James Pothen

James Pothen works for Live 58, a non-profit focused on ending extreme poverty. When he's not reading or enjoying local coffee you can find him running around the mountains. He blogs about God, life, and culture at cupcake theology. He holds a B.S. in Civil Engineering from Cornell University and currently resides in Colorado Springs.

Twenty-Five @ 25

Wisdom from a Quarter-Life Crisis:


  1. People your age will lose babies before birth. You realize what Frodo meant.
  2. Teenagers really do make moronic decisions.
  3. Grown-ups don’t stop making mistakes, and they don’t necessarily manage them better.
  4. A boring life is a choice; adventures are everywhere.
  5. The sound of commitment is a hundred little “no’s” that let you say “yes” to what matters most.
  6. The best advice isn’t earth-shattering, just rarely implemented.
  7. It’s impossible to please everyone. Quit trying.
  8. A specific criticism is better than general praise.
  9. Many problems can be solved by exercise, diet, and sleep.
  10. When you move to a new place, say “yes” to every invitation for the first three weeks.
  11. A good conversation is worth a couple extra lattes.
  12. Most bad experiences will become great stories.
  13. Don’t tell anyone – but Brian Regan isn’t that funny.
  14. It is hard to die for an ideal, but far harder to live for one.
  15.  You are going to turn into a version of your parents – make it a cooler one.
  16.  The combination of Wisdom (Sophia) and Practical Wisdom (Phronesis) is the Master Virtue. [link]
  17.   Admitting ignorance earns respect.
  18.  Most people are delighted to help if you ask.
  19. Being an adult (paying bills, doing taxes, buying insurance) is not as hard they told you.
  20. There are no “good old days,” just people being sentimental about their youth.
  21. Routinely stepping outside your comfort zone keeps you challenged and growing.
  22.  When in doubt, dress one shade more formal than everyone else.
  23.  No matter what you do, a little computer programming skill goes a long way.
  24.  Don’t be afraid to make course corrections when needed. It’s rare to get things right on the first try.
  25. There are still birthdays to look forward to: 30 year-olds can run for Senate, and 35 year-olds can be President. Dream big!



photo by: Schnittke

Subtracting from the Noise

There seems to be a generational disconnect around technology. Millenials eagerly gobble up iPads and Facebook while their parents tut and whine about internet culture. Social scientists bemoan the consequences of smartphones while students tune out their lectures with a game of Angry Birds. Young companies brashly accept the lure of the shiny and new with names like “Palantir” and logos featuring a bitten apple. The youth of today do not know what they are getting into, but can’t look away or resist a bite.

The reality is this: social media, tablets, and smartphones aren’t going anywhere. And the whines of authorities will only fuel the rebellion of their progeny. These authorities were the ones who shocked and outraged their parents with sex, drugs, and rock n’roll, but no matter. Such are generational dynamics.

The question is not whether these new inventions will be adopted but rather this: what ought this next generation to do? Phone calls and email are out, texts and tumblr are in. We must live in both the digital and analog world. How can we do so wisely?

There must be a third way between luddism and teenage texting arthritis. My friend Chet – an articulate and polished software developer – has been largely responsible for my own enslavement of (instead of to) technology. Technology can be turned to serve man, and Chet has showed me how to get started.

Principle 1: Select Your Voices

Part of the beauty of Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest is the customizability of these platforms. On Twitter, picking voices is part of the “follow/unfollow” setup. Want to read what Zooey Deschanel is up to? Click “follow” and find out. Tired of someone’s oatmeal pictures? Just click “unfollow” and their tweets disappear.

On Facebook, you can be connected to a large number of people yet have a very small group of people who contribute to your news feed. By carefully “subscribing” and “unsubscribing” to people’s status updates you can mute certain people and listen to people who might not accept a friend request. Another option is to create “lists” of friends so you can be tuned into particular friend groups.

Pinterest also makes it easy to customize your “feed.” You can follow people or just some of their boards that you like. You can sort by interest to explore a particular genre of pins. It took me a lot of work, but I haven’t seen a single “dream wedding” pin in weeks.

Principle 2: Dynamically Select Your Audiences

Neither Twitter nor Pinterest offer useful options for choosing who gets see your content, so posting on those platforms requires discretion. Did you want your 5th grade Sunday School teacher seeing that?

Facebook offers much more flexibility in this. You can use friends lists to pick who gets to see what. It could be as simple as sharing (or excluding) certain lists from your updates in general, or as specialized as sharing certain content only to certain groups. For a 20-something I suggest the “Don’t trust anyone over 30” rule – with the exception of a pastor or mentor. Everyone needs a little digital accountability.

Principle 3: Manage Your Habits

According to a recent statistic, 28% of 18 to 34 year-olds check Facebook on their smartphones before getting out of bed. It’s an easy habit to adopt since many of them rely on their phone alarm instead of a traditional alarm clock. Simple things like using an alarm clock and keeping a smartphone away from the bed can guard against this.

Principle 4: Reflect

Take time at the end of the day to review the events that occurred, and if helpful, consider writing some reflections in a physical journal. “Re-membering” the day allows for sorting of all the disparate data that the electronic and analog world has brought.

Principle 5: Unplug

Consider setting wake-up/shut-down hours manually on your computer. Try  having a day where internet is off, but computers can still be used for music/writing. Or just a day outside without LCD screens. Follow your analog bliss.

When books first became available, there were those who bemoaned the loss of oral tradition and mankind’s ability to recall great amounts of information. When Wikipedia and Google came to the forefront, critics wistfully recalled the days when students had to go to the library and pull out books in order to do research.

Technology changes humanity – from behaviors to expectations, and customs. But all these technologies are still so new that it is difficult to foresee what role they will play for good or ill. Already, the Internet has aided revolutions, revolutionized pornography, and reduced the role of print media. The web evades “good” and “bad” labels alike.

But what is required of us? Humility. Humility on the part of the young to not attribute messianic power to the shiny and the new or think that their new toys have made them superior to their predecessors. And humility will be required for those who are older, to not let future shock or nostalgia keep them from affirming the good in what they do not yet understand.

Project Re-Education

When I went to college I had dreams of emerging with a broad-based liberal arts education – being schooled in the philosophies of Aristotle and Socrates, knowing fun trivia about Charlemagne, and having special insights into Picasso. I saw myself sitting in cafes with friends and waxing philosophical about the Middle East while sipping a customized caffeine dose. I suppose my model would have been Neal Caffrey of TV’s “White Collar” – sophisticated, street-smart, and stylish to a fault.

Four years later, and I didn’t get the education for which I was hoped. It turns out engineering isn’t friendly for exploring the humanities. So I found myself finished with higher education and unsatisfied with my knowledge of the great works that have shaped western culture. There was only one thing to do: take on the task myself.

In the months after graduation I attacked the local library – searching for literature that would feed my lust for understanding. I picked up a smattering of modern fiction, several notable films, and a few comic books (every culture has a mythology). But without direction my brute-force assault petered out and I found myself just watching a whole lot of television.

Then a friend suggested that I use Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Educated Mind to create a booklist. Bauer’s method for self-education is far too cumbersome to be practical for someone like me, but her list of literature proved to be a helpful resource. After transferring the contents of her suggestions into a trusty spreadsheet, I returned to the library for Gulliver’s Travels and set sail for the Isle of Lilliput.

It does seem excessive doesn’t it? If this were just about making up for not having the college life I wanted, it wouldn’t be worth the trouble. Thankfully, the rewards are bigger than assuaging regrets. It’s about looking toward an ideal. There are many names for it: “tasteful,” “worldly,” “educated,” but they all boil down to familiarity with certain works of art. Why? Well, because in order to converse in the world intelligently it is important to know where we came from.

Today, there is such a glut of information available that no one person can master it all. So we have experts who keep up with this trend or that obscure branch of knowledge. But by being well-trained in one’s own culture, by seeing how the wheels of history turn, a person is given an informed perspective which may help them to approach new situations and questions. There is nothing new under the sun, and seeing the good and the bad of the past can prevent the modern man from becoming too alarmed by the tumultuous nature of the world’s affairs or repeating the mistakes of his forefathers.

On another tack, books and art are part of the natural progression from child to adult. At some point, a young person grows tired with the entertainments proffered by the TV/internet culture, and yearns for something with depth and substance. The mental journey to adulthood is like the college student who tires of wine coolers and ventures into Cabernet Sauvignon territory. This yearning should be met with new pursuits appropriate for their mental development – novels that don’t include vampires and poems that don’t follow a 5-7-5 pattern. The growing mind needs to be stretched and pushed like an athlete who has mastered basic drills.

I should note that this process is not about reaching snobbery but maturity. A snob covers his insecurity by claiming to only enjoy “high” art. A mature person is able to enjoy art on all levels. I know food gourmets who enjoy a good burger and fries – but they know Five Guys has a time and place, just like a bottle of champagne. Likewise a mature person does not look down on those who do not enjoy her acquired tastes but eagerly invites them to share in the joy that she has found. She accepts that not everyone will enjoy reading Moby Dick and thinks nothing of it.

On a spiritual level, enjoying good art leads to God. Great art like Picasso’s “Guernica” can create a state of awe that leads to worship. Something within the viewer creates a twinge of joy mixed with longing – but for something the longer knows not.

A friend once told me he thought that art was not necessary for human survival. True, a human being can eat, sleep, and work without it. But what kind of life is it to be devoid of all beauty? We are designed to create and enjoy it. Music, stories, and paintings are expressions of what it means to be human. They can cause the patron to experience the full range of human emotion – joy, anger, sorrow, pain, loss, optimism, even hunger! I survived my four years of college, but I felt like I was being pushed through a mold, like a man trapped in an ever-shrinking box. Reading Jane Eyre is about reinflating into my proper shape – restoring my lost humanity.

One particular area that I targeted was vocabulary, since engineers tend to lose their command of English during their education. As I navigated social classes with Elizabeth Bennett and dodged bullets with Henry Fleming, I made a point of noting every word that I didn’t recognize and adding it to my spreadsheet for later. Words have so much power, and by creating a bank of new ones to know and use, I am not just creating fun alternatives for vernacular phrases but am learning to differentiate between the intricacies of human experience.

Reading classics isn’t all fun and games. Sure adding esoteric words to my diction beats watching my cupcakes bake in the oven, but there are plenty of books I’ve struggled to get through – I’m looking at you The Red Badge of Courage. Wading through the intense psychological whining and self-justifications of cowardice was an exercise in discipline– I’m from the ADD generation after all.

The greatest effect of reading literature has been patience. In the world of school, a month is a long time and a year is a quarter of your lifespan. But in novels, Gulliver is trapped in strange worlds for years on end, Jane Eyre spends months away from her lover, and Oliver is estranged from Mr. Brownlow for weeks. All of these stories have (somewhat) happy endings, but it takes time for them to get there. The characters have things to learn along the way, friends to meet and ways they must change.

What drives me the most is that tired food maxim: “You are what you read, listen to, and watch. You are the lines you quote and the songs you sing in the shower. You are your afternoon daydreams and bathroom fantasies.” Wait, that’s not quite right. The point stands. The things we surround ourselves with will inevitably shape us. What will you let shape you?