What I Learned from Larry about How to Win at Life

“To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”      –Steve Prefontaine

My dad, Larry H. Miller, was a world-class fast pitch softball pitcher. In this sport, pitchers throw the ball with an underhanded motion at speeds of up to 85 mph from a distance of 40 feet.  

In baseball, the distance from the pitcher to the batter is 60 feet.

Softball’s reduced pitching distance means that batters experience softballs pitched at 85 mph as equivalent to baseballs pitched at 125 mph.

In other words, there’s a good reason it’s called “fast pitch.”

In case you were wondering, there is such thing as a Softball Hall of Fame, and yes, my dad’s in it.  

But he had to learn a few lessons before he got there.

He used to talk about one lesson he learned on the pitcher’s mound early in his softball career. Pitching is strenuous, he would explain, physically demanding. Especially in tournament play, where it was sometimes required to play multiple games per day, it was important to conserve energy.

One way he attempted to save his strength was to estimate the ability of each batter he faced, and then to pitch only as hard as necessary to strike each batter out. So he used this strategy, and for a while it worked okay.

Then one night in an important game, my dad underestimated a batter. He threw a pitch that was less than his best, and this batter got on base. I don’t know the ultimate result of that game, but I do know that my dad was so upset with himself that he committed from that moment to throw every pitch as hard and as well as he possibly could.

Besides, he reasoned, every batter you face deserves the very best pitch you can give him. If you’ve thrown your best pitch and a batter manages to hit it, more power to him.

My dad carried his best-pitch determination into everything he did, both on the softball diamond and off it. Every transaction. Every meeting. Every negotiation. Every lesson. Every act of service. 

This explains the thinking behind something he said in his autobiography about the Jazz: “I’ve always said to our guys, ‘I’ll never ask you to win, but I will ask you to give us everything you’ve got.’” This quote now hangs inside the entrance to the locker room.

Sometimes we need to be reminded.

Life is our softball diamond, and our days are our batters. Each one deserves our very best pitch.

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My mid-life crisis included the purchase of a black Ferrari with yellow calipers and stitching, and it happened in my early thirties. I hope that doesn’t mean that I’ll only live to be sixty-four, the age my dad died, because that’s just way too young.

The first thought in my head the morning I woke up after bringing the Ferrari home was not, ‘Awesome! There’s a Ferrari in my garage.’ It was, ‘Oh no. There’s a Ferrari in my garage.’

… …

When I was eighteen I thought thirty sounded old. Back then I had both ears pierced, along with my tragus and my tongue. I swore that when I turned thirty I’d remove all my piercings and never wear one again. I thought that being over thirty and wearing piercings was just trying way too hard to hold on to being cool.

Then, before I knew it, I was thirty. I didn’t feel any different than I did when I was eighteen. Honestly, I didn’t feel much different than I did when I was eight. I did remove all my piercings, but all of the sudden fifty didn’t sound so old. I knew I wanted to be running marathons, motorcycling, skiing, traveling and spending active, meaningful time with my wife and kids into my eighties and beyond.

I decided to die broke and never retire.

… …

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to go broke by spending all my money. If the Ferrari definitively taught me anything it’s that money really can’t buy happiness.

Instead, I’m inspired by my dad’s thought that “Money’s just numbers on paper and a tool for doing good,” his direction to “Go about doing good until there’s too much good in the world,” and Andrew Carnegie’s perspective that “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.” “Besides,” Carnegie wrote, giving his fortune away “provides a refuge from self-questioning.”

I was also impressed by something Arthur C. Brooks said when I heard him speak this week. He said that people who retire away from something (like a job) almost always experience decreased happiness, where people who retire toward something (such as engaging in philanthropy or other passion-driven work) usually experience increased happiness.

I determined to find a career that allows me to do work that I’m good at, that I enjoy, and that serves other people. I resolved to create, at least in concept, the future I that want now and to live into it a little bit more each day. I have learned to responsibly manage money, and this year I’ll establish a foundation in order to further the cause of freedom and to assist individuals in developing countries.

… …

It’s been three and a half years, there’s snow outside, and I’m still paying for the Ferrari.

‘Oh no. It’s still there.’

How Buying a Ferrari Heralded My Mid-life Crisis

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The Zen of Getting Unstuck

Steve Jobs shared what might be the greatest advice college graduates have ever received when he delivered Stanford’s 2005 commencement address. In it he said, “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.” 

From time to time all of our lives require a bit of course correction. The further we get off course, and the longer we allow problems to exist before addressing them, the harder they become to correct. 

Two years ago, the brilliant Italian businessman Sergio Marchionne delivered a speech that my brother Greg was privileged to attend. Greg took notes that he later shared with me. I was so impressed by Marchionne’s words that I wrote them down too. One thing he said was, “Problems denied and solutions delayed will result in a painful and costly day of reckoning.” 

And Marchionne should know- he turned struggling auto manufacturer Fiat around before going on to lead Chrysler from bankruptcy to profitability. His discipline of addressing problems honestly, quickly and directly has undoubtedly been central to his success. 

Do we have the strength and courage to do this in our own lives? 

In his self-improvement classic The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck shares the insight of an army general: “The single greatest problem in this army, or I guess in any organization, is that most of the executives will sit looking at problems in their units, staring them right in the face, doing nothing, as if these problems will go way if they sit there long enough.” 

Peck continues, “The general wasn’t talking about the mentally weak or abnormal. He was talking about other generals and senior colonels, mature men of proven capability and trained in discipline.” 

In other words, we all do it sometimes. 

What matters, then, is what we do after our problems become undeniable. 

Jennifer Winter shares a few great ideas in her post called How to Get Out Of Bed When You Hate Your JobIt’s worth a read even if you don’t hate your job because we all find ourselves stuck in some area of our lives sometimes. The advice Winter shares can be applied to more than just our careers, and can help us break out of a rut. 

For me, the most powerful parts of Winter’s message include consciously treating yourself well (if you don’t, who will?), admitting and giving preference to your own desires, facing your fears and responsibilities directly, increasing your clarity through list-making and writing, and taking action. 

So if any part of you doesn’t want to do what you’re about to do when you return to work tomorrow, muster your courage and your honesty, look in the mirror and change something.

 

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How I Reduced My Environmental Footprint and Increased My Happiness

Last year I made a New Year’s resolution to avoid drinking from a single-service can, cup or bottle. I made an exception for a few dozen shakes, a handful of sundaes and a Slurpee, and I’m proud to say that I kept my resolution. I have renewed it for 2014.

I made the resolution primarily to reduce the waste I contribute to landfills, but also because I love to challenge myself in new and unusual ways, and because I wanted to see how I’d have to change my life to do it.

I’ve made honoring this resolution as easy as possible by giving up soda, energy drinks and alcohol. Last year I lost ten pounds without doing anything else differently.

Some days I miss drinking caffeine, but I’m sleeping well and physically and mentally I’ve never felt more clear.

When I long for carbonation, I’ll drink a big bottle of Pellegrino or Perrier and ignore the fact that drinking sparkling water is a bit hoity-toity. I really like it with lime.

I bought an opaque 32-ounce Nalgene bottle with an orange lid and I carry it with me everywhere. It’s inelegant, and it’s too big for the cup holders in pretty much every vehicle but a Ford F150. I’ve tried smaller bottles, but I have to fill them throughout the day more often than I like.

Carrying this bottle can seem a bit strange when I go to meetings where everyone’s wearing suits, but fortunately that’s not too often. On those occasions my bottle sometimes becomes a topic of small talk, and when it does I’m glad to talk about something other than the weather or how far someone traveled to attend that meeting.

Sometimes I forget to take my bottle when I leave home. I keep a plastic cup at work for this reason. If I’m in public I either use a drinking fountain (how had I never noticed that they are often located near the restrooms?), or I simply let my thirst teach me that I should develop a better memory.

I’m grateful that more airports, convention centers and public places are installing drinking fountains that double as bottle-filling stations. Someday, as a society we’ll look back and marvel at the impact bottled water had on our environment and the fact that we ignored it.

Although I prefer cold water, I’ve adjusted to drinking it at room-temperature. When I find myself wishing for ice, I remember that more than 2 billion people on this planet are without a regular source of clean drinking water.

And I remind myself that we don’t inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Then that water tastes pretty good.

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How I Let Go of a Two-Decade Attachment in Twenty Short Years

One of life’s most intense challenges lies in knowing what to hold on to and what to let go of. From wisdom and experience we learn that attachment is the root of all suffering­­. What’s harder to learn is how and when to release any given attachment. 

I recently let go of my absolute, all-time favorite pastime, a game called Magic: The Gathering. Magic has filled a massive emotional space in my life since I discovered it as a teenager nearly 20 years ago. But lately, the quiet voice inside of me has suggested that my attachment to it is limiting my growth. When I think of my affinity for Magic, I often recall words I once heard Bono say: We’re all addicted to something.

Magic fathered a genre of games known as “collectible card games,” and games like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! wouldn’t exist without it.

Magic, as most great things are, was a product of passion. It was designed by a professor of mathematics named Richard Garfield who also designs games. Hasbro bought Magic in 1999 for a bit over $300 million. 

Pretty sweet payoff for something you love, right? 

If you’ve never seen the game, it’s a cross between chess (logic and deep strategy), poker (randomness, bluffing, and cards) and Dungeons & Dragons (fantasy elements and randomness). Magic can be played with paper cards or digitally online. Most games only take about 15 minutes, but because every game plays out differently the replay value is endless. And Hasbro has an R&D team in Washington pumping out new sets every year to make sure it stays that way.    

The thought of spending an evening playing Magic with friends, or a Saturday at the card shop (America’s nerd equivalent of Asia’s Mahjong parlors) makes me giddy with anticipation- the same excitement I’d get as a kid before Christmas. Seriously. 

I knew I had it bad when I went skydiving for the first time a few years ago, landed safely, and then realized that I get a greater rush from playing competitive games of Magic than I do jumping out of a plane. It was even hard for me to believe.

Winning a tough match gives me the same emotional spike I used to get in college after toiling for an entire semester to earn a perfect 4.0 grade point average. If that doesn’t explain my addiction I don’t know what does– the same emotional payoff from a close Magic victory in less than 30 minutes instead of four months of effort.

I recognized, of course, that the Magic-induced emotion is both short-lived and practically meaningless, but still, the feeling is real. Many years ago, during a dark period of my life, I’d binge on Magic, playing for as long as 30 hours at a stretch. I remember standing up after one bender and not being able to walk straight.

In my mind, I likened playing Magic to dumping time down a hole. But I didn’t care. My life lacked direction and meaning, and I had regular thoughts of ending my life. It wasn’t that I wanted pain to stop, but I desperately wanted something to fill my emptiness. I remember thinking playing Magic was like committing suicide one day at a time.  

One of the things that I love so much about Magic is that it’s a closed-system. It’s one where unlike life, the rules are clear, everything makes sense, and there’s always a path to victory.

And, I figured, being addicted to a card game that sixth graders play in the halls at school was probably better than being addicted to gambling, drugs, alcohol, sex or anything I could think of. So Magic filled a sizeable space in my life for a long time and I don’t know what I would have done without it.

I believe that I formed my attachment to Magic a means of protection, a way to survive. A friend and mentor recently pointed out to me that many of the habits and ways of being we form to protect ourselves ultimately limit our growth. If Magic was a suit of armor, for me it became one that rusted shut, restricting the growth of my spirit.

I’m not saying that I’ll never play it again- there’s a great social aspect to the game, a lot of the art is fabulous, and it’s a great means of self-expression and creativity. But what I am clear about is that I’m never going back to the darkness of the abyss where Magic found me. It’s one attachment I’m glad to let go of.

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Aliveness and Purpose

I learned a process from Jack Canfield that I sometimes use in workshops I run that’s designed to help participants find or clarify their life’s purpose.

Before beginning the exercise I ask how many people believe that each of us has a unique life purpose- something that we were put on Earth specifically to fulfill. Usually about two thirds of the participants say they believe that we do, though a few hands are clearly raised uncertainly.

Then I ask how many people know what their purpose is- how many can articulate it- and usually only a few hands remain raised.

What’s tricky about life purpose, of course, is that we didn’t crash land on Earth with one neatly typed and tucked into our back pocket. When we were young, nobody told us what our life’s purpose is, and probably nobody told us HOW to go about finding it. And, to add additional challenge, I don’t think that any life’s purpose can be put easily into words.

But if you DO believe, as I do, that our lives do have specific purposes, then it follows that in any given moment we are either living true to our purpose or we are not. (Living on purpose ALWAYS involves serving others, by the way.)

When we live on purpose we are healthy. We enjoy the work we do AND we are able to enjoy our leisure time- something that’s surprisingly challenging for the Type A, “always on,” achievement-oriented personalities among us. When we live on purpose our relationships bring us fulfillment and satisfaction. How well things in our lives WORK is in direct proportion to how “on purpose” we are. When we’re not on purpose, things in our lives don’t work as well.

If our lives aren’t working like we want them to be- if any aspect of our lives don’t look like we want them to- the good news is that in any moment we can orient our lives towards the true north of our life’s purpose. And the instant we do, our lives begin to work better.

The great American thinker Werner Erhard tells us, “The only two things in our lives are aliveness and patterns that block our aliveness.

When you get rid of the blocks, what you have is aliveness, and when the blocks are gone, purpose emerges.

There is no use searching externally for purpose, or trying to “pull it in.” It is already there. Just focus on clearing out what is between you and aliveness….

Aliveness and purpose are practically the same thing.”

Now the question becomes, dear reader, how do you get rid of the blocks in your life?

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One Word: Resolution

Making a New Year’s resolution is a great way to push yourself to grow.

Many people don’t make New Year’s resolutions. And those who do often don’t keep them. Yesterday I read that 92% of resolutions are broken, many of which go by the wayside in the first week of a new year. Think about that- ONLY 8% of resolutions get kept!

Another article jokingly (or wisely) suggested that the best way to avoid breaking New Year’s resolutions is to not make them in the first place. But that’s not an approach for achievers, now is it?

I was in Barnes and Noble this week (enjoying a brick-and-mortar bookstore while it still exists) and I came across a very thought provoking book: One Word That Will Change Your Life.

The book encourages its readers to choose a single word to guide them throughout the year. The idea is that the simplicity of choosing one word makes it a catalyst for life-change.

So, rather than- or in addition to- making the sort of New Year’s resolutions that are so often and easily abandoned, what if you chose a single word to guide you in 2014? What could that do for your life and your career? And what would that word be?

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