A beaver ate one of my vines, then he ate four more

Two years ago I planted a vineyard in East Texas, about an hour’s drive from my house. Cultivating a vineyard is hard work (basic agriculture), but it’s cathartic. Next year I’ll harvest Blanc du Bois, Tempranillo, and Black Spanish grapes.

Grapevines are vulnerable to many things—insects, disease, mold, mildew, aphids, small animals, and birds—but I had not considered the havoc a beaver can wreak on a vineyard. Birds and small animals eat the grapes but ignore the plant. But in less than a minute, a beaver can chew through the trunk of the vine (about six inches from the ground) and everything above the chew-point dies. The plant lives (because the roots remain intact) but it’s back to ground zero relative to growth and grape production.

One weekend I went to the vineyard and noticed that one vine had been compromised by the local beaver. The first solution I considered involved lead, but then I’d be arrested by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. 

I came back two weeks later and Mr. Beaver had chewed through four more vines. Now he’s compromised five vines, about ten percent of the vineyard. That weekend I installed plastic grow-tubes on all the vines, which took care of the problem.

But what I’ve been thinking about is this: after I noticed the first beaver-eaten vine, why didn’t I realize he would inevitably eat more and why didn’t I take preventive measures that very day? Why did I wait two weeks before I took action? What character flaw in me caused the problem, how did it develop, what other areas of my life has it affected, and how can I change so that it doesn’t plague me the rest of my life?

So, this minor life-event has become a learning opportunity. 

It didn’t take me much thought to notice how this weakness has played out in other areas of my life. Several years ago my car was running rough but instead of taking it immediately to a mechanic, I put it off several months and, of course, the problem got worse. My house needs to be painted but I’ve put it off for so long that now some of the wood trim is rotting. 

The first thing I considered was, procrastination. But I don’t think that’s the prime issue because I’m basically a get-it-done person and pride myself on doing things sooner rather than later. I don’t think procrastination is the core problem.

I’ve thought about this for about two months, prior to writing this post. So far, here is my analysis.

The issue of not dealing with the car running rough and my house needing to be painted, I traced to a downside to being frugal. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I grew up in a very poor family and frugality was a necessary survival technique. Through the years it has served me well—I’m a good money-manager—but it also has its downsides—postponing needed repairs because I’m reluctant to spend the money. [Note to self: change that inclination.]

But that diagnosis doesn’t explain my slowness in protecting the vines from beavers. I already had the grow-tubes so money wasn’t an issue and it only took two hours to install them, so time wasn’t a factor.

I’m still searching for the core reason I allowed Mr. Beaver to get the best of me.

The purpose of this post is not to bore you with the details of my vineyard or the idiosyncrasies of my struggles. What I want to illuminate is this: becoming self-aware is a life-long quest. I’m 67 years old and I’m just now gaining clarity on this nuance of my life; I wish I had seen it sooner.

Know this: there are behaviors and patterns in your life that you are unaware of. Some of your idiosyncrasies are positive, others affect you negatively. The key is to identify them and give them their proper place. 

When you do something odd or unproductive in life or when someone else comments on an unattractive behavior in your life, take time to analyze the situation and try to resolve it. 

Constantly pursue self-awareness. 

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Don’t talk excessively about your issues

We all have mental tapes that play over and over in our minds. If they are positive narratives, there’s no major downside other than they’re unnecessarily using up our brain-energy. (Here’s a post I wrote titled An untrained mind–don’t think the same thing twice.) If our mental tapes have a negative or painful storyline they will eventually adversely affect our mind, emotions, and behavior. 

In this post I want to focus on the downsides of verbalizing those redundant stories. It’s one thing to clutter our own minds with these anecdotes.  It’s another thing to clutter our conversations with them. 

Analyze your conversations and notice if you tend to tell the same thing over and again. If so, perhaps you should tidy up your speech; delete the old stories and identify some new ones. Here are some areas to explore.

Pain from the past

I have an acquaintance who continually tells the same story of her struggle to escape from an ultra-fundamentalist family of origin. The first time I heard the story, it was interesting (though it took too long to tell). The second time, not so much. I started overhearing her tell the story in other conversations. Even when she met someone for the first time she would find a way to work the story into the conversation. It seems to have defined her life, and with each telling, the story becomes more deeply engrained in her persona. For those who have heard the story before, the retelling is tedious.

Current challenges

One of the delights and benefits of close relationships is being able to share our joys and struggles with each other. I like the phrase “A sorrow shared with a friend is halved; a joy shared is doubled.” But sometimes we belabor our sharing. 

For instance, it’s not necessary to share the minute details of your medical issues; I certainly want to know what’s going on, but I don’t need to know the dosage of each medication. I truly enjoy hearing about your grandchildren (as I enjoy telling you about mine), but not too much. The trip you took years ago sounds fabulous; can we talk about something else?  

Truncate your stories

Reader’s Digest is an American general-interest family magazine, founded in 1922 and published ten times a year. Until 2009 it was the best-selling consumer magazine in America. It’s known for its concise writing style; all articles are short and to the point. We’ve even developed the phrase “give me the Readers’s Digest version” to indicate when we prefer a brief synopsis.  

In summary, let’s rethink which personal stories should be in our oft-recited repertoire, and when we do share them, let’s make the “Reader’s Digest version” our default setting.  Here’s a post I wrote on succinct communication.

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The 9-hour 4-hour flight – the value of constant communication

On a recent flight from Seattle to Dallas, the four-hour flight morphed into nine hours sitting on the plane. Thunderstorms in Dallas caused the problem. We circled the airport for hours, flew to Austin to refuel, and finally landed in DFW.

In all my years of flying (I’m a million-miler+ on American) I’ve never heard a pilot do so well at continually informing the passengers during a flight gone bad. About every 20 minutes he gave us a detailed update on what was happening and why. He was empathetic, calm, detailed, and courteous. 

I couldn’t help but compare this experience to another flight I was on years ago. We were stuck on the tarmac for three hours but never received an update from the pilot. Tempers flared, rightly so.

Leaders, keep your constituency informed. Not just during emergency situations but all the time. Maintain an informed organization. In her worth-the-read book titled Powerful, Patty McCord (former chief talent officer at Netflix) says:

    • If your people aren’t informed by you, there’s a good chance they’ll be misinformed by others. 
    • Ensure that communications flows both ways. 
    • The job of communication is never done. It’s not an annual or quarterly, or even monthly or weekly function. A steady stream of communication is the lifeblood of competitive advantage. 

In my organization, we send a weekly email to everyone involved. It briefly recounts what happened the previous week (with lots of praise for individual contributions), mentions upcoming events, and updates progress on projects. It’s a simple tool that helps maintain an informed organization.  

Good and thorough communication is so difficult that the chances of a leader over-communicating are slim—but try anyway.

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Avoid lopsided conversations 

I’m continually befuddled and frustrated by one-sided conversations. 

  • I recently sat next to a person on a three-hour flight. I asked him about his career and family and he responded in detail. He never asked about mine.
  • Mary and I had dinner with another couple. We initiated conversation about their world; they never asked about ours.

It seems to me that the focus of casual conversations should normally be evenly divided among participants. If there are four people present, each one should have about 25% of the focus. Granted, if I had dinner with a famous person whom I admire, I might want the conversation to revolve around her; but otherwise, conversations should be distributed.  

If you’re the victim of a lopsided conversation, take the initiative to direct the conversation. For instance, when in the midst of a one-sided-leaning conversation, sometimes I’ll pursue balance by answering the same questions I’ve asked. If I ask someone “tell me about your children,” I’ll then volunteer information about mine, even if it’s not requested. But it’s sad that I must do this.  

If you’re the perpetuator of lopsided conversations, think about what’s driving the inequality and address the fundamental problem; it’s probably one of the “self” words: self-centeredness, self-reverence, selfishness. The solution to this social and relational faux pas is found is Philippians 2: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” We should focus on others instead of ourselves.

We may be so self-absorbed that we truly aren’t interested in others, and that’s why we talk about ourselves exclusively. In which case we must discipline ourselves to behave right (ask about others) so that eventually our behavior will help us think right, that is, we’ll truly want to be interested in other people’s lives and want to prefer them. Every person has a story worth telling that we can benefit from hearing.

Let’s balance our conversations.

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This thought will help those who are self-conscious

Plus - the best article I read this week

This post will be good news to everyone, except narcissists. 

Good news: When you’re in public, people don’t notice you as much as you think they do. 

We often think people are observing us when they’re not. We worry about the clothes we wear because we think people notice; they don’t. We’re overly self-conscious about how we act; no need to be. 

Social scientists call this the “spotlight effect.” It’s our tendency to think we’re being noticed more than we really are. 

Dozens of studies in social psychology have supported this phenomenon. In one test, psychologists asked some college students to wear bright yellow Barry Manilow t-shirts to a large introduction to psychology class. After the class, they asked the students who wore the tacky t-shirt to estimate how many of their classmates noticed them. Then the researchers asked the students in the classroom how many had noticed their classmates wearing the t-shirts. Few students had noticed those wearing the t-shirts; those who wore the t-shirts greatly overestimated the number of people who had noticed.

So what explains the “spotlight effect”? Scientists conclude it is the result of egocentrism. We all are the center of our own universes so it’s hard to develop an accurate evaluation of how much we are noticed. The “spotlight effect” manifests from the innate tendency to forget that although one is the center of one’s own world, one is not the center of everyone else’s. This tendency is especially prominent when one does something atypical. 

The spotlight effect does not necessarily imply that we are arrogant or value ourselves more than others, but that our perception of the world is primarily from our own perspective and even what we think other people think of us is self-imposed. 

Don’t confuse being self-aware with being self-conscious. The former is good and necessary for emotional health and proper social interactions. But the term self-conscious usually describes someone who is ill at ease or uncomfortable with himself/herself as an object of the observation of others. Symptoms of being self-conscious include: getting angry or hostile when embarrassed; avoiding social experiences; blaming others for one’s mistakes; blaming yourself for other people’s mistakes; low self-esteem; and feeling agitated, anxious, depressed, or nervous based on what you think other people think of you. 

There’s no simple solution to our struggle with being self-conscious; it’s a complicated issue. If you struggle inordinately, visit with a trained counselor.  

This post simply offers insight that might bring some relief: people are not noticing you as much as you think they are.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

You should be committed to lifelong learning. Otherwise, you’ll become quickly outdated and out of sync. This article, from the October 13 edition of the New York Times, underscores the point. It’s titled 60 Years of Higher Education – Really?

Join me on an unforgettable journey to the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, and the Amazon Rainforest

Peru - May 6-15, 2020

In the past ten years I’ve led groups of friends on annual trips to Paris, London, Europe, the Mediterranean, Baltic States, Russia, and North Africa. We’ve never had a malfunction or bad experience; just memorable, life-enhancing moments.

I invite you to join me on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to one of the great historical and geographical countries in the Southern Hemisphere—Peru. We’ll start our trip in Lima, then travel to Cusco—the gateway to the Sacred Valley and home to the Inca civilization. We’ll visit Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Then we’ll travel to the Amazon Rainforest and spend three days at the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica lodge in the diverse Puerto Maldonado area. (In 2013, it was selected by National Geographic Traveler magazine was one of the world’s 25 best eco-lodges.) We’ll travel on airplanes, trains, buses, vans, boats, and shoes.

Mary and I took this trip in July, 2018. It was one of our favorite trips of all time (we’ve been to 47 countries). We always felt safe, the accommodations are elegant and authentic, the food is world-renowned, the geography is diverse (metropolitan Lima, the Andes mountains, Amazon Rainforest), and Peruvians are friendly—the trip was incredible.   

It’s been said that one of the joys of traveling is not only where you go but who you go with and who you meet along the way. This tour group will be limited to 50 interesting ladies and gentlemen who travel well—friends of mine who enjoy exploring great places. 

Travel takes time and money, but it’s worth the investment. You’ll be stretched and challenged, and you’ll learn more about the world in which you live and the life you live in the world. 

I hope you’ll join me on this memorable trip to Peru. 

Here’s a brochure about the trip. PeruBrochure2

Don McMinn

Question: Questions about the trip? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

A good technique for resolving conflict and misunderstandings

One short phrase from the New Testament can help maintain healthy relationships both at home and work. It provides a quick and sure way to clarify misunderstandings, resolve problems, and properly express anger.

Speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

There are three parts to this precept and you’ve got to get all three right or it doesn’t work. It’s like a recipe with three ingredients—each is essential. 

So let’s consider each part. 


If you’re upset at someone or think there’s been a misunderstanding, talk—initiate a conversation. Being mute will not solve problems and there’s no virtue in ignoring difficult issues or avoiding unpleasant discourse. When you’re upset at someone, there are two extremes to avoid: don’t be a stuffer or a spewer. Stuffers don’t say anything; spewers are quick to speak, but what they say and how they say it is often offensive. This verse is an antidote for both extremes. 

Speak the truth

When engaged in a peace-seeking conversation, be careful to speak only truth. Most of us wouldn’t tell a bold-faced lie, but we may be tempted to distort facts, exaggerate facts, make assumptions, or only speak part of the truth (naturally, the part that substantiates our position). Instead, we must speak only the truth and all the truth. This will require pursuing facts to verify truth; investigate until you’re convinced you have good facts regarding the issue.

Speak the truth in love

Some people, armed with the truth, think they have a “007 license to kill”; there are no restraints on how and when they express themselves and no concern for the impact their words will have on the recipient. But this verse governs and restricts our speech such that we must frame our words in love. This will impact when we share, how we share (tone of voice, body language), and even our motivation for speaking.  

Begin by considering your motivation for initiating the conversation. Are you motivated by love for the person you approach, or is your intent to belittle, embarrass, or insult? Perhaps you’re just wanting to vent because it will make you feel better. Proceed only when your motivation is pure.

You’ll also need to consider how “in love” might be defined by the person(s) you speak to–what is his or her individual criteria for what “in love” means? For instance, someone’s preferences may be expressed as: “I don’t mind you bringing up a potentially difficult subject, but,

    • Not as soon as I get home from work.
    • Not in front of the kids.
    • Don’t raise your voice at me.
    • Allow me to share my side of the story.
    • Not when I’ve just returned from a business trip.
    • Not in front of the entire staff.”

Before you engage with an individual, consider how he or she would prefer to be approached so you can customize your conversation to accommodate his or her individual preferences.  

Most misunderstandings and minor conflicts can be resolved through civil discourse. Ephesians 4:15 offers a good template.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Domains of knowledge and ignorance

While differing widely in the various little bits we know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal. —Karl Popper

Donald Rumsfeld was the U.S. secretary of defense under both presidents Gerald Ford and George Bush. One of his claims to fame was to distinguish different kinds of knowing and not knowing. He said:

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” 

I want to add one phrase to his statement and comment on each one.

There are known knowns. Things we know that we know.

I know how to tell time, that I live in the 21st century, how to drive a car, that chianti wine is made from the Sangiovese grape, basic math, etc.

There are known unknowns. Things we know we don’t know. 

I don’t know how to speak Mandarin, overhaul a car engine, understand the Higgs boson, or perform an appendectomy.  

There are unknown knowns. Things we think we know but we don’t. (My sentence.)

In their good book, The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach make an unassailable argument that all humans know much less than we think we do; we all suffer from the illusion of understanding. For instance, how does a flush toilet really work? Or a speedometer? A quartz watch? We’re familiar with these items but we have no clue how they work.

There are unknown unknowns. Things we don’t know we don’t know.

To me, this is the most frightening and exhilarating truth. Frightening because I’m unaware of threats and compromises that may assail me. Exhilarating because there are infinite realms of knowledge that I can explore, enjoy, and benefit from. We are all unique in what we know, and similar in our infinite stupidity. 

Rumsfeld’s statement was in the context of military threats and opportunities, in which most unknowns are seen as dangerous and threatening. But in a civilian context, unknowns can represent an infinite source of good and beneficial knowledge.

An important prerequisite to lifelong learning is to become progressively convinced of our unfathomable ignorance and to develop a keen desire to pursue the unknown.

Since 2006, a course entitled Ignorance has been taught at Columbia University. Guest scientists are invited to speak about what they don’t know. The course focuses on things that are not in textbooks and thus teaches students to think about what is unknown and what could be known.

If I lived in New York City, I would enroll in this course.

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