My Parents and the Tail-End
I’ve always tried to be intentional with my time – often to a fault. I gravitated to my life’s impermanence. One scenario I always cited to my peers is the following:
Imagine waking up and realizing you’ve won the lottery, albeit a little different in structure. Each day, you are given $86,400, but there is a catch. By the end of the day, the $86,400 disappears, no matter how much you’ve used or didn’t use, it is gone. How do you spend it?
Similarly, there are 86,400 seconds in a single day. Just like winning the lottery, you are endowed with this currency. And at the end of the day, the endowment disappears.
How do you spend your winnings?
Perhaps this wasn’t the healthiest mindset as a teenager – I often scoffed at the idea of going to parties and making friends. Why go and waste my time when I could be building out a new company idea or learning something impactful? Little did I realize, relationships and having a great time matter, too.
One of the unfortunate outputs of this philosophy is having viewed family as expendable. Why should I be present with my family during outings when I can take a book or my computer to get some work done at the same time? This pattern is something I’ve come to regret with maturity, but it’s pain and reflection that gives way to progress (hat-tip to Ray Dalio for that one).
I started to associate a lot of guilt and shame to this perspective and rightfully so. I came across a statement that has stuck with me for some time: “All it takes is for one idea to change your life.” While I jeered at its simplicity initially, life often gives you lesson at the level at which you are able to understand it. Sometimes, for lessons to click, you need to grow a bit. I think this situation is no different.
The one idea
I was listening to a podcast with Tim Ferris, and one of the ideas he said illuminated an entire shift in his perspective was the concept of the tail-end. Popularized by Tim Urban’s blog, Wait But Why, the thesis is that by assessing your life in units of time or events, you can calculate the remaining time you have to do certain things. For example, if you imagine yourself to be a 22-year-old as I am now, and I make the assumption that I will (hopefully) live to 90 years of age, that means I have roughly 68 more Superbowls left in my lifetime. The same assumption can go for how many ski seasons I have left, assuming I can still ski when I am 70; I only have 48 more seasons to ski with my friends and family.
While this is a great framework to see what you have left in terms of my idiosyncratic enjoyment, the same timeline, unfortunately, doesn’t extend to relationships. Your parents have their own set of Superbowls and ski seasons left, as do your high school friends. The crux of the issue then, is what remains of your time with both of these groups? This comes to the thrust of the life-changing idea – how can we measure in units how much have we utilized of the whole, and how much is left to engage with these relationships?
For a simple example, as illustrated in Tim Urban’s post, time spent and potential future time to be spent can be applied to high school friends. In high school, I probably spend 2 days out of the week hanging out with my friends: grabbing food, doing mini-vacations, or just chilling at one of their houses. Including some weeks during our summer break, we have all hung out a total of 500 days. Now that we are graduated or will graduate from college, we’ll all be scattered across the country, some of us even international, so the instance where all four of us are in the same room again will probably be 15 days for each decade until we die. As a percentage, that means the tail-end of my time with my friend group is down to its final 20% of our total hang out time left.
However, 20% is a pretty solid number. It’s like the remaining 8 months of your undergraduate career – senior year. Scary, but pretty manageable in my opinion.
My paradigm shift with my family took place when I applied the same exercise to my parents. My parents had me in their late 30s. This messes with the calculations. Now entering their early 60s, the timelines have shifted dramatically. In high school, I probably spent 90% of my time with them every year – which makes a lot of sense given I was living with them. But now that I’m graduated from college and living a fair distance from home, coupled with their age, I probably will see them 20 days a year – about 6% of the days per year I spent with them in my childhood. Assuming they live another 20 years, it means I have only 400 days left with them. This means I have utilized 94% of my in-person time with my parents. I am much farther along into the tail-end of my relationship with them.
These two examples illustrate that even if you are not near your life’s end, your relationships with those who are most important to you may be.
What did this information do for me? It uprooted my relationship with my parents - for the better.
College and my parents
To explain why this idea was so impactful for me, you’ll need a bit of narrative to understand where my head was at the time. I had just entered my freshman year at Stanford, and I was getting kicked in the teeth. I went to a poorly-performing public high school, my parents didn’t go to college, and I was very much out of league in this environment. As you’ll come to know, I don’t do well with not feeling good enough. It was hard for me to explain the academic, social, and emotional struggles that I was experiencing with my parents. They never had a similar experience, so while they could send me their love, they couldn’t give me advice or empathize. I started to harden myself as I saw relating and being close to my parents was holding me back from growing into this new environment. In other words, I resented my upbringing for not preparing me well enough.
It wasn’t until I came across Tim Ferriss’ podcast on the topic of the long-tail that I realized that my relationship with my parents shouldn’t be a function of circumstance and challenge, but a function of values and love. The realization that I had less than 6% of my time left with them shifted my entire perspective from one of antipathy to that of gratitude and intentionality. I wanted to more willing to give up more of my free time to spend time with my parents in more meaningful ways.
My priorities shifted
While in college, my dad shifted from working full time to being pseudo-retired. The identity of being the breadwinner to that of retiree I think really shocked him. You could tell he was entering a depressive state, as demonstrated by his lack of motivation to remain disciplined with his diet, his exercise, and his growth. It bothered me a lot.
I tried to be there for him. His behavior really worried me, and it affected my performance at school. It was like I was trying to be his parent and therapist while also being a young adult dealing with my own half-baked emotional stability.
There were a few steps that I took to at least get some semblance of change in my dad. I was a huge Tony Robbin’s fan, so I gave up a free ticket I had to a Los Angeles Unleash the Power Within event. It went really poorly. A few hours in, he texted me and said he wasn’t getting anything out of it and the customer service team could refund him the ticket if he wanted. I was crushed. I couldn’t think of a better place for him to be immersed in a totally different environment with people who wanted to find new meaning and purpose in their life. I was being an idealist – I started to resent him for what I thought was a lack of trying.
Other steps I took included having weekly sessions to address mental, emotional, and physical barriers to him living a full realized life. These ended up being helpful in some regard, as we identified self-sabotaging practices and routines that didn’t serve his vision for himself. That being said, it was hard to keep him accountability and make those changes last. This ensued in a lot of frustration. I loved him, I wanted him to have a fulfilling life, but each time I made the effort, I found more and more reasons to want to give up. It should not have to have been my role to be his coach.
However, I kept asking myself, how can I make this more enriching for the both of us. My solution was skiing. It was something my dad I did often when I was younger, but started to go more infrequently as I got into high school. This was exciting to me and him. He had a newfound energy as he tried to find the best deals on ski gear for the season, and he was already working to map routes at the ski resorts we had access to. I loved seeing a shift in him.
My priorities started to shift away from spending time with my friends in college and soaking in those memories and more toward spending more quality time with my dad and mom, who’d accompany us on our trips. I would skip school mid-week so we could ski unencumbered by long lift lines and dense on-piste routes. It was magical. I had the luxury of breaking my dad’s pattern and also got to enjoy the process, too.
This entire experience, of investing heavily in my relationship with my parents, helped me to see my parents as a foundation of who I want to be, instead of a crutch holding me back from what I could be. Our relationship is closer than ever, and we have a newfound respect for each other.
The man I want to become
The idea of the long-tail single-handedly helped me fall back in love with my parents. It showed me in a quantified manner how fragile life is, and even more importantly, how fragile the relationships are with those whom we hold closest. It’s more esoteric to think of your own morality, but it is more concrete and forces action when applied to those closest to you.
I learned that being intentional with my time, though a bane in my youth, has been the most uplifting in my young adulthood. I want to be a man who is more conscious of how he is spending time with others, focus on building the memories and the connection with those who matter most. Success, accolades, and recognition matter little if those who you are closest to aren’t around for the journey.
The longtail has allowed me to see that relationships are the linchpin to a meaningful life. I couldn’t be more grateful for having been exposed to the idea, and I consider myself lucky for not acting on it at a time that was too late.
Until next time,