Plus I’m just insane anyway and I go crazy when people stay with us. I don’t often realize how particular I am because my wife and kids know all my little quirks so well that we manage them and I forget they are there. But if parents or siblings or friends stay a couple nights, I’m an eruption of anxieties and gripes. I get really worked up about extra sounds or smells or objects. The kids get a huge kick out of this. I can see them glancing at me and waiting for the meltdown. I can imagine them whispering, “Dad’s going to freak out when he sees this!”
This is always a bit amplified when we’re with Wendy’s family because, unlike most places I go, I’m not the boss when I’m with her family. Among my own siblings, it’s painfully well known that I’m the oldest and the bossiest and so you might as well ask for my input on everything. That includes both big items like where we are all meeting up this spring break and also much smaller items like do you stir your eggs before you cook them? (Of course you do!) Or do you mix them up as they cook in the frying pan? (Heck no you don’t!)
Wendy, as the spouse of the oldest and bossiest, actually steps up her game a bit when we’re with my family and weighs in freely on how we organize gift exchanges or whether or not we can have caffeine on the dinner table (verses secretly drinking it in our bedrooms).
I’m also a boss at work and even pretty bossy at church stuff. In fact, when I was a missionary, a big group of us went to lunch one day and when I stepped out to go to the restroom, the server asked the group, “Where did your boss go?”
They all got a big kick out of that and jokingly called me “the boss” ever afterward. As a going away present, when I came back home, a couple of the guys made me some dog tags that said “the boss” on them.
So here’s the real problem when we are with Wendy’s family. She is the youngest. And I’m even younger than her. That makes me the youngest member of the family and certainly not the boss. As the youngest, you can be sure that nobody asks for my opinion on crucial things like where to get the oil changed or whether to cook the pies on Thanksgiving or the night before or what I think about the constitutionality of Obama’s executive order on immigration.
It’s pure hell to have someone bake a pie without asking for my opinion first. I wonder to myself, Is this what it’s like to be my youngest sibling, Rob? Do I ever ask him before I bake a pie or change the oil? Do I ask him which gallon of milk I should open first? Do I ask his opinion on the executive powers of the President? He must be boiling over mad!
It gets worse because when Wendy’s with her family, she actually ratchets down a bit and stops having her normally strong opinions about things like where to eat for dinner or whether we should sleep on a cot or an air mattress. Then the kids defer to her, like they always do on everything. So they become similarly passive. And suddenly everyone else is playing nice and I seem, in comparison, like an overbearing maniac.
I’ve been studying the Civil War for a while now. I’m taking my time and wandering through different books and documentaries. I’m a ways into Shelby Foote’s three-volume masterpiece. And I’m reading Killer Angels now and loving it. Plus I pick up extra articles and skim through other books as I encounter them.
As I meander through that history and reflect on it daily, a few important themes stand out. But one theme in particular: nothing is more toxic to success than an elevated sense of self. There are lots of battles where one side is clearly winning until they start celebrating, lose focus, and get turned on. There are lots of generals who can’t pursue the enemy because they are paralyzed by their own self-regard. And there are plenty of lives lost to the overconfidence of their leaders. General Lee meant it sincerely when he walked through the ranks after Gettysburg and apologized to his men. “This was my fault,” he said over and over again. And it actually was. He had come to believe (with plenty of supporting evidence) in his own invincibility as a leader, and it was his downfall that day.
I know this same principle holds true in the business world where I work. I see lots of successful local leaders who can’t get promoted or who at least can’t last long once they are promoted because they can’t adjust their self-image. They go from being a local boss and expert to joining a group of complex moving parts with intricate, delicate relationships. And they flounder. Or they explode. Or they withdraw. I see it all the time.
It reminds me of my Mom’s brother, Ted. He’s the smartest person I know. Genius-level smarts. But he once shared with me what a huge shock it was when he started working at Intel. For his whole life, he’d been a “whiz kid” who could do anything and solve any problem. Now he was just one more smart guy in a huge group of gifted people. So it was time to get humble, get to work, and find a new way of fitting into the group. (And 20 successful years later, that strategy seems to have worked!)
I set a goal this week of trying to calm down a bit and willingly ceding some of my normal micromanaging control over my life. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to prove to myself that I’m ready to grow up a bit at work. And it would be good for the family and maybe even help me reduce my baseline neurotic ticks.
Looking back on the weekend, I didn’t do the best job ever. I got hung up on where to park or whether egg shells go in the garbage or the disposal. You know, important stuff like that. But I hope I did better than I normally do. I certainly tried. And it did turn out to be a good sensation to let go just a bit.
Last night, Wendy and I snuck out for dinner and our mandatory Saturday evening trip to Wal-Mart. We talked at great length about the week, about family dynamics, and about how easy it is to get caught up in small things and miss these rare and wonderful opportunities we have just to enjoy each other’s company.
When we came home, we read scriptures together like we do every night. But, unlike some nights, we took our time with the verses and discussed them. We asked the kids questions and probed a bit for ways that the scriptures apply to our own lives. Nana and Grandpa were there with us in the family room and each took some time to share beautiful insights into life, happiness, and the gospel. It was the highlight of the week for me. I was humbled by the wisdom they had from a lifetime of experiences. And I was absolutely amazed at how receptive and attentive the kids were to their grandparents.
It was a touching reminder of how lucky we are to have good family and how blessed we are to share our lives together. I was overwhelmed with warm, tingly gratitude for the eternal bonds of family and for the incredible love that we have for each other.
I went to bed last night in the best mood I’ve had in weeks. Yes, we are all different. And we all bug each other in different ways. But that’s the joy of family anyway. We get along despite all the quirks because we love each other and thoroughly enjoy being in each other’s company.
I’m thankful for my wife’s family this week and for this wonderful holiday together.
And for the record, I also thought we should have cooked the pies the night before Thanksgiving. That was the right call, even if it was made without my input.