The Write Reasons – #01

“A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.” -Frank Herbert

I write in order to develop my powers of concentration.

Of course, each moment we’re alive presents us with an opportunity to practice developing our concentration and our ability to focus— every bite of every meal, every word of every conversation, every motion in every household chore or bit of yard work, every email written and read, every commute. Everything.

So what?

For me, it matters because I’m never happier than when I’m in a state of flow, and writing is one way I’m able to intentionally enter flow. Wikipedia explains flow as “The mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.”

Wikipedia goes on to say, “In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task. Flow is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book about the flow state, appropriately titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In it, he writes, “Contrary to what we usually believe … the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

He goes on to say, “Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”

Another reason to consciously develop powers of concentration is that the ability to focus is very often foundational to success. Last year I completed a training with Jack Canfield in which he shared with me that during his research for the book The Power of Focus, he and his writing partners interviewed more than 2,000 successful entrepreneurs in order to find out what made them successful.

Almost without exception, Jack and his partners found, every successful entrepreneur possesses three attributes: 1) a high degree of clarity about what they want to accomplish; 2) powerful success habits (in the form of daily routines and disciplines); 3) a high degree of focus, or concentration.

My dad certainly possessed all three of these attributes. If he was in a meeting or on a phone call, especially if he was doing a mathematical calculation in his head, it was nearly impossible to distract him. I do remember him sometimes becoming irritated by background noise, or kids playing loudly outside (of whom I was often one).

If the sound of my playing managed to penetrate his concentration he would tell me to play somewhere else or simply to be quiet, and then he would go back to concentrating. His level of concentration was extraordinary, and it was a big part of what made him successful.

For me, understanding that we can develop our ability to concentrate feels a bit like “cracking the code” of success. I mean, it’s easy to look at people who are extraordinarily successful and simply attribute their success to natural talent, sheer luck or hard work. And in many cases, of course, all three of those things are true, but it’s also true that many of those phenomenally successful people have a great capacity for concentration that they have developed consciously or otherwise. And we can do the same.

But concentration matters for another reason too. The spiritual teacher Yogananda writes, “To be able to concentrate is essential for spiritual progress; without concentration you shall never find God.”

For me, each writing session provides an opportunity to consciously slow down and deliberately attempt to fully experience the present. I endeavor to carry this mindfulness into every aspect of my life, and those ephemeral moments when I succeed in this effort are always gratifying.

It’s not always easy, but it’s a challenge worthy of a lifetime of effort. This, I think, is what author Frank Herbert recognized when he wrote the words I opened with: “A man is a fool not to put everything he has, at any given moment, into what he is creating.”

After all, our only point of power exists in the present.

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Success: Is It Worth It? (Part 3)

I had always kind of figured that my dad would die of a heart attack at his desk.

It seemed logical given his incredibly long hours, heavy workload, high stress, poor diet, minimal exercise and little sleep. It’s an understatement to say that he pushed himself hard. His autobiography was appropriately named— he was driven. 

Eventually he did have a heart attack. He wasn’t at work, as it turns out, but it was only one of a host of significant health issues that eventually caught up to him.

Our family was fortunate to spend my dad’s last couple of weeks by his side. One of my life’s greatest blessings is to have seen that at the end of his life he was at peace with himself and the life he’d lived.

I knew absolutely that I wanted that same peace when my time on Earth was up. I also knew that Euripides was right— No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow. I felt an urgency to start living the life I wanted, in a way that made me feel peace, now.

Observing my dad’s life and death caused me to think that one of life’s major aims must surely be to learn to die well.

In the final analysis, I don’t think there’s much my dad would have changed about his life even if he could have. I think of Patton’s words, “If a man has done his best, what else is there?” 

When I debate with myself whether or not the high cost he paid for his success was worth it, I reflect on the jobs he created, which today number about 10,500. I think about the families supported by the income from those jobs, and the healthcare benefits provided.

I think about the scholarships awarded, and the innumerable opportunities for personal and professional growth. I think about the existence of a company that employees can be proud to work for— a company that does meaningful work that enriches lives.

I think about all the taxes collected that help keep the government running strong and ultimately enhance the quality of life for so many.   

I think about the speeches my dad gave, the mentorship he provided and the lessons he taught formally in classrooms and informally everywhere. 

I think about all the customers served, and all the goods, services and experiences transacted in safe and clean facilities by excellent employees.  

I think about the philanthropy that he and my mom provided so quietly that I often didn’t know about it.

I reflect on Albert Schweitzer’s words, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: The only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

When we serve others we are happy. My dad found many ways to use his time, talents and energies to serve others. He served until he was literally unable to do so any longer. 

It is impossible to say whether or not the price my dad paid for his success was worth it. I often think that he could have achieved 90% of the success he did by putting in only 60% of the time and effort.

But he was at peace at the end of his life. He genuinely enjoyed the work he did and he loved serving others. He wouldn’t have changed much about his life.

For all these reasons I tend to think that the price my dad paid was worth the results he produced. Ultimately, I know, whatever results we achieve come at a cost— we’re always trading our time and energy for something.

Whether that something is worth the price we pay for it is a question we should ask ourselves from time to time.

 

 

 

 

 

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Success: Is It Worth It? (Part 2)

Even among non-runners, many people want to be able to say they’ve run a marathon, but not many people actually want to run a marathon, let alone prepare for one. I see my dad’s extraordinary business success the same way— many people want to achieve the same caliber of success, but they don’t want to pay the price.

And I understand.

The high price my dad paid for his success included the amputation of both legs below the knees due to complications from diabetes. I was powerfully impressed when I saw my dad in the hospital after his amputation, and it caused me to deeply consider the nature, value and definition of “success.”

The price my dad paid for his success also included his relationships and his spirituality, both of which I think he would have liked to have been richer and deeper, particularly early in his career. He did, however, put a great focus on both of these areas toward the end of his life, and his happiness was greatly enhanced because he did. I wonder how much happier he might have been if he’d begun striving for that balance earlier in his life.

I often think that if my dad could go back, although he might do some things differently, I don’t think he’d do different things. For one thing, it’s just the way he was wired. At his funeral it was said that “He gave everything he had to everything he did.” And the saying’s perfect for him, “The star that burns twice as bright burns half as long.”

For him to have done things differently, I often think, he’d have had to have been a different person.

Each of us is always doing the best we can with the knowledge and perspective we have in every moment. Sometimes we have to go a long ways down a road before it’s clear that that road’s a dead end, or that it’s not the one we want to be on. Carlos Castenada explores the roads our lives take and the paths we follow in The Teachings of Don Juan:

“Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow it, you must not stay with it under any conditions. To have such clarity you must lead a disciplined life. Only then will you know that any path is only a path and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you to do. But your decision to keep on the path or to leave it must be free of fear or ambition. I warn you. Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary.

This question is one that only a very old man asks. Does this path have a heart? All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. They are paths going through the bush, or into the bush. In my own life I could say I have traversed long long paths, but I am not anywhere. Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn’t. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”

Life is a continual process of learning and expansion, and our failures often contain greater lessons for us than our successes. The truly wise among us learn from the mistakes and failures of others.

In The Bridge Across Forever, Richard Bach adds a perspective to failure, “There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they’re necessary to reach the places we’ve chosen to go.”

And so it is that forward is the only direction left to go. Forward is the only direction God gave us.

(To be continued…)

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Success: Is It Worth It? (Part 1)

“Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.” -Matsuo Basho

For years I’ve had a running debate with myself as to whether or not my dad’s success was worth the price he paid for it. The way I see it, he paid with his life to build a highly successful group of companies. My dad died at 64 years old— he didn’t even make it to “senior citizen” status. Our family paid a hefty price too.

When he died I experienced a strange multitude of emotions. I was glad that his long and painful struggle with a number of illnesses was finally over. I was upset that he could have prevented many of those illnesses by doing a few small and simple things differently— things like eating breakfast, getting more sleep, exercising regularly and visiting the doctor for routine checkups.

I was grateful that, despite his shortcomings, he’d lived his life honorably and in a way that we, his family, can be forever proud of. I remember feeling like a sort of cap had been put on his life— that the reputation he’d earned through his fairness, honesty, authenticity, loyalty, generosity and hard work could never be reversed or undone.

I was exasperated at the thought of ever measuring up to him or his accomplishments. I was sad that I would never have the close and loving relationship with him that I had missed out on as a child. I was angry at not having had that relationship and that it was now impossible. I was upset that he hadn’t taken better care of himself.

I was appreciative of his incredible vision, foresight and initiative to prepare my mom, my siblings and me, and the leaders of our company to carry on the good work that he started. And it has paid off— in the five years since he has been gone, our family business has experienced unprecedented growth and profitability. 

The last five years have given me a lot to think about, and many new perspectives.  

(To be continued…)

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The Secret to Happiness, as Told by a French Hornist

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I heard Arthur C. Brooks speak today. He’s the smartest French horn player I’ve ever met. I didn’t expect him to know so much about happiness, but it turns out that Arthur knows a lot about a lot of stuff.

Arthur is a best-selling author who has published over 100 articles and 10 books, including Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It. He describes himself as a scholar in the areas of free enterprise and human flourishing. In other words, he’s devoted his life to studying money and happiness.

Arthur is also the president of the American Enterprise Institute, an independent, non-profit, Washington DC-based think tank that employs 185 intellectuals who work to preserve the cause of freedom. In other words, it’s Arthur’s job to be smart. This might be the real-world alternative to being a superhero.

At 19, Arthur dropped out of college to tour professionally as a classical musician. He spent several years as the associate principal French horn with the City Orchestra of Barcelona. In his late twenties, after getting a close-up look at the unhappy lives of many of his fellow career musicians, he knew that he didn’t want to end up like them— playing the same music over and over, maybe drinking a little too much, and with a marriage that didn’t work.

So he decided to return to college to study economics, mathematics and languages, and eventually earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and a PhD in public policy. He reached a point in his career where he decided to apply his skills as a researcher and an analyst to the subject of happiness.

Although Arthur shared many insights, one that resonated with me was his caution against looking too much to the attainment of goals— acquisition or accomplishment— as a source of enduring happiness.

He says, “I’m not saying don’t pay attention to your goals. I’m saying, don’t act as if they are the be-all, end-all to your happiness. Number one, they’re not going to have the effect you think [of making you happy], and number two, they don’t last.” In other words, after we achieve one goal, we’re going to find another one we want to achieve. And then another…

As humans, it seems, we are hardwired to always view the grass as being greener on the other side of the fence. Once we get that— once we truly understand that there’s no “there” that’s preferable to “here”— we can go to work learning how to simply be. And that’s where some of our life’s hardest— and most important— work begins.

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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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