Posts Tagged motivation

Are You Playing with a Chip on Your Shoulder?

Like many of you, I have been watching a lot of football lately. A large part of the intrigue of football and other sports are the stories surrounding the athletes and the game. We like to know what they have overcome to become successful and to hear about the good things they do away from the sport.

Among the most popular narratives in sports is “he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder.” The proverbial chip on the shoulder is routinely celebrated in sports culture as a powerful source of motivation. He didn’t get recruited by bigger schools. People doubted his abilities. He wasn’t highly ranked coming out of high school or college. Many of these stories are remarkably similar, and they all end with the successful athlete thumbing his nose at the doubters. These stories are appealing, because every one of us has been wronged or doubted at one time or an other, and almost every one of us has at least quietly longed for justice in the form of revenge. Revenge is easy to understand, and its use as motivation is rarely questioned.

I didn’t question it until I heard Zig Ziglar talk about it. Zig, as only Zig could do, said, “If a person has a chip on his shoulder, there’s likely to be a block of wood on top of his neck.” His point was that the chip on your shoulder is an unnecessary and possibly counter-productive vehicle of negativity.

While the negativity associated with carrying a chip on your shoulder might be productive in sports, where controlled anger can be an asset in the heat of competition or in training, it’s rarely helpful for the rest of us. I believe that chip-on-the-shoulder motivation is suspect for three reasons:

It gives others control that we should reserve for ourselves. Strong, successful people typically want to be self-directed and controlled by their own thoughts and actions. Most chips on most shoulders were put there by someone else’s opinion or action against us. If we rely on them for motivation, we’re relying on negative memories placed in our minds by those who doubted us or mistreated us in some way. Why give those people that much power over us?

Negative memories pollute our thinking. Every time we use that chip, we introduce doubt into our minds. We might say and believe that our critic’s doubt was misguided, but if we’re carrying around that chip on our shoulder and dwelling on it, there must be at least a small part of us that believes it. Quit giving credence to doubt.

Positive thinking can take us to higher levels. If the chip on your shoulder is your primary motivator, what happens when it’s gone? When the revenge you sought has been exacted, you might feel momentary satisfaction, but if you want to reach higher, you are going to need to find new motivation. If you have used positive thinking as motivation, and perfected it as you pursued success, you can build upon it to reach the next level.

I understand the value of chip-on-your-shoulder motivation in the heat of battle, but away from that, I think it’s much better to build our self-worth through positive thinking, rather than through fantasizing about waving a middle finger at our doubters.


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Real Olympic Magic


To find the magic around us, we often have to challenge our preconceptions and look below the surface. The Olympics and a conversation I had about them reminded me of that recently.

“Table tennis? You’re really watching table tennis?” I asked my son last weekend when I found him with remote in hand, glued to the screen of the TV. “Why would you watch that?” In my cynical eyes, I saw a simple game that you might play in your grandparents’ basement, not a serious sport worthy of the Olympics.

“Because it’s a teenage kid who has worked his tail off to compete at the highest level,” he told me. “I can identify with it.” Yep, another humbling moment for Dad. Just when I think I’m starting to figure things out, I’m reminded that I have a lot to learn.

The Olympics is not about spectator entertainment, it’s about the passion and dedication of the athletes who are competing. It’s about their four-year journey and the sacrifices they make. It’s about nurturing a dream while toiling in relative obscurity. It’s about the power of the human spirit.

For the most part, Olympic athletes are not household names. Even those who succeed enjoy a relatively short time in the limelight. Very few make even an acceptable income from their efforts. In fact, they often delay their career and family goals while they pursue their dreams. Many aspiring Olympic athletes, despite their dedication and sacrifice, won’t even qualify for the competition, forcing them to decide if they can spend another four years in preparation. We don’t see any of that when we scoff at a game of table tennis.

We don’t see the ten years that Kanak Jha, the 16-year-old table tennis phenom, spent in preparation for the Olympic stage. Last year, while most of his contemporaries were headed to high school, Jha traveled from his California home to Sweden to train with the world’s best table tennis players, splitting time between training and taking online high school classes. He sacrificed a normal high school experience to pursue his dreams.

While I learned that, yes, it is possible to make a nice living playing table tennis, even most Olympic-level table tennis players won’t get there. Like many athletes, that doesn’t keep them from trying.

There is a 20-year-old woman in my neighborhood who has been religiously training to be an Olympic weight-lifter for the past few years. Like Jha, she splits her time between academics and training, making sacrifices that few are aware of and even fewer are capable of. Again, it’s not money or fame that drives her. She is driven by a desire to be the very best at what she loves to do.

Imagine if we could apply passion like that to our professional lives – if we could sacrifice comfort and convenience for multiple years in a quest to be the very best at what we do.

I’m reminded of the 10,000 hour rule which I first encountered when reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. The theory of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of “dedicated practice” to become world class at something, and it’s applicable to many areas. For example, the average professional works 50 40-hour weeks or 2000 hours per year. At this pace, it takes them five years to become world-class at their profession. Of course, they can shorten this by working more hours, like a 50 hour-per-week pace for 51 weeks. In that case, they can achieve world-class status in one less year. Coincidentally, it’s four years between Olympics.

While might not ever be Olympic athletes, we can certainly learn something from their dedication and perseverance, and through that, an appreciation for what they do – even table tennis.

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Beating the Elusiveness of Motivation


A stranger at the gym approached me a couple of months ago, and asked a very simple question: how do I stay motivated? Al shared with me that he is 73, and had recently suffered a mild heart attack. His doctor said that, if he wanted to be around much longer, he needed to exercise. In his few gym visits, I was one of the constants, so he sought me out.

I was flattered, but also stunned that he was struggling with motivation, after an experience like a heart attack and hearing advice like that from his doctor. If I were in his shoes, and my life depended on it, they would have to lock me out of the gym, yet he was struggling with motivation. That’s how elusive motivation can be for some people; even the prospect of death can fail to motivate.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Motivation is actually easy to find by asking three questions:

  1. What do I want?
  2. What am I willing to do to get what I want?
  3. How can I habitualize doing what I need to do to get what I want?

What do you want? A want is something that you don’t currently have, and it can take many forms – both material and otherwise. When I was younger, the desire to add muscle and to bench press more than my friends were the wants that brought me to the gym. Now, my vanity has taken a backseat to practicality, and my motivation to exercise regularly has become driven by my want to be as physically active as possible.

I actually have an unfair advantage here. Because God blessed me with a fragile physical condition, I’m more keenly aware of my body than most, feeling the benefits of frequent exercise AND the repercussions of not exercising more profoundly than most. I know that my legs will be stronger and more flexible, if I exercise at least three times per week. I will also have more energy, and as I approach age 45, energy is at a premium.

I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

What are you willing to do to get what you want? For most, this is the more difficult question to answer, because it requires effort/movement. Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

When we are at rest, we tend to stay at rest, i.e. in our comfort zone. Motivation is the force that moves us toward our goals, and without it, we don’t progress. If I stay at rest, my body will deteriorate much more quickly than an average person, and ultimately, life’s simple tasks will be much more difficult than the most strenuous of workouts. Because, I’ve done both, I know that it’s much more pleasant to spend five to six hours per week in the gym, pushing my body past its limits than it is to struggle to the breakfast table in the morning. I’ll choose exercise over that any day.

I am willing to spend an hour at least four days per week in strenuous exercise, because I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

How will you habitualize doing what you need to do to get what you want? Though the word habit often has a negative connotation, habits can be equally positive. Habits are behaviors that become assumed recurrences through repetition, and they are very powerful. Just like smoking is a bad habit that is hard to stop, exercise, eating well and reading are good habits that can be hard to stop too.

I tell people that I think of going to the gym like I think about brushing my teeth; it’s just something that I need to do, and I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. That’s how powerful a positive habit can be. Like a smoker will light a cigarette without even thinking, I find myself in the gym without even thinking. A habit like that requires the kind of strict consistency and discipline I have practiced over the years, because it can be undone in a fraction of the time it took to develop it.

I protect my exercise habit by spending an hour at least four days per week in strenuous exercise, because I want that strength, flexibility and energy.

Several weeks passed before I saw Al in the gym again, and I had grown concerned that he had given up. As he saw me approach, a smile spread wide across his face, and he took a break from pedaling his stationary bike to tell me a story.

“I want to thank you for motivating me that day,” he began. “You want to know what really stood out?” he asked rhetorically. “You said, I want to live. I want to live, and that’s why I’m here.”

I honestly don’t remember being that profound, but I was happy with the outcome. Al and I are going to keep each other alive and active.


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New Year’s Resolution? Uh, Try Again!

Did you already blow your New Year’s resolution? Didn’t even bother to make one this year? You’re not alone, but it’s not too late.

According to a study by the University of Scranton, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2014:

  • 25% of people who make New Year’s resolutions maintain them less than one week
  • another 4% make it just one more week
  • by the end of the first month, 36% have given up
  • at six months, just 46% are still adhering to the promises they made to themselves at the beginning of the year
  • only 8 percent remain committed to their resolutions for the entire year.

Fewer than half of us even try.

If you have beaten the odds, and your resolution remains intact, congratulations! Don’t quit. If you haven’t made a resolution or it hasn’t worked out for you, hope is not lost, if you don’t let failure intimidate you into a resolution-free year.

While the beginning of the year is a good time to start a self-improvement mission, it’s not the only time, and just because you dropped the ball early, the game can continue, if you pick it back up. 300-plus days is too long to wait to try again.

First, we need to acknowledge that failure isn’t exclusive to us. The statistics above bear that out. When we try something that is new to us, like dieting or budgeting our money, we’re stepping away from the comfort of familiarity, we’re pushing our boundaries and we’re exposing ourselves to failure. These are good things, because they help us grow and enhance our experiences.

In strength-training parlance, this is called the last set (* explanation below), and I’ve been teaching my son about it. When you have pushed yourself hard in previous sets, it’s tempting to take it easy on the last set, which is exactly the wrong thing to do, because the last set is when the most development happens. The last set should have a success rate of less than 50%. This is when you add more weight than you know you can lift, and though you’ve never done it before, you convince yourself that you can lift it.

Patrick gets mad when he doesn’t get all the reps in his last set, but I assure him that he accomplished more by trying and failing than he would have by lifting a comfortable weight. Besides, he can try again during the next workout. When he does get all of the reps, the sense of accomplishment motivates future workouts. He experiences growth and success when he exposes himself to failure.

Second, we need to accept that failure isn’t synonymous with defeat. Famous inventor Thomas Edison was fond of saying, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” If you didn’t exercise three times per week, like you said you would at the beginning of the year, don’t give up. Just figure out why you didn’t exercise as consistently as you would like. Do you need to do a better job of scheduling your time? Do you need to go to bed earlier? Do you need to work on your motivation? Repeat the cycle of planning, trying, evaluating and trying again, until you are successful.

Lastly, find some way of optimizing accountability. Many of us find it much easier to make excuses to ourselves than to make them to others. I’m guilty of this one, so I tell my wife what I have resolved to do, and you better believe that she holds me accountable. Not only will she quiz me about my progress toward my goals, she has trained our kids to do it too. I often write, even when I don’t feel like it, because I know that someone is going to ask me about it during dinner that night, and it’s a lot more pleasant to talk about progress than it is to make excuses.

If you are more comfortable keeping your resolutions private, it’s still important to optimize accountability. Writing down your goals and tracking your progress in writing is a very good way to do this, and my good friend Jeff Beals has some excellent advice to help with this, in his recent column, This Is Why You Don’t Accomplish All Your Goals.

New Year’s resolutions have helped many achieve goals that were previously out of their reach and to achieve them more quickly than they otherwise would have. The self-improvement opportunity that a resolution provides is much too powerful to limit to an annual event or to abandon because of an early mistake. Make this year as good as it can possibly be by resolving to do something that you know you need to do.

* Most strength-training sessions consist of sets of repetitions of a particular exercise, with short rests between. As an example, an athlete might do two sets of ten repetitions of a leg press, i.e. he does ten leg presses followed by a break, followed by ten more leg presses.


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Squashing Envy

Dayton University’s basketball coach, Archie Miller, is nearly ten years younger than I am. Despite his relative youth, and in just his third year as head coach, Miller took his team to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Quick, high-level success like that earns awe, respect, and often, envy.

I felt all of those emotions in about thirty seconds the other night, as I watched the Dayton Flyers defeat the Stanford Cardinal in the Sweet Sixteen. The awe came from Miller’s team’s performance. The respect came from the classy way he conducts himself. And the envy? That came from a moment of personal weakness.

Envy is respect’s evil, ugly twin brother. We’re naturally envious of people who have achieved what we wish we could. Ironically, envy causes us to feel bitter toward the source of our envy, when we should actually feel respect.

When we’re envious, we often want to discount another’s success, sometimes rallying against the very success we wish for ourselves. It’s a foolish effort to make ourselves feel better, and it’s made worse when we act on it.

Sadly, I saw this happen twice at high school athletic events in just the past two months. At the Nebraska State Wrestling Tournament, the crowd lustily booed when wrestlers from Omaha Skutt Catholic High School won or were even merely announced. Skutt was on its way to another team state title – they have won almost all of the last 15 state championships in their class – and it was evident that many in the crowd were weary of seeing them win, though they eagerly would have traded places with the champions.

The same thing happened the next week at the Nebraska State Swimming Championship, where Omaha Creighton Prep High School was subjected to the same boorish behavior. In both cases, young scholar-athletes were achieving their dreams, and reaping the rewards of sacrifice and countless hours of intense training. When their success should have been applauded, they were hearing boos.

“Envy is ignorance.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Booing and other envious acts broadcast our insecurities to the world. When we act out of envy, we’re showing that we’re not living up to our ideals or that our ideals are unrealistic, given our limitations. We’re also showing that we’re not mature enough to take corrective action within ourselves.

Corrective action should start with honest self-evaluation. The inferiority we feel when we come up short in comparison to others causes mental anguish, but anguish is often misplaced, if the subject of our envy has elite talents that are beyond our reach. Most who booed these high school athletes couldn’t compete at their level. It’s like me booing my friend Jeff during one of his procedures, because he’s a better interventional radiologist than I am. (I barely passed freshman biology in college.)

Be honest with yourself. Is the subject of your envy uniquely talented? If so, be happy for her and admire what God has created. Besides, you probably have some special talents too. It’s hard to be envious and appreciative at the same time, and one of those emotions sure makes you feel better than the other.

Archie Miller is an impressive coach who has managed to capitalize on his talents through hard work and dedication. Though I’m not perfect, I’m comfortable that I too am capitalizing on my blessings, and that helps me squash envy. I hope the same for you.


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Go, and be thankful

“I really don’t want to be here,” a guy told me recently during one of my workouts. I thought about him today, on my sixth consecutive day away from the gym.

Unlike yesterday, I brought my gym bag to work with me today, hopeful that the leg I injured over the weekend had healed to the point where a trip to the gym would help more than it hindered. Instead, common sense prevailed – it’s been doing that more as I age – and I decided to rest the leg another day, so I don’t prolong my recovery.

Ironically, I injured my leg by falling on my way into church on Saturday night. That one stung, but not nearly as bad as the second fall. There is almost always a second – and sometimes even third – fall, as my already weak legs wobble a little more. Fear of the third fall has me walking like a clumsy solider through a minefield, and it’s kept me out of the gym and church.

The gym and church are two places we often grudgingly go or, worse yet, make excuses not to go. I know – I’ve been there. Now, I want to go and can’t. God loves irony.

Most of us are going to experience that irony at one time or another. We’ll long to reconnect with someone we chased out of our life years ago. We’ll wish to recapture moments that passed us as we distracted ourselves with trivial concerns. We’ll ache for abilities and opportunities that age has taken from us.

Devon Walker knows this.

Former Tulane football player Devon Walker’s life suddenly changed in the second game of the 2012 season. An undersized walk-on, he had worked his way into a starting position on the team, and was even a team captain. 2012 was his senior season, and he was eager to take his game to the next level. Unfortunately, he suffered a career-ending spinal cord injury in that game, and has been paralyzed from the neck down since.

Walker was recently awarded the Disney Spirit Award, given to college football’s most inspirational figure. He was a very worthy recipient, because he hasn’t let his circumstances get him down. After a year in grueling rehab, he resumed classes in pursuit of a degree in cell and molecular biology, with designs on attending medical school. Pursuing such a demanding academic program while competing on an athletic team – as a walk-on no less – is impressive enough. That he continues undeterred after such a devastating injury is simply amazing.

While some of his able-bodied classmates grudgingly drag themselves out of bed to attend class, wishing they were elsewhere, Devon struggles through his morning routine for different reasons. Because of his near total paralysis, it takes him more than two hours just to get out of bed and dressed. He needs help to do almost anything physical, even eating and brushing his teeth, yet he attends class. As much as possible, he attends all the practices and activities of the football team too.

I don’t know Devon Walker, but I know that he is human, which means that he is sometimes prone to weakness, like all of us. It’s safe to say that – before his injury – he probably approached some of the more difficult practices in Louisiana’s heat with dread, and he was probably tempted to skip class. Now, ironically, with multiple excuses to do both, he doesn’t.

My leg is healing, and I’ll be back in the gym and in a pew soon. This brief time-out only strengthened my resolve. Is there anything in your life that you complain about, but would truly miss if it were taken from you?


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“Stage” your New Year’s Resolution Now!

Drag racing is an incredible sensory sport. You not only see the race, you feel it, hear it, taste it and smell it. This is especially true when the most powerful cars – those burning nitromethane rather than gasoline – prepare for their runs.

Drag racers prepare for their quarter-mile runs by staging burn-outs at the starting line. Revving their engines and spinning their tires, they put on a spectacular show for their fans, but the smoke, noise and vibration have a practical purpose too. It gives the crews a last chance to make sure that everything is connected and responding properly, and just as importantly, that the tires have enough traction – stick – to transform torque into speed. If a dragster attempted his run with cold tires that hadn’t been heated by spinning at the starting line, his tires would slip when he jammed on the accelerator, and his opponent would leave him in the dust.

A similar thing often happens with New Year’s resolutions. We come to the starting line with cold tires, jam on the accelerator, and our best intentions get us nowhere. We create a lot of noise and smoke, but we don’t reach our goals, because we didn’t properly prepare ourselves.

If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Research shows that, though nearly half of us set New Year’s resolutions, only 8-12% succeed.

Reasons for failure are many. Some people have yet to develop the discipline to stick to a goal. Yet others set unrealistic goals, while still others set proper goals, but fail to plan properly for their execution.

I believe that many fail, because they get discouraged when they sense failure and recognize that as the beginning of the end of yet another resolution. After all, most of us fail most of the time when attempting a resolution. If this happens to us every year, we have to do something different to give ourselves a better chance of success.

This year, consider starting your New Year’s resolution in the last month or so of the year. Think of it as heating your tires before officially arriving at the starting line. When you wake up on New Year’s Day, you’ll be more prepared than ever to finally achieve a New Year’s resolution.

As an example, consider what is likely the most common resolution set at the beginning of the year, losing weight. Instead of waiting, like most people do until they’re bloated from overeating during the holidays, start your diet on Thanksgiving Day. Sure, dieting during the holidays isn’t easy, but if you are to achieve your goal by December 31 of the next year, you are going to have to learn to moderate intake during that time anyway. Imagine the confidence you’ll gain if you prove to yourself that you can diet during the holidays. January and February will fly by, and when the holidays roll around at the end of the next year, you will know how to avoid temptations.

Of course, many of us will fail early during the resolution period. Get that out of the way in the last few weeks of the year. Think of it like the drag racer staging before he inches up to the starting line. It’s far better to discover a lose cable in the moments before the race than after the green flag drops.

My resolution for 2014 is to write more consistently, at least one page per day. It’s not all that hard when I have a nice quiet day in the office and write consistently over the weekend. Unfortunately, I rarely have a nice quiet day in the office, and writing rarely wiggles into my weekend. To get seven pages per week, I have to track my pace and plan accordingly.

Because I want to start 2014 on pace and with a plan, I started working on the resolution during the last two weeks of October. I created a spreadsheet with an inventory of the writing projects I have underway. On each line is also the page count and date of the last time I spent time working on the project. The spreadsheet keeps an automatic tally of my output each time I update the day’s work.

I am not on the page-per-day pace yet, but I’m a lot closer than I was a few weeks ago, and I’m completing projects more quickly, because I’m organized and my pace is improving. When January 1 rolls around, I will have positioned myself for success. Will you?


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