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.
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.
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.
It’s been more than a year since my wife and I sent our firstborn to a university 500 miles away. As expected, it’s been a year of adjustment, and though we still haven’t quite figured things out, we’re learning.
Despite my sophomore status, a couple months ago, at her son’s graduation reception, a mother of a new graduate asked me if I had any advice for someone about to send her new graduate away to college. This wouldn’t be much of a blog post if I didn’t.
Be glad the kid is gone. I’m pretty sure that my parents don’t want me living in their basement. After my first and only college summer at home, I was really sure that my dad was glad when August came around. Be thankful that your kid has the ambition to leave the security of home. It’s the first step toward true independence.
Speaking of my dad, have some perspective. When my grandparents saw my dad leave for Vietnam, the best that they could hope for was to see him home and healthy in a year. During that year, they couldn’t send him a text or check his Twitter feed to see how he was doing. And since they couldn’t even talk over the phone, they never heard his voice. Thinking about that makes the 500 miles between me and my son seem somewhat trivial.
Take advantage of technology. If you have a kid graduating from high school, you’re old enough to remember limited communication technology from your own early adulthood years – calling cards and making your long-distance calls when the rates were lowest. E-mail and social media weren’t even options. Don’t act like it’s still the 80’s or early 90’s. You’ll want to give him some space, but a funny, unexpected text from home can brighten his day. Encourage him to do the same thing. Modern communication condenses miles.
Realize that he isn’t your clone. Hopefully, you’ve raised a better version of yourself. I’m forever grateful that my children weren’t set on building wisdom through ill-advised decision-making, like I was. Just because you struggled to avoid temptations in college doesn’t mean that your children will.
Assume the positive. Most of things we worry about never happen, and we waste time and energy thinking about them. Very rarely will you know where your college kid is, who he’s with or what he’s doing. Don’t allow your imagination to fill in those gaps with your worries. Assume that he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
Understand that now is the time to reap the rewards of your parenting. Raising children is a tough, but rewarding job. If you’ve done it correctly, by the time your kid graduates, the hard parts will be behind you. Leave them behind you. Constantly trying to control and guide your children is an unnecessary use of energy that can be better directed elsewhere.
Lastly, see #1. This is a time to celebrate and to congratulate yourself on getting this far as a parent. Though you’re likely going to miss your kid more than you can imagine, be happy that he’s at this exciting stage in his life. This is when many things come together. He’ll likely meet his future wife very soon. He’ll add to his list of life-long friends, and he’ll start to zero in on a career. None of that is possible without letting him go.
If you would have asked me in 1988 how I would arrive at my high school reunion thirty years later, I would have offered some grand vision that involved wealth and excess. I certainly wouldn’t have said bald and walking with a cane.
Though I am blessed with an incredible life and a family beyond my wildest dreams, life hasn’t worked out for me in the exact way that I originally thought it would, and that’s OK. Life works out in the way that it’s supposed to, and it has no particular allegiance to our plans. It’s up to us to learn from and adapt to the realities we encounter.
If we pay attention and do things correctly, we stand a very good chance of being successful at life. You notice that I didn’t say simply “successful,” because many of us attach far-fetched definitions to that word, and when we fall short, we feel unsuccessful. The concept of success should inspire us to reach higher, not push us into a hole. Unfortunately, when we attach immature ideals to our concept of success, we often trigger regret and melancholy when we don’t achieve those ideals.
Among many other things, my grandfather taught me that being successful at life is almost always attainable, regardless of the advantages or disadvantages we’re blessed with. You just need to snag the blessings that come your way and then nurture them. For him, being successful at life meant having a big, thriving family, which was something that he wasn’t born into.
My grandfather’s mother died when he was four years old, when most of his older siblings had already left the house. His father did the best he could, but when the Great Depression hit Central Nebraska, there weren’t enough resources to support my grandfather and his next older brother. Realizing this, at the ages of 14 and 16, my grandfather and his brother dropped out of school and headed to a life of labor in the sugar beet fields of Western Nebraska, stowing away on trains during their trip.
A few years later, he returned with $700 that he managed to save by living frugally and working hard. With that, he started farming. Eventually, he met my grandmother, and started a family that grew to eight children and 23 grandchildren. He never earned much money, but he lived a comfortable life by prioritizing family over possessions and status. I can’t imagine a rich man being any happier than my grandfather was with his family-focused life.
I’m slowly turning into my grandfather. Instead of what I drive or where I live, the family I’ve built with my wife is my biggest source of pride and fulfillment. It’s not that I gave up on my financial goals – I like travel and hunting too much to get complacent – but if everything stayed just like it is right now, I would feel successful at life.
That’s a change from where I was thirty years ago and probably even five years ago, and it’s a change that I’d like to attribute to maturity and recognizing what’s truly important in life. We don’t need to earn more than our friends or to have bigger houses and fancier cars than them, in order to prove to ourselves and others that we are successful. We just need to do the best we can with our blessings.
No, I didn’t drive a Mercedes to my high school reunion, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. No one noticed, and my 18-year-old self wasn’t there to impress.
Last month, I wrote about my inspiring afternoon with a young man struggling with a progressive illness. Seeing his struggle, but more important, his positive attitude, inspired me to shrug off my own challenges. If he could stay positive, why shouldn’t I?
Finding inspiration in seemingly less fortunate people is delicate and can be counter-productive, if we don’t balance it with appreciation. Without appreciation, it’s not really inspiration at all. It’s simply pity.
Think about the last homeless person or panhandler you saw. Did it make you uncomfortable? Did you look away and try to block the image from your memory? Or did you move your blessings to the forefront of your thoughts? Most of us, myself included, shield ourselves from dwelling on sad scenes like this, when we really should be using them to appreciate our blessings.
People with visible handicaps get this a lot. Strangers glance at us and then look away from or through us. It’s dehumanizing, but I get it, because that’s the way I look at homeless people. It’s easier and safer that way.
There are much better ways to address our discomfort when encountering someone we believe is less fortunate than we are.
- Look past their disadvantages.
- Don’t assume that they’re helpless and want your pity.
- Gain appreciation for your blessings through their perspective.
Last week, a guy at the gym was complaining about how hot it was in the gym. Naturally, I spun his complaint a positive direction and told him how I used to work out in an un-air-conditioned gym located above a basketball floor in the North Carolina heat and humidity. “This is nothing compared to that,” I said.
“You would say that,” he said. “Is there anything that can keep you down?” He went on to tell me that he and many others there find inspiration in my tenacity. He said that seeing me push through my struggles makes him feel guilty when he skips work-outs or doesn’t put forth much effort. “Not that I think that you have it that bad,” he tried to qualify, but I interrupted him and thanked him for his kind words.
It’s hard to know to deal with the struggles of others, but try. You can learn a lot. Some of the most inspiring and optimistic people bear struggles that seem unimagineable, and through these struggles, they teach us perspective that shines light on our blessings.
I found inspiration in Ty’s attitude. His handicap was just a backdrop that amplified that positive attitude that I’ll always remember. I didn’t look at him and tell myself: at least I don’t have it that bad. I listened to him and learned that a positive attitude is possible and powerful, even in extremely challenging situations.
As we wheeled away in opposite directions from our one and only meeting, I was thankful, not because I thought I had it better than Ty. I was thankful that I had the opportunity to grow as a person and to take those lessons forward with me to share with others.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that people walk through my life with purpose, but that purpose isn’t always immediately obvious. Often, I must wait until the person is a memory before I understand their role in my journey.
I met Ty only once and more than a year ago, during the final day of the state wrestling tournament in 2017. My son was wrestling for a championship that afternoon, so I was more distracted than usual with emotion, family and friends. I was much too preoccupied with my own thoughts to meet someone new and interesting who could teach me something. At least, that’s what I thought.
Ty and I were in the handicapped section, since neither of us was good with stairs. Since each ticketholder is limited to one companion seat, handicapped seating in arenas can be lonely, if you’re not open to meeting other people. If demand is high, they kick out the companions, leaving the ticketholder surrounded by strangers. That happened to me for the semi-finals the night before. Fortunately, they didn’t kick out my companion, my dad, that day. While the rest of my family and friends were in another section, I was left with my dad and Ty to experience a day I’ll never forget.
While I use my wheelchair to make long treks more comfortable and convenient, Ty was confined to an electric wheelchair. I soon learned that muscular dystrophy put Ty in the chair, and that it was a progressive disease. He wasn’t shy about sharing this with me, and he didn’t tell me that to get sympathy.
You don’t find a lot of vanity or self-pity in the handicapped section. Most of us are beyond that. Ty was way beyond that. He freely shared his life story with me and my dad, but not in an uncomfortable or intrusive way. In fact, the chair and his health challenges were a small part of our conversation. He mostly talked about his love of wrestling, racing, hunting and fishing, and he did it with a genuine smile and passion.
He had an eager audience in my father and me, since we shared many of the same passions, and our conversation was a welcome diversion from the nervous anticipation of my son’s upcoming match. By the time my son was on the mat, I considered Ty a friend. He was among the first to congratulate me when my son won the championship that afternoon.
Before we parted, we became Facebook friends. I was eager to follow his hunting and other adventures, and was able to do that over the next several months. He had a girlfriend, job and zest for life that might surprise those who didn’t know him. In contrast to some able-bodied people on social media, I never saw him complain or feel sorry for himself.
Last month, it occurred to me that turkey hunting season had begun, and I hadn’t seen any of Ty’s hunting posts. During last year’s turkey season, he documented the many hours he spent in a blind in his quest to bag a turkey, and by doing so, he made me feel a little guilty about my impatience in my own turkey hunting. I assumed that he was hunting hard again, and that I had just missed his updates.
Unfortunately, I didn’t miss his updates. When I went to his Facebook page, I learned that he was killed in a car accident earlier this year. I was sad that his journey was cut short, but thankful for the afternoon we spent together and the way his memory helped me that day.
I discovered Ty’s fate in the middle of a challenging week that saw me lose two big recruiting deals and knock another hole in my drywall with a fall in the bathroom. The stench of bad luck seemed to stick with me no matter how hard I tried to scrub it off, and that had me feeling a little down and defeated
Though I didn’t know it, my subconscious told me that I needed to think of Ty that week, especially his tenacity and positive attitude, even when things were tough. How foolish I would feel and how small my problems would seem if we were back in section 109 in the CenturyLink Center, and I was trying to tell Ty how my week was going.
I didn’t expect a chance meeting to help me deal with challenges fifteen months later, but it did. Life can be amazing like that, if we pay attention.