I’m ready now

radyIn modern American society, it seems the common wish when people contemplate death is that they go quickly, with little suffering and no time to be distressed about the situation. If my remembrance of history is correct, people have in the past prayed the opposite, that death would not come unless one had time to prepare his or her heart and bid goodbye to loved ones.

My life has probably been touched by death to an average degree for someone my age. On one hand, both my mother, who died when I was 12, and my father, who died when I was 20, went before their time, and likely were not in a good place. On the other hand, when my grandmother and sister-in-law passed away, death came as merciful; it was time for their suffering to end.

I have been thinking about death a bit recently. Maybe it’s because I am helping prepare a care package for a friend whose wife, age 33, passed away during childbirth a few months ago. Or maybe it’s because I have been preparing my will just this week. I hope, though, that my thoughts and feelings have less temporal origins.

Henry David Thoreau said, “What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” I haven’t achieved nearly all the goals I have set out for myself. I think, however, that I’ve become a person who could accept death were it to come. (This reminds me of a conversation I once had with Bill Rodgers, 3-time winner of the Boston Marathon. I asked him, when he knew he was no longer competing to win, if he accepted it gracefully or fought against it. He said, “It didn’t matter because that was how it was going to be in any case.”)

Certain things make accepting the inevitability of death easier. Perhaps it’s the faith that there’s more to our experience than what our senses perceive; what we see and feel isn’t all there is to reality. Maybe it’s the feeling, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, that if I find in myself desires that nothing in this earth can satisfy, then it must be that I wasn’t made for here.

I think, though, it’s more simple than that. The fact is that the only lasting legacy is love. I hope I have given myself in such a way that my family and the friends I have come to regard as family will in some way always know I love them and perhaps be a little different because of the time we’ve shared.

This morning a dear friend and I ran in the pre-dawn through a magical world of lights, sculptures, fellow runners, and a sky that was at first stars and then sunrise coming from the east. I hope to live another several decades and repeat that run a hundred more times. If my demise were to come, however, I know that I could leave peacefully. I’m ready now.

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Being your best

beingbest

As a friend and I were nearing the end of a long run, I asked her the following question: “What do you do to be at your best? In other words, what is it that is necessary for you to feel happy, content, and at peace?” Her response, included below, indicated that balance was essential for her.

 

As a result of her thoughtful answer, I decided to ask others the same. I will plead 100% guilty to being pretty intense about approaching growth. This, of course, includes an intentionality about how to be my best every day. I am curious about others, especially others who seem to be purposeful in pursuing their goals.

We all have an internal compass which points to our own personal true north. Perhaps we don’t always check the compass before we set out for the day.

What I like about the answers I received is both the variety and the commonality. I have the sense that folks know that being your best isn’t always about gritting your teeth and re-doubling efforts. This is reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s statement that “Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony.” For me, the reminders below underscore this thought.

Here, then, are the responses:

I am at my best when I prioritize nurturing my spiritual self. When I am spiritually balanced and whole, the rest (physical, emotional, mental) falls into place. Tamara T.

I’m at my best when I’m present and engaged in the moment. Not dwelling in the past or daydreaming about the future–just being and doing. Every time is now.Steve K.

I’m at my best when I am surrounded by friends and family who encourage me to be a better version of myself. Susan C.

I’ve learned that time spent in nature is needed for me to reach the best version of myself. I’m at my best when I have balance between the personal and social, creative and intellectual, emotional and rational, and my spiritual life is at the foundation of it all. Jamie S.

Being at my best is like a recipe, a daily routine. It’s grounded in physical exercise, balanced nutrition and getting 7.5 hours of sleep. It continues with learning something new and investing energy in self and others. And it always contains daily reflection and gratitude. As Jimmy Valvano said “if you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day.” When I reflect on my best days they’ve always been “full days.” Brian G.

I am at my best when I feel calm, confident, and have new goals to achieve. I most easily get to this point after spending time exercising and enjoying the outdoors.Jill P.

I’m at my best when I feel clarity in my goals and purpose, both immediate and longterm. Risa G.

Biggest thing is to have my actions align with who I am. So many distractions out there that I find if I’m not consistently thinking about it, I begin to shift in a million directions. You can’t be happy if you’re suppressing who you are. Eddie P.

I’m at my best when I have self-confidence and self-love.” When I’m unsure of myself or doubt that I’m worthy, I struggle. But when I recognize positive aspects in myself and trust in myself, everything seems easier. Jill M.

I’m at my best when I remember to appreciate the little things in life. Allison M.

I’m at my best when all things that make me content are at equilibrium — physical and mental activity, having a positive impact on the world and within my community, helping or watching close friends flourish, and achieving personal goals which bring me closer to the best version of myself. Carolyn H.

I’m at my best when I ask questions, listen attentively and minimize judgments. Many times there is no right or wrong, just different. Maggie U.

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The time is now

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Every day, you make decisions about how to spend your time. Moreover, you determine the tenor of your life by how you choose to live out each minute. When you are young, time seems to be abundant. By the time you reach middle age, though, the cumulative effect of all these minute-by-minute decisions will show – in your countenance, in your work, in your social life, and in your family.

timeWe have a tendency to say, “Well, I’ll do this and that after I get through this difficult thing.” Here’s the truth: there’s never a perfect time. A new job, raising children, career demands, preparing for retirement. All of these make for good reasons to postpone living well. And by the time you’re ready to tackle living well, living is about over.

The little things add up. I would encourage you to be intentional in everything you do. Maintain good posture, adopt a sense of gratitude, get good sleep, be positive, eat healthy, spend some quiet time each day to reflect on life. Together, these things will lead you down a path which serves to nourish the essence of who you were meant to be.

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A path to success: service to others

There was a time that my paradigm for success in business was to work hard and become as smart as you could and then you would be successful. One of the key things I’ve come to believe in the last ten years, however, is that we will be successful in proportion to our ability to serve the needs of others. For some, that will mean performing a service, perhaps a valuable service, and that’s as far as it goes. If you can do this, however, while making the person feel welcome and honored as an individual, you will find that you will be appreciated with more than just money. This isn’t necessarily for everyone. If your ego demands that you have the trappings of power (and I use the word ‘trappings’ deliberately), or if you don’t enjoy working with people, then it may be that service to others isn’t your calling. That is fine, because it takes so many kinds of people to make a society.

If, however, you find that there’s a harmony between your need to earn a living and your desire to be helpful to others, you can take to heart these words from Dale Carnegie in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”:

“The world is full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking, so the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage. He has little competition. Owen D. Young, a noted lawyer and one of America’s great business leaders once said, “People who can put themselves in the place of other people, who can understand the workings of their minds need never worry about what the future has in store for them.” If you get just one thing out of this book, an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view and see things from their angle, if you get just that one thing, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career. Looking at the other person’s point of view and arousing in him an eager want for something is not to be construed as manipulating that person so he will only do something that is for your benefit and his detriment. Each party should gain from the negotiation.”

The business world is littered with smart under-achievers. Those who can wring everything out of their ability to serve others not only will always make a good living, but will engender great appreciation along the way.

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Sacrificing nothing

work-152822_1280Sometimes I sit in a meeting a wonder what we all would have been doing for a job 50 years ago. The important industries in North Carolina back then were tobacco, farming, textiles, banking, and insurance. It can be equal parts unnerving and inspiring to think I might have been doing something in one of those industries. The fact is, the education that do many of us enjoy was built on the money made from those things.

There’s a famous quote (of unknown attribution) which says, “Opportunity Is Missed Because It Is Dressed in Overalls and Looks Like Work.” Someone from the past who worked on a tobacco farm would have laughed to hear me describe anything I do to be hard work. After all, I help intelligent people understand how to use software from the comfort of my office. This makes it all the more incumbent on me to recognize the opportunity I have.

There is more to life than work. There is more to success than work. But work also isn’t a punishment. There are people who would love to be where we are right now. One of my favorite quotes is from Steve Prefontaine: “To give less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.” As Labor Day approaches, let’s remind each other to sacrifice nothing.

Here’s a favorite poem of mine related to this subject:

To be of use
BY MARGE PIERCY

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

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The non-technical secrets to my success

randy-pictureThe skills that have most come into play in my career are those that aren’t technical in nature. These can be done by anyone, anytime regardless of education or training. In no particular order, these include:

  • Smiling — A powerful way to say so much.
  • Efficiency — I truly believe that the amount of time something takes is how much time is allotted.
  • Communication — You can increase trust and confidence by communicating with frequency.
  • Positive attitude – If you are a manager, you appreciate those who have a positive attitude toward what needs to be done.
  • Open-mindedness — When change happens, as it always does, having an open mind toward change makes the difference.
  • Interest in others — Learning about people and remembering the details of their lives will make them want to help you. It’s also just part of being a good human being.
  • Being eclectic — The world is big. Having a broad frame of interests will make you more interesting and able to converse.
  • Courage — Courage is usually a matter of being afraid but doing what needs to be done anyway.
  • Nothing too big or too small — There are times when you are requested to do something enormous and other times when tasks seem beneath you. You need to be able to do both with enthusiasm.
  • Always learning — I had a co-worker who once came to a meeting and said, “Whatever we are having today, I want a big bowl!” It helps to always be looking forward.

I hope to continue what I’m doing for a long time, but I know that any job I might ever have, I will approach it the same way.

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The modern résumé

I get asked sometimes about résumés, and last year I helped some of the interns with theirs. I think it’s usually good to look at what experts say, but in the area of résumés, I listen to my gut. My gut tells me the following:

  1. One page. That’s it. It can be two columns, but just one page.
  2. Use appropriate colors and fonts and typography. This isn’t 1975 and we’re not limited by the IBM Selectric typewriter.
  3. Make it interesting. It shouldn’t be strange, but there’s no need for it to be boring.
  4. For heaven’s sake, no typos or misspellings! Have multiple friends and family members read it.
  5. It’s important for you to convey what you’ve done, but it’s just as important to convey who you are. You have a good story to tell about your life; make sure it comes across.

This is purportedly Marissa Mayer’s résumé. She was until recently the CEO at Yahoo! and before that was an executive at Google. Her résumé tells the story of someone who is confident, knows who she is, and is likable. This isn’t a bad one to emulate! I think I like hers better than my own so maybe I’ll make some changes. Which brings me to the last point: Don’t wait until your résumé is needed to update it. Working on your résumé is a little like writing in a journal in that it’s a way to check-in with yourself. If you don’t document your life, who will?

mayer

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Appreciating what is

IMG_2742This is a picture of my stapler. Although I do use it once in a while, it’s become a symbol of something bigger. When I first started at my job in 1991, the department admin, Louise, gave me this brand new stapler for my desk (which was actually in the hall) and I felt like I had really struck gold in my role as an intern. I mean, a desk of my own, a IBM 3270 terminal for the mainframe, and a brand new stapler!

I keep this around to remind me not to take things for granted. We humans are amazing creatures. We can rise to almost any occasion. I often feel like we are at our very best at formal events like funerals, graduations, and weddings. But we can also take things for granted very quickly. We are thrilled to be accepted to school and then grow tired of going to class. We feel so safe and secure with a mate and then see only his or her bad habits. We lament an injury and then become so tired of having to exercise. I am as bad about this as anyone.

Perhaps we need, every so often, to empty our cup so we can fill it again. Maybe we can take a few minutes today to remind ourselves of how we once were hoping for what we take for granted today. Maybe do something good for the bodies which are so important to our happiness and well-being.

If you have your own version of a stapler, keep it in sight where it can remind you of all the good things that have come your way.

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Follow the process

“To me, success looks like faithfulness.”  Kelly Clark, Olympic snowboard medalist

Last summer, about this time, several of us were training for a fall marathon, and this training called for us to run long distances in the soup-like North Carolina heat. For three weeks in a row, I ran with a friend and we did not meet our time goal. In fact, my friend because nauseated each time and I wasn’t exactly the picture of fitness either.

On the fourth week, we agreed on two things: 1) We would run only as fast as her heart-rate allowed within reason; 2) We would not worry about our time goal. That week, we had a breakthrough. Not only did we make it through the distance, but we enjoyed the experience. At that point, I reminded her that we were already successful because we had followed the process we had chosen. The fourth week may have seemed like a win, but it was the whole sequence which determined our success.

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday relates the philosophy of Nick Saban, coach of the successful Alabama Crimson Tide football team: “Follow the Process”. Every activity is based on the simple notion, “What can we do today? What can we do in this drill? In this block? On this play?” This simple philosophy has worked well.

Process provides the way (the path) toward your goal. While you always want to be aware of your goal, you get there in discrete, small steps. Faithfulness to the process is how you get there. Whether you are focused on achievement, or making it through a difficult situation, the process is the same.

The process can help you avoid panic. You just do the next step and you do it as well as possible. When you’re facing more work than you think you can handle, when the list of tasks is inordinately long, when you are on the edge of being overwhelmed…you just do the next thing, and do it as well as you can.

One way to do this is to develop habits and rituals to keep you on track. For example, every day, I list 1-3 things which were good about that day. I take 5-10 minutes of quiet to be grateful. I make it a point to visit each one of the people I manage at work. I send 1-2 notes of encouragement to friends. These are just my habits; yours need to work well for you.

Martha Beck wrote, “When nervous stop & relax for three full breaths. Next take one small step, then another. That is how people get to the top of Everest.”

It’s likely that you will need to remind yourself of this in your personal and professional life in the future. Personally, maybe you will be planning a wedding, buying a house, or dealing with the declining health of a parent. Professionally, maybe you will have multiple conflicting priorities, a seemingly impossible deadline, or a work-life balancing problem. When this happens, keep in mind: Follow the process.

 

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First among equals: your physical self

I’ve written before about the need for balance in life, the ideal of the Renaissance man or woman. As a teen, one of my idols was Kris Kristofferson, because he had been a college football player, award-winning songwriter, Army helicopter pilot, Rhodes scholar, actor, and singer. I was not going to match his achievements but I was to determined to never let go of the concept.

If we view a well-rounded person as having balance between the spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical, then it seems to me the last of these is most often the casualty of 21st-century life. Volumes have been written about obesity in the United States and its consequences. Most often, the focus is on the cost in health care and, to a lesser extent, the quality of life.

To pursue fitness is a chase we always win. In any attempt to improve our fitness, we are treating the body as the temple it is.

I have lain exhausted on a track after running 400-meter repeats. I have fallen off a rowing machine when done with a 5000-meter time trial. I have kicked and been kicked by a 265-pound mass of muscle in a sparring match. I ran into the proverbial wall in my first three marathons. And I threw up from exertion five days in a row at football practice in high school.

These have been some of the most meaningful moments in my life.  My friend Jamie wrote, “When we push ourselves in the physical realm beyond what we think we can handle, this mentality spills over into other aspects of our lives. In teaching ourselves that we can handle that physical hill, we learn that we can also tackle the hills in the other aspects of our lives. We learn who we are, and what we can do. We learn that we are more than what our insecurities whisper to us. We are stronger than our doubts would have us believe.”

To view exercise as simply an unpleasant requirement to maintain health is to miss the point.  We are maintaining the foundation of all that we are. Though we sometimes want to compartmentalize our lives, we are far to0 complex for one area of our existence not to affect other areas.

If you are severely overweight: Let me say that I never view you with anything less than heartfelt concern. My strong desire is this: To come alongside you, have you place your hand over your heart, and let you remind yourself that it is that steady heartbeat keeping you alive. I want to re-introduce you to the body which would skip along the playground during recess, which awakened during adolescence, and which must occasionally feel stirrings to rise up to a physical challenge.

If you have previously been fit but have lost yourself in the business of life: Whatever you have going, exercise should be viewed with the same importance as your job and your loved ones. If the day were to come where you find your life threatened by illness, you would quickly see it this way. Why wait until that day?

If you are currently exercising and taking care of yourself: Be proud. You are stoking the fire of the engine which powers the rest of your life. You have overcome the inertia which drives us all to conserve energy, and found that energy feeds on energy.

When I get together with my friends for a run, or go to my friend Gina‘s class at the gym, everyone looks much the same. Some are medical doctors, some are PhD’s, some are stay-at-home moms, some are young, some not so much, but all generally wear similar clothes and are at similar levels of fitness. This should tell us something: When our time on earth is coming to an end, we won’t take our material possessions with us. Instead, it’s the hills we climbed, both the figurative and literal hills, on which we’ll look back with fondness. And how do we prepare ourselves to climb hills? By doing it.

greatness

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