to resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. With these issues, especially, Sandel advises that we search for an agreement that enables people to retain their deeply held convictions, while respecting individual rights and freedoms. 

A question to consider: “Can I make my point in a way that enables you to retain your existing position?” 

Consider doping: I can write that it is a question of honor; or I can list cheaters while complaining that they broke the rules. The first method is an appeal to a universal sense of justice. The second method is arguing my self-interest. Between the two methods, it is clear which argument is more persuasive, especially if the agreement of the cheaters is necessary to implement change.

Making a point as a general argument of virtue is more powerful than getting bogged down in accusations against individuals. This method leaves a wider path to forgiveness, resolution and reconciliation. The toughest ethical debates, and decisions, that we make happen with friends, lovers and family. Leaving the door open (both ways) is in everyone’s long-term interest.

I also noticed that Sandel would reach consensus on a general principle, then shift laterally to the contentious issue and see if existing views are consistent with the general principle.

Then Discuss.

Then Reconsider.

Then Repeat. 

This classical method of debate has nearly disappeared from our society. Most of us, lack role models to teach us how to implement it. At University, I learned debate technique from CNN’s Crossfire – if the guys weren’t arguing over each other then we thought it was boring! Needless to say, my technique failed with my first real-world encounter with senior management.

Other questions that I have been asking myself:

Of all the above, make points generally, has been the most useful. It even works with upset four-year olds!


Mortality and Mental Clutter

Found out that Posterous are shutting down so I’m going to blow out my drafts folder and transition to Everything on this site should migrate and I’ll let you know when I make the shift.


Today’s article comes from a conversation with a friend that found a lot of noise in their head after the death of a parent.

When I turned 40, I asked myself, “Am I ready to die?” There were some areas where the answer was “no” and I addressed those over the last few years. Today’s article is about coping with mortality-related noise, rather than the changes I made in my own life. 


With the noise in my life, I split it between optional and essential.

Optional is stuff lIke chat forums, tv, media, Facebook, Twitter, traffic, stressed out people… I ditched as much of that as possible over the last ten years. I have to constantly trim noise sources. My life with kids has narrowed, but deepened.

Essential noise, for me, is kids. They’re going to be loud regardless and my capacity to cope requires me to have far less noise in every other aspect of my life. Avoid kids with a spouse that has weak mental health. The children will overwhelm your marriage. When it comes to mental health, I’m the weaker link in our marriage.

As an athlete, I found that exercise-induced fatigue is a form of noise that can turn enjoyable aspects of parenting into misery. This realization required an uncommon level of honesty with myself. Athletic parents rarely admit the link between training fatigue and parental misery.  

To cope with my ‘essential’ noise, I started to sit. With my meditation, I sit and breathe. No agenda, no desire to progress, no desire to do more… Very different from how I approach other things. The game is to let my thoughts settle. See my thoughts on Learning To Sit.

A parent’s death makes our own mortality real. To cope with my mortality, I’ve spent time (before my parents have died) considering death – as a natural process, it’s inevitable nature, how it relates to life, the nature of dependant arising, and it’s ability to provide a test of courage. I’ve been building a resolve to “die well” and have found that frees me to “live well.”

In life, I’ve taken steps so that I could die, tomorrow, knowing that I acted to the best of my ability and left everyone close to me better off. I still have a decent sized “to do” list but I’ve done enough, and acted in such a way, that I could pass without regret.

Simple ways to trim noise from a modern life:

  • Push notifications – remove them all, especially email
  • Up-tempo music – I use music sparingly
  • Peers with cluttered minds – noisy people don’t need to be talking to me – often it’s easier to avoid people than address the true trigger that is inside me
  • Traffic – for some reason, my concept of personal space extends around my vehicle – every time I drive “on peak” I regret it
  • Areas of high population density – city people act like city people because they live in cities
  • Telephone – turn it off, use airplane mode or leave it at home – even carrying my phone creates constant distractions/noise as my mind creates things I “must” do

If you care enough then change. If you don’t care enough to change then let it go.


Learning To Sit

When Lex turned three, we got to the point where we started asking ourselves when would be an appropriate time to start beating her. Of course we didn’t say it that way… but the nature of the conversation was clear to me.

I didn’t want to teach my daughter to accept physical intimidation from men – so I needed to find another way.

I’m glad I looked around.


Today’s conversation was with a physician that deals with life and death, daily.


The best book I’ve read on meditation is The Miracle of Mindfulness:

High performers will tend to overthink it – what works for me is sit comfortably and breathe – when I need to get centered then I count breaths… here’s the mantra…

1 breathing in, 1 breathing out

2 breathing in, 2 breathing out

3 breathing in, 3 breathing out

10 breathing in, 10 breathing out

I don’t go past 10 in one set. Then I chill a bit. Then I repeat another set of 10 breaths. It can be surprisingly difficult to get to 10 breaths without being distracted! That’s OK – start again.

The first step is learning to settle. That one aspect of mediation is enough. They tell me that there is more. I might get there, I might not.

Resist the urge to progress or go longer (this is very difficult).

After a few months of daily practice, you might find that you have the ability to focus on a topic and see more clearly. I’m only at this stage occasionally. What I’m mostly doing is learning not to hold onto situations, or seek to impose my desired outcome on a situation, or person.

If you are dealing with death, pain, anger, trauma… the first phase will help you release that, rather than retaining it inside to be released into your family. 

In addition to your service as a physician, you do a great service to your community by releasing the suffering around you without transmitting it to others. I think that’s what eastern philosophy means when they refer to “burning karma.” Strong emotions have to be released, or we will transmit them as part of our legacy.


This book explains meditation through the eyes of an athlete

I read the first part when I started meditating and read the second part when I felt that I had a basic understanding of Phase One. I haven’t finished the book as I don’t think I know enough about meditation, yet, to understand part three and beyond.

Ten minutes a day, as many days as you can. Commit to 30 days. You’ll notice a difference. After the 30 days, you’ll notice a clear difference in mood if you skip a few days. I’ve started AM/PM sessions and it’s helping. Of course, dropping most sources of news (other than The Onion) might also be helping to clear my mind.

Mediation gave me an awareness that I was filling myself with noise that had nothing to do with the key decisions of my life.


Working In Corrupt Societies

Two weeks ago I shared a list of questions that I’ve used consciously, and unconsciously, to make decisions when my surroundings didn’t make sense anymore.

Until I turned 30, corruption was something that happened to other people. Looking back, either I was the problem, or I was far too self-absorbed to take a look around. Probably a mix of both.


Cycling (today) is providing a case study of what happens when multi-generational corruption comes into the public domain.

We are reading frequent insider references to cycling being a corrupt society (Hamilton, Millar, Vaughters). Against this background, it is useful to remember that most elite athletes are good people. Within my own circle, I don’t know any evil cheaters – they are simply cheaters. 

How do good people create, sustain and cope with life in a corrupt society? Deciding that there isn’t a problem (triathlon) is one way. Another way to cope is to become part of a “solution.” Activists working to change a corrupt society are given a pass because we balance their good deeds against their continued participation in corruption. I’d point out that anyone cashing a check at the top of cycling is part of that society. Best to be honest with one’s self.

With truly good people, their goodness will drive them from corruption. Reading the cycling autobiographies, I was struck by how the lying drains the joy from cyclists’ hearts.

I don’t blame others for taking the money. As a young man, I had my price.

When I have set my price (via wins, money or recognition), I knew it was time to leave.


The Memory Game

For my university application, I needed to order an official transcript via McGill’s online system. The ordering process gave me an opportunity to play a memory game. Many of us think we remember things that happened in our past but we rarely get the chance to test ourselves.

I have an unofficial transcript that I’ve hung onto for the last 20+ years. My unofficial version has:

  • the course number
  • the year I took the class
  • the total credits for the class
  • the grade that I received

When I was ordering my official transcript, the online system let me review my detailed records. The game was to match my actual classes to what I thought I had taken in school. I managed a hit rate of 1-in-4. Some of the courses, I couldn’t even remember the course name, let alone the material! That got me thinking…

Now that I have three kids, people share childhood stories with me. I also have friends that share traumas of their school years. Going further, my wife warns me to be careful lest I give our kids “issues.”

My recent memory game casts doubt on things having unfolded the way I remember. I’m guessing that there’s only a 5-10% chance that old memories happened the way I recall. Perhaps you do better with your memories? You probably think you do but it might be worth taking a test. Perhaps by asking your siblings what they think happened.

Even if the memory happened, do the players in our historical dramas still exist? In my life, I’m a far different person than the younger self that experienced past traumas. For my generation, many of the players in our past traumas are starting to die.

This isn’t to undermine anyone’s pain, but be careful if you find that victimhood becomes an essential part of identity.

Rather, in seeking to deal with pain, we can achieve a level of freedom by understanding that we’re carrying ghosts and see the role of our mind in continuing the pain.

…of a memory that might not have happened

…of a person that no longer exists

Admission Essay on Goals and Aspirations

Briefly discuss how your family, school, neighborhood, and background have impacted your educational goals and aspirations. 

Since graduating from McGill University in 1990, I have pursued overlapping careers in finance, business and elite athletics. Working in these fields, I’ve seen ethical compromises made in the name of “success.” I’ve seen how different societies are structured so that good people can create unjust results.

The pivotal events in my life involved a choice when faced with deeply embedded corruption. Rather than fight, my choice has been to change direction and find a new community. I’ve left a marriage, a private-equity firm, a friendship and a sport to remain true to my personal ethics. These decisions have caused short-term pain but generated long-term satisfaction.

Over the last year, I’ve looked deeply and considered the most honorable people in my life. This circle of friends, and mentors, is dominated by doctors. The most honorable acts that I’ve witnessed have been doctors helping strangers. I’m aware of the ethical dilemmas due to Big Pharma, reimbursement incentives and liability avoidance. Notwithstanding these challenges, the most compassionate people in my life are physicians.

Coming out of high school in 1986, science was the road not taken. Influenced by my times, I enrolled in a business program and pursed personal profit. I enjoyed success, while learning that the pursuit of money lacks deeper meaning. 

My goal is to discover if an aptitude remains for a career in medicine. My aspiration is to combine my business background with medical knowledge and improve the delivery of healthcare in the State of Colorado.


Admissions Essay On Diversity

I’m applying to head back to school in the Fall of 2013. They asked for 500 words on diversity.


Growing up in Canada, I was exposed to prejudice against the french-speaking Quebecois. Notwithstanding this prejudice, I decided to attend McGill University, an English school in the middle of a French city. At McGill, I worked closely with Quebecois students. I was 21 when I graduated and began to notice that my friends didn’t align with my prejudices.

My next move was to the United Kingdom. I worked in the most diverse group of finance professionals in the City of London. There were six partners, one executive and myself. In the 90s, Private Equity was dominated by white men with accounting backgrounds. My boss, Jon Moulton, fit the profile of our peers, a 40-something accountant. However, he valued diversity and built a team that contained the only female partners in our sector. In addition to the Brits, the team was composed of a Singaporean, an American and myself, a Canadian.

My two-month internship was extended twice and I deferred Business School. At 25, I was given the opportunity to become a partner in the firm via a transfer to Asia. I still hadn’t put the pieces together on the role of diversity in my life. 

In 1993, I moved to Hong Kong and joined another unique team. Based in China, half the partners were Indian. We were responsible for a large geography and I worked in Australia, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and India.

By the late-90s, I noticed that the prejudices, that I first heard as a child, had followed me around the world. Marked by language, skin color, investment sector and nationality, tribal rivalries endured. As an English-speaking white-man from Canada, I passed through these communities. I was never an insider but I was tolerated and exposed to what the locals really thought.

Sitting here today, at 44 years old, I’ve learned what my first boss, Jon, must have seen. If the goal is performance then diversity, by its very nature, gives advantages unavailable to tribal, or homogeneous, competition. 

Ultimately, the attraction of working in finance faded because the game is emotionally void. We made a lot of money for our investors but we didn’t improve people’s lives. So, in my 30s, I shifted toward athletics. Just like the beginning of my business career, I gave myself a two-month window to try life as an elite triathlete and started down a new path.

My two-month trial ended with a top performance at a race called Ironman Canada. I returned to my firm in Hong Kong and negotiated an extended leave of absence. I never looked back and started a life that mixed coaching with high-performance sport. 

Helping others through coaching brought far greater satisfaction. Hopefully, my letters of recommendation will confirm my ability to improve the lives of those around me. This trait is the greatest gift that I’ve been given. 

By being true to myself, and working with others, I find that the my community improves. I hope to have the opportunity to bring this virtue to your university.


Love and Hate

The first time your kid tells you that she hates you can be traumatic. My wife will never forget when our oldest told her that she hated her. Not reacting is one of my strengths so, when it was my turn, my daughter’s hate flowed through me. As a father, I want to help my daughter accept her emotions and let them go. 

Quite often, people that are good with love (mothers, wives, daughter), close themselves to negative emotions, such as hate. That closure, between mothers and daughters especially, can lead to strange dynamics, especially when an unexpected trigger results in an outpouring of hate.

I have an ability to react slowly. Being slow to react makes me appear cold but has helped me deal with some very abrasive people (and challenging preschoolers).

A couple weeks after my non-reaction to my daughter’s hate, the conversation when like this:

Daddy, I love you

Daddy, I hate you

But, I love you more

There is a tension between the love and hate in our little girl. By acknowledging, and not suppressing, the hate, we helped her avoid making the hate her focus.

The other morning, we were walking into school and she saw a little buddy entering the classroom with his mom. 

Lex beamed and told me, “Daddy, that’s my friend.” 

The little guy immediately screamed, “I am NOT your friend!” Causing his mother to stop cold with a universal look of maternal horror. 

Lex shrugged and said, “it’s OK Dad, he’ll be my friend this afternoon.”

A home environment where we let go of hate is wonderful gift to pass to our children.


Identifying Corruption

Taleb writes that to see fraud, yet remain silent, makes us a fraud. It’s a powerful argument but, before speaking up, I like to think things through.

What should you do when you realize that your spouse, your boss, your business partner or your peers might be corrupt? Before taking action, I have some questions that I ask myself:

Look around and ask… Am I sure? – this question has saved me from many mistakes. Most of what I see in others in generated by something inside of me.

Look around and invert by asking… What is the likelihood that all these people are not corrupt? This method brings me clarity when faced with white lies and circumstantial evidence.

Consider the implications of no-action… If they turn out to be crooks, and I stick around, then what’s likely to happen to me?

Consider the breadth of corruption: is it local; is it in the leadership; or is it through the entire organization?

When I’ve been faced with difficult decisions, these questions have been extremely useful. I’ll share case studies over the next few weeks.