Jeeps isn’t a reader, and when he does pick up a book it’s usually non-fiction about business or branding or the like. But a little while ago he asked me to read something for him. Literally. Not read a book together, but read it for him and report back with a synopsis, because “you read faster than I do, you could get through this in one night.” Normally I’d ignore that kind of thing but this particular book happened to be about something we’d been struggling with. Namely: we’re raising a family, but really, what the fuck are we doing?!
Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of The Table Group, has authored several books about strategies for business health and success. But in The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family, he turns those strategies and principles around to the one of the most important organizations in life: the family. He observes that even successful people who apply strategies and long-term thinking at work do not implement plans and goals for their own household. We accept family chaos as status quo, and put up with levels of confusion and disorganization and craziness at home that would not be tolerated at work.
So I read it. I didn’t care for the fictionalized account of the imaginary family’s journey to find its core principles, rather I preferred Lencioni’s own voice in the last 30 pages or so, which was when I found myself taking notes. Treating the whole thing like a business project, I downloaded the book onto Jeeps’ iPad and highlighted the key passages. As he left for the train station, I tucked my notes (re-copied onto one sheet of paper) into his jacket pocket. “Do your homework on the train,” I cooed, “there’ll be a meeting after dinner tonight.”
So after we were done eating, we opened a bottle of wine, ignored the dishes, ignored the kids, and compared answers to the Three Big Questions. Basically what these do is help you find some context for your family life, something to address that nagging, larger question of “What the fuck are we doing?!” Which, admittedly, most of us don’t do.
“Even the leaders of most mediocre companies sit down and try to figure out what their priorities are, how they differ from their competition, and what their unique advantages or disadvantages might be. They don’t just wing it…And yet most of us go about leading and managing our families with almost no formal context. We don’t take time to explicitly decide who we are, what we stand for, what we want, and how we’re going to go about succeeding and thriving as a family. Why don’t we? We go on living context-free lives, taking on every decision and issue in a relatively isolated way, as though it weren’t part of a larger situation. And then we wonder why each day feels like a disconnected, reactive game of survival, a grind without the purposeful progress we all crave.”
The three questions are:
1) What makes your family unique? The answer to this question is going to be largely shaped by your core values, things that drew you to your life partner in the first place, fundamental and positive qualities about your family, things you could not stop or suppress even if you wanted to.
2) What is your family’s top priority, or rallying cry, right now? This is not your family credo forever and ever amen. This is a project or priority to rally around and address in the next 2-6 months, after which time, you come up with another one.
3) How do you talk about and use the answers to questions #1 and 2? In other words, how do you keep the context alive?
Jeeps and I compared our lists of core values and unique attributes and right off the bat, we noticed that “humor” was at the top of both our lists. We laugh a lot around here. And not dry, witty humor although that’s my preferred kind. No, it’s strictly Mel Brooks style, farts and butts and bathroom humor to get us through the unpleasant things in life. And at this point in the pow-wow, Redman wandered over, wanting to know what we were doing.
“We’re having a meeting,” Jeeps said.
“Hey, Red, what makes our family special?” I asked, curious as to what he would say.
He thought for exactly three seconds and answered, “We make a lot of fart jokes.”
Jeeps and I exchanged impressed glances. Then Panda walked by. “What makes our family unique?” Jeeps called over to her.
No hesitation or thought. “Oh, we’re hilarious,” she said.
Feeling extremely validated, we went on with our list of things we held dear, being careful to not confuse core values with “permission to play” ones. I mean, things like honesty, kindness and fairness sound like they should be core values, when really they are bare-minimum expections of civilized behavior.
In the end, our mission statement of uniqueness looked like this:
“We value humor, knowledge, self-sufficiency, a strong family narrative, and hospitality. We feel opening our home and our experiences to others creates greater understanding.”
That’s it. There it is. Not very elegant, not very profound, not very long, but it’s just a mission statement. It’s us. It’s ours. It’s context.
We went on to put together our rallying cry du jour, and our strategy to achieve it, which I won’t go into because already this is getting long. But honestly just sitting down and putting together this kind of statement was an eye-opening experience. There was something very gratifying about it. And right when we were done our friend Cheryl came by to pick up her daughter. We showed her what we were doing, she sat down at the table, and we ended up having a really good conversation about family life and parenting and other things.
Opening our home and our experience to others creates greater understanding.
What’s your mission statement?
Passages from “The Three Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable About Restoring Sanity To The Most Important Organization In Your Life” by Patrick Lencioni. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1988