The first snow of the year arrived on Halloween afternoon this year. I caught it blowing past my window as I worked in my office. Not wanting to believe it, I stared out the window for a minute, trying to wish it away. Defeat conceded, my mind jumped from resignation to panic as I contemplated the implications of the coming winter.
Due to my gait, a slippery surface of any kind is almost always unnavigable. Snow, ice, sleet, rain, rain that turns into ice – any of these elements on any surface makes walking extremely dangerous. In a cruel irony, the treatments (salt, sand and gravel) that well-intentioned people use to deal with winter precipitation are often just as dangerous. Even worse, they stay behind much longer than the precipitation. After a few rounds of snow and the ensuing treatments, I feel like I’m trying to walk across a shuffleboard table, desperately trying to reach spring.
As the snow and winter treatments pile up, my world shrinks. I miss days at the gym, church and lunches. I hesitate when friends invite me over. I quit planning things, because I don’t want to be disappointed when the weather keeps me from them. In particularly bad winters, I might as well be under house arrest.
At this time of year, I know that snow will soon negatively affect my lifestyle, and that’s what makes each day before the first snow a valuable gift that I cannot squander. Never do I appreciate good weather days more than in the winter.
We all do this – maybe not with winter weather – but we all suddenly become more appreciative and mindful of our gifts, when something threatens them. We learn that a loved one has a terminal disease, and we scramble to make up for lost time and lost opportunities. Our children near the end of their time with us, and we finally prioritize family time. Our bodies start to fail us, and we become interested in diet and exercise.
Why do we do this? Each day and each experience is a gift, and those gifts shouldn’t have to be threatened for us to appreciate them, but that’s what we often insist on doing. Imagine if we lived every day and seized every experience with the urgency and appreciation that we feel when the end nears.
I spent this last weekend deer hunting with my dad. Though every deer season since 2003 has found me in the field, I had planned to skip this year. My son left for college this summer, and it didn’t seem worth the hassle to hunt without him. I could spend the weekend lounging around my warm home and catching up on projects, instead of driving for hours and subjecting myself to the cold. All of my lame excuses almost won, but one thing changed my mind: how many deer seasons do I have left?
By the time my son graduates, I’ll be over 50, and my dad will be a few years past 70. Things typically don’t get any easier physically when you pass those milestones, and none of those years are guaranteed. That realization was like the snow blowing by my window, awakening my appreciation of what I can do now and prompting me to act.
My reward was a trophy buck and an incredible experience. Though I’ve taken nice deer before, since I didn’t start big game hunting until my 30s and my dad isn’t a big game hunter, I had never taken a deer with my dad. It was an experience I almost missed and probably would have missed had the prospect of impending snow not awakened me.
I pray that God will give me a few more days or even weeks before the first substantial snow, and I plan to do my part by enjoying all of them. The bigger challenge is to sustain this attitude when spring arrives, and the next winter seems so far off.
Think about and appreciate your life’s gifts. Don’t wait for the snow to rattle you awake.
I was forced to sit for the national anthem. It happened a few months ago, at my son’s high school graduation. I wasn’t planning a protest or anything like that. I simply couldn’t stand.
We were packed like sardines in the gymnasium’s bleachers, and I was on the second row, hoping for a slightly better view than the bottom row would afford. Had I thought ahead, I would have stayed on the bottom row. I might have been able to stand up from there, but I need room to go from sitting to standing, and there was no room in the second row. Because my legs can’t do it alone, I have to sprawl and use my arms to thrust myself to a standing position. In my second row seat, I was surrounded on three sides by grandmothers who couldn’t climb any higher and my daughter, who is strong, but not strong enough to help me get up. An attempt to stand in such an environment risked multiple casualties.
I realized my predicament shortly before the ceremony started, when I looked at the program. I whispered to my dad, a Vietnam combat veteran, that I wasn’t going to be able to stand. He said that we could move some people around and he could try to help me, but as tight as the bottom row was, I wasn’t certain that would even work, and I didn’t want to disrupt others in the short time we had left, so I sat as the anthem began.
Sitting for the anthem is an uncomfortable feeling. I had never done it before, and I hope to never do it again. It went against everything I was ever taught. My dad and countless other influential people taught me to be respectful and reflective during the national anthem – to stand straight and quietly focus on the flag. I taught my own children the same thing. The anthem isn’t your time to do as you please, I told them. It’s time that should be focused on those who sacrificed to give you the freedom you enjoy. When you disrespect the anthem, you disrespect heroic people who experienced things we can’t even imagine in the defense of freedoms we enjoy today.
I wasn’t being disrespectful as I sat, though it certainly felt like it. I watched feeble grandfathers rise from their wheelchairs and small children stand silently by their parents. It seemed that everyone but I was standing. As I sat, it was hard to be reflective and respectful. As I sat, I regretted that I didn’t try harder to stand, though I had strong doubts that the ensuing disruption would have led to success. I had little choice but to sit, but it still didn’t feel right.
I can’t imagine choosing to sit, especially when your strong legs bless you with the ability to make millions playing a game. Isn’t that blessing alone enough for you to appreciate those who made the ultimate sacrifice that enabled freedoms like participating in, or watching an NFL game? Sure, the world isn’t perfect, and could use some tuning, but disrespect isn’t the way to influence those changes.
Disrespect often results from a lack of gratitude, and a lack of gratitude isn’t a particularly endearing trait. If we look hard enough, each of us can uncover some grievances. However, if we look hard enough, we can also find ample blessings. When we do that, we are much happier people, and happy people are more effective leaders of change than ungrateful people who focus on the negative.
I wish my legs allowed me to stand for the national anthem at my son’s graduation. It isn’t fair that I was forced to sit in the stands while those with powerful legs choose to sit on the sidelines. Anger at that injustice could be overpowering, if I let it. Instead, I choose to be thankful for the things that I can do and for all my other blessings, including living in the greatest country in the world.
No, things will never be perfect, but that shouldn’t discourage us from exercising gratitude and encouraging others to do the same.
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.”
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.
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.
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