The Problem With a Drama-Free Life

I fell into the Provo River.

It wasn’t on purpose. And it wasn’t comfortable.

It was years ago, at a multi-day conference in Salt Lake City held by the company I work for. We had meetings throughout each day, but we had one afternoon for recreation.  We could choose from a variety of activities  – horseback riding, visiting the Olympic Village, jeep tours, fly fishing, etc.

I picked fly fishing.

I only fished a couple of times growing up – and loved it. So it was a no-brainer when the opportunity arose.

Only three people chose that activity. I think it was because all three of us were “city folk” while others had grown up around water. That was OK, because we would have the river to ourselves.

We had an experienced guide who drove us out to the river. He shared his love of the ourdoors, answered our questions and built our excitement about the adventure ahead.

We pulled off the road and unloaded the equipment – the poles, the bait, and chest-high rubber waders.

“Are these waders really waterproof?” we asked.

“I guess you’ll find out,” our guide joked.

They weren’t really comfortable or stylish – but I didn’t care. I was standing in the river, wearing my rubber waders, listening to instructions on fly fishing.  It was perfect.

And I was dry.

It was a sunny day with a cool breeze, and I caught my first trout within about 5 minutes. I was disappointed to find out it was “catch-and-release,” which means I wouldn’t be bringing the fish home to my wife to share a meal.  (I’m not sure what response I would have gotten at the airport TSA checkpoint with a trout in my carry-on luggage.)

We each had our own spot in the river, a couple hundred feet apart. I caught a number of fish, and each time the guide helped me remove the hook and place the fish back in the river.

After a while, the rocky bottom of the river became uncomfortable, so I found myself shifting around for a better footing.

But then I backed into a hole in the rocks and couldn’t keep my balance.

I’m not sure what I must have looked like going down, but suddenly I was horizontal instead of vertical, and eye level with the water.

I tried to stand up, but felt like I was glued to the bottom. Fortunately the river was fairly shallow, so I managed to crawl over to the bank.  When I managed to sit up, I made a discovery about chest-high rubber waders:

They’re waterproof.

I knew they kept the water out. But once you’ve been laying in the river, they keep the water in.

So I’m sitting on the side of the Provo River with waders full of water – which is why I couldn’t stand up. They held a lot of water.

I felt like the Michelin Man on vacation.

No one had seen me fall. Eventually the guide wandered over to see why I wasn’t fishing.  He said, “You’re all wet.”

Profound, I thought.

I laid down so some of the water could drain off, and then pulled them off. My clothes were soaked, but I knew they would dry eventually.

The problem was that after all the afternoon activities, our CEO had invited the entire company to his house for an outdoor barbeque. That meant I wouldn’t be able to change before the event.

By the time we arrived, it wasn’t obvious to my colleagues that I had gone swimming. But my clothes were still damp throughout, and I spent the evening freezing until we finally went back to our hotel.

———–

When I got home, people asked me how the company conference was.

I didn’t tell them about the speakers we heard. I didn’t describe meetings where I was taking notes and talking about strategy.  I didn’t talk about sitting on an airplane with nothing happening.

I said, “I fell in the Provo River.”

——————–

Nobody likes drama. We go to great lengths to avoid it.

We like drama when it’s third-person and past-tense.

But what do we talk about when we come home from vacation?  Either the things that went terribly wrong, or the good things that took our breath away.

We don’t talk about reading the newspaper on the balcony; we talk about the unexpected moments.

Drama is what provides the color in our lives. It’s where our biggest memories come from.  If we think back over our whole life, we remember the drama.  There are tragic events we wish we could have avoided, along with brilliant events we wish we could repeat.  Together, they provide the contrast that makes up the richness of our lives.  (Colors look the most brilliant against a dark background.)

For me, it’s a good reminder to avoid getting stuck in “comfortable.” It feels nice, but it’s not building memories.

Maybe it’s time to explore. Maybe it’s time for adventure.

Maybe it’s time to appreciate the dramatic life.

Maybe it’s time to stretch beyond black-and-white living.

Make America Grateful Again

There’s a very simple principle of how things work: the ingredients determine the results.

If you bake a muffin with the right combination of fresh, tasty ingredients, there’s a good chance the muffin will turn out well.

If you bake a muffin with rotten fruit, rancid butter and salt instead of sugar . . . well, not so much.

When we eat healthy foods, there’s a good chance we’ll be healthy. If we eat junk food, there’s a good chance we’ll feel crummy.

Why? Because the ingredients determine the results.

You can’t put bad stuff in and expect good outcomes.

When I was little, my dad decided to bake a chocolate marble cake. The recipe said to make a vanilla batter, then take three cups of batter, set it aside, add chocolate, then swirl it back in.

But he misread the directions wrong. Instead of two cups of batter, he thought it said two cups of butter.

So he melted four sticks of butter, added chocolate and stirred it back into the white batter.

When it came out of the oven, it was only about an inch thick and was as dense as a cheesecake.

———————————

Today is Independence Day in the US. It’s a day to celebrate our country and our freedom.

If you watch the news, there’s a lot of focus on the things that are wrong with our nation. It magnifies everything that’s negative – the unrest, the anger, the demonstration, the disunity.  It’s like using a microscope to look for the worst around us.

When we only focus on the negative, it impacts our attitude. We become pessimistic instead of optimistic.  We feel depressed and discouraged and angry and hopeless.  There’s a low-grade fear that smolders just below the surface.

What we pay attention to determines how we think and feel.

The ingredients determine the results.

What if we turned off the news today, and searched for what’s right and good around us?

What if we spent the day being grateful for the good things in our lives?

What if we kept track of all the things that are positive? What if we focused on the people we love instead of those who hate?

What if we counted our blessings – just for today?

Gratefulness is the cure for discouragement.

The way to make America – or any country – great, is to make it grateful.  How do we do that? By becoming grateful ourselves.

Let’s change our diet today.  Try adding 4 cups of better instead of bitter to your Independence Day.

Want to change your country? It starts by changing you.

National change starts with personal change.

It’s where we have the most influence.

Happy 4th of July!

Why Negative is Stronger than Positive

(and what to do about it)

A couple of weeks ago, I was in my surgeon’s office for my post-op visit (it’s been a month since I went under the knife).

After hearing the “all clear” pathology report and getting staples out, I asked the good doctor a question:

“So, do you ever take it for granted that when you perform surgery on someone, and it goes well – you get the cancer out – that you’re actually saving people’s lives?”

Long pause.

“That’s a really kind question – and a good reminder,” he said. “Yes, I guess I do take it for granted.  Usually, I’m just thinking about how amazing it is that I get to do this job that I love so much, and people actually pay me to do it.”

“I know,” I said. “I got your bill.”

He continued: “But you know, what really sticks with me are the ones that don’t go well, and I know the patient isn’t going to make it. Those keep me up at night.”

Why is it that we focus so easily on the negative, but we take the positive for granted?

When I was researching for my latest upcoming book, I ran across some interesting data from neuroscience:

Our brains are wired toward the negative, not the positive. We’re naturally drawn to it.  Avoiding pain is a stronger motivator than seeking pleasure.

Someone said, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.”

Here’s an example:

Whenever I’ve taught seminars, participants fill out an evaluation form at the end of the day. I might have 50 people in a room, and 49 of them give scores of “9” or “10.”

One person marks a score of “4.”

I’m depressed. I lay awake thinking, “I got a 4.  Why did I get a 4?  I need a different career.  I’m not cut out for this.”

One out of 49, but my whole focus goes there.

Here’s what happens inside our brains:

  • When we hear bad news, it takes 3-4 seconds for it to go into our long-term memory.
  • When we hear good news, it takes 12 seconds before it drops into our long-term memory. If we get distracted before the 12 seconds is up, it doesn’t go in at all.

happiness-1What’s it all mean?

If we’re not intentional about focusing on the good things in our lives, we’ll automatically focus on the bad things.

Think back over the last 24 hours. Has your mind been filled with the things that are going wrong in your world?  Or the things that are going right?

Now look at the upcoming 24 hours. What if you were intentional about focusing on the positive things – instead of taking them for granted?  You wouldn’t be ignoring the negatives – just keeping them in balance.

There’s an old hymn that says, “Count your blessings – name them one by one.”

Grab a sheet of paper or pull up a new note on your tablet. Start listing the positives that are present in your life.  Make it your goal to fill the sheet before the end of the day.

Your brain will fight you on this. But you don’t have to give in.

Don’t take your blessings for granted.

We can change our focus – 12 seconds at a time.

 

What’s positive in your life?  Share in comments (below) . . .

Why They Don’t Have Books at the Getty

I tried to like the Getty. I really did.

The Getty Museum is a world-famous art museum perched high above the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles. It contains priceless paintings and sculptures, and people come from all over the world to visit.

You can’t live in Los Angeles very long before someone says, “Have you been to the Getty?”

I have good friends who can’t get enough of that type of art. Debra is a major patron of the art community in Phoenix.  Jenni tells of using high-quality photo books of those masterpieces with her kids, then sharing their excitement when they visit a museum to see them in person.  Another friend (unnamed) sneaks away from work just to visit art museums.

“You just have to see it,” people would say.

It’s not that I don’t like art museums. I just don’t have an emotional response to what I see. I’ve even stood in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.  I saw people in tears because they were so moved.

I was impressed at being there, but I wasn’t moved.

And I felt guilty because of it.

I’ve always wanted to appreciate fine art. But I’ve never felt the emotion that so many people describe.

So when my sister and her husband were visiting, they wanted to visit the Getty. I had heard that the building cost a billion dollars to build, so I wanted to see what made it so valuable.

We drove up there on a Saturday. Once inside, she led the charge.  We followed her from gallery to gallery, trying to keep up and listening to her commentary on everything she saw.  The further we went, the more excited she became.

Bless her heart – it was so much fun to watch her excitement.

But I didn’t share it.

We had a great day being together, and I learned a ton from her. But I still felt guilty because I seemed to be missing the “masterpiece” gene.  I resigned myself to living a life devoid of culture.

———————

A few weeks later, a large box was delivered to my door. I was expecting it, because it comes every year.

Inside were a couple dozen new books.

For the past 25 years or so, I’ve been one of the judges for the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s Christian Book Awards. It’s the most prestigious award given to the top books in that category, and I’ve been privileged to participate.  Every year they send me a shipment, and I have the chance to vote on the best of the best.

So I lined them up on a shelf. Each morning, I’d settle in as the sun was rising with a cup of coffee – and read a couple of chapters.

What a great way to start the day!

Book - FoundOn my first day of reading, I picked up a book called Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer
from an author I didn’t recognize named Micha Boyett.  I turned to the back cover for context:

“. . . she’s passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith . . .”

I wasn’t hopeful, and it sounded stuffy. I took another sip of coffee and started reading.

That’s when it happened: her writing caught my heart.

Just reading her first few paragraphs sucked me into her world. Somehow, I wasn’t reading any more.  I was there.

I know that different people are impacted by different books at different times. Maybe that was my time.  But I felt the sheer joy of reading words that had been so well-crafted.

Was it the best book ever written? Of course not.  But on that day (and the days that followed), Micha took my on a journey of her life as a wife and mom in San Francisco. She made me feel the fog and taste the bagels and hear the swings creaking on the public playground.  She just put the words together in a way that captured my emotions throughout the book.

From my perspective, I was reading . . . a masterpiece.

I was having the emotional experience that eluded me at the Getty. It came as ink on paper rather than oil on canvas, but it was still the expression of an artist.

Great painters and great writers both use their tools of expression, and they both touch the heart.

They both create masterpieces.

Here’s what I discovered: Books are my Getty.

I have art-loving friends who can’t get excited about books. I have author friends who can’t get excited about paintings.

It’s OK.

We’re both impacted by a masterpiece.

I can’t wait to take my sister to a bookstore for the day . . .

 

What’s your Getty?  Share in the comments (below) . . .

Off the Road Again

I miss writing.

There was a time when I used to say, “I don’t like writing – I just like having written.” The process was tedious, but I enjoyed seeing my words in print.

That’s changed. It’s probably because I’ve taken a break, and I miss moving words around to express something.  I’ve missed writing these posts, and especially the interaction with you – my readers.  It’s like not seeing good friends for a while.

The break wasn’t by design. It started with a wake-up call last September that involved an ambulance ride while on a business trip.  I didn’t see the effect that years of travel was having on my body.

But it was there, and it was real.

So the past nine months have been a “do-over” (as Jon Acuff would say). I’ve taught people for years how to live a balanced life, but realized that I needed to pay attention to my own precarious position on the high-wire as well.

That meant looking at everything I was doing – my job, my schedule, my exercise, my choices – everything. It meant starting from scratch and rebuilding.

Finally, I’m starting to practice what I teach. It’s certainly not perfect, but I’ve made some major changes.  I’m eating differently.  I’m exercising consistently.  I’m sleeping more.  I’m keeping the little stuff little, and focusing on the few things that matter most.

And I’m coming off the road.

After 28 years of travel and 3000+ days standing in front of corporate audiences, I’ve changed jobs. I’m working from a home office, coaching those people who are still training within their companies.  I’m taking my years of experience and helping them make an impact within their organizations.

My travel each day is about 50 feet.

Which means I have quiet early mornings to watch the sun rise while I sip java in a ceramic mug – instead of chugging out of a paper cup on an LA freeway. And evenings to read and talk and relax instead of mapping out logistics for the next day’s commute.

And it means I’ll have time to write.

That’s become one of my favorite early morning activities – crafting words while the world around me is still in their jammies.

This new job itself is more intense than anything I’ve done – but it has a beginning and an end each day. I have to fight to keep to keep that balance.  But setting boundaries is becoming a small price to pay for quality of life.

largeWhat will that writing look like? I’m not sure.  But it does mean I’m going to start connecting with you again.

I’ll probably do some magazine articles, and I’ll start thinking about another book. (My newest will be in bookstores on August 6.  I finished that one shortly before my ambulance ride.)  I’ll also be building more of an online platform, since I’m not standing in front of live audiences as much.

If you’d like to come along for the ride, I’d love to have you on the journey.

So, get your coffee. I’ll get mine.

Let’s slow down and just talk.

It might just save you an ambulance ride.

 

 

What We See in the Darkest Night

It’s easy to take earthquakes for granted when you live in California.

If I’m sitting quietly in my home office, I’ll feel a little jolt once or twice a week. It catches my attention, but I go right back to what I was doing.  Sometimes it’s big enough to rattle the windows, and I’m more engaged.

But when a big one hits, it changes everything.

Most people were asleep at 4:31 AM on January 17, 1994. That’s when the “big one” hit in Northridge, California.  It lasted 20 seconds, and nobody slept through it.

I know I didn’t.

Freeways collapsed. Buildings crumbled. Almost 60 people died.  Hundreds were injured. Adrenaline flowed like a river.

And then the lights went out.

Massive power outages took place throughout Los Angeles. In the predawn hours, major sections of the city were powerless. People scrambled in the confusion and rubble, trying to find flashlights and candles.

Outside, there were no streetlights, no signals, no neon signs.

It was just . . . dark.

Later that day when the sun rose and the power gradually returned, the Griffith Park Observatory began receiving dozens of calls from people who had seen a huge, silver cloud floating over the city. Some feared it was related to aliens, while most simply wondered if the earthquake had somehow impacted the atmosphere.  As the sun rose, the cloud dissipated.

After hearing similar descriptions from callers, the observatory staff finally realized what the cloud was – what the people had actually seen.

It was the Milky Way.

GalaxyPeople who had lived in the distraction of city lights for decades saw stars and constellations they had never seen before. Those stars had always been there, but the lights overpowered their view of the galaxies.

The darker the night, the easier it is to see the stars.

As a child, our family used to drive across the Arizona desert in the middle of night to escape the heat. I would lay in the back of our station wagon and look at the stars out the back window.  I remember wondering why there were so many more stars in the desert than in the city.

The stars are always there. But when the lights are bright, we can live under them for years and never notice them.  It takes our world being shaken and the lights going out for us to really see.

For me, it’s a reminder that we’re surrounded by wonder. But our lives are so filled with trivia and schedules and shiny objects that we forget that it exists.

Nobody likes dark times in life. But if you’re in one, look up.

Some things can only be seen in the darkest of nights.

That’s where we see the wonder.

Take a break.

Take a breath.

Get perspective. Listen to someone deeply.  Remember the things that matter most.  Tell someone you care.

Look for the silver cloud.

Don’t Miss the “Real Thing”

I must have been distracted.

So were 2500 other people.

The guest speaker was great, and the sermon was stimulating. People were engaged, taking notes and listening carefully.

But as I glanced around the room, I noticed that nobody was looking at the speaker. They were looking above his head – at the high-definition images of him speaking on the screens hung from ceiling.

They’re big screens – really big. The idea is that people in the back can’t really see the facial expressions of the speaker, so putting him on the screen makes it easier for them to see.

I think that’s a valuable addition. It makes you feel closer to the action.

But as I looked around the room, I realized how strange it was. Here was a well-known speaker that people couldn’t wait to hear.  But when he was on the platform, nobody was watching him.  We were watching the screen.

We were right in the room with him, and choosing the video version while the “real thing” was right in front of us.

HbowlIt happens at concerts, too. We’ve gone to outdoor concerts at the Hollywood Bowl, where we saw some really famous artists perform. We fought traffic and parking and crowds to be there, and paid a lot of money to sit on uncomfortable benches – just to catch a tiny glimpse of the artist.  Then we spent the whole evening watching them on the big screen.

I remember thinking, “I could watch this at home on TV.”

I could. And I’d have a much better view than I would in an arena.

But there’s something about being there, knowing we’re breathing the same air as someone we admire. That’s why we go.  We want to be there with them.

We went to a musical in Hollywood years ago (“Beauty and the Beast”) with our good friend, Sheri. We got dressed up, went out to dinner first, and then looked for our seats in the theater.

They were in the back row. Literally.  If we put our heads back, they would hit the back wall.

That wasn’t unusual, because we’ve often bought the “cheap seats” in order to be able to afford the concert. But it was before the days of massive screens, so we enjoyed it from a distance.

Afterwards, we were talking with Sheri about it. “Sorry the seats were so far back,” we said.  “We didn’t realize how far back they were.”

“That’s OK,” she said. “We still had a great time.”

I said, “Where do you usually get seats when you go to concerts?”

“The front row,” she said. “I don’t go that often.  But when I do, I save up and get seats right up front.  I want to experience the artist up close and personal.”

We’ve never been in the front row at a concert. But it made sense.  If you want to see an artist live, you lose something if you’re just watching on a screen.

So I’ve decided that I have two viable options for live events:

  1. I can watch the high-definition images on the screen, but make sure I’m intentional about focusing part of my time on the live person on the stage.
  2. I can get there early and sit in the front row. That way, I won’t need the screens.

It’s probably not realistic to do the second option all the time. But I need to make it happen occasionally.

In the meantime, I don’t want the virtual to crowd out the visual. I want to be fully present.

I have enough screens in my life . . . so when I have an option, I want the real instead of the reflection.

So, I’m going to sit in the front row in church sometime. Not all the time, but occasionally.  It’s not a natural place for an introvert, but it’s an experience worth stretching for.

And I want to pick a concert that we really want to attend, and plan and save far enough ahead so we can be up front.

If we’re close enough to the front that we can see facial expressions, we won’t be interested in watching the screens.

Maybe it’s time to move up front.

 

When you’re a live event, do you find yourself watching the artist or the screen? Comment below . . .

Does “New Years” Always Have to be “Happy?”

Today, four people said “Happy New Year” to me.

It’s mostly a casual greeting, like saying, “How are you?” Nobody expects a serious answer, but it’s a way of opening a conversation.  It’s friendly, and it’s nice.

But why “Happy?” Is that the ultimate goal for this year . . . that it’s a chance to be happy and feel good?  Does it imply that last year was unhappy, and this is my opportunity for a do-over?

silhouettes and cloudsI don’t think it’s that deep. But I’ve wondered if there’s a better word – something that really expresses what I’d like the year to be like.

I’ve heard people say “I wish you a prosperous New Year.” Hmmm . . . that might be nice.

What about a “Peaceful New Year?”

Maybe an “Adventurous New Year?”

I kind of like “Interesting” myself.

Bottom line: When we wish someone a Happy New Year, we’re really saying, “No matter what last year was like for you, I hope this new one gives you what you need to handle what the year brings you.”

It’s not really “happy.” It goes beyond that.

What about Grace-filled?

I looked up “grace” in the dictionary. One definition said, “Mercy; reprieve; favor shown in granting a delay or immunity.”

I have friends with cancer. I wish them a year of grace . . . reprieve . . . immunity.

I know people whose relationships are dissolving. I wish them a year of mercy.

Others are in financial struggle and can’t see a way out. Others struggle with depression or addiction.  Others are gripped with fear when they simply watch the news.

I want the best for them. I want them to have a year of support and reprieve and mercy and love and miracles and breathing room and refreshment.

I want them to have hope. And grace.

I think it’s OK to say “Happy New Year.” But I hope we’re a little more intentional about the meaning.  It means we care about someone, and want the best for them.

It means we’re wishing them a year of grace.

What word would you pick instead of “Happy?”

Why Nobody Steals Hotel Artwork

I’m sitting in a hotel room in Lancaster, California. It’s a simple room with the basics: a bed, a desk, a TV, and a microwave.

And there’s a painting on the wall. It’s pretty big, and has an even bigger gold frame. I’m sure it’s just a print, and there’s a piece of glass covering it.

Now, I’m not an expert on art. But I think good art is supposed to capture your emotions. It catches your eye when you see it, and you interact with the painting in an emotional way.

In other words, it moves you.

I’m not being moved.

Hotel artIt’s colorful, but I’m not sure what it represents. I’m not driven to pull it off the wall and sneak it into my car.

That got me thinking. I don’t know how many nights I’ve spent in hotel rooms in my life, but I’m guessing it’s over 1000. Fancy hotels, cheap hotels, and a bunch in-between. In all those nights, I can’t think of a time when I’ve noticed a painting.

I’m sure there was a painting in almost every room. But I didn’t notice. They didn’t grab me.

But they didn’t irritate me, either.

I wonder if the hotels buy those paintings in bulk, and use them to decorate their rooms to set the tone and make them feel “homey.” By hanging nondescript art, nobody is offended – and they don’t have to worry about people stealing it.

I wonder if the original artist feels bad knowing that his/her artwork is so bland that nobody would notice it or steal it. (But then again, if the artist gets a little commission for every print that’s purchased, having it in thousands of hotels might ease the pain a bit.)

If I compare hotel art to a masterpiece in an art museum, it will always look cheap. But if the purpose is to set a tone for the room, it does its job well.

It makes the room feel comfortable. If that’s the purpose, it’s the perfect painting for the wall.

It’s a “masterpiece” in fulfilling its purpose.

Can you feel the life lesson coming? Here it is:

You’re unique.

There’s nobody else like you.

There’s a purpose for your life that nobody else can fulfill.

If you fulfill that purpose, your life is a masterpiece.

If you compare your life with somebody else’s masterpiece, you’re trying to fulfill their purpose, not yours. When that happens, you’ll probably feel like cheap hotel art.

Don’t be somebody else. It robs the world of your uniqueness.

Be yourself. Make your own unique contribution. Quit comparing yourself to others.

Be the best “you” you can be, and the world will see a work of art.

Be a masterpiece today.

 

Driving From the Rear-View Mirror

I had a conversation with an Uber driver the other day who was taking me back to the airport in Newark, New Jersey.  He also worked as a limo driver, and was working on his radiology degree.  We talked about his journey from his native country of Italy, his marriage to his bride from El Salvador, and his fluency in four languages.  He shared some fascinating details about his life.

“So, you’ve had a lot of life experiences so far,” I said.  “Where do you see yourself going with all this background?”

With all that he had accomplished, I was expecting to hear some carefully-crafted goals or a clear strategy for the future.  But his simply responded quietly with one word:

“Forward.”

I asked him to explain.

“I’ve never focused a lot on long-term goals.  But every day, my goal is to move forward, not backward.  I figure that if I move forward a little every day, I’ll end up in some pretty amazing places.”

I help people set and reach goals for a living.  So his response caught me off guard – especially since it seemed so simple, and had the scent of power in it.  I explored more.

“Too many people focus on not repeating mistakes from the past,” he said.  “But to me, focusing on the past keeps me from focusing on the future.”

He pointed to the rear-view mirror.

“It would be hard to drive this car if I spent all my time looking in this mirror at what’s behind me.  And I think there’s a reason why the windshield is so much bigger than the rear-view mirror.”

mirror2How awesome is that?

Move forward.  Not backward.

What would happen if we did that?

Sure, we need to learn from the past.  But it’s easy to get stuck there.  If we focus on the past, we might tend to repeat it.

What if we looked through the windshield more than the rear-view mirror?

What could we do if we focused on “forward” instead of “backward?”

I’ve been pondering that all week.

Thoughts?

Reviewing Your Family on Yelp

1“I’ve been a regular for a number of years with John. In those early years, he met all my expectations of a husband.  But my recent experiences have caused me to lower my ratings, because his customer service seems to have disappeared.  I married him because he was the strong, silent type; now, he never talks to me.  I admired his strong convictions about the things that bugged him in society; now he just complains about the things that bug him about me.  Unfortunately, I can no longer recommend him as a husband.”

2“You would think that after 3 years, a person would learn from their mistakes and correct them. But Tommy still seems more committed to his own interests than the happiness of others.  His performance as a toddler is consistently declining, his social skills have become self-centered, and he has little commitment to our family structure.  It’s sad to watch 5-star potential disintegrate to a 2-star review.  We’ll keep him for now, but we’re disappointed.”

3“Uncle Joe? He’s crazy. But we made it through the last holiday without him causing a scene.  That’s a miracle – and it might have been a fluke – but it’s enough to add a couple of stars to his rating.”

People go to Yelp to see what other people think about restaurants and services. If the reviews are good, they might consider using that service.  If the reviews are bad, they avoid it.

We all have our “default” restaurant – the one we keep going to when we can’t decide where else to go. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s safe.  Maybe it’s not the greatest food in the world, but it’s pretty consistent.

Some days the food might be a little off or the service a little shaky. But we know the place well enough to realize that it’s just a bad day for them, and it’ll be better next time.

But if someone makes a first-time visit on that bad day, they’re incensed. They demand free food, won’t pay the bill and write a scathing review on Yelp as soon as they get to their car.  They want to punish the restaurant and protect others from the same fate.

Yelp familyWhat if there was a “people” category on Yelp, where we could critique our family and friends?

What would we write?

Would it reflect the realities of long-term commitment?

Or would it be an impulsive reaction to a frustrating conversation?

When we talk to others about our spouse, kids or relatives, it’s like a Yelp review. What we say shapes their opinion of that person.

It’s easy to share our family frustrations with others, hoping they’ll reinforce our position. But it’s not fair to the family member, because it only gives our perspective.

I’m wondering if there’s a guiding principle that applies here, whether it’s a restaurant or a relative:

  • If our review is positive, we should tell the person (so they get the encouragement) – and also tell others.
  • If our review is negative, we should talk to the person about it – and nobody else.

Thoughts?

 

 

Why We Need to Clarify Expectations

Years ago (back in the 70’s ), I picked up four boxes of old magazines that someone was getting rid of. By “old,” I mean from the ‘60’s.  There were travel magazines, food magazines, business journals and a few random topics thrown in.

I was just starting to write professionally, and thought it might be a good source of ideas. I figured that I could just look at the table of contents to see what had been written, and get ideas that might be interesting to pursue.  I wasn’t going to copy anything – in fact, I wasn’t even going to read the articles.  I just thought I’d use the article titles for inspiration.

There were probably 100 magazines in each box, so I had about 400 total.

Those boxes sat in my garage for years.

I had great intentions, but never opened the boxes.

My wife said, “Why don’t you throw those away? They’re just taking up space.”

“No,” I said. “I’m going to get to them someday. I just haven’t had time.”

A couple of years later, we moved to Arizona. The magazines moved with us.

Eleven years later, we moved back to California. The magazines moved with us.

Ten years after that, we had a yard sale. Diane said, “Why don’t you sell your magazines?”  I started the same excuse I had given for over 20 years.

But she continued: “Put a price on them that you’d be comfortable with. If they sell, you have the money.  If they don’t, you still have the magazines.”

It made sense, though it was hard to part with them. I felt like there might be buried treasure in those magazines, and I hadn’t captured it yet.  But I agreed to the plan.

I took the four boxes out to the driveway, opened them and marked “25 cents” on the box. I figured that if I sold 400 magazines for 25 cents each, I’d make $100.

I went in the house for about 20 minutes. When I returned, Diane said, “I sold your magazines.”

“All of them?”

“All of them,” she said. “Somebody bought all four boxes.”

“How much did you get?” I asked

She handed me a dollar bill.

I had written “25 cents” on each box, meaning that it was the price of each magazine. She thought it was the price of each box.

So I was a dollar richer, and had space in my garage. She had done exactly what I asked her to do when I put that price on the box.  But I assumed she understood what I meant.

pool soapWhen anyone tells us something, it’s easy to take their words at face value. But that can lead to misunderstanding and disappointment later.  I’ve learned that it’s always healthy to ask for clarification instead of assuming I understand.

Here’s a simple approach:

  • Someone tells us what they want.
  • We respond like this:
    • “OK – when you say __________ , what do you mean?”
    • “Can you tell me more about that?”
    • “What, exactly, are you thinking?”
  • We summarize back what we heard: “So let me make sure I have this right. What you’re really asking is _______________; is that correct?”

That gives them a chance to clarify to make sure you’re on the same page. It also shows them that you were listening.

Try it with someone at dinner tonight. See how it goes (and let us know).

If I had done that a few years ago, I might be $99 richer.

 

 

Don’t Miss the Obvious

Last week, the newspaper said that it would either be the greatest meteor shower ever, or it wouldn’t happen at all.

I’ve always been a fan of outer space, so anything that happens up there gets my attention. When Saturn is in the evening sky, I pull out my telescope to study its rings. The five moons of Jupiter always capture my interest. I’ve studied enough full moons that I could probably find my way around.

I never get tired of watching the International Space Station glide across the sky, even though I’ve see it happen hundreds of times.

Meteor showers are special. They don’t happen very often, so I’ve set my alarm for some time after midnight and stood in my yard a number of times. It’s often cold, and my neck hurts from staring straight up.

But it has never worked. All I get is a stiff neck and insomnia.

It’s probably because I live in Southern California, so there’s too much light. It’s tough to see many stars, much less a meteor shower.

But when my friend Will texted me about this one, I allowed myself to hope. There were two things that would be different about this one:

  1. Based on a mathematical formula, it had the potential to be the greatest meteor shower ever (or a complete dud).
  2. It would occur while I was above 6000 feet at a cabin in the mountains where there were no streetlights.

StarsSo at 12:30 AM, I bundled up and went outside the cabin. It was cold and crisp, and the loudness of the wind blowing through the forest was uncanny. Looking straight up, I could see the black silhouettes of the tree tops dancing against the star-crusted sky.

I stood there for about 10 minutes.

There were no meteors.

I thought, “OK, just one. If I can just see one meteor up here, I’ll be happy.”

That one never came.

Finally, I heard myself say aloud, “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

But immediately, I realized the irony of my statement.

I didn’t see any meteors, so I was disappointed. But that whole time I had been so focused on the meteors that I had overlooked the majesty.

Usually, the sky I see at home is black, with occasional stars perforating the blackness. But here, there seemed to be the opposite. There were so many stars that the night sky seemed to recede into the background.

I hadn’t seen that many stars since I was a kid, looking out the window as my parents drove through the Arizona desert in the middle of the night.

So here I am, focused on the most amazing scene possible and saying, “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

I bet I do that more often than I realize. I go through life looking for a unique event that’s exciting, but miss the everyday miracles while I’m doing it.

There’s majesty all around us – in nature, in our relationships, in our opportunities, in our faith, in our jobs, in our conversations, in our passion.

Meteors are great, but they’re so unpredictable.

Let’s enjoy them when they come, but not count on them.

Don’t miss the majesty.

10 Simple Ways to Make Today a Good Day

1. Go to bed 15 minutes earlier, or rise 15 minutes later. (Most of us need more sleep than we get.)

2. Send a text to a friend you don’t see often. (Say, “I thought of you today.”)

3. Eat an apple. (Your body will thank you.)

smiling coffee4. List 5 positive traits about a person who drives you crazy today. (Put it in writing.)

5. Download an old song you love and listen to it. (Do it for sheer enjoyment.)

6. Drive the speed limit. (You’ll enjoy the stress-free drive if you’re not in a hurry.)

7. Skip TV for this one day. (Reading is a dandy substitute.)

8. Pet an animal. (You might have to borrow one.)

9. Stare out the window for 5 minutes – twice. (Think through your blessings.)

10. Give someone you care about the gift of eye contact. (Listen carefully without distraction.)

 

Do it for just one day. See how it feels. Try it again next week.

Simple steps can make a significant difference.

Spending the Day in the Dark

It’s 12:18 in the afternoon in California. The flight map on the screen in front of me says we’re flying over Milwaukee, so it’ll be late afternoon when we land in New York. So basically, I will have spent the entire day in the air.

And in the dark.

I’m in Row 18. On the left side of the plane, every window in front of me has the shade pulled down on their window – all 17 rows. Same with the right side, except for Row 12.

Except for that one window, the entire plane is dark.

The person next to me has her reading light on, but she’s the only one. A few people are sleeping. Most are staring at a variety of things on their screen in the seat in front of them – movies, TV reruns, games.

It seems strange to spend the entire day in the dark. It’s not something I do at home. When I get up in the morning, I open the shades and windows to let the outside come inside.

I don’t remember flying always being like this. It seems like the planes used to be bright during the day, because people wanted to look out the window.

CloudsI know I do.

People pay a lot of money to fly, and they get a view they can’t get any other way. How often do you get to look at clouds from the top? How often can you look down and see the landscape below for miles at a time?

But they close the shades and endure the trip, trying to find ways to make the time go by more quickly. There’s something awesome right outside their window, and they miss the whole thing.

Often, when I have a window seat, I spend the whole trip enjoying that view. I picture my house being a tiny speck in that vast sea of houses, and it gives me perspective. There are a lot of houses out there, which means there are a lot of people in this world besides me.

It’s a good reminder that it’s not all about me.

I think it’s important to get perspective like that occasionally – to actually look out the window and see things as they really are.

Sit next to me on an airplane. I’ll be easy to find . . . just look for the window that’s open in the darkness.

Ready to fly?

Which are Better – Morning People or Night People?

It’s 5:13 AM.  I’m sitting by an open window and it’s dark outside.  The air is cool; the coffee is hot.  In a few minutes, the horizon will hint at a sunrise.

It doesn’t get much better than this, I think.

I love mornings.  Even on the days I’m not working, I’m up early.  I don’t want to miss the stillness, and the “firsts” – the first sounds of birds waking, the first rays of light, the first movement in the streets. 

It feels like a fresh start.  No matter what happened yesterday, morning gives me hope.  It’s like a “do-over.” It has the potential to be a great day.

My daughter, Sara is also a morning person (though it’s tougher now that she has three little kids).  When she was growing up, we’d get up early every Saturday morning, sit on the couch before anyone else was up, and talk for hours.  It was our time. 

It was awesome. 

Not everyone shares my joy, however.

morning and nightMy son, Tim is a night person.  It’s tougher now, because he manages a restaurant and often has to be there between 5:00 and 6:00 AM to open the store.

When he was little, he would sleep in until we woke him, and would fight his early bedtime every night.  He absolutely loved nighttime – the later, the better.  I never understood the attraction.

One year, we took a family vacation to Hawaii when the kids were in their early teens.  Sara and I would get up to watch the sunrise and grab some juice or coffee. 

Tim wanted to sleep in.  We would wake him up, but he was pretty grumpy.  We’d go for an early breakfast, but he wouldn’t talk.  He barely ate his food, slumped over his meal and disengaged from conversation.

I thought it was because he was a teenager.  I was concerned about his attitude, and felt like he was just being rude and rebellious.  I was worried about our relationship.  I tried to connect, but nothing happened.

I tried to “fix” him.  It didn’t work.

He was perceptive enough to know what was happening.  One morning, he mustered up enough energy to form a few words.  He put his head up, looked me in the eye and said, “Just give me two hours.  Don’t talk for two hours.  We’ll be fine.”

And we were.

I would feel the same way if somebody tried to engage me in conversation late at night.  I didn’t understand, but I came to appreciate it.

A few years later, Tim gave me an unusual gift for Father’s Day.  He made a certificate that said he would take me to a midnight movie.

I said, “Hey!  I thought you were supposed to give gifts that people actually want!  A midnight movie?  I’ll fall asleep!”

“Take a nap,” he said.  “You’ll be fine.”

I really wasn’t looking forward to it, but he really wanted me to go.  So I took a nap.

It was an action movie, so I actually stayed awake through the whole thing.  We walked out of the theater about 2:15 AM.  There weren’t very many people in the theater, so we stood on the street by ourselves.

It was quiet. 

It was peaceful.

It was amazing.  I had the same feeling I do when I get up at dawn.

He stood quietly for a minute, staring into the dark quietness as if to just take it all in.

“This is my world,” he said.  “I wanted you to see it.”

I saw it.  I felt it.  And I loved him for sharing it with me.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a night person.  And I’ll always prefer mornings – like I’m doing right now. 

But I don’t debate which is better any more.  I don’t have to be right.

I’ve just learned the value of looking through someone else’s eyes.

Why We Like Model Homes

Occasionally, my wife and I will walk through the model homes of a new housing development.  It gives us the chance to do something we don’t do in normal life – walk in the front door of somebody else’s house without knocking, and wander around from room to room.

I’m guessing that if we tried that in our neighborhood, we might also get to explore the back seat of a police cruiser.

I’ve noticed that while we’re walking through these homes, everybody whispers.  It’s like we’re trying not to disturb the occupants, even though we know there aren’t any.

Model homeThe houses are clean.  Music is playing softly in every room.  There’s no clutter.  The garage is empty and immaculate (that’s how I know it’s not real).  Storage space is everywhere.

There are no scratches on cupboard doors, no dust on top of the television, no smudges on the windows. 

There are no dirty dishes in the sink. There’s no mortgage.

They’re beautiful.

And they’re sterile. 

There’s no clutter of real life. There are no echoes in the walls of kids playing, no footprints of love on the carpet.

These houses aren’t lived in.  They’re for show.  We think, “Wow – if we had this house, our lives would be as peaceful as it feels here.”

But eventually those houses sell, and people move in.  The garage fills up; sticky fingerprints show up on appliances; crayons color the walls.

That’s what houses are for.  They’re not for display; they’re a container for real life and real relationships.  If they’re for real life, they have to be used.

It’s like the old children’s book about the Velveteen Rabbit – he had to be loved by a child and have his fur worn off before he became real.

Model homes are nice places to visit.  But our own homes are where life and love happens.  It’s easy to take them for granted.

Maybe today would be a good day to be grateful for our imperfect homes – and the people that make them imperfect.

 

Voyeurism on Balboa Island

Sometimes, on a nice evening, my wife and I walk around Balboa Island.  It’s about a half-hour drive from our house, and is nestled just inside the bay off the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. It’s only about 4-5 blocks across in any direction, and accessible by driving over a short bridge.

BalboaThere’s a sidewalk that goes completely around the island, which takes about 30 minutes to walk around – 40 if we’re just strolling.  The water is on one side, and beautiful little homes are on the right. 

These homes really are amazing.  Some are old, and have been completely restored.  Others are new, replacing the originals.  Most have no yards, but have pristine patio landscaping and design.  It’s a great place to get ideas for our own house. I’m not sure of the square footage, but most of them look pretty small (though they might go up 2-3 stories to make up for the small footprint).

And each one runs in the $4-6 million range.

At night, most residents leave their windows uncovered so you can see the opulent decorations inside.  It feels a little strange, but seems to be part of the culture.  They know people are peering, but they don’t mind.  I often wonder if it’s the same way baboons feel at the zoo when people stare into their enclosures all day.  (OK, that’s probably not the best example.)

It’s easy to think, “Wow!  Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?  Those people must be so happy to have that kind of lifestyle.” 

I’m guessing it’s because the people on the outside are trying to make ends meet in their day-to-day existence.  They assume that the people on the inside don’t have the same problems, which means they’re always happy.

I have no idea what’s happening on the inside.  But the inside people are just as human as the outside people.  They have the same challenges and joys, negotiate the same types of relationships, and dream the same dreams.  Some have financial struggles, some don’t – just like the outside people.  It just looks different.

We peer in the windows and watch people sitting on their couches, watching TV, doing chores, eating dinner – exactly the things we do at our house.

They’re just like us.

They’re human.  We’re human.  We’re all in this life thing together.

It’s still fun to walk around Balboa Island.  We love beauty, creativity, well-manicured gardens and artistic design.  We love walking slowly, holding hands and seeing how other people live.

When we look in their windows, we’re really looking at two different things:

  • Their lives
  • Their lifestyles.

It’s important to not get them mixed up. 

If we mix them up, we’ll inaccurately start positioning ourselves above them or below them.

Maybe we just need to practice looking in other people’s windows and seeing ourselves.

The Problem with Comparison

Most things of value take a lot of work.

First, we have to decide to do something.  Changing our mind takes a lot of work.

Then, we have to start.  Overcoming inertia takes a lot of work.

Then, we’re motivated. We’re starting to see some progress, and it’s exciting.

But then it gets hard.  And boring.  And we don’t see as many results as we did in the beginning.  All we see is how much work it is, and how much further away the goal seems.

So we try to hang in there with willpower.  But it gets harder and harder.

When it gets hard, we look around to see if other people are having a hard time. 

But all we see is their results.  They’re doing better than us. They’re getting the results we want.

We get discouraged.  We feel like we’ll never get to our goal.

We want to give up.  It’s not fair that we have to work so hard, and other people are already where we want to be.

So we spiral downward.  And we give up.

Again.

Here’s the problem:

goldfishWe’re comparing our journey with their results.

We’re comparing our middle with their end.

We overlook the tough journey they went through to get those results. 

We’re comparing the back of the stage with the front of the stage.  We forget that when we’re watching an amazing stage production, there’s a lot of chaos going on behind the curtain.

Comparison is deadly – usually because we’re comparing the wrong things.

Are you feeling discouraged in your progress?  Does it feel like you’ll never reach your goal?  Is the journey just getting too hard?

Don’t compare the middle of your journey with the end of somebody else’s journey. 

They were exactly where you are while they worked toward their goal.  They felt the pain, the discouragement, the frustration.  They wanted to give up.

But they didn’t give up.  That’s why they reached their goal.

Don’t give up. 

Don’t compare.

Hang in there.

You’ll get there if you keep moving.  And when you do, you’ll be able to compare success with others – because you both remember the journey.

 

So, what’s the next small step that will move you ahead in your journey today?

 

The Value of Looking Further Ahead

A friend told me about teaching his teenage son to drive.  He said, “For some reason, he had trouble staying in the middle of the lane.  He was always veering over to the right.  Even when we reminded him, it’s like he just couldn’t figure it out.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, I was talking to a friend who had experience as a driving instructor. He said that it’s a common problem with kids when they’re first learning.  They’re not looking far enough ahead.  When they’re barely looking past the hood, they’re trying to stay in the center of the lane – but they’re too focused on that close-up view.”

“Try telling him to look further ahead, so he’s focusing on where he’s heading, not where he is.”

It worked. Once his son got the long-term view, it automatically took care of the present problem.

Kind of like life.

Weaving carIt’s easy to get overwhelmed with everything that’s going on directly in front of us.  Our to-do list is pages long, our family has last minute needs and our work goes from crisis to crisis. But it can cause us to drift off course without even realizing it.

We need good tools and techniques to manage all the urgent things in our lives. 

But we can’t forget to look ahead.  Regularly.

If we lose sight of where we’re headed, we’ll constantly get distracted from getting there.

And we’ll end up somewhere else – wondering why we’re spinning our wheels and never making any real progress.

Know where you’re going.

Remind yourself where you’re going.

Focus on where you’re going.

Then step on the gas, and move forward.

You’ll find yourself in the center of your lane – and making progress toward your destination.

 

How long has it been since you looked ahead?