This month’s blog entry was going to be about finding the courage to fix something that has hindered me for a long time, but after yesterday’s doctor visit, that isn’t going to happen. Yesterday, I got a gut punch that I wasn’t expecting.
Until yesterday, I enjoyed a little more than six weeks with normal eyes. It was the first time in 47 years, that my disability didn’t affect my appearance or my vision. Thanks to a surgical procedure that I had in August, I could finally look in the mirror and not see any trace of a disability, and as my primary care physician predicted, people reacted more positively to a guy who could finally look them in the eyes. I almost turned into a narcissist standing in front of the mirror and admiring my two symmetrical eyes, until it all went away.
For most of my 51 years, I’ve lived with droopy eyes, resulting from the disability that I’ve been blessed with since childhood. As opposed to my other maladies, droopy eyes seemed like a minor, cosmetic problem that didn’t merit much concern, so I accepted that I would just have to live with them. Because my eyelids drooped, I almost always looked tired or intoxicated, even when I wasn’t, and it was difficult to make eye contact with strangers, which occasionally made for awkward social encounters. The latter was also problematic during my public speaking engagements, where eye contact can enhance messages. Still, compared to wobbly legs, a dysfunctional shoulder and a weak arm, the challenges that my eyes presented seemed rather inconsequential, until I felt their impact on my vision.
Initially, I started to feel uncomfortable driving at night. I even hit a deer with my truck on an evening last fall. The collision didn’t damage my truck, but it did awake me to how important vision is to driving. I began to feel that I needed more light than my eyes could gather, in order to feel safe behind the wheel, so I scheduled a surgical consultation. A few weeks after that, I had a procedure to lift both of my eyelids.
Almost everything was great for six weeks. I not only looked better; I could also see better. The only hiccup was a wound that wasn’t healing correctly over my left eye where the anchors helping to elevate my eyelid were located. The corresponding wound over my right eye had almost healed completely, but not much healing had taken place over my left eye. On Sunday morning, that wound erupted and exposed the anchors that were crucial to helping me fully open my left eye. It didn’t hurt, but two thin rubber strings suddenly emerged from my forehead. The surgeon said that he had never seen anything like it.
When I went in for my scheduled follow-up visit on Tuesday, I anticipated that the surgeon might have to tighten the system supporting my left eye, but that wasn’t an option. Since the main components of the system had been exposed, infection was a real risk, so the surgeon opted to remove the system entirely. Immediately, my eyelid drooped, and my vision dimmed.
I was pretty disappointed and heartbroken to lose most of what I had gained with the procedure, and I struggled to regain the positive mindset I have held tightly for most of my life. It all seemed tremendously unfair and cruel.
It took me a while, but I was finally able to summon some perspective that I used to quell my disappointment and heartbreak. While my disappointment seemed like a big deal to me, every day, people go to medical appointments and receive much worse news. Compared to what they’re facing, my problems were small. Additionally, I stacked gratitude on that perspective, and reminded myself to be thankful for what I have and not rueful for what I don’t have. Perspective and gratitude have helped me through challenging times before, and they’ll help me here too.
Note: There might be something we can do to balance my eyes again, but my surgeon says that we need to wait at least three months before exploring those possibilities.
Last July, I walked out of my home away from home for the last time. Though I knew my gym was closing and that my membership would get me into a new location a few miles farther from home, I insisted on sticking with what I knew, until they literally locked the doors behind me. Honestly, if I could, I would still be a regular at a place that had fallen into disrepair.
And, I would have missed joining a new gym that has saved me anxiety, time and money. Even before rumors of the gym closing began, I suspected that I should consider other gyms, but habit and familiarity kept from making a change. Habit and familiarity, though comforting, can keep us in a rut, if we’re not aware of their limiting tendencies.
Think about jobs and relationships that you have held onto, though they were no longer fulfilling. You probably thought about looking for fulfillment in other places, but stayed right where you were, because change can be intimidating. Though it usually doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s easier to hang onto the status quo and hope that better days are ahead, than to accept and embrace change.
Long-time readers of this blog know that I make my living by recruiting top talent for my incredible clients who trust me to help them thrive and grow with quality employees. That type of talent is rarely found with their resume online, so I spend much of my day contacting passive candidates – people who are qualified, but who aren’t actively looking. In other words, I propose change to those who aren’t seeking it. As you can probably imagine, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in rejection.
I also feel like an expert in resistance to change, because that’s almost always the reason behind the rejection. Though employment polls suggest that more than half of working professionals are considering making a career move within a year, a much smaller percentage are interested in hearing about different opportunities.
Many of my initial contacts are met with resistance right out of the gate. “I’m not interested in making a move” is something that I hear many times each day, and I hear it before they even know what the opportunity that they are rejecting entails. I might be calling with their dream job or at least a job that pays more than they currently earn, but their knee-jerk reaction keeps them from hearing it. They are so averse to the prospect of change that they don’t even want to consider it.
When we’re sneaking away from change, we’re often forsaking long-term growth in order to avoid short-term pain. We don’t want to learn new things, meet new people or go new places, because we’re intoxicated by habit and familiarity, like I was with the prospect of changing gyms.
My old gym was nearly perfect when I first joined nearly 18 years ago. The facility and equipment were almost new, and the membership and staff were enthusiastic. In the past five years or so, all of that faded away. The facility was unkempt, and the equipment was rusty and often broken for weeks. Members and staff complained, and many left. In fact, at the end, the only features that kept me were comfort and familiarity.
Finally, I tried a gym that is considerably closer to me, vibrant and meticulously maintained. On top of all of that, I am able to park just a few steps from the front door, whereas I faced a long and uncertain walk at the original facility. Looking back, I can see that it is a move that I should have made years ago, and would have made if habit and familiarity hadn’t paralyzed me.
Don’t let habit and familiarity paralyze you. Know when it’s time to change, and embrace it.
I felt liberated when I walked into a restaurant not wearing a mask for the first time in months. It was a few days before Omaha’s mask mandate officially ended, but no one stopped me, and I wasn’t alone in my rebellion. Even my rule-following wife left her mask in the car. We had regained our freedom to live as we wished, and it felt good.
A lot bothered me about wearing a mask, liked restricted breathing and foggy glasses, but what irritated me the most was the ambiguous reasoning behind the mandate. Still, I played along, until I was vaccinated. After interrupting my schedule to make two trips to a vaccination site, I felt that I was in the clear, so my resentment only grew as I waited for government officials to give me permission to ditch my mask. Finally, without fanfare, mandates began to expire, and our freedoms were slowly handed back to us.
For more than a year, we’ve had government officials tell us where we can and cannot go, how many of us can be there, where we can sit, and whether or not we need a mask and/or vaccination. Whether all of those restrictions were necessary is immaterial at this point. They happened, and we lived with them. While we lived with them, we didn’t really live. Precious opportunities to do things like visit elderly grandparents and celebrate momentous occasions were lost. While we can’t get those opportunities back, we absolutely must appreciate and embrace the opportunities ahead.
There are only so many days that we’re allowed to enjoy the lives with which we are blessed. Living through a pandemic should enhance our appreciation of each and every one of those days. That’s relatively easy to do now, when the memories of lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions are fresh in our minds, but what happens when we grow accustomed to living as we used to? How do we keep gratitude front and center?
I’m reminded of a time, nearly 20 years ago, when I was able to spend a morning in a motivational seminar. The speaker was particularly engaging, and I feverishly jotted down notes as I began to imagine how I was going to use my newfound knowledge to improve my life. By lunch time, I had no doubt that my life was about to change for the better in a big way. Sadly, that feeling was gone by the end of the week.
When I attended that seminar, I was working at my first sales job. That job taught me a lot about sales, but it was a burn-out job with very little potential, and it sucked away all of the momentum I gained in the seminar. Furthermore, we had just moved back to Nebraska, and had yet to sell our house in North Carolina. Two mortgages, two kids and a frustrating job occupied my thoughts and crowded out ambitious self-improvement.
Something similar can happen to us in our post-pandemic world, if we’re not careful. Many of us are already eagerly embracing our recovered freedoms and vowing to cherish everything a little bit more. While that’s great, the real challenge is maintaining that mindset, when the realities of life begin to drag us back into our tired routines and habits.
In order to get the most out of life, we must remind ourselves how we felt leaving our masks in the car for the first time, and take the time to be thankful for a life relatively unencumbered by restrictions. If we do this every day, our lives post-pandemic can be even better than they were before the world got weird.
Driving in heavy traffic brings out the worst in me. Normally a positive, happy individual, when I’m behind the steering wheel, encountering drivers who impede my progress, I’m anything but happy and positive. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago, in the last two hours of a 500-mile drive. Though I wasn’t at my best, I developed a coping mechanism that I’m trying to use in other aspects of my life.
When I’m driving, I instinctively define other motorists by their driving styles. The Mazda compact with Iowa plates who hung out in the passing lane and drove at a fluctuating pace was an inconsiderate moron. The pick-up truck with a Skutt sticker who raced past me, before turning abruptly into my lane just ahead of me and then slowing, was a dangerous jackass. I described others with even more colorful language, yet none of it improved my situation or made me feel any better.
I only started to feel better when I used my imagination to envision good people who were having bad days as drivers. It wasn’t easy, but I tried to create sympathetic situations and forgivable characters that would make me feel better about the strangers around me. The Mazda-driving Iowan became a college student who was driving home to visit a gravely ill family member. She was too distracted by her thoughts to worry about maintaining a consistent pace. The pick-up driver was inexperienced at interstate driving, and was doing his best not to get run over. It took some effort, but after a while, I began to see drivers as more than drivers. Their driving styles were only a small part of who they were.
Thinking about people as more than one-dimensional made me far less agitated and much happier. Back at home, I considered how this way of thinking could apply to other facets of life.
The current socio-political atmosphere has negatively affected my ability to stay positive and spiritual, and I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. Ingesting mainstream and social media has become like driving in intense traffic. I notice myself making similar assessments of strangers, based on what I am seeing and hearing in the media, because I’m thinking of them in one dimension.
When someone posts something on social media that seems non-sensical and opposes my values, instead of firing off a snarky retort, I consider that their perspective comes from experiences unfamiliar to me, and that if given the opportunity to sit down and talk, we could find some common ground. When politicians prioritize legislation that seems misguided, instead of giving in to agitation, I think of them as people who care about the future for their families and mine. Instead of grumbling in frustration, like I did in traffic, I try to see others as multi-dimensional, and to believe that they have goodness that I just haven’t seen yet.
We’re often misled into thinking that the world is filled with adversaries who deserve our disdain. When we think like that, we’re tempted to lash out, which only serves to increase animosity. The civil unrest that we’re witnessing across the country is a good example of that negative impact.
Instead, I believe that it’s better to think that most people are good, despite what we’re led to believe. Even the simple task of looking for the good in people, especially when it’s not obvious, is calming. I know that can sound naïve, but I really don’t care what it sounds like. It helps me find peace and happiness. Try it. Maybe it will work for you too.
With hope and trepidation, I recently got my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Hope came from taking a major step toward escaping the limiting shadow that the pandemic has cast over my life for the past year. Trepidation stemmed from my complicated history with vaccines.
Like everyone in my generation, I was given a polio vaccine as a child. Unlike nearly everyone who got that vaccine, I had an adverse reaction that left me with permanent polio-like symptoms. Back then, many of the vaccines contained a live virus which negatively affected very few. I was one of those very few. Unfortunately, since very few were affected, and testing was limited, no one knew what happened for several years after. While most benefited from the vaccine by not contracting polio, my life was forever changed.
Despite that experience, I have had every vaccination since. In fact, in past year, I have had the double-dose shingles vaccine, in addition to the annual flu shot. Throw in the pandemic and a welcome-to-50 colonoscopy, and my 50th year has been a year I won’t soon forget.
It was hard not to think about my experience with the polio vaccine, as I drove the vaccination center. While I certainly understand the hesitation and what-could-go-wrong thinking associated with a quickly approved vaccine for a virus we’ve only recently come to know, I choose to live my life with an opposite mindset. I approach uncertain situations with a what-can-go-right mindset.
Peril, loss and disappointment are potential outcomes of nearly everything we do. Even the simplest things, like going to the grocery store, involve risk. We can have a car accident, fall in the parking lot or expose ourselves to people with ill intent any time we leave our houses. Most of us don’t even think about negative outcomes during our routines, and that’s a good thing. If we did, we’d be afraid to do almost everything.
We do think about negative outcomes when doing something out of the ordinary, like going on a trip. That’s a good thing too, if we balance caution with optimism. My family and I did that when we traveled to Cabo San Lucas in January. Though COVID-19 complicated a trip out of the country, we know how valuable family vacations are, so we used a what-could-go-right mindset, and decided that the rewards outweighed the risks. No one got sick, and the trip was a success. We were glad that we didn’t let fear keep us from living.
When it came time to consider being vaccinated for COVID-19, I thought about how fear has become a greater presence in my thinking during the pandemic. At the gym, for instance, I stay far away from panting strangers. Not that I really want to get close to panting strangers, but it would be nice not to fear such situations. I also don’t want to consider potential exposure to the virus every time I plan an outing or to worry that I could be in that very small percentage of people who suffer lasting effects after contracting the virus. Likewise, I also don’t want people to be afraid of living or of me, if I happen to cough in public. For these reasons and many more, I decided to be vaccinated.
As someone who has spent most of his life dealing with the side-effects of a vaccine that was largely successful for most, that decision was complicated. Ultimately, like I do with most major decisions in my life, I rolled the dice and focused my thinking on what can go right. Instead of thinking about possible complications, I think about traveling without a mask and making people smile. Rather than buying into fear, conspiracy theories and all that can go wrong, I’m focused on what can go right. Life is so much better lived this way.
For those wondering: I received the Moderna vaccine, and experienced no negative reaction, other than a little soreness at the injection site.
The weather last month was brutal where I live. In fact, it was brutal almost everywhere. With temperatures struggling to get above zero and snow piling on top of snow, it was even worse for people like me who struggle with mobility problems. When winter weather is at its worst, we can barely leave our homes. Even when the weather breaks, the aftermath continues to limit our outings. Sand, salt, gravel and semi-frozen precipitation are just as likely to cause a fall, as snow and ice. Going anywhere in conditions like that is a calculated gamble.
The older I get, the less I want to gamble. I don’t want to break a hip, my one good arm or my semi-functional leg. Plus, the prospect of going to an emergency room during a pandemic is even more daunting than usual. Because of this, I spent most of this winter hiding in my house and slowly turning calendar pages while waiting for spring to arrive. As much as winter weather limits me, my pride can be just as limiting.
Last month, on a sunny day when the temperature hit 50 degrees, and the snow was quickly melting, my monthly lunch meeting with a friend and mentor appeared on my calendar. Because of the weather, we had missed our last two meetings. Though the weather was perfect for an outing that day, I knew that going out for lunch would entail facing the surface obstacles I just mentioned. I also knew that I could probably pull it off, if I pushed my pride aside and asked my friends for help.
Most people don’t have the mobility problems that I have, but many of us let pride get in the way of asking for help. We want the world to see us as able to handle anything that comes our way, and we don’t want to inconvenience anyone by asking for help. Though independence and consideration of others are admirable traits, they can also be limiting, if we resist asking for help when we need it and when others are so willing.
We’re all going to need to ask for help at some point, if we’re blessed to live long enough to experience the natural physical challenges of aging. It’s hard for most of us to imagine, and it’s even more difficult to accept, but there will be a day that we can’t do things that we used to do without thinking, like going out on a wintery day. Because of the physical disability that I was blessed with, I experienced that about thirty years ahead of schedule.
A funny thing happens when we’re forced to ask our friends for help: we get to see just how much they care for us and how helpful they’re willing to be. That’s tremendously reassuring, and it reminds us just how valuable friends can be.
On that sunny Tuesday, I shared my concerns with my lunch companion who told me to wait in my vehicle if I arrived before he did, so that he could ensure that I made it into the restaurant safely. I also messaged the owner of the restaurant with whom I have been friends for a long time, and I asked him if he could sweep away the debris in front of the restaurant. I didn’t want to burden anyone, but I also didn’t want to miss a lunch that I had been looking forward to, especially on a nice February day. Both of my friends stepped up, and I was able to enjoy a lunch without anxiety. That wouldn’t have been possible, if I hadn’t been honest and had the courage to ask for the help that I needed.
The next time you need help, don’t hesitate to ask for it, especially from your friends. You might be surprised how much people care for you, and after a while, you won’t be surprised at all. You will just be grateful, and being grateful is a good way to live.
While an admirer of Tiger Woods’ golfing prowess, I was never a fan of the man. I obviously didn’t know him, so my judgment was based on the standoffish way that I thought he interacted with fans and fellow competitors. Additionally, I felt that the media fawned over him while ignoring other golfers. Subconsciously, I was probably jealous that everything he touched seemed to turn into gold.
Those opinions were challenged when my wife and I recently watched the HBO documentary “Tiger,” which examines the life and career of one of the all-time best PGA golfers. The documentary told the story of a relentless competitor who meticulously prepared himself for a legendary career, while living a flawed double life which cost him his marriage and put him through a personal nightmare.
I remember when Tiger crashed his vehicle on the night of Thanksgiving 2009, and the public learned of his double life. In the media frenzy that followed, his rampant adultery became headline news for weeks, and was fodder of many comedians and talk-show hosts. We couldn’t get enough of the downfall of a champion who many of us praised and supported on his way up. The media knew this, and they fed our appetite.
I cringed while watching the documentary examine the public’s obsession with Tiger’s comeuppance, because I was part of it. I smugly consumed the media surrounding the story, enjoying seeing someone who appeared super-human suddenly become human.
Tiger’s personal life should be of little interest to me or any other casual sports fan, and if he experiences a personal crisis, I surely shouldn’t delight in watching his struggle, but I did, and I wasn’t alone.
Unless you are a saint, you have probably enjoyed watching someone stumble and fall. Maybe a casual acquaintance who once made more money than you has fallen on hard times or the popular kid in high school now seems to be professionally and personally adrift. Perhaps someone from a family who seems squeaky clean runs into legal trouble or the kid who plays in front of your kid has a bad game.
Likewise, unless you haven’t accomplished anything, it’s likely that someone is jealous of you and secretly snickered when you experienced difficult times. It’s a phenomenon so common that it seems like human nature, but why?
I hit the internet to learn a little bit more about this phenomenon, and learned that there is actually a term for it, schadenfreude, and that it is indeed very common. (Why We Enjoy Seeing Other People Fail)
To summarize my brief research: unless we are completely comfortable with who and where we are in life, the success of others can make us feel inferior. When we feel inferior, watching successful people struggle can temporarily assuage our fragile egos, but that’s a terrible way to make ourselves feel better. What’s more, the instant remedy that schadenfreude offers is dependent on the failures of others, instead of our own successes and optimism.
It’s much better to have compassion for others, even when we might be jealous of their success. Like Tiger, most successful people have worked hard and sacrificed for their achievements. Rather than resenting their success, we should be celebrating, admiring it and even trying to emulate it.
Toward the end of 2020, I saw and heard many people eager to leave 2020 behind, and given the ugliness and frustration that happened last year, it’s easy to understand why. What wasn’t easy to understand though was the fantasy that we would awake on January 1, and everything would be OK. Things are only OK when we decide that they’re OK.
We lose control of our destinies when we tie hope and happiness to turning the calendar page, the election of our preferred candidate or something else over which we have no control.
To control our destinies, we must make ourselves happy and hopeful, and that requires constant attention and effort. To do that, these are the things I remind myself daily.
You are not responsible for, and in most cases, not affected by, the world’s problems. I know that can sound ignorant and naïve, but I see a lot of people walking around thinking that the world is ending. Yes, we have seen better days, but we have also seen darker days. We can’t be happy if we internalize problems that are beyond our control or those that don’t directly affect us. To determine if you’re unintentionally doing this, consider what is bothering you and if you can do anything about it. If you can’t do anything about the problem, move on.
Leave negativity behind. This includes negative influences, thoughts and even people. You can’t live a long and healthy life while consuming a toxic diet. When you’re feeling negative, look at what is happening around you. Is your social media jammed with negative news and snarky comments? If that’s the case, take a break or prune the negative content from your feeds. Are there people around you who spend most of their time and energy spreading negative ideas? If you can’t redirect them, move away from them.
Exude positivity. Positivity, like negativity, often ricochets and comes right back at you even faster. It’s a lot more pleasant to be hit with a smile and kind words than with a scowl and bitter complaining. Positive people stand out. Greet those around with a smile and encouraging words. When someone casually and instinctually asks you how you’re doing, use that opportunity to exude positivity. Instead of a blah response like “fine” or “good,” respond with something memorable, like “awesome,” “incredible,” or “blessed,” and say it with energy and a smile. No one is really expecting an honest response, so don’t feel guilty if you overstate your mood. You’re looking for that positive ricochet, not a medal for honesty.
Focus your thoughts on your blessings, not on your problems. I just spent the last three days trapped in my house, because the world outside is covered in a wintery mess that would likely drop me in my tracks if I dared to take a step outside. I was frustrated that I couldn’t go to the gym or anywhere else, but rather than focusing on that, I thought about all that I could enjoy and accomplish within my four walls, and I reminded myself that the situation was temporary. That made being shut in a lot easier to accept.
Lastly, control what you can control, and accept that you can’t control everything. You can’t control the weather, the economy or the politics of the world, but you can always control your effort and your attitude, and in most cases, that’s enough.
As you know by now, January 1 wasn’t much different than December 31. In fact, the first couple of weeks of 2021 looked a lot like the most challenging weeks of 2020. Shrug that off, and remind yourself that you survived the adversity that last year presented, so you have a history of success when facing trying times. If you do that and take a proactive approach to your happiness and hopefulness, 2021 can be your best year yet.
Like many of you, I occasionally struggle to remain positive, and when that happens, it’s usually because I’m focusing on the wrong things. I’m looking down when I should be looking up or I’m looking for affirmation to feed the negative thoughts in my head.
That was the case in 1994, on a steamy summer morning in Washington, DC. I was walking to the Metro station to catch a train to my job downtown, and though we lived on Capitol Hill that summer, the novelty of living in such a fascinating place had worn off weeks earlier.
A couple of blocks into our six-block walk, my wife suddenly said, “I just love mornings in the city. Everyone seems so happy and eager to get to work.” That stopped me in my tracks, because I saw exactly the opposite. My mind was fixed on the dead rats I saw in the gutter and the stressed, absent looks I saw in the faces of strangers who seemed to be going in all different directions, everyone rushing to keep up with their individual agendas.
“What the <heck> are you looking at?” I asked in exasperation. We both saw the same things, but Lynda was able to filter out the negative while I was fixated on it.
I thought of that scene this week, as I looked back at the past year. While, it’s tempting to look at 2020 and focus on the negatives, like I did back in DC 26 years ago, it’s much healthier and more productive to look away from the dead rats in the gutter and look for the smiling faces in the crowd.
When we let negative circumstances fill our heads, they crowd out optimism, hope and gratitude. When optimism, hope and gratitude are pushed aside, we lose our perspective. When we lose our perspective, we let outside forces determine our happiness.
Obviously, it has been unusually difficult to maintain proper perspective in 2020, as media, both traditional and social, has repeatedly led us to believe that pandemics and politicians control our fates. They don’t. While we can’t escape the influence of both in our lives, we control much more of our destiny when we control our perspectives.
Lynda’s observation was a wake-up call for me that day in DC. I had lost my perspective. My trips to and from the office that summer had become merely something that I had to endure, like much of 2020 has been, when they should have been stimulating. Rather than looking up at the US Capitol and Supreme Court building, and appreciating where I was in the world, I was counting dead rats in the gutter. Instead of looking for positives in the people I encountered, I was looking for ways to discount them.
It’s not that the rats and loneliness of a city crowd weren’t there, but they weren’t alone. I just needed to look up and have the proper perspective.
If we’re looking for reasons to be hopeless and frustrated, we can find them much more easily these days; however, with so much negativity around, like flowers in a feedlot, positives should be easier to distinguish too. We just need to train our eyes to use the 2020 vision that this unique year has given us.