The Most Important Skill You'll Ever Teach Your Kids
May 20, 2018
My kids right now are 6, 3, and 1. They are completely amazing and I adore them. I can’t wait to see where things go from here.
I also know that parenting is simultaneously both the most terrifying and the most gratifying human undertaking. One of the underrated reasons it’s utterly terrifying is because it’s sometimes so hard to put into practice the vision you have of being a good parent for your kids.
Every parent, before they were a parent, had fantasies about how they’ll teach their kids to eat their veggies, calmly read them books at night, and work so that their kids will be the first one in their kindergarten class to read. They will be model parents. Then the reality happens. It’s 8 pm, past bedtime and your kids are screaming from the sugar rush you gave them a couple hours ago to get five minutes of peace, they haven’t finished their dinner yet for the same reason, there’s dominos, playing cards, yogurt and cracker pieces spewed across four different rooms, and you still haven’t poured your fucking wine, which is probably a good thing since you’re only running on 3 hours of sleep and half a lunch. Yeesh.
I think we all know this feeling, because a lot of the time parenting is about survival. It’s hard to think strategically when you’re barely keeping up tactically. You have to try to stay ahead of the game all of the time.
There’s a double irony here when compared to the most important thing we can teach our kids. Kids can’t think strategically yet. Everything for them is all about right now. Meanwhile, kids cause parents, no matter how good, patient or smart they are, to often break down into dealing only with the right now.
And yet, the most important thing we can teach them is delayed gratification. I don’t think most of us realize this for ourselves either.
Think about things you strive for. More than likely they’re all achievable if you stay the course. Want to live with only 10% body fat (or say 16-18% for a woman)? That’s totally possible.. for literally anyone. In fact, for most of us it would only take about 6 months to do. Have some big financial goal you want to save for? No problem, maintain your focus and do a little bit every day or week and you’ll get there. Want to write a book? Easy, just write a little bit every day, and spend some time editing it together. It’s about consistent effort over time. I realized this when thinking about potential energy: The scientific definition of work is force over distance. You literally get shit done (work) by moving with effort.
Humans are distraction machines, and in an era distractions are ever more present all the time, the ability to stay a course over any period of time is getting more and more rare. God, I’ve checked Instagram three times while writing this.
Psychologists talk about Conscientiousness being one of the primary personality traits that predict success. It’s very related to the idea of delayed gratification. Conscientious people are very goal oriented and exhibit self-discipline. They focus on something and do what it takes to make it happen.
This is actually becoming the primary trait that college proves today. People that have completed college have shown some base ability to stay the course and achieve a long running goal. This is the most useful life skill we’ve got, and it sucks that it costs so much money to get a credential that proves it.
I don’t know if I even want my kids to go to college. I don’t know how much it will cost in fifteen years (the current trend isn’t sustainable), and I don’t know what their interests will be. Increasingly, fulfilling work doesn’t require a degree as a credential. But I do still want to teach them delayed gratification, and I’ve been thinking much more about hobbies and other ways to let them build this school. I want them to learn to build things slowly over time. I want them to find hobbies where they love the process and not just the outcome.
Drawing, running, weightlifting, music, programming, and writing all come to mind. To do any of these things, you really need to love the process. You can’t just go sprint down the street once and be a runner. You have to enjoy the warmup, the stretch, the feeling of rhythm while running, and the joy of pushing yourself. It’s more than just running. I love weightlifting for the same kind of reasons. And the culture of powerlifting in particular drives the idea of delayed gratification1. People think of powerlifting as a bunch of monsters trying to hit PRs every week, but the mantras are actually a lot different. “Trust the process”, “Slow and consistent”, “A little every day”, “Back to basics”, and “We’re climbing” are far more common.
That’s a culture to get behind. We humans can build the most incredible things if we can focus our human desires on a consistent vector and not get distracted by our human fickleness. As parents, we need to remember that too. It takes a lifetime to love our kids. Be consistent and joyful in it.
Trust the process.
1 One of the best things I’ve ever heard in a gym is when a very fit man was asked why he was doing what he was doing. He was over an hour into his workout, in his mid-20s, and in impeccable shape. A slovenly middle-aged man who clearly didn’t understand what the guy was doing asked him, “How do you do that?? Why do you do that??” The fit guy smiled and replied, “just in here trying to beat back father time.” He was focused on the long term. On the decades ahead.
2 I’ve got two favorite brands right now that I’m really hyped on. One is HVIII Brand Goods. I’ll pass over that one except to say I love it. The other is Apeman Strong. They’ve done an exceptional job at branding the possibilities of delayed gratification. A lot of their shirts and themes are basically romanticized versions of this concept. Which is really cool. I mean, delayed gratification is powerful, but it’s not sexy. But they make it sexy, and that’s a powerful brand. Which is why I’m obsessed with them (in case anyone was wondering..). Here’s some of my favorites: