What COVID-19 Gave Me (Part II): The Time and Space to Work on Myself

Now actually available on Google Podcasts! (in addition to the other platforms)

The COVID-19 meditation series continues this week with Part II, “The Time and Space to Work on Myself.” As I strive to learn all I can from the last 15 months, I realized just what a unique opportunity I had once relegated to our bedroom-turned-office. Like millions of other office-dwellers who’d long struggled to demonstrate how little productivity has to do with physical presence, I was excited and anxious for a chance to finally gain control over my work day and still accomplish all that my boss and organization expected of me. Within in short order, I developed a morning routine and schedule that persists to this day. All because of COVID-19 and our response to it.

I’ll let the meditation stand on its own. I encourage and challenge you to think about the effect COVID-19 had (and has) on your life and that of your family. What gifts do you enjoy having experienced a global pandemic? Asking this question in no way diminishes the loss millions suffered in the form of loved ones and/or livelihoods. But as I must remind myself time and time again, if we cannot see the positive impact in those events we perceive as 100 percent negative, then what hope do we have to move forward? What hope can we have if not for our ability to absorb adversity and rise above it in a better, evolved state?

One more note, a quick shoutout and thank you (!) to “ALB” (name restricted to protect privacy) for pointing out that I’d failed to complete the distribution process for TLQ onto Google’s podcast platform. Despite the number of times I’ve told listeners that the show is available “wherever you find podcasts,” ALB went right to their preferred platform and found it wanting. Of course, I assumed it was my host’s fault, only to find out upon further investigation that was mine. I hadn’t continued past my host site into Google’s management interface to complete the connection. In any case, I did that last week and so share (above) Google’s badge and the link to their podcast platform’s presentation of TLQ to celebrate :-).

We’re Each Unique … And All The Same | Joey Utah

I’m excited to release this week’s episode, lucky number 13 (!), a conversation with Joey Utah. Joey’s a fellow Air Force veteran and spent his time as a security forces member at several locations including Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, home to the tried and true B-52 and the Air Force’s nuclear operations major command. Besides the nuclear ops “stink” that we share, Joey and I met through a mutual connection and now talk several times a week to compare notes on business, leadership, and what it means to develop as a person after hanging up the uniform for good.

Although we have both the nuclear Air Force and business ownership in common, Joey and I likely would never have connected had it not been for a mutual friend (and previous TLQ guest) Allie Butler. Before she sent a three-way direct message on LinkedIn, I was relegated to a tiny circle of military and veteran friends–great people all around, but a limited horizon beyond which I could see absolutely nothing about the future. Allie’s connection was gracious but more importantly, a key moment that opened my eyes to the value of reaching out and cultivating relationships with people ahead of you in life, with different experience than you, and even those who may be close-by to your mile marker on the journey. Each relationship is valuable in its own right; since connecting with other veterans through Allie and Joey, I’ve learned a ton more about the experience of leaving the military and finding yourself beyond the uniform than the TAP could ever teach me.

Speaking of TAP! After our conversation, Joey and I talked about his Military Roundtable, a weekly virtual event he hosted for a while for active duty and veterans looking for support and guidance on the transition process. We decided to partner together and build a new and improved version of the Roundtable! We’re in the midst of planning now, putting some more ‘meat on the bone’ so that the program is not only sustainable but better able to flex for different schedules, time zones, and levels of rank and experience attending. If you’re interested in attending, shoot me an email or DM and stay tuned to wherever you follow me for more info coming in the next month!

That’s all for this post; enjoy the episode and, as always, I’d love to know what you think. Send your feedback, questions, comments to me at ask@thelastquestion.blog. Lead well.

What COVID-19 Gave Me (Part I): My Life

I started Monday Morning Meditations because good questions often matter more than good answers … and I know the best questions we can ask take a lot longer than five minutes to think through and answer. It’s true at work, it’s true at home, and it’s true when looking inward at ourselves. Each week I try to ask you something that requires you to dig deeper and really interrogate your approach, your perspective, how you show up in the world. Yet after last week’s question on leadership “philosophy,” I was afraid the series was growing stale.

Like anyone who’s experienced tragedy, I’m often conflicted with how much “good news” I should share that comes from crisis. We’ve all been effected by the 2020-2021 pandemic, especially those who’ve lost loved ones or who know someone still battling side effects and aftermath of the virus. Yet I also believe we too often fail to acknowledge the good that comes from crises like this. We never take the time to survey the damage and consider what we’ve learned, what we can do better, and what we must do in the future when a similar (or worse) disaster strikes again. I am but one man in a sea of billions working to get past this crisis, but I for one must also be open and honest about all I’m grateful for in the past year. And so in place of a Monday Meditation, for at least the next few weeks, I’ll be asking the same question–of myself, and of you. What Did COVID-19 Give You?

The novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) swept the world from late 2019 to early 2020, reaching the Pacific coast in Washington State and quickly growing into a national and international problem necessitating well-coordinated, practiced responses. Whatever you think about how the U.S. responded, our system is designed to be decentralized and slow in favor of the smallest political unit. And so governors, county commissioners, and mayors took matters in their own hands and did what they could to protect public health and answer to citizens’ concerns about the inevitable impact to our economy and well-being. Our response to the pandemic in the U.S., and Ohio in my case, brought my Maggie and me back home to share a small office with our two dogs. For a while, my mother-in-law lived with us to watch our sons home from a shuttered daycare. Even after daycare reopened and our boys’ lives regained some normalcy, Maggie and I toiled every day at our jobs, time-sharing the office for Zoom meetings and conference calls, all while I worked at transitioning from the active duty Air Force and redefining who I was as a professional, not to mention a husband, father, and citizen. It was a much more mentally and emotionally taxing experience than I was ready for. And that would’ve been true without COVID. Adding a pandemic into the mix meant we experienced additional stressors, conversations with family we’d never planned or prepared for, anxieties about what was ahead and what would be ‘allowed’ that we never expected to have. And through the summer of 2020, I remained convinced of only one thing: I was an absolute failure at everything I tried to do and everything I could try to do in the future.

I was a nuclear weapons operator and Air Force officer who’s time had come to “hang up” the uniform, yet I had no idea what to do next. Reminders of how valuable my military time was and how much “leadership experience” I had were nice but unhelpful. I reached a low point in July where I was convinced I wouldn’t amount to much as a post-military man.

Fast-forward almost one year, my outlook is quite different and there’s so much on the horizon I have to be excited about and grateful for. It’s impossible to know for sure and I’ll never know for sure, but I have to believe our response to COVID quite literally saved me. I explain why in this week’s podcast episode and challenge you, amidst the tragedy and all of the negative aftermath we’ll endure because of COVID-19 and what we did to mitigate it, to ask yourself the same question. What Did COVID-19 Give You?

Lead Your Week: What is Your Leadership “Philosophy?”

I used to hate being asked this question. Not because it wasn’t important, but because of what usually came after it. The idea that your answer had to meet some specified criteria, or was something another person could judge as “correct.” Maybe that’s possible; what I’ve found in the last couple years, though, is that there’s as many answers to this question as there are people in the world.

At least.

And that assumes your philosophy hasn’t changed over time.

Which it likely has.

And I think that’s a good thing.

This week, ponder what your philosophy is. And if you don’t like that word, boil it down this way: HOW and WHY do you lead? What drives you to lead wherever you live and work? What do you think is a leader’s top priority?

No matter your answer; whether you rattled it off immediately or needed a couple days to think about it, the next step is to interrogate that answer. It’s not enough to respond, you have to dig back into it to know whether that’s really what you believe or if it’s only how you respond when being judged by other people. Don’t give the answer you think someone else wants to hear. Answer in a manner true to yourself then take the time to test it, to feel it, to know if it’s genuine and a philosophy you are willing and ready to defend.

Our philosophies on life should evolve over time. That’s called growth. How and why we lead should evolve too, otherwise we risk falling into worn-down habit patterns and leading not from a place of inspiration but routine and boredom. Perhaps that sounds like “comfort” and “ease” but it’ll be anything but for the team members relying on you. Evolving our approach is how we grow and do better for them. At least that’s part of my own philosophy; what do you think?

Leadership is a Family Affair

I consider myself beyond lucky for many reasons, first among them my wife’s insistence that she enjoys spending time with me … in spite of how annoyingly nerdy, fixated, distracted, and obsessive I can become about various things. Together over 16 years, married nearly 13, this relationship is among the few constants in my life that pushes me every day to be the best I can be.

So I’m excited to share Episode #12 and welcome Maggie onto the show to talk leadership, family, and how our dogs are still on guard even while downstairs in a quiet basement.

There’s several, superficial reasons why Maggie and I would naturally compare notes when it comes to how we lead, communicate, and build teams. We’re almost the same age, went to the same college, both started our professional lives in the Air Force, and often agree on the “big rock” items we were taught–knowing your people, listening more than talking, providing top-cover for honest mistakes. That’s all well and good, but where I actually get the most value in these conversations is where our opinions and approaches differ. Maggie’s and my personalities are quite different (yes, I hear you friends snickering at the screen); so are how we present ourselves when challenged with a problem. We may agree on how to handle it and what matters most, but we have different ways of expressing that reality. And even something as simple as whether you smile while delivering bad news or doing so at a particular time of day can say a lot about how well-prepared you are to lead.

My wife puts a ton of thought into how she leads and communicates, knows her people incredibly well, and continually receives positive feedback from ‘below,’ ‘above,’ and ‘across’ in the hierarchy. She’s quite modest and always looking for how to improve, so it falls on me to let you all know how awesome she is. And how fun it was to talk with her for TLQ. So here’s the link once more, to Episode #12, Leadership is a Family Affair.

Let us know what you think! Send your questions, comments, or feedback to our new email: ask@thelastquestion.blog!

“Genius Has to Be Destroyed”

How many times in a day do you ask “Why?”

How many times in a day do you express your true curiosities?

How often do you simply ask the question that’s most naturally come to mind?

I’ve borrowed the headline today from Erwin McManus, described on his website as an “iconoclast, artist, and cultural thought leader” and Lead Pastor for Mosaic, a church based on Los Angeles “recognized as one of America’s most influential and innovative churches.” McManus said a lot during his conversation with Ed Mylett that resonated with me, much of it tied to his own exploration of faith as a Christian and philosopher. What struck me about this particular phrase, that “genius has to be destroyed,” is how obvious it seems after the fact. How obvious the same point always seems despite how often we pressure each other to deny it.

By now (assuming you’re still here), you’re wondering how I’m going to argue that “genius” must be “destroyed.” You’re even more confused if you know me. Or perhaps not, for I also tend to ask questions and make arguments in order to find where their logic train ends–whether I believe in the underlying premise or not. Rest assured, coming out against genius isn’t my purpose here. If anything, I’m coming out for McManus’ description of genius. In its most natural state.

One of the most telling pieces of data I’ve ever heard came from this podcast episode with McManus.1 Citing a 1960s-era study on genius and creativity, he said that a group of five-year-olds was measured using a methodology developed by NASA to determine whether someone was a genius. That first measurement yielded 98 percent; the overwhelming majority of those kids were geniuses. On its own, I don’t think that data amounts to much. We can all disagree on what constitutes “genius,” “creativity,” “giftedness,” whatever. What clinched it for me was the rest of the study’s findings as the investigators continued to measure the same sample as those children grew into adolescents, then adults. At age 12, only 30 percent met the criteria (the same as when the study began). By age 20, only 2 percent qualified as genius. TWO PERCENT of the original sample. McManus uses this data to contend that “genius,” such that it is, “has to be destroyed” and that is it not something we must develop but that is intrinsic to each of us as a human being. Holy s#!t.

I’ve met a number of Christian pastors in my life. Many were fond of comparing a Christian’s faith to the innocent faith of a child. They remind congregations about how honest and forthcoming children are, how willing they are ask why and why not, and how willing they are to plow through moments of ignorance or uncertainty in order to grow. If it’s true that 98 percent of us, at age 5, would qualify as geniuses, while only 2 percent of us remain so into adulthood, isn’t that something we should be talking about? Better yet, isn’t that something we should address? And I’m not asking because I think everyone should “fix” themselves and become devout Christians. Hardly. I think the loss of such faculties, perhaps apparent in the life of every child, could be one of today’s most tragic realities.

It would be easy for me to point to school as the culprit. And believe me, I’m no stranger to failing educational models and spend every day falling farther away from the belief that our future lies in the traditional model of academic training–including the unbroken progression from pre-K, to K-12, through undergraduate. If anything, it has taken the world’s highest-profile CEOs to remind us how little a college degree can mean in a world moving much faster than universities have proven themselves capable. Many of us were admonished if anything but “college” was our goal after high school. Maybe it was just me, but I doubt it. Yet some of our most famous entrepreneurs, faith leaders, and creatives made a name for themselves and provide value to millions without ever attending a post-secondary course. Some didn’t even finish high school! But they have found personal and professional success, perhaps because they had the freedom (or wrestled it away from their parents) to eschew the standard dogma.

It’s all in your perspective, right? I’m a father of two young boys who’s now more concerned than ever about how young children should be educated, and how we can best prepare them for an unknown world without making them think there’s only one way. There’s never been only one way. We thought so because it appeared to work for so many people. Millions, in fact. But the numbers we were taught didn’t include the millions more for whom the standard didn’t work. It didn’t include the stress and anguish suffered by those who “accomplished” the standard goals while hating every aspect of their personal lives and professional endeavors. Of course I want my children to be successful. And of course I want them to grow up into mature, self-sufficient, service-oriented men. But I don’t want all that so I can gloat about it to the neighbors. I suppose I don’t actually want it at all. I need those things to happen because my boys need that reality for themselves. For our sons to grow into strong, capable, loving men is for them to answer questions only they can answer. I can’t answer for them what jobs they should seek, what schools they should attend, what trades they should train, or what sports they should play. I can answer those questions no more than I can answer them for you. The difference is I have an opportunity to influence them in a positive way while at the same time allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions. And to suffer the consequences of their own mistakes.

I will intervene for their safety as all parents would, but I will not keep my kids from learning the lessons only an individual can learn in their own time. Such is a mark of our creative genius, I think. School won’t make you smarter. Only you can do that by seeking counsel, guidance, and education on your own terms. Knowledge is a great thing to have. Smarts is about how you’ll use it for the better. To build up others and build a better future for them.

1I have not found the study McManus cited in the episode. Please note, I cannot confirm the statistics shared, but believe wholeheartedly still in the message. Think for yourself and, if you find the study, please let me know!

The Closest Thing to Paradise

Episode #11 | A Conversation with Krishnan Chittur … Yep, My Dad

Like any project or idea, TLQ has been evolving from Day One. Yes, I wanted to talk about “leadership” on the podcast. But “leadership” can mean almost anything. I also wanted to address military transition, having gone through the ups and downs of that process the past 12 months. I wanted to talk about education … and training … and selfishly, to ask cool people the most interesting (and difficult) questions I could come up with.

I’m an avid podcast listener, so the medium has come naturally to me. Beyond that, starting a show was a way for me to satisfy an otherwise boundless curiosity. Most of the hosts in my feed quip often about how their show has been a great excuse to simply talk with interesting people and learn new stuff. No strings attached. Like a dream come true.

So we’re now several months into the show’s life, diving into a lot more than military stuff and how to work with a team. Not that those ideas aren’t important. But there’s a lot more out there to learn and we’re limited on time. This week’s episode is a lot more personal and an opportunity for me to learn about my own background and reasons for being. I talked with Krishnan Chittur, Professor Emeritus of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Chief Technology Officer at GeneCapture, Inc. And my dad. As GeneCapture’s CTO, he’s at the forefront of research into revolutionary technology that dramatically shortens how long it takes to detect pathogens in someone’s blood. We’re talking from days to minutes in some cases. The idea was born from his watching both his first wife (my mother) and daughter treated in different hospitals, at different times, but both by well-intentioned staff reduced to little more than guess-makers. There has to be a better way, he said.

Such is one of the core tenets to leadership (see what I’m doing here?), the willingness to ask tough questions in order to challenge what we assume to be correct or true. We have spent decades living with a healthcare system predicated on mitigating the race toward death and reliant on tit-for-tat treatment methods that includes arcane diagnostic techniques. Tech like GeneCapture’s could take our society from where we are to a place where every provider, if not every home, is outfitted with a cheap device that will diagnose your ailment and could one day provide you a tailored treatment plan and medication schedule based not on a textbook response but on your individually sequenced genome. It’s fascinating work. And I’m in no way qualified to talk about it. So give the episode a listen and let me know what you think!

Other than GeneCapture’s work and my dad’s history as an immigrant-turned-tenured academic, we talk about my mother and her history. The story is still filled with rich details I don’t know; but it feeds my ‘why’ is many ways. It was an enlightening conversation for me; I hope it is for you too.

Are You the Best Version of YOU?

Monday morning, May 31st, 2021. I’ve published a Monday Morning Meditation almost as long as the show’s been around. While the whole project is built around important questions, Monday’s installments are specially focused on something to ask of yourself across that week. Something to ponder, to consider, on which to meditate. This week, in honor of the holiday, I’m asking all of us simply: Are we each the best versions of ourselves? And if the answer’s “no” (which it certainly is in my case), then are we working toward it?

I don’t always know my question before recording the Meditation. Sometimes I record on Monday morning, just minutes before 6:00am. And sometimes, the question’s been lodged in my mind for days. This week, I knew I would tie into Memorial Day, I just didn’t know how. And to be honest, I didn’t want to lean on a trite reminder that we remember veterans and the military members who died and that we’re all grateful. Not that we shouldn’t remember. Not that we’re not incredibly grateful. But there needs to be more meat on the bone, don’t you think?

Rich Cardona, founder and owner of Rich Cardona Media, published a post in LinkedIn Sunday afternoon that answered a similar call. It was something different. It caught your eye and forced you to read on–kinda what you expect from a personal branding and media expert. Rich is a retired Marine helicopter pilot, so is no stranger to military life and combat. His point, in a nutshell, was that he was going to stop posting reminders to honor our fallen brothers and sisters that often carry a subtext of judgment toward our fellow Americans who never spent time in the military. While I’m sure most of these posts don’t intend to guilt-trip others, the reality is veterans tend to take ownership of these holidays and plaster their own take on what the holiday is about. The posts riddle social media and, I think, can have a counterproductive effect on everyone else. We should honor each and every person who didn’t make it home. We should speak their names and remember their stories. But we shouldn’t look down upon those who didn’t join the military, who don’t know a veteran or aren’t sure which holiday is for which category of service member; and we definitely should not judge those who celebrate today as the unofficial start of summer and an excuse to light up the grill and knock back a couple beers. Because, to Rich’s point, while the veterans among us may gather to toast fallen comrades, the rest of us can honor them best by reaching toward a simple goal: being the best American we can possibly be.

I think that’s a goal worth exploring. So I ask you this week, amidst the parades and celebration and memorials, are YOU the best you can be? You don’t have to be an American to find value in the question; this goes for anyone, no matter where you’re from, how you identify, or what language you speak. To strive every day toward the best version of yourself is to take hold of all of your freedom and make the best choices you can for your family, your teams, and yourself. As Americans, that’s absolutely within our control and a fabulous way to honor those men and women who laid down their lives for this country. Whether we know one or not, whether we know a veteran or not, the least we can do is to strive for the best we can do.

I Can’t Let It Go

I suppose you arrived here as a TLQ listener. Or maybe someone shared the link. Maybe you follow me online somewhere. Or you’ve happened upon this page by accident. In any case, while I appreciate you being here and giving our show a shot (hopefully), I may end up disappointing you. As I built the site around the TLQ Podcast, I had a few ideas for a celebratory first post. Then I read this morning’s newspaper. On the front page, above the fold on the right side, was this headline:

“Family: Death is hate crime / Soldier took her life after alleged rape”

Fuck. There went the next 15 minutes. I was already seething as I read the first couple paragraphs, wondering what military leadership would say about yet another suicide among the active duty ranks. To make it worse, I soon learned this was yet another example of a young soldier dying after a string of leadership failures. In this case, Specialist Kaylie Harris was reportedly assaulted by a fellow military police officer and succumbed to the combined pain of the incident and its aftermath by taking her own life with a pistol she bought with a friend on the same day.

Spc. Harris’ mother, who still lives in her daughter’s Ohio hometown, told the USAToday reporter that her daughter had come out as a lesbian as a high school senior. Despite early concerns that she would suffer discrimination in the Army, Kaylie was set on joining. Her recruiter apparently assured her that such discrimination isn’t a problem any longer. Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in uniform would know such an assurance isn’t merely misleading, it’s irresponsible. Nevertheless, Kaylie enlisted and earned her dream job–military police–before moving to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richarson near Anchorage, AK. Less than one year into her enlistment, according to reports (the investigation is on-going), she was assaulted.

As I shared in a Facebook post drawing attention to the story and a recent article I published on Medium, what struck me most about the Harris family’s tragic loss of their daughter wasn’t whether it’s appropriate to add hate crime language to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Neither was it the idea that an as-yet charged individual should be jailed while law enforcement gathers evidence. What struck me straight away was an apparent absence of the simplest response anyone can provide to someone thinking about killing themselves: never leave them alone.

As an Air Force veteran, I completed periodic “training” on suicide awareness and prevention. The efficacy of these sessions is debatable, though I can’t help but remember an acronym drilled into us at every session. Act-Care-Escort (ACE) was a mainstay of suicide awareness discussions throughout my time on active duty. I was quick to dismiss (in my post) the “Act” and “Care” provisions, since it’s impossible who was in a position and willing to do either. But it seems clear there were several people in a position to “Escort” and stay with Kaylie while she struggled. The response from her leadership is more or less standard, though the initial measures don’t seem complete–Harris is returned to normal duty, including while armed, after encountering the accused assailant during a training session–in spite of an active “no-contact” order intended to keep the two separated. On the day she bought the gun that she’d use to end her life, she shopped with a friend and fellow soldier. The friend reminded her about registration requirements, then left her alone to “take a nap.” Harris was dead soon thereafter.

The Army’s “ACE” memory guide. Available here.

It’s tough for me to find the right words. I didn’t know Spc. Kaylie Harris. Only her family can know the deepest pain associated with her loss. At the same time, she’s the newest name on a long list of devoted men and women who gave themselves to a cause bigger than themselves that ultimately failed them. Every service member who enters active duty does so as a volunteer, many risking their lives and livelihoods by choice. Even with husbands, wives, and children left behind. They also sign up to follow leaders invested in the team’s success. In each individual’s success. And in the core values each military branch presents to the world as their guiding light. I can’t help but wonder where those leaders are now. And where they’re hiding. The military is charged with solving some of our country’s most complex challenges, not least of which is the planning of operations against adversaries investing mightily in meeting–and exceeding–America’s previous monopoly on advanced capabilities. That certainly takes some effort and attention away from other priorities. But what can be a higher priority than the safety and strength of our individual members? What matters more than diving into a problem that has plagued the military for decades and serves only to erode trust between young enlisted members and senior officers? Evidently there’s a lot. We spend billions developing and fielding new weapons systems, millions paying for the promotions, travel, and movement of senior officers and their families, and millions more on flashy advertising campaigns to entice new recruits. Yet we’ve relegated “training” on suicide awareness, and sexual assault prevention and response, to short-staffed offices filled with volunteers (in some cases) and computer-based modules. It shouldn’t shock anyone that we’ve lost yet another person to a combination of fratricidal crime and suicide.