Thriving Amidst Constraints

Last Monday morning I was enjoying a beautiful sunny walk through the neighborhood before work when I noticed a plant growing out of the asphalt.  “Must be a weed” I thought to myself as I approached the spot in the road where the plant was growing.  I was shocked when I got close and observed that it was not a weed, but instead, a small, beautiful flowering plant!  Its purple and yellow petals a striking contrast against the charcoal colored asphalt.  It was a wonderfully unexpected surprise!

Tenacity

I love the tenacity of that little plant!  Not only the plant, but the seed from whence it came.  That seed was dropped in the least likely place for it to grow.  None the less, it literally took root and found a way to thrive within the environmental constraints it had been dropped into.  No greenhouse.  No potting soil.  Nothing more than an opportunity to succeed.

That plant was a great reminder to do my best with the opportunities I’m given.  Even when conditions might not seem optimal.

Breaking Through

I started playing the electric bass 3 years ago and I’ve really enjoyed the process of learning how chords are made and fit together with other chords to make bass lines and fills.  While I’ve enjoyed the learning process, I’ll also admit that I’d been frustrated by the slow pace at which improvement has come. However, I have to remind myself that consistent effort leads to breakthroughs, whereas quitting does not.

For the past 3 months I’ve been focusing on the pentatonic scale and how to use it with other scales.  What’s been frustrating is that I’ve been learning and practicing these concepts, but have been struggling to put them together in the context of a song.  I’ve practiced the chord shapes, but feel like I have a mental block when it comes to putting it all together.

However, tonight (Thursday) when I sat down to practice, I noticed that the concepts I’ve been learning had come together and I was actually using them in the context of a song!  It’s like my brain finally said, “Oh, I get it now.”  What a breakthrough!  And it’s all the result of consistent practice, even when the results were slow.

Is there something you’re struggling to learn or accomplish?  Are you not seeing the results you’d like as quickly as you ‘d like?  If so, I encourage you to stay diligent in your practice, even when it seems you’re not making headway.

There are 2 things I know for certain:

  1. If you keep at it, you’ll eventually have a breakthrough
  2. If you quit, you wont

Goals Aren’t Enough

It’s getting close to the time of year when people will start looking ahead to 2017, and part of that process will likely included listing goals for the upcoming year.  It’s an exciting and encouraging activity that I enjoy doing; however, my thoughts about goals shifted slightly this week after listening to Jon Gordon on Dave Ramsey’s EntreLeadership podcast.

Goals are great because the provide direction for where we’d like to arrive in the future.  Consider the following goals:

  • Earn $X per year
  • Lose 30 pounds
  • Earn a degree
  • Complete a marathon or other significant physical activity
  • Buy a house
  • Pay off a debt

Those are all great goals, and similar to what many people list at the beginning of each year. But here’s where my thinking has changed.  I think that just a list of goals is incomplete and misses the mark, because the list alone says nothing about how these goals will be attained.  What’s missing from the list is our commitment

Consider our list of goals above.   It’s aspirational, for sure, but that’s about it.  Now consider that same list with a corresponding list of actions we’re willing to commit to in order to bring these goals about.

Our revised list might look like the following

My Goal My Commitment
Earn $X per year Study 1 hour per day toward the mastery of a marketable skill that would yield the salary I desire.
Lose 30 pounds Stop eating sugary snacks and fast food and instead opting for healthy whole food alternatives.
Earn a degree Devote 2 hours after work on week nights and 8 hours during the weekends to study and class attendance.
Complete a marathon or other significant physical activity Work with a coach to develop a training and nutrition plan and adhere to it.
Buy a house Save X% of my earnings to apply toward a down payment.
Pay off a debt Stop using credit cards and cut out discretionary spending and instead throw that money toward eliminating debt.

 

Now that’s a much more compelling list!  Not only is it aspirational, it has more “punch” because it describes what we’re willing to commit to in order to achieve the goal.  Without commitment, we’re relegated to just hoping our goals come to pass.

As you’re considering goals for 2017, I encourage you to join me in also listing what you’ll commit to doing in order to achieve each goal.  I think we’ll be amazed by what we can accomplish when we add commitment to the equation.

Shared Experiences

On Wednesday June 15, 2016 I left an organization I was with for almost 19 years to pursue a new and exciting opportunity.  In the days prior, as I was reminiscing about my time there, my thoughts were not primarily centered on accomplishments and successes, but rather on the people I’d worked with and the memories we’d made.

While I was going around saying my good-byes to friends and colleagues I noticed that they too were recounting shared experiences.  I couldn’t help realize that the shared experiences we have with others are what people remember.  Whether the experience was good or bad, the fact that it was shared in pursuit of a common goal seemed binding and provided a sense of team, connection and togetherness.  I like that because it shows that I didn’t go through my 19 years there unnoticed, and that I had an impact on the people I worked with, as they also did on me.

Shared experiences not only bind and connect people in the context of the workplace.  Have you ever sat around with a friends or family members recalling events of the past with laughter, gratitude, frustration, or even disbelief that you all made it through?  Often, it’s these kinds of conversations that we have with friends or family we haven’t seen in a while as a way to reset the relationship and begin reconnecting.

As we bump along with others in our day-to-day existence let’s make sure we’re mindful of the shared experiences we’re creating and when the time comes, remind others of the experiences we’ve shared with them and what they meant to you in that experience.

My Own Senseless Expectations

A couple of days ago I held a door at work open for someone who was pushing a cart full of computer equipment.  As I held the door, he gave a broad smile, walked through, and didn’t say, “Thank you”.   That kind of bothered me.

In my mind, I immediately had thoughts of:

  • Giving a sarcastic “You’re welcome”
  • How I should have let him get the door himself
  • How he must obviously be a self-centered jerk

Pretty petty, huh?

It was amazing how fast these thoughts flooded my mind.  Perhaps that says more about me and areas I need to work on than it does about him.

About 10 minutes later I saw the same guy pushing the cart heading my way.  As we got close enough to make eye contact, he gave me a big, kind smile, as if to say, “I remember you and what you did for me a few minutes ago!”  I smiled and nodded.  I now felt like it was me who was the jerk.

As I thought back on our earlier encounter at the door, I realized that my negative thoughts toward him arose because he hadn’t responded the way I thought he should have in that specific situation.  I felt a verbal, “Thank you” was in order, so that’s what I expected.  However, his, “Thank you”, came in the form of a broad smile.  My negative reaction and thoughts were totally unwarranted and robbed me of several minutes of joy I could have otherwise been experiencing.

It was a clear reminder that the world does not operate according to my interpretation of how things should be done.  Also, it made me check my motives.  Was I holding the door open to receive praise and thanks, as I saw fit, or was I don’t it because it was the kind, honoring thing to do for a fellow human being, regardless of whether I received a positive response?

When we get frustrated because people don’t respond to something exactly as we would like them to, we are setting ourselves up to potentially damage relationships.  Instead of realizing the uniqueness of others and allowing them to express their uniqueness, we box them into our own expectations.

I know I wouldn’t appreciate others boxing me in like that, so what gives me the right to do that to others?  The answer… is “nothing”.

Let’s work at dropping our senseless expectations that everyone should and respond the way we think they should.  Let’s instead start appreciating the uniqueness of others and allowing them to express it.  Because, wouldn’t we all like the seam kindness shown to us

How To Be A Great Conversationalist

On Monday I had the great pleasure of meeting my sister for lunch.  It’s not something we do as often as we’d like, but when it works out, I always enjoy the experience.  The reason lunches, or other outings with her are so much fun is because my sister is one of the best conversationalists I know.  During our recent outing, my sister’s example reminded me again what makes someone a great conversationalist.

Some of the attributes of a great conversationalist include:

  • They are attentive. Great conversationalists are present in the conversation. They are not looking at their smart phones or staring off over your shoulder to see what else is going on.  They are looking at you and giving you their full attention.  In our technology tethered world, I think that our attention is one of the greatest gifts we can give another person.
  • They are great listeners. Great conversationalists are willing to wait during a silent pause so the other person can finish a thought or think about what they want to say.  They don’t interrupt in mid-sentence to change the topic, nor do they feel the need to dominate the conversation with their own monologue.  Instead, they actively listen to what the other person is saying.
  • They bring something to the conversation. Great conversationalists don’t just sit there silently through the whole conversation, but rather they bring their own positive thoughts and insights into the discussion.  They ask clarifying questions, share ideas, and even challenge assumptions, all with the intent of gaining a deeper understanding of the topic and the other person’s perspectives.
  • They care. Great conversationalists care about the person(s) they are talking with and demonstrate that by not judging them, and by creating a safe and trusted environment where people can talk freely and feel they are actually being heard and understood.

What a gift it is to be in the presence of a great conversationalist!

If you want to be a blessing to someone practice the attributes of great conversationalists the next time you are visiting with someone and see how it positively impacts the conversation.  It’s a skill that will yield more gratifying conversations and deeper relationships with others.

Filling Up Your Mind

Have you ever considered how what we allow into your mind directly impacts our thinking and outlook on life?  Similar to how the types of food we allow into our bodies directly impacts our physical health, the material we watch, read, and listen to have a direct impact on our thinking and how we view our current situations and overall view of life.  Therefore, it is imperative that we are not only aware of what we are filling up our minds with, but that we are also taking an active role to ensure the content we consume is positive, useful, and improves our thinking, rather than polluting it.

For example, I’m currently conducting a job search to find work closer to where I live.  This can be a challenging process with no shortage of opportunities to engage in negative thinking.

In Scripture we’re told…

“[…] whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”  — Phil 4:8

Therefore, before I started the job search process, I found some positive words to use daily to keep me focused and to thwart of negative thinking when it would begin to show itself.  Some of those positive words I use include:

  • The greatest cure for anxiety is action.
  • Show me the right path, O Lord; point out the road for me to follow. – Psalms 25:4
  • Do what others aren’t willing to do.
  • Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Phil 4:6-7
  • Take action every day.

These words are certainly not the only positive choices and may not be for everyone, but they work very well for me in my situation.  The important point is for each of us to find our own encouraging words that we can use to positively influence our thinking.

What about you?  What are you filling your mind with?  Could you benefit some renewed and positive thinking?  If so, begin collecting quotes, phrases, gems from religious text, or just kind words from others and put them in a place that will cause you it intersect with them several times a day.  As you see them, spend a moment to read them, think about them, and apply into your daily life.  This habit will not only cause your thinking to change for the positive, but your life will follow as well.

Life is Better When We Bring Others Along

My life is much more enjoyable when I am interacting and connecting with others.  I would much rather bring people along as I travel through life than take the journey as a solitary traveler.  But how do we go about bringing others along on our life journey?  Below are 4 suggestions for building connections with the people you’re going through life with:

Include them in what’s going on in your life

Share significant news with those closest to you.  Don’t let them hear it through the grapevine.  Give people some details about what you’re up to when they ask, instead of just saying, “Not much” or “I’m fine”.  You don’t need to give a full account of every detail, or dump a bunch of bad news on folks, but let them know what you’re up to.  How can we be encouraged or comforted by others, or be encouraging or comforting to others,  if we don’t let each other know what’s going on in our lives?

Be interested in what others are doing

Going through life with others is not an exercise in collecting a supporting cast for ourselves.  It is bi-directional.  There is communication, concern, and caring that goes both ways.  The best way we can show interest in others is to listen to them when they are telling us about something going on in their life.  We can ask questions, not just for the sake of asking, but to learn more about them and how they’re feeling, what makes them tick, and what’s important to them.  I think one of the greatest gifts we can give people is our genuine interested attention.

Ask people for help

People want to help those they know and like.  For some reason thought, it is difficult to ask others for help, even when we could really use it.  We need to work at getting better at asking for help.  There’s no benefit to being a Lone Ranger, thinking we can figure a situation out all on our own.  Plus, we rob others of the opportunity to be a potential blessing to us with the assistance they could provide.

Treat people well

Thank others when they assist or bless you.  Tell them something you like or admire about them.   Send an email, write a letter, or make a phone call of encouragement, gratitude, appreciation, or comfort.  Depending on your relationship with them, let them know you love them.

When done genuinely, all of these steps require a degree of vulnerability.  That vulnerability comes from taking a risk to open up and share our real-self with others.  In doing so, we also give others a safe place to do likewise with us.

Someone Would Gladly Trade With You

Life is good, but occasionally we get frustrated and begin to complain.  This isn’t all bad, because frustration can often be the spark that causes us to take action to improve our life.  However, we get into trouble when we focus solely on what is frustrating us and develop an attitude of complaining.

We may justify our complaining by pointing out how bad things are, but here’s a thought to consider the next time we feel like complaining:  someone in the world would gladly trade places with you.

Consider this:

You think… Someone else thinks…
My job sucks. I’ll trade with you!

I’m currently unemployed and would love to have a job right now.

My marriage stinks. I’ll trade with you!

I’d love to be married and willing to work out our differences with a spouse.

I’m old. I’ll trade with you!

I’m 32 and have been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  I’d love to look forward to growing old.

I’m fat and out of shape. I’ll trade with you!

I live in a country where we rarely have enough to eat, let alone have the ability to choose a healthy lifestyle and a nutritious diet.

My life is boring. I’ll trade with you!

I’d love to have the freedom and resources you have to choose how I live my life.  There’s so much I want to do, experience, and learn.

As you look at your frustrations through the lens of how others view them, your situation starts to look a whole lot better.

The next time you find yourself having adopted an attitude complaining, stop and consider how many people would love to trade places with you.  This thought will likely give you a new perspective on your situation as well as refocus your attitude.

What a Difference A Week Makes

My wife and I got a new cat 2 weeks ago.  We named him Chewy.  The 1st week was rough!  Chewy had a traumatic introduction to our house and also destroyed a piece of furniture via bodily functions.  I was extremely frustrated.  All I could see was a future of destroyed furniture and a cat that didn’t like being in our home.

In an effort to start over, we moved Chewy into the spare bathroom with his food, water, litter box, bedding, and toys.  We also spent time in there with him every day and re-started the slow process of building trust.

Since being in his own space, and coupled with our consistent effort, Chewy has become very comfortable and affectionate with us.  He is adapting well and is a totally different cat than he was a week ago.

This experience reminded me of other times when I have been in frustrating situations, or ones that were not what I was expecting.  In those moments, it can be hard to see past the present situation and into a brighter future.  However, I think being able to have a long-term perspective while in the middle of a bad situation is crucial.  Keeping a longer-term perspective helps us stay motivated to take the necessary actions today that will lead us to the brighter future we envision.

As we all know, not every difficult situation is rectified with a week.  Some situations require a longer timeframe.  Others require much longer timeframe.  But nothing happens, nothing changes our situation, when we fail to take the necessary action to move us forward.

Today’s frustration can be distracting and, if we lack a long-term perspective, that frustration can keep us from doing the work required to pave the path to our better future.  That’s why it’s so important to see beyond our current situation.  For it is multiple days of consistent effort in the right direction that will one day cause us to look back and say, “Wow!  What a difference a <insert timeframe> makes!”