What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

The Shifting Landscape of America

Power will be shifting, if the Xers and millennials aren’t timid about elbowing the boomers out of the way. But don’t expect the boomers to relinquish it willingly.

My biggest concern about the passing of the baton from the so-called silent and boomer generations is the loss of memory. A recent survey revealed that two-thirds of millennials can’t say what Auschwitz was, and 52 percent of Americans wrongly believe Hitler came to power through force.

Democracy is a fragile institution, and the threat from autocrats is more potent than many people believe. I’m hoping the millennials acquire a deeper understanding of the way power works and of the importance of maintaining institutions critical to our independence. If not, the baton may be dropped — with dire consequences.

Power to Make a Choice

Having options is powerful. And freeing. You can’t be anyone’s slave if you have options. Or beholden to anyone. Yet few of us focus on creating and building options.

In school, we’re not taught about such things. I’m not sure most of us are taught such things at home, either.

I don’t think I taught my boys about options. I should have.

I want you to understand about options, Vera. And about the risks associated with having none. And how liberating the power of choice can be.

Options don’t always seem like a good thing, though. Several options are presenting themselves to me presently. Part of me wishes they hadn’t appeared. Options call out for choice.

But sometimes choices seem overwhelming. Or risky.

What if I make the wrong choice?

The older I’ve gotten, the less confidence I have in my ability to choose well. Perhaps it’s because I focus too much on some of the wrong choices I’ve made. Perhaps it’s because, at this stage of my life, I’m less concerned with winning or succeeding.

Yet having options is better than having none, of that I’m fairly certain.

There are different ways of creating options. And I suppose there are some that haven’t even occurred to me.

A few that occur to me are:

  • a willingness to take risks (conquering fear)
  • being good at what you do (valuable to others)
  • saving and staying out of debt
  • investing in yourself (continuance improvement)
  • avoiding ruts and complacency
  • nurturing true friendships
  • inquisitiveness
  • being well read
  • having good insight to what’s happening in the world
  • rejecting the twin gods of materialism and consumerism
  • associating with doers
  • associating with good people
  • being who we are and not the person we think others want us to be
  • recognizing the true nature and source of security and contentment
  • being a giver and not a taker
  • a longing to be free

Humans seem to sense that power is good, but then go about looking for it in all the wrong places. And mistake dominance for power. And fail to see the ways we unwittingly undermine our own power and freedom.

I’m not sure many of us seek the power to make choices. The power to have a true choice.

I think we’d be better off if we did.