Dear J,

Part of being a dad is getting treated to moments like this. And like any good dad, the first thing I’ll do is laugh and tell your mom. The next thing I’ll do is fetch my camera. Hey, you try having kids. Being able to laugh keeps us sane.

Jokes aside, one of the most essential skills you need in life is being able to smile. (Another is being able to make other people smile).

Because, you can never always control what you get in life, but you can always control how you let yourself be affected by it. If you are ever in a survival situation, the moment you entertain negative thoughts, you’re dead. You stop doing the things you need to do and you stop doing things that increase your odds of seeing sunrises and sunsets.

If you ever get a choice of who to get stranded on an island with, always choose the person who can keep joking and smiling. Now that I think about it, this might be a good tip in general. For example, it also applies whenever you set out to chase a dream or test an idea. If anyone appears and says “Let me play devil’s advocate…”, you need to swiftly give him a hard hook to the ribs, an uppercut to the chin, and take his head off with a left hook:

Figuratively, of course.

The least you must do is cut that person out of your life immediately. (I’m serious.)

Because, dreams and motivation are like delicate embers that struggle to kindle — they don’t need anyone raining on them. Besides, the best way to learn is by trying and making mistakes. More opportunities will open up for you when you make mistakes, than if you didn’t even try. I don’t know who said this, but it’s good:

“Doubt will kill more dreams than Failure ever will.”

Speaking of survival… (sorry, got carried away)… we’re supposed to talk about words today.

Did you know that you have a contraption in your throat that puts you inches away from death by asphyxiation, every day? Have you ever choked on something or felt a panic from trying to breathe but getting no air? Yup, that’s it — we humans have a flawed airway design that makes us more likely to choke than any other living creature.

Take a look at this nonsense:

Ape on the left, hairless ape on the right

Just look at the colored parts. I’m about to give physicians a heart attack with my description, but screw them — I’ll go for simplicity to get a point across, over self-serving jargon like “idiopathic myopathy”. (Myopathy meaning “something’s wrong with your heart muscle”; Idiopathic meaning “we don’t know what.”)

Let’s start with the pink thing (the tongue) and the red section behind the tongue (pharynx). The pharynx is the Sphinx’s cousin, and the vertical drop from the back of your mouth to the part where your throat splits into: one tunnel that goes to your lungs (trachea), and another tunnel that goes to your tummy (esophagus).

The tunnel that goes to your lungs has your voice box in it, guarded by a flap like the paddle on a pinball machine. Pinball flap up: air can flow to/from lungs through voice box, and pinball flap down: stuff goes to (and— ech —from) tummy.

Now compare the ape and human. With the ape, the pinball flap is right behind the tongue. When an ape swallows, the pinball flap dumps food directly into the esophagus, with almost no chance for it to fall into the airway. But when we swallow, it first tumbles dangerously down the tall pharynx shaft, before the pinball flap gets to send it one way or another.

And when things get sent the wrong way, we choke.

This tall pharynx (and low larynx) appeared some 300,000 years ago. This anatomical change was what really kicked our speech into high gear. No other animal has a larynx low enough to produce sounds as complex as we do, including our chimpanzees relatives.

(Fun fact: babies can breathe and swallow together without choking because we start off with short pharynxes like apes, and our voice box descends only later in life.)

But wait – isn’t this a horrible flaw? People have died from choking, and it’s one of the most agonizing ways to go! Nevertheless, evolution decided: communication is important enough to put breathing at risk.

And that’s why words are amazing. Words allow us to communicate. And being able to communicate with another person is as important as the breath of life itself.

It’s one of the most powerful skills you can ever have. One you ought to dedicate yourself to be a student of. I’m not talking about slapping words together with proper grammar and a pompous vocabulary or whatever garbage schools try to poison your mind with. The skill I’m talking about is: communicating to get a person to act.

Let’s get to the basics:

  1. Start with “Who?”
    Before you can know what to say, you must know exactly who you’re saying it to. Like hearing a bell-boy page your name in a crowded hotel lobby, your reader must feel, “this is for me and me alone.” (In the same way, it should repel everyone else.)
  2. Write with intent
    There’s no point in writing anything without one clear, simple and specific outcome in mind. Before you write, you need a goal. And the goal is a decision from your reader: a decision to do X, or not do X.
  3. It’s not about you
    The goal must always be in terms of what you want your reader to decide. Action stems from a decision to act. And decisions are made in the mind of your reader. Decisions are made in her world (not yours). The language, the message, how you present it, the objections, questions and problems to address… if you want someone to take action, you must help her come to a decision in her world. Define the goal, then work backwards from the goal.
  4. You cannot control the outcome
    Refer to 1: your goal is to help your reader decide to do X, or not do X. No decision is right for everyone. Never “convert” or persuade people to make a bad decision. Instead, give people everything they need to make the best decision for themselves. But no matter what, they can say no. That is the beauty of freedom.
  5. Never persuade
    Since you cannot make people say yes, focus your message only on the people who want to say yes.
  6. Use simple words
    Winston Churchill said, “Use simple words everyone knows, then everyone will understand.” And get over your bad ego. Refer to 3: It’s not about you. Speak to your reader the way she wants to be spoken to, using words she thinks with, and words she makes decisions with.
  7. From me to you
    Write as if you are speaking to your reader in person, face to face. Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say in a natural conversation.

And here are a few writing tips for now (staple them on your forehead):

  1. Kill adjectives
    Mark Twain advises, “… use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

    Use power words instead. E.g., instead of saying, “I ran quickly”, get rid of the adjective “quickly”. Then, replace “ran” with a better word. Flew? Rushed? Scrambled? Scurried? Bolted? Zipped?

  2. Use comparisons with experiences your reader already knows
    Instead of saying it’s 300ft tall, say it’s 30 stories tall — as tall as the statue of liberty. Instead of saying a blue whale is 200 tons, say it’s as heavy as 15 school buses or 40 elephants.
  3. Don’t tell your reader what to feel
    Show them what made you feel that way, and let them experience the feelings for themselves.

You know… I might start a section here for writing. Maybe call it “Copy Cub”. I’ll give you the best lessons for writing persuasively (some of which I ought to remember myself :))

Anyway, I have a secret weapon that I’ve been using to put you to sleep each night, and it works even when I’m not near you. I’ve had to hone it out of survival, since I can’t breastfeed you to knock you out.

First a quick back-story: Because of how much you’re learning every day, especially with your speech exploding, your mind is a tornado at the end of the day. You can’t sleep and you don’t want us to leave you in your crib, no matter how tired you are. You want to keep talking and you don’t want the day to end.

The things that have a powerful impression on you during the day right now are words and concepts. Certain new words stick like gum in your head, and when we use words to explain new things to you, those burn into your brain too. You end up obsessed with them, you’ll cry when we have to say goodbye, and you’ll keep repeating the words throughout the day, up til bedtime.

I confess — I’ve been using your own weakness against you. Since I know which new words you obsess about each day, I can say them and you’ll instantly stop crying so you can hear what else I have to say.

For example:
Elephant monkey car round and round
Bicycle shoe train purple car
Bunny hop hop hop
Red circle one two three triangle
Red dog green dog yellow dog
Island green boat blue boat fishies sand waves

Then, when I have your attention, I help you close all your open doors and windows in your mind, and lead you to say good night to everything in your head until you surrender to sleep.

So that’s my secret. I’ve disclosed it to mama and she’s been working on it. Maybe when you have kids of your own you’ll remember this trick too 🙂

(By the way, hidden in the story above are the 7 bullets from the “communication basics” list above. Can you spot them?)

It seems sneaky trickery runs in your blood too. You love yogurt, and you will always ask us for it. Just recently, mama decided to put her foot down and say no to yogurt when you’ve had too much. At first you would cry. Then you’d cry louder until you could go no more. But when you realized crying didn’t work, you started doing something impressive…

Instead of asking for yogurt, you asked the following sequence of questions:
“Spoon?” (which your mom gave you, thinking you just wanted to play with it)
“Bib?” (again, she gave it to you with no resistance)
“Yogurt?”
Then, you would cry when mama said no.

This got you yogurt more often than when you just asked for yogurt. That is, until mama wised up to your tricks. Still, I was amazed because there were nifty psychological tricks in that deceptively simple sequence of questions. I don’t know how you thought of doing that. Anyway, I leave it as an open puzzle for you to figure out what psychological buttons you pushed.

You’re amazing. Your mom and I are hanging on for the ride. Til next time.

Love,
Dad

P.S. Happy Halloween. We went trick-o-treating on your bike. You used your words to impress our neighbors with your cuteness and they filled your orange bucket with candy. Later at home, you grabbed your two favorite pieces of candy (one in each hand) and you wouldn’t let go. Even when it was bath time. I have been trying to teach you to pour water on your bath time friends. You remembered — you gave each piece of candy (now melted in the wrapper) a bath and shouted, “All clean!”

Mommy calls you the best alarm clock ever. You wake up when the sun rises and when mommy brings you into the room, you yell, “HI DADDY! DADDY WAKE UP! GOOD MORNING DADDY! HI DADDY! DADDY? DADDY? WAKE UP? DADDY? WAKE UP?” I disagreed, saying you’re a horrible alarm clock because I can’t turn you off. She said that’s exactly why you’re the best alarm clock ever.

Let’s see, what else… when mama hugs me, you give me a dirty look and say “no daddy no daddy no daddy… ” Then, when you realize we’re not responding, you turn and say “Mama? I luv-oo?” and stretch your arms up like a Y. Then, mama goes awwww and picks you up.. and you look at me with a cheeky smile. Sigh, you’re my boy after all.

You’re singing a lot more now. For a while you were silent in the back seat. It turns out you were silently learning the Spanish words. One day, out of nowhere, you asked specifically for the song, Atencion Atencion. I thought you just knew the last words of each verse, but mama realized you were making sounds and mouthing the other words too. You just weren’t quick enough to sing along. When she slowed the song down, you sang all the words. Will you look at that… you’ve already memorized full songs, even the big words. I don’t know how you do it; you remember everything.

It case you were wondering, these were the most popular Halloween costumes for 2012: