Astro (@astroteller) and Danielle Teller joined James to talk about marriage, divorce, constructs, rules, and what really matter for raising happy, healthy kids. Rather than an overall summary of the episode, here are 10 lessons.
From Amazon, here is a snippet of summary, “In the same way that Esther Perel’s bestselling Mating in Captivity gave couples a fresh perspective on their married life, so Sacred Cows invites reader to question assumptions and conventional wisdom. It offers a smart, insightful, and sympathetic view for those in a marital crisis, marriage counsellors, or anyone looking to gain a fresh perspective on one of our most cherished and misunderstood institutions.”
Lesson 1: Find out the rules of the game
A big part of their book, Sacred Cows, is that there are rules to the marriage game we don’t fully understand. Danielle tells James, “our society has created a whole set of boogie men to scare people into staying married.” We may promise to love you forever, but when we are young, do we really know what that means?
As the ballad about a boy rounding third, and trying to score goes:
[Girl:]Will you love me forever?
[Boy:] Let me sleep on it.
[Girl:] Will you love me forever?
[Boy:] I couldn’t take it any longer, Lord I was crazed, And when the feeling came upon me, Like a tidal wave, I started swearing to my god, And on my mother’s grave, That I would love you to the end of time, I swore I would love you to the end of time.
So now I’m praying for the end of time, To hurry up and arrive, ‘Cause if I gotta spend another minute with you, I don’t think that I can really survive.
Lesson 2: Expect bumps
Danielle tells James, “much of the pain of divorce is unavoidable.” Marriage has bumps too. Our ceremonies are white and clean and neatly pressed, but our lives won’t be like that and knowing this makes those transitions easier.
In Switch, Chip Heath writes that we should plan for some things not to go well when we try to adapt any change. If you’re dieting, you will be tempted and maybe fail. If you are trying to write everyday, some days that writing will be crap. If we begin our journey with the idea in mind that there will be challenges, we may be better able to face them.
In episode #78, Sam Shank said that in running Hotels Tonight they expect these sorts of things to happen. He tells James that not only do they respond quickly, but systemically for both the customer and hotel. If a hotel turns away enough Hotel Tonight clients, they get dropped from the service.
Lesson 3: Be wary of statistics
Astro and Danielle talk about the types of people who get divorced and it’s really a muddled mess. There’s no good data because there is no good data set. A randomized control about divorce that strides across income, family structure, or other variables doesn’t exist. Divorce statistics suffer the same selection bias that James writes about with some college statistics:
Any college Freshman who takes Statistics 101 (and I know I’ve said this before so I wish these Georgetown people would let me teach their Statistics classes) will have heard of something called “Selection bias” which this report is littered with.
In other words, they did not just select people with many years of education. They inadvertently also selected “the type of upper middle class person who is intelligent, ambitious, aggressive” who chose twenty years ago to go to college. That type of person will certainly make more money than his peers twenty years later.
Lesson 4: Find what is essential
James tells Astro and Danille that he spends more quality time with his kids since getting divorced to which Astro says, “I’ve never heard a divorced person say anything but that.” What the divorcees have found is the essential parts of their relationship. My guess is that because James finds his time with his daughters finite, he fills that time with things that are valuable to them. When we have to, we cut through the clutter in our lives.
Greg McKeown writes about finding what is essential in Essentialism. He says, “it is about pausing constantly to ask, ‘Am I investing in the right activities?” One way to do this is to focus on what is truly essential. Facebook, no. Extra hours at work, no. What you and I need to live on is so small that if we can find that, we can find happiness.
Joshua Becker writes at Becoming Minimalist and he has an good origin story. One day his son was playing in the backyard while Joshua cleaned the garage and his wife cleaned the bathrooms. After a while, his son came to ask if he could play with him, and Joshua said no, he had to finishing cleaning the garage. His son turned away, and a bit later a neighbor who was doing the same thing came over and said, “maybe you don’t need to own all this stuff.” This began Becker’s move toward minimalism and finding what is essential.
Lesson 5: Fast and intense or slow and muted
James tells the Tellers about his divorce, and relays that he set up a corporation to handle the financial part of the divorce so that they didn’t have to deal with that right away. It let him and his ex-wife focus on the emotional and relational hurdles before the financial ones.
This reminded me of Dan Ariely’s interview where he tells James that when he was in the hospital, it was much more comforting to have his burn bandages slowly removed rather than quickly peeled away. Despite this, the nurses did the opposite. This inspired Ariely’s career of looking for other misconceptions we have.
Lesson 6: Separate the people from the problem
Danielle says that it’s a challenge to switch from an intimate relationship to what becomes a business one. James circumvented that by forming a corporation but many people won’t. Instead, they can draw on the strategies from Getting to Yes, the starting place for good negotiations.
This classic book (#1 in business negotiating on Amazon) suggests we start the negotiation by separating the people from the problem. The authors write:
Failing to deal with others sensitively as human beings prone to human reactions can be disastrous for a negotiation. Whatever else you are doing at any point during the negotiation, from preparation to follow-up, it is worth asking yourself, “Am I paying enough attention to the people problem?”
We are always negotiating and can remember that there is always the people and the terms. Don’t take your eye off the prize of the problem to focus on what the people are doing wrong. Even if your ex, boss, or landlord is an absolute jerk, remember that some people are like that, but that’s not what you are at the negotiating table to determine. You want to solve your interests.
Lesson 7: Wield social pressure wisely
I’ve got a friend who’s starting the new year with a 30 day challenge to read the bible. Each day his update shows up on Facebook and I ‘like’ the post. If he missed a day I can encourage him or ask what’s going on. This is the same social pressure that morning show talking heads encourage with resolutions. Tell people and you’ll be accountable to them. BUT.
Astro and Danielle hint that maybe there is a dark side to this. When we invite people to our wedding we’ve started a social pressure that gets away from us. Like a spark can light dried newspaper, the large wedding begins the social pressure to stay married.
Lesson 8: Remove the worst thing first
James says his biggest fear during the divorce was what might happen with his kids. He was worried about being seen a certain way or not seeing them. The Tellers console him by explaining that most things that happen to our kids don’t push the needle one way or another. If you avoid the biggest two, neglect and abuse that goes a long way. Like our selection bias from divorce statistics and incomes of college graduates, there’s no compelling data about what to do with kids. Just to love them.
In the Nassim Taleb school of parenting these ideas are known was lessons in via negativa and barbell thinking. Via negativa is the act of removing things that have questionable or not positive effects. The big kids should remove sitting, smoking, and crappy foods and enjoy the fruits of our labor in the pursuit of health. Our kids need the removal of abuse and neglect. Taleb is keen to point out that telling people to remove things is a hard sell. He writes, “I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice.” People who always tell you to do this, in ten steps, and buy my program will fall into this camp. The second lesson is thinking about the barbell strategy, or that less is more. Rather than parenting tips online, find out what the key parts of childhood are and do those. Love is probably the biggest. Make Taleb happy and go ask your grandmother for advice rather than Parenting magazine.
Lesson 9: See things as they truly are
Danielle tells James, “just examining whether there is truth in a lot of these social beliefs make them go away. Just like looking at a monster, you realized it’s not real.” She’s talking about social rules we have for getting, being, and staying married. This idea of seeing things is nearly as old as marriage itself. Two-thousand years ago Marcus Aurelius wrote:
Always define whatever it is we perceive – to trace its outline -so we can see what it really is: its substance. Stripped bare. As a whole. Unmodified. And to call it by its name-the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return. Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as this capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us.
For more stoicism see the Ryan Holiday post.
In the interview James tells the Louis CK joke about seeing divorce accurately. It comes up at 5:20 in this clip. (NSFW)
Lesson 10: Match expectations to reality
Astro asks James if promising love forever was “a reasonable thing to promise.” Do, we as twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings understand the concept of forever? Can we see the changes that will be coming as people lose or find jobs, begin or stop habits, have and raise kids? Probably not. I’ve only had kids for 6 years and it’s been a major change in almost every area of my life, how could I have guessed that?
Dan Savage has some of the best advice for getting our expectations to match reality.
When you think about it, you meet somebody for the first time, and they’re not presenting their warts-and-all self to you — they’re presenting their idealized self to you, they’re leading with their best. And then, eventually, you’re farting in front of each other. Eventually, you get to see the person who is behind that facade of their best, and they get to see the person your facade, your lie-self — this lie that you presented to them about who you really are. And what’s beautiful about a long-term relationship, and what can be transformative about it, is that I pretend every day that my boyfriend is the lie that I met when I first met him. And he does that same favor to me — he pretends that I’m that better person than I actually am. Even though he knows I’m not.
Those are 10 takeaways from the Tellers.
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*A note about the Taleb section. I’m very new to thinking in this way, if you want to add any clarification please do.