There’s Probably Another Way to Do It

Tunnel vision is both extremely powerful and potentially debilitating. When we need extreme focus, tunnel vision blocks out distractions, making us more effective. More often, though, we need to see the bigger picture in order to be most effective, and tunnel vision can get in our way. That was my gym lesson for the week.

Readers of this blog and people who know me know that my body is an enigma of peculiar strengths and weaknesses. This creates unique challenges when I attempt simple tasks, like loading weights on some of the machines at the gym. To load one machine, I must move weight from knee level to head level. To do this, I grab the weight with my abnormally strong left arm which has no problem moving it to shoulder height, where an almost completely unusable left shoulder should take over. Since it can’t, my weak right hand must catch the weight and move it the final few inches to its target on the machine. If I time everything right and am feeling good, this isn’t a problem. If something is off, the weight comes back down, straining my back. Picture a track athlete trying to set a personal best on the pole vault.

Smaller weights are not a problem, but the biggest plates – those that I want on the machine – are. It’s a good day when the machine is already loaded or I can find a friend to help me load it. That wasn’t the case last week. I thought about trying to hoist the weights myself, but I have been recovering from a knee injury and didn’t want to make things worse. I was about to skip the lift when I realized that I can load the same weight as the large plates by simply using more of the smaller ones. Graduate school finally paid off!

Obviously, it wasn’t the math that created this “aha!” moment – fourth-graders could have figured out the numbers – it was looking past my tunnel vision. My mind saw only one way of performing that lift; I needed the big plates up there. If they weren’t up there, my mind erased all other possibilities. I was about to walk away when my vision suddenly widened.

Think about how that happens in other areas of life. Imagine a big project, like changing the landscape in your backyard. Maybe you have attempted something similar and achieved less-than-desirable results. That earlier failure might make you hesitant to even start the project, but is there another way to do it? Not even attempting the project is already a failure.

The challenge often isn’t dreaming up a new solution. Many times, like my example at the gym, the solution isn’t even that complicated. The challenge is recognizing that alternative solutions even exist.

Swedish furniture maker IKEA is an extremely popular company worth billions of dollars. IKEA’s packed, ready-to-assemble furniture is not only easier to transport than traditional furniture, but it is also less expensive. IKEA became a pioneer in this regard in 1955, and remains a recognized brand for it 70 years later.

The idea that made the company famous and prosperous came when one of the company’s employees was having a difficult time loading a table into a car. (Good thing the customer didn’t have a pick-up truck.) To solve this problem, the employee removed the table’s legs and stored them underneath in what would become known as a flatpack, which is what you would buy in one of their stores today.

Again, the solution was simple, and it was born in response to a problem.

The next time you encounter a problem, before walking away in defeat, consider: is there another way to do it? You might surprise yourself with what you can do.

 

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create.”

~Albert Einstein

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When Good Will Isn’t Returned

 

One of my all-time favorite television programs is Frasier, a spin-off from another favorite, Cheers. Since the series ceased production in 2004, I have enjoyed watching reruns of the program that features a neurotic and perpetually challenged but witty psychiatrist who gets himself in a series of tough spots.

In an episode I recently watched, Frasier experiences misfortune when he tries to do good deeds. The worst misfortune is his arrest for soliciting prostitution when he mistakes a transvestite prostitute for a stranded lady in need of a ride on a rainy night. His misfortune causes him to contemplate the value of altruism. Within a week, I found myself contemplating the same.

Though my contract entitled me to keep it, I returned a substantial payment to a client when a deal unraveled due to neither of our negligence. Standard procedure dictated that I keep the payment and continue to work on the project, but it was evident that would cause distress for my main contact in my client’s office. Since I had a long and successful relationship with that contact, I broke protocol, returned the check and continued working on the project. After a short time, the project was unceremoniously cancelled. My good will was shrugged aside, just like Frasier’s.

Initially, I was hurt by the injustice and angry at myself for exposing myself to mistreatment. I had gone out of the way to do the right thing, and it backfired. Wasn’t I owed something for my effort? That’s where I was mistaken.

Life doesn’t owe us anything, and if we plod through expecting rewards, we will create unnecessary frustrations, like mine and Frasier’s, for ourselves. Frustrations eventually paralyze good intent. When good intent is paralyzed, we not only stop contributing positive energy, positive energy quits coming our way too. Before long, we become that grouchy old person that no one wants to be around. If we want to avoid that fate, we have to learn to let go of the anger that very naturally bubbles forth when someone lets us down.

Easier said than done, right? Much easier!  Anger is one reaction to our natural fight-or-flight response, and it’s often the first reaction when someone lets us down. We’re mad at the injustice we suffered and mad at those responsible. There isn’t anything wrong with this natural reaction, unless we hold onto it for more than a few minutes or compulsively act on it. If we give ourselves too little time to make sense of our anger, we risk intensifying the situation with rash behavior, and if we hold on too long, we waste needless energy that should be directed toward positive outcomes.

Anger simply alerts us to a choice we must make: are we going to let the negative situation pass or does it merit a reaction? Many of us make the mistake of delaying this decision, which puts us in a helpless state of anger. We’re mad, but we’re unsure if what we’re going to do about it, if anything at all. It’s much better to stop and focus on the anger as soon as possible, and then, in most cases, to let it go.

I’ve been working on this myself, and that work required a little research and testing. Context and appreciation seem to be keys to dispelling anger that requires no reaction.

Context: most things that anger us aren’t really that important, if we put them in proper context. That guy who gave you the one-finger salute on the freeway? Will you even remember him next week? If not, why give him any more of your attention and energy?

Appreciation: anger tends to elbow its way to the front of our attention span. When we’re angry, it’s hard to appreciate our blessings. Have you ever let a bad experience with restaurant waitstaff rob enjoyment of an otherwise perfect evening? I’m ashamed to admit that I have. You never get back those moments you spent in anger. Make sure that appreciation gets much more attention than anger.

I applied this strategy to the situation with my client and their cancelled project. Other than this instance, my experience with them has been overwhelmingly positive. This one situation seems small and unimportant when I look back at my history with them. Further, I appreciate their business and wish to continue the relationship.

I’m not perfect. It took me most of an afternoon to come to this acceptance and let go of my anger, but I’m glad that it didn’t take longer and cost me a valuable relationship.

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New Chapter, New Lesson – When the First One Leaves

My wife and I left our first child at college this weekend. We’re not alone – thousands of parents will do the same thing in the coming months, and millions more have done it before us – but it feels like we’re alone. It especially felt like that on the eight-hour drive back.

Eighteen and a half years ago, we brought a newborn home from the hospital. We felt alone then too. Though we had months to prepare, it was like we were called to the stage to deliver an important speech, and we had nothing to say. Diapers, bottles, teething – sometimes my wife and I would look at each other with helpless stares, hoping the other had a magic solution. It was too chaotic to ponder the future back then. Our biggest goal was a good night’s sleep.

As the days and years passed, we enjoyed guiding this little brown-haired boy toward his destiny – whatever that was. We were still young and trying to find our own destinies, but we had so much hope for his. Like all parents, we wanted to open up his world, and to help him find and develop his strengths. We weren’t trained for this stage any better than we were trained for the sleepless nights, but we learned on the job and made many mistakes along the way.

There were days when our home was closer to a bad MTV reality show than The Waltons or some other idyllic family-based drama, but those days were few and far between. We emphasized love and appreciation for each other, and you can kill a lot of demons that way. We just had to remember love and appreciation when frustration and anger became overwhelming. Again, most days, we were successful. Even if we lost a day, we were usually able to recover the next.

As he found his path, we slowly circled behind him and started pushing more than pulling him along that path. Eventually, pushing turned into gentle prodding, and before long, we hardly needed to do that any more. He knew where he was going and had a general idea of how to get there. That’s when bittersweet reality set in – we had worked ourselves out of our most cherished and rewarding job. I wasn’t ready to turn in my keys on that job, but I had no choice. It was time to go.

As Laramie faded in my rearview mirror, I thought about that trip home with a newborn back in 1998. None of us slept a wink that night, and we felt completely incompetent as parents. I wasn’t sure if I could do 18 days back then, let alone 18 years. We’ve come a long way since then, but now, just as I start to feel like I have a pretty good grip on parenthood, I must learn something new.

I have to learn to parent at a distance and only when needed. I have to learn to focus on the tremendous opportunities and bright future that I believe lies ahead for him, rather than the loneliness of the empty spot at the dinner table. I have to learn to stifle my urge to pry and prod, and instead rely on my faith that God is watching over him and that he’s prepared for life’s challenges.

None of this feels natural now, just like it didn’t feel natural to hold a screaming newborn 18 years ago, but I learned how to adapt then, and I’ll do the same now.

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Going Back to the Woodlot to Find Success

I cut a lot of firewood when I was a kid. Well, I didn’t actually do the cutting. Because I was too young and clumsy to handle the chainsaw, my job was to carry logs to the truck. These logs ranged in weight from those I could carry with one hand and toss into the truck from a few feet away to those that I rolled to the truck and tried to coax in without smashing my toes. None of them were labeled with their weight, so I didn’t always know if I was strong enough to move the log in front of me, but I always had to try. A scowling father with a revved-up chainsaw cast a pretty large shadow over any self-pity I could muster.

I don’t move logs any more. I move weights around the gym, and they are all marked, so I can stay in my comfort zone. While clearly marked weights are obviously a necessity in the gym, I’ve recently noticed that the convenience of knowing the weight also makes complacency very convenient too. I know what I can lift, so I lift that. When I was lifting logs, I didn’t know what I could lift without trying. In the woodlots, I pushed myself out of necessity. In the gym, I don’t have to push myself, unless I really want to.

I discovered this on a machine designed to work upper back muscles. Someone left the machine without unloading their weights, which is a huge pet peeve of mine, unless, of course, they leave the machine with the exact weight I want. Usually, that doesn’t happen though, and it didn’t happen the other day on that machine. Whoever was there before me left ten more pounds than I wanted on each side. After swearing at the unidentified offender under my breath, I started to take off the extra weight, but then caught myself. Maybe it was time for me to challenge myself with a little extra weight. Maybe God had put on his strength coach hat and wanted me to push myself.

I left the extra weight on the machine and predictably struggled through my sets. Whereas I could regularly hit my rep goals of 10-10-8-8 with my old weight, I struggled to reach half of those reps with each of the four sets. I had invited defeat into my workout, and it was uncomfortable – uncomfortable but not unproductive. Sooner or later, if I keep pushing myself, I expect to handle the extra weight.

As often happens as I daydream between sets, I started thinking about how we face similar challenges in everyday life. Maybe a client or boss expects more effort than we anticipated, yet we proceed stubbornly in our comfort zone, predictably falling short of our potential. Maybe we have the opportunity to volunteer for something new, but decline because we’re not sure if we’re capable of the effort. Maybe a friend or family member needs our time, and we fall short because we don’t want to add any more responsibility to our schedule. When we limit ourselves to our comfort zone, we limit our potential.

I tried to stay in my comfort zone at the beginning of my first sales job, and had predictably poor results. I only wanted to call on prospects who I was fairly certain would buy from me, and I insisted on exhaustive research before I called them. I also wanted to be an expert on my product, so I could dazzle my prospects with my product acumen. Research and product knowledge are important in sales, but not as important as persistence and risk-taking to a new sales rep in a new industry. When you are trying to build your clientele, you want to make as many contacts as you possibly can, establish a rapport and solve their problems with your products.

By researching prospects who never bought from me and spending selling time studying my product, I didn’t make as many contacts as I needed, and I earned many meetings in the sales manager’s office where he would tell me exactly that. Meanwhile I watched colleagues with a tenuous at best knowledge of their prospects and our products hit their goals and cash fat commission checks. Finally, the light went off, and I switched from weight-room mode to woodlot mode, and started lifting logs that could smash my feet. Before long, I was closing deals that I never would have found if I stayed in my comfort zone.

Back in the weight room, I had grown complacent, using my age and physical condition to excuse my sub-par effort. Now, when I encounter an extra, but not unreasonable amount of weight on a machine, I accept the challenge. This means I fail a lot more, but I know that I’ll benefit from the challenge, if I don’t give up.

Try that the next time your comfort zone is challenged. Lift that log, even if it might smash your toes. It’s the only way you’ll grow.

“Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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When Is It Bragging? The Social Media Angle on Sharing Your Kid’s Success

Back when I was a kid in the 70s, parents who wanted to share their child’s success clipped something from the local paper and stuck it on the fridge or they took a picture and put it in a scrapbook. The well-prepared mother might keep pictures and mementos in her purse and produce them when she cornered a seemingly interested party. Social media changed all of that.

Now, we have digital images and videos, and access to media that we can quickly share on Facebook or Twitter, and I think it’s great. Success is my favorite thing to find on social media. It’s especially fulfilling to see young people experience and build on success.

Success is uplifting and should be celebrated, but can sharing success on social media go too far? I found myself contemplating that recently when a stranger accused me of just such an extreme.

He wrote in response to my latest blog post about overcoming self-doubt. The setting for that post was my son’s challenging wrestling season and sudden success in the state tournament, during which my son beat his son. In less than polite words, he asked that I remain humble and suggested that I should share about failures too, which were a big part of the post. Failure, it seemed, was his way humbling me.

Initially, I was angry, but I believe that God puts certain people in our lives to challenge us and our thinking, so I thought about his concern. To do that, I put myself in his shoes. How would I feel about him sharing his son’s success, which included two victories over my son? Unless he was critical or demeaning toward my son, it wouldn’t bother me in the slightest. I would be happy that his son was successful.

The world needs more successful people and more celebrations of success, because success motivates success. Success is almost always the product of hard work and sacrifice, and seeing success should create hope and motivate work and sacrifice, not inspire resentment and jealousy.

Unfortunately, resentment and jealousy too often suppress success sharing, because we allow it to silence us. I recently had a conversation with a mother who was hesitant to share an honor her daughter received, because she didn’t want to be perceived as boastful. It’s a concern that most of us have, but why should we hide success, especially on social media, which is too often dominated by the negative?

Social media gives us a unique platform to share success – unique, because it’s passive. Unlike active methods, like calling or e-mailing, sharing success online gives your audience an option to opt out. Kind of like putting that fridge covered in clippings in the middle of town square, people can choose to look at it or walk past it.

Whether active or passive, sharing success is only bragging when your intent is to make others feel inferior. You can avoid that with a couple of easy techniques:

  1. Don’t use subjective language, like “My daughter is the smartest kid in her class,” or “it was the best performance of the night.” When you interject your opinion, no matter how valid you think that opinion might be, you can be perceived as boastful. It’s much more fulfilling to leave room for others to form their own opinions, and they will appreciate that opportunity.
  2. Acknowledge your blessings. Most success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Give credit to everyone involved, especially the supporters and believers, e.g. “He’s fortunate to be on a great team with great coaches and great parents.”

Genuine humility and appreciation are easy to recognize and hard to criticize, but as seen with my negative poster, they don’t always overcome the very powerful emotion of jealousy. Fortunately, I believe that only a very small segment of the population is affected this way, and I’m certain that it’s not significant enough that it should influence us to hide success.

Parents, post away!

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Why the tears?

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”

― Vincent Van Gogh

No matter how successful we become, doubt will occasionally crawl into our minds and refuse to leave, like a song you don’t like but can’t quit hearing. It will haunt us in quiet times and in inopportune times, and it often seems that the harder we try to rid ourselves of doubt, the stronger it takes hold.

When doubt is confirmed by its partner failure, it starts to attach itself to our souls and can be as debilitating as the strongest virus. At those times, it takes a Herculean effort to destroy it – like it takes a Herculean effort to escape the almost-certain pin of a very strong opponent. That’s what happened on the mat a few weeks ago, with my son in his final state wrestling tournament.

Two years earlier, as a sophomore in his first year of varsity wrestling, he had stepped off the championship platform at the state wrestling tournament with a third-place medal around his neck. Standing above him were a senior and a junior, and with five consecutive pins to close out the season, the future looked bright. The very next day, we were in the gym, trying to climb two steps on that platform in 364 days.

Eight months later, he suffered a knee injury in the final football game of his junior year, causing him to miss a crucial season of development. Twenty-one months passed between wrestling matches. Still, he had never lost to anyone in his weight class in the state, and thought that he could have an undefeated season. That, and a state championship, became the goal. Sadly, the goal of an undefeated season didn’t make it past the first tournament of his senior year.

After three first-period pins, he lost the championship match in overtime to a wrestler from another state. Still, it was only one loss, and it was to a wrestler he wouldn’t face for the rest of the season. Then, the next tournament happened. He came down with a pretty bad cold and wrestled like it. Three more losses – all to wrestlers rated 1 or 2 in their respective classes. Though he avenged one of those losses later in the season, because all three opponents were either in different classes or from different states, they wouldn’t be obstacles in his quest for a state championship. He just couldn’t lose to anyone in his class. That happened three times in the next month.

Several times throughout the season, he reset his goal to “no more losses,” and each time, a loss followed. All told, he entered the pinnacle tournament of the season with ten losses, never winning a tournament until the district tournament in the week prior to the state tournament. With each loss, doubt became louder and stronger. We didn’t want to talk about it, but it was there, and he was going to need that Herculean effort to silence it.

When the state championship tournament came around, the no-more-losses goal intertwined with the state championship goal. You can’t lose in the state tournament and win a state championship. That wasn’t going to be easy. Two wrestlers in the tournament had pinned him earlier in the season. If he made it to the semi-finals, he would likely face a wrestler who had pinned him twice in the past six weeks. We didn’t want to have doubt, but logic wasn’t on our side. We were going to have to depend on faith instead.

Faith was rewarded in the semi-finals, when Patrick pinned the wrestler who had pinned him in their two earlier meetings. On the very next mat, almost simultaneously, the wrestler who had pinned Patrick in their only meeting was qualifying for the finals with a pin of his own. The semi-final pin helped to quiet the doubt, but with a talented wrestler who had already pinned him waiting in the finals, logic wasn’t on our side.

When Patrick was flipped to his back in the second period of the championship match, it looked pretty grim. Even the television commentators said that it was all but over. Somehow, in that moment however, he finally killed the doubt that had been haunting him all season, completing an improbable move and winning the state championship he had worked so hard to earn over the course of six years.

Unlike his dad, Patrick doesn’t often cry, especially out of happiness. This time, though, the emotion got the best of him, and the tears flowed almost immediately. Doubt literally had him on his back, but he didn’t allow it to win. The realization that he had beaten doubt and won a state championship had him bawling like a baby in front of 15,000 in the arena and many, many more on television.

We’ve talked about it several times in the days since, as the exhilaration of victory has faded into appreciation for the experience. Looking back, we’re able to see that three things helped him win that championship: 1. faith in the process, 2. not accepting less than his goal, and 3. never quitting. If he had waivered even a small bit in any of those areas, he surely would have been beaten.

Wrestling is now behind him, but its final lesson was a powerful one that we can all learn from: don’t EVER give up on your goals. Doubt is merely an obstacle, and it is only as powerful as you allow it to be.

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What I Learned as a Wrestler’s Parent

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I vividly remember watching my son wrestle for the first time five years ago (pictured above). He was a seventh-grader, and I had no idea what to expect. Would he struggle mightily to win a handful of matches, as I had in my brief, unremarkable wrestling career, or would he find success on the mat? Would I watch one season of wrestling or spend the next several winters running around to meets?

Later this week, he’ll wrestle in his final state tournament. The last time we were at the state tournament, at the end of his sophomore season, he stepped off the championship platform with a third-place medal. A junior and a senior occupied the two higher spots, and he beamed with confidence and anticipation of the two seasons ahead of him.

After a football injury forced him to sit out his junior year, we hoped he could pick up where he left off. The first and second place guys had graduated, and he had never lost to anyone in his class. We hoped it would be a year of relatively easy victories, but that’s rarely how wrestling works. We know that now.

We also know that wrestling not only develops athletes, it teaches their parents some pretty remarkable things as well – things I wish I had learned much earlier.

  1. We are there for support. Unless you have experience as a coach, leave the coaching to the coaches. Instead, focus on keeping your wrestler healthy and motivated. Remind him to sleep right and eat right. Give him the fuel he needs to compete. Kids will often default to convenience and impulse. Make sure that his pre-competition meals don’t look like movie theatre snacks and that his sleep routine has him rested and alert for competition and practice.
  2. We are there for encouragement. Because of the physical nature of wrestling, we tend to focus on our wrestlers’ physical health, and often neglect their emotional health. It’s important that parents encourage their wrestlers through the dark days when their egos are as bruised as their bodies. A friendly, accepting face can be invaluable after a brutal practice or heart-breaking loss. Lastly, above all else, it’s important that we encourage effort, because effort is all he can control. He might face superior talent, but no one has to face superior effort.
  3. Remember that there is a parent on the other side of the equation in every match. They experience the same struggles that you do. Treat them and their sons like you want your son to be treated. Talk to them in the stands. Your shared experiences will often make the conversation easy. I’ve had great conversations with parents whose sons my son has beaten, as well as the other way around. We’ve even sat side-by-side while our sons were on the same mat.
  4. Enjoy the moment. This is perhaps the toughest one, because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the anxiety of competition. Wrestling is an intense microcosm of life. Hundreds of hours of sacrifice and dedication are tested by relatively few moments on the mat. As a wrestling fan, you have the privilege of watching the drama unfold. Don’t waste that privilege by focusing on your bleacher butt and complaining about the length of the tournament. Even when things don’t go well and your son walks off the mat in defeat, be thankful that he was able to compete and learn from the experience.
  5. As the parent of a senior in his last month of the sport, I’m down to his last two tournaments, and they are big ones – the state tournament and the state dual tournament. His team is undefeated and in a good position to win the title. He is not undefeated, but could still win an individual championship, though it won’t be easy. Nothing in wrestling is easy, and that’s what makes is so special.

Patrick won that first match six years ago. I have no idea if he’ll win his last match, but I’m glad that I was along for the ride.

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Patrick in 2017

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