My wife and daughter recently returned from a two-week European vacation, which my daughter earned by achieving a goal we had set together. If you followed her or me on social media, you saw some amazing photos. It was an extravagant, but well-deserved reward that initially made me a little uncomfortable.
It’s not in my nature to concern myself too much about what other people think, but that’s what I did. If I saw the extravagance and indulgence, so did other people. Were we being insensitive to those facing financial and other struggles? Should we have used those resources in other ways? Those worries were fleeting though, as I considered the importance of rewards and what she did to earn the trip.
When my son was being recruited for football, to add extra motivation, my wife and I promised him an African safari, if he landed a full-ride Division One football scholarship. Our theory was that we could fund the trip with the money we planned to spend on his education. Once the first scholarship was offered, talk of Africa began.
My daughter isn’t an athlete, but she is a remarkably driven and focused teenager. Two years behind her brother, she watched how the work he put in earned him a scholarship and a trip, and she vowed to match his success and earn a trip for herself. Lynda and I never doubted her determination, but we knew how difficult it was to earn a full scholarship (one that includes room, board and expenses, in addition to tuition), especially a non-athletic scholarship, so we were skeptical.
We were even more skeptical when her first ACT score came in much lower than it needed to be to qualify for a prestigious scholarship. She, however, was undeterred, and resolved to get a score that better fit her expectations of herself. She studied for the next test religiously, while maintaining a straight-A average in advanced classes. On her second attempt, she cut the gap between her last score and her desired scored in half. In her third attempt, she achieved the same score as the second test. Finally, on the fourth test, after incredible dedication and work, she achieved a qualifying score.
The score qualified her for admission into the Scott Scholars Program – an extremely prestigious program and scholarship – the one she targeted when she set her goal two years earlier. Still, even with a qualifying test score, admission in the Scott Scholars Program is far from guaranteed. Admission also requires an exemplary high school record, including extracurricular activities, and a successful, in-person interview. Just like the test score, Kelly achieved her goals in those areas too, and was admitted into the program just before Christmas.
Rewards can be tremendous motivators, and it’s important that we allow ourselves to enjoy them, especially if we made tremendous sacrifices and exerted uncommon effort to earn them. My wife and I believe that sacrifice and effort are crucial for success. We taught both kids that, in order to live an exceptional life, they needed to perform at an exceptional level and exert exceptional effort. I suspect that both kids would have achieved their goals without the promise of a trip, but the trips reinforced the lesson of exceptional living.
It’s important to reward the effort and achievement for those under our influence and as well as for ourselves. Seeing the smile on my daughter’s face as she experienced an incredible part of the world for the first time drove that point home, and it eased any concerns I might have had about how the trip might be perceived.
Set lofty goals for yourself and attach lofty rewards for their achievement. Doing that will help you live the exceptional life that’s within your grasp.
Last month, I watched a Virginia basketball player step to the foul line with less than a second on the clock and his team down by two points in a national championship semi-final game. I was astonished to watch him coolly sink all three free throws to put his team permanently in the lead. That astonishment became complete amazement when I learned about the battle that the young man was fighting.
In the previous year, Kyle Guy played a key role in a season that culminated with his team in the NCAA tournament with a #1 seed. In the history of the tournament, no #1 seed had ever lost to a #16 seed, but that’s exactly what happened to Virginia. Fan outrage was intense, and Guy took the loss especially hard. Though he had battled anxiety privately for years, the loss and his ensuing emotions prompted him to take action. He met with a psychologist and began taking anti-anxiety medication.
The pressure on Division 1 athletes is intense. Not only do they face the academic challenges of a typical student, their athletic talents put them in the spotlight, where their performances are highly scrutinized. The more success that they and their teams experience, the higher the pressure. This is especially hard on male athletes who are expected to be “tough.” Unfortunately, struggling with anxiety and asking for help are not considered tough by some fans.
Not only did Guy admit that he needed help, he did so in a very public way on social media. Furthermore, he made public appearances in order to encourage others who might privately be waging similar battles. He didn’t need to expose himself to further scrutiny, but he did, and was better for the experience.
It’s not easy to ask for help or to expose your weaknesses. It’s even more difficult when you are battling anxiety. I might argue that what he did a year ago, when he sought help, was braver and more impressive than sinking those free throws as the world watched.
Many of us ask for help only as a last resort. While personal accountability is certainly laudable, most of us take it overboard, and we let pride keep us from getting the assistance we need to live life to its fullest.
Readers of this blog know that I’m one of those stubborn people who didn’t want to acknowledge my weaknesses, let alone ask others for help. Even as my physical abilities waned, I resisted opportunities to make life easier for myself. Instead of applying for a handicapped parking placard, I quit going to events that required a lot of walking. Instead of asking for an easier route into an unfamiliar building, I would send my family to celebrations and other occasions without me.
When long walks became virtually impossible, instead of taking a ride in a wheelchair. I simply stayed home. Only when my wife insisted that I quit letting pride limit my life did I finally break down and get the parking permit and then the wheelchair. I don’t have to imagine what I would have missed had I let my world continue to shrink. Because I admitted that I needed help, I was able to enjoy life in the way that it was meant to be enjoyed.
I have to wonder if Kyle Guy would have made those free throws if he still bore the weight of his anxiety without help. I suspect that he wouldn’t. Fortunately, he took action at a crucial juncture in his life, and now he is a national champion.
If you are struggling with something, whether it’s mental or physical, take a good look in the mirror and ask yourself if your stubbornness is part of the problem. Then, take a good look around you and notice those who would eagerly help. You might be surprised at how much your world can open.
My late grandfather once told me that paying taxes is a good thing. It means that you’re making money. I understand the logic behind that statement, and appreciate the optimistic perspective, even if my instinct is to argue against it.
Despite my conservative leanings, every April, I try to convince myself to think like Grandpa. On this tax day, I challenged myself to write about taxes from a positive perspective, while maintaining my boycott of social media politics.
That wasn’t easy. In the past week, I sent the government enough money to buy a new car, but that’s far from the end of my contributions. As a small business owner, I send checks every month, as well as pay quarterly estimates every three months. Also, as a business owner, I must match my Social Security and Medicare contributions. I’m very well aware of how much I am taxed.
For these reasons, it’s difficult to stay positive about taxes, especially at this time of year. I want to think about how I might have spent the money that I sent to the government. I want to complain about how the government spends my money. I want to whine about all of the time I spend preparing and planning for taxes. Those are my instincts, and they are difficult to suppress.
To maintain a positive attitude, we often have to suppress our instincts, especially when we know that those instincts lead us in a negative direction. This is especially true in challenging times. Complaining only makes a challenging situation that much more difficult.
The positive, can-do attitude I saw in response to the recent tragic flooding in my area was a powerful reminder of the importance of staying positive in trying times. It seemed that everywhere I looked during the flooding I saw examples of the strength of the human spirit, in spite of unfathomable challenges.
I saw great people, including some of my friends, helplessly watch the water rise around their homes and businesses. There was nothing that they could do but pray that the waters would subside, and I know that some of those people are very prayerful, yet their prayers were not answered, and the floods destroyed their homes and businesses.
The injustice of it all had to be overwhelming, I thought to myself. How do they not lash out at the devastation that seemed tremendously unfair? Could I be as strong?
Instead of complaining, I saw compassion and resolve. Friends, family and strangers alike united to help where and how they could. Instead of looking around with self-pity, flood victims rolled up their sleeves and salvaged what they could. They didn’t waste time complaining and looking for places to place their blame. They got to work and moved on.
In no way do I want to minimize the devastation caused by flooding. My tax challenges pale in comparison with those losses. I merely drew inspiration from their ability to preserve and thrive in an extremely difficult situation. Plus, my grandfather was right. I did have a good year, and that is a reason to be thankful.
So this year, instead of annual April 15th tradition of looking for fairness and grumbling about how I think that things should be different, I am at peace and have accepted things as they are.
February 2019 brought record snow to the area where I live. Snow piled on snow, as every few days seemed to bring a new storm. Record low temperatures accompanied the snow, keeping it from melting as it normally would at this time of year. Even people who profess their love of snow were getting tired of the white stuff.
I don’t love snow. In fact, I intensely dislike snow. When I see flakes falling, frustration and anxiety creep in, since even a dusting of snow on a sidewalk renders me almost completely immobile. When frustration and anxiety creep in, it’s hard to keep a positive attitude. Without a positive attitude, it’s hard to resist complaining.
It’s tempting to justify complaining, especially when you are pushed to your limits. I’m not sure that this winter pushed me to my limits, but it got awfully close. It certainly made me think about complaining.
I’ve thought about complaining before. When he was coaching me before one of my first professional speaking engagements, a really good friend told me: you have every right to be a bitter, angry person, but you’re not. People expect that from people like you who have obvious physical challenges, and they’re disarmed when they meet you and find out that you’re not.
At the time, his words shocked and saddened me. People expected me to be bitter and angry? Why would I be bitter and angry? I know that he was talking about my disability and how I went from a child with no limitations to an adult with some significant physical limitations, but that’s not something that I dwell on.
Mostly, I was baffled that complaining could be justified. If I am justified in complaining, who isn’t? My cousin who suffered a spinal cord injury about a year ago and hasn’t walked unassisted since? My friend who is battling cancer and struggling with a failing heart? Another friend taking care of her Alzheimer’s stricken husband who no longer recognizes her? Friends with relationship challenges whose life trajectories hang in the balance?
Almost everyone I know can justify complaining, but I hear surprisingly little complaining. I’m not complaining that I don’t hear a lot of complaining, but the absence of complaining in my life is remarkable. I suspect that I don’t hear a lot of complaining, because of the way I approach life. I believe that staying positive and not complaining about your circumstances will subject you to fewer complaints from others.
Conversely, when we complain, we open the door for others to do the same, and everyone suffers. Shared misery is a weak foundation for relationships, because complaining erodes happiness.
The official weather station in my neighborhood tells me that 60.9 inches of snow, 37.8 inches over average, have fallen around the house in which I’ve been confined for many days this winter. The forecast for the next few weeks shows little change in the weather pattern with few melting opportunities. Every day, I resist the urge to complain about how the weather limits my life.
Instead, I tell myself that winter won’t last forever. The days are getting longer. The sun is getting brighter, and I’m gaining a stronger appreciation for warm weather. Furthermore, there are far worse places to hunker down than the house I share with my wife and daughter. Most importantly, these weather-related challenges pale when compared to all of the other blessings in my life.
So, no. I can’t complain. Not now. Not ever.
I recently had the good fortune to go on a guided pheasant hunt with my dad, a life-long friend and a bunch of other really good guys. One of those guys documented the three-day trip with his camera. Everywhere we went, into the field and back in the lodge, he took candid shots. I noticed the camera pointed at me several times, and was anxious to see the results, until I did.
Self-perception is an odd thing, and it’s difficult to do correctly. Most of us are far too critical about how we appear. Others, like me, are somewhat delusional about how we appear. A rare few are actually accurate in their perception of how others see them.
Walking around with a severe limp and a droopy right eye for most of my life, I have learned not to worry about how others see me. Though I’m somewhat aware of them, I choose not to acknowledge negative perceptions. That’s relatively easy to do when you are away from the camera and surrounded by familiar people. Even the mirror, though it does not lie, can be fooled with a careful pose. The candid camera cannot.
So, there I was, crooked leg, bald head and droopy eye, with my dad helping me carry my plate from the buffet line. I remember the moment and the camera to my side. I wasn’t bothered by it then, but I was when I first saw the picture. The insecurities that I had carefully tucked out of sight escaped and bopped me in the back of the head.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Insecurities haunt all of us, at least occasionally – even powerful and famous people. President Franklin Roosevelt consciously hid his disability from the American public throughout his twelve years as President of the United States. He wasn’t ashamed of his disability; he just didn’t want to be judged by it or to have critics see it as a weakness, so when cameras were present, he was careful to keep his wheelchair out of the photo.
It’s OK to minimize your vulnerabilities in order to craft the image you want to project. We should try to look and act our best. Like it or not, friends and strangers alike respond to our image. What’s not OK is to let the things you can’t control about your image bring you down, and that’s what I did.
I focused on my weaknesses while completely ignoring my strengths. I prioritized what I’d like to change over what I value. I held myself to an ideal that is beyond my reach. What’s more, I did all of this without any outside prompting. No one on the trip treated me any differently.
Who isn’t guilty of this, at least occasionally? Maybe it’s not our physical appearance, but a perceived shortcoming of intelligence or achievement that makes us feel inferior. Maybe we don’t invite friends to our homes, because we feel that our homes don’t compare to theirs.
None of that matters. What matters is how we see ourselves. My parents taught me that lesson in my pre-teen years, when it became obvious that my disability was going to affect my future. They encouraged me to value and capitalize on my blessings, and they wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself. My friends, teachers and others around me reinforced that credo, which allowed me to create a cocoon around myself in my teenage years.
I’ve been able to move that cocoon with me through the different phases of my 48 years: college, young career, fatherhood and to where I am now. Very rarely does something penetrate the cocoon, but that picture did.
Fortunately, I was able to quickly recover by stepping back and taking a larger view – a view in which my gratitude squashed my insecurities. That was easy to do as I looked through the other pictures.
We had been blessed with great weather, which isn’t a given in late December in South Dakota. If the weather had been different, I likely wouldn’t have been able to participate in the hunt. Furthermore, our outfitter was extremely accommodating of my limited mobility, letting me use a UTV to get around. Last, but certainly not least, I was able to have a great time with a great group of new friends. It would have been really difficult to improve the experience.
It’s amazing how blinded we can become by our insecurities. Most of the time, when they obscure our blessings, we need only take a short step to the side and look more closely. Those blessings are usually right there in front of us.
Over dinner on New Year’s Eve, my family discussed our individual evaluations of 2018. The unfiltered (occasionally brutal) honesty that seems to be part of our shared DNA made for a lively, insightful conversation, and showed a diversity of perspectives around the table.
Rather than simply asking, how was your year, I suggested that we rate our years on a scale from one to ten, with ten being the highest. I didn’t suggest criteria for a ranking, and each of us used something different. The rankings ranged from seven to nine. (I had the highest, but I also had a second glass of wine in front of me.)
The exercise of ranking a year is revealing because it forces you to decide what’s important and to judge how you approached the things that are important to you.
I assessed my year by these criteria (in no particular order): health, time with family and friends, time enjoying hobbies and travel, and my professional performance. Basically, were my achievements in line with my expectations, and did I take the time to enjoy my blessings?
Were my achievements in line with my expectations? This is where I factored in health and professional performance. This is the first year in several where I finished the year in a much better physical state than I did the year before. My progress is mostly related to adopting a keto lifestyle. I had always been faithful in my exercise routine, but 2018 was the year that I decided to do something about my diet. By cutting carbs and incorporating more healthy food, I have lost 25 pounds and vastly reduced the inflammation that was causing me joint pain. The results have encouraged me to make the diet a lifestyle.
Professionally, I was very fortunate. I’m not sure that I worked any harder, but a strong economy and some good breaks yielded a year that beat the rather ambitious goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year. Since I can’t control the economy or the breaks that helped my year, I’ll likely need to work harder next year to match or exceed those results.
Did I take the time to enjoy my blessings? Too often, we focus strictly on performance when evaluating ourselves. Just as important is taking the time to appreciate and enjoy the blessings of our lives. After all, why work hard professionally and personally, if you’re not going to take the time to enjoy the results? I’m usually pretty good at enjoying life, and this year was no different. Of course, it helps that I have a very supportive family. Hunting was the only area that I neglected this year. I will make more time in 2019 to enjoy this passion.
Though they all had some remarkable achievements in 2018, the three others around the table were more critical of their years. In their evaluations, each of them had emphasized achievements over enjoyments, and they weren’t quite happy with what they achieved. Many of the things that kept them from satisfaction were outside their control, and I suggested that outside, uncontrollable factors should not be part of the evaluation.
A lot will happen in 2019. Some of it will work in our favor, and some of it won’t. Most of it will influence our experiences and results. The challenge is to focus on what we can control, and to take the time to enjoy our blessings. Have a great year.