Category Archives: Success

Lessons from heart surgery on living and dying

storm approaching beachIn 2001, at the age of 33, with one young son and another on the way, I went to the doctor for a check-up and was diagnosed with a heart aneurysm. And it had already burst. Feeling perfectly fine but in fact slowly dying, I was scheduled for immediate heart surgery. I spent a week in the hospital, getting ready for surgery and recovering. A month later, I was healthy and back at work, albeit with a totally new outlook on my life and the lives of others. Since that surgery five years ago, I have said often, “I would wish open heart surgery for all my friends.” A strange wish, I know. But the lessons I learned from this medical crisis have enriched my life enormously. Here they are, sprinkled with five years of perspective:

1. You and I are going to die. Someday. My death is going to happen. Your death is going to happen. My wife and children are all going to die, too. It’s not a matter of “if.”

2. Death might be right around the corner. Today, tomorrow, or the next day. You and I might have only three days, and we might have 60 more years (21,900 “last days to live”).

3. Every day is a gift, every friendship is a gift, every child and every interaction with your children is a precious, fleeting gift.

4. Be kind and loving to everyone. From your spouse and children to the guy at Dunkin’ Donuts who gives you your coffee at the drive-thru. Tell people whom you love that you love them. Reveal to people their own greatness – NOW. It might be your last week on the planet, and it might be their last week on the planet.

5. Perceive the time you spend with loved ones, or working on projects you’re passionate about, through the imaginary lens of a home video camera. Savor everyday moments with loved ones. Record them on film in your brain and thank God for these memories that you’re experiencing first-hand right now. Laugh often at how fast time goes by, and be grateful that it doesn’t fly by even faster. Ironically, this will slow down time.

Ultimately, I have learned that if I die today, what a great life I’ve had! Because of my gratitude for life and my moment-to-moment appreciation of relationships, experiences, the wind blowing and the rain falling, I am literally ready to die at all times. I can imagine the future moment when I’m lying in a bed or on the ground, knowing I am about to die, and I imagine smiling, feeling no surprise or regret (though I also imagine the enormous sadness of leaving my family behind).

I live every day with the realization that any additional time that I am granted is stolen time. After all, had I been born at any other time in history, before current heart surgery technology and know-how, I would have been dead at age 33, two of my children would be fatherless, and the other two would not have been born.

My appreciation of life is greater than that of 99% of my friends. And I have open heart surgery to thank for that.

The War of Art – Turning Pro

The second section in The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, exposes all of us artists (well, almost all of us) for what we really are – amateurs – and explains the simple but profound differences between an “amateur” and a “professional.” These are the terms Pressfield uses to label dabbling hobbyists vs. dedicated, focused, disciplined craftsmen. (Nomar Garciaparra, by the way, is one of my favorite pros. A hard-working dude who’s an artist with the bat and glove.) I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts:

“The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is there seven days a week. …The professional loves [his game] so much, he commits his life to it…. Resistance hates it when we turn pro.”

“Do I really believe that my work is crucial to the planet’s survival? Of course not. But it’s as important to me as catching that mouse is to the hawk circling outside my window. He’s hungry. He needs a kill. So do I.”

“The payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro). The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude. It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”

“The pro understands that all creative endeavor is holy, but she doesn’t dwell on it…. She concentrates on technique. The professional masters how, and leaves what and why to the gods…. The sign of the amateur is overglorification of and preoccupation with the mystery. The professional shuts up. She doesn’t talk about it. She does her work.”

“The professional conducts his business in the real world. Adversity, injustice, bad hops and rotten calls, even good breaks and lucky bounces all comprise the ground over which the campaign must be waged. The field is level, the professional understands, only in heaven.”

“The professional is prepared, each day, to confront his own self-sabotage. He understands that Resistance is fertile and ingenious. It will throw stuff at him that he’s never seen before. ….His goal is not victory (success will come by itself when it wants to) but to handle himself, his insides, as sturdily and steadily as he can.”

“The professional cannot take rejection personally because to do so reinforces Resistance. Editors are not the enemy; critics are not the enemy. Resistance is the enemy. The battle is inside our own heads. We cannot let external criticism, even if it’s true, fortify our internal foe….. The Bhagavad Gita tells us we have a right only to our labor, not to the fruits of our labor. All the warrior can give is his life; all the athlete can do is leave everything on the field….. The professional gives an ear to criticism, seeking to learn and grow. But she never forgets that Resistance is using criticism against her on a far more diabolical level.”

“An amateur lets the negative opinion of others unman him. He takes external criticism to heart, allowing it to trump his own belief in himself and his work. Resistance loves this.”

“The professional cannot allow the actions of others to define his reality. Tomorrow morning the critic will be gone, but the writer will still be there facing the blank page. Nothing matters but that he keep working…..The professional blows off critics. He doesn’t even hear them.”

“The professional endures adversity. He lets the birdcrap splash down on his slicker, remembering that it comes clean with a heavy-duty hosing. He himself, his creative center, cannot be buried, even beneath a mountain of guano. His core is bulletproof. Nothing can touch it unless he lets it.”

“Why does Resistance yield to our turning pro? Because Resistance is a bully. Resistance has no strength of its own; its power derives entirely from our fear of it. A bully will back down before the runtiest twerp who stands his ground.”

“The essence of professionalism is the focus upon the work and its demands, while we are doing it, to the exclusion of all else.”

“There’s no mystery to turning pro. It’s a decision brought about by an act of will. We make up our mind to view ourselves as pros and we do it. Simple as that.”

There’s something disarming and inspiring about Pressfield’s stark definitions of amateurs and pros. There’s nowhere to hide – you’re either an amateur, or you’re a pro, and there’s really no in-between. And despite the seemingy superhuman commitment and dedication being a pro requires, we’re all dying to be a pro – at something. OK, so if you’re gonna go pro, what will be your vocation? Pressfield writes, “Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still small voice is piping up, telling you as it has ten thousand times, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you.” Acknowledging that voice is scary stuff…. very scary stuff. But so is dying and not having heeded that voice.

The War of Art – Defeating Resistance

My addiction to learning is fueled by those once-a-year books I pick up that literally change the way I perceive things and influence me to think and act differently. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield, is that book for this year. I read the (short) book over the last few days, then re-read the first half of it again today (I guess I didn’t want it to end).the war of art
This is a book that slams you up ‘side the head with its blunt yet beautiful personification of Resistance (the malevolent force of nature that intentionally diverts the “artist” from sitting down and doing her work) and its description of the differences between a “professional” (someone who stomps on Resistance daily, in order to get work done) and an “amateur” (with whom Resistance has its own way). The final section discusses the “angels and muses” who use you and me as vessels for our art – if we’ll just get out of our own way, sit down, and begin.

The quality of the book that gives its ideas such power is its depiction of Resistance as an evil force that owns us – unless we become aware of its pernicious influence and take steps every day, every hour – whenever it creeps up on us – to actively combat Resistance. Here are some key excerpts from the first section that defines the enemy of Resistance:

“Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.”

“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work….It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man.”

“Resistance’s goal is not to wound or disable. Resistance aims to kill. Its target is the epicenter of our being: our genius, our soul, the unique and priceless gift we were put on earth to give and that no one else has but us. Resistance means business. When we fight it, we are in a war to the death.”

“Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything.”

“Rationalization is Resistance’s right-hand man. It’s job is to keep us from feeling the shame we would feel if we truly faced what cowards we are for not doing our work.”

“Rationalization is Resistance’s spin doctor…. Resistance presents us with a series of plausible, rational justifications for why we shouldn’t do our work…. What Resistance leaves out, of course, is that none of this means diddly. Tolstoy had thirteen kids and wrote War and Peace. Lance Armstrong had cancer and won the Tour de France three years and counting.”

“Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids…. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within.”

Already, since reading The War of Art, I have become much more tuned in to those moments when Resistance is trying to press its claws into me. And perhaps because I have learned to identify Resistance in all its chameleon, sneaky forms, I’m really enjoying kicking its butt. It’s been four straight days of running now, despite all the (true and real) rationalizations you could possibly imagine. Even writing this blog post is a victory over Resistance. Feels good to block the slam dunk of Resistance for one day. The war begins anew tomorrow morning, 5:00am. Bring it on.

By failing at GTD, I have learned its keys

I read the book, Getting Things Done, in 2001. Since then, I have re-read it several times and integrated many aspects of the program into my life. Unfortunately, I have not been able to attain “black belt” status during the last five years, nor have I come very close. And yet, the intention of working towards a black belt in GTD is always there. And every day I think and act in a bastardized GTD sort of way.

As a GTD believer who has so far failed to go the distance in implementing GTD in my life, I do think I have identified two main pillars of GTD which, of course, have been the toughest things for me to fully integrate.

1. The Weekly Review. This is sort of like eating vegetables and exercising daily. You know it’s good for you, you know you need to do it to be at your best and to live a better life, and yet it just doesn’t happen. My two main obstacles to completing a full-blown Weekly Review are: a) Negotiating with others who need my time to secure personal time I would need for a Weekly Review, and b) Even when I’ve scheduled time for a Weekly Review and am in-process, I have never failed to go down rabbit trails and start working on actions and projects before I’ve completed my Weekly Review. In short, I feel like I need an entire Saturday away from my family to get it done the right way (which I can’t get, because of my parenting priorities). Then, I need someone standing over me saying, “Do NOT start working on that. Write it down and go on to the next thing in your in basket. MOVE ON!”

2. Write down everything, get it all out of your head. Then throw it all into your in-box, to be processed once a day. I have become someone who writes down ALMOST everything, and gets ALMOST everything out of my head. And yet, as David Allen says, if you don’t get it ALL out of your head, if you don’t write it ALL down, you won’t trust your lists and you can’t relax knowing you’re doing exactly what you should be doing at that moment. I do carry around a pad and pen in my wallet and I use them often, but too often I still trust myself to remember ideas I’m having in the shower, while I’m driving, while I’m watching football on TV, etc. And then, I forget these ideas. Doh! And while I do use my in-box as a place to throw my ideas, I don’t go through my in-box frequently enough. There’s so much stuff in there, it repels me during a week of go-go-go implmentation. And then, I trust my lists even less. Because of my many young kids and my heavy parenting responsibilities, I can’t arrive at work earlier than 8 and I can’t leave later than 5:30pm and it’s a major deal to work on the weekends, and yet, what I really feel I need is more time – to process, to think, to plan next actions. I could stop working at 4:00pm and just process the in-box. Perhaps this would be better for my overall effectiveness. But my time for taking action is already so short, I’m loathe to shorten it for processing and thinking’s sake. (And yet, as I write that last sentence, it’s so obvious that it’s what I need to do.)

Don’t Add Unless You Subtract

mind set I picked up a really interesting book a couple of weeks ago: Mind Set! by John Naisbitt. I’ve never heard of Mr. Naisbitt, but I gather that he is well known for his ability to identify major trends and to give us a glimpse of what the future holds. In this book, he explains the eleven “mindsets” he has developed to synthesize the flood of information he’s exposed to every day (newspapers, media, etc.) and to develop his conclusions about significant trends.

“Don’t add unless you subtract” is one of his most compelling and interesting mindsets. I’ve been thinking about it for about a week now and have found it to be remarkably relevant in my life.

This fall, my staff decreased from five to four (including me) and a major new project (a new full-time job itself) was added to my plate. I added but did not subtract, and all four of us are feeling the effects.

I used to run every morning at 5am in order to be back home before the first of my three small children awoke, to tend to them so my wife could sleep in a little longer. Then came baby #4, and leaving at 5am meant not being around to help at 5:10am when the baby awoke, crying for a bottle. So, I added the baby, and subtracted the run. I have tried many ways to add the run back into my life, but have not been willing (yet) to subtract something else to make it work.

Of course, what I crave is a 25th hour in the day. While I know it doesn’t exist, a part of me thinks I can find it somehow. And it’s that irrational belief that makes me say “yes” to appealing requests for my time, despite my already-full schedule….

Obvious Adams

Obvious AdamsMany of us have an aversion to consultants – they cost so much and they think they’re so darn smart. But then why do we need consultants? Because it’s human nature for us to lose the ability to see our organizations, programs, and plans objectively. We need consultants to point out the obvious to us and develop obvious solutions to our problems. The fact is, if we could develop the ability to see our organizations and plans through fresh eyes every day, and then take time to think about obvious solutions, we would never need a consultant the rest of our careers. Meet Oliver “Obvious” Adams.

Obvious Adams, first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1916, is the delightful short story of a “very ordinary sort of boy” possessing “no particular initiative” who, nevertheless, rises quickly in the Oswald Advertising Agency from “periodicals filer” to president of the company. Mr. Adams’ talent? He is able to discern the “obvious” solution to any problem. Invariably, his supervisors are stunned they did not see the simple solution for themselves: “Now, why in thunder couldn’t some of us have thought of that?”

Near the end of his career, Obvious Adams was interviewed and asked, “Why don’t more businessmen do the obvious?” And he answered,

“I have given considerable thought to that very question, and I have decided that picking out the obvious thing presupposes analysis, and analysis presupposes thinking, and thinking is the hardest work many people ever have to do, and they don’t like to do any more of it than they can help. They look for a royal road through some short cut in the form of a clever scheme or stunt, which they call the obvious thing to do; but calling it doesn’t make it so. They don’t gather all the facts and then analyze them before deciding what really is the obvious thing.”

How can we think about our projects, our work, our teams like an outside consultant? Do we take enough time to step back from our work, think about what the real objective is, analyze the current situation, and identify the “obvious” solution? And then, once we’ve identified it, how can we muster the courage to implement the “obvious” solution?