Nature or nurture? Either way it’s your parents’ fault.

images-5We are living in interesting times.  It seems at least once a month scientists discover a new gene that causes something, and yet at that same rate find a behavior that we previously thought was genetic is actually learned.  The more we learn about both nature & nurture, we still stay exactly on the fence about which is dominant.  For everyday usefulness, however, nature can’t hold a candle to nurture.

There is a saying:  “In life, there are reasons and results.  And reasons don’t count.”  There are legitimate reasons for not pursuing something due to our “nature”, but the vast majority of the time we use that word, it is to blame someone for something.  “It isn’t my fault my house is a mess.  I’m just not an organized person”, for example.  Of course, a ton of “isms” also fit for this–racism, sexism, etc.  But if we really want to be happier, more fulfilled & see more success in life (however you choose to define the word success), focusing on nurture will be vastly more effective for you.

Almost every success I’ve had in my life has come with at least some nurture.  When I was younger, and my life was mainly about doing well in school, I admit I was lucky to have been “booksmart” and so lived a lot of success primarily through nature.  Even then, though, I had a lot of times where I had to decide to study, do my homework, etc., or else I would not have seen success, even with my natural advantage.  After school, though, everything I’ve done in life has been heavily nurture.  This counts for both the good & the bad, or should I say the things I’ve done that had both desirable & undesirable results.  Along the way, I’ve learned that citing nature is either an excuse (when aimed at myself) or a weapon (when I aim it at others), and focusing on nurture is a tool.

Like scientists recently, I’m continually amazed at how seemingly everything falls to the tool of nurture.  Things in my life that I was SURE I couldn’t do not only were doable, but became so easy & commonplace I almost didn’t even notice the change, once I nurtured the habits needed to do them.  Writing is a great example.  I’ve learned that writing is more about time spent writing than it is about natural talent (or, as Dorothy Parker basically said, “The art of writing is re-writing”).

Another example is lifestyle.  My family is living in Costa Rica right now and our two younger sons are still in school (6th grade & 11th grade).  They have had to learn how to do their schooling online.  It is something I never had to do, nor did my wife or anyone else I know.  At first, it was almost insurmountably hard.  Think about living in a tropical country, staying in a condo complex with a pool that is across the street from the best surfing beach I’ve ever been to, and being told “You have to spend 4-6 hours a day on schoolwork first son”.  Many of you are thinking the you would LOVE to have a problem like that, but if you really think about it, it’s pretty tough.  But here we are 5 weeks into it and they are machines.  In only five weeks that have both made MAJOR lifestyle changes.  Pretty amazing.

OK, so now it’s time for a controversial example of nurture over nature, and the reason I’m writing this whole damn post in the first place…The word “principles” is such a loaded word these days.  It saddens me that it seems to be used more as a weapon than a tool, used to destroy others rather than to create ourselves.  But it is such a critically important word (and concept) in life, and I’m here to say your principles are learned.  So what?  Why is this controversial?  First, consider the definition of the word (I typed “definition of the word principle” into Google):

Principle:  a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.  Man, that sounds heavy.  so heavy that no on talks about how you get principles.

Wow, a “fundamental truth” that is the “foundation” of your beliefs.  Pretty heavy, man (Or is it dude?  Anyway, I digress…).  Things like fundamental truths must be absolutes, and therefore can’t possibly be learned.  They are rock-solid, unchanging certainties and anyone who says otherwise is just a mealy-mouthed liberal, right?  It’s so easy to go down this path and end up using the word as a weapon against others.  The only problem with this line of thinking is that it’s bullshit.  Principles can immediately contradict themselves.  Life is full of stuff that is too complicated to stick to hardline principles.  Take raising kids–there are times when you need to be their loving friends, and other times you need to be the firm disciplinarian.  Leadership in general is full of these contradictions, whether it is leading a family of kids or an office of employees (@EvanCarmichael has some great stuff on this, including this blog post).  Even “thought” leadership is too complicated to boil down to an unmoving fixation on one or more principles.  Unfortunately, we seem to be fixated with these kind of attacks in the US right now, especially politically (with the lone exception of Bernie Sanders).  My interest is in business, so that’s what I want to focus on.

An important business principle I’ve learned is “The customer has to come before the product.”  I don’t mean this in manner of importance but in actual timeline.  I mean your business needs a customer for its product before it has a product.  This principle seems backward to “product people”, who are typically engineers like me.  In fact, thinking about it logically, how could you possible even have customers if you don’t even have a product??  That’s a great question, and a big trap, especially for tech people like me.  Instead, mentally travel with me in the opposite direction.  Forget about products at all.  Look around at the world in terms of needs.  Look for holes, where people either want stuff or could want stuff, but it isn’t being provided.  Look for needs that aren’t satisfied, capabilities that aren’t enabled, and expressions with no outlet.  Success in business comes not from initially having a better product, but from seeing a better need.  Or, said in a much better way:

“The only real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” -Marcel Proust

When I work with tech companies they are inexorably focused on product.  Only after much development (i.e., time & money spent) do they begin to look outward towards markets & customers.  This seems to make sense to engineers, but is completely backward.  As I’ve said before, “Business is a rope” and you can’t push a rope.  Business must be pulled.  Most of my time is spent trying to teach incredibly smart & capable people how to have “new eyes”.  Here are a few simple ways to try it out and have a little fun along the way:

  1. Play “Hug Bug”.  Pick a car and every time you see it, have an action or phrase that you do or say.  In our family, we play “Hug Bug”, which is a far less violent version of the popular “Slug Bug” game.  If you’re not familiar with it, the first person to point out (usually by yelling) that they’ve spotted a VW Beetle gets to hit (or hug) someone else.   You’ll be amazed at how often you see VW Beetles that you never noticed before, once you start playing the game to look for them.
  2. Eavesdrop.  I know, this is “rude”, but when you’re out, listen specifically for people talking either about their problems, or what they wish they could have or do.  It starts to get you automatically thinking this way, and if you keep hearing the same thing over & over again you might have just stumbled upon a good business idea.  This has the added benefit of slowly exercising your “caring about other people” muscle, which will help you in all areas of your life and help to keep you from using principles as weapons.
  3. Journal about something new you noticed every day.  Keep a notebook by your bed, and make yourself write down at least on ethnic new you’ve noticed or learned every day.  If you messed up and didn’t pay attention, make yourself write that down too!  It is better to have fun with it, rather than beating yourself up, so make sure you write something super flowery & over-the-top, like “I learned my apathy towards the beauty and splendor of everyday life simply knows no bounds”.  In fact, you can even make coming up with a new way to say “I forgot to look for something new today” BE the new thing you learned that day!  What this does is, over time, get you looking around for new things that you didn’t notice before, because you don’t want to get stuck making some stupid shit up at bedtime again.  It is a small, easy, hopefully fun way to train your new eyes.

One quick final word on having fun with this.  No one can definitively tell you why you’re on this planet, living this life, or what it means, so don’t take it too seriously.  I don’t mean to be careless, or mean or selfish, but I do mean have fun along the way.  You’ll never be “done”, so enjoy the ride as best you can.  Instead of pining about other people not making you happy, do it to yourself by making life a game.  Marcel Proust also said:

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

In the end, we love people who make our life fun, and who better to practice loving than yourself?


  1. Interesting read Chris, thanks.

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