Are You Playing with a Chip on Your Shoulder?

Like many of you, I have been watching a lot of football lately. A large part of the intrigue of football and other sports are the stories surrounding the athletes and the game. We like to know what they have overcome to become successful and to hear about the good things they do away from the sport.

Among the most popular narratives in sports is “he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder.” The proverbial chip on the shoulder is routinely celebrated in sports culture as a powerful source of motivation. He didn’t get recruited by bigger schools. People doubted his abilities. He wasn’t highly ranked coming out of high school or college. Many of these stories are remarkably similar, and they all end with the successful athlete thumbing his nose at the doubters. These stories are appealing, because every one of us has been wronged or doubted at one time or an other, and almost every one of us has at least quietly longed for justice in the form of revenge. Revenge is easy to understand, and its use as motivation is rarely questioned.

I didn’t question it until I heard Zig Ziglar talk about it. Zig, as only Zig could do, said, “If a person has a chip on his shoulder, there’s likely to be a block of wood on top of his neck.” His point was that the chip on your shoulder is an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive vehicle of negativity.

While the negativity associated with carrying a chip on your shoulder might be productive in sports, where controlled anger can be an asset in the heat of competition or in training, it’s rarely helpful for the rest of us. I believe that chip-on-the-shoulder motivation is suspect for three reasons:

It gives others control that we should reserve for ourselves. Strong, successful people typically want to be self-directed and controlled by their own thoughts and actions. Most chips on most shoulders were put there by someone else’s opinion or action against us. If we rely on them for motivation, we’re relying on negative memories placed in our minds by those who doubted us or mistreated us in some way. Why give those people that much power over us?

Negative memories pollute our thinking. Every time we use that chip, we introduce doubt into our minds. We might say and believe that our critic’s doubt was misguided, but if we’re carrying around that chip on our shoulder and dwelling on it, there must be at least a small part of us that believes it. Quit giving credence to doubt.

Positive thinking can take us to higher levels. If the chip on your shoulder is your primary motivator, what happens when it’s gone? When the revenge you sought has been exacted, you might feel momentary satisfaction, but if you want to reach higher, you are going to need to find new motivation. If you have used positive thinking as motivation, and perfected it as you pursued success, you can build upon it to reach the next level.

I understand the value of chip-on-your-shoulder motivation in the heat of battle, but away from that, I think it’s much better to build our self-worth through positive thinking, rather than through fantasizing about waving a middle finger at our doubters.

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I Was Forced to Sit for the National Anthem

 

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.

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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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