Posts Tagged gratitude

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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Use Perspective to Gain Appreciation

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.

  1. Look past their disadvantages.
  2. Don’t assume that they’re helpless and want your pity.
  3. 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.

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What Can an Inventory of Blessings Do for You?

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.

Suggested Assignment

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.

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When It’s Over, Coping Strategies for a Senior Parent

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My son walked off his high school’s home football field for the last time on Friday. Like 15 of the 16 playoff teams, his team ended their season in defeat. The fact that they were among the final four was little consolation that night, as the seniors shed their Gretna green for the last time.

Years ago, I’d bring him to the high school games at that stadium. He’d sit in the middle school section while my wife, daughter and I sat on the other side of the press box. Like clockwork, he’d show up at our seats at halftime, looking for concession stand money. After the game, he and I would talk about what we saw and about how neat it was going to be to play on that field with his friends in a few years. Those years went quickly.

He started in the first varsity game of his sophomore year and every game since. During the final games of his sophomore and junior seasons, I looked over at the senior parents and tried to imagine what they were feeling. In both cases, we suffered losses in the state quarter-final playoff games. There was no next game or even next year for them. It was over. Selfishly, I was thankful that there was another year for us.

For the past two weeks, I watched seniors on our opponents’ teams play their last down of high school football. For most, it will be the last down ever as a football player. For them, it’s over. If we had lost either game, it would have been over for us too.

When it’s over, it’s hard not to look back with regret, but regret doesn’t get us anywhere. When it’s over, it’s hard not to wish that it wasn’t over, but it’s pointless to wish away an inevitable ending. The end is going to come in almost everything.

These are realities that I will face several times in the next few months, as my oldest child moves through his senior year of high school, and then again in two years, when my youngest does the same.

To help me cope, this is the strategy I’m trying to use:

  1. It’s not about me. I’m a nostalgic guy, and because of that, my perspective is often skewed. Nostalgic people tend to get distracted by their own thoughts, and I’m no different. While my nostalgia is irrepressible, it’s also tied to my child’s experience. As much as possible, I have to let my child’s emotions guide my approach, and remind myself that I’m just support.
  2. Gratitude. A tremendously positive experience is the entire reason that there is sadness when it’s over. If we didn’t enjoy the ride so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much when it grinds to a stop. Instead of the sadness of an ending, I try to remember the positives and be thankful. Pictures, memories and spending time with other parents help with this. Don’t let the screeching of the brakes ruin the thrill of riding a rollercoaster.
  3. The end is part of a transition process. The end is also the start of something new. College doesn’t start until high school ends. A career doesn’t start until college ends. You can’t progress to the next stage until you draw the curtain on the previous stage.

I was mostly successful with these strategies on Friday night, but it wasn’t easy. I had to consciously steer my thoughts away from sadness and regret, and break from my typical post-game routine.

Normally, I rush to the parking lot as soon as the game ends. Not this time. As the final seconds ticked off the clock and the seniors consoled each other under the bright lights, I stood up from the seat I had occupied for three seasons and took a few minutes to burn a picture in my memory. I should have done it earlier, but I was finally able to fully appreciate the moment, right before it was over.

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Looking Up from a Wheelchair

He walked right up to me, shook my hand and welcomed me to the stadium. I was on a recruiting visit with my son at a large nationally ranked football program, and though we had never met him before, the record-setting starting quarterback was extremely friendly and generous with his pre-game time. A couple of his coaches and teammates also stopped by or waved my direction.

I’m sufficiently self-aware to recognize that my wheelchair, rather than my good looks, probably attracted the extra attention. I’m certain that I wasn’t mistaken as a recruit.

There was a time that I was ashamed to use my wheelchair – I can walk, after all – but using the chair has more than the obvious benefits, like moving comfortably and quickly to places that would otherwise be impossible. From that chair, I see incredible kindness in strangers – kindness that few people get to see, like that scene in the stadium.

People rush to open doors, to greet me and to ask if they can help in any way. Strangers have bought me drinks and insisted that I cut in line.

Despite the discord that captures headlines, using a wheelchair has shown me that most people genuinely care about others. Last month, I wrote about an awkward exchange with a stranger in a Las Vegas elevator, but that happens far less than the other side of the spectrum. More often, people go out of their way to be friendly and welcoming to me, and I truly appreciate that.

I’m still not completely comfortable in the chair, and only use it for longer distances or challenging terrain. On short walks, like into the gym or church, I walk unassisted. If it’s unfamiliar terrain, I use my “stick.” (I still can’t bring myself to call it a cane, and it really is a shooting stick that doubles as a walking stick.)

Physically though, I’m much more comfortable off my feet. When I’m on my feet and moving, my eyes focus on the ground in front of me, as I scan for slick spots or impediments that might knock me over. Because my attention is elsewhere, I can appear aloof and unapproachable when I’m walking, making it hard for me to notice strangers as much more than potential impediments. Most strangers react instinctively to my body language and give me space. The chair changes all of that.

Psychologically, I’m getting more comfortable using the chair when I have to, because I’ve learned that people are far less bothered by the chair than I am.

Ironically, I was more anxious in the chair in front of friends and family than in front of strangers. Walking around with a limp for nearly my entire life has numbed me to the stares of strangers. It was harder for me to succumb to the chair in the presence of people who have known me for years. It’s not like they didn’t know that I had a handicap, but it was important to me to show that I wasn’t that abnormal, especially to people who I have walked beside for years.. Hell, I hunted, skied, golfed and ran beside some of these people before the wear and tear of awkward movement made that impossible. I worried that somehow my relationships would change with the new limitations. Fortunately, using the chair has only improved my relationships.

For the last few years, I would skip games and other outings, because the walking they required made me uncomfortable during them and miserable afterward. I don’t have that problem in the chair, and my friends and family realize that and they are thankful that I was able to set my ego aside and ride. I have even relented and let some people push the chair. That was a big step for me, especially with my childhood friends with whom I used to compete for male dominance. None of have them have shown the discomfort I feared, and they all are eager to help.

Again, I’d much prefer a life without the occasional use of the chair, but that wasn’t the fate I was handed. Accepting that fate with a positive attitude has been rewarded with an enhanced feeling and appreciation of kindness that I otherwise wouldn’t have enjoyed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be in a wheelchair to enjoy and spread kindness, but you might have to consciously participate. Just slow down and take the time to be kind and appreciate kindness. In short order, you’ll find that kindness requires little investment and pays huge dividends.

 

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Driving Home Perspective

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I can make the trip from my office to my home in 17 minutes, if traffic and lights cooperate, and in 22 minutes, if they don’t. I’m embarrassed to admit how much anguish that five-minute gap has caused me.

When I leave my office, my mind is often dulled from a day of recruiting talent. Though I enjoy what I do, being an executive recruiter can be very frustrating. Because we deal with rejection and disappointment daily, recruiters must be extremely persistent and remain unshaken by failure. Almost as important, they need to be able to switch off negative emotions at the end of the day. That’s often a challenge.

When I get into my truck and head into traffic, I often take the frustrations of the day with me, and that causes me to lose perspective. When I should be unwinding from the day and looking forward to the blessings that await me at home, I dive right into frustration, which is insane, because so little of my commute is within my control.

I can’t control how many red lights will stop me or how many blue-hair-driven Buicks will slow my pace. In my saner moments, I rationalize that God controls Buicks and red lights, and he uses them to remind me who’s in charge and what’s really at stake – 300 seconds. It’s easy to see that when I’m not staring at taillights, but when I’m on the road, those five extra minutes seem so much more important than they really are.

I believe that unbalanced perspectives like this are common in many areas and that they cause us way more stress than they should. Maybe someone doesn’t return our phone call as quickly as we think they should, and we assume that they’re indifferent to our relationship. Perhaps a temporary illness slows us down or causes us to miss something important to us. It can seem like a rain cloud hovers over our proverbial parade, if we lose our perspective.

I recently saw a sign that said, “Did you really have a bad day or have 15 bad minutes that you allowed to ruin your day?” We have all had truly bad days, but fortunately, the truly bad days are few and far between. Most of the time, a bad day is the result of our reaction to a disappointment, and we made it a bad day because we carried that disappointment with us through the rest of the day when we should have left it in place.

I’m currently reading a book that I highly recommend to anyone who recognizes this misbalanced perspective in their own life. The title is “The Gift.” It’s written by Rhonda Byrne, and is a sequel to her popular book, “The Secret.” The theme of the book is that appreciation shields us from negativity. When we’re truly appreciative, we’re impervious to negativity.

If we take time to count our blessings, we don’t have time to tally our frustrations and disappointments. When we’re truly appreciative, even if we recognize our frustrations and disappointments, we’ll put them in their place – deep in the shadows of our blessings.

I try to do that now, when I feel those frustrations bubbling up on the road. Instead of focusing on other drivers who don’t drive to my expectations, I think about the blessings that await me at home. Instead of focusing on the minutes ticking by as I wait for a light to turn green, I am quietly thankful for the comfort of my transportation. Without it, I wouldn’t have the freedom to travel virtually anywhere I want, at any time and in any weather.

If I’m successful in being truly appreciative, before I know it, I’m home and happy, because I didn’t let those 17-22 minutes pollute my mood. That sure beats the alternative.

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