4 things I learned about life from my 12 year old godson
When I was 19, between the summer of my sophomore and junior year in college, I found a job teaching English in Morelia, Michoacán, the capital city of the prettiest state in Mexico. By the end of that summer, I had become friends with Sergio, a green eyed Mexican two years my junior, who grew up in a lower-middle class barrio on the outskirts of town. I can’t remember how we met, but that we did changed my life forever.
Like many young Mexicans, Sergio wanted better opportunities for himself. And like many young Mexicans, he looked towards the north to find them. By the winter of my junior year — 6 months after we’d met — Sergio had made his way from the rolling hills of Central Mexico all the way to cornfields of Northfield, MN where I was attending college. First, Sergio found work in a chicken factory. And then a grocery store. Finally he landed at Taco Bell, where one night he met and later fell in love with an equally green eyed girl from Illinois, who was working the night shift while attending the college across the river.
As time went by, Sergio finished high school in Minnesota, found work in Pennsylvania, and later got married in California. Today, he’s a school administrator living in Napa, California. Along the way, he had two boys, Sergio (or Checo for short) and Nate. I am proud to be both of their godfathers.
Having never had children myself, I’ve always revelled in the opportunity to spoil Checo and Nate. So when the opportunity came up to escort Checo to a soccer tournament in Budapest, I decided to extended his trip so that he could experience Europe as I once did when I was about age — by taking trains thought Switzerland for a week!
Since I’ve never had kids of my own, however, the prospect of spending two weeks with a 12 year old boy was also daunting. What do 12 year old boys like? How do you keep them entertained? Just a few hours into the trip I soon learned I didn’t have to do much. I just had to be. Checo would take care the rest.
While my list of learning is long, below are 4 salient things that two weeks with a 12 year old boy taught me:
1. Time is relative and the only thing that exists is now
In 1905, Albert Einstein discovered the theory of special relativity, the notion that time is malleable.My godson knows this in his bones, as do most 12 year old boys, I suspect.
On countless occasions during our trip, I would be busy trying to keep us on schedule for the next train, the next show, or the next whatever. Checo, in the meantime, would be finding another kid to play pick up soccer with, jumping in a fountain, or shadow boxing flies. He knew the next train would come, and that if we missed this showing there would likely be another. Or not. It didn’t really matter, though, because whatever he was doing in that moment was the greatest thing ever.
Once, on our way to a fondue dinner, Checo suggested we stop to play a game of chess on one of those big outdoor lawn sets.
“After dinner,” I told him, “its getting late and we should get some food. We have to get up early tomorrow and we should be back at the hotel early so we get a good night’s sleep.” Classic, boring yet practical adult logic.
“But padrino (Spanish for godfather),” he asked sincerely, “what’s a few more minutes going to hurt. If we’re tired tomorrow, we can sleep on the train?”
He was right.
Why was I so married to an agenda? And why couldn’t we stop to play chess? So we did, and ended up eating dinner a little later and going to bed a lot later because a marathon of Stranger Things was warranted later that night.
And every moment for Checo was the best and only moment there was.
2. Yes! And…
During the trip, there was never a shortage of ideas coming from Checo.
“Hey padrino, know what we should do?” was a phrase he would start 100 sentences a day with. This was followed by a slew of infinite possibilities such as rent bikes, moo at cows, sing a song, watch a video, tell jokes, skip rocks, jump over logs, practice parkour, hide in a corn field, take a bus at random. We did all of these things.
In coaches training and in improv, the cardinal rule is to create resonance and possibility, for therein lies opportunity and transformation. One of the ways this is done is by seeing the greatness in your client or partner’s ideas, and building on it. The phrase “Yes! And…” creates opening. The antithesis to this “No, but” kills a conversation and connection instantaneously.
Checo has never taken improv or coaching classes. But he know’s “Yes! And…” in his bones.
When I had an idea, Checo would pick it up and run. My idea was great and could only get better. “Yes padrino! That’s awesome. And then you know what else we could do? Insert slew of infinite possibilities.
There’s something incredibly special about being around someone who believes that anything is possible. And there’s something even more special about not just talking about those things, but actually creating them.
3. You are your greatest champion. And detractor.
To be a 12 year old boy is to be physical. Running, jumping, climbing, boxing.
One of the most beautiful things I got to witness was Checo coming up against his own perceived limitations, and navigating that complexity in profoundly simply ways.
On one occasion, we we in Montreux on the banks of Lake Genova and Checo wanted to go for a swim. The challenge was that we didn’t have his swim suit and the prospect of going to dinner in wet shorts was something even this cool padrino wouldn’t budge on. So I suggested to Checo that he go in his underwear. My suggestion was met with some tears. Even though he wouldn’t say it, I knew he was embarrassed. Pointing out that half of the other kids were in their undies didn’t help, either. Begrudgingly, Checo decided he wouldn’t swim, and instead opted for a hike at a nearby hill.
15 minutes into our hike, Checo found a cool stream, and with no one around to see him, got down to his undies and went for a swim. As he was climbing up the banks he suddenly stopped and called for me. “Padrino,” he said with determination, “I’ve decided to go back to the lake and swim with the other kids.”
“Cool,” I said. “What changed?”
“I’d just hate to remember this day as the day I let being embarrassed take away from having the best time ever.”
Earlier in the trip Checo surprised me with similar wisdom. Half way up Mt Pilatus, the domineering mountain outside of Lucerne, Switzerland, is a ropes course. And while your brain knows that it is high unlikely you’ll hurt yourself, being suspending above the ground by just a wire while navigating spinning logs, slack lines, and dangling tires is a frightful experience.
Having succeeded at the easy and moderate levels rather quickly, Checo proceeded to the free fall section — a terror inducing feat that requires scaling above the tree line to a platform suspended 60 feet off the ground. After latching in, the only way down is with a blind trust jump.
Checo, braver and more nimble than me, made it to the platform fast, where I watched him from below. And then he sat down. Understandably petrified with fear.
I did my best to comfort him from below, but both he and I knew that that wouldn’t do much. So after half a dozen countdowns from 10 to blastoff and equally as many reassurances that there is indeed padding at the bottom, Checo finally decided to take the brave leap and jump.
Back on terra firma, I asked him where he found the courage.
“Well, padrino, at first I wanted to impress you. But then the more I thought about it, the more I just wanted to impress myself. So I just jumped.”
We should all take as many leaps of faith in ourselves.
4. Deep breaths and swimming solves almost any problem
Alan Watts, a Zen British philosopher of the 20th century, once said that “no amount of anxiety makes any difference to anything that is ever going to happen.” Like so many wisdoms, Checo also knows this instinctually.
A week and a half into our trip, Checo realized that he hadn’t done any of his homework. And with just a few days left before our trip would ended and he would return to school, the daunting task of completing it all got the best of him. No shorter than he realized how much he had to do did he lock himself in the bathroom.
Resilience is a word that is frequently used in leadership circles. And a lot of work has been done to understand what skills are to pull yourself back up when life inevitably throws you into the arena. Brene Brown, the famed TED Talk Speaker and leadership researcher from Houston, TX concludes that resilience is a subtle trifecta. First, leaders recognize the central role that relationships and story play in culture and strategy, and they stay curious about their own emotions, thoughts, and behaviours. Second, they understand and stay curious about how emotions, thoughts, and behaviours are connected in the people they lead, and how those factors affect relationships and perception. And, third, they have the ability and willingness to lean in to discomfort and vulnerability.
Checo hasn’t read or even heard of Brene Brown. But within two minutes after the homework panic struck him, Checo strong and collected from the bathroom.
“You know padrino, I got really upset for a minute but then I just had to take a deep breath and think about why I was so mad. Its really not so bad. Can you help me break my homework into smaller pieces? I think that if I do that it won’t be so hard.”
“Of course,” I said. “Do you want to do that now?”
“No, I think first we should go for a quick swim. I just need to get this out and know I’ll be in a better mood after.”
I could name a dozen people, myself included, who could benefit from his advice: deep breaths and quick swims do solve a lot of problems.