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Kairos: A Lost Worldview
I recently attended Authority By Design, taught by Terri Lonier, and I really enjoyed this course. Terri is brilliant at understanding frameworks as communication tools. Though the class is geared towards small business owners, I deeply appreciated the visual frameworks as a tool for thinking about my own future. I always have a deeper understanding of my ideas when I have evaluated them through both a visual and a narrative lens. It’s the closest thing to an optimal grip I can get. If you want to explore your ideas visually, check out the class or let me know if I can help.
This week I’m continuing to think about the stories we tell ourselves. Why do some stories change our worldview, while others never last beyond the ending period? What makes the difference?
A Lost Worldview
The Maryland heat engulfed me as I stepped out of the hotel lobby. The sun wouldn’t rise for another two hours, but already the heat was coating everything like thick molasses. It was the kind of heat that held past generations in its story, making sure that they didn’t move too fast. That heat inspired my long-past ancestors to sit on the porch sipping ice-cold sweet tea slowly, and it inspired more recent ancestors to move to cooler places where their ideas could escape the sticky summer lethargy. I had never experienced heat like that before. I was already afraid of what was coming.
It was induction day at the Naval Academy. The ten-minute drive from the hotel was an entire world away from where I was going. I was a pimple-faced California surfer kid trying to be braver than my fears as I stepped into the rented white sedan. The man I was set to become wouldn’t appear for a few years. For that day and the 1,462 days that would follow, I would live in the liminal space between my own evolving stories.
Trying to muster something akin to courage, I crept through the front gate. I was absorbed by the slow-moving, unidentifiable sea of 1,200 bodies. I recoiled as the tangy, sour stench of too many boys and girls pressed against me. The sharp tug of wet clothing refused to let go. Sure, if you looked closely, you could make out my shoulder length blond hair and nervous smile, but neither of those would make it more than an hour.
The barbers unceremoniously shaved my sweat soaked hair, smirking at my request of “a little off the sides, but leave the top.” My detailers – those upperclassmen whose job it was to try and mold me in the story the Navy demanded – ripped the smile off my face in a screaming more oppressive than even the heat.
Then there was Reef Points. The palm sized book of Navy lore materialized out of the yelling and into my moist palms. I lost myself in the gold lettering embossed on the leather-bound blue cover. It looked too nice to belong in this chaos. Yet the irate red face occupying the last three inches of my personal space made sure I knew that it did, in fact, belong here. More than I did. Opening the cover the first time, the heat immediately transformed the pages into small waves while my sweat stained the cover. The words looked even smaller than I felt. How was I ever going to make it through four years of this?
As the day progressed, the sweet tea that my ancestors would have filled down time with was replaced by the stories in that book. While the tailor fit my uniform pants, I memorized The Man In The Arena. As I waited to get the 14th shot in the arm for the day, I recited to myself the answer to “How long have you been in the Navy?”
All me blooming life, sir.
Me mother was a mermaid, me father was king Neptune.
I was born in the crest of a wave and rocked in the cradle of the deep.
Seaweed and barnacles are me clothes.
Every tooth in me head is a marlinspike; the hair on me head is hemp.
Every bone in me body is a spar, and when I spits, I spits tar!
I'se hard, I is, I am, I are!
I can still recite that answer from memory, 21 years later.
The day was capped off with the same people it had started with. I accepted an oath that sounded braver than I felt, tried not to look up as the Blue Angels pierced the heat and punctuated that oath, and held back tears of fear as I said goodbye to my parents. The sun finally set, but the heat refused to.
Slowly, I learned to dance with the heat. I delighted in the extra minutes between toweling off after a shower and being soaked again. The sour bodies no longer overwhelmed the scents of savory food wafting from my plate. I stopped dreaming about high school surf breaks dotting the California coast.
Even slower, and less obvious, my mind learned to dance with the stories in that book. The pages infiltrated beyond my frontal lobe to more primitive parts of my brain. I could recite them as my muscled quaked from my 106th pushup in a row, sweat pulling me down face-first into the waxed floor.
I had trained my mind to memorize items quickly. That skill had never mattered to the boy who walked through the front gate that year. It was everything in the space where I searched through the heat for my story.
More than that, I learned the lore of this way of life. Farragut’s instigation to “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” planted in me the courage never to back down. Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena instilled a love for action. Stockdale’s discipline against the horror of the Hanoi Hilton overcame my need for self-comfort.
I started to believe in kairos.
Not that I had the words. Instead, I might have told you I believed in being prepared for my opportunity for greatness. The need to forge my body was as automatic as the Reef Points lore. I believed in the lineage of service before me, and knew I had a place in it.
17 years later, the stories I see in popular conversation ring hollow against the kairos worldview. I’ve been a sales leader, engineer, writer, and entrepreneur. Those narratives occupy various spaces in my identity, but none have bored a hole into the primitive parts of my brain. None offer a challenge to ascend to. Rather than filling our worldview, they keep us from examining our own stories. We’ve all agreed to be complicit.
I had a deep, personal, mystical connection with my belief in an ideal. It was offered to me in that lore. I was a willing recipient. The Maryland heat officiated that marriage. That marriage has survived beyond my time in the institution.
I wish more people would look through their own stories. I want to see others fill the space with their own mythology. I believe we’d all be a lot happier if we were willing to try.
Interesting stuff to share
The Edges Cases Where Computing and Physics Intersect. This article had some great vignettes about the intersection between computing and the real world. I love these little glitches in the matrix. It reminds me of how, as a student pilot, the training simulators would make our plane transport to outer space every time it rained. Weird glitches, indeed.
What Makes Paul Graham a Great Writer and What Makes Zero to One a Masterpiece by Ellen Fishbein. Ellen recently shared this tweet and the advice she captures in these essays offer some really great thoughts for those of us who want to improve our craft. I think it’s a great complement to how I think about mastery.
- . I continue to believe that the way we mass educate our children is incompatible with raising spiritually alive, interested, and curious children. I wrote about this in Whose Mountain #2, and I’m even more convinced it’s true. As many of you know, this is becoming more personal every week as I think about my own children and the world I want them to grow up in.
Until next week, have an intentionally curious week.
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