Has Anyone Else Experienced Failure?

Below is the text of a short speech I gave in August of last year in Orlando, FL. There was no assigned topic but I chose personal failure as the back door to success. I hope this is encouraging to you if you, like me, have ever experienced failure.

Has anyone else here experienced failure at any time in your life? Can we talk about that for a minute? Can we talk about “Failure: The back door to success.” That’s the title of a book by author, pastor/theologian, Erwin Lutzer. When I first encountered that title it caught my eye. Partly because the title is intriguing and made me want to read the book. But the truth of that title is also a great life lesson. Failure is not the end of the world. In fact, it is often a necessary step forward into a better future.

I said it’s a life lesson. Well, I don’t know if its because I’m a slow learner, or what. But it seems I’ve had more than a few opportunities to review that lesson in my life. One of those opportunities involved relocation. Have you have ever relocated your family? Ah, ok, then you’ll be able to feel me on this. We packed up all our stuff, our family of 7, plus the dog, plus two cats, and moved 2,851 miles (oh, I counted) across the country from Cary North Carolina, BACK to Manteca California.

I say “back” to Manteca because 13 months prior to that, we had packed up all our stuff, our family of 7, plus the dog, plus two cats, left our idyllic cul de sac neighborhood, our church home, and our friends, and moved to NC for a new job. The night we left, all the neighbors and some friends from outside the neighborhood were on the front lawn of the house we were leaving and we were all crying our eyes out. In the swell of all that emotion I made a pretty melodramatic pronouncement. I said, “California will not defeat me, I will return!” Pretty dramatic, huh?

My new company bought a company in California giving us the opportunity to go back. It felt like a triumph that day in September, 2005 when we rolled back into Manteca. Promise kept! We made an offer on a house in a neighborhood where our kids could attend the school they wanted. The appraisal came back for $25,000 more that we bought it for! Instant equity. We were pretty excited. Things were good.

Fast forward 3 years to Friday November 7, 2008, 3 days after the presidential election. I walked into work that morning and got a pink slip. I was laid off. If you remember, things were difficult for business during those days and nobody was hiring. I couldn’t find a job. Unemployment wouldn’t cover the mortgage payment on the house so I wasn’t able to make another payment after that day and by July of 2009 we lost the house. That was a dark time.

Open the back door. By August 3, the next month, we were loading up as much of our stuff as we could (the rest was in storage), five members of our family (no dog or cats this time) and relocating again. This time we moved 7,244 miles to Kunming, China (how that came about is a story for another time). I had a two-year contract to serve as the director of an international school there. Those were the two most personally enriching, professionally expanding, and family transforming years of our life … so far. The bonds of friendship that we forged there with local Chinese and other expats, remain strong to this day. And I would NEVER have had that opportunity, it would never have been on my radar screen, if I hadn’t lost that job and the house.

I said I’ve had several opportunities to review that lesson. One benefit of frequent review is that it helps reduce the fear of failure, which is liberating. I’m learning to view things in the spirit of the 1998 hit song “Closing time,” – “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I hope my story encourages you.

Thank you,

The Cover Letter

A Friend of mine is a highly successful salesmen. We’ve worked together on some big projects in the past so I know firsthand how good he is. He is especially good at writing. Whatever he writes is concise, precise, clear, engaging, sometimes entertaining (when appropriate), always on point. So you can imagine my surprise when he called and asked me to review something he’d written as a cover letter for a potentially huge deal. I was humbled and honored by the request.

What he sent me was typical of his work and required none of the editorial comments you see in the picture I chose for this post (it is one of the pictures that came up in my search for “cover letters”). In fact, he not only told a story, he told two. They were both hypothetical stories that came from his understanding of the needs of this potential client and how the service he was selling would specifically connect to meet those needs.

The Power of Stories

Last week I wrote about how I used a personal story to connect with an audience. I mentioned that stories are powerful to connect, to teach, and to persuade. We often make a big mistake when we set out to connect, teach, or persuade. That mistake is that we aim for the head. We think that we need to engage a person’s thinking to achieve those goals. We eventually do want the person to think but the heart is the gateway to the head. I must know, like, and trust you before I would be willing to connect with you, learn from you, or be persuaded by you.

One of the most powerful things about stories is that they engage the heart. Whenever I speak to an audience, I hear comments afterward like, “I love that story you told about …” or “It’s cool how you talk about your family.” I don’t often hear, “Now I understand the definition of …” or, “Your second point was very informative.” But guess what, the story that person loved actually defined the term and what I said about my family drove home the second point of my speech.

Stories are about ROI (return on investment). People remember stories more easily than they remember facts. If you want someone to remember a point you’re making, make the point with a story. If you are trying, for example, to advocate for children in the foster care system, it’s overwhelming to hear there are over 400,000 of them. It’s so overwhelming that we can’t take it in. If, however, you tell me the story of Alicia (made up name), who had a particular experience in the foster care system, I can grasp that. The story elicits far more from me than the numbers.

  • Stories connect
  • Stories illuminate
  • Stories illustrate
  • Stories explain
  • Stories inspire
  • Stories are powerful

Your Stories

After hearing Suzi and me share one of our stories, someone said, “You should write a book.” We’ve had a few people say that, actually, so one day we thought it would be fun to sit down and list episodes in our life that were memorable for us. I think at that point we ended up with a list of around 65 stories. Some more significant, others less but still memorable. Some of them were sad, some hilarious. It was a fun exercise, like going through a verbal photo album.

I’d like to suggest that you do the same. Take some time to jot down as many significant events in your life as you can remember in one sitting. Then pick a handful of them and write out each full story. That’s an exercise great communicators do to sharpen their communication skills. When you’re communicating, use one of your stories to connect, inform, or persuade.

My Black Swan

Several years ago I took my young family on vacation to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was just Suzi, our oldest son, Joshua, and me at the time. The resort had a tall hotel on the beach and a condominium style set of single story units arranged around a beautiful pond behind it which is where we stayed. When we first arrived and were checking the place out, I noticed three beautiful black swans gliding across the water on the pond. I grabbed Joshua and the camera and said, “Let’s go see the swans, buddy.” As we approached the water’s edge, the swans gently turned and started to swim in our direction. “Cool,” I thought, “if they get close enough, we’ll be able to get a great picture.”

I got to the edge and crouched down holding Joshua between my knees to keep him steady by the water. By this time the swans were moving in our direction. “Look at that, Josh,” I said, “they’re coming to get their picture taken.” While I watched the swans through the viewfinder of my kodak instamatic camera three things suddenly began to occur to me all at once. 1. Items seen through the viewfinder of this camera appear farther away than they actually are, 2. I had a vague recollection that someone once told me swans are mean, 3. The two outside henchmen swans had stopped swimming and the bigger boss swan was coming up out of the water right at us.

I dropped the camera, quickly picked Joshua up and started backpedaling as fast as I could. I slipped on the wet ground, got up, lifted Joshua into the air and turned away from the attacking swan in one movement. Just then the monster swan reached out and bit me on the butt. I screamed like a little girl (no offense to little girls intended) and ran to the deck where my lovely wife was laughing hysterically. The black swan literally did a victory dance around the deck with it’s wings flapping and then went back to join it’s henchmen in the pond.

To make matters worse, there was a group of construction workers across the pond on top of some scaffolding who had seen the whole thing, too. The roar of their laughter from across the pond completed my humiliation.

So, my Black Swan Event was literally a black swan.

So Why The Story?

I began with that story a few years ago at a high school graduation where I’d been asked to give the commencement speech. I felt less humiliated when they roared with laughter, probably because I hammed it up and acted out some of the story. They especially liked when I grabbed my butt while describing where the swan bit me.

As I explained to that audience, my black swan story had nothing and everything to do with the topic of the speech. They agreed when I suggested that my story had connected us in an unexpected way. Many of them didn’t know me and I only knew a few of them. But, because of my story, they now knew they liked me and believed they could trust someone who would be that funny and vulnerable in public.

The topic of my speech was the power of stories. This was a Christian School so I went on to show how God uses stories throughout the Bible to connect with us, to inform us and to persuade us.

Then I turned to the graduates. “Most of your story is yet to be written,” I said. I played the Natasha Bedingfield song, “Unwritten” for them and then challenged them to think about what kind of story they were going to write and how their story might impact the world. Stories are powerful.

Regardless of where you are in life, whether you’re retired, you’re approaching “retirement age,” are in college, or you’re in the middle of life, family, and career, the same thing that was true of those high school graduates is true of you. The rest of your story is yet unwritten.

I’d like to encourage you to do two things. First, use your story up to this point to connect with people. Don’t be afraid to let people get to know you a little bit by sharing some of your story. Second, think about how the next few chapters of your story will go. Will they be about consistency, surprise, struggle, achievement, overcoming? How will your story impact others? I’d love to hear some of your story in the comments below this post.

Be A River

For the last several weeks We’ve been talking about personal growth. As we leave this general theme, it’s important to ask, “Why do we want to grow?” Several answers may come to mind. Growth is its own reward for example. We are intrinsically motivated to get better at things. It’s called the motivation of “mastery.” Another very practical reason for personal growth is that it potentially opens more opportunities in life. I would like to suggest a higher reason. This reason taps into another intrinsic motivator, “transcendent purpose” – the desire to be part of something bigger and more important than ourselves. That reason is that growing yourself enables you to grow others.

Be a River Not a Reservoir

John Maxwell and others talk about the difference between a life of success and a life of significance. Young entrepreneur and founder of the website greattoawesome.com, Anshul Kamath, described the difference like this:

  • Success is consuming existing knowledge, data and news for your benefit. Significance is doing something news worthy and creating knowledge that others can benefit from.
  • Success is being able to afford to send your kids to a good school. Significance is educating others.
  • Success is earning a steady income, saving and retiring happy. Significance is empowering others with employment and a livelihood.

Put another way, a life of success is like a reservoir, taking in to fill itself. A life of significance is like a river, taking in at one end and sending along at the other. In one sense a river is always growing (taking in) but there is always room for more because it is flowing that water to other bodies of water. In the words of the Ancient Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus,

“No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

How to Become a River

How can I make the transition from reservoir to river, from success to significance? Here are a few practical steps:

  1. Ask Benjamin Franklin’s daily questions:
    1. In the morning ask, “What good shall I do today?”
    2. In the evening ask, “What good have I done today?”
  2. Be grateful – the attitude of gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. Gratitude is the fundamental river mentality. When I see everything as a gift, it’s much easier to share it.
  3. Put people first – above stuff, position, or achievement. People are the pathway to the others, not in the sense of stepping on them to rise, but in the sense that everyone rises when you care for the people as your priority.
  4. Don’t let stuff own you – we are servants to that which we give ourselves. Better to serve people than stuff.
  5. Define success as sowing not reaping – ask, “how much have I given,” rather than, “how much did I get?”
  6. Keep giving – a river that stops giving is a reservoir. I refer you back to step 1.

We’ve spent the last 13 weeks talking about personal growth. We’ve talked about curiosity, rubber bands, poop, recipes and much more. This, however, is the capstone concept of personal growth. Growing yourself enables you to grow others. If you make it your goal to grow others, there will be no end to what you can become.

Are You At Capacity … Nope!

Suzi and I were at an event with our kids and she said, “Oh, get some pictures of this.” I pulled out my phone and opened the camera app to start shooting when it said, “Not enough space left to take pictures.” the camera had reached it’s capacity. I could fit no more pictures on it, but this was important so I frantically began looking through the gallery for the random funny face selfies my kids had taken, or the unintentional shot of my foot to delete in order to free up space for the pictures I wanted to take. I lost a few moments in the process but was able to capture some nice pictures in the end.

Capacity is a limit. By definition it means “the maximum amount that something can contain or produce.” Are you operating at capacity? At first, that may sound like a good thing, to operate at capacity. But, consider this quote by Albert Einstein: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to its original size.” That suggests what John Maxwell calls the “Law of Expansion: Growth Always Increases Your Capacity.”

How Much is Full?

The truth is, nobody knows. We’ve all heard the myth that we only use 10% of our brain power. That’s been debunked by science, but true or not, we do know that people who think they know everything don’t tend to learn and grow. On the other hand, we’ve all experienced the phenomenon where we learn something new and realize in that moment that there is more we don’t know than we do know. Our capacity has just been stretched.

Living overseas was a huge capacity expansion for our family. Experiencing the sights, sounds, and smells of another country on the other side of the planet expanded us to realize there was a whole world we knew nothing about prior to living there. There are hundreds of more subtle examples, When you go to the grocery store to buy bread, for example, you select the bread you want, buy it, take it home and enjoy it.

I’ve worked in bakeries in my past. There is a whole commercial baking world most people know nothing about. There are GMPs (Good Manufacturing Practices) to be followed, food processing sanitation to be sure equipment is clean, recipe formulas, line speeds, proofing, oven temps, packaging, shipping, and distribution. Each of these elements has experts.

My point is that I didn’t know anything about anything until I learned it. And, each thing I learned actually increased my capacity to learn more. The same thing happens for you. So, how do we get intentional about expanding our capacity?

Expand Your Thinking Capacity

  1. Stop thinking MORE WORK and start thinking WHAT WORKS? If working longer and harder made you successful then more developing countries would be successful. Put your time and energy into what gives the greatest return.
  2. Stop thinking CAN I and start thinking HOW CAN I? When you add the question How? you have moved from doubt to solution finding. Doubt cripples and hinders, Hunting for solutions is energizing.
  3. Stop thinking ONE DOOR and start thinking MANY DOORS. There is always more than one way to achieve a goal. The problem with one door thinking as that you are usually disappointed when you go through that door because it doesn’t deliver all it promised and you wind up going through other doors anyway. Keep options open on the front end.

Expand Your Capacity For Action

  1. Stop doing what you’ve ALWAYS done and start doing what you COULD and SHOULD do. At first you do what you know. But the more that you do what you know you will discover additional worthy things, innovative things, that you know you should do. At this point there’s a pivotal decision. If you know what you should do but continue to do what you’ve always done, you’re in a rut. But if you know what you should do and then do what you know you should do, you’re leading and you’re growing. Get out of your comfort zone. Stay in your strength zone.
  2. Stop doing WHAT is expected and start doing MORE THAN is expected. Jack Welch calls this “getting out of the pile.” During your annual evaluation, do you want to be the person who “Meets Expectations” or the one who “Exceeds Expectations?” I had a boss once who said his favorite three words were, “And then some.” He wanted that extra from himself and others.
  3. Stop doing important things ONCE IN AWHILE and start doing important things EVERY DAY. Important things are those that are
    1. Required – things that not only must be done but that only you can do
    2. Deliver the greatest return – don’t just look for the “low hanging fruit”, look for what will multiply results
    3. Bring the greatest reward – the things that are in your sweet spot, where you passion, your strengths, and your dreams come together

Nike had a slogan, “There is no finish line.” In the same way, unlike my camera, you will never be at capacity. Keep growing.

What If I Were Curious?

“Hey Mom and Dad, What if I walked like this?” That was one of a thousand “what if” questions our oldest daughter, Juliana, asked us while she was growing up. She asked that one in a crowded department store and followed the the question with a demonstration of the kind of walk she was talking about. She took several long, lunging steps where her trailing knee almost touched the floor. It looked really silly. How do you answer a question like that?

Our youngest son, Jordan, was also quite the questioner. One particular trip into San Francisco comes to mind. My parents were visiting from Minnesota that week and we decided to take a trip into the city for the day. The whole family had maxed out the minivan for the hour or so drive in. From his car seat in the back, Jordan almost immediately started lobbing questions to all the adults. “Mom, what …?” “Mom, who …?” “Dad, when …” “Grandpa, why …?” The vast majority of the questions went to “Mom.” It became funny at one point and we started keeping score of who was asked more questions. I don’t remember what the score was, but Suzi definitely won!

The Law of Curiosity

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it made the millionaire. I don’t know if that’s an actual quote from someone else and I don’t know if being a millionaire is your goal, but the fact is that growth is stimulated by curiosity.

Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talent. I’m only passionately curious.”

Walt Disney said, “Curiosity keeps us moving forward, exploring, experimenting, opening new doors.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.”

How does that work? Why did that happen? What if I did this instead? How many other ways could I try to get to that result? Curiosity is the key to ingenuity and creativity. Nothing new was ever attempted or accomplished without curiosity. In the most watched TED talk of all time, Sir Ken Robinson argues that schools kill creativity. I’m not trying to indict our educational system, but I do think we lose when we focus more on finding the right answers than we do on asking the right questions.

How to Cultivate Curiosity

Do you want to know how to be more curious? Are you wondering how to regain that childhood wonder that sparks so many questions? There’s the first key.

The first step in cultivating curiosity is to adopt a beginners mindset. A beginner’s mindset is not at age thing, it’s an attitude thing. Jordan on the way to San Francisco was displaying a beginner’s mindset. A beginner’s mindset cares more about learning than about reputation. A beginner’s mindset is not influenced by set rules or by conventional wisdom. A beginner’s mindset starts with a question, not an answer.

The second step in cultivating curiosity is very practical. It’s to learn something new every day. When was the last time you learned something for the first time? How about today?

The third step is to make failure your friend. Thomas Edison said, “I’ve not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work. Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” We often learn more from our failures than from our successes.

The fourth step is to stop looking for THE right answer. There are two fallacies to the “one right answer” people. Fallacy number one, there is always more than one solution to a problem. To buy into the only one right answer is to stop the search for more and better ones. Fallacy number two, the “best” answer can always become better. Keep your options open.

Here’s another way to think about it. We’ve all heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” right? Most people stop there. Curious people, people who grow, wonder, “If it ain’t broke … how could it be better?” or, “If it ain’t broke … what’s likely to break it in the future?”

What are you curious about?

We Have to Stretch to Grow

The thing about rubber bands is that they’re pretty much useless until they’ve been stretched. Every use I can think of for a rubber band requires that you stretch it first. This is why John Maxwell calls one of his laws of personal growth “The Law of the Rubber Band.” It says that “growth stops when you lose the tension between where you are and where you could be.” You need to keep stretching. Another way of saying that came from Abraham Maslow who said, “If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy the rest of your life.”

Suzi and I were having lunch with some friends several years ago. The conversation turned to personal growth and one of our friends said, “If I have to experience pain in order to grow, then I’m happy where I am.” I’ll never forget that comment. It sounded like that person was aiming for mediocrity. Mediocrity is not a worthy goal. It’s like the cartoon I saw on a bulletin board. A football team was running off the field chanting “We’re number six!” One of the fans said to another in the stands, “I think they’re too easily satisfied!” It’s easy to be average.

Life Begins at the end of your comfort zone – Neale Donald Walsch

Your comfort zone is a dangerous place. It prevents you from improving, it stops you from achieving all the things you are capable of achieving and it makes you miserable. That’s a line from an article entitled, “Why Your Comfort Zone is the Most Dangerous Place on Earth.”

Your comfort zone is where you feel familiar and in control. It’s where you are not intimidated by challenges and don’t feel like something is at risk. But that’s exactly the problem. Risk and intimidating challenges are the stretching of the rubber band. Doug Larson said, “Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.” You have to get out of the boat if you’re going to walk on water.

Stretch Goals

Most of us set goals. Many organizations require you to set goals as part of your development plan and annual evaluation. We are most often asked to set “SMART” goals. Those are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant (or Realistic), Time bound. I love what Mark Murphy, CEO of Leadership IQ said in a white paper called, “Are SMART Goals Dumb?” He proposes H.A.R.D. goals. In his model the “D” stands for Difficult. It means, “I will have to learn new skills and leave my comfort zone to achieve my goal.” Now we’re talking about stretching. Rabbi Nehman asks, “If you won’t be better tomorrow than today, then what do you need tomorrow for?”

“Stretch Goals” are ambitious goals that challenge current assumptions and processes, and inspire teams (people) to re-imagine what they previously thought possible. You can stretch in two different directions. If you stretch vertically, for example, you are reaching for new heights in something you’ve already achieved. It may be a sales goal no one believes possible or putting a person on Mars.

You can also stretch horizontally. That means expanding your horizons to attempt something you’ve never done before. You may be dreaming of starting a business or launching a product line that seems outside your normal arena. Whether you stretch up or you stretch out, stretching is the key to growth.

Someone once said, “You are exactly where you should be in life given everything you have done to get here.” That may cause some of us to say, “ouch!” It’s true, though, and the question is, what will we do on purpose to become who we could be?

Personal Growth and Character

Do you know the difference between a tornado and a zamboni? The difference is in what they leave behind. A zamboni comes out on the torn up ice after a period of hard skated hockey and glides over the surface leaving behind a glistening smooth surface. A Tornado, on the other hand, smashes into the most peaceful, idyllic towns and leaves behind destruction and death.

People can be like zambonis or like tornadoes. I’m sure you’ve met both kinds. I know I have. What makes things challenging at work is when one person has both characteristics. For example, they may be a zamboni in their people skills, very friendly, always willing to help, but a disaster when it comes to the work they produce. On the flip side of that is the person who is amazing at what they produce but leave dead bodies in their wake when it comes to people.

We’re talking about character and competence, who we are and what we can do. Someone once said that character and competence are like the two wings of an airplane. You need them both if you want to fly. I believe that. I would rather work with someone who is pretty good at what they do (especially since it’s easier to teach skills than character), and of really good character than someone who is really good at what they do and a disaster when it comes to character.

What Difference Does Character Make?

“Character growth determines the height of your personal growth.” John C. Maxwell.

When I interview people for leadership positions, I don’t ask them a lot of questions about skills. I may ask one or two to make sure they know what they say they know (actually, that’s a character issue, too), but mostly I focus on questions about character. “Could you tell me about a time when you were asked to do something you didn’t know how to do?” or, “Could you tell me about at time when you saw a co-worker struggling in their job?” I can teach you the skills you need to do the job.

Character matters because character makes you solid on the inside. Like a hollow chocolate Easter bunny, a person with no character will eventually implode. But strong character makes you resilient while allowing you to grow.

Some lists of desirable character traits have been developed like the “Pillars of Character” from the “Character Counts” educational program for public schools:

Trustworthiness
Respect
Responsibility
Fairness
Caring
Citizenship
Some add Empathy as well

Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed identifies these traits as more important than IQ for success:

Grit
Curiosity
Self-control
Social Intelligence
Zest
Optimism
Gratitude

Who wouldn’t want to work with someone who possessed these qualities?

Can Character Change?

I believe it can! The bottom line requirement for a change in character is for a person do deal with their personal B.S. (Belief system). In other words you change the way you think about yourself and the world around you. How?

One way this happens is through a life-changing encounter with someone or something, something so traumatic or amazing happens in your life that it alters your world-view completely. A murdering, self-righteous, religious terrorist named Saul of Tarsus had such an encounter with Jesus Christ. He became the Apostle Paul after that encounter.

Another way that character can change is by intentionally putting yourself through a series of exercises that begin to develop a new mental muscle memory. Those in the religious world might call these exercises spiritual disciplines. Others may call them Habit Formation. The first one to work on is your belief about whether or not you can change. Start by changing your self-talk. Instead of saying to yourself, “I’m just direct whether they like it or not,” which indicates an unchangeable state of being, try saying, “that comment seemed to land more like a punch than constructive advice.” That would allow you room to think about how to offer the same information differently so the person hearing it would be more inclined to receive it.

Competence and Character, the two wings of the personal growth airplane. You can become a zamboni in both.

How to Turn Poop Into a Positive

“Some days you’re the pigeon, some days you’re the statue.” Have you ever heard that saying? I loved it the first time I heard it and still do. Some days you feel like you’re on top of the world. Other days you feel like a depository of pigeon poop. Everyone feels that way because we all have good days and bad days. We all have really awesome experiences and really horrible experiences. The difference between people who grow and everyone else is in what they do with the bad experiences.

“No pain, no gain” is about when you experience pain because you’re working out. That’s on purpose. You intentionally do things that make your muscles sore because you want to get stronger. What about when you experience pain that’s not on purpose, when someone just poops on you? John C. Maxwell, in his book The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth writes about “The Law of Pain.” That law says, “Good Management of bad experiences leads to great growth.”

Here’s an Example

A friend of mine, despite being great at what he does, found himself out of a job not long ago. The COVID-19 pandemic so negatively impacted his industry that he lost his job. Instead of sitting around whining or feeling sorry for himself, my friend decided to let people know he was available to work by writing a social media post. The theme? “When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” It was a beautifully written piece but I don’t know if it ever got posted. A recruiter was asked to look it over and provide feedback before my friend posted it. That feedback led to a new job with that recruiter’s company. How’s that for turning poop into a positive (or lemons into lemonade)?!

As Warren Lester said, “Success in life comes not from holding a good hand, but in playing a poor hand well.”

How Do You Turn Lemons to Lemonade?

First, understand these truths:

  1. Everyone has bad experiences
  2. Nobody likes bad experiences
  3. Few turn bad experiences into a positive.

So, how do you become one of the few? I wish I could tell you there are three or five steps to turning poop into a positive. It boils down to a choice. You can choose what to think about. For example, think about a blue sock. Now think about a bowl of lemons. See, you can make yourself think about what you choose.

You can also choose how you think about something. Take that bowl of lemons, for example; maybe you would have preferred a bowl of oranges. How will you think about that? Are you sad or angry that you got the wrong fruit? Maybe you don’t even like lemons. Or, do you see an opportunity? You could make lemonade, sell it at a lemonade stand and make new friends and enough money to buy oranges! You can choose how to think about good and bad experiences. Often the way we think about the experience helps determine how it turns out.

Another Perspective

I’m a person of faith. The Bible has some interesting things to say on this topic. For example:

“Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials because you know that tribulation works patience…” James 1:2-4

It also says,

“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame.” Romans 5:3-5

This is not passivity or defeatism. This is someone who recognizes that bad things happen to everyone, and that good management of bad experiences leads to great growth.

How do you turn poop into a positive? Choose to. After all, poop makes great fertilizer!

How to Make a Recipe for Growth

I don’t have a certificate from the American Institute of Baking qualifying me as a Master Baker, but I can turn out a pretty good chocolate chip cookie. How is that, you ask? The secret is I follow the “Toll House” recipe on the back of my bag of chocolate chips. I’ve done it enough times I even have the recipe memorized. I can gather the ingredients and tools and have the first batch out of the oven in 15 – 20 minutes. The recipe makes it possible for me to consistently bake good tasting chocolate chip cookies.

Best selling author and small business guru, Michael Gerber (The E-myth) says, “Systems permit ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results predictably. However, without a system, even extraordinary people find it difficult to achieve even ordinary results.” A recipe is a system. Systems consist of components (ingredients like flour, sugar, eggs and tools like bowls, a mixer, cookie sheets) and processes (like measuring out the ingredients, combining and mixing, and placing in the oven at a certain temperature for a certain amount of time). I’m an ordinary guy but my cookies are consistently pretty extraordinary.

A Recipe for Personal Growth

Entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you. Not Much.” Yikes! That’s true. In someone else’s life plan you and I will be, at best, a rung on their ladder or a medal on their chest. Do you want to be someone’s rung or medal? Me either. Here’s one more quote from Jim Rohn:

If you want to have more, you have to become more.
For things to improve, you have to improve.
For things to get better, you have to get better.
For things to change, you have to change.
When you change, everything changes for you.

We have to grow into who we want to be. So we’ve got to have a system for personal growth, a recipe if you will. As Rohn says, we have to design our own life plan.

What Would You Like to Bake?

Suzi’s (my wife) favorite cake is Angel Food (she’s an angel after all!). I love chocolate cake. We’ve already talked about my cookies. Each of those is a baked product but it requires a very different recipe to achieve each one. Before you begin to bake, you have to decide what you want to eat. As Stephen Covey famously said, “Begin with the end in mind.”

The same is true for personal growth. Where do you want to grow? What skill or trait or vision of the future do you want to work on? That’s the beginning point of your personal growth recipe. The desired outcome determines the ingredients and processes required to get there.

Guidelines for Creating a Recipe

You’ve decided you want to grow in a certain area. Now you need a plan, the recipe. Here are some guidelines for creating your recipe.

  1. Measurement – how will you measure your progress? Make a checklist of the necessary elements in your growth plan and track your progress.
  2. Priorities – think proportions. How much time, energy, and money are you willing to invest in your goal? Remember, don’t prioritize your schedule. Schedule your priorities.
  3. Application – the heat of the oven transforms the recipe’s combined ingredients into a cake or cookies. In the same way, the heat of putting your skill, trait, or vision of the future into practice creates the necessary transformation in you. As soon as you learn something important, think, “Where can I use this?” “When can I use this?” “Who else needs to know this?” and take action on the answer to each of those questions.

Your recipe for growth may include classes, books, interviews, skills training, or other ingredients. It will involve exposing yourself to new things, educating yourself, and experiencing the opportunities your new skill, trait, or realized vision open for you. How you combine all these things is your recipe for personal growth. What do you want to bake?