The first 5 years of a child’s life are critical. Not only for their intellectual development, but for their emotional well-being and self-confidence. If children are left in a vacuum, or without the proper commitment of time from parents, I think this opportunity for development is squandered. These critical aspects of a child’s personality don’t develop spontaneously on their own. It happens through a long series of consistent interactions and constant reinforcement. There’s no effective substitute for the love and attention of a parent.
As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interview Grant Aldrich. Grant is a serial entrepreneur and father of 3. He founded his most recent startup, OnlineDegree.com, with a purpose-driven mission: make higher education more accessible and affordable for everyone. After graduating college with an overwhelming amount of debt, he was determined to change how students embark on their college education. Grant has spent his entire career working in startups with nearly 15 years of experience. He has been a board member and donor to a number of non-profits, an advisor to many publicly traded companies. He graduated with honors from University of California Irvine in Economics.
Thank you so much for joining us Grant! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?
Ever since I was a child, I’ve always wanted freedom.
I’m not referring to freedom in the purely adolescent sense of eating whatever one wants, going to bed late, or eating junk food all day. All kids probably dream of that type of freedom. My desire was more grand and holistic. Even from a young age I began to make lifestyle choices based on dreams that would allow me physical, creative and intellectual exploration. I was a very intellectually curious and resolute young child. For example, I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. Which is odd since I didn’t really have any role models around me who were entrepreneurs…both of my parents were teachers. So, I honestly knew little about what that actually meant. However, I understood that it would allow me unfettered creativity in whatever work I chose, and the additional possibility of financial freedom. Two things I felt my parents didn’t have as public school teachers.
What’s interesting though is that I never knew *what* I wanted to do with that freedom. In other words, I knew that it was the answer and something to be desired, but I didn’t know why.
It was only much later in life that I would figure out the answer. In hindsight, I feel like I had this puzzle in front of me why entire life and could never figure out what was missing. Only when the puzzle piece was finally in place did everything make sense. The big picture finally became so clear.
That puzzle piece was my children.
Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?
Tragically, my pursuit of freedom in the early parts of my career had the ironic and unintended affect of making me a slave. I began in startups right out of college, and I was determined to make them successful so that I could achieve freedom. Instead of viewing freedom as something we enjoy every day, I made the critical mistake of looking at it as something one had to achieve at the end of a tunnel. I kept my head down grinding away throughout my twenties and early thirties. Essentially shackling myself in the pursuit of finding a key.
I’m fortunate though that I eventually had enough success in that prior professional life to take off work for about 6 months. I exited 2 of my startup companies in 2015, and sought a period of introspection to decide on how I was going to live the rest of my life. I knew something was wrong, but hadn’t quite but my finger on it yet. Up to that point, I had so thoroughly lost track of my initial dreams of freedom that I thought I was destined to continue on that same path. In other words, go “bigger”. I focused on the traditional metrics of success like a bigger company, more employees, or more financial reward. Those appeared to be the answer to make me happier.
After a deep period of reflection though, I realized that it wouldn’t. I found that I was on a very selfish and shallow path that was lacking in freedom, and wouldn’t lead me to happiness. Instead, a more fulfilling path would involve just being with my family, and tackling a huge problem to help people around the world. It was my awakening.
As part of that awakening, I engineered an uncompromising lifestyle that would ensure I spend more time with family, and decided to tackle the huge societal problem of college affordability. Education was always very important in my family growing up, and is a top priority with my own children. It’s crucial to an individual’s success, and the success of a society as a whole. Sadly, I observed that millions of people who are wanting to make their lives better and get the education they need, are unable to take the first step. Student debt and the lack of accessibility to higher education have become far too high.
I created OnlineDegree.com to solve that. It’s a platform where anyone can register in 60 seconds, take as many college-level courses as they’d like, and receive credits toward their degree…for Free.
I feel it’s the culmination of many things: providing meaningful help to so many people, making the world a better place for my children, and expressing my creativity to solve a big problem in education.
Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?
I’ve completely engineered my life to maximize time with family.
When I started the new venture, I put an immense amount of thought in thinking through how I could create the optimal work-life balance. As most entrepreneurs know, a startup is a black hole in terms of time commitment. One can dedicate an infinite amount of time building the business and in the pursuit of success. What’s tragic though, is that the time is ultimately at the expense of something else in the entrepreneur’s life- usually family and friends. I made that mistake through the first 15 years of my career, and I was determined to not let that happen again.
My first bit of engineering was deciding that the company was going to be virtual and I was going to work from home. I never enjoyed driving to an office anyhow, and resented the time I was wasting in my commute. By creating a virtual organization, I was not only able to recruit the best team members in the world (no matter where they live), but recapture an additional 1.5 hours in my day. That’s a lot for a parent. In addition, since I’m in such close proximity with my family, I frequently take 10–15 minute breaks to go see what my children are doing, eat lunch with them, or read a book with my son. It’s an amazing energy booster and translates to a lot more quality time.
Another problem with being an entrepreneur is spending your time wisely. Many things are necessary to do on a daily basis, but we often get distracted by unimportant tasks, opportunities or interactions. It ultimately wastes a substantial amount of time. To combat this, I came up with a neat approach.
Above my desk, I have a photo of my children and a letter I wrote to myself when I began my startup. I look up at it every day to ask myself this critical question:
“Is every minute I spend away from them, an effective use of my time?”
You’d be amazed at how effective you become when you frame your time in that manner.
Those are just a few examples, but I think it gives you a good idea of my day-to-day. I basically flow seamlessly between family and work, and as a result, get to enjoy both.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?
The first 5 years of a child’s life are critical. Not only for their intellectual development, but for their emotional well-being and self-confidence. If children are left in a vacuum, or without the proper commitment of time from parents, I think this opportunity for development is squandered. These critical aspects of a child’s personality don’t develop spontaneously on their own. It happens through a long series of consistent interactions and constant reinforcement.
There’s no effective substitute for the love and attention of a parent.
I feel that many parents fall into the trap of both downplaying the importance of these formative years and assuming these developmental lessons can be equally satisfied through sibling interactions or day care. That’s just not the case. No one said parenting would be easy, and it does require a lot of work.
There is a silver lining though. As parents, we enjoy these interactions…that’s why we do this. How else could we justify the sleepless nights, never-ending commitment, and radical change in lifestyle? The truth is, it makes us happy.
On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is so important to make time to spend with your children?
My main argument would be for one’s own happiness.
There is no greater opportunity for creative, emotional, and intellectual expression and fulfillment than being a parent.
The impact and importance of that expression are so much greater than the alternative of applying that to our jobs or hobbies. It’s far more challenging as well. The landscape changes constantly as our children age or navigate milestones. As a result, it provides us with a rich and dynamic environment to dedicate ourselves to their educational development, emotional well-being, and other personal growth. I don’t see how an alternative could provide an opportunity that’s equally rewarding or stimulating as we interact with those whom we love the most.
According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?
I agree with that completely, and often see parents missing key opportunities for quality time. What’s most disappointing is that it’s often imperceptible to the parent. Many of the common parental activities in our society today are inherently lacking in quality. Here are two ubiquitous examples:
Television or Movies- Two hours a day is a precious amount of time in a child’s life. When you look at a 24 hour day and subtract sleeping, eating, bath time, getting dressed, etc., one might only have 2–3 hours of solid uninterrupted time to spend with another. Watching television or a movie is a poor use of that time. Regardless of your views on the intellectual value of TV, it’s a passive participation that creates no personal interaction between you and your child. The whole point of the activity is to sit quietly and watch the screen. This is a real shame.
Large Team Sports- Sports are usually a major activity among children, and a huge time commitment for parents. To the parent’s credit, they dedicate an immense amount of time attending practices, games, or weekend long events, to support their children. Sadly, I think too much time is dedicated to these sports as well, and comes at the expense of quality interactions between parent and child. For example, I played football and baseball throughout my youth and was often on teams of 30 or more kids. My mom would attend my practices and games every week, spending countless hours at each of these events. However, it wasn’t quality time. In fact, we weren’t together at all. Although she was there in the stands to support me, there was almost no interaction whatsoever. What a tragic amount of time that could have involved us building something together, learning, or simply talking.
Instead, I strive to engage in activities with my children that foster quality interaction. Here are some things we do together as an alternative:
Projects or Building- Children love to learn, build things and create. Doing a project together not only provides you the forum to instruct your child in a fun and interactive way, it develops cohesion in working with one another.
Reading Together- One of our favorite past times in the house is to not only read books together, but to go through encyclopedias or catalogs to discuss the various things we’re seeing. One of my sons loves animals, and we got him a huge encyclopedia on wildlife. As we go through the book, there are many opportunities for discussion and thoughtful exploration.
Chores Around The House- Something as simple, and seemingly uninteresting as chores, might not appear to be interactive at first glance. Similarly to a project though, it’s all about how you approach things. For example, I had to fix some lights at our home the other weekend and had my son help me. It turned out to be a fun opportunity to teach him about electricity, safety, and using tools. He loved it.
Simple Play- Many adults don’t want to actually “play” with their children. I get it, we’re not always enthused to move cars around a kitchen floor. While not always appropriate or applicable, there are many opportunities to engage with your children in normal play. In my opinion, there’s no better way to see their personality and participate in the things they love doing.
We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.
I have a number of strategies that I employ to ensure I’m present both physically and mentally:
Carve Out Time From Your Daily Schedule- I’m a firm believer that boundaries need to be set in your daily schedule and followed religiously. In my case, I have the 4:30pm rule. Under no circumstance will I continue to work after 4:30pm. This is definitely challenging to follow since there’s always so much to be done in a startup. Everything begs your attention. The reality though is that there will never be enough time in a day. You’ll always seek to complete more tasks, and the tasks are endless. One must put a physical deadline to ensure your work doesn’t creep into more important family time.
Meditation- The hardest part of fully engaged mentally with my children is transitioning out of work. Once you’re in a work mindset with all of the deadlines, interactions, and to-dos that come along with that, it isn’t easy to drop those mentally and show up for parenting. Clearing your mind is no easy task. One tactic that I found to be highly effective is to engage in a 20 min breathing meditation prior to leaving my office. Although you could argue that 20 mins is a long time to delay in rejoining the family, it allows me to show up with a clean and positive mind.
Ditch the Phone- Smart phones are the modern Siren’s Song for parents. In this context, nothing is more distracting and damaging than our cell phones. I can empathize, and have been equally guilty…the stimulation you can derive from a smart phone is incredible. Phone calls from work or friends, email, Whatsapp threads, notifications, looking something up online, etc. The stimulation is endless and addictive. Those distractions come at a huge cost to your children though. Even the occasional “check in” on your text messages draws away your focus, and ultimately prevents you from committing quality time as a parent.
Some Relationships Must Go- This is a sad, and often unspoken, reality of becoming a parent. Many of our prior relationships will no longer be feasible. It’s comes down to a simple realization of how much time is in a day. Prior to having children, there were many hours in a day that could be spent on various relationships. Phone calls here, hours of coffee meetups there. Children change that. Your attention and focus must now overwhelmingly be spent on them. I often see new parents struggling with this. They feel stressed to maintain these relationships and feel guilty in disengaging. It’s completely normal, and a natural reaction. In the end though, one must prioritize these relationships, and make a commitment to reestablish them down the road at some point.
Remember, It’s Fun — We never complain about committing our time to fun things. Do you ever hear anyone griping on a jet ski? It’s only the obligatory tasks that we attempt to wiggle out of or avoid. I think we all need to remember how happy our children make us, and to approach that time with the utmost optimism. It’s a blessing that we are able to spend every day with our families. It’s not always smiles and laughter, and one will surely have to handle screams and crying. It’s all part of the fun though, and one must learn to approach that in stride.
How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?
90% of Good Parenting is just showing up. I don’t think most people realize how great of an impact they can make on their children’s lives by just being there both physically and mentally. Being a good parent is innate in all of us. We all know the basics of what needs to be done to both support and educate our children. The sad reality though is that we’re often not present in either capacity. In my own personal life I’ve created systems and methods to ensure I’m there physically with my children as much as possible. Mental focus is still critical though. I’m constantly challenged to leave all of the stress, angst, and distractions from my professional or adult life and be 100% engaged with my children. It’s not easy, and requires constant vigilance. Once you solve that though within yourself, good parenting will come easy. You have a lifetime of experience, insights and love to provide your children…just show up and you’ll give it to them.
How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?
One of my key tenants for raising children is developing a strong self-confidence. This may seem like an odd source of inspiration, but I’d encourage readers to listen to Cus D’Amato’s thoughts on confidence when training Mike Tyson to be the boxing champion of the world. Cus’ emphasis was not on the physical aspects of training in the ring, as one might expect. It was almost completely focused on building Mike’s confidence. Getting Mike to believe he would be the next champion of the world. Iron Mike, while immensely talented, was riddled with insecurities. How could this poor and mischievous kid from New York amount to anything? Cus understood that fear and self-doubt are what truly hinder achieving one’s dream. He knew that Mike would never be champion until he first believed he could do it. It’s a fascinating series of audio tapes. The reality though is that the lesson applies to everything in life. Every day ambitions are just as scary as getting into a boxing ring. People can be literally terrified of certain things like public speaking or applying for a job. The fear is crippling. But, it’s the self-confidence that will allow someone to dream big and achieve greatness.
How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?
Success is having the freedom to spend as much time with my family as possible.
Contrary to the normal consensus, I no longer believe success is a function of work. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking fancy cars, big houses, and grand vacations indicate success. In fact, when I look at determining success, I often think of myself in my deathbed (a little dark, I know) In other words, I try to mentally put myself into a reflective state at the end of my life, and ask the question, “What will I be most proud of, and what will I regret.” Cars, big houses, and opulence are absent from the left side of that ledger.
For me personally, that answer has everything to do with family and personal relationships. My work is merely the conduit to get me there. Work is thus a success only as much as it enables that freedom.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?
I actually think it’s more important for parents to develop their own personal philosophies and happiness, rather than read books on parenting. I’ve never found a book on parenting that I felt was as important or insightful as the many books and resources that led me to my own personal renaissance. Once you know yourself, and you have the right philosophy to approach life for you and your children, everything starts to line up. You’ll know what the right parenting decisions are at that point. Given that, some resources I would recommend are:
How I Found Freedom in an Unfree World, by Harry Browne — This is an excellent book in that it helps you let go of so many distractions in your life. The stress that comes from fretting about things that are outside of one’s control are debilitating. For example, I used to spend copious amounts of time reading the news. Hours and hours of time glued onto the screen. Since this book, I’ve dispensed with the stress of keeping up with the daily news and feel more free as a result. It’s helped me bring more physical and mental time to my children.
Gridlessness (The Burkinshaw Family)- This Youtube channel features how the parents completely went off-grid to free themselves of the corporate life and spend more time with their children. Whether one might enjoy a lifestyle of remote off-grid living is actually not important. I enjoy watching because their philosophy matches my own. They’ve prioritized their freedom in order to spend every day together, and are a living example of how we should all approach life. It’s both inspirational and enjoyable to see how the family spends their time.
Epicurus- This is more of a recommendation to the individual than one book in particular. Epicurus was a philosopher in ancient Greece during the 3rd and 4th century BC. He is tragically misunderstood in the modern context and often equated with vice, hedonism, or depravity. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Epicurus is one of the intellectual fathers of happiness and peace among humans. In fact, a brilliant academic by the name of Ludwig Von Mises, described him best, “Epicurus inaugurated the spiritual, moral, and intellectual emancipation of mankind.” A bold and appropriate description. I would highly suggest seeking out academic texts to learn more about his philosophy.
That said, there are some excellent resources for childrearing that I felt have complimented my own beliefs and philosophies. I particularly love Maria Montessori’s work. Her dedication to the early formulative years is fantastic, and I highly encourage readers to explore her framework and strategies.
In addition, I would look at The Well Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer for an overview and practical guide to Classical Education.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love gleaning insights and wisdom from our oldest generations. These are people who’ve spent 70, 80, or even 90 years on this planet with many lessons learned. Interestingly, I started to find that much of the wisdom these individuals would share is universal, regardless of the person’s background, socioeconomic status, or religion.
If one asks one of these individuals about their experience with children or as a parent, you’ll likely get the following answer: “It goes by so fast.” Haven’t you heard that as well?
This quote is a true gift to young parents. It’s both a warning of how easy it is to misappropriate your time, and a reminder of how beautiful the parenting experience truly is. For me personally, that quote is a life lesson that reminds me of my own mortality and the limited time I have with my children. Time is truly precious, and one needs to spend it well.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Be the Burkinshaws! If I could identify one family that I feel is living the lifestyle we should all aspire to be, it’s them. They’ve thoughtfully embraced, and furthered, a movement to dispense with the distractions in our life and focus on what matters.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!