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.
Just outside my office is a golf course that provides amusement and distraction during my work day. When the windows are open, I can hear golfers smack the ball. Occasionally, I hear them use interesting combinations of four-letter words to convey their enthusiasm for their performance. I’ve even heard a window or two break.
Though few golfers impress me, I admire all of them, because they are doing what they should be doing – enjoying the opportunity to golf.
I used to be one of them. In fact, I was a varsity golfer on my high school team, mostly because there weren’t very many good high school golfers in my hometown. When I competed, it was best to start at the bottom of the results, if you wanted to find my score. For a while, I thought that I was the inspiration for the term “handicapped scoring.”
In an odd twist of fate, that forgettable golf career earned me a job coaching high school golf, when I graduated from college and became a teacher. Just a few years removed from stinking up the courses in Central Nebraska, I was leading high school golfers, most of them far better golfers than I ever was. Due to no fault of my own, those teams were largely successful, mostly because I was sufficiently self aware to get out of the way. That and the fact that I never drove the van into the ditch were my largest contributions to that success.
Though I was never very good at it, I enjoyed being around golf. When I played and coached, I had an occasional good shot or even a good round, but I almost always had a good time. I envisioned golf being a part of my life for many years to come. Like my grandfather, who didn’t start golfing until he retired and then was never very good, I saw myself golfing into my 80s. Unfortunately, I barely made it into my 30s.
I got busy with kids in my late 20s and early 30s, and didn’t golf regularly. Some years, I didn’t golf at all. I probably could have and should have, but it felt selfish to leave my wife at home with chaos. When I did make it back to the golf course, my body no longer bent and moved like it used to. I backed off and resolved to work on improving my weaknesses in the hope that I could still swing a club. A few months later, it was no better. In fact, it was even more difficult to make contact with the ball, let alone direct it in a safe direction, and the very motion of swinging hurt. I was done.
Like I do with pretty much everything out of my reach, I blocked golf out of my mind. I’ve learned that it’s pointless to dwell on things that are no longer an option. We’re all going to get there eventually. I just got there more quickly. I tell myself that a lot.
But sometimes I don’t listen. Lately, when I catch myself watching the golfers outside my office, those old golf fantasies cross my mind. One day, I even stood up from my chair and attempted a swing without a club. I wanted to see what that felt like, hoping that maybe I could find a way to get back out there. I took one swing that probably didn’t look much like a swing and nearly fell over, much like the last time I tried that on an actual golf course with an actual club. It wasn’t going to happen.
I share this story not to make you feel sorry for me – I don’t even feel sorry for myself – but to make you think about the things that you should be doing and aren’t. I see way too many people wasting opportunities far too often or making excuses that result in lost opportunities.
Perhaps you’re postponing travel, because everything isn’t perfect, when perfection really isn’t necessary. I’m proof that the opportunity you assumed would always be there sometimes isn’t there when you expect it to be. Can you live with the regret of missing it?
Maybe you’re frustrated that age has reduced your physical prowess, and because you aren’t what you once were, you quit trying. Don’t do that. Reduced physical prowess is better than no physical prowess.
If I could travel back in time to 1999, I would make the time to golf more. It probably wouldn’t affect my ability to play now, but I would be satisfied that I squeezed everything I could out of the game before it was taken from me. Do yourself a favor and try to live your life in such a way that you don’t have the same kind of regret.
I could stand to be more empathetic. I’ve suspected that for a while now, but it became more obvious this week, when snow kept me from the gym.
More often than not, Midwesterners do a good job of clearing sidewalks and parking lots after snow storms, but my gym is an exception. The owners and/or management who took control about a year ago seem to have adopted the Southern response to winter precipitation, i.e. leave it alone and let the sun take care of it. If they do happen to use a shovel, they clear the most meager of paths. They recently cleared a narrow path next to the building by the handicapped parking, leaving a ridge of snow between the parking spots and the cleared area. They might as well have saved the effort – there aren’t very many skilled high-jumpers or hurdlers where I park.
Detachment like that leaves me shaking my head and asking questions. Don’t they understand that gym patrons, particularly those who park where I do, need a cleared surface in order to enter the gym safely? If they spent a day in my shoes, they would realize how dangerous slippery surfaces can be. There’s the catch: they’ve never been in my shoes, and because of that, they likely lack the empathy that an experience like that would provide.
It’s hard to be as empathetic as we should be, because we rarely understand the full extent of most challenges. We look derisively at the mother using food stamps or the scowling teenager at the mall, because we’re so sure that we’re superior or could do better in their shoes. Yet, we don’t know their entire story. If we did, we would probably be embarrassed by our attitude. Many times, our judgment isn’t as sound as we believe it to be.
Before age and the wear and tear of my awkward gait took its toll on my body, I often scoffed at the numerous handicapped parking stalls at gyms. Are there really that many handicapped people in a gym, I thought to myself. If I could park in a regular spot and walk in, so too should almost anyone else. I learned the hard way just how wrong I was.
That’s not where the irony ends. My experiences with a physical handicap occasionally give me an unfounded sense of superiority, especially in areas of effort. If I could do it, why can’t they? In thinking like this, I discount all of my other advantages and likely discount the challenges of those I judge. There’s almost always an untold story.
I was at a high school basketball game a few years back, and the volunteer keeping the clock was struggling. It was a tight game where every play mattered, and this poor guy kept screwing up the time. He’d either stop the clock too soon or too late, and the bleachers were full of people eager to point out his mistakes. More than once, the game had to be stopped to allow for a scoreboard adjustment. I had a similar experience in the same role at a youth football game, so I could empathize with his situation. I silently wished that those sitting around me had such empathy, as I watched him get flustered.
None of us knew that he had brain cancer and would die after a three-year struggle. I’m not even sure if the cancer was affecting him at the time or if he had even been diagnosed. When I learned of the diagnosis though, I immediately thought back to that game and wondered how many boo-birds regretted their behavior that night.
A lack of empathy toward my sidewalk challenges at the gym made me look internally at my own shortcomings in that area. Don’t wait until something like this happens to you. Strive to be more empathetic. It can’t hurt.
Early next month, a young football player from Central Florida will have his hand measured at the NFL Combine. He won’t get to choose which hand is measured; he only has one hand to offer, and that might be his biggest strength.
If you haven’t followed Shaquem Griffin’s journey to this point, consider following him from the combine onward. It’s a story made for a feel-good movie. He was born with a defect to his left hand. Because they weren’t able to rehabilitate it and it caused him extreme pain as a young child, his parents opted to have the hand amputated. For most, that would end a football odyssey. Not Shaquem. He thrived without his hand.
His twin brother also possessed rare football talent, and both earned scholarships to the University of Central Florida. Some believe that Shaquem was offered a scholarship in order to sign his brother, and for a while, that looked like the case. Shaquill thrived almost immediately, while Shaquem redshirted his first year and saw only limited action for the next couple of years. Last year, because he didn’t redshirt and his eligibility was exhausted, Shaquill was drafted in the third round by the Seattle Seahawks, while Shaquem’s NFL dream seemed in doubt, mostly because of his missing hand.
Shaquem answered these doubts with an outstanding senior season, leading the team in quarterback sacks. He didn’t have a bad junior season either, leading the team in solo tackles, tackles for loss and quarterback sacks. Despite the on-field success, the missing hand caused skepticism about his NFL potential. Just getting invited to the combine was a huge success and undoubtedly, a huge relief for Shaquem.
When he arrives at the combine, evaluators will measure his arm length, height and weight, in addition to his hand size. He’ll also participate in a number of drills and athletic tests – all in an effort to provide data that NFL teams can use when deciding if and when to draft him. Once their seasons were over, most of the 336 invitees devote themselves to maximize their combine results and thereby, increase their draft value. Some even undergo procedures to improve their measurables, like their hand size.
As an executive recruiter who spends his day judging professional qualifications, I understand the importance of metrics in making decisions that affect an organization’s success. Like employers who make hiring mistakes, if teams draft the wrong player or pay too much for a player, the consequences can be dire; however, Shaquem Griffin shows how judging others isn’t fail-proof. The x-factor that metrics don’t reveal is what’s on the inside.
If NFL executives pass on Shaquem, I believe that they’ll miss an opportunity to have a unique player with unique strengths on their team. I believe that it’s possible that Shaquem’s missing hand is actually a strength. Yes, it can affect his ability to shed blocks and make tackles; however, I suspect that it has also made his drive and desire stronger.
Many people with handicaps have gone on to achieve great things, not despite their handicaps, but BECAUSE of their handicaps. There are a number of reasons for this. As examples:
- A person with a disability is often more imaginative and ingenuitive, because they must overcome and adapt when their disability prevents them from doing things the normal way.
- A person with a disability is often more emotionally durable, because they must persevere through abnormal levels of failure and frustration to achieve their goals.
- A person with a disability often has a high level of gratitude, because life has taught them to never take anything, including their health, for granted.
I realize that I am making a lot of assumptions about Shaquem, a guy that I’ve never met; however, I’ve lived with a physical handicap long enough to recognize someone who has turned a negative into a positive. I hope he gets his chance in the NFL and thrives there, but if that doesn’t happen, I believe that his experience will make him a success in whatever he does.
Many people wake up a day or two after New Year’s Day with a familiar but different type of hangover. They often experience the same hangover each year at the same time, but do nothing to prevent it. While headaches and upset stomachs are symptoms of alcohol-induced hangovers, the hangover I’m talking about is marked by regret and resolve, and it’s caused by misusing the previous year.
People suffering from this type of hangover call my office seeking a professional change, and they clog up my gym as they seek a physical change. Both happen much more frequently at the beginning of the year and all but disappear by summer. Why is that?
New Year – New Day
Despite the weather in most locales, January is a time of hope and optimism. Many have just spent at least a few moments in introspection through the holidays, and few are completely happy with the results of the past year. The new year represents an opportunity to erase past failures and to make positive changes. That’s what drives people to pick up the phone and call me.
My role as a recruiter, AKA headhunter, is to find my clients the talent they need in order to be successful. This puts me in touch with highly talented and successful people every day of the work week. Most tell me that they’re not interested in a professional change, but I believe that many of them are being dishonest. They might desire a change, but they aren’t ready to commit to one. Often, when are ready to commit to a change, weeks, months or years later, the opportunity I brought to them isn’t available.
Making a change is difficult. Try sitting in a different spot at church or in a classroom or meeting room. Most of us, myself included, don’t want to do it. We sit where we sit, and that is it. Moving from our traditional spot exposes us to uncertainty, and uncertainty is almost always uncomfortable. When we struggle with a discomfort as benign as switching seats, how are we going to do when facing a much more daunting discomfort, like switching jobs? Most of us are going to say that we’re not interested and continue on our not-so-merry way.
When we resist making changes that we think might benefit us, we might successfully avoid discomfort, but we can’t dodge regret. We might condition ourselves to live with regret, but it doesn’t go away without change. Most of us will wait until the discomfort of regret exceeds the discomfort of change before we will commit to change.
The people who call me in January seeking a professional change didn’t just wake up and realize that they needed to do something different in order to achieve their goals; they have likely been contemplating the call for months or maybe even years before they actually pick up the phone. The new year on the calendar simply amplified the discomfort of regret. We shouldn’t have to wait for a new year to create a better situation for ourselves.
Each day represents an opportunity to make positive changes, and there are many more new days than new years. Instead of setting a New Year’s resolution, consider setting a New Day’s Resolution. If you woke up this morning still suffering from the regret hangover, do something today to make tomorrow’s morning better. You won’t regret it.
When I was involved in the NASCAR business, we took an inventory at the end of every year. It was a tedious task, but it had to be done. We needed to match what we actually had against what we thought we had, primarily for tax purposes. That information was also helpful in planning.
If we had too much of a particular item, like a baseball hat, we put it on sale and noted to ourselves not to order so many the next time. If we were low on a popular item, seeing it alerted us to order more immediately and to monitor our supply more closely. Of course, our accounting software contained all of this information, but seeing and counting the product made it more real.
We should do the same thing with the blessings in our lives, particularly at the end of each year. Like I did with my retail business back in North Carolina, I have a general sense of my blessings, but they become more real when I think about and count them. They become even more real when I create a list.
Creating lists doesn’t come naturally to me. My wife, on the other hand, is the master of the to-do list, and will create a list containing tasks that she has already completed, just so she can get the satisfaction of crossing them off the list. It makes her incredibly efficient and productive, even if it does often leave me shaking my head.
I’m more of an “it’s in my head” guy. Ask me to list my blessings, and I’ll fire off the first four or five pretty easily. Writing them down helps me focus on blessings that maybe aren’t as obvious, like my network of mentors. I learned the power of this exercise by reading Rhonda Byrne’s book entitled, “The Magic.” It was a follow-up book to her best-seller, “The Secret.”
“The Secret” focuses on the law of attraction, while “The Magic” focuses on the power of gratitude. Both are great books that I highly recommend. In “The Magic,” Byrne asks readers to build lists of the things for which they are thankful. I often groan and dismiss exercises like this. I’m already a very thankful person, I tell myself. I don’t need to make a list to be conscious of my blessings. That’s probably more useful for people who struggle to be aware of their blessings.
I WAS WRONG!
Creating a list of blessings was difficult but rewarding work. As expected, the first four or five came easily. Those are blessings like family, health and freedom that come to the minds of most people most immediately. Once the easy ones are there, it becomes substantially more difficult. I’m embarrassed to say that I struggled to list ten blessings the first time I tried. It wasn’t that I didn’t have numerous more blessings; I just hadn’t thought of them as blessings. In other words, I wasn’t as consciously grateful as I needed to be, and the list helped me correct that.
In my NASCAR business, we always found items we didn’t know that we had when we took our year-end inventory. These often became assets that positively affected our bottom line, and we would have missed them had we not done an inventory.
The same thing happens with the blessings in our lives. Like the once-lost merchandise, hidden blessings should not remain hidden, and the best way to uncover them is to make that list.
If at all possible, stop what you are doing right now and create a list of at least ten things for which you are grateful. Then, challenge yourself to add one item each day for the rest of the year. You will be glad that you did.