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The Limits of Self-Help

Are you interested in self-help? Have you ever read a self-help book, listened to a self-help program, or attended a self-help seminar? I can’t imagine that you are reading this blog if self-help is not a huge priority in your life. In other words, I’ll bet you’re a person who is interested in self-guided improvement be it intellectually, economically, physically, or emotionally. You want to improve and you want to be in the driver’s seat of making that improvement. Am I right?

You want to control your life. You want to make your life better. You want to direct your next breakthrough and be responsible for the next personal and professional transformations that you need in order to reach the next level of success. You want to summon the iron will and steadfast courage to overcome the obstacles that stand in your way.

I can promise you that this is exactly who I am. I’ve been hooked on self-help ever since I learned I could make a difference in how my life turns out. From the moment I learned that I could make choices, the game of self-help was on. I wanted to make the best choices, and I wanted to win the game. I was ready to play. I was all in.

I instinctively knew how the game was to be played. It is based on a very simple idea. The fundamental belief of self-help is the belief that you can make yourself better. That’s it, and I agree.

Now here’s the question: Can this idea be taken too far? I’ve learned in my own life that it can. In fact, I’m embarrassed to tell you that while I have worked extremely hard to make everything about my life the best it could possibly be, the major advances that I’ve made have come from others helping me. It’s true. My major successes have come from Other-Help, not Self-Help.

Now I don’t want to say that I haven’t played a major role in this game I’m playing called MY LIFE, but I’m saying that self-help is not enough, not nearly enough. My guess is that self-help has not helped you through the most difficult times in your life such as those times when everything just fell apart and you were so disillusioned that you didn’t know what to do or where to turn. Haven’t you had times when you’ve been so lost and alone that you couldn’t decide what to do next? If not, then you may be an alien or you may have some special super powers I’ve never witnessed in anyone that I’ve ever met or read about, and that’s a lot of people.

I’m willing to bet that you understand what I’m talking about in terms of the fact that self-help can only take you so far in life. Self-help does indeed have its limits. It’s not enough to get you where you want to go and it most certainly will not provide you with the lasting achievement and fulfillment that you desire.

Self-help is definitely part of the formula involved in getting what you want but without the help of others, the game is over. The victory is both lost and hollow no matter what the achievement.

My suggestion is to make a list of the people who have helped you the most in your life. After each of their names, write down what they’ve done for you. Just this simple exercise will lead you to the underlying truth behind the game of life, which is this: Life is a team sport, and you can’t win a team sport by yourself!

So let’s add more people to your list who you may have never considered. For example, what about all of those opponents you’ve faced in your life? Did any of them make it on the list of people who have helped you in life? Why or why not?

Haven’t the people who challenged you the most also caused you to grow the most? How about writing down the names of your so-called “adversaries” along with a list of what they “helped” you learn and achieve. It’s been said that we learn more from failure than we do from success. Why? Because while we celebrate in some way when we achieve something, it’s when we fail that we are forced to ponder. What happened? Why did I miss my target? How can I get back on the right track? What can I learn from what happened? I know that I can succeed, so what’s the answer that I need? What else can I read or who can I ask for help? Asking questions leads to answers, and it often takes failure to get us to ask the questions we need to succeed.

As is so often the case in life, a change in perspective is needed when we miss one of our goals, and maybe it’s time to rethink self-help alone. It’s refreshing to turn things around now and then and look at life from a different perspective. There’s no need to stop studying self-help principles, just don’t limit yourself because there are a lot of people who can help you if you’ll only ask. You can also expand your reading to include books with the topic “Other-Help” to your library. That may not be a category in the bookstore but you can start with biographies and autobiographies of what people did who achieved what you want to achieve, and maybe you can even meet those people. The answers are always within reach and others will help. People are standing by to help you if you’ll only ask.

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Three Steps to Solve ANY Problem

Do you have a problem that you’d like to solve?

Here’s a simple three-step formula that never fails:

  1. Define the problem as precisely as possible.
  2. Visualize what the problem will look like when solved.
  3. Take daily steps toward your vision.

Perhaps that seems overly simplistic; however, I’ve never had anyone give me a better formula. The truth is that we are always either in a problem, we just got out of a problem, or we are heading straight toward a problem. Those are the only three options we are ever handed while traveling on this beautiful blue, island in space. This means that we’d better have a system or formula for dealing with problems or we are going to spend a great deal of our life in constant frustration.

When a problem confronts us, we are often caught off guard and begin to think that something totally unique has crossed our path. But that’s not the case. Our ancestors have been solving problems for thousands of years or we wouldn’t even be here. So our job is to solve the problems that face us so the next generation can stand firmly on our shoulders and keep the process moving forward.

So what is the biggest problem you are currently facing? Do you wonder if it can be solved? It can, but it might just take some laser beam focus and determination to get the job done. We know that problems are a constant in life and we also know how to solve problems by using this simple formula, so let’s dig in a bit deeper to see what kind of problem might be standing in our way.

The first thing I like to do when presented with a problem is see it as clearly as possible and also decide if it is a convergent problem or a divergent problem. In other words, is the problem one where a single, correct answer can be found or is it one where many possible solutions are available?

Convergent problems are solved when you converge on the correct answer. It’s like the solution to a math problem. Two plus two always equals four. That was the solution yesterday and today and it will certainly be the solution tomorrow. Convergent problems have systematic and logical answers that solve the problem every time.

Divergent problems, on the other hand, diverge or can go off in many directions. These kinds of problems have multiple solutions and require new, original, unique, or free-flowing solutions. Marriage is a great example of a divergent problem. What works today to keep a marriage vibrant and happy might not work tomorrow. And, more importantly, there are no singular answers that will work every time. Anyone who is in a successful marriage knows that it requires constant work.

So what about the problem you are currently facing, is there a single answer that will work if you discover it? Or do you need a range of options to choose from in order to whip the problem? Most problems facing us are divergent problems that require spontaneity and creativity.

I’ve spent my life working with entrepreneurs which is something that I thoroughly enjoy. I often point out to my clients that they are unique in the way they make a living and spend their days. While most people have a set schedule, prearranged relationships, and constraints on the amount of money they can make depending on their exact position or job, entrepreneurs have much more control. They get to choose their schedule and how they use their time. They get to choose the people they will do business with, and they also get to choose how much money they will make by virtue of the way they choose to run their business.

When you control your time, relationships, and money, your options in life are greatly expanded; however, you still have plenty of problems to solve and that includes a seemingly endless supply of divergent problems that require creative thinking.

Luckily, human beings are built for creative thinking. It’s literally in our DNA. We are designed to solve problems and solve them we do. Write down your currently problem and define it with as much clarity as possible. Look at it from every possible angle until you can see it in its entirely. Once you’ve done that, sit back and daydream about ways in which your problem could be solved. What would your problem look like if solved? See your life without your problem. What does that look like? What does it feel like?

It’s been said that whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve. If that’s true, then it’s true for you and your problem. So see the solution in your mind like an already accomplished fact. See yourself celebrating the fact that you’ve solved your problem. Now you’ve taken charge of the situation.

All you have to do now is begin moving every day toward that vision in your mind. All you have to do is one thing at a time in the order of its importance to you and the solution of your problem. If you keep at it for a sufficient amount of time, you’ll wake up one fine morning to the realization that your problem is solved. But don’t stop there. Now it’s time for another problem because you are a problem solver. That means you need a problem to solve because that’s what successful human beings do. So decide what your next breakthrough is going to be. It may involve some problems but you already know how to solve them, right? The secret is that simple three-step formula: (1) define your problem, (2) visualize a solution, and (3) take daily steps toward the solution. For good measure, add a bit of persistence and determination and you’ll defeat whatever problem stands in your way.

Life becomes infinitely more rewarding and exciting when you know how to play the game. So carefully choose your next move and remember to enjoy the journey!

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The Most Interesting Story in the World

Have you ever heard the most interesting story in the world? It’s the story of how you became the person you are today. It’s also the story about who you will become in the future. While there are undoubtedly an infinite number of factors or causes contributing to who you’ve become and who you will become, after spending most of my life looking for answers, I think I can boil it down to the 3 most important contributing factors.

To begin, visualize in your mind’s eye, a blank canvas that is framed and hanging on the wall like a beautiful piece of artwork. On this blank canvas we are going to first examine what happened to you before you were born. This is the background of your painting and your life. If you look closely, you’ll notice that your parents and each of your parents’ thousands of ancestors placed a drop of paint or made a small brush stroke on that canvas. Your painting now contains the first most important factor that makes up your life, your genes or your DNA.

It’s estimated that there have been over 100 billion people born on planet earth, yet not one of them has had your exact DNA. Just as no two snowflakes or diamonds are exactly the same, your genetic makeup is different in some way from every person who has ever lived or ever will live on the planet. Whether you like it or not, you are an original.

So the first thing that has influenced who you have become is your original genetic structure. Everything about you from your eye color and hair color to your height and weight have their roots in your DNA coding. Even your remarkable brain that is considered to be the most complex structure in the entire universe grew from your one-of-a-kind genetic coding. Moreover, your most valuable asset is that miraculous, 3-pound supercomputer between your ears.

I personally love to study geniuses to get an idea of what’s possible with a human brain. I enjoy studying people like Mozart, for example. Little Wolfgang was discovered to have perfect pitch at age 3 by his musician father. By the time Mozart was 14, it was discovered that he had a photographic memory for music that gained him an invitation from the Vatican to visit the Pope in Rome. Of course, many people don’t find their talent until much later in life. The man whose name has become synonymous with the word genius was thought to be not especially talented by his early teachers. His entry into the job market was as a clerk in a patent office. But while others didn’t think much about him, Albert Einstein was reading, studying, and building his incredible mind. He tapped into the miraculous equipment with which he was born to unlock many of the mysteries of time and space. Einstein solved problems that were once considered impossible to solve.

Now you may not have perfect pitch like Mozart or have a gift for theoretical physics like Einstein, but that’s not the point. What’s important to know is that you are undoubtedly strong and gifted in areas where Mozart and Einstein were weak. I personally believe that each of us has something that I call Unique Talent™. It’s the thing that you are meant to do. It’s something where the combination of your passions and talents are merged together. Have you figured out what that is for you? If not, I promise you that you can find it with some intelligent searching. It’s your most important quest in life. In your own way, you can change the world with your Unique Talent™ just as Mozart and Einstein did.

The second factor that has controlled who you have become in life also started before you were born just like the composition of your DNA. In the same way that didn’t choose your genetics, you didn’t choose your original environment. What this means is that the next bit of paint that was added to that canvas still hanging on the wall was mostly painted by others, especially in your early years. From the environment in your mother’s womb, to your environment as a child, choices were made for you. And the truth about life that doesn’t get enough attention is the fact that the environment in which we live plays a major part in who and what we become. We tend to become like the people we are around without even noticing it. The neighborhood where we grew up, the people who raised us, the teachers we’ve had, the books we’ve read, and everything else we have been exposed to have all added to our painting.

So the first factor is your DNA and the second factor is your environment. You haven’t had a great deal of choice so far but now the story gets really interesting with the third factor shaping your world.

At some point in your life, you came online. You became self-aware. We don’t know exactly when this happens as some people have memories of being in their mother’s womb while others don’t remember much of their childhood. But it’s interesting to consider your earliest memories as well as what you’ve been thinking about most of your life. I believe that your thoughts ultimately control your life so it’s critically important what you choose to think about. This is where you can exert the most control.

You begin with DNA being shaped by your environment but you eventually starting crawling into the driver’s seat of your life with your thoughts.

People who know about such things tell us that the average person has over 50,000 thoughts a day. The problem is that for most people, the 50,000 thoughts they will have today are the same ones they had yesterday. If you want to change your life, you’ve got to change your thoughts.

I recommend doing what I call a “Mental Download” on occasion, so you can examine what you’re thinking about. Write down your thoughts for a day and analyze what you are thinking about. Determine if your thoughts are taking you in the direction you want to go. You’ll learn a great deal about yourself with this simple process. You may be surprised with what you find lurking around in your mind. Just remember that you can change your thoughts, and when you do, you’ll change your life.

So there you have it: genes, environment, and thoughts. Study all three. Learn more about all three. You can influence all of them! Great minds are currently working on figuring out how to alter or manage bad DNA, and the human race is awakening to the role we play in shaping our environment on a grand scale and learning how we can make it better. We need to do the same in the neighborhood in which we live. And don’t forget to discover and start exploring your Unique Talent™. Your life becomes the best it can be when you put yourself in the best environment possible, and start thinking the thoughts that are calculated to take you where you really want to go in life.

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The Magic Word

One of my first mentors in personal development, Earl Nightingale, referred to the word “attitude” as both “The Magic Word” and one of the most important words in the English language. As with much of what Earl wrote and talked about, he was right on with this idea.

As a life-long student of success and failure, I’ve found that our attitude is the single greatest factor in determining how we experience life. It’s not an overstatement to say that it’s the strongest force behind the results we achieve.

Your attitude is a mixture of your philosophy of life, your beliefs, your expectations, and your emotions. What you feel and experience in life is primarily coming from your attitude, your outlook on life.

Perhaps attitude can best be defined as a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically in a way that is reflected in a person’s behavior. It’s hard to obtain good or great results in life without a good or great attitude.

How would you rate your attitude? As with all success concepts, attitude is not the only factor involved in what you achieve (or don’t achieve), but it’s right up there at the top.

Consider for a moment the attitudes of the people you’ve been around most of your life. Would you describe the general attitude in your environment both past and present to be poor, good, or great? Think about the attitude of your parents and other relatives as well as all of the people you are around on a daily basis right now. And how about the attitude that you bring to your environment? Would you describe it as poor, good, or great?

When clients tell me about the environment they experience on a daily basis, I often suggest the following method for sorting things out. If your environment, including the people you are currently around, reflects a poor attitude, consider using some strategic disassociation; if your environment is good, but not what you most want in your life, consider limiting the negative associations. If your environment is great, look for ways to expand your association with those people that most inspire you to grow. This is one of those concepts that is deceptively simple, yet all encompassing when it comes to how we experience life.

For the next 30 days, try cultivating a great attitude in all of your dealings with the world. I can promise you that this won’t be easy at first, especially if this isn’t something you have spent a lot of time previously thinking about or working on. However, if you’ll keep at it for a sufficient amount of time, you’ll soon discover that you are developing a new pattern of behavior that will impact every area of your life in ways that you can’t even imagine.

Work on making your attitude better every day and watch as new levels of synchronicity and serendipity come your way. We tend to get out of life what we expect, and our attitude is the key.

Focus your attitude using these two key words: Gratitude and Expectancy. First, be grateful for where you are in life and what you’ve already accomplished. In some ways, you’ve already won the grand prize in life. A scientist would tell you that your appearing on planet earth is beyond calculation or comprehension, especially if you happened to show up in a free country. So you’ve already won the lottery.

Second, expect the best. Cultivate an attitude of hopeful expectation. Work on expecting the best from life and watch how having great expectations leads to having even more to be grateful about.

Finally, commit the following three Earl Nightingale quotes to memory as a way to lock in place this most important idea:

  • “Our attitude toward others determines their attitude toward us.”
  • “We can let circumstances rule us, or we can take charge and rule our lives from within.”
  • “Our environment, the world in which we live and work, is a mirror of our attitudes and expectations.”

Earl was often referred to as the “Dean of Personal Development.” It’s certainly not hard to see why.

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New Year’s “NOT TO DO” Resolutions

Have you ever thought about having a “NOT TO DO” list as a part of your New Year’s Resolutions?

One of my yearend rituals that I share with clients involves writing a “NOT TO DO” list. It’s quite simple really. Make a list of 3 things you want to stop doing this year. That’s it. Not complicated. I find this idea surprises most people. It seems we have a tendency to think mostly in terms of what we need to start doing. But as with all things in life, turning around to look in the other direction can be very enlightening.

Consider this. The things that we are doing that we shouldn’t be doing are taking up valuable time, and our time on planet earth is limited. So another way of thinking about this idea is to ask yourself what things am I doing that are wasting my time and my life, precious time that could be spent doing what’s most important to me?

I believe the best use of our time is doing those activities that are directly related to our Unique Talent™. However, it’s easy to start taking on projects and activities that have nothing to do with our Unique Talent™ if we’re not careful. Think of it this way: Your Unique Talent™ is your gift to the world. It is the most valuable service you can provide to others. Other than time spent with your family and friends, your Unique Talent™ is the best thing to focus on.

So with that in mind, what should you stop doing?

Because I believe one should eat his or her own cooking, these are 3 things that I added to my current New Years “NOT TO DO” Resolutions:

  1. Stop all manner of housework including any and all cleaning, straightening up, handyman stuff, yard work, remodeling, or property management. You get the idea. I admit that I’m already pretty good at this as my wife will attest, but I want to shut it down completely. I want to live my life as if I lived in a fine hotel with everything provided. Because my wife will read this, I better be clear that I don’t want her doing anything that she doesn’t want to do. My goal is to hirer people who love doing what needs to be done. Yes, some people have a Unique Talent™ for cleaning, home repair, yard word, remodeling … you name it. I don’t want to take this work away from them because we both know I’m not going to do a good job at these things anyway because my heart isn’t in it. So the key is to spend more time on my areas of Unique Talent™. That’s the best way I can serve others.
  1. Stop vacationing at home. I’m embarrassed to admit this to you. I spent some of my vacation time last year at home. To be clear, I was indeed vacationing and not working, but staying home doesn’t cut the mustard. We all need stimulation and change, which includes giving ourselves the chance to see and experience other places. It’s good for us and helps us grow. Luckily, I do get to travel a lot for work but work doesn’t count. While I have been fortunate to travel all over the world, I need to do more traveling where there is no work of any kind involved. Just wandering around this beautiful, blue island in space is one of the most life enriching and mind expanding things you can do. So for me it’s time to take out the old list of places I’d like to visit and start crossing travel destinations off the list. Come join me, won’t you?

(You may think I’m joking about this last one but I’m dead serious. Seriously!)

  1. Stop spending the Christmas and New Years holidays in Michigan. Allow me to confess that I don’t always spend the holidays in Michigan. I’ve been to many destinations for the holidays including Caribbean cruises and trips to numerous warm-weather locations, but this year I ended up in Michigan. Our house was filled to overflowing with relatives from all parts of the world, and it was a merry time for all. But it reminded me again that I don’t like the winter. In fact, I’ve never really liked the winter. Sorry it’s just me. I grew up in Nebraska, spent many years in Illinois, and then settled in Michigan to open up my own business, all places with full-blown, arctic winter seasons. (What was I thinking?) It wasn’t until I bought a second home in Florida that I realized that winter is not a time of punishment inflicted upon me as a penance. But alas, I reluctantly agreed to spending the holidays in Michigan this year without remembering the extent of my aversion to the cold and grey days. Now, don’t get me wrong, Michigan is a wonderful place, most of the year. It’s just that in my book Florida beats Michigan in the winter hands down. It’s not even a close race. Therefore, it’s time to resolve to spend no more winters in Michigan. It’s an official NOT TO DO now. I was so cold during the holidays this year that I couldn’t even think about my Unique Talent™. When a relative mentioned that the driveway needed a bit of snow shoveling upon returning from an errand, I quickly began giving a Unique Talent™ Seminar in my garage to change the subject but it was too cold to finish it. I love Michigan, just not in the winter, please. (I’m now catching the first flight to Florida!)

There you have it. Three things that I need to stop doing. How about creating your own list? I promise you that you are doing things that can be ignored, delegated, or transformed into something better. If you come across something that you don’t want to do anymore but you think it can’t be avoided, don’t lose heart. Maybe it will take you longer than a year to make the change but once you begin, the momentum will build.

Happy New Year!

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I Think, Therefore I Am

You’ve undoubtedly heard the well-known idea attributed to Rene Descartes that says “I think, therefore I exist” or “I think, therefore I am.” But what if Decartes’ famous dictum or equation doesn’t provide a complete answer?

The book entitled “Descartes’ Error” by Antonio Damasio takes on Descartes’ famous pronouncement with the idea that our feelings and emotions are much more important than ever imagined. In other words, Damasio believes that it is wrong to think that only minds think. You may want to read that statement again: It is wrong to think that only minds think. What if our feelings and emotions play a key role in the way we think and what if our feelings and emotions are actually at the core of our thinking making them required for rational decision-making? I find his hypothesis extremely fascinating.

It’s always interesting to take something that is considered an undeniable truth and then dig in deeper to see if what we’ve been told, or if what we’ve come to accept or believe, might require more analysis. Antonio Damasio’s book might change the way you think about the mind as well as how you think about thinking itself. What if our feelings and emotions are actually the most important parts of who we are and how we live? What if they are more important than our thoughts and/or what if they somehow guide our thoughts? What if feelings and emotions are actually at the root of our thinking?

I personally believe that a great deal of what we think about comes from the questions that we ask ourselves on a daily basis. But what if even the questions we ask ourselves are bubbling to the surface based on our feelings and emotions? This is indeed an intriquing area of study.

So if you want to stretch your mind with some interesting concepts and ideas relative to thinking and the mind, I recommend reading “Descartes’ Error.” It might change the way you view yourself and the world around you.

Just for fun, think about this for the next 30 days and see if anything changes in your life:

“I FEEL, THEREFORE I AM.”

It’s more than just a philosophical mind bender. Giving your feelings and emotions more significance might lead you to a completely different life. In fact, what if your feelings and emotions are the most intelligent part of who you are? And what if they are trying to tell you how to live a better life but you’re just not listening?

I was going to end by saying “it’s worth thinking about” but maybe it would be more accurate to say “it’s worth feeling.”

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The Best Day of Your Life

Some 4,500 years ago, an Indian poet named Kalidasa wrote a poem that would be worth reading at the start of every day. There are a few different translations of this poem from the original Sanskrit so I’ve taken the liberty to review a number of them in order to come up with one I think you will really enjoy.

* * * * *
Look well to this one day:
For it and it alone is life.
In the brief course of this one day
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
The glory of action,
The splendor of achievement,
Are but experiences of time.

Remember that yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision.
Yet today well-lived, makes
Yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well therefore to this one day;
For it and it alone is life.

Kalidasa

* * * * *

There are many stories and legends about Kalidasa but my favorite is the one that tells of how he came to be so wise. According to the story, Kalidasa wasn’t always wise or even well thought of. He was actually considered to be one of the stupidest people in the kingdom when he was young. He was often ridiculed for his lack of intelligence which left him so dejected that he considered taking his own life.

One day, while wandering aimlessly and contemplating how he would take his own life, he came to a river and noticed some women washing clothes. He observed that some of the stones that the woman where using to wash clothes had become very smooth over time even though they originally had rough surfaces. The hard rocks had actually changed shape by being worn down by soft clothes. It dawned on him that if rocks could be worn and change their shape by the ongoing washing of clothes, then why couldn’t his hard, thick brain change by being washed with knowledge!

He immediately began studying, and it worked. This one simple observation changed his life. Through his studying, or washing his mind with knowledge, he became universally revered for his great wisdom not only in his time but literally thousands of years later.

So I guess the moral of the story is twofold. First, remember that today is the best day you are going to get so live it to the fullest. As Kalidasa learned, “… yesterday is but a dream and tomorrow is only a vision.” Second, while enjoying the best day of your life, look around see if there is something new you can observe and learn.

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Icebergs and the Direction of Your Life

In the early days of sailing ships, sailors who were brave enough to venture into the waters of Antarctica would witness a strange sight. They would notice large icebergs moving against the wind. In other words, the wind would be blowing in one direction and yet the icebergs would be moving along in a totally different direction. The sailors were obviously puzzled by this sight because their ships were powered by the wind and they wondered why the icebergs were not being blow on a course based on the direction of the wind.

This interesting phenomenon was studied and the answer was revealed. It was discovered that even though what the sailors could see of an iceberg looked like a towering skyscraper, the truth was that the majority of the iceberg, or some 90% of its mass, was beneath the surface of the water and caught up in the deep currents of the ocean. So regardless of what was happening with the winds or the tides on the surface of the water, the icebergs would move along quite purposefully based on what was happening below the surface of the water.

This story makes a great analogy to think about in that each of us needs strong currents in our life so we don’t get blown off course by what’s happening all around us on a daily basis. The push and pull of life is so often in the wrong direction. Yet we don’t have to get caught up in the noise and distractions on the surface. Each of us can stay on course if we remain connected to the great ideas and simple truths that always result in a life well lived. It may not be easy, but anyone who has achieved something worthwhile already knows that having the courage and resolve to not get blown off course by the surface conditions of life is the only way to get to your desired destination. It’s also the best way to stay focused, balanced, and at peace on a daily basis so you can enjoy the process.

So ask yourself what great ideas make up the deep currents of your life. Stay connected with those ideas that will take you in the direction you really want to go and you won’t get blown off course even if there are storms on the surface. You can be one of those rare people that have a quiet resolve that comes from knowing you are heading in the right direction.

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Finding Your Place

Years ago, I remember Earl Nightingale relating a story about finding your place in the scheme of things. It seems that a marine biologist was working to save a group of seals that got caught in a fishing net. He was able to save all of the seals with the exception of one who turned out to be pregnant. While the marine biologist was unable to save the mother, he was able to save the baby seal who he decided to take home to give special care. The baby seal not only survived but actually thrived. In fact, the seal became something of a family pet. The seal enjoyed being with the family and took a special liking to the man’s young daughter.

The seal learned to play with balls and rings along with numerous tricks that included singing (or barking and grunting as the case may be) when the young girl would play the piano. Over time, the girl and the seal became constant companions. But the marine biologist began talking with his daughter about the seal and the fact that it would soon be time to return him to his true home, the ocean. His daughter didn’t like that idea and tended not to think about it.

But eventually, the time had come to return the seal to the ocean. The father took his young daughter and the now fully grown seal on a boat ride back to the place where the seal had been found. The girl knew it was time for the seal to go home but she was very sad about what was about to happen and tears flowed down her young face. Surprisingly, the seal didn’t seem very excited about being out on the water and nuzzled up against the girl with what looked like tears forming.

When they reached the desired location, the man and his daughter worked to help the seal into the water but the seal didn’t want to go. He kept trying to back away from the ocean but the dad and his daughter kept working to get the seal into the water. Suddenly, they were able to get the seal in the water all the while listening to barking sounds of sadness from the seal. But then something interesting happened.

As soon as the seal hit the water, he was immediately transformed from an awkward and lumbering creature on the land, into a thing of pure beauty and grace in the water. The seal realized as soon as he hit the ocean that this was the place he was meant to be. This was home. And as the girl watched him dart about the boat with style and ease, she knew it as well. Even though she knew she would miss him, she knew that he was where he was meant to be.

I often think about this story when I think about finding our place in the scheme of things. It’s not always easy to find our way in life, and sometimes it’s downright scary. But have you ever noticed how many great things in life often come from a dive into the unknown? Have you ever noticed how things that seem really scary often turn out to be just fine, and you look back and ask yourself why you were so afraid?

The seal was afraid to get back into the ocean because he had somehow forgotten that it was his home. Upon hitting the water, though, he immediately experienced how his special gifts fit perfectly with this environment. He could move through the water as if by magic. I believe we can each have the same kind of experience if we’ll have the courage to uncover our special gifts even if it means jumping into the unknown and experiencing some uncertainty to explore who we are and what we are meant to do.

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Changing the Story of Your Life

Have you ever thought about your life as a story? My guess is that you’d benefit greatly by thinking about the story of your life, and perhaps analyzing your performance thus far. By doing this, you’ll probably be able to see for the first time what your life has really been about as well as where your life is heading. The truth of the matter is that all of us are actually writing, directing, and starring in our own story every day. We just don’t tend to think of it that way. But here’s an interesting question to consider: Would you enjoy going to the movies to see your story being acted out? Is it a good story that others would find interesting or, for that matter, would you find it interesting? Would you like how you are living your life if you were watching yourself on a movie screen?

One of my favorite pastimes is watching movies. I love a good movie. Nothing seems to have the power to carry me away like a great story brought to life on the big screen. But have you ever stopped to think that many of the stories we like the most are actually quite similar in structure? In fact, you might be surprised to learn that most successful movies are based on stories that have only a few key elements. I’ve seen academic lists of 5 elements including Introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Denouement from movie critics, and I also remember hearing someone use as many as 7 elements to analyze movies which I found more interesting because the elements used could more easily be connected with a person’s life. For our purposes, I’m going to use a rough outline of those 7 elements I once heard discussed but I’m going to change the order a bit and re-label them in an effort to help you see how powerful this concept can be when it comes to living your best possible life.

Remember, your life really is a story, or series of stories. And maybe by detaching to see your life as a moviegoer would see it, you’ll be able to see things you’ve never seen before. By viewing your life as a story, is it possible that you might discover how to make it better? How to get unstuck? How to solve your current problems? How to overcome whatever it is that’s standing between you and what it is you really want in life?

Most stories start with a person that has a desire or a wish or a goal that he or she wants to make real. We could simply label this element “The Desire.”

Let’s use the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus to bring this whole concept to life. If you haven’t seen the movie, consider watching it with this list of elements at hand. If you have seen it, consider watching it again and see if the movie’s message doesn’t affect you more once you understand the structure of the story. In Mr. Holland’s Opus, Richard Dreyfuss plays the leading role of Mr. Holland who is a man on a mission. He is a man who wants to write great music. He wants to be a world-class composer. But a story only begins with “The Desire”. What makes a story start to take shape and get us involved and engaged very quickly is the next element which we’ll call “The Problem.”

In Mr. Holland’s Opus, we quickly see that Mr. Holland has a major problem which can simply be labeled the cares of life. He needs money so he can have the free time he wants to write his opus. He needs to figure out a way to make some money. We can probably all identify with that problem on many levels. So often we have a desire to do something but it costs money. If we don’t have the money, we have a problem that needs to be solved.

But the movie also doesn’t stop there. Part of what makes any story interesting is seeing how problems are going to be overcome and Mr. Holland doesn’t disappoint us. He jumps right in to the next element of a story which we’ll call “The Plan.” Mr. Holland’s plan is simple. He is going to teach music until he can finish his great opus or symphony and, in the process, become a world-renowned composer. It’s an interesting desire with a plan to overcome his immediate problem. “The Desire” followed by “The Problem” with the introduction of “The Plan” that appears to have some merit. Isn’t it also interesting that we could probably identify these same elements in our own life? What’s your desire? What do you want to accomplish? What is your problem? What’s holding you back or standing between you and your desire? And what is your plan? Do you have a strategy to work your way through the problem or problems facing you in life?

Of course, we know that there’s always more to a great story than a desire, a problem, and a plan. If fact, if that’s all there was to Mr. Holland’s Opus, or any other movie we were watching, we’d probably be on the verge of being quite bored and getting ready to ask for our money back before we even finish our popcorn. But it’s the next element of a great story that makes things really get interesting. Let’s call this next part “The Opponents.”

Great stories have many levels of opponents and this is certainly true in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus. And the job of the opponents is to do everything they can do to block “The Plan” and that’s exactly what happens to Mr. Holland. While Mr. Holland is content to do the minimum requirements as a music teacher so he has plenty of free time to compose his opus, the principal of the school has another idea. She doesn’t want Mr. Holland sneaking out early when there are students that need additional help. And we quickly see that Mr. Holland is confronted by a whole host of students that don’t appear to have a lick of musical talent yet he is expected to teach them. Let’s label all of these opponents, external opponents.

Getting back to your story, do you have any opponents? People that are holding you back? You might right now be making a list in your mind. What makes Mr. Holland’s Opus so interesting is the fact that he doesn’t just have one opponent but a number of opponents. I’ve heard people categorize opponents into three areas including external, internal, and intimate. The external opponents are easy to see. For Mr. Holland, we already discussed the principal and students but there were also others if you watch the movie and think about this a bit.

For example, what about the internal opponent that we all face? In the movie, we can see Mr. Holland conflicted about what to do just as we so often are with the choices we face in life. Mr. Holland wants to get his opus written and become a world-class composer, but he also wants to do right thing for the students that have been entrusted to him. And if that’s not enough, the movie quickly shows us that there are two key intimate opponents. Mr. Holland and his wife are blessed with the birth of a son but it is quickly discovered that the son is deaf. Imagine being a musician where hearing is everything to you and now you are presented with a child that cannot hear. Mr. Holland and his wife now have a son that is going to require a great deal of additional time to raise. I suppose you could say that this is how the plot thickens as Mr. Holland has to deal with some pretty challenging intimate family relationships which can be seen as opponents to Mr. Holland’s desire or goal.

Can you identify with the idea of external, internal, and intimate opponents in your life? It’s not unusual that the biggest part of a movie, or the story of your life, to get caught up in the drama of dealing with opponents. In fact, as the opponents become more and more clear, we could say that the next phase of the story is rather obvious and is often simply called “The Battle.”

Rarely do opponents just cave in without a conflict. And it’s often this struggle with various opponents that connects us to a story. There might now be a chase scene or a toe-to-toe fight between the good guy and the bad guy that is almost cliché in movies, but there has to be some form of what might be called conflict resolution. In other words, how is this story going to turn out? What’s going to happen? Is Mr. Holland going to write his opus? How is he going to deal with the challenges with his wife and the fact that he now has a deaf son that needs special care? And how might Mr. Holland’s story of overcoming challenges relate to you? How are you going to overcome your problems and deal with your opponents?

I find that most people get stuck in the battle phase of their own personal stories. Isn’t that true? Talk with someone about their life and see what they talk about? More often than not, it’s the challenges. Of course, there’s nothing in and of itself that is bad about that unless you get stuck in your battle. But at some point, you have to do what all great movies do, you have to move beyond the battle. Although let’s face it, battle scenes can make a movie! But what’s next? Don’t things need to get resolved?

So how are things going to get resolved? It wasn’t easy for Mr. Holland. He had to learn to deal with his external opponents by making decisions about what was most important and setting new priorities. But, of course, this required battling himself from the standpoint of what to do about writing that opus that he thought was so important. And his wife wasn’t going to allow him to avoid his son or not develop the kind of relationship that he was capable of having even though his son was deaf. None of this was easy but watching him deal with all of this makes the story really come alive.

My apologies in advance for giving away the ending to the movie but I just can’t help myself. At the end of Mr. Holland’s career as a music teacher, he finds himself looking back on what he’s accomplished, or as he sees it, not accomplished with a sense of failure. The one thing that he set out to do — i.e., become a world-class composer — hasn’t happened. And what’s worse, the music program is now in jeopardy of being cancelled because of a lack of funding. As Mr. Holland clears out his desk with his wife and son accompanying him, he hears something going on in the auditorium of the school. Of course, his wife and son know exactly what is going on. As Mr. Holland gets to the auditorium and opens the door, he sees it’s filled with past and present students. Hundreds of people that have been touched by him and his gifts as a music teacher, and they are there to thank him for his life’s work.

Interestingly, an early clarinet student who was just one of the many students touched by Mr. Holland’s unique gifts as a teacher, had become Governor of the State, and she was now serving as the master of ceremonies for this special surprise event. During her speech, she says something that brings what we’ll call “The Resolution” clearly into focus. She says these words:

“Mr. Holland had a profound influence on my life and on a lot of lives I know. But I have a feeling that he considers a great part of his own life misspent. Rumor had it he was always working on this symphony of his. And this was going to make him famous, rich, probably both. But Mr. Holland isn’t rich and he isn’t famous, at least not outside of our little town. So it might be easy for him to think himself a failure. But he would be wrong, because I think that he’s achieved a success far beyond riches and fame. Look around you. There is not a life in this room that you have not touched, and each of us is a better person because of you. We are your symphony Mr. Holland. We are the melodies and the notes of your opus. We are the music of your life.”

Mr. Holland breaks down in tears as this point and finally understands what his life has been about up to that point. He has clarity. He understands something he didn’t understand before. He has resolution which opens things up for the final part of any great story or movie, “The Celebration.” In this case, Mr. Holland gets to hear what he has composed being performed by his students. There is much more to the movie than I’ve outlined here, but you probably get the idea. Mr. Holland is not a failure, he has discovered a greater success than he would have ever imagined for himself through the lives he has touched. He never realized until this moment that he had such an amazing teaching gift, and he certainly never realized the extent to which that gift had reached out into the world and really touched me people so deeply and profoundly.

And this brings us back to you. What about your life and your story? Where are you in the process of your story? Are you stuck dealing with an opponent? Have you been spending too many years in a battle? Are you learning that maybe the desire you started out with isn’t the best one for you and there is something much better?

More importantly, how do you want your story to end?

Or how about this? Nowhere is it written that you can have only one story. Maybe the present story you are living needs “The Resolution” and “The Celebration” so you can create a new story. As the credits rolled for Mr. Holland’s Opus, I found myself thinking that instead of retiring, Mr. Holland had plenty of time to become a composer if he still wanted to pursue that dream. But I also found myself thinking that sometimes what we get is better for us than what we might have wanted in the first place. Life is interesting that way. Sometimes we don’t get what we want but we get what we need.

Maybe a fresh look at your life and the story you are living could give you a new perspective. How about viewing your life as a story and seeing where that leads you. Just take the 7 elements we’ve discussed and apply them to your life thus far.

THE DESIRE
Is what you have been chasing really want you want? Is “The Desire” the right one for you?

THE PROBLEM
Are the problems you are facing really that bad or are they serving you in some way? Is “The Problem” holding you back or getting you to grow?

THE PLAN
Is your plan producing good results or do you need a different approach? Does “The Plan” appear to be working or is it time to consider another strategy?

THE OPPONENTS
What about those people that you view as opponents? Are “The Opponents” maybe your greatest gift because they are forcing you to grow?

THE BATTLE
Are you stuck in a battle that maybe it’s time to resolve? Is it time to realize that you can end “The Battle” at any time that you wish?

THE RESOLUTION
And finally, what lesson is life trying to teach you? Often all you need to resolve a situation is a new level of understanding which can come at any time. “The Resolution” just needs you to recognize the lesson so you can move on to that last element.

THE CELEBRATION
Whatever you do, don’t forget “The Celebration.” It’s like the icing on the cake. But do me a favor. No matter where you are in your current story, remember that you don’t have to wait until the end of it to have a party. Make your whole life a celebration. I think you’ll find it’s more fun that way.