As a father of three (soon to be four) young boys, it can be intimidating to think about my ability to teach them. And what specifically should I teach them?

The first answer regarding something important I should teach them came when my family and I were discussing what elementary school my oldest will be attending for fifth grade next year. Fifth grade!? I couldn’t believe it! Then the thought came to me, “That’s almost the age I was when I learned…”, the first of what I’m calling life-shaping lessons. As I pinpointed that lesson in my mind, I also wondered what other powerful lessons have helped shape who I am today.  And that’s exactly how this list of 5 life-shaping lessons came to be.

1. “You are doing it wrong… if you aren’t messing up.”

After fifth grade, I attended a serious summer basketball camp that lasted one weekend. During one morning, we players all lined up straddling a line on the court, using it to do some dribbling drills. I remember trying my absolute hardest to really nail this one drill. I had a good, low stance, and I kept my head up the whole time as I performed strong, inside-out dribbles bouncing the ball right on the line each time. I was feeling confident and thinking I had this one down.

Only moments later, one of the coaches walked up to me. I was sure he was going to say something about how he was impressed, but instead he said, “You are doing it wrong.” …I immediately sunk inside, now feeling insecure and very confused. The coach then continued, “Do you know how you can tell if you are doing it wrong?” I shook my head. “You are doing it wrong if you don’t mess up. If you’re not messing up, you are not trying hard enough. This is a basketball camp where you should be trying to get better. If you are trying hard to get better, you will be pushing yourself beyond what you already are capable of, so you should be messing up.”

That hit me hard then, and it has stuck with me ever since. It is one of those moments that I really remember. I can actually still see the scene in my mind, and I can still feel the emotions I felt then.

As an adult, this same lesson has been taught to me as “practicing vs performing”. We actually should be in practicing mode almost all the time. Very few moments, like during a championship game or when taking a final exam, are appropriate for a performing mindset. The trick is, we tend to live in performing mode by default. This leads to unnecessary stress of perfectionism, always trying to impress, being quick to take things personally, getting depressed when things don’t go right, etc. Keeping a practicing mindset makes life so much more enjoyable AND it is better for you because you will actually improve at a greater level and do so more quickly.

Knowing you are practicing, and therefore being OK with messing up now, gives you permission to go about things with more confidence as you keep trying, and it creates greater self-esteem as you won’t give up trying. The ironic thing about this is, with having a practicing mindset, you will actually impress more as people will feel your confidence and admire it, and as you do things with more confidence, your results will be better.

2. The dimmer switch

Recently, I bought a smart light bulb. This allows me to control the light with an app on my phone. I can change its colors, brightness, and some other effects. It’s actually quite fun to play with, and every time I do, I’m reminded of this life-shaping lesson I learned when I was in high school. Fortunately, I have already used that smart light bulb in an object lesson to teach this life-shaping lesson to my boys.

In society today, you are either identified as tall or short. Smart or dumb. Fast or slow. Cute or ugly. Fat or skinny. Funny or immature. Good enough or worthless… We love to think and talk about everyone, and even ourselves, with labels and always in extremes. In reality, things are anything but “on/off” in life. Missing one shot doesn’t make you a bad shooter and shouldn’t make you feel like you shouldn’t shoot again next time. Eating one sweet doesn’t destroy your diet and shouldn’t be an excuse to go crazy and have as many as you want now because you already messed up today.

All these things in life are actually on dimmer switches, not on/off switches. Each action results in a very subtle change, either in the positive or negative direction. Consistency and repeated action over time is what makes a difference in your life. And even further, what is considered bright to one person is merely in the middle for another. 

When things in your life are recognized properly on a dimmer, there is no over-reaction, because changes are very subtle and it is easy to recover if needed. Don’t be so quick to judge others or yourself. Only you control your light.

3. Naalachita

If you are willing to get something printed on a shirt and wear it, you know it means something important to you. Naalachita means “I will do it” in Bemba, an African language spoken in parts of Zambia. I love this phrase because it holds a powerful truth. And I do have a shirt (actually it is printed on the back of a soccer jersey). 

You are defined best by what you are willing to do of your own choice. If you can’t think of things that YOU have chosen to do, especially when you didn’t have to do that thing (or when no one would notice), it is difficult to know who you really are. And if you don’t know who you really are, or what you would choose to do simply for you, then how can you trust yourself when it matters most? Trusting yourself is the foundation every satisfied life is built upon.  

4. What is your deepest fear?

Another life-shaping lesson is one that is taught from a scene in the basketball movie Coach Carter. Coach Carter asks the same question repeatedly to one of his players over time, “What is your deepest fear young man?”… (I can hear Samuel L Jackson’s voice now… lol) The Coach asks, not wanting an answer in the moment, but to get the question stuck in the head of the boy. That question alone is powerful and worthy of contemplation, but finally, after some time and some serious personal struggles, the boy responds with what he’s learned using the famous quote (often attributed to Nelson Mandela but actually is from Marianne Williamson), 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; It’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These words are printed on a wooden plaque in my office now because my wife gave it to me as a gift after learning how much these words mean to me. 

It truly is interesting in how much we limit ourselves in order to not be a “goodie-goodie”, or that we convince ourselves that some lower level of performance is good enough, and that we don’t deserve to even want something more. And it truly is motivational when we witness others that ignore any of these self-imposed limitations. Do yourself a favor and don’t hold back. Or do it for others. Either way, be the best you can be. Don’t settle for the good-enough you. 

5. The right motivation is the key

Life is hard. And good things in life are hard to get. Making hard and necessary changes in your life (a common example today is breaking any form of addiction) takes a lot of motivation to see it through. But not just any kind of motivation will work, it takes the right motivation in order to overcome the really hard things. 

So what are the different types of motivation, or reasons, to do something? And which forms are the most powerful? Having these laid out for me when I was younger was a lesson that really resonated with me. And using it has helped me identify and choose my motivations for certain things, and raise them appropriately for others, so that I can accomplish hard things in my life. Here they are in order from the weakest to strongest forms of motivation, or reason, that we do something:

  1. For a reward
  2. Out of fear of punishment
  3. Out of duty
  4. Out of love for another person(s)

Doing things for the higher reason makes all the difference in: 1) overcoming the hardest things in life, 2) making hard things actually easier to do, and most importantly 3) making the accomplishment of hard things even more satisfying.

In closing, we all learn in different ways and with unique experiences. I’m glad I can share some of mine. I wish you good luck with yours, and please share yours to teach your loved ones.

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