Here is the Introduction to my new book--Doing What Matters Most. This is my attempt to simplify the self-development process.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” ~Herbert Simon.
Time to shut down—
Close the windows,
Shut the doors.
Too many answers,
So few cures.
Hassles and hierarchies.
Mountains of words
That go unheard.
No end in sight.
Too much to do,
Never enough time.
When will we come
To our senses?
Empty our minds,
Fill our souls—
Enjoy one another,
It’s not too late;
It’s time to try.
Shhh…stop, shut down your brain and listen for a moment. The Land of Simple is beckoning us! Alvin Toffler was right in his 1967 Book Future Shock. We are victims of the current chaotic information overload, and the gap between those who are trying to keep up and those who have given up is widening by the nanosecond. This gap is a real problem that should concern us all—in work, school, home and life situations—enough to do something about it. We have those who try to know and those who only know they don’t care anymore. Most of us are somewhere in between, but perched on a slippery slope. Maybe we are the ones who need to wake up and lead the rebellion!
I have been a student of personal development and success all my life, but my mind is about to explode with all the good information on this topic that is currently overloading the Internet, training seminars and the bookstores. So, I am doing what I discovered matters to most people I talked with during the last few years. I am writing a roadmap to the Land of Simple for myself and all those others who are sick and tired of the overload, and want to focus on discovering and doing what matters most. And all I have to do is keep it simple. Because that is what most of us need to get what we want most—inner peace—from the turmoil of chaos and wasted time of doing what doesn’t matter. Thanks to the Information Age overload, we have reversed the so-called 80-20 Pareto Principle and are presently wasting 80% of our time and efforts in getting 20% of the results that count. From a time and resource management standpoint, that isn’t very smart.
Enough is enough. Up with simplicity and down with complexity. Who wants to undergo major brain surgery or a complete personality makeover, which will take three lifetimes to complete, just to be successful and have some inner peace? Not me or you! I have always preferred the K.I.S. principle Keep It Simple (I purposely left off the derogatory “Stupid” second S). By the way, getting this simple title to come to mind wasn’t easy as you read about in the Preface. Arriving at the simplicity just on the other side of complexity involves wading through a swamp filled with mucky chaos and intriguing distractions, and requires an intense focus on getting to the Land of Simple.
It is a real challenge to plow through all the mountains of good and bad ideas and everything we can do that might matter, just to find out what really matters most, be able to just say it simply and clearly and then just do it. But now I have to keep with the spirit of the simple title in all that I am saying from here on out. Every word has to count.
Personal development does matter and if we are to take it seriously enough to make progress at achieving success and getting the inner peace we want, then it is probably time to focus on the few things that do matter most. That means we can delete the other 95% useless BS nonsense, which is actually easier done than said. That should be a relief. My mind can certainly use some breathing room and thinking space. I think most of us desperately want some refreshing simplicity.
So here is my user-friendly roadmap to the land of simple, outlining the ten life tests that teach us what matter most. These are the ten tests that challenge us all, with some simple solutions to simplify the overload and do better on the tests. In the meantime, we can concentrate on silently chanting a new mantra: “Control the controllables, and let go of the rest.”
These things that matter most all work together to help you be successful in having more inner peace. Focus your efforts on applying a few simple solutions to pass one test and see the fruits of your labor burst through all the others. You will get twice as far with half the effort. You can’t lose. Get ready to simplify your overload.
1. FINDING OUT WHAT, WHY & HOW?
“Writing is a struggle against silence.” ~Carlos Fuentes
The first test we get is to figure out what life is all about and how we fit in. Some people ignore this test, some struggle with it for a whole lifetime and some start living their answers from the get-go. It seems to me that the quality of life we experience has a lot to do with the answers we come up with and how long we get to apply them.
The test requires us to develop a life plan, or Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life The plan doesn’t have to be anything elaborate or fancy. It can be as simple as filling in a few blanks, such as coming up with reasonable answers to the five main questions we all have about anything we try to do. These five things may very well matter most of all with the things in life that do matter.
• Why am I here?
• What am I supposed to be doing?
• How do I know if I am doing it right?
• What’s in it for me?
• Where do I go when I need help?
Not wondering enough about these questions was the one thing that a group of over 100 year old seniors regretted most in their long lives. The next thing on their regret list was not taking enough chances in living their answers. But, better late than never in finding out what does matter most, right?
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Take advantage of free on-line psychological, vocational and aptitude tests.
• Ask friends, family, teachers, clergy or mentors what they know about this.
• Read inspirational biographies and motivational books for clues.
• Look at how you spend most of your time and what you enjoying most.
• Ask the “why” questions until you peel the layers away from the real answer, usually five levels down.
• Experiment.—doing and thinking about what you are doing.
• Examine your tough times and dark holes to see what they were trying to teach you.
2. GETTING THE RIGHT PERSPECTIVE
“Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” ~Voltaire.
The one life test that can help us to learn how to pass the other ones is the challenge of finding the right perspective. And the right perspective is any viewpoint that lets you see clearly what the problem is and how to best solve it to get the results you want. What matters most is leaning in the direction of having a positive attitude about life, especially when things aren’t going your way so you can minimize those times. It is easy to get discouraged and negative when things go sideways, but adversity is a real test of your character and your best response to this test is to step up to the plate and hit a home run.
The few things I will always emphasize to my children and grandchildren are: Dream huge, believe in unlimited possibilities, and let your imagination run wild.” Research about such an optimistic viewpoint towards life proves its value: Optimistic people live longer, are happier, make more money, have fewer physical complaints and stay married longer. It is a good idea to develop optimism when things are going well so you can apply it when things go south (which they will). This is when you will need that positivism most.
One valuable lesson we can learn from this test is that what you see depends mostly on where you are doing the looking. And getting to the best viewpoint helps you to see what you can and can’t do about situations you don’t like. You can either change viewpoints or do something about what you are seeing. Or you can be okay doing neither. You can’t loose with the right perspective. It is the best defense against any adversity.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Read the research on the benefit of optimism (Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism).
• Take a test to measure your current level of optimism (in the same book).
• Catch yourself slipping into negativity in subtle ways with your thinking, feeling and especially your reactions to negative situations or people.
• Move around and notice that what you see depends upon where you are doing the looking from (people who travel to outer space get a whole new perspective of life).
• Look for positive purposes in negative events, such as 9-11 and other mega-tragedies.
• Make a list of the best things that have happened to you and read them to remember the good times on rainy days.
• Think about the painful events in your life and how time healed you and how these terrible things helped you grow stronger.
3. TOPPLING THE TOWER OF BABEL
“Life is far too important of a thing than to talk about.” ~Oscar Wilde.
I am sure you have noticed that we are way too wordy, that the volume and velocity of information is overwhelming and that good communication is a rare commodity. In fact miscommunication is the norm. Learning to communicate effectively is a giant test. And since talking and writing are our main ways of dealing with each other, it does matter to fix our verbal and writing skills and topple the Tower of Babel.
The lesson to be learned with this test is to keep communication simple. Talk once and listen twice, and think about what you want to say, say what you mean and say it clearly and simply. If you are writing, write how you speak. And try to avoid the unproductive habit of assuming you can interpret non-verbal behavior correctly, without clarifying what is or isn’t meant. That is where most of the interpersonal problems and conflicts occur.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Talk less and listen more to learn more, especially knowing all the things you don’t need to say.
• Stop making assumptions you are understanding and being understood and check things out for accuracy and completeness.
• Seek feedback about how well you speak, write and listen.
• Learn new and unusual words that aren’t familiar or easily misunderstood.
• Keep e-mails short and too the point.
• Define important words you use to avoid misinterpretation and guarantee understanding.
• Take a course in speed reading.
4. BUILDING BETTER RELATIONSHIPS
“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” ~W. H. Auden.
The quality of interpersonal relationships we have at home and work spill over into everything else we do and so the effort we put into having good relationships does matter a lot. Relationships are the ultimate test of character that can get to the healthiest of people in not so kind ways. Unfortunately relationships are deteriorating today because we aren’t focusing on doing what matters most inside the relationship—doing the simple things that nurture and build a good relationship. These are listening, understanding, supporting, complementing, accepting, giving, loving, including and being assertive when something offends your soul or to be heard because your boundaries are being violated.
The one thing that wastes the most time and doesn’t really matter is the futile effort to change someone else’s thinking and behavior. Leave that to the professionals. They have a hard enough time trying to be successful in doing that. Besides, you will only end up frustrated and annoy the other person. As Garfield says, “Love me, feed me and never leave me.” That sounds like he knows what matters most in building good relationships.
And there is one other thing that really matters—what starts out right usually has a better chance of finishing right. Being with the right person is something on which your inner voice either agrees or disagrees in clear, simple yes or no terms. It is the war between your rational mind and feeling heart that gets you confused. And of course our bad habit of immediate need gratification doesn’t help either. Patience and tolerance are often what matters most in relationships.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Discuss what matters most to you and your partner or teammate.
• Look away from annoying differences and look towards similarities.
• Focus on improving your own likeability and lovability.
• Use love languages that match your partner’s wants and needs.
• Realize the positive purpose of conflict being an opportunity to grow forward in the relationship.
• Keep a scrapbook to maintain the proper perspective—for better or worse, but forever.
• Find away to worship together whether in church or nature.
5. FINDING THE SUCCESS DOORS
“Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.” ~Norman R. Augustine
Today, success is becoming a major industry and there is certainly no shortage of success prescriptions. In fact there are probably too many, just adding to the information overload that is overwhelming us all. Fortunately we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to be successful. Nor do we need to be hard-wired with fantastic genetic endowments. Success is open to everyone, because we each get to choose how to define it for ourselves, how we know if we have it or not, and how much we need. Luckily there are plenty of clues left behind by people who have already traveled this road and plenty of answers are available for the asking.
The best success clues are all behind three doors: Successful thinking, passionate determination and social skills. Successful thinking is doing anything that matters most to help you get from where you are to where you want to be—whether it is rational or irrational logic, wild or calm creativity, or just trial and error common sense in the making. Passionate determination is doing what you like to do just because it feels good to do it. It is in your blood. This is called intrinsic motivation and it is much more powerful and longer lasting than the ephemeral lure of external “carrots.”
Social skills are simple too. They are being likeable (positive, polite, real, honest, agreeable, and funny), communicating well and doing what matters most to build good relationships. These three success doors only seem to be invisible because they are so close to your natural self you can’t see them.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Learn about how your brain works against giving you the truth; you will have to slow down and think about your thinking long enough to see where it is taking you.
• Accept that what you think you know may not be necessarily so; question yourself on how you can be sure about what you do “know.”
• Practice the things that improve your likeability.
• Study the vast benefits of intrinsic motivation.
• Collect common sense sayings.
• Watch spirit-tickling movies, like The Pursuit of Happiness.
• Explore your own natural creativity; start by creating your own new definition of creativity.
“Unless a man undertakes more than he can possibly do, he will never do all that he can.” ~Henry Drummond.
The hardest life test for many of us is dealing with the growing pains from making changes that are forced upon us. Remember how popular the book, Who Moved My Cheese was? Resisting growth and change is probably what makes it so hard on us. This is not really very smart, because the growing test, just like these other ten tests, won’t go away until we learn the lesson.
I think what gives me more inner peace than anything else is when I feel confident I am making an honest effort to learn, grow and improve into my best signature self. Too many people say the same thing about this primary motivation, which reinforces the fact this drive to grow does matter. This is what I am convinced God wants from me and how my life will be judged—what I did with what I had to do it with. Growth occurs in six main areas—physical, intellectual, emotional, social, vocational and spiritual realms
I also know I like to be understood, loved unconditionally and accepted for who I am, first—foibles, oddities, insecurities, limitations and the whole package—before I am gently encouraged to gradually improve. This is the order of the two voices in which I hear God speaking to the whole universe, which we might need to consider following too. And this is the reason behind the saying, “people don’t care what you know until they know you care.” Furthermore, this voice sequence is a good prescription for work and success—fit into your family, company or school first and then change what you are fitting into from the inside out. You will see what really needs changing and be more effective in changing those things.
But one other thing I have learned the hard way is to work more on developing and using my strengths than worrying about trying to improve my weaknesses. That is because it is my few strengths that matter most. All I have to do is avoid getting into precarious situations that exploit my weaknesses. And a lot of times silence and listening are the best forms of self-protection in these situations.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Share your insecurities with people who you trust and see how common they are.
• Realize that what you resist will persist, so why bother?
• Read and learn something new that you don’t know anything about.
• Re-read books on change and remember what you have already learned.
• Learn to speak the right order of voices—acceptance first and encouragement to improve second.
• Focus solely on your own self-growth and development.
• Find out what your main strengths and gifts are and use them frequently; avoid getting into situations that exploit your weaknesses.
7. JOINING LIFE
“You can’t talk your way out of a situation you behaved your way into.” ~unknown author.
A very important test that may be a common thread that runs through these others—just like getting the right perspective—is the one that forces the choice between rebelling and doing it our own separate way vs. giving in, letting go and getting in sync with how life actually works according to God’s plan. By now The Secret is out, thanks to Oprah, Larry King and The Today Show. In case you have not yet read the book, seen the video, or watched these shows, The Secret reveals a fundamental truth about how life works under the Law of Attraction: Positive energy attracts positive realities and negative energy attracts negative realities. It is quite simple. You get what you ask for.
What matters most about the secret is why most people have difficulty in tapping into its awesome power. Some religious folks say it is too secular or spiritual, but I say look closer and you will see where it is coming from and why it is true . But that takes believing and applying all these other things that matter most. If you are not getting what you want, consider how you may be asking for it in the wrong way or not doing what matters most. That matters a lot.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Practice some form of prayer or meditation.
• Study Eastern Spirituality or read the Bible.
• Find out more about The Secret.
• Commune with nature.
• Write a journal of the life laws and principles you discover during your journey.
• Read books on success principles.
• Study the connection between what you think and feel and what results you get.
8. REPAIRING & CREATING NEW REALITIES
“When you argue with reality, you lose - but only 100% of the time.” ~Byron Katie.
Another thing that matters most, is to become sensitive to critical moments of opportunity vs. moments of danger. You can do this by learning the few things that bring joy (positive, love-driven thoughts, feelings and acts) and tears (negative fear-driven thoughts, feelings and acts). The lesson is to move forward when you feel positive about a situation and stopping to re-think about your approach when you feel the negative feelings welling inside. Then you can take a stand to do whatever you can to promote the successes and stop these tragedies with the only anecdotes that work—unconditional love and the effective mind-changing skills proposed by Howard Gardner including reason, research, reiteration, resistances, real events, rewards and resonance.
The older we get, the less reality-creating and repairing we seem to feel compelled to do and so these successes that need to be passed on and the tragedies that do demand repairing stand out even more. Some things do need our interventions and to ignore them is reckless, insensitive and irresponsible. You can recognize these things when you feel a soothing or burning in your soul that says, “yes” or “no” very clearly and decisively. They are non-negotiable soulful experiences that cut through the filters of our psychological consciences.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Study your positive and negative feelings and what they are trying to tell you.
• Listen to your inner voice more.
• Make lists of things you can and can’t control.
• Donate some time and service to a good cause.
• Figure out how to fit in first so you can know how to change things from inside out.
• Take the time to understand a situation completely with all the relevant information before you try to ‘attack” it.
• Learn to use assertiveness to get what you want.
9. MANAGING TIME AND MONEY
“The safe way to double your money is to fold it over once and put it in your pocket.” ~Frank Hubbard
The test of managing time and money is one that probably has the most failures. The biggest obstacle to managing the information overload is in managing our most important “free” resource—time. The simple keys to do this are: (a) getting rid of the old mechanical concept of time that is the tail that wags the dog and replacing that with its true r psychological nature, which allows more to get done in less time (b) keeping impatience for immediate need gratification in check, and (c) sorting through what matters from the things that don’t matter so the few priorities rise to the surface. This saves much time. From there on it is a simple matter of doing what matters most with the saved time.
With money management, there are only a few simple rules to follow: (a) you have to have more coming in then going out and deposits come before withdrawals (b) real wealth isn’t represented in sums of money but quality of experiences and friends (c) you can never have enough money and if you can’t be happy with less you can’t be happy with more (d) If you give more you get more, and (e) the most valuable money you can earn is through giving your job your best effort.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Consolidate debts and make a plan to pay them off.
• Seek unusual ways to make more money.
• Be more generous with what money you have, than you may want to be.
• Start each day with a do-list that stares you in the face.
• Use down time productively.
• Stop wasting time doing what doesn’t matter and start doing what does matter.
• Look for things that represent real wealth that are free to enjoy.
10. LIVING A GOOD LIFE AS YOUR SIGNATURE SELF
“Reading is a basic tool in the living of a good life” ~Mortimer J. Adler
This is the mother of all the other tests that requires applying your repertoire of lessons learned. Your signature self is who you were born to be and being that self comes more natural than we sometimes struggle with—just like trying to do it our way or life’s way. Being yourself is easy. All you have to do is give up what doesn’t matter and your silly efforts to be what you are not. That foolish habit is our common denominator.
I guess if you do all these other nine things that matter most, you are living a good life as your signature self. For me a good life is defined as using my gifts to be successful in helping others to be more successful in finding their inner peace. That is what matters to me most because it makes me feel like I have used my life to make a difference. Also, living a good life is a serious collection of doing the right things in the right ways for the right reasons. Put another way, it is sacrificing short term pains for long term gains, consistently.
Seven Simple Solutions:
• Establish a sound moral judgment strategy to determine right action, such as The Golden Rule, higher authority, pragmatism (practical consequences) or utilitarianism (greatest good for the greatest majority).
• Find out who your natural self is—your natural personality, natural way of communicating and natural way of operating.
• Practice the wisdom of sacrificing short term pains for long term gains.
• Set realistic goals in all six areas of your life—physical, intellectual, emotional, social, vocational and spiritual.
• Always ask yourself “why” you want to do something until there are no more secondary “why” answers masking the real reason.
• Know what you really want and how to ask for it.
• Do more of what matters most and less of what doesn’t matter.
Now let me tell you about the rocky road on which I got all my bruises and broken bones in this journey to find out what matters most so I could start doing it after too many years of not.
My Brick Wall
Being unemployed was the worst nightmare I could imagine. In fact, thirty years ago I wrote it down at a self-development workshop as the one thing that worried me most ahead in life. This is a brief story about a two-year long nightmare that I finally made it through to the other side. At 55, armed with a Ph.D. in psychology, exposure to top-class business and professional training and 30+ years of management experience in three different career fields, I couldn't even get an entry level job at a temporary employment agency. To say this was demeaning was just the beginning to a horror story that wouldn't seem to go away.
This nightmare went on for nearly two years. It was a state of frustration and desperation that was pushing me past any limits I thought I had. Every empty day spent waiting for a phone call or a letter that never came stretched my patience so thin that I could see through it. I felt like I was being ordered to idle my engine when all I wanted to do was screech my tires. I did a count of all the letters, resumes and applications I sent off. I was supporting Wal-Mart and the U.S. Post office in supplies and postage with money I didn't have. I had a six-inch thick file of rejection letters, and they only constituted one third of all that I sent out. Most employers were too busy to give a courteous response. Yet I continued and had to wonder why?
There is not much I didn't try and that made things seem even worse. I networked, surfed the Internet daily, read all the want ads and called friends. I visited job fairs, scanned professional magazines, and sent impressive letters to target companies. I sought employment counseling services, made the rounds with all the veteran's organizations and pestered private employment agencies. I even hired a headhunter.
Zero results. I got angry and wondered why I was being singled out with punishment that gouged my soul. It is not that I was being too selective or that I kept trying the same thing over and over again expecting different results. I changed my resume a couple of hundred times, I customized it and my letters each time I sent them out and I was totally flexible about what I could do, where I could go and how much money I needed to make. I asked for feedback and looked for skeletons in my closet to remove. If I was any more flexible and adaptable I would be a pool of blubbering jelly.
I guess we all have our invincible brick walls that keep getting higher and higher in response to our increased effort to tear them down. This situation I was in was maddening. The more I tried, the worse it got. I know I did this all to myself but that self-revelation didn't make things better at all, only worse. And sitting back and accepting this sorry state of affairs was not something that was part of my nature. This vicious circle was making me dizzy.
Let's be honest here about how all this mess started. Not long ago I had what most people would be pleased to have—an all-American family, a great job, nice house in a scenic part of the country, plenty of friends and even money in the bank. But I was missing the one thing I thought I wanted and needed most—to find and be with my “true love.” Thus began my journey to hell, which left me homeless, jobless, hopeless, humorless and broke. But that is a story in itself. I have no one to blame but myself for being so stupid, reckless, selfish and insensitive to not appreciate what I had, wanting to seek greener pastures that turned out to be browner. Somebody thoughtfully suggested I consider watering the pasture I was in.
As I wrote this article for The Top Achievement Chronicles, I had at least made it back to the surface. I finally stopped digging at the bottom of the hole I was trying to get out of. I eventually found myself and I finally figured out how to eat a little of my cake and still have some left over to enjoy later, or running faster and bringing the finish line closer. The key was in closing the gap in my expectations as to what I deserved and what I could live with. The irony is that, after two years of getting nowhere, I finally got three great job offers all in one week, in three different occupations and locations. I couldn't have asked for a better closing scenario.
In looking back, at least there was a silver lining in my dark cloud. Those last few years in darkness lit some candles for me. I have always known that we usually learn more from mistakes. I made plenty of mistakes to help get myself to the state of joblessness I was in. And, the frustration of getting nowhere despite my perseverance has actually begun to teach me some important lessons. These lessons haven't come easy and although I have never given birth, I sort of have an idea of what that process feels like at least mentally.
The first lesson I am still trying to learn is the importance of humility. No matter how much education, training, experience or skills I have, I am never too good to work as a security guard or check-out clerk. That is if they would have hired me! Being over-educated and over-qualified was an excuse I quickly got tired of hearing. I felt that was my loss and their gain, but that rationalization didn't help either. Becoming humble is requiring me to shed my expectations and preferences- almost completely, and this isn't coming easy. Pride is a difficult thing to swallow.
The second lesson I learned is becoming more aware of the connection of things I did in the past that helped shape this miserable present state of unemployment in which I was stuck. These were the bad choices and irresponsible behavior I willfully participated in earlier without regard for the possible consequences. I had a good life. I just wanted more. But more is rarely better. I also had plenty of good jobs in my life but didn't respect employers well enough to give my full attention and effort to them. I took those jobs for granted. Now I will "worship" the job I was lucky enough to get. Karma is a hard thing to avoid or accept.
The third lesson I learned is to want what I have fully without gazing enviously over at greener pastures. I have good health, love, a meaningful job and a nice home. I even have an older daughter whom I walked out on when she was only six, to visit now. I secretly knew I wouldn't ever get a job so long as I couldn't be content without one. That was a tough paradox to figure out, but well worth the effort in the end.
The final lesson I learned is more of a reality. We are all alone with our brick walls. This is a very private test that no one else can understand or help with. On the other hand, it is common that we all have these own brick walls. My unemployment frustration was just someone else's physical handicap and that handicap is someone else's loss of a loved one and so on. Maybe this critical life experience is a way we can all connect on common ground. At least we should start talking about our own brick walls and asking others about theirs. My two year tribulation had some other important lessons:
1. To defeat your brick wall, you must adopt a competitive strategy to win or die and never give up. The worse it gets, the more you try.
2. You have to be brutally honest with yourself as to the reasons behind your brick wall. You have done something wrong and it needs to be changed. You can't lie or rationalize your way out of this type of conflict.
3. You have to be completely open to what the solution can be, without putting any qualifications on it. You have to learn to take what you get, willfully and happily.
Now what I didn’t see coming at this point in my life was the freight train headed my way at the end of my tunnel. This was just the temporary calm before the storm. During the next few years I climbed out of my hole and lifted myself over my brick wall and I even got my second book published. Things were looking good. But I didn’t see some disasters coming at work or home and in one day I went right back to a deeper hole of not having a job, home, wife, car or money. This miserable 2nd fall which lasted a very long year just about pushed me through the cellophane wall separating sanity from insanity.
This time I really wasn’t at fault because of my own misdeeds, but you know what? It really doesn’t matter. When you are in a hole, nobody is interested in how you got there. And if you want to get out, you have to do it yourself. That may be unfair, but that is the way it is.
This is the short version of this second misery. I had to go to $2.00 movie theatres in the afternoon to cool off from the 95-degree sweltering heat that was prevalent in the small dingy apartment I called home. I had to convince myself to be satisfied with Ramon noodles seven days a week with an ice water chaser. The car I was driving to the few job interviews I was lucky enough to get had more wrong with it than right.
About all I really had was a little hope and humor, a great daughter who showed empathy despite my earlier irresponsible abandonment, and two best friends who I had met much earlier in a correctional training program at Marion Federal Penitentiary. Family, friends and good books are what helped me though this very tough period. And maybe I worked up a few good responses, like receiving a $150 check from my best friend for my birthday to help celebrate and forget the hardships, which I immediately endorsed over to my ex-wife to catch up on past due child support.
Now in retrospect it is very interesting what seems to matter when you are down to nothing, zippo, nada. Everything matters! Here is a poem I wrote during this terrible time of sorting out what matters. It comes close to describing my agony:
On My Knees
So here I lay,
Nothing to say;
Suddenly, yet gradually,
Life crumbled around me.
So here I am—
Crushed in spirit,
Abandoned in love,
Stripped of hope.
It’s darker than dark.
Is this an opportunity—
To give in and obey?
A time to build character,
Accepting what I may?
My question lingers—
Is this life nothing
But eternal being
From where we’re seeing?
My heart begins to melt,
Knowing others have felt
This same pain and suffering
In their journey to God.
I guess it’s time to say,
It’s your show,
I gotta go.
After this dismal night I prayed the most serious prayer I have ever prayed with all my mind, heart, soul and body as if it were my last chance to be heard, because I sensed it was. I asked to be given a break from this awful mess that I couldn’t overcome and made a promise that I would never again forget to appreciate what I had and to enjoy it with every future breath I took. I also promised to “pay back” the help I knew I would be given, when things got better and I might be inclined to forget where I had been and what I had learned. When things get better, we easily forget how bad they were and neglect the promises we made then.
I have kept both of those promises starting the night an old friend called and asked me if I wanted to come back to Seattle to run his security company. He had fired me seven years ago, which started my first downhill slide, but I deserved it. I was not appreciating the job and not giving him my best effort. However, I did learn one very important lesson early on and that was to not to burn bridges. We kept in touch over the years and he saw both the genuine personal and professional growth I had made from my struggles. I welcomed the opportunity to come back to the area where my youngest daughter Abby was, so that I could continue to nurture that fragile relationship I had endangered.
This was in 2003 and ever since, I have been doing what matters most to me—passing all these ten tests in this book, and especially working on the short list at the end of this Introduction. Now a few months ago another major test occurred to try and confuse me about what matters most. Here is this little story.
Imagine the real experience of being in the military and getting engaged before you shipped out overseas to Japan. Once overseas you successfully carried out a long distance relationship with your fiancée for a few years, but felt a patriotic calling to volunteer your heart and skills to fight a nearby war in a neighboring country, Vietnam.
There is a real conflict here that you wish your fiancée could understand—yes you want to return to her and get married because she is your first and only true love, but you are having a hard time not listening to your conscience about helping a little country fight for their freedom. You try your best to explain the conflict and ask for understanding in the single best love letter ever written, only to receive a dreaded “Dear John” letter a few weeks later. So you get wrapped up in the war, burry your hurt and pain, move on in life, and end up wandering and wondering through five college degrees, six careers and seven serious relationships (At times I wonder where all this wandering and searching came from or what I hoped to find).
Finally you land in a job you love and appreciate and manage to get involved a loving relationship that is what you always wanted. Life is as good as it gets for you. Now in 2007, 43 years later from the very first failed love experience, you get a phone call from the first fiancée wanting to tell you something important but was hesitant about the timing. You are in the middle of an insane 6 hour commute driving down an icy street in an uncharacteristic snow blizzard in Seattle. But the curiosity gets the best of you and you ask what the mystery was.
Apparently your former fiancée literally had a letter from you fall into her lap from some things her sister had sent when she was cleaning out her mother’s belongings after her death awhile back. The letter was the one I sent in 1964 confessing my love and pleading my conflict, but she never got it because her mother confiscated it, thinking we were too young to be so serious. The letter is too personal to share here, but just imagine the words you would say to try and beg your way out of a gut-wrenching conflict between your mind and heart that would affect the rest of your life.
Talk about a tipping and tripping point occurring all at once! Just how many lives were affected (infected?) because she didn’t get the letter? That would be a book in itself and fill many Oprah shows. But now enters another choice that may be easier for her than me because she is not currently in a relationship and I am in one that I won’t do anything to recklessly jeopardize. The choice is to see if we were truly meant to be together. That choice is at hand with a second chance. But my mind wonders, did we somehow set this whole scenario up just to find out what if? Or did life move us into this situation, just to give us the ultimate test to see if we learned how to make the right choice? And what would the right choice be? To take a chance to find out or play it safe and avoid knowing what if? Is there a potential win-win choice for all involved? Or have I arrived at the pint of no return in what I can know ahead of time?
The outcome of this “test” is really related to applying my own best advice about what matters most in this book, which I am going to do because it got me to a much better place already. I want to appreciate where I am and I do not want to jeopardize it for the third time, knowing that three strikes and you are out of chances. Besides that, I still have a promise to keep, which I intend to honor because that is one of those little things that matters most. I am sorry for not giving my first love a second chance, but staying where I am at is the right thing to do.
From all these three difficult tests, I found my short list of what matters most. Here it is:
• To love and be loved.
• To nurture my relationships with family and friends.
• To help lead my company to prosperity and do some good for the employees.
• To savor and learn from nature and take some good photos of the important things I see.
• To write things that help others feel good and be more successful.
• To appreciate as many things as I can.
• To use my time and money smartly.
• To donate my time and talents to church and other worthy causes.
• To laugh and have fun and cry when I am sad.
When I kept asking “why” these things mattered most to me until I got to the point where there weren’t any more why questions left to ask, then I knew the ultimate why which will go unspoken. You will surely find out what I discovered by reading this book. Talk about a cliff-hanger! But it will be worth it.
"How can one achieve inner contentment? Not to have what we want but rather to want and appreciate what we have" Dali Lama, The Art of Happiness.
William Cottringer, Ph.D. is President of Puget Sound Security, Business Success Coach, Sport Psychologist, Writer and Photographer from Issaquah, WA. He is author of Passwords To The Prosperity Zone, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too, The Bow-Wow Secrets and Doing What Matters Most. Bill can be reached for comments and questions at (425) 454-5011 or bcottringer.pssp.net
Site: The Prosperity Zone
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"Doing What Matters Most:: Simplifying Your Overload"
William S. Cottringer