OK, Can I Complain Now?

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.

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Hmm . . . That’s How I Look

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.

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Balance Achievements and Enjoyments To Have a Great Year

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.

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What Have You Done?

Most people, unless they are actively searching for a new job, don’t have an updated resume. I hear this several times each day when I contact candidates, and each time, I encourage them to take the time to update their resumes, even if they are not looking for a new job. I believe that the exercise is useful for everyone, even if you are not in the professional world or looking for a job

Creating a resume or updating an existing resume forces you to recall your activities and accomplishments to date. The process shines a spotlight on your blessings and gives you a visual representation of your progress toward your goals.

But what if you’re not a professional?

You don’t have to be a professional to have accomplishments and activities. My long-since-retired in-laws keep track of the countries they have visited. You might keep track of the miles you walked or books you read. That might seem insignificant how, but if you keep track and keep updating, you’ll see the significance.

If you are a professional, having an updated resume will help you respond quickly to opportunities with windows that might be open only a short while. Many people will tell me that they don’t plan to change positions any time soon, if ever. I tell them that their employers might not have the same plans. Management changes. Companies are acquired. Many things can happen that can jeopardize what you see as a secure position.

How to Do It

Resumes of both professionals and non-professionals should begin with a summary about who you are. Mine is: Began as a teacher. Became an entrepreneur with a passion for sales. Occasionally, a motivational speaker. Usually, an innovative, relentless problem-solver. Always, a dedicated father and husband.

The summary, like the opening chapter of a good novel, should inspire the reader to read further. Follow that with a chronology of your positions, starting with the most recent. List your title, where you worked, the dates you worked there and a few of your main duties and accomplishments. The more specific you can be, the better.

This works for non-professionals too. If you don’t have a title or an employer, create one. As an example: retired engineer employed by wife to run errands, mow the lawn and answer the phone. If you’re not using your resume to advance your career, it doesn’t have to be serious. Other information that can be included here are volunteer activities or nice things that you’ve done for others. When you see it on paper, you might be surprised how much good you have done.

Next, list your education, even if it is School of Hard Knocks. Be sure to add any seminars or specific training you received.

Lastly, list your awards and accomplishments. Not everyone can call themselves a Rhodes Scholar, but don’t short-change smaller achievements like the dean’s list or employee of the month awards.

Non-professionals, you can have a little fun with this. If you won a bowling trophy in your 20s, go ahead and list that. If you never won anything, make something up. In my house, I hold the record for continuous hours spent in the basement watching football. Until my son beat my record, I also achieved the longest nap in a recliner.

Maybe it’s because we’re humble or uncomfortable talking about our successes, but too few of us take the time to quantify who we are and what we have done. Consider using these last few weeks of the year to catch up with your activities and accomplishments. If you don’t like what you see, make plans to correct that in the new year. If you are proud of what you have done, do more of it.

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Winning the Lottery

Last month, millions of us believed we were going to become instant millionaires. The Mega Millions jackpot was over $1 billion, while the Powerball neared that mark. Driven by long-shot dreams, we lined up in convenience stores across the country to buy our chances to win those huge jackpots.

Despite the astronomical odds against us, we allowed ourselves to dream of how life would change when our numbers were called. In fact, we did more than allow ourselves to dream, we believed that we would win.

Imagine if we applied that sort of optimism and enthusiasm to every day of our lives. Imagine if we woke up every morning believing that something great was going to happen. Imagine if we approached everyday situations with that kind of optimism. That’s winning the lottery.

Maybe you don’t hear your lottery numbers called, but maybe the phone rings with the professional opportunity of your dreams or you meet your soulmate. Maybe a talent that you’ve been nurturing is recognized, and you get your big break. No matter who you are, all of those things and countless others are more likely to occur than hitting a lottery jackpot.

I know the argument against living this way: when you believe that good things are going to happen, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Isn’t it better to temper your expectations, so you’re not so disappointed if things don’t come together? I get that, but buying a lottery ticket is the ultimate in setting yourself up for disappointment, and we still do it.

Your life would be SO much better if you treated each day with the untampered optimism you invest in that $2 ticket. After all, doesn’t your skillset and work ethic give you a better chance of success than a 1 in 292,201,338 lottery ticket?

“Being positive won’t guarantee you’ll succeed. But being negative will guarantee you won’t.” – Jon Gordon, author of Energy Bus

Because you can’t win without a ticket, it’s often said that when we buy a lottery ticket, we buy a dream. That same is true with hope and positivity. Think of positivity as the $2 you spend on a ticket, and when you have positivity, you have hope of winning. Without positivity, just like without a lottery ticket, you can’t hope to win.

The challenge is maintaining this attitude when, inevitably, not every day yields big results. That’s where the Stockdale Paradox helps.

When writing his book, Good to Great, James C. Collins asked former Navy Vice Admiral and Vice-Presidential candidate James Stockdale how he survived seven and a half years in a Vietnamese prison camp, where he was frequently tortured. Stockdale said the blind optimists had the most difficult time, because they couldn’t maintain their optimism over the years of dismal living. The key to survival, he said, was to be optimistic while acknowledging reality. “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be,” said Stockdale. Collins called that philosophy, the Stockdale Paradox.

Most of us will never experience a test to our optimism like a prisoner of war camp, nor will we achieve wealth by winning the lottery, but we can use the Stockdale Paradox to enhance our lives. If we start our days with excitement and anticipation, and then maintain that attitude while doing everything we can to improve our circumstances, we’ll win the lottery of life.

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Why Judge?

All day long, I judge people. Most of the people I judge are people I’ve never met. As a professional recruiter, I get paid to pass shrewd judgement on strangers. My clients expect it. They only want to see candidates who are legitimate contenders for their positions. I do the dirty work, so they don’t have to.

When I step away from my desk, I’m weary from this responsibility, and don’t want to continue it in my personal life. Perhaps that’s why I’m so baffled when others rush to judgement or treat judging as some sort of hobby worth sharing.

Recently, our country was divided by a conundrum with no sound basis for judgement on either side. Unless we were there, it’s impossible to know what happened between Judge Cavanaugh and Dr. Ford, yet, there we were, lined up on opposite sides, driven by our own dogma, loudly proclaiming what we believe to be true.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Sit with a group of disgruntled sports fans and watch the assessments (most of them highly unqualified) fly. Even worse are the Internet message boards where over-zealous fans enjoy anonymity. In my state lately, the message boards are where middle-aged men offer their assessments of the character of young football players who they have never met.

Why do we insist on judging others, especially when it’s such an inaccurate science? I did some research on this, and learned a few things.

Judging strangers is natural. Our brains are programmed with data accumulated throughout our lives, and when encountering stimuli, like a stranger’s face, they react by subconsciously categorizing that stimuli based on previous experiences. We rely on that instinct to keep us from meticulously studying every stimulus we encounter. Without it, dealing with everyday situations would be impossible.

You can’t possibly walk through a crowded public area, like an airport, and accurately judge everyone you see. There is just way too much data to process. Similarly, in my role as a recruiter, I encounter hundreds of potential candidates each day. If I devoted several minutes to my evaluation of each candidate, I would never get to the candidates who my clients might want to hire. Instead, I rely on quick judgements that are based on years of experience and are fairly reliable to help me navigate through the data. Still, I acknowledge and must accept the possibility that I miss potential talent. Judgement is rarely ever failproof.

It’s when we decide to judge someone more thoroughly that we must be most careful. Even though our subconscious might initially push us in a prejudiced direction, we need to decide if that initial judgement is accurate. One of the most interesting articles I found in my research is Why We Judge Others (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conscious-communication/201805/why-we-judge-others).

In this article, the author says that most judgements are formed either by personality or situational attributions. We tend to make judgements on strangers based on personality attribution. In other words, since we don’t know them, we use our observations to judge their personalities. We might see a young person with his hat on backwards and pants hanging precariously from his rear end, and decide that he’s threatening and disrespectful. If that person was our nephew, we would likely attribute his behavior to the situation: he’s a young man asserting his independence and individuality.

I think that’s why the Kavanaugh supreme court confirmation drama divided us so deeply. Half of us identified with Dr. Ford, while the other half identified with Judge Kavanaugh. When you identify with someone, you typically judge them based on the situation, and those judgements are almost always kinder.

I also think that it’s important to be mindful of this tendency, so we don’t unfairly judge others. When I evaluate candidates, I tend to be more forgiving with those with whom I can closely identify. That’s natural, but if I’m aware of this tendency, I can correct it and be more equitable.

This applies in everyday life too. When someone cuts me off in traffic, after I choke back my verbal assessment of their personality, I try to make a situational attribution: maybe they really need to find a restroom or they were just too distracted to realize the way that they were driving.

Judging others is an awesome responsibility that we should not take lightly. If we approached it with a little more awareness and kindness, I think that we would be happier people.

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Don’t Let Negativity Cloud Beauty

When my wife and I went to visit our son in Wyoming last year, he was anxious to show us the beauty of the mountains that are a short drive from the University of Wyoming campus. Up there, at about 10,000 feet, are his favorite fishing lake and places that he likes to hike. We had seen pictures, but were excited to witness the beauty he had told us about.

In October in Laramie, anything you want to do outdoors is at the mercy of the weather. When we left town, it was bright and sunny. By the time we reached the mountains, it was snowing and blowing, and the mountains were obscured by clouds and a heavy layer of fog. On top of that, the roads turned treacherous about half-way up the mountain. Since we couldn’t move the clouds or clear the roads, we turned around and headed back, never being able to see the great vistas we hoped to see.

Though the excursion didn’t yield the results we wanted, we didn’t let that damper the enjoyment of being together as a family. We chose to make the most of our circumstances, rather than let something as uncontrollable as Mother Nature get us down.

Mother Nature can be a formidable foe, but sometimes, we can move clouds, and inexplicably, we don’t.

That happened recently in our house on the morning of my daughter’s first day of her senior year of high school. My wife had an elaborate breakfast planned for my daughter and two of her classmates who had spent the night, so she woke up early to prepare, only to discover that our refrigerator had abruptly quit without the courtesy of a two-week notice. That event cast a negative cloud that hung over our home throughout breakfast and well after Kelly and her friends left for school, and though we could have moved it, we let it obscure the beauty of what should have been a cherished memory.

It’s easy to do that – too easy to do that. We drive to work on a beautiful day, and instead of noticing and appreciating that beauty, we stew about the guy who cut us off in traffic. We gather to celebrate a birthday, but we don’t enjoy it as much as we should because a guest didn’t show or we didn’t have enough cake. We let our frustration over a long wait at a restaurant dominate a night that we’ll never again have.

Why do we do these things? Are we determined to sabotage our own happiness? Can we not separate the wheat from the chaff in our minds? When I let negativity crowd out beauty, it’s because I lost control of my thoughts.

Controlling your thoughts sounds simple, and it typically is in calm, pleasant times, but when outside factors, like a fridge full of slowly rotting food emerge, it’s not so simple. Obviously, we couldn’t completely ignore the quandary that the fridge forced upon us, but we didn’t need to let it overtake what should have been a morning more memorable for its significance in our family life.

Instead of pushing back on negative emotions like anxiety, anger and frustration, we ceded our morning to them, and in doing so, tarnished a memory. It’s all too easy to let this happen, and even to be unaware that it’s happening.

When challenging circumstances like this evoke negative emotions, we must remind ourselves that we have options in dealing with them. Unlike the weather, our emotions are under our control, and we should use them to move clouds when we can.

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