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A Gross Christmas

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(December 24, 2018)

To my family…

I am writing this letter to you on Christmas Eve and — depending upon whether I’m able to articulate what I think I want to — I’ll read it to you in the morning (so…now, I guess, if I decided to go through with it — it’s weird thinking about how to write something into the future).

Maybe this letter is something I write once, or maybe I make a tradition of it, the way our friend Matt used to. Do remember the way that he’d send Christmas cards every year? I wish he still did. I gave him a hard enough time that he promised to bring them back this Christmas, but he only wrote one for me. I guess I should be flattered, except…he sent it on email.

I look forward to Levi’s end-of-the-year album reviews, and Jamie’s top-songs-of-the-year playlist. Maybe my Christmas Eve letter will become one of those things you guys look forward to reading each year. Or maybe this will simply be a One-Hit Wonder

Time will tell.

This year has been wild. I guess you know that. When it began, I never would have imagined all that has unfolded for each of us during the past twelve months — individually, and as a family. Now, I’m sitting here on the night before Christmas with a full heart, trying to articulate what I hope will be a gift.

Nolan and Elise, I want you to know that I enjoy being your father more than ever.

I am proud of each of you, and you are an unspeakable joy to me.

At dinner tonight, I sat glued to my chair, dumbfounded at how a thirteen-year-old and a fifteen-year-old are able to articulate themselves and hold a conversation better that most twenty-somethings. I am proud of the ways that you display wisdom beyond your age. The ways that you carry and conduct yourselves. The ways that you are able to communicate with others, and share your perspectives — your outlook on life.

I see a maturity in the both of you, far exceeding that of any other kids I’ve ever known. I don’t say it to blow up your heads, but to honor you, and to let you know it’s okay to believe that it’s good to be a Gross.

Remember when we made a list of the Gross Goods and hung it on our kitchen wall?

We want our family to be good with:

  • God
  • Marriage
  • Family
  • Friends
  • Health
  • Work
  • Money
  • Fun

If those attributes are truly a reality in our lives, it’s okay to be proud of them. It’s good to live them out in the world around us.

Jeanette, I’m more grateful for your love and friendship than I have ever been able to express.

As I look back on this year, the one word that stands out is CHANGE. We did a lot of it.

We changed addresses.

We changed schools.

We changed schedules.

We changed the way we live, the way we eat, the way we exercise, the way we work…

Personally, I’m aware that you’re aware of the changes that have been happening in me, too. 2018 was full of them, and I’m writing this letter as a man who is better than the one I saw in the mirror a year ago. I hope that you see that reflected in me as a father and husband, as well, and I hope that I’ll be able to say the same a year from now on December 24, 2019, too.

I learned a lot about myself this year, and that’s part of why I’m writing this tonight: to share some of it with you.

I recently had a talk with Nolan about what I was dealing with when my dad died, like why I wasn’t at his bedside when he breathed his last. I missed it.

I missed it.

Nolan showed me compassion and understanding beyond his years. It made me realize that you guys are at an age where we don’t have to keep things from you because you “can’t handle them.”

So, I’m going to share with you, freely.

I like learning. I like growing. I like new things and new opportunities…but I always end up DOING. I’ve never understood why I just keep doing until I burn out. What do I have to prove, and to whom? I don’t know. I’ve always just done it to provide for our family, and to provide for others.

This year, I’ve been honest with you about struggling with work — with what to do. And should we move? And where? And what will that mean for me, for you, for us? We talked through it all while we figured it out together, but there was more to the why…more to the story.

Before we moved to Huntington, mom told me that she couldn’t do twenty more years like this.

She’s said it before, I never believed her. In the past, I’d simply promised to slow down… and not. For our entire marriage, I’d promise to change — to do something different — but I never did. I just kept adding to the plate until it overflowed. I kept doing more.

This time, mom meant it.

I turned her promise into a challenge. A literal, thirty-day day challenge. I asked her to give me thirty days, and swore that this time would be different. We made the decision to move during a time when I needed something different and drastic to happen if I was going to save our relationship. I needed a new location — new sights and new sounds — and a break from old routines and bad patterns. And I needed to begin to think differently: What do I do? What do I keep? What do I quit?

You probably remember me during this time, although you weren’t yet aware of the circumstances. I showed you both a video after I picked up from school one day — a recording of me…not knowing what to do. I flew to Salt Lake City, randomly. I was scrambling…

How the hell am I supposed to fix this in thirty days?

I was trying to make shit up. It’s what I do. I make shit up. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But this had to work.

I wanted to win your mother back. I couldn’t lose her. I couldn’t lose you.

This has to work.

We moved.

We met with counselors and dinner at their house.

We went to marriage conferences.

We went to marriage marriage intensives.

We discovered the Enneagram.

We remembered that we never finished the How We Love stuff that we began years ago.

Our friend Tom reached out during this time — my old mentor — and I offered him a job just for the sake of having him in my life, if nothing else…

Elise, you can dance to absolutely anything you set your mind to, but you don’t love hip-hop, and you’re discovering how incredible you are at ballet…and how much joy it brings you.

Nolan, you can accomplish absolutely anything on your computer, but you love creative expression, and you want to express yourself through works of art.

I know these things about you, and you know them about yourselves — even at such a young age.

I am forty-three years old today, and only in this past year have I begun to realize the things that I truly love.

I can do a lot, but I only love a few of the things that I do.

When I discovered that truth, I continued to change. I shifted my role at Fireproof. I shut down Aloha & Rain.

I turned down people I said I would work with.

I’ve been trying to replace the things that I hate (or, at least, the things that aren’t a hell yes) with the things that I love.

I started my mastermind group.

I launched betterandbetter.co and have been able to help other people through it.

I discovered that I only like the office in the bathroom at night when I am writing and dreaming and not in the day, grinding away behind a computer screen.

I discovered what I am good at.

I helped a lot of people this year go from stuck to unstuck

It has been fun. But my God, it has been hard. Apparently, a learning curve is exactly that, and some of the realizations that arise in the process are difficult to face.

I learned that much of why I do what I do can be traced all the way back to my childhood. I grew up trying to fix everything from my parent’s marriage to my dad’s struggling businesses. Somehow, even as a kid, I was the parent, and their approval was nonexistent. When I became an adult, I turned to work and success as a way of receiving the approval of others — the approval that my parents never gave me — and I’ve gone long and hard after the praise of others in an attempted to fill a void that keeps leaking out at the bottom.

Mom and I learned that stuff in counseling together, and while we’re far from perfect, we hope that we don’t repeat our parents’ mistakes. Those kinds of burdens aren’t yours to shoulder, and we want to give you a better life than the ones we had growing up.

I want you to chase things that you don’t think are possible. Anything and everything. They are possible, and you’ve seen some of them come true this year — from Nolan getting to do the Nike project he pitched, to Elise getting called out in her dances.

Don’t be afraid. Or, in your fear, be courageous.

Do you remember when I joined Jeff Walker’s Mastermind? That was almost a year ago, now, and just getting in was a massive turning point in my life. In fact, I believe it’s the very reason that I have finally learned this lesson, because getting into the group felt like a miracle — or the completion of a dream that began as an impossibility.

When Carl and I first attended one of Jeff’s LaunchCon events, Walker straight up told the room that no one else could get into his mastermind, and that’s exactly what challenged me to try.

“Carl, not only am I going to get into this group, I’m going to speak at this conference.”

That’s what I told Carl that day. In hindsight, he probably thought that I was crazy, and maybe I did, too. I had no personal connections to the room, which meant no chance of getting into the group, and certainly no chance of ever speaking at their conference.

The whole process — from how to ask for an application, to filling it out, to filling it out again, to coughing up a 30k membership fee, to being accepted — all of it was nerve-racking for me.

But do you know what I did have? What proved to be all that I needed?

CONFIDENCE.

I was confident that I deserved to be in that room, and on that stage. I believe that I am capable — excellent, even — at the things that I know how to do. The things that I have done. The way that I am able to deliver a message with the same kind of confidence needed to get into the room in the first place.

Of course… that doesn’t mean I don’t experience insecurity. When I got in, I was nervous — out of my comfort zone with fifty-two new people (zero of which were friends) and not one connection — but I did it. (Ironically, though, after all of that…I skipped the first “fun” day and went to the spa by myself. Three days of nonstop interaction with brand-new faces was so hard on me.) I pushed through. I went back. I tried to discern how to navigate a brand-new experience.

When do I speak up? When do I ask and when do I tell? Who do I introduce myself to? Do I approach them, or wait for them to approach me? Will Jeff ask something of me, and when?

I’ve learned a lot in Jeff’s group, and the Lord’s direction hasn’t returned void. Financially, it’s a pricey place to be, but the returns have far exceeded my investments. More than monetary gain, though, is the relational component…

I’ve been able to learn from guys that I want to be like — some of them doing thing that I was doing already, but in other areas, things that I didn’t yet know how to do.

They’ve helped me reshape my thinking.

I watched Stu tell stories and love his wife like no one I’ve ever known — ways that challenged me to be a better husband to your mom — and then got to to spend two days with them in Canada.

Jeff told me that business (and life, for that matter) isn’t about chasing revenue…it’s about chasing lifestyle. I watch him work with his son, Daniel, in ways far more patient than I do with you, Nolan. I watched him trust his entire family with his business and — at the same time — saw how he refuses to let his business run him and his family.

Today, one of the “biggest names” in our group posted a question that might prove to be one of the best things that I’ve interacted with all year…

He asked about how to sell 100k copies of a book using Facebook Ads.

I know, I know — it probably sounds boring to you, or way out in left field with no connection to everything that I’ve been writing about thus far, but hear me out…

Almost every day on our Google group, at least one person posts something — a question, a comment, a tip. Throughout the entire year, I have only commented on maybe 5 of 300 posts on our thread… and I have only started one of thread, myself. I read them all, though, and I watch the interactions that take place.

Today, though, in between all of our Christmas bagel eating, I saw the notification on my computer and just…started typing.

I included a few links. I included a proposal that I had previously assembled for a client, revealing our sales model and a few suggestions for the guy. I hit “send” and laughed, thinking, You chose Christmas Eve to finally engage in a post for this group? No one is going to see — let alone read — what you have to say.

And I was right…I got to public messages from anyone, praising my response with digital back-claps.

What I did get, however, was a personal email from Jeff Walker, asking me to PRESENT the topic — and my methodology — at our next Mastermind.

I’m not going to lie — I freaked out inside. I haven’t been in that group for a full year yet. Jeff assigns two-to-four people per group-meeting to share, and he wants me to be one of them. I couldn’t be more excited to put my presentation together, and crush it. If all goes well there, I might even have the opportunity to speak at LaunchCon someday (something Jeff offers to the best of his mastermind presenters so that they can pay forward, publicly, what they’ve contributed to his private group)…the same event that I told Carl I’d speak at someday.

This morning’s email from Jeff is just the second step in a process that — as such a fast-moving person — has admittedly taken longer than what I’m used to, but I’ve begun to recognize that the perhaps the best things in life are worth the wait. Maybe patience is a virtue I haven’t always possessed, but it feels like the Lord has begun to provide a path for me to walk into the dream he gave me. Jeff’s response encouraged me. It gave me confidence that this is happening, and it feels like a win.

You know me… I like to win. When I set out to do something, I want to see it through. It’s fun for me.

At the same time, as the saying goes, our greatest strengths are also our biggest weaknesses.

Bloomberg — a business and marketing company — recently wrote an article about my uncle Bill, who just sold his stamp collection for ten million dollars (yeah, I can’t believe, either). In short, he basically said that, “Once you win by having nothing else to buy, the game is over.”

He “won,” sort of. He won the stamps game, apparently, but he hasn’t won in life. He lost two marriages. Two people who loved him, and who he loved. I don’t know if he can trace his longings for affirmation back to childhood the way that I can, but he still has something to prove.

We all want to keep playing, even when we’ve won, and it makes me wonder what “winning” means.

Tom Brady is better at forty-two than twenty-two. He wants to play forever.

Lebron isn’t done.

Steve Jobs worked all way to his grave.

My uncle Bill kept working through and beyond both failed marriages.

Winning is fun. Accomplishing new things is fun.

But when is enough enough?

I am not quitting or retiring at forty-three, but this year, I have learned that I have to set better boundaries. I have to slow down. I have to learn to enjoy the life that’s been give to me, and the people that I’ve been blessed to live it with.

Nolan and Elise, I hope you both continue to chase after the things that you love. You don’t have to have it all mapped out, but you do have to start. You’ll never reach them unless you start.

At the same time, I need you to remember what’s most important, and I’m not sure that whatever I’ve always thought winning meant…is, anymore.

I don’t win if I lose mom.

I’ll be honest with you…I’m not there yet. I’ve asked mom for plenty of extensions since that first scare last May. But I’m trying, and she’s being gracious to me. I hope that, pretty soon, I can stop asking. I hope that she’ll be able to see that my changes are real, and lasting.

I don’t know quite how to explain it, but I’ve begun to feel more this year. It’s been hard, but it’s been helpful — trying to discern and understand who I am, and how I feel about things both good and bad.

I think I’m getting closer, whatever that means. I think I’m figuring stuff out.

The email I got from Jeff today ended not with some other business plan or proposal, but with a note about his family’s holiday celebration:

We’re about 60 minutes from having 60 people show up for a Christmas Eve party. 🙂

But the best part is that tomorrow it will just be the four of us all day… so blessed that our kids want to hang out with us when they’re adults. I cherish these days.

He reminded me that I’m not his group to feed my need for validation (although, of course, I’m thankful for what I got), but to be reminded of the type of family goals I want to have…that, simply, you guys would just want to be with us.

Earlier this year, a guy named Sam Parsons told me that, “He saw his wife with the eyes Jesus had for her,” and encouraged me to do the same.

I offered to help him publish a book, and I’ll be honest: it wasn’t primarily because he needed me…it was because I needed him.

I wanted to learn how to love mom like I saw Sam love his wife.

I told Jeanette that I wanted to see her the way that Jesus did. I wanted to act like Jesus would toward her.

I’ve tried. I might even be making progress, but let’s be honest…I don’t know much about being like Jesus.

I know him, but being like him is just…hard.

Really hard.

It can be really hard to know what that means.

It can be really hard when you don’t want to be.

It can be really hard when you don’t think someone is being fair.

But I am trying to do life better.

And I think I like where life is going for all of us.

Elise, I love the spirit that I see in you. I love the way that you love just being here with us — with your family and with churro. I want to spend more time with you. I mean that, and I will work on creating that time this year. I will work on finding the time for us to have our “things” — even if it simply means walking through Westminster Mall together every week…I am fine with that. Whatever it takes. You are growing so fast despite all of your longing to stay young, and you are absolutely beautiful. Your friend Ashley says that she hears all day long about how much she looks like her mom and frankly…? That’s not a good thing — haha. But you? You look more like mom in so many ways, and that is a good thing. You are stunning in your photos, and in the movie we just watched together.

Nolan, I don’t know what to tell you that I haven’t told you already. Looking at you is like having a mirror pointed right back at me. Sometimes, it reflects the things that I’m proud of, and sometimes I find myself unable to look into your eyes for the way that they scare me. I don’t know how to describe that other than to say that this year, I want to look you in the eyes more, and enjoy your youth. Your spirit. Your love for life. You hold so much of it within you, and I think I need to be overwhelmed by it. I watch you worship and it inspires me. Don’t ever stop. I want to worship like you someday but right now, I can’t. Whether because of my own strict upbringing, or something else, I’m not sure, but even though I haven’t gotten over whatever it is yet, I’m practicing again, and I hope that eventually I can let go the way that you can.

Jeanette, I am sorry. For what? That list is longer than any I have ever given you. I want to love you and try to see you as Christ sees you every single day. This is my prayer, and I want to ask you to make it yours, as well. Please. Pray that I might have those eyes. I like our future. I don’t mind our past. It’s what’s got us here and here, now, is better than where things were last year. We have persevered through so much pain. Next year, I want way more good days than bad days. I don’t want any bad days, and I know that has got to start with me.

So…what about 2019?

It’s going to be a good one for us, and I have a few things to say about it.

If 2018 was about about CHANGE, then I believe that 2019 is going to be about LESS.

They say less is more. Ironically, I think I even wrote an entire book about that. It seems as though I could stand to benefit from re-reading it and — perhaps — even sharing more of the lessons I learned during that time as I re-learn them, myself.

Knowing me, I’ll probably make us all create a “LESS LIST,” but here’s what I’ve got for the time being:

  • Less Struggle: in marriage.
  • Less Things: I’ve committed not to buying anything unless I sell or get rid of something else, first.
  • Less Travel: I’ve committed to no more than 25 trips…the first time ever talked to mom about putting a cap on how much I’m away from the family.
  • Less Responsibility: I don’t want to do less work, but I have want to have less responsibilities attached to the work that I do. I hired a full time executive assistant to work alongside me, and all my stuff, and I hope that will release me to do less.
  • Less Resistance: I hate routine, but need it. I need to lean in to stuff mom knows and does, and trust her to help me with my days.

I don’t know what other LESS is going to make the list, or how each of you will see that word, or use it this year, but I wanted to share it a week ahead of 2019 — as opposed to hoping I’ll have accomplished enough reduction to write about it in a yearbook at year’s end.

And that is what made me think of writing this letter to you.

It’s like picking up that yearbook and reading all the things that happened…before they did. This way, we can be a part of making them a reality.

Frankly, if I do create a tradition of family letter-writing, I hope that next year’s will be much shorter. Partially, that’s because I can’t believe you’re still listening to me talk right now but also, it’s because our family can do a better job of communicating with one another in the moment. We can share our dreams and aspirations with one another as they come. We can ongoing conversations, as opposed to hindsight reminiscences.

What do you want this year to look like, and what can we be talking about as a family? And let’s ask one another: why? Why do we want to hit the goals that we’ve set? What are our reasons, and are we keeping one another’s ego in check (or, at the very least, are you checking mine)?

How can we be intentional about checking in with and supporting one another? How can we celebrate the wins better together? How can we come alongside one another in our losses?

Asking each other why we want the goals and checking our reasons for that to keep our egos in check or at least mine.

I need you, I love you, and I am so thankful for the gift that each of you is to me.

Merry Christmas.


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