Child Labor

For the last month and a half my nine year old son has successfully maintained the laundry for our family of eight.

I’m not going to focus on the philosophical aspects around why kids should do chores, though I strongly believe that for multiple reasons they should. For me it’s practical: it is impossible to keep a house with six kids orderly without everyone contributing. But what’s the best way to get everyone to contribute?

I’ve tried every approach to create a fair system that gets everyone involved while respecting their ages and abilities. I’ve had the schedules and charts and just like Kendra at Catholic All Year points out, they all have proven impossible to maintain despite early excitement.

But now I feel like I’ve finally found a system that works, and I am going to argue that it’s the best approach.

The Backstory

In a house of our size, laundry can quickly become the bane of existence. With my wife homeschooling and a newborn recently arrived, laundry was once again becoming a constant headache. If you know anything about this type of situation, it isn’t bad as long as you diligently do it every single day. But miss a single day, or worse, have a week of sickness or vacation and LOOK OUT -- hopelessness ensues.

So after several other failed approaches to taming the beast, I started by having a conversation with our nine year old boy. He was the only one mature enough to stay on top of a task this big. In other failed iterations the older kids would quickly lose heart when the younger ones didn’t pull their weight to make a system work. I decided that just like in business, every project needs a president.

Instead of making a lowball offer, I considered what having the laundry taken care of was really worth. I settled on offering him $50 a week for staying on top of all the laundry in the house. The amount of money got his attention as he quickly analyzed what it could afford him. (A Lego Superstar Destroyer was only two months away!) He thought through the details and we talked about how staying on top of it each day was the key to making it manageable. Having done enough laundry, he realized the worst part of this system would be sorting his three sisters’ clothes. I agreed with him; sorting their laundry is next to impossible, but I pointed out that his six year old sister could sort it faster than any of us. So we invited her to the conversation and it was quickly agreed: he would get $40 for managing everything but sorting the girls’ laundry, and she would get $10 for taking on that task.

After striking the agreement, the first week began slowly. It didn’t have the initial excitement of the charts and despite having a few second thoughts, they both quickly got up to speed. The necessary early promptings and encouragement have given way to nearly flawless execution.

Why does it work?

It is surely undeniable that, when a man engages in remunerative labor, the impelling reason and motive of his work is to obtain property, and thereafter to hold it as his very own. If one man hires out to another his strength or skill, he does so for the purpose of receiving in return what is necessary for the satisfaction of his needs; he therefore expressly intends to acquire a right full and real, not only to the remuneration, but also to the disposal of such remuneration, just as he pleases.” (from Rerum Novarum or “On the Condition of the Working Classes: Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical that describes just principles of capital and labor)

The key principle, I think, is accepting that kids are just like adults: they recognize the inherent inequity in a deal. If I were to pay my son $10 for a week of laundry or give him a ticket for a family movie night, he’d quickly realize that the exchange was either not equitable or not properly in his control.

I calculate that the kids are earning right around minimum wage in California, but for them it is a huge sum of money and for me it’s a great deal. My son is also basically free to do as he pleases with the money rather than be confined to an economy I’ve created with charts and rewards. So far I have watched him tithe at Mass without prompting and save up for Lego purchases.

Not only is the laundry caught up but he’s earning his own money, learning to tithe and save, all while immensely helping the family. He’s learning that the key to staying on top of things is doing a little bit each day and connecting the consequences of not taking care of his bath towel to the work it creates for others.

Now I just have to find a job for the seven year old who eagerly wants one.

30 Days Disconnected

It was Friday, May 17th, 3:00 pm and I had just shut off Wi-Fi. Combined with my latest purchase, a flip phone that would have been cool ten years ago, I was internet free for the next 30 days. Even though that last unopened email gave me great pause (Nordstrom Men’s Shop Finely Crafted Oxfords), I felt good. Burner phone in pocket, Matt and I grabbed cigars and discussed Hollywood business models.

I had spent the last couple hours getting to inbox zero, paying all the bills I could think of, setting up auto-reply emails, and most importantly, setting up automated emails to my wife to replace the short notes I send her each morning when I arrive at the office. These were the things I thought of as suffering from my lack of internet connectedness. I considered posting a message to Facebook but quickly decided that the vacation reply email was more than adequate. It felt arrogant to assume that everyone on Facebook must be warned about my impending absence. I was pretty sure that as much as I wanted them to miss me, the people I am friends with on Facebook wouldn’t actually notice. If someone had a serious reason to get ahold of me, they already knew me beyond Facebook and would either email or call.

I was excited and, having had the cigar, relaxed. It was time to head home and take the family to Palm Springs for the weekend. I took the directions I had printed (before becoming internet free), packed up the family, and headed for the desert. Having made the trip to Palm Springs three times prior, it struck me that I still didn’t know the way. I was reminded of several occasions over the past couple years when I wasn’t able to remember how to get somewhere I had already been. I began to realize that if I followed GPS to a destination, I usually didn’t remember how to get back without relying on GPS again. This was one of those things that made me feel like I was getting more forgetful. Using printed maps, however, was different. I had to pay attention to where each turn was. I had to anticipate whether or not I might have missed it. I watched the passing landmarks intently, and now know precisely how to get to Palm Springs. No GPS needed.

As soon as we arrived (and I was feeling pretty good about life without GPS), I began to realize that the Map app is one of the most useful tools on a smartphone. Whether it was finding a restaurant, checking when and where Mass was, or looking up a phone number for the cigar bar. In an effort to find my answers without the app, I discovered that phonebooks are no longer in most hotel rooms and 411 is still outrageously expensive. The Map app quickly became the most missed feature of my lost internet life. It was then that I began to think about establishing criteria that would guide my decisions moving forward on what apps and technology I would eventually allow back into my life when the time came to reconnect.

RULE #1: Anything I allow in must enhance the life I WANT to live.

Just because it does something cool is not reason enough to add an app. Thoreau in Walden Pond tells the story of refusing a free doormat because he didn’t have the desire to need to shake it out. I realized I had been allowing a lot of apps in that might not require shaking out, but their mere existence on my phone required, if nothing else, the occasional update. An example was when a friend of mine found this really cool wine app. Eventually I would like to be a wine connoisseur, but this would require a significant commitment of time and effort. That isn’t something I am actually ready to do, so for me the app is a waste of time. If anything, it creates a sense of guilt for not using it.

Waking up Saturday morning, I was ready to head to the pool, order drinks, and consume at least one of the four books I bought prior to leaving the internet. The books, different views on the intersection of culture and technology, would be easy to finish without the distraction of the internet. We packed up for the pool and headed out of the room. We grabbed our towels, got settled on a sea of lounge chairs, and I opened my book. Four sentences later my oldest daughter was asking me to watch her do a trick in the pool. Having lived this experience several times before, I quickly realized: I could either read this book and be annoyed all day, or I could play with my kids and have fun. Luckily, this time I chose the latter. This led to my second rule for moving forward:

RULE #2: I can only pay attention to one thing at a time.

An interesting side note to this is that when I finally got around to reading those books, several studies demonstrated that kids resented parents much more when they were physically present but chose to pay attention to their devices. When the parent was physically absent, they expressed understanding and almost admiration for the hard work their parent was involved with. But with parents who pushed them on the swing while texting, they resented being actively ignored. I knew this from trying to have conversations with people who were paying attention to their phones, but for so long I had bought in to the notion that having email at my fingertips enabled me to be away from the office and with my family more. This experience reminded me that being present means paying attention and playing in the pool, and that giving my attention is more fun and rewarding than self-serving attention.

Driving home on Sunday, the reality of trying to run a multi-media company that operates almost entirely online without myself connecting to the internet became a scary thought. The first thing I panicked about was that I had no way to check our ad performance. We spend significant money on ads, and these ads need to be tweaked on a regular basis or we quickly start spending money that is not returning results. This quickly led me to the next realization: I had come to hate asking for help.

In addition to needing someone to monitor the ads, I also had to ask a coworker to borrow a book early Monday morning. It struck me how hard and reluctant I was to ask for simple help. In a world with Google, I felt rude asking for help on anything that might be available online. I realized this again as I experienced knee pain from hiking and desperately wanted to turn to the internet instead of making an appointment with my doctor. This self-reliance, at first seemingly good in many ways, made me much less connected to those around me. It also arguably made me more prone to making bad decisions. Many of my internet diagnoses of medical problems have been wrong. How much better if I had asked for the wisdom of others in the first place? My problem was that having to ask someone for help had become almost humiliating.

Once I finally got past this and actually asked for help, though, I realized it also created a sense of gratitude: now I owe that person a favor. I quickly learned how much better it was to live in a state of gratitude. I found that simple things like trivial annoyances became much more tolerable.  I looked at that person as someone who helped me and to whom I was now indebted.

It was Tuesday before I first noticed how much clearer my thoughts were becoming. I was sure that I was already able to focus and stay concentrated on a thought longer as well as see it to a good conclusion, than I had been able to do in ... forever. My mind was feeling sharper and calmer. Instead of rough seas, it felt like a smooth ride. At the same time I couldn’t help but wonder if I was just making it all up. I should have figured out some sort of test to do before and after for something like this. But as time went on, this proved to be real. My mind had started to be able to focus and concentrate much more effectively than it had been able to before I left the internet.

It wasn’t until Thursday that I had my first meeting with people, outside my coworkers, who were aware of what I was doing. Like many people I encountered, they seemed jealous, angry, and condescending. It’s an odd combination. The conversations went something like this:

“What do you do with all your free time?”

“Read.” I gave short answers since I hadn’t really thought about these things. This was actually a great question that wasn’t an issue until later.

“Is your wife sick of you yet?”

“No, why?” What I wanted to say was, She actually likes having my attention.

“I wish I could do it.”

“Yeah, it’s tough.” At this point I really wanted to say, Bull, you can. You are lying to yourself if you really believe you can’t.

This was the first of several conversations where one idea seemed clear. Like me, there are a lot of people who have an underlying hesitation about how we use our technology, but it’s usually nothing more than a passing thought, and any quick justification will eliminate it. This is just how it is – we are so busy!

By Friday I was really starting to enjoy this new freedom and ability to focus, even if it meant being more willing to ask for help and accept strange ridicule from others. Again, in concern for what would happen when I decided to try this experiment, I had strategically planned the following week to be a vacation with family who were renting a beach house in town. Over the week we had a great time and several conversations about my odd experiment. Two things became readily apparent.

First, my family members, like most people I know, will quickly pick up a device to fill awkward silences. It is as if we are afraid or feel incapable of having a conversation that goes beyond superfluities. I wondered how often I have chosen to do this. I also wondered how often I have chosen to text, email, or Facebook someone instead of picking up the phone.

Second, people become very defensive about how they use technology. They HAVE to use it the way they do. The assumption had quickly become that I was somehow against the internet entirely, or that I just didn’t understand technology as well as they did, or that their particular case was the legitimate exception. Trying to convince them of my basic suggestion, that maybe they could be more conscious of how they use their tech rather than mindlessly turning to it, was not a message that could get through.

The next two weeks were spent back at the office. There, I now discovered the realization that I, like most people I know, have built a completely false sense of productivity. I had long thought without ever realizing it that sitting at a computer was somehow being productive. Without having the internet, the incredibly uncomfortable reality of how much time I wasted on interruptions and trivial matters was staggering. My life at work sitting behind the computer had become one of dealing with minutiae that filled every moment of every day and prevented me from focusing on the real, important, long-term stuff. I began to think that the whole idea that sitting at the computer is widely viewed as being productive is probably one of the greatest wastes in American society today. When I returned to the internet, and my 2300 emails, this notion was more than confirmed. Somehow before, answering those 2290 unimportant emails had seemed more productive than talking to coworkers or working to expand our knowledge base.

On several occasions coworkers would walk into my office while I was reading one of the books to prepare to write this article, and I could feel their silent judgment. Immediately I wanted to say to them, “Oh right, sitting there with Facebook and email open on the same screen you are trying to do work on is somehow much more productive.” But I didn’t, knowing that I would think the exact same thing walking into any office in the country if I saw someone reading a book. It was then I decided there had to be a better way of utilizing employees and get them away from their screens.

By the end of the month I was ready to be back online but committed to applying what I thought I had learned. During the last week of freedom, I developed a plan of attack to build a more concerted effort to use technology intentionally. I reflected on the biggest lessons I had learned through my experiences and tried to design a solution for dealing with each.


The first lesson I learned was that the greatest power I have is in the choice of what I pay attention to. I realized that every moment I spend looking at my phone is a moment I choose not to pay attention to what is happening in real life right in front of me. Whether it is mindlessly following GPS, standing in line at Starbucks, or rocking my daughter to sleep. Having the power of the iPhone in my pocket always made me worry I might be missing out on something, when really what I was missing out on was the life right in front of me.

The second lesson I learned was the hardest. If I am honest, I have wasted a ton of time on trivial matters and interruptions. Almost every time I have surfed the internet or checked email, it has been an enormous waste. In one experience, the week before this experiment, I actually noticed I had lost an entire hour in the middle of working on a project because I checked email. All of it work-related, I had followed up on something in one of the emails that led me to something else. An hour later I realized that the one thing I came to the computer to do I hadn’t even started. I can see that the studies I have read about how each interruption wastes an enormous amount of time are absolutely right. I have lived in a state of constant interruptions. There is no need for me to know the instant an email, text, or random sports update happens.

The third thing I learned is that I was losing the ability to self-reflect. By having the internet in my pocket, the moment I got uncomfortable I could turn to it rather than confront that nagging feeling head on. I actually think this might be one of the greatest tragedies of our age. I believe most of the great achievements of humanity have been inspired by discomfort. To have a steady dose of something that eases the pain and helps you avoid confronting the reality that you are miserable is dangerous.

The most contentious thing I learned is that I don’t think Facebook-only friends have any real value. I came to believe that tech connectedness is a bunch of bull. The overwhelming majority tend to be superficial connections designed to make us feel good about ourselves rather than actually help us be a friend to someone else. Some people I talked with insist that only because of Facebook are they really close friends with people or that they have gotten so much business for their company. But I can’t help but wonder: How many of my Facebook friends would I like better in person if I didn’t read their annoying status updates? How many of my Facebook friends would I go visit if they were in the hospital? For how many would I attend their funeral? The point being, how many of them would I actually be a friend to? Would not being on Facebook make me any less of a friend with my actual friends? And it left me with the question of what is the value of a Facebook-only friend? I had long thought that even loose connections are better than no connections, but I was wrong.


So my solution for getting the most of my technology has been first to shut off all notifications on all devices. I have become convinced that there is almost nothing worth being interrupted for. And I mean NOTHING! Should a text message ever interrupt a face-to-face conversation? Should an email ever interrupt me while I am doing creative work? By allowing things to NOTIFY me, I was allowing the computer, iPhone, or iPad to decide what I was paying attention to. I began to understand that one of the few things I have control over in order to live the life I want to live is deciding what to pay attention to. I want to decide. I ran into a number of people during my experiment who claimed they needed to be notified of every email as it came in. While they had various reasons, I have yet to hear one that makes any sense (outside the hypothetical example of something like a customer service rep who’s only job is to answer email all day).

The next part of my solution is to eliminate the temptation of distraction. I deleted nearly every app on my phone, including all email accounts, in order to make the iPhone just a phone. This works pretty well. The one piece I’d like to have is an app that, instead of only being able to switch into vibrate mode, would allow me to easily switch to the Do Not Disturb mode. That would be an ideal solution. On my home screen today I have Phone, Messages, Cal, Maps (these live on the bottom dock), and Camera, Photos, Contacts and my Credit Union’s App. That is it. It has been tempting to add more, and I wish I could delete Safari (though I found by using restrictions I can make it disappear), Mail, and the others altogether, but instead I have to hide them in a folder on the second page. It is actually very tempting to just use the burner phone permanently; in fact, one of my coworkers did just that, giving up his iPhone, and I may well do the same.

I then asked myself what is the appropriate amount of email, texting, etc. I started by thinking about how long is reasonable to reply to someone based on the method of conversation. I decided email is 24 hours, so there is arguably no reason to check it more than once a day. So now, right before lunch, I check email. This gives me motivation to get through it as quickly as possible, provides an appropriate response time, and most importantly, keeps my head clear all morning to focus on more important tasks.

Texting, I decided, should ideally be limited to family and close friends and used primarily as a logistical aid where there is a specific piece of information to convey that doesn’t need a response. I assume, if you text me, that a few hours is an adequate response time. Ideally I will set my phone down across the room when I come into my office and only get up to check it when I so choose.

I have turned my computer into a creative-only machine so email, web browsers, and the like are all gone from the dock. If I am on my computer, I am creating something. I did this because it is too easy to get lost in email or on the web on the big screen. Instead I set up email and internet on my iPad Mini with a Logitech Bluetooth Keyboard. This is my consumption device. This setup is adequate for doing those tasks but quickly gets annoying, thereby limiting my time. It also makes it so I have to choose to check email rather than get interrupted while writing an article like this. One of my early ideas was the notion that if it isn’t worth getting up and going across the room to check, it isn’t worth checking. If I’m not willing to walk downstairs to the family computer to check email, then it definitely isn’t urgent enough that I should check it on my phone.

The most critical solution, though, is one of behavior. I am struggling but trying to consciously choose what I pay attention to every moment of the day. If I could master this, I could achieve what Thoreau set out to do at Walden – to live intentionally.


So what do I tell people who ask what they should do? Nothing. No one ever asks. They are interested in talking about it, gently poking fun at me and justifying their own actions, but few are open to the idea that maybe they could do something different. So my actual suggestion is fairly simple. Try it. Go without the internet (cut it completely ‒ any exception will deplete the experience). Two weeks is the minimum, three is much better, and four is just barely too much. To claim you can’t is a bunch of bull. You won’t be disappointed, and you will discover for yourself what you might be missing. If you need further motivation, I highly suggest reading Alone Together by Sherry Turkle and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr.

Cigar Conversations

I saw him earlier, but now Matt says he’s taking pictures of us. Six Foot five pushing 300 lbs. Maybe he likes to take ‘before’ pictures of his victims.

He’s dressed only in black leather. Matching black bandana on his head. Thanks to his huge dark sunglasses (obviously essential in a dimly-lit room thick with smoke), you can’t tell what he’s looking at.

What on earth am I doing in a cigar bar with a guy like this behind me?

Two Years Ago

It was one of those gorgeous Michigan summers when 88 degrees feels like 107 and the air is more suffocating than a sauna. The day started at the crack of dawn with the incessant crooning of the rooster who has no real purpose. This came after a sleepless night, thanks to the unrelenting humidity. The rooster was quickly followed by the craziness of my 10 nieces and nephews who, combined with my own kids, continued going crazy throughout the day at my in-laws house. While not without joy, a day like this is not what any sane person would consider a vacation. Just before the sun receded enough to let the mosquitoes  drain the last bit of sanity I had, I witnessed it. A moment of pure brilliance. My father-in-law grabbed a lawn chair and a cigar.

My first box of cigars was a wedding present: 25 Cuban Cohibas. I knew nothing about cigars; if I had, I would have guessed they were fakes, but I was cool because I had Cubans. The rare times I would smoke a cigar I would only smoke a Cuban. I liked the idea of a cigar but knew nothing about what makes a cigar great.

There sits my father-in-law smoking, not a cuban, but a cardboard box Grenadier. I want one. Of course it isn’t the cigar itself I want, but the serenity, the moment of quiet rest I am witnessing.

Rest means recuperation: to gain strength, form ideals and make plans. In other words it means a change of occupation, so that you can come back later with a new impetus to your daily job. -St Josemaria Escriva, Furrow 514

Each day of the vacation, about the same time, we enjoyed this ritual together and for probably the first time I bonded with my father-in-law. As the week progressed, my wife would finish getting the last of the kids to bed and she would come and join us and these moments were some of the best of the whole vacation. These moments were the vacation.

When I returned to San Diego the daily cigar ritual faded away but I was hooked on the experience. I wanted to experience rest and (more importantly) the conversations that rest enables.

I slowly started acquiring cigars,

knowing nothing about them but determined this time to actually try and store them properly. I began to learn the difference between cigars. I came to admire the craftsmanship that goes into creating great cigars.

Lucky for me, my wife, having grown up with brilliance of her father, likes cigars as well and she began joining me for the occasional smoke. If you want to have a real conversation with your wife leave the iPhone inside and have a cigar (no, she doesn’t always smoke one). On a recent evening our conversation ranged from how lucky we are to live in San Diego, to explaining my thoughts on the Flor de las Antillas I was smoking, to my annoyance with people wishing their Moms "Happy Birthday" on Facebook, to the hydrangeas my wife recently planted, to people we admire and wanted to be more like. It’s a more substantive hour long conversation than happens in any other setting. I’d argue there is no better way to have a conversation with your wife.

One of my partners at work, Matt, the guy warning me about the leather guy taking pictures of us, had also started developing an interest in cigars after receiving a fully stocked humidor as a wedding gift from his father-in-law. After a few casual smokes together and one of us getting an exciting shipment of cigars (quite possibly our first shipment of Padron 1964’s), we decided we should give smoking at work a shot. So we created Cigar Thursdays.

It was a bold idea.

We were embracing the end of the week with the best way we knew to unwind and relax. Some companies have foosball or pool tables-we had Cigar Thursday.

Putting Cigar Thursdays together was often a hassle. Other men would have given up. Whether it was complaints about the smell in the building, verbal or the (far worse) non-verbal judgement about our lack of productivity, or just the challenges of the once a year rainstorm, it was never easy. It always struck me as odd that in a culture that had come to embrace cigarette breaks, smoking a cigar for 45 minutes once a week was somehow seen as irresponsible. No one understood. One of my friends would frequently harass us, going so far as asking, “What if your daughter was smoking one?” Despite the hassle we also started to realize two things: not only was this a lot of fun, but some of our best brainstorming happened around those cigars. Some of our greatest challenges were resolved over a cigar conversation.

During these conversations we also realized a fundamental disconnect in the way most companies are managed. The notion that employees sitting at their computer all day is somehow productive is absurd. People need to get away from their machines. Even if they are coders, employees should probably walk away and interact with coworkers from time to time. We became galvanized in our determination to build our company in a much more human centered way.

Which brings us back to this business meeting.

At a cigar lounge. With Mr. Leather. Joining Matt and I is our newest employee and friend Justin. The goal of the meeting is to refine our idea about launching a new online brand targeting men. The conversation varies from story pitches, to the Padres, to equitable employee ownership structures and the plight of underpaid Catholic youth ministers. In the course of two hours we flesh out the details of our first twelve feature articles while simultaneously solving several key societal challenges.

Which brings us back to Mr. Leather himself. If you understand cigars you realize he isn’t scary at all. He’s just stopped by to relax amongst the most eclectic mix of guys you’ll ever find in one place. These guys from all walks of life share only one thing: their love of cigars and more importantly the experience smoking them creates.

The next night I’m watching the sunset from a sweeping veranda perched 300’ above the Pacific Ocean, thanks to the gracious invite of one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. The only problem is that she is the only person I know at this party, and the guest list featured some of the most well-heeled and generous people in Southern California. I hate networking. After some polite conversation, individually made 8oz mojitos, a taco bar to die for, and a great speech from the guest of honor I’m ready to look for the exit until the host’s husband announces there will be cigars. Let the conversation begin! As the host later notes: “Those cigar after parties seem to be even more productive than golf course chatter!  John doesn’t play golf so it works out quite well.”

Forget Golf!

In an era where electronic devices have made us so connected that we are uncomfortable in any conversation that might last more than 3 minutes, I invite you to a real conversation, an authentic rest to form ideas and make plans. The greatness of cigars lies not in any particular cigar, though they are important, but in the rest and conversation it creates among the smokers. Come enjoy one of the ‘09 Illusione Le Grandes that arrived yesterday with me! But hurry. They're going fast.

Click here to learn how to properly enjoy a cigar.