Posts Tagged optimism

Where’s my name?

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All-state, all-conference, all-district, all-American . . . as sports seasons draw to a close, recognition lists start to appear. The recognition is great for those who receive it, but what about those whose names don’t appear on the lists?

That happened to my son last year. He had a great football season – better than his sophomore season when he received honorable mention, but his name rose no higher during his junior season. Naturally, we looked at the list of honorees, and just as naturally, we felt he belonged. It was frustrating and heart-breaking, but just like all of the other frustrating and heart-breaking experiences of the past couple of years, it taught us a lot.

Most of all, it taught us how to deal positively with disappointment, which is important, because disappointment is part of life. This is especially true if you challenge yourself with risks. The higher you reach, the more you expose yourself to a gut punch like disappointment.

For athletes:

First, you have no idea what is going on behind the scenes. Voters often have limited data when they make their selections, and they rely on what others have said about your performance. That can be your coach, an opposing coach or the media, and they all have biases, even though most try really hard to suppress those biases. Furthermore, inclusion on many of the lists is dependent on your team’s success. The better a team does, the more players are included in post-season honors, but even that has a limit. Voters are reluctant to include too many from a single team or even a single region, so if you are in the shadows of super-stars, it’s hard to shine. This is even more challenging for underclassmen, as seniority seems to figure in the calculations. Sometimes, those factors work in your favor, and sometimes, they work against you.

Second, it probably doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. My son feared that a lack of all-state recognition during his junior season would hurt his college recruiting in the following year. It didn’t. We can’t recall a single instance where it was even mentioned. Recruiters don’t rely on others to do their evaluations, and things turned out just fine for my son when the recruiters had a chance to do their own evaluation of him. Plus, not everyone pays attention to sports news. Everyone who appreciated your performance still appreciates your performance.

You are not alone. Hundreds of athletes felt slighted when they saw the lists, and many were justified in that feeling. Not every deserving athlete will be included. In fact, there are probably better athletes than you who were left off the list.

For the rest of us:

Throughout life, you are going to be evaluated and compared to others. Sometimes, you’re going to get that promotion, and other times, it’s going to go to the guy down the hall. Often, you can’t control that. The one thing you can control is your reaction.

Don’t let rejection get you down. Your peers and key decision-makers are watching your reaction. Be gracious, and then be silent in your resolve to prove that you belong. Now, when the iron is hot, is the time to make your mark.

Do an honest self-evaluation, once the pity and frustration subside. You might not be able to be objective immediately after disappointing news. When you can be objective, look for areas for personal growth. No matter where you are in life, there is always room for growth. Become a master at evaluating yourself. It’s never a good idea to leave evaluation to those who don’t know your potential.

Set goals for yourself. Write them down. Hold yourself accountable and celebrate your successes in reaching them. Goals affirm your progress, and unlike outside evaluations, you have complete control of them.

The mood in our house was markedly better this year when the football post-season awards were announced, but we know that last year’s disappointment won’t be the last. Next time, though, we’ll be better prepared to turn it into a positive. That we can control.

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Are You Really Going to Complain about That . . . to Me?

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The typical Facebook feed is a peculiar convergence of people, ideas and weirdness. Mine is no different. When I log on, it’s like I’ve taken a hallucinogenic that allows everyone from my mother’s third cousin to my closest childhood friend to flash pictures and words in front of me with no regard to their importance or my interest in them. If you pay attention, this random nature occasionally yields remarkable juxtapositions that make you back up and think a bit.

That happened the other day. One friend wrote a touching tribute to her husband who had unexpectedly died earlier in the year. In the next post, a different friend complained about her Starbucks order. Taken apart, these two posts are fairly unremarkable, but when paired together, a glaring spotlight shines on the trivial complaint.

The same thing happens in our daily lives. When someone asks us how we’re doing, and we launch into a litany of grievances, we might not be aware of how small and petty we sound, especially if the other party is dealing with something more significant. Imagine complaining about your mild headache to a friend who you didn’t know was on her way to a chemotherapy treatment.

Unfortunately, because complaining is so habitual, we often aren’t even aware that we are complaining. If we backed up and thought about what we are saying, we would probably be embarrassed, and that is what we should do before we complain – back up and think.

I’m trying to teach my children this concept: before you run up to me or anyone else and complain about something, think. First, do I even need to complain? And second, how will my complaint affect the other person and his opinion of me?

Most complaints are stopped in their tracks by the first question. Except in special circumstances, complaining simply isn’t necessary. Complaining is only helpful if it leads to problem-solving. If your doctor asks you where it hurts and how often it hurts, go ahead and complain. It will help him solve your problems. Too many times though, we complain to people who can’t help us and about problems with no solution.

Nebraska, where I live, gives its residents many opportunities to complain about the weather, which is the most pointless of all complaining. Until we figure out how to control the weather, whining about temperature extremes, snow, ice, hail and the like will never lead to problem-solving, so why complain? Unless you are going to move to a more agreeable climate, put on a smile and deal with it.

Complaining about the weather isn’t the only pointless complaint. How often do you hear people complaining about being tired or busy? Often the complaint is just an excuse for poor performance or inconsiderate behavior.

Lastly, complaints negatively impact the energy of human communication and make the complainer significantly less popular. I think of complaints and complainers like mosquitoes at a backyard party. No one wants to be around them. When you hear one buzzing in your ear, you swat it away, and if that doesn’t work, you walk away. Whatever you do, you don’t unleash more of them and ruin everyone’s good time.

If you look hard enough, the world is filled with irksome opportunity, and there are many people ready and willing to point it out. Don’t look for irksome opportunities. Look for opportunities for positivity, and when others can’t see them, don’t hesitate to point them out. Make yourself that cool evening breeze that keeps the mosquitoes away.

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How Are You Driving Through Life?

One of the greatest benefits of being an early riser is beating traffic on my way to the office each morning. Generally, because I am substantially ahead traffic, I don’t have to think too much about driving, as my brain warms up to the day’s tasks. The other day, a truck running a red light changed all of that.

When my son started driving, I taught him to check both directions every time he entered an intersection, even if he has a green light. You can’t assume that people are going to stop for red lights, I told him. They could be texting, drunk, falling asleep or otherwise distracted. It’s a good thing that I heeded my advice that morning.

My light turned green, and as I entered the intersection to turn left, even before I could turn my head to look farther up the road, I caught a flash in the corner of my eye and had just enough time to slam on my brakes before a truck sped past my front bumper. Fortunately, there was no one else in the intersection, because I sat frozen at a complete stop for a moment, making sure that my light was green, and his was red. My hands were shaking, and my heart was racing as I drove on, thinking about what had just happened.

It could have all ended in that intersection. The huge truck never slowed down, and was probably exceeding the 45 MPH speed limit. If I hadn’t hit my brakes or had he been in the lane closest to me, he likely would have nailed my driver’s side door.

Everything that I wanted to do that day, that week, that month, that year – my hopes and aspirations, my worries and concerns – would have been gone. My wife and children were still in bed, and however I left them the night before would have been how I left them permanently. I felt like I was in a life insurance commercial or made-for-TV movie, but this was very real. I had been awakened to my own fragile mortality.

Every day, people are killed in accidents, like the one I narrowly avoided. Every day, many more die from illnesses or even as victims of crime. Our brave men and women in combat zones face this daily. The soldier never knows when he’s tied his boots for the last time.

Like the soldier, many of us never see it coming, and it’s terrifying to think about how quickly our lives can be over or permanently changed. Even if we do everything correctly and carefully, as I was doing that morning, there is virtually no way to be 100 percent safe. That realization can be debilitating, but it shouldn’t keep us at home. A sheltered life is an incomplete life.

Instead, the realization that we’re owed no warning on how much time we have left should heighten our awareness of how we are living our lives. Since this incident, I am much more aware of my surroundings as I drive, but that awareness doesn’t end when I’m in my garage. I am also much more aware of how I am “driving” through life.

Am I like the busy mother rushing her children to school, so focused on a destination that she doesn’t see spring blooming in the roadside bushes? Or, am I like my late grandfather on a Sunday, driving his home county’s gravel roads with the windows rolled down gazing in awe at the only landscape he ever knew?

Likewise, am I cursing life’s detours, instead of seizing on the opportunity to try something new? Do I allow life’s everyday traffic to negatively influence my mood, instead of properly assigning it inconsequential status?

Several days have passed since my intersection experience – several days that could have been taken from me. None of them have been perfect, but all of them were gifts. In fact, the experience itself was a gift – albeit one that I never want to receive again.

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Can’t We All Just Reject Victimhood?

When I was ten, in my first day home from surgery to lengthen both of my Achilles tendons, I learned that I wasn’t going to be able to be a victim. I was trying to retrieve underwear from my top dresser drawer when I tumbled backward. Pain erupted from my ankles when I stepped back, and in desperation, I pulled the drawer back with me, emptying its contents on the floor.

I sat there stunned, trying to figure out how to fix the situation, when my dad came into the room. He looked at the mess, and before turning to leave, told me that I was going to need to figure it out myself and that I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I know it sounds harsh, but many of life’s lessons aren’t suited for the Hallmark Channel.

I thought about that scene this week, when watching and reading about the misguided destruction in response to a grand jury decision not to indict a police officer in the unfortunate shooting of a robbery suspect. In Ferguson, Missouri and other points, people took to the streets to protest not so much the grand jury’s decision, but the injustice they perceived it to represent. They were goaded into this behavior by leaders who have made victimhood an industry and by media who sought to sensationalize a story and create a narrative which they know plays well these days – victimhood.

When you tell people, as the President of the United States did, that it’s acceptable to be frustrated and assume the role of a victim, it should come as no surprise that people act like frustrated victims. That’s a dangerous precedent, and it’s becoming more prevalent and more destructive to the American Dream.

Victims lose hope and feel shame. They are mistrusting and suspicious. They feel that they can’t escape a dismal fate, and when that false message is reinforced by leaders and many in the media, they lose all hope of empowerment.

The opposite of victimhood is empowerment – the ability to have an effect on your plight. You don’t have empowerment by throwing a brick through a convenience store window. That just feeds the narrative of the victim lashing out at his oppressor. You have empowerment when you hold yourself and those you influence to higher standards. Pointing fingers and casting blame aren’t acts of empowerment; self-realization and self-improvement are.

It all starts with honest self-assessment. We have to face who we are – both the positives and the negatives – and we have to assess our situation – do we deserve better and are we willing to do everything we can to make it better, regardless of what anyone else tells us is possible?

I sat on the edge of my bed and cried that Sunday morning. It wasn’t fair that I was cursed with a disease that made strangers stop and stare, that made me the last chosen for basketball games during PE, that made me suffer through excruciating medical procedures and physical therapy. It wasn’t fair that my own dad wasn’t going to help me.

It wasn’t fair, but it was my plight, and I faced a choice. I could be passive and negative, and accept whatever was given to me or I could approach the world with an optimistic and enthusiastic attitude, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy, but that I would give myself a chance, if I just tried.

Imagine if President Obama pushed that same attitude and spoke of personal responsibility and effort as much as he did of distributing a “fair share.” Imagine if Al Sharpton attacked fatherlessness with the same ferocity as he attacked voter identification legislation. Imagine if the media showed thriving inner-city schools as much as they showed burning buildings.

Imagine empowerment overtaking victimhood.

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Yeah, I Don’t Do That Any More

Some of my greatest childhood memories are of the experiences I had trudging through the snow in the woods behind my childhood home. If you saw me now, you would shake your head and think that I was delusional – that I spent too much time in the sun, but it’s true. My body has never been perfect, but it was once a lot better.

As a kid, I rode my bicycle for miles, just to prove I could. I snow skied, water skied and golfed. I delivered newspapers on foot, through all kinds of weather. I climbed trees, rode horses and ran, although I never liked running, even when I could do it.

The doctors told me that my future was grim. That, as my body aged, it was going to be difficult for me to be as active. That I’ll probably need crutches, a cane, even a wheelchair. I shrugged my shoulders and went hunting in the woods behind my house. They didn’t know what they were talking about.

That was a long time ago.

I went snow skiing as a senior in high school. I took the ski lift all the way to the top of Keystone Mountain in Colorado’s Summit County, where a long easy run lay ahead of me. In prior years, I had flown down that run time and again, knowing where to hit my marks to maximize my speed and excitement. That day, however, I crashed in the first 100 yards, struggled to get up and crashed again just a few yards farther. My dad trailed behind, stopping just upslope to make sure I was OK. I shook off the first crash as the consequence of not skiing in the past three years, but he and I knew. It was the first crash of many, and, when I finally reached the bottom of the mountain, I took off the skis for the last time.

I experienced a similar reality about a year later while hunting pheasants in a corn field. Every downed stalk seemed to grab my legs, and my feet found all the holes. It was the last field I ever walked. When I swung a golf club three years ago, I learned that golf too was something that I could no longer do.

Most of us are fortunate enough to sail through most of our lives with nearly all of our physical and mental abilities. Sure, maybe we can’t run a five-minute mile any longer, but that doesn’t keep us from going on a run. Because it we are able to do most everything we want to do, we don’t fully appreciate everything we can do. That’s unfortunate.

When something or someone is taken from you, your world narrows and your attention focuses on only the most important things. It’s why family and friends gather at funerals, and renew relationships. It’s why amputees run marathons and soldiers form life-long friendships with each other. They’ve felt loss and realize it can happen at any time.

In loss, there is life. Loss hurts. It’s supposed to hurt, but we recover, and we recover stronger, because we learn that life goes on, and though it might not be as easy as we want it to be, it’s as beautiful as we make it.

A few weeks ago, some longtime friends invited Lynda and me to join them for dinner in Omaha’s Old Market. The Old Market is an incredibly vibrant and exciting place to have dinner and socialize, but I typically avoid it, especially on the weekends, because it invariably involves an uncomfortable amount of walking for me. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. With those very friends, I went up and down the streets and through crowded bars, never really letting my handicap get in the way.

That’s not an option any more. Even with Lynda dropping me off before parking the car, I had to walk farther than I wanted and then climb some stairs to get to the restaurant. There wasn’t going to be any bar hopping for me that night or any other night for that matter. I’ve accepted that and choose to focus on the things that I can do, like having dinner with treasured friends from the past.

With a healthy set of legs, the incredible dinner would have been just part of a night that would have involved stops at other clubs and restaurants. I would have enjoyed that night too, but I probably wouldn’t have appreciated just being there as much.

Too many of us assume that life will always be easy, and that allows us to take simple things for granted. It’s easy to skip that evening walk with your wife, but what if you were to lose the opportunity tomorrow or the next week or the next year or the next decade? Will you look at the missed opportunity with regret?

Don’t let something be taken from you before you appreciate it.

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Not Wishing I Could

The weight room at my gym is where I do a lot of thinking. For an hour, four or five times per week, it’s just me. my thoughts and my body. I experience the highs and confidence of pushing more than 300 pounds with my arms, and the lows of struggling with even the smallest of weights in my leg workout. When I work my upper body, I think, “What if?” When I work my lower body, I think, “What’s next?”

Toward the end of one of my workouts the other day, as I was gazing out the window between sets, I saw one of the trainers returning from a run on the trail beside the Papio Creek. For a moment, I let my mind stray into the dangerous territory of “I wish I could.”

We all wish WE COULD something. We wish that we could have more money – that we could be taller, not as fat, not as bald – that we could have a better job, more friends, fewer worries. Heck, I wish I could stay awake through a movie with my wife, and she wishes I could get along with her mother. Some things are just not going to happen.

In this way, my physical disability has been a gift. I understand that certain capabilities are beyond my reach, and this awareness has allowed me to see more clearly the blessings that I do have.

Instead of lamenting the fact that I can’t play basketball at the gym, I’m happy that I’m healthy enough to exercise and build muscle. Rather than being bitter about needing to turn down tickets for a Nebraska football game, I’m fulfilled that I’ve found the skills to build a reasonably successful business.

Few of us spend much time thinking about everything that we can do, while we spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about the things beyond our reach. Doing this robs us of the joy of the moment and impedes our progress toward our goals. This is a lesson I constantly review when I go hunting.

Hunting is my passion, and it’s one that challenges my will to focus on my strengths rather than my limitations, because it’s a pursuit best undertaken by not only able-bodied individuals, but individuals in fairly athletic shape. This is because the highest number and best trophy animals are often in the most remote and unforgiving terrain – terrain that is almost always beyond my reach.

Many times, I can see where I want to go, and I can sometimes even see the game I’m pursuing, yet, my legs can’t get me there. November 2010 was a good example of that. I was out in Nebraska’s Sandhills, trying to fill the spot on my wall for a trophy whitetail deer.

The whitetail is one of the most challenging North American trophies, because the mature, large bucks became large and mature by associating humans with danger and avoiding them at all costs. The best way to get close to them is to quietly sneak into their territory, leaving as little scent as possible. Most people park a mile or two from where they are going to be hunting, and then walk in.

I’m not most people. This year, like every year, I had to have someone drive me to the blind where I was to sit for the remainder of the day. My guide Aric then drove back out, and returned on foot a short time later to sit with me, probably scaring every deer within a mile. Because of the commotion we made, it was no surprise that we didn’t see anything all morning, and we decided to take a mid-day break.

Shortly after Aric left to get the truck, he came running back to the blind. He had seen the big deer that we knew was out there. In fact, my trophy stood and stared at him from 50 yards. It would have been an easy shot, extremely rare for a trophy buck, and if I had been with Aric, my trophy would have been in the back of the truck.

Instead, Aric and I sat there until nightfall, and for several more days. We saw the trophy deer a mile or so away a couple of times, but we could never get him to come close enough to us for a shot.

I could have left the Sandhills angry and frustrated, because I felt both of those emotions over the long days in the blind, but being angry and frustrated is counter-productive, especially when you are trying to enjoy your passion. Instead, I felt thankful for the excitement I felt knowing that this deer was close and might appear at any moment. I had also enjoyed watching many more deer and clearing my mind from mental clutter, as I had nothing to entertain me but some of nature’s best beauty.

I think that all of us have those deer blind moments when we can’t seem to get what we want and it seems to come so easily for everyone else. We look enviously through our windshields at the Mercedes, oblivious to the freedom that our own transportation provides. We’re jealous when we learn that our friends earn more money than we do, instead of reassured knowing that we have relationships with achievers. We see a trainer returning from a run on a sunny day, and we feel helpless that we will never feel that exhiliration.

That’s the wrong way to live. It robs us of happiness and closes our minds to hope and possibilities.

Each one of us has capabilities that someone else wishes they had, even if it is as simple and basic as our health.

I was reminded of that one morning, years ago, as I made my way to an early morning class at the University of Nebraska-Kearney. I was having one of those mornings where everything seemed to go wrong. A series of drops and spills had made me a few minutes late, though I awoke at the right time. My tardiness cost me a shot at the close parking spaces near my classroom building, so I had to park a few blocks away and hike in.

By the time I reached my building, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. It was then that I met a young man in a wheelchair.

“Hey, I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he began, and before I could respond, he asked, “Were you ever in a chair?”

Being in a chair is one of my biggest fears, one of my largest motivators for time in the gym and a likely future according to some in the medical field. For those reasons, I resist even thinking about the possibility. I stammered my answer. “Umm . . . no.” Then, quickly, almost defensively, I followed up, “Why?”

“I’ve noticed you and thought that maybe, since your upper body appears so strong, that maybe you spent some time in a chair, but trained your way out,” he said and looked away.

It became quickly obvious to me that he watched me limp around and saw hope. While he was watching me and hoping the same for himself, I fought self-pity. We were unaware of each other’s struggles.

If I could borrow a healthy set of legs for a day, I’d return them sore and tired. I’d find something to hunt, and then pursue it through the thickest, nastiest terrain. I’d walk through the Old Market and over the pedestrian bridge. I’d play a game of basketball with my son in the driveway.

But, none of that is going to happen. And I’m OK with that. Because life is too short and too precious to waste time sulking, I’ll enjoy the life that I can live within the restraints that cannot be changed, and I hope the same for you.

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Positive Explanatory Style

 A recent election didn’t turn out the way I wanted, and it forced me to reexamine and refocus my optimism. If I didn’t do this, I risked becoming negative, and in my business, if you’re negative, you might as well close up shop. Besides, no one wants to live in a negative world.

Entrepreneurs live on optimism. Without a belief system based on positive events, it would be very difficult to take on financial risk and overcome obstacles, two things almost all entrepreneurs do. I’ve always seen my optimism as one of my biggest strengths, and somewhat ironically, it was borne out of my most glaring weakness, my disability.

I was born with a normal body. Not until I was nearly eight years old did I start to experience a disability. From that point on, I was forced to account for my life’s fate.

Simple activities like running on the playground gradually became more difficult and ultimately impossible for me to do. From my childhood through my teen years, I experienced the loss of physical ability that most people experience from their 60s or 70s onward. Older adults have the maturity to accept that their bodies aren’t as capable as they were for the previous 60 years, and their contemporaries are experiencing the same thing, so they don’t feel alone. A young kid, like I was, has neither the context nor the maturity to cope with these changes. I was largely left to make sense of it on my own.

I had to reconcile the disparity between what I felt I deserved and what fate had handed me.

As my physical abilities deteriorated, I had to be mindful not to let my emotional abilities wane as well. If I focused on what I was no longer able to do, I would quickly grow bitter and develop a personality that wasn’t very attractive. Fortunately, I had a support system in my family and friends that propped me up when I was feeling down. They also held me accountable to performing to my potential, not letting me make excuses for myself. To this day, friends that I’ve known for most of my life, forgetting about my disability, will invite me to go skiing or hiking. It’s that sort of nearly unbridled expectation that allowed me to develop a strong sense of optimism.

And that optimism is often tested. A couple of years ago, I awoke early on a Saturday morning excited to attend my son’s basketball tournament. Unfortunately, a mixture of sleet and ice had fallen overnight, and it still covered the sidewalks. Instead of watching Patrick and his team win the tournament that morning, I sat alone and read the newspaper.

Little disappointments like that are part of my life – a part that I can’t control. There is nothing that I can do about a slick sidewalk and wobbly legs that virtually ensure a nasty fall if I try to walk on one. What I can control is my reaction to this reality.

Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, believes that the key to optimism is a positive explanatory style. If people can approach life’s challenges as external, transient events, Seligman believes that their outlook will be much more positive. In other words, the key to happiness is externalizing as much frustration as possible and looking at those frustrations as temporary.

In the case of my missed basketball game, I look at the slippery conditions as a temporary impediment that I can’t control, and I resist the temptation of self-pity for a handicap that presents challenges even on secure surfaces. If I internalize these struggles and see them as permanent, my attitude quickly changes for the worse. Instead of saying, “why does it always have to be difficult to get around to the events I want to attend. I wish that I didn’t have this handicap. It’s forever going to hold me back from doing the things I want to do,” I take deeper overview – I’m frustrated now, but the snow and ice won’t be around forever, and I’ll be able to see more of my kids’ sports if I don’t hurt myself by taking a fall today.

Ceding control over things that are uncontrollable is essential to being optimistic. As much as we want to exert our will on the world, much of what happens around us is beyond our control.

As much as I wished otherwise, I couldn’t control the results of the recent election. What I can control is my reaction. Though the resulting business environment might not be ideal, it is external and transient. My resolve, tenacity and skills are internal and permanent. That’s where I choose to focus, and I hope the same for you.

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