Terminally earnest

Shortly after September 11, 2001, I remember a pundit on the radio saying that as a result of the terrorist attacks, we had reached the end of the age of cynicism. Indeed, it seemed for a while a sobriety had come over the United States in which people were more reflective in all of their comments, not just those surrounding current events, but in every area.

Eventually, life began to return mostly to normal. The monologues of late night comedians again took on a snarky tone, sarcasm resumed its prominent place, and commercials on television again became satirical. To the extent that this represented, in a strange way, a healing of sorts, then we have to view the return of cynicism as just that.

For reasons I may not fully understand even now, I feel happiest and most comfortable in a world of sincerity. My family knows that on those rare occasions when I am sarcastic, I am not in a good place. I call myself “terminally earnest”.

Even if someone is fairly loquacious like myself, we are limited in what we say. And I tend to think that what we say shapes our lives. I’ve found it effective to tell others what they mean to me. If I’m sad, I’ll come out and say it. And if I’m excited and happy, you’ll hear me say that also.

Brene Brown, in her book “Rising Strong” discusses how we sometimes temper our happiness because we anticipate that it may not last and we don’t want to be disappointed. I think, in the same way, we don’t want to express our true heart because someone may crush it. I believe this begins early in life when children tease us in response to what we say.

I was looking at old vinyl records in a store with a friend today and I was struck by how, in the 1960s, recording artists would often put pictures of themselves on the record cover, smiling and offering themselves to the world. Often, their expression seemed to say, “Here. I am giving you my best effort.”

buffy

Were these artists naive to think that we would accept them as they are? Were they too unsophisticated to know they were taking a risk, that we might make fun of their earnestness? I don’t think so. Times were different, for certain. But I don’t think these singers were lacking in awareness. I think, rather, they were putting their best foot forward, giving us the opportunity to accept them, without fear.

 

 

I am acutely aware of my limitations and faults. I know that I have not traveled much and have limited experience with the most cosmopolitan among us. Still, I am not afraid to wear my heart on my sleeve.

To say “I love you”, to offer up your best, and to risk getting your heart crushed is the price you pay for living life to its fullest.

I should hasten to add that many of my good friends are what my daughters would call “sassy”. They aren’t afraid to be sarcastic, and even to volley your heart back to you if you serve it to them. I understand this and don’t begrudge it. But I will say this: I think they sense who I am and communicate with me accordingly. In the end, perhaps it makes for more heartfelt conversations. And I sense that they know they can come to me with tender thoughts and feelings.

In the area I live, there seem to be an abundance of bluegrass bands, in disproportion to the number of actual bluegrass fans (at least in my estimation). I have a theory about this. I think it is easy to sing these old mountain bluegrass songs because they are delivered with a bit of wryness and a wink. Folks know that they can relax because no one will take them seriously when they croon “The river rose the cricket sang, The lightnin’ bug did flash his wing, Then like a rope my arms I fling, Round Rose of Alabama”. There is almost no emotional risk in delivering this sentiment.  On the other hand, there aren’t many who will lay it out, singing “I can’t make you love me” or “When a man loves a woman“.

Cynicism is alive and well. I get it. For me, however, I stand ready to risk it all. I remain yours, terminally earnest.

 

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The next level

One time I read a book, a best-seller in the self-help genre, in which despite many good ideas being dispensed, the author seemed to have an awfully short fuse with his children. It turned me off to the point where I almost didn’t finish the book.

I expect abstract truths to result in contentment and practical wisdom. I expect the understanding of platitudes to make for a better life. And when I hear a sermon, I expect myself to be a better person for what I’ve learned.

In that regard, I’ve decided it’s time to level up.  The difficult experiences we’ve had in life need to count for something, and we have all had plenty from which to learn. Recently, I reflected on some of the more harrowing moments of my life.

  • The time I was eight years old and was put on a bus from North Carolina to Georgia. This included a stop in Charlotte where I couldn’t find my ticket and tearfully thought that would mean I’d forever be stranded.
  • A night in a seedy motel in which my mother passed out from a handful of barbiturates while my brother and I tried to occupy ourselves for more than a day.
  • Many times when my father’s voice and fists came violently thundering down on the people who I depended on for my welfare.

I’ve long since come to understand these situations for what they were. I appreciate the perspective they have given me, the ability to empathize with others, and the inoculation from any temptation to similar chemical excess. In the last 15 years, I’ve also learned there’s a difference between survival and truly living.

It’s time, though, to ascend to the next level. If we don’t fully learn from our past, we do dishonor to the Providence who trusted us to be big enough and wise enough to derive all we could from our circumstances.

How might that look? It would look like worrying less about how I might appear and more about what I do. It would mean becoming more stingy about giving time to the negativity and trivial matters which so occupy our world. (I’m reminded of what C.S. Lewis said: ”Prosperity knits a man to the World. He feels that he is ‘finding his place in it’, while really it is finding its place in him.”) It would mean being there for others even if it requires sacrifice of comfort and money.

The reward for this conscious effort to level up is the integrity of matching what I believe to how I live. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about a repentance from a prodigal life. I’m already pretty straight-laced by most standards. But we should raise a red flag on ourselves if we begin to get satisfied with our current state.

I want to take more time each day for being grateful; to be a better listener; to give a smile and maybe a hug to someone who could use it; to offer help to a young person who could use someone to review his or her resume and offer suggestions; to let my co-workers know how much I appreciate them; to tell my children I love them.

This business of becoming your best self is delicate. Push too hard and you miss out on the beauty of grace. Enjoy too much comfort and you fall short. Only you know when you have the capacity to be better, to have your words and deeds and thoughts match. The good news is that the opportunity is never lost, always coming around again. For me, that is now.

 

 

 

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When Frank Fischer found his audience

Frank Fischer

This is a story about how what might have been is sometimes less sweet than what was. It’s also about how lives can intersect in a beautiful way.

My daughter’s father-in-law, Frank Fischer, was a young man of about 30 working on a turkey farm near Riverside, California in the early 1970s. He would sometimes write songs. About this time, he wrote “Gospel Plow”, a prayer that the soil of one’s life might be turned over to produce a better harvest. A few years after he wrote it, he realized that the song would be perfect for Johnny Cash. Cash, who grew up on a farm, never wavered in his deep, abiding faith despite a fierce battle with addictions for most of his life.

By the late 1970s, Frank had moved to Yakima, WA. He met a fellow who managed the stage at the State Fair, where Johnny Cash would be playing. “I can get you backstage to give him your song,” the man told Frank.

WhenFrank arrived to the stage, someone told him, “Well, usually the performers hang around, but Johnny and June (Carter Cash) went back to the hotel earlier….But I know where they are staying!”

Frank went to the hotel and camped out in the lobby. After a while, an employee asked why he was there and, hearing the reason, told him that the Cashes had already left. Frank suspected this wasn’t the truth. A young desk clerk kindly confirmed on the sly that indeed they were still there.

Later, the young man told him they had probably gone to bed, but that he should come back early. Frank arrived about 5:00 A.M. the next morning and when he saw a black limo pull up out back, he thought something might be happening. The young desk clerk came to him and said, “Listen, he’ll be out soon. Stand right here and he’ll come right by you.”

He heard a door open, and June came down the hall. When she saw him, she smiled and said, “I know why you’re here.” Frank nervously told her about the song and she said,“I’m sure he would like to hear it.”

A few minutes later, Johnny came down the hall, wearing blue jeans and black patent leather shoes. Frank asked if he could play “Gospel Plow”. “Sure” came the deep baritone response.

Though Frank doesn’t have a natural vibrato in his voice, his nerves caused his voice to waver as he sang the song. Frank, without a shoulder strap for his guitar, dropped to his knee to play the song. He fixed his eyes on Cash’s shoes, but could tell there was a crowd gathering.

When he finished, Johnny said, “That’s just what I needed to hear on a Sunday morning.” Frank had written down the lyrics and music and offered them to Johnny. Johnny said, “I don’t read music. Tell you what, just go to your kitchen and record it the best you can on a boombox.” He asked June to give Frank their address and instructed that the package be marked, “As requested by Johnny Cash”. Frank still has the hand-written address.

Frank’s intention was to do a good job of recording the song despite Cash having told him a kitchen recording would be fine. Months and then years went by and Frank never got around to sending the song.

When he tells the story today, Frank says not sending the song was a mistake. We, his audience in 2016, wipe away tears after hearing “Gospel Plow” and tell him what Johnny had to say about his song is enough.

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“Effort is between you and you”

rainrun_lgA few months ago, a group of us were preparing for half- and full-marathons, when our schedule was somewhat disrupted by bad weather. In addition, there were the normal conflicts of life, which make devoting hours to training runs of more than 10 miles difficult. As we gathered together and were checking-in, one woman, a mother of three with a demanding job quietly reported, “I had to do my 20-mile run on the treadmill because of my schedule.” The rest of us were a little stunned in disbelief. This was followed immediately by a bit of humility as we realized that the amount fortitude required to spend three hours by yourself on a treadmill to do a training run pretty much dwarfed our minor training issues.

We are all born with certain physical and intellectual qualities, and then given parents and an upbringing which presents us with a gift or a challenge. One thing that is entirely under our control, however, is effort.  A few years ago, I came upon a pre-game pep talk given by Ray Lewis to the Stanford University basketball team. Leaving aside grammatical and extraneous issues, it made my heart beat faster and I was ready to run through the proverbial brick wall for a noble cause. My daughter, realizing the effect of this talk on me, transcribed it and gave it to me for a gift. Here is an excerpt:

Effort is between you and you, and nobody else. So that team that thinks it’s ready to see you, they think what they’ve seen on film, they ain’t saw what film shows, because every day is a new day. Every moment is a new moment. So now you’ve got to go out and show them that I’m a different creature now than I was five minutes ago, ’cause I’m pissed off for greatness. Cause if you ain’t pissed off for greatness, that just means you’re okay with being mediocre, and ain’t no man in here okay with just basic.

Several days a week, I do a workout with some pretty amazing instructors. It is short and intense and relatively expensive. Sometimes these instructors will say, “This is your workout, don’t cheat yourself.” Here’s the thing, though: only I know if I’m cheating myself. The difference between all-out effort and almost doing my best may be a fairly imperceptible 1/4″ depth. When I walk out, the degree to which I am satisfied is entirely dependent on the effort I’ve given.

More than 30 years ago, I was associated with a graduate program which was fairly competitive in its selection of students. One woman was a particular curiosity, in that she came with the highest of recommendations but truly atrocious standardized test scores. She made no excuses for these tests; she just admitted that was not a good test-taker. Nevertheless, after much consideration, she was admitted to the program and ended up winning its highest academic and character award. She proved that effort matters to a huge degree.

One of my favorite quotes of all-time comes from Jerry Rice: “Today I’ll do what others won’t so tomorrow I will do what others can’t.” I mentioned this quote to a couple of teenagers who come to our gym at 5:30 A.M., when most of their peers are still asleep. They had told me that they come early because they have baseball practice and homework after school. This sort of effort inspires me.

Too often we look at business CEOs and sports stars and talk about how “lucky” they are. The truth is, luck is seldom involved. The road to success is littered with those who could have completed the journey had they made the effort.

This picture would not be complete if I didn’t mention the relational aspect of this. Having others who help us put forth our best effort is essential. In my next post, I will talk about the relationships which make us better people, but let me mention this: In every difficult challenge I face, I look to do it with others. Whether it is some technical task at work or the previously-mentioned gym class, having others there creates a synergy of effort beyond which we could produce alone.

In the end, though, you and you alone hold the pen to writing your future, and that pen is labeled “effort”.

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10 mind tricks to make you mentally stronger

“Make sure your worst enemy doesn’t live between your own two ears.” Laird Hamilton

I believe in placebos. When a doctor gives me a prescription, I’m taking it largely on faith that it will address the problem. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the clinical trials for the medicine, much less conducted my own. If it makes me feel better, then I don’t examine why.

In the same way, I’m perfectly happy with mind games. I’ve learned over the years we can talk ourselves down from the ledge and get us back to where we need to be. When you face a challenge, when an obstacle looms large, when you’re stuck, progress may be as close as a thought.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve developed many tricks for mental toughness and resilience. Here are some ideas for how you might get out of a bad mental or emotional place. These are things I say to myself:

1)    “It might as well be me.” In my work in Information Technology, I was on-call for many, many years and would often be awakened in the middle of the night to address some problem. Over that time, I decided no one was going to be perfectly equipped to deal with every possibility. In that respect, I was as good a choice as anyone to handle it. Next time you have to deal with something difficult, just say to yourself “It might as well be me.”

2)    “Failure isn’t fatal.” The paraphrase of a Winston Churchill quote is a reassurance we can come back from a defeat. As Babe Ruth said, “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” Similarly, when you fail, you have eliminated another way not to succeed, so you are making progress.

3)    “Will it matter in five years?” The things, which were of so much concern to you five years ago, at least many of the small frustrations of life, seldom matter today.

4)    “Remember who you represent.” I sometimes remind myself I represent my company, my school, my family, my team, and other groups I love. If I quit on myself, I’m also quitting on them, so that’s not going to happen.

5)    “You’ve done harder things than this.” It’s true. If you’re a woman who has had a baby, if you’ve gotten a college degree, if you’ve survived a bad illness, if you’ve come back from an injury, then remind yourself the current challenge is no worse.

6)    “They said it couldn’t be done.” Don’t you feel a rush of adrenaline when someone tells you that you can’t do something? Don’t you want to prove that person wrong? While I usually try to keep things positive, sometimes you just need to show someone who says “It can’t be done” what you’re made of.

7)    “This too shall pass.” There was a time when Mike Tyson seemed invincible in the boxing ring. That is until an unknown named Buster Douglass defeated him. Those difficulties and challenges, which seem like unmovable mountains, often fade over time.

8)    Association/Disassociation. Joan Nesbit Mabe, a world-class distance runner and inspirational friend, taught me about this technique over 20 years ago. It’s usually applied to physical challenges, but can also be thought of with regard to feelings. The basic idea is that sometimes you need to be exactly mindful of what is going on (association), but sometimes it helps to disassociate from it. Or, as one of my exercise instructors says when we are dying at the end of class, “Don’t even think, just do it!”

9)   Remember what other people have to do. You know there are soldiers investigating urban warfare situations, parents making life and death decisions about their child, teachers dealing with children who they suspect are being abused. There are all kinds of tough things people face very day. Let the fact that they move forward keep you going.

10)  “Eye of the Tiger”  Almost every male I know has been inspired at some point by the training scenes in the “Rocky” movies. Or maybe Aragon’s speech at the Black Gate is more to your liking. I’m happy to derive inspiration wherever I can get it.

No matter what you face, you have the ability to face it with dignity and courage. If there comes a time when you must go down to defeat, go down swinging.

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Shame, Humility, and Confidence

Unlike most students these days, I only applied to one college. I had known I wanted to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from early adolescence, and I’m thankful I was academically qualified and I was accepted.

When I arrived, I noticed a great uneasiness in me concerning my place on campus. I felt unsophisticated and unpolished. I don’t think these feelings were particularly misplaced — I was unsophisticated and unpolished. I genuinely felt a gnawing most of the time which said to me, “At some point, they will realize you don’t belong here.” I have no doubt that this feeling, however irrational, had more to do with old feelings than with any particular intellectual, emotional, or character deficits. There were some superstar students, sure, but there were also other North Carolinians with much the same public education as me.

If I were to place a word on this feeling, it would have to be shame. I have since learned a bit about the origin of this emotion, and gained some perspective on it. In fact, a TED talk by Brene Brown on this topic has gone viral and been viewed almost four million times, quite a number for a talk which has a transcript 34 pages long! Brown has also written a bestselling book on the topic.

In my case at UNC, I think this reached a summit for me one day when I walked into a men’s clothing store on Franklin Street. (There weren’t as many options back then for students without cars.) I said to the salesman, “I need a new pair of shoes.” He looked down and said, “You sure do.” For whatever reason, I felt this as great disapproval and judgement. It was all I could do to maintain some composure. I looked at the prices, mumbled something, and left with my figurative tail between my legs. This moment, about 36 years ago, obviously left a mark.

I think my sense of shame, both in this clothing store and in general, was not uncommon for someone with my upbringing. I’ll save a discussion of that for another time. And the good news is that I got over it in a big way. I can only claim one event I would describe as supernatural in my life. It happened, still on campus, when I was about 20. I was walking in an area, ironically called The Pit, when from out of nowhere, I felt a flush run through me in my mind, body, and soul. I knew at the minute it wasn’t a normal occurrence, and I also knew at the time I would never feel irrational shame again (and I never have). I suppose if one is only going to have one supernatural experience in life, that wasn’t a bad time or purpose.

Since that time, I must say I have never felt intimidated by or “less than” another individual. Even those who I most respect or admire, I just see as another human being with remarkable qualities.

This is not to say I am not humbled by others. I’m humbled by the unselfishness of my 97-year-old adopted mother. I’m humbled by the willingness to face danger shown by so many first-responders and soldiers. I’m humbled by the willingness I see in some parents to put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m humbled by teachers (especially special education teachers), those who overcome disabilities, and caregivers. I could go on.

What does this have to do with your life? Your professional or business life? I want to encourage you in two ways: 1) If you have elevated a friend or someone in your office or even the president of your company above you, raise yourself to that same level; 2) If you think you occupy some place on the ladder of success above others, then lay the ladder on its side and take a horizontal view of the world. Don’t worry: You can still maintain respect for someone without feeling like less of a person. Humans have a remarkable ability to hold more than one thought in mind at the same time.

Consider your relationship to shame, confidence, and humility. Watch the talk mentioned above. You certainly don’t need a supernatural experience to realize you are made of the same stuff as anyone else and need not doubt it. The person who owns your company and the person who checks you out at the grocery store both deserve your respect, because your attitude toward them is more about you than about them.

There are a lot of ways to increase your self-confidence if needed, but don’t be afraid to ask a trusted friend to help you gain perspective.

In a future post, I will address some of the ways I have learned to keep a strong self-image in the face of challenges. Know that everyone has doubts, and doubts do not equate to reality. I am betting that you have a track record which will give you hard evidence of your abilities. Embrace that track record. As Brene Brown says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

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Your mind at work

I was in what was likely the last generation of school children to be paddled by their teachers. I certainly received more than my share of such paddlings, the last of which came in seventh grade. My math teacher, Mr. Melvin, was a former college football player, quite a large man. One day, he was evidently put out with us and he said, “The next one to say a word will need to meet me out in the hall.” We all knew that he wasn’t looking to have a conversation outside the door.

Not two minutes later, I absent-mindedly (note the phrase) made a inquiry of some kind to a neighboring student. Mr. Melvin frowned and said, “Randy, get it out in the hall.” I received my lick from the paddle and came back in dejected. Little did Mr. Melvin know, but he was the first teacher of mindfulness in my life.

I was reminded of this experience when I attended a silent retreat in recent days. At one point, I almost asked the instructor a question — at a silent retreat! Clearly, I have much to learn about being mindful of my actions and my place.

There have been so many changes in how we work and live in the past 20 years, but one that strikes me most is the emergence of mindfulness as something pursued by many average people. There are mindfulness workshops at companies, mindfulness apps on our phone, articles, books, and, most prominently, mindfulness taught at yoga classes.

Occasional lapses aside, I have found that practicing mindfulness at work is transformative. The first time you start to react to some provocation only to catch yourself, it feels like you have grown up a little more. The simple act of noticing your breath can provide just enough of a pause to prevent you from saying or doing something inconsistent with the way you want to behave.

Tony Schwartz writes convincingly “If you feel compelled to do something, don’t.“. Having that sense of urgency, the notion that something must be done or said, is perhaps the most handy indicator you should step back and take inventory of your physical and mental state.

Mindfulness has been described as ““bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis”. Thus, the most obvious professional benefit is to bring your full faculties to any problem or situation. If your company pays you to do your best, we can conclude that your best requires your full attention.

The other motivation for practicing mindfulness at work is stress reduction. Much of our stress comes from worrying about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. The present moment is seldom the source of stress. As Mark Twain said, “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

Some of the ways I’ve tried to incorporate mindfulness into my day include:

  • Starting the morning with a period of quiet. Whether you want to meditate or pray or just sit, set the tone for your day by being in tune with yourself and your surroundings.
  • Do one thing at-a-time. It is not easy to be mindful when you are doing one thing. Being fully engaged when you are multi-tasking is not likely.
  • Be present with others. Other people know and appreciate when you are completely there for them. (I was in a one-on-one meeting recently which was scheduled for 30 minutes. I knew it wasn’t going to be good when the other person checked the clock eight minutes after we began.)
  • Don’t fret if you make a mistake. Wouldn’t it be ironic if you struggle with mindfulness because you are thinking back to your failure to be mindful?

Perhaps you are convinced of the productivity benefits of mindfulness but there’s a bigger issue here. By being mindful, you will enjoy your work more. When you walk to another building, you will notice the flowers blooming beside the sidewalk. You will pick up on the fact your co-worker is worried about her daughter and you will connect with her. You will realize your manager is asking for help. In all these things, your life at work will be integrated with the rest of who you are.

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A word in time

Sometimes other people in our lives are like beacons, reflecting back to us wisdom based on who we are and where we are in life. Such was the case for me a few years ago when I applied for a job I didn’t get. Toward the end, it was becoming clear that I would not be selected. As the application process wound down, the hiring manager and I had a heartfelt conversation. The manager kindly said, “You need to be doing something else.” This affirmation that I had talents I needed to use was a word in time. In the midst of my disappointment and though I knew this position wasn’t meant to be mine, these words of encouragement provided me with much-needed validation regarding the direction in which I was taking my career. As frightening as it was to leave my comfortable world, this was the correct path. This was the beacon I needed.

Long-held conventional wisdom says that we shouldn’t offer unsolicited advice. While this is true in general, there are also times when others need to hear our observations. When someone is struggling and needs the clear perspective of an outsider. When someone has in earnestness and independence sought to find his or her way. When someone develops a blind spot to what is obvious. When he or she has self-doubt.

An old expression says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” In the conversation mentioned above, I was beginning to wonder if anyone else saw in me what I saw in myself. Those seven well-chosen words — “You need to be doing something else.” — were sufficient for me in their entirety, as I was open to hear them. Thus is lesson number one: You do not need too much elaboration to help another person, if he or she is ready. By being economical with your words, you make your offering and you’re done. If the other person is open and if it applies, he or she will receive it (if not now, then in time).

Second, you need to know yourself well enough to be sure that this matter isn’t about you. If there is any hint you are making your observations for your own purposes (other than a desire to help someone else), then you should refrain. Our words will not have the same effect when they are meant to manipulate as they do when they intend to encourage.

Of greatest importance, and I may be on shaky ground but it is something I believe, these suggestions we make to others should lead them in a positive direction, and not away from something. This would leave out warnings and admonitions. Our beacons for others might be along the lines of “You have a talent for…”, “You may not know that others look to you as a leader in ….”, or “I would love to see you exercise your skills in …”. Relating these things to another will be like a lighthouse, an indicator of a direction to take.

So much of our self-image forms early in our lives. We might find our way using the personal resources affirmed in us by people long ago, in situations no longer relevant. (When I hear someone say “I’m not good at math.”, I almost always think the estimation is based more on their beliefs than any genetics.) If we are working toward growth, and you probably are if you have read this far, then you have acquired wisdom, skills, and knowledge throughout your life. Others can perhaps see in you what you may not see yourself. And you may, as a lighthouse leads someone to a new shore, change another person’s life by casting a new light for that person to see a new destination.

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A haunting memory

In my sophomore year of college in the Spring of 1980, I was taking political science and made acquaintance with a young woman. We were cordial but not close. I knew she was just a bit older than most of us and she was married, so perhaps she felt a bit out of place. I’m sure she appreciated a friendly face.

Late in the semester as I was riding my bike down Franklin Street (the main drag in the college town of Chapel Hill), I saw a bit of commotion up ahead. As I arrived, I quickly surmised that another bike rider had been hit by a car and was lying motionless on the ground. This young woman ran up to me, in tears saying, “I didn’t see him and he came out in front of me.” I lightly hugged her and walked her over to the wall. I listened as she repeated herself. I asked her how I could help. She said her husband was on his way. I was late for what seemed to be important at the time, though I can’t remember now what it concerned.

I told her to remember that it wasn’t her fault and assured her that her husband would be there shortly before riding off.

To this day that interaction haunts me a bit. I would say that I didn’t handle it poorly, but neither did I react as I would have liked. I should have stayed until her husband arrived. I should have not been so quick to tell her that she shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t believe she was guilty of anything but I wish I had listened more and talked less. More than anything else, I wish I could have been a calming presence.

How can we know how to react when we are witness to life-changing moments? I have had other such moments. None bother me like this one but I’m sure there are other situations I might have handled better.

In thinking this through, I have arrived at three ways I want to be equipped the next time this happens:

Preparation — For anyone in our life, we can pause long enough to know more. What if I had known a little more about this woman? Did she have a particular faith? What was her husband’s name? Was there anything else that might have created a bond which would have enabled me to meet her needs? The point isn’t so much this situation, but rather this: Our lives intersect with others every day. Even a small investment in those relationships might put us in a better position to help if needed.

Invitation — How open are we to others? Do we even notice the clerk at the store? The receptionist in our building? If we have our earbuds on and we avert our eyes to others, are we even available to fulfill the need which exists in the lives of others.

Anticipation — Each day there are small and large crises around us. It is certainly not incumbent on us to solve every problem, but by expecting the unexpected, we open our lives up to something bigger. I catch myself planning everything, where the only place for spontaneity is irritation. If I pull myself away from my schedule, maybe there is something bigger and better than I even knew.

If we want to be available to others, and if we want to be able to pour out our hearts when needed, we need to be available. If our lives have a constant “No Vacancy” sign, we will never have room for others. I can never go back 34 years to that Spring, I cannot plan for the unplanned. What I can do is have a sense of expectancy. When the needy person appears, it should not be a surprise.

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Life after success

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.  (Aristotle)

I’m very goal-oriented and last year was good for achieving goals. I managed to run a couple of 1/2 marathons, make a much-desired job change, and get two certifications.  The last of these things was done on December 30th, just a day before the end of the year. It turns out, though, the calendar rolled around to January 1st. Having reached some goals ultimately did not produce a catharsis with a fanfare and the words “The End” appearing on the screen.

There is nothing like clear, definable goals to bring out the best in us and push us to apply self-discipline in reaching them. Jesse Owens summed it up well: “In order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, & effort.” The mechanism to reach our goals will chisel our character and force us to live according to our priorities.

But what happens when the goal is reached? Where do you go from there? Sure, there are new worlds to conquer, new heights to reach but that may ring somewhat hollow. Instead, you might consider how you can adopt a lifestyle which enriches everything you do, a way of life which makes every day a reward unto itself.

By adopting certain everyday practices, you can build on your achievements. Here are some suggestions for incorporating growth into everyday life:

  • Make your decision once. When I get up in the morning, I don’t decide whether to go to the gym based on how I feel. I long ago decided this is what I would do barring severe illness. If you are wanting to study, or practice some talent, or learn, then decide when and where you’ll do it. Just once.
  • Dream big. You need small successes but you also need to set goals that are difficult to reach. I have a friend who is spending much time preparing for an international piano competition in a couple of years. He says: “First, you have to accept yourself where you are, not where you think you should be. Then, you just have to decide you’re going to put in the time. Not many are willing to do that.”
  • The world is your canvas. Rather than viewing life as something that happens to you, decide how you will make your mark. What impression do you want to leave and what do you want to have contributed when your time on Earth has passed.
  • Use good tools. The technology at our disposal today gives us unprecedented access to information and entertainment. Unfortunately, it also provides huge potential for spinning off into a world of YouTube videos, blogs and microblogs, and meme-filled distractions. (I know this well.) Thus, content aggregators like Feedly can help you focus on the topics aligning with your goals.

There are many ways to hack your life. My primary suggestion is that your life carry out your deeper purpose, and that your life, soul, thoughts, and actions all be in sync. In the end, what you do every day of your life will determine more than one particular success.

 

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