A Difference Between the Top 10% and the Rest

I saw recently that one of my favorite business authors, Michael Lewis, was promoting the 25th anniversary of his first bestselling book, Liars Poker. In the interview with Stephen Colbert of the Colbert report, they listed off Lewis’ other bestselling novels. That simple “s” on the end of the word “novel” is interesting to me. How does someone get to a level of excellent production, and then stay there? How does someone keep churning out material that people want to read? All marketing and PR efforts aside, I’m curious about the nature of an individual as it relates to the quality of their work, and in this case specifically “work” should mean the “body of work,” not just one successfully published work.

On Monday, I came across an article about the principles of Warren Buffett who, not coincidentally, has had an equal streak of success over the past 25 years in his field, and finds his place not just in the top 10% of performers, but in the top 1%. (You can start making some snide jokes about him being in the top 1% but did you know that he’s a huge philanthropist? article: “Buffett Donates $2.8 Billion, Breaks Personal Giving Record”).

So this article is in a reference to a principle that Buffett has kept central to his life, and explains how he communicated this to his personal jet pilot, Mike Flint:

“Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”

. . . To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.” (source: http://jamesclear.com/buffett-focus)”

Seems pretty harsh right? Either focus on those five goals or forget about it all together. Either you’re fully focused on what you want, or you’re not. Reminds me of the quote from Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption:

“Get busy living or get busy dying.”

This principle is seen in modern day sports with the disappearance of the dual-sport and three-sport athletes that once existed in history. It was not uncommon 30-40 years ago for an individual to be a star in two or three sports in high school, and possibly do two sports in college. The rare exception then were those who did it in the professional leagues, but this is almost unheard of today. It simply isn’t possible to compete at that professional level given that other athletes are wholly dedicated to a single sport, not to mention the time involved in preparing for that sport on a day to day basis and the wear and tear incurred on the body during the season.bo-jackson-1

I remember some parents of friends of mine that would shuttle their children around from practice to other practice and fill their weekends full of physical activity. Now, I think that is good for a child, and still possible for someone in recreational leagues and local community events, but the possibility from both a performance and a feasibility standpoint dramatically declines as the competition increases. We haven’t even addressed where academics fits into all of it.

So if this unadulterated focus toward a single sport might help to explain how people get to the top 10%, but how exactly do people bridge the gap between the 90% and the 10%? How do people improve year over year, stay disciplined and motivated, evade injuries and life-altering decisions, and arrive and stay at peak performance.

The answer, like many responses to great questions, is multifaceted and still mysterious, but
there have been some books that have sought to answer it. One is Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell, famous for saying that it takes about 10,000 hours to get to “expert” status, and as you have seen here on my blog, I think a better, more practical guide is the book that I’m a huge fan of: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” by Cal Newport.

In Newport’s book, he expands on Gladwell’s notion on “deliberate practice,” which is continually focusing on improving the weaknesses that will lead to higher probabilities of success, and how to integrate it into a daily routine. He also outlines how to keep focus, concentration and work intensity paramount in the quest for improvement in a given discipline. I have found some of his most salient advice of “No distractions, period.” to be extremely helpful when I work on translation projects or writing pieces. There simply are no workarounds to good work.

So let me turn back to Warren Buffett’s comment to his pilot Mike Flint. I think this is an example of the “No distractions, period.” lesson in a case study from real life. I think we all get that and we all nod our heads in agreement, we’ll say, “That’s good and true about making the top 5 goals a reality, I’m totally in favor of that.” But if you read in the article, Warren Buffett shows a bit of his discipline fanatic side when he responds to Flint. He says it’s not just the principle that’s important, it’s the decision, or rather, the emotional decision that counts.

It’s not enough to agree internally, or even say you agree verbally, but to really make any sort of change you must be willing to cut out what stands in conflict to those goals. That is a far more difficult decision to make than whether to open your mouth and utter the words, “Ok, got it. Just five goals. Totally understood.” Emotional decisions are tough, they are probably tougher to make because we’re not facing visible, tangible choices; we’re trying to choose between things we care bout immensely, things that are related to our life goals, our family, our friends, those we love. Those are the things that pull on the heart strings, the things that keep us awake at night because of adult-laden regret or child-like excitement.

I think the point of Buffett’s comment and the gist of this blog post is that what separates the top 10% from the rest, is not simply their discipline to stick to a schedule, but their tenacity to say no to a bunch of good things to focus on a great thing, a thing that makes a life instead of one that fills a day. That is hard. Actually, it’s really hard. There’s no way around it. It’s something I’ve come to realize over the past few years, that the difference between the 10% and the rest, is not just 90 points on a standard scale, it’s 90 marks on an exponential swing.

It isn’t a ladder at all, it’s a mountain that has to be climbed. If you want to make it to the summit you’ve got to pack your bag with only what’s necessary, and nothing more. Because what you put in your pack will either slow you down or help you get to the top.

 

Do Not Compromise

I think some of the most popular advice people get is “Don’t give up!” but sometimes that can be slightly misguided right? Certainly there are some circumstances where it’s better to walk away like if a situation or a person compromises your values. That’s not called giving up, that’s actually labeled “not giving in” and can be just as hard or harder than not giving up.

This is another principle that I’ve seen exemplified in some of the writers and some colleagues that I’ve really come to admire. It’s the practice of a belief that something is so valuable that anything that comes anywhere close to tarnishing or damaging it should not just be avoided, but eliminated. I read about some famous writing schedules that impressed me:

“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. . . .

You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that.” – Ernest Hemingway

“I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that.     -Maya Angelou

I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head.

So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.
-Barbara Kingsolver
source: http://jamesclear.com/daily-routines-writers)

One clear trend in all of these is that they have a daily writing schedule, that is deliberate and fixed. They do not compromise it. The thought of breaking rank or going AWOL does not enter their mind. They know that the work that they want to do, the good and the great work they must do, cannot be up for negotiation. It must not be left to chance. It is proper and just and right, and for that, it must be respected and planned out.

I love that in each of these there is a certain place that they do their writing. It’s as if that place becomes sacred. Nothing else must be done here unless it is for the purpose of which this place was designed. That’s quite remarkable isn’t it? Creating a specific and deliberate space. I want that.

But it certainly isn’t easy to set out the time and the place to do this! As much as we are creatures of habit it really is difficult to create new ones, or change bad ones. That’s why I’m continually amazed when I read about people’s daily schedules, and how they’ve done it day after day and year after year.

I want to be a non-compromiser when it comes to the good and true things.

Do not go silently into that good night

A friend asked me recently about the concert I attended for 30 Seconds to Mars and I suppose I summed it up with, “It was loud.”

Jared Leto is the leading front man of the band, and by most accounts of the American Dream he is successful. In addition to being accomplished actor and rock star, he still looks good as a 42 year old. I’m amazed at what he’s been able to do in the life he’s been given, and how he continues to make it new and real with his stage presence like in Lima, Peru the other evening. There are thousands and thousands who’ve joined the official “Echelon” fan club and feel uniquely attached to him. I don’t know if any of that has to do with that with his current hair style he looks like Jesus, but that night it seemed like his love for them was mutual.

I first began to listen to 30 Seconds to Mars because my brother let me borrow an album. Their 2005 album “A Beautiful Lie” marks a trip to the Southwest 30-seconds-to-mars-concert-1desert I made with my brother in 2007, of which a picture hangs in my room. I remember most of those songs as a soundtrack to the strange and alien-like territory of the Arizona desert. They all sound like freedom, of a wide expanse of sky and tanned earth, of new possibility, and I know that the trip, my brother, and those songs are the landmark of a time period that set in motion the dramatic changes I would make in the years to come.

I had always wanted to see 30 Seconds to Mars in concert for their music and for experiences like the desert, and it took almost seven  years after that first listen for me to finally see them live. I carry with me certain desires that I just can’t let go, especially if I know they are possible. Seeing 30 Seconds to Mars for their music, for the mark they helped make seven years ago, for the completion of a goal was why I went to see the show that night, and it was everything I needed it to be.

My thoughts were illuminated by the army of synchronized stage lights as Jared sprinted like a boy out of school for the summer. It felt and sounded like a hundred explosions, and part of me thinks that’s part of the energy released by the fans who waited years for the band to come. (They had never visited Peru, up until this date.) I thought about all the waiting, and the excitement and the fact that in approximately an hour and a half the concert would finish. I thought about what I’ve done (and not been able to do) in Peru and it all just seemed to make me a bit sad that someday it’ll be over.

What an injustice. We spend so much time waiting for something important to arrive, and when it does, it touches lightly on our stop, and speeds on to it’s next destination. It feels so disconnected: the time waiting, and the time experiencing. Maybe that’s my problem, that it seems to be related, but really it’s so callously independent. I hope that’s what Jared recognizes too. That we, like him, wait for something, and that we know, ashamedly, that it will end quickly. Are we ashamed that we were bound by something we had to wait for, or because we felt we had no choice in the matter?

I remember reading Dylan Thomas in college. My English professor enjoyed him and T.S. Elliot, so that’s how I got introduced, but for most of America we know of his famous poetry because a stanza was once paraphrased in Independence Day. It’s from the same poem I remembered in college, and the one I drifted towards this concert night, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Dylan wrote it about his experience of his dying father, but the words, so brilliantly infused with emotion, have been used by coaches, leaders and politicians for decades:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

(source: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/do-not-go-gentle-good-night)

I returned to the thought about the magnificence of a person like Jared with this notion of things ending much sooner than we think they should. I think consciously or unconsciously he knows that; like many people great and 30-seconds-to-mars-concert-2popular, and others great and still unsung, they realize that life indeed is so very short, and ends before we’re comfortable with it. Indeed, we are not the masters of our time.

For that reason, I believe that when Jared and his brother, Shannon, arrived for their first concert in Lima they did it in such a fashion of extravagance of sound and energy to prove to us that even though an end will eventually cap the evening, and the thousands of miles and mountains of hours, indeed the years waiting for their arrival, will all feel like the brush of the wind from the passing of an express bus, they will stand before the multitude of eager and spellbound fans and will not go quietly into that good night.

Because if death marks its end with silence then we must be loud to mark the time we were alive.

The concert, then, was very loud. It was loud for the thousands of fans who waited for their first arrival to the country, it was loud for the band to see the love and Echelon banners flown in the multitudes, and it was loud for me to bring completion to something I wanted to be a part of for so long.

Most importantly, it is yet another reminder that there is still too much silence in my life. That there will be a time to be quiet, but that time is not now.

the “What” and the “How”

I think we all know “what.”

“What” is fundamental. Knowing “what” is easy. What we want and how much we want of it.

It’s knowing “how” that really gets us anywhere, but there’s a crucial key to this – it’s not so much “how” you intend to do it, but “how” you are doing it. One is about planning, where anything can happen – including nothing happening – and the other is about “doing” which is actually wants happening.

As soon as we’ve moved passed the knowing “what” and the knowing “how” we can go to the “how” it’s getting done. This kind of “how” has been a recurring life theme for me.This is truly the difference between thinking about something, and wanting it, and then actually saying you’ve done it. I can put many things on this list that I haven’t done as much as I’ve wanted to: reading, writing, and practicing Spanish (and most recently Portuguese). What I’ve found is that there is always a barrier, or in fact many barriers, but the one I want to write about is the “feeling accomplished after just the planning stage” barrier.

That’s what gets me. I can dream up, and plan out all that I want to do with my time during my weekdays or my free time, and I feel satisfied. That’s dangerous you know? Because nothing comes of it. Nothing happens unless something is set in motion and is done.

Sometimes I get so caught up in strategies, technologies, tips and tricks that I end up spending more time optimizing what I’m kind of doing instead of really doing what I intend to do, and oddly enough what it final comes down to is just a simple decision: doing it. Don’t think, don’t plan, don’t optimize, don’t strategize, don’t worry, don’t complain, just do. Just do it without thinking.

What is easy, doing is how it’s done.

 

The Voice and an Orchestra

Since I’ve been in Latin America I have immersed myself into the local music. If you look at my playlists you’ll find artists from all over South and Central America in the genres of merengue, bachata, and of course tons of salsa music. I’ve seen that learning to love the local music  is a surefire way to experience and enjoy a community in every town and city in the world. Music is  a main outlet for the values and expressions of a culture, and as many have said, “Listen to what the music is about, and it will show you MarcAntony1what a culture appreciates.”

You may be thinking of some of the more negative examples from the dominant channels of music in our culture which showcase people who look like celebrities but carry none of the talent. Their music is formulaic, the lyrics are empty and derogatory, and all of it is manufactured for consumption. Here’s is just one of many articles that speak of this new business. The Song Machine – “The hitmakers behind Rihanna.”

Essentially, the artist never has to dip into personal memories, be they mountain or valley experiences, they just show up to learn the melody and sing it good enough so someone can auto-tune it to the studio producers’ liking. The concert experience, then, is just going to hear the digitally perfected album played over loud stadium speakers with thousands of shouting voices that drown out the song. Now, I admit, I will go to just about any concert, so this element MarcAntony2doesn’t destroy it for me, but what bothers me is that the principle that music is an expression of a culture is now so absent in the performance of the music. Is that what we value?

Enter one of the great salsa voices of our time, Marc Anthony, the top selling tropical salsa artist of all time, who like many salsa singers, sings with a complete band. Marc sings live accompanied by an orchestra of talented professionals. Real people, playing real instruments, in real-time. You have to see it and hear it to believe it, but yes, there are still performers who do it the old fashioned way. They make real music live.

It had been a dream of mine to see Marc Anthony live since I set foot in Latin America over four years ago. He has one of the truest, purest voices that I rank up there with Michael Buble, and Josh Groban. You have to hear it live to take it in. His voice is the story of pain and joy, of happiness and despair, and this past night it was pure celebration.

And then there was the orchestra, comprised of the best instrumental talent of men and women that we have today. Trumpets, trombones, saxophones, guitar, bass, piano, full drum set and Latin bongos. The orchestra alone was worth the price of admission, but together it was one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever been to and I got to share it with my girlfriend and thousands of other Marc Anthony fans.

Here’s what it was like, but you’ll have to multiply it by two or three times to get the real effect:

I know you’ve heard his most recent hit:

“Neighborhood Missionaries” – Aug/Sept. ’14

Aaron Roth – Edify.org – “Neighborhood Missionaries” – Aug/Sept. 2014

I’m still in Peru working with the local partner to establish the first few schools of our Edify program in Lima. We had a big school conference last month where over 50 schools and approximately 240 participants came to learn about our program, receive business training and Christian development training for their school. I hope to update you all on our progress this coming month, but let me use this newsletter to talk about a family very close to me in the Dominican Republic. -Aaron

I have had many unique experiences over the past four years in Latin America and most of them have happened while living with a local family. “Live with a family” is usually the advice I give to anyone considering taking the time to study a language. I believe that language is really about living life, and there’s no better place to live daily life, than

with a family.So for that, I have to credit most of the Spanish I use every day, to the experiences from all the birthdays, church services, buying strange foods and eating them, and the endless cultural or language faux pas I’ve committed. But it’s not just words and phrases I picked up from them; I have learned a tremendous amount about local culture, and how to understand that very culture I intend to serve, and how living a life of witness goes even deeper than simply proclaiming those words.

Inside the American church, I had often felt like the perspective of a ready missionary was to “go, serve, and witness” with a heavier focus on the “witness” than on the “serve.” Christian witness of course is the application of the great commission of Christ, commanding us to go into the world and make disciples in the image of Christ. (Matt. 28:19) But what that often implied to me was that the people we were going to go witness to had no idea who Christ was and needed to be introduced to him through the formal methods of evangelism. Of course, as any short or long-term missionary can attest to, the ones being “sent” from the United States, end up “receiving” a good deal of the transformation themselves in the process of witnessing, or intending to transform the local community.

And so it was with me. I have had the great blessing of being able to live life with three different host families: in Guatemala, in Nicaragua and in the Dominican Republic, and I

 have been changed and transformed living with them and learning from them. My Dominican family has been the closest to me because of the long-term relationship I’ve been able to have with them. It was exactly four years ago that I went to the Dominican Republic and met Federico and Rebecca Moreta, and even after my two years with them, I was able to be a part of their lives when my work with Edify took me back to the island.Federico and Rebecca had been faithful members of their local church Luz y Vida (Light and Life) Mennonite church in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and it was through this connection that I met them. My father knew of a missionary couple and asked them about a possible host family for me back in 2010. The couple contacted another American couple who informed me via email that while Federico and Rebecca had never hosted someone from the States, they felt compelled to open their home to me.

The reason why still fascinates me to this day. Apparently, about 10 years ago one of their children fell incredibly sick and needed better health care outside of the Dominican Republic. Through a sponsor, Rebecca was able to take her sick child to the United States and during the three months, a family from a church (I believe it was in Ohio or Michigan) took her and her son into their home. (Sadly, they lost that son to a terminal illness during that visit to the States). This family treated her like one of their own, and she knew that someday the Lord would call on her to do the same thing.

So there I was, “the caller,” in the fall of 2010, being welcomed in with open arms and being crawled over by their two sons, Josias of four years and Railyn of eight. Thus began one of the most remarkable periods of my life – living with a Dominican family in the ghetto – and experiencing all that happens on a day to day basis, just like another child of the family.

So let me tell a quick story: one day, I was at home and I received a knock at the door from Rebecca’s sister. She was in hysterics because her daughter was having complications during the delivery of her child and was losing blood rapidly. Because of the economic conditions in that area, the clinic where the girl was a patient would not dispense the necessary blood until an economic sponsor came to pay for the procedure and the blood. This is an all too common story in these tough areas: lack of insurance and lack of paying clients pushes these health clinics to accept these kinds of policies.

I told Rebecca’s sister that the boys and Federico would be home soon, and soon after they arrived, Rebecca came rushing in after leaving work early in the only car the family owned. Federico and Rebecca were calm, and even though I had only been a “son” for two weeks, they entrusted me with their boys, and raced off to the clinic to purchase the blood so that their niece and newborn would live.

There are countless stories that impacted me over the past four years with them, but maybe the most impressive thing was how a story like this was a regular occurrence where the family did what Christ called them to do. They consistently made the right decisions, to love, to not ask questions, to respect, to stand firm, to ask questions, to forgive, to be just, and to practice grace.

On my last visit with them exactly two months ago, Federico was busy in the men’s leadership of his church organizing and managing the disciplining program which paired up older men of the faith with younger men, some of who never grew up with their fathers. They also had a niece staying with them who has had some trouble at home. And like always, when we had a meal, instead of just the six of us, they prepared enough food for the three cousins, and two neighbors who just dropped on by.

You see, their definition of “family” and “witness” are one in the same.

—–

What I believe happens overseas is that most of these heroes of the faith go unsung and their stories diluted. The American church gets the filtered and friendly stories from their representative abroad (like yours truly). While this isn’t optimal, it’s certainly not terrible, because I believe that the spirit of the story makes its way to you and people like Federico and Rebecca never go looking for any kind of acclaim. They just live their lives following the example of Jesus in the neighborhood where God has called them.

That I believe is what a true missionary is. Someone who listens to God’s voice in their life, relies on the Holy Spirit to guide them to live the life that Christ calls them to live.

So then, it is with incredibly sad news that I tell you about the death of a fellow missionary.

—–

Last week, someone had emailed me that Rebecca was very sick. I didn’t know this person so I inquired with some friends to call the family. At just about that time, I received another email telling me that Rebecca was in grave condition in the hospital. It was

through a friend in Santo Domingo that I learned that Rebecca had died that very morning.Apparently earlier on in the week she had felt somewhat ill but continued working, and

Wednesday afternoon when it seemed more serious she checked into the hospital. Last Thursday morning she died in a hospital room a midst puzzled doctors and a flurry of medical equipment.I do not remember the last time I cried like that when I received this news.

Because you see, Rebecca, was my mother too. Her children were my brothers, and her husband was my Dominican dad. They were the people that helped to center me during my two years in the Dominican Republic and translated so many Dominican slang into common Spanish for me. They were the people that helped me understand that if you really wanted to serve people in the name of Christ it had less to do with shuffling papers and managing inboxes and more to do with being present in a community that desperately needed His hope.

Federico and Rebecca showed me that the first mission field is the family, and they have raised two great young men. On my last visit, their sons showed me their report cards from school, and told me how even though they didn’t like homework, they still knew it was part of their daily schedule. Josias was improving in his English, being quite the talker like his American brother (me), and Railyn had already memorized the books of the Bible and could recite to me memory verses from the past month.

What you also do not know is that while I have been working in microfinance for roughly four years, Rebecca was a branch manager of a microfinance organization for about 12 years. Often we talked about the need for access to credit for the economically poor, and how the follow-up after making the loan to continue with the relationship was more important than the loan itself.

She loved the idea of providing small business loans to low-cost Christian schools like what we do in Edify. She would have carried the banner for that idea in her organization, because she believed in education in the home.

—–

I know what Rebecca would do if she knew I was writing about her. She’d smile and brush off the compliments with a simple response that she had told me many times:

“If this is who you are, then this is what you do.”

 “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3 NIV)”

She really did live like she had her heart on the things of heaven, and I know her family will continue her legacy.

—–

Would you pray for her husband, her two boys, their niece, and all her family in their time of grieving?

Thank you for listening. My prayers be with all of you as well.

Blessings,

-Aaron

“Edify Family Experience Camp” – July ’14

edify_logoAaron Roth – Edify.org – “Family Experience Camp” – July 2014

I’m back in Lima, Peru after almost five weeks in the Dominican Republic (DR). The weeks in the DR seemed to fly by very quickly because after the first week with two colleagues from ADRA Peru (our Peruvian partner), I headed to the eastern part of the island to work with the Edify Family Experience Camp for the following three weeks. It’s a really quick turnaround from week to week because we drop off families and pick others up at the airport in addition to working in three different schools in La Romana, DR.

Between week 2 and 3 I flew home for my dad’s retirement celebration. We celebrated his 34 years in the pastorate and 19 years at the Linville Creek congregation in Broadway, VA. As you can imagine, it’s nice to be back in Lima, Peru not having to travel for awhile. The following newsletter is about the three weeks of the Edify Family Experience Camp of 2014. -Aaron

Our purpose for having these family experience camps is to bring families from the US closer to the realities of the areas of economic poverty where we work and to celebrate with a few schools in our loan and training program in the Dominican Republic. We call our trip more of a “Vacation with a Purpose” instead of a “Mission Trip” because the week is geared toward a relaxed family environment where we spend part of the day in the school with children and part of the vacation time doing a book study using “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

By having the ability to experience different economic realities during the day and discussing these differences using a technical guide, we allow guests to learn the theory at night and see it in practice during the day. I believe this is very important for our guests – including our staff – because when you have an open discussion on what works vs. what doesn’t, and what helps vs. what hurts, everyone benefits and we reduce the tendency to think of ourselves as superior, wealthier Americans with a lot to give and foreigners who are just waiting to receive.

Instead, we’re able to sit at a common table where all of us see our areas of poverty: relationships, time, value, unhappiness and distance from God, and we seek solutions to alleviate these areas of poverty. We are very well aware that any form of development takes much longer than a week, including the development of a new perspective, so we really try to encourage guests to come with an open mind and plenty of flexibility, so that the Lord will show us what He desires we see. I like this laid-back approach much better than trying to mandate the feelings or conclusions people come away with.

When you push and you pressure, it’s less fun and less effective, so really what it comes down to is being open to see what God has for the week, and naturally relationships will form and flourish in that environment. In a way, we can learn how we can better treat the people we work and live at home by experiencing another culture.

Our theme for this past summer was a verse from the parable of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke where a man responds to Jesus’ question regarding what he must do to inherit eternal life:

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Luke 10:27 NIV)

Each day we try to instill more applications of the principles in the verse to the students in the family camp. After each week, each participant collects their own stories from the previous week. Here are a few stories that I took away from family camp this past summer that demonstrated what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.

Ruth & Esmerelda

In the first week of family camp, we worked inside a school called, “Paso a Paso” or “Step by Step.” I remember meeting Haidy, the director, over two years ago when we promoted business training for schools in La Romana, Domincan Republic. She is a mother of a special needs child and when she saw that no public school was giving him the attention he needed to develop, she created her own school to attend to students with certain development needs.

Now, more than 10 years later she has a school with over 100 children that come to receive a great Christian education, and not all the students are special needs, but it is quite amazing to witness how the other classmates treat the students with special needs.

Ruth, who has limited functioning in her hands and arms, and very limited ability in her legs, sits and draws with the other students in her class. When she needs to move to a new classroom, a student will pick her up, and when she needs to go to the bathroom a teacher or the director will help her. She’s quite intelligent and social, and is probably a little timid given her inability to run around with the other kids, but regarding timidity we could of course chalk that up to the fact she’s a 4th grader.

Meet Esmerelda, she’s just as sassy as any other six year-old Dominican girl. She wants to be a part of everything. Every game, every activity and every photo. You’ll take a photo, show it to her, she’ll shriek that it’s not her best, so you’ll have to take another one. At times, you can say she needs a bit more management because she has Down’s syndrome, but you could also say she’s tuckered out from being around so many people she wants to meet.

Ruth and Esmerelda are treated like their other classmates. Do you know how profound that is for a country that is still in its “developing” status? They are accepted and loved like they weren’t any different from the others – and hey, aren’t we all a little different anyway?

Willie and the Car Workshop

One day, after a few school visits, one of our transport vans didn’t start up. We loaded the rest of the guests into the other vehicles and they headed back home while I met up with a local mechanic to go see what we could do about the problematic van. I was dropped off at his workshop which was mostly a small parking lot with some temporary canvas awnings blocking the heavy sun off the workers. I counted about five mechanics ranging in age from 18 to 50 and two more young teenagers. 

As I stood there for about half an hour waiting for Willie to clear some time in his schedule to go visit the distressed van, I got to see the local operation of his car repair business. I must have seen seven or eight different conversations or transactions between the mechanics, delivery men and other visitors. I felt like I was in the middle of some shipping docks with a few ships of different shapes and sizes arriving and leaving at the same time, offloading goods, boarding passengers, repairing components and asking technical questions. I was amazed that no person nor transport collided; Willie had it all under control.

Finally we set sail for the van, and I got the chance to ask Willie about his fleet of workers. “ . . . and what about the two young men, do they work for you permanently?

“Well, half the time. They are in school during the year, so I only let them work with me half a day. They are crazy about learning about engines and components and repair. If it were up to them they’d sleep in the workshop. I told them they need to be in school. I won’t hire them full-time until they finish school. That’s the deal.”

I saw not only why Willie was a great manager, but also why he was a great man. Someone treated him just like he’s treating these young men: with guidelines and a gentle strictness to a good principle. Someday they’ll thank him when they are managers of their own repair shop yelling at young workers to stay on schedule or grab some parts from a supplier. They’ll see that he had their destiny in mind the whole time.

La Familia Ortiz

After a total of six family camps I am pretty sure that the oldest group, ages 12-13, is where I belong. Not because this is my actual maturity level, but because they are older and you can have real conversations with them. I normally refer to them as “Los Verdes” or “The Greens” because of the shirt color we give them, but I normally give them an option of choosing a new name. I try to convince the boys that they should think about really manly titles like “Little Rabbits” or “The Flowers.” They don’t usually go for those, so this year when I had the greens one week it was “The Disciples” and the other was “La Familia Ortiz.”

One of my common topics in newsletters come from the “things I don’t get used to” and how the green group chose “La Familia Ortiz” has its roots in that. I find that the young guys are really keen on knowing who I am and what I think about a variety of topics. It’s like they are looking not just for an older brother, but a positive male leader. I don’t think I’ll get used to hearing the young men tell me that their father left at such a young age, or they’ve never met him, or they only know him when he flies in by night usually with alcohol on his breath. I definitely am not used to that. I try to be different; I try to be a better man than they’ve known, even if it’s for a week.

The school we worked with told all the students that we were friends of the school, and these Americans were really more like uncles and aunts than guests. So with that warm introduction, they wanted to know who I am what I think about their community and if I’ve thought I could ever live in the Dominican Republic for a long time. They want to connect, so they asked me what my last name is to find their uncle, me, on Facebook. I joke with them that I don’t know it, and when I ask for suggestions for last names I ask them who some famous Dominican baseball players are.

After hearing a few examples I say, “Oh yeah, Ortiz! That’s it!”

They respond in disbelief, “Aaron Ortiz! Seriously? You’re Aaron Ortiz!?”

“Yes, so with a more Dominican last name I guess that makes us a little more like family right?”

“Yes! La Familia Ortiz!”

“Well, what do families do here?”

“We get together and have big meals. Big barbecues, everyone is invited.”

“I think that sounds like a fantastic idea.”

“Aaron, when you come back we should all have a big bbq for La Familia Ortiz!”

It crushes me each time when I think about how “coming back” is a promise that will be very difficult to fulfill, so I tell them that our organization works with the schools directly, and we have a lot of schools in the program in the DR, so really we are all family. So when we get together as believers in one faith, we get to celebrate with family. It doesn’t matter the country, the community, the language or the skin color. We’re all family.

They loved it. Every time we had to round up the groups, they shouted, “La Familia Ortiz! La Familia Ortiz!”

On the last day, they shouted that we needed our family photo. Many kids wanted individual photos with Uncle Aaron Ortiz. It was so fun. But then of course comes the part where the young men show their weakness. The same young men who tell me their stories, don’t just ask me, but really want to know, “So you’ll come back right? You’ll come back here for the bbq?”

What do you say to something like that? Normally, I’d say, “If it’s soon, or if it’s later, you know we’re still La Familia Ortiz right?” They smile and shake my hand, “Sí, somos de la Familia Ortiz.” (We are the Ortiz Family.)

Bernie and His Older Brother

One of our guests at Family Camp, a long-time Texas Rangers fan, and current little league coach, suggested to me that we should try to play a pick-up game with Bernie, a student from the school, and his friends. He had an eagerness in his request not just that he was interested in seeing the talent of Bernie, but that he and his son would enjoy a more personal connection with local students in a common passion for baseball.

We made the arrangements during the breaks of family camp with Bernie and assured him that we’d come ready to play, and yes, of course his older brother could come to. But why was Bernie so insistent on his older brother participating? As it turns out, Ernest, now 20 years old, just three years ago was selected into the development academy for the Baltimore Orioles, but unfortunately, on the day he was to sign his contract for a triple A team in the U.S., an all too common story occurred – they simply didn’t have room and he was dropped from the roster.

So on Thursday afternoon there we were, four Americans, with Bernie and friends catching fly balls and turning double plays in the scorching Dominican heat on a rocky and grass-barren field just outside the local stadium. What was amazing to note was that his older brother, Ernest was indeed talented, a true natural, but what impressed us most was his father-like care for his younger brother. I spent some time talking with Ernest asking him about his plans. He told me that he’s still playing baseball, and is hopeful to get picked up again by some scouts, yeah, he’s working a little bit, and really he should finish his degree soon.

I asked him about what he thought of his younger brother, “You know, he’s the real natural. When he gets his growth spurt, I think he’s got potential. But I don’t want him to go down the road I did. I want him to have a better future. I want him to finish school first.”

I played that conversation over in my mind, and a question stood out to me: “What do we leave, when we leave the island?” Do we come to see the sights and sounds and taste the local flair, and applaud the talented youth? Because we will come, and we will go, that much is true. But what impact will we make with our time, with our resources, with our energy? To a young man, who had seen the real promise of a dream on ink and paper, and in one day seen it taken all away, I see that he desires the surest route for a better future for his younger brother.

That I believe is what he wants us to cheer for, that is what he hopes we will bring to the island and how we will treat our Dominican neighbors.

—–

I pray that you’ve been having an enjoyable summer and have had the opportunities to be involved in your community. Please pray for us here in Lima, Peru as we continue to implement the Edify school loan and training program.

Blessings,
-Aaron

Less is More

Have you thought about what really makes you happy? I mean, really makes you happy. I read a blog post some time ago where the author said that one way to find this you have to think about what is the perfect day to you. What happens in that day where everything goes right? You wake up feeling rested. You eat your favorite breakfast. Play some good songs. The sun is shining. You take a walk with a friend, or your dog. You meet some friends for lunch. You hike a trail, or go to the river, or go for a drive. You try some wine, or some beer, or you go to a baseball game.

I suppose your list looks a bit like that or something similar. What I find interesting about this exercise is that the list in itself is never complex. It’s composed of really simple things, and oddly enough, they aren’t very expensive. Then why, is happiness so expensive? Why do we buy so much? Or maybe a better question is, “Why do we buy so much but never really use what we buy nor remember what we bought?”less-is-more-dominican-baseball-july-2014

I think the point is clear, if you can’t remember how, when, or what really makes you happy then it probably isn’t a source of happiness.

Being in the Dominican Republic for me is a reminder of how easy it is to be happy without having to spend much at all. What made me happy were the times with friends, the laughter, the music, the small trips, the conversations with locals, being outside, walking around in beautiful areas, finding local fields to play with neighborhood kids. These are all elements of experience that costs so little, just some time and some up-front planning.

What I also realize is that if I spend my money on things not only do I have less money, but I have less time to do other things, and less space for the things I want. This may sound painfully obvious, but it’s really a change in perspective. To do things that make you happy you’ve got to stop doing the things that prevent you from being happy.

Doing less, buying less, occupying less is really more.

The joy of buying less, keeping less, owning less.

“Through the Valley” – (June ’14 Newsletter)

edify_logoI know it’s been quite awhile since I’ve written a newsletter. Initially, I had intended this newsletter regarding my mission work with Edify to be monthly, but the past five months have been really slow, and up and down in terms of our progress. I prefer to have some news or updates to convey when I communicate, and I hadn’t felt that I had some good solid news, until now. The past six weeks have simply been fantastic in terms of the progressJune-14-News-01 we’ve made and I’m glad to share them with you now. A quick note, I just recently arrived to the Dominican Republic to host an internship for our local Peruvian partner and work in our three week Family Experience program with some Dominican schools. More on that below. -Aaron

The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride. (Ecclesiastes 7:8 NIV)

When you sign onto a new project or initiative you usually have some idea of what you’re getting into. It is pretty tough when a new, demanding responsibility takes you by surprise and you find yourself saying, “I had no idea it would be like this.” Well, for me, I suppose I had some idea that the process of starting something new would take some time, and June-14-News-02bringing a new program that has worked in other countries would certainly not be a cookie-cutter implementation in a new country. That’s all true, I knew that. But it’s been really difficult to be so patient, and I was not expecting it to be so difficult for me.

Every time I have the chance to talk to someone back home, it’s always encouraging and reassuring to me. My friends, mentors, and family all remind me why I made the decision to work abroad and what it means for the local community here, and why I do what I do. I believe that God has a plan for redemption for these economically poor communities and a way to restore what was broken.

I know that this is a cohesive story that begins with love and ends in redemption. It’s a true story that we are all familiar with, and yet it is new every time we come back to it. This story is good and beautiful, and we love telling it. Hmmm, well, we love the beginning, and certainly the ending, and when we compare the before and after it makes the everything clearer and more meaningful, and brings a well defined conclusion to beginning. But I think there’s a part that doesn’t get much airtime, certainly it’s a part I had forgotten.June-14-News-03

The middle.

I’d been in the middle for about a year in Peru. I’ve had the great blessing to be able to work in Latin America with various Christian organizations that are committed to doing good work in the name of Christ. I have seen so much of the “before” – the brokenness of a community, all the pain and the suffering, and I have seen the beautiful “after.” Lives have been changed, students graduate, adults learn to read, communities become safer, families can afford to live better and healthier, and individuals learn that God has not forgotten them, and that life is much better trusting Him and knowing and living like Jesus. I’ve been a part of that story many times.

But the middle? I kind of wanted to skip over that. Go around it, jump over it, race through it, but I’ve realized that sometimes you just can’t. You can’t really be past something unless you pass through it first.

June-14-News-04Honestly, the middle was hard. It was hard for the simple reason that I came with a purpose, and I hadn’t been able to fulfill it. Let me remind you though, that this is kind of an American struggle. Many of my Latin America friends do not usually align their feelings of spiritual fulfillment with career success. (I’ve often said to many of my friends back home that Americans aren’t really fulfilled unless they are slightly dissatisfied with their progress. How can we ever find peace with this kind of mentality? Anyway, that’s a topic for another newsletter . . .)

Throughout all the months, the visits, the calls, the emails, the meetings, what has continually motivated me is that I have seen the program work. Knowing that our program for low-cost Christian schools has impacted more than a quarter of a million students in Africa and the Caribbean inspires me to take this program into the communities I’ve visited in Lima, Peru.
June-14-News-07
As I’ve seen now, sometimes to really have a breakthrough you’ve got to try to step back, analyze the situation, pray about it, and make a new plan. That’s just what we did. Together with the Edify team we put forth a grand effort the past two months to make this work in Peru. I’m glad to tell you today, that we are finally on our way here in Peru. The past two months have been a tremendous amount of work. With a signed contract, transferred funds, and a pool of schools that have loan applications in progress, I feel like we’ve crossed through the valley, and I am more excited than ever to see this program work in Lima.

You know what I think helped us get to where we are? I believe it was our commitment to walk through the middle with our partner.

The past few months we’ve worked so hard to build up the technical aspects of the program, with a future goal of a week-long internship in the Dominican Republic with our Peruvian colleagues. What I understand from last week is that there is nothing like seeing something with your own eyes, walking in the same communities, talking with the local staff and being inspired by the men and women of the Edify-supported schools in the Dominican Republic. Our local Dominican staff have been amazing. They have been so hospitable and welcoming to our PeJune-14-News-06ruvian colleagues. What I’ve seen in the past week has been a visible ascent of coming out of the valley.

From a wider perspective, when you look at both sides of a new partnership, both parties have their own questions, doubts, and processes for which they need time to understand. I think I was ready to push this program through all the way to the communities in Lima that I had visited because I was confident, I had seen it, and touched it. But in order for others to be in this same place, you’ve got to take them on the journey as well. The feedback from our Peruvian colleagues has been incredibly positive. I really feel like they’ve caught the vision, and are more equipped than ever to bring this program to Peru.

There have been so many people who have walked through the middle with me this past year. My colleagues at Edify, my friends, my family, and of course I’ve felt the presence of the Lord more than ever.

June-14-News-05Thank you to all of you who have supported me over the past year, and get ready to celebrate with me when we get our first few schools in the program in Lima in the next few weeks!

For now, I’ll be in the Dominican Republic, celebrating with my Dominican colleagues for what the Lord has already done here with our family experience camps. That’s what I’ll write about in the next newsletter.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9 NIV)

I pray that you maintain the vision you have, and that you don’t let go of what you know to be true.

blessings,
-Aaron

10 Times in Practice

I had a conversation with a taxi driver during the world cup about the skill and the chemistry of certain teams and their star players. Why some players were simply more dependable than other players? He seemed like he was a veteran of the game, and offered me this explanation:

“It’s like I tell my son and his friends, if you want to score a goal from a certain distance or pass a player with a flashy move in the game, they’re going to have to do it at least 10 times in practice, flawlessly.”brazil-world-cup

He added that on the contrary, “Don’t expect to be able to do something in a game that you haven’t done 10 times well in practice!”

Such good advice I think. There are so many “one-hit wonders” and many flukes of success that seem to crop up and die out. You wonder what it was that allowed them to reach a certain level of stardom because they showed all the signs of excellent in their performance. but failed to keep it going. Maybe the reason they couldn’t keep it up is that while they showed it in their performance, they couldn’t repeat consistently. There are myriad factors that determine an outcome in the game. The question is can a player do it consistently in each situation without suffering from so much analysis and critique that they can’t even perform?

That I think is the difference between those who are great and those who are good. It’s the level of consistency showed day in and out of practice and on stage. I think anybody can hit a home run, write a great article, or have a great showing, but it is those who have refined their art to the point of repeatability. Those are the ones that stick around.