Alternate Universes – The Power of “Yes” or “No”
I had breakfast the other day with an old friend I haven’t seen in 25 years. We spent two and a half hours catching up. It was fun! At one point he said, “I want to tell you a couple of wild things that have happened.” Who wouldn’t be curious about a statement like that? So, I said, “OK, go on.”
He is adopted. That’s important to the story. Someone in his family gave him one of those DNA tests as a gift. He turned it in and what he found out started quite a journey. Turns out he has a full sister who is a little older than him. Hold that thought. He also found his birth parents whom he has gone to meet. He said there pretty cool.
When he contacted his sister, she was excited and soon came to visit him. They’ve gone to see her childhood home together. Here’s the interesting part. When he was born, he found out, they reached out to his sister’s adoptive family to see if they wanted to adopt him, as well. They weren’t ready to take in another child at the time so they declined. He ended up in a wonderful home and he loves his parents with no regrets. As an adoptive parent myself, that was comforting to hear.
Here’s the real point of the story. After telling me all about this, my friend said, “You know, Jim, I’ve had the opportunity to look into two alternate universes where I might have grown up. Each of those hung on a yes or a no.” I think that is profound. His birth parents said, “No.” His sister’s adoptive family said, “No.” His adoptive family said, “Yes,” and that became his reality.
We’re faced with decisions every day. Some of them are potentially universe-altering with a simple yes or no. This makes me think of three things.
We never make decisions in a vacuum. Our choices affect not only our lives but also the lives of others around us and even descended from us. There is potential life-altering power in a simple yes or no. Wield it wisely.
Every decision is a yes to something and a no to something else. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis. Yes, be mindful, but make the choice. You may not have all the information or all the resources you’d like, but not making a decision is a decision. They say “fortune favors the bold.” Take action. Make the decision.
One thing that might help with being decisive is realizing that many decisions, not all but many, can be reversed by simply making another decision. You may not be able to completely reverse course, but you can alter the direction you’re going with a choice.
My friend’s “universe” was the result of decisions that were made for him when he was a baby. He didn’t have a choice. But, his very successful life has been the result of great choices he’s made along the way from that starting point. His was a happy beginning. Many aren’t. Regardless of the starting point, you can alter your universe with a simple yes or no.
A Pandemic Proof New Year Vision
As we wind down 2021 and prepare for the next new year, I would like to revisit another post. This one was also a message I shared with friends at church. I posted this originally on January 6, 2020 under the title “2020 Vision.” Of course, this was pre-pandemic by a few weeks. Little did we know … right?! The good news is that the principles in this post are pandemic proof. This is about clarifying your purpose. If you prefer to watch or listen rather than read, here’s a link to the video of the talk I gave at church. It’s about 30 minutes long, your choice.
Happy New Year! I have a dear friend who lives in the Atlanta area. Each New Year’s Eve I text him at 9:00 PM my time (I live on the west coast). It’s always the same text message, “How does the future look?” This year his answer was a little different. It always says, “The future looks bright!” this year he said, “The future is so bright I’m seeing 2020!” We’re having a lot of fun with 2020 already, aren’t we? Did you catch the Barbara Walters 20/20 montage on New Year’s Eve? “This is 20/20” and “Welcome to 20/20” over and over again. It was pretty clever.
The New Year is a good time to talk about vision. When we talk about Mission, we’re usually talking about what we do. Vision is about why? Vision is about our personal or team or corporate purpose. It’s been said that when you know your “Why,” your “What” becomes more powerful. There is an ancient Proverb that says, “When there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.” It’s saying that absent clear purpose, direction and boundaries, people (individuals, teams, even companies) do whatever they want and that leads to chaos.
What’s Your Why?
I touched on this in a post a couple months ago. But, I want to unpack it a little here. How do you know your purpose, your why? I really like this exercise I learned from John Maxwell’s book Intentional Living. He suggests you can discover your “why” by asking the following questions:
- What do you Cry about? Almost everyone cries about things like the loss of a loved one (human or pet) or a broken relationship. So, the question is not what do you cry about? It’s, what do you cry about? What are the things that uniquely move you to tears? I’m a sap crier, not a sad crier. Don’t get me wrong, I cry about normal things. But I tend to cry more about things that are moving. My family calls me a sap. So, I had to reverse engineer this to discover that I cry about Ignorance (when people don’t know that things could be better or how to make them better). I also cry about Estrangement (when relationships that should be wonderful are broken). Finally, I cry about Devaluation (I’m not talking about currency here. I’m talking about when people are written off as having or bringing no value)
- What do you Sing about? Again, the emphasis is on you. What are the specific things that light you up to the point of wanting to sing? I get jazzed about discovery; when I see or help people learn the things that will transform their lives. I also want to sing when there is reconciliation, when those relationships that should be wonderful become wonderful again. Finally, I love it when those who’ve been written off are proven to be worthy. Call it redemption or transformation. I don’t care what we call it, I love it.
- What do you Dream about? This is not the big house, boat, or fancy car conversation. This is about what one thing, if you could change it, would make all the difference for you? I dream about spending the rest of my life launching leaders to live their legend (more about that in another post).
- What’s your sweet spot? What are you great at? It may be natural talent or developed skill, but you’re good at it. Your sweet spot is where your passion (what you cry and sing about), your dream(s) (what you dream about), and your talent and skills intersect. This is where you find your why, your purpose. this is your 2020 vision of who you want to become.
A Final Question
This is the point where you ask “what?” What are you going to do about all this? Dreams are free, everyone has them. The difference between dreamers who just dream and those whose dreams come true is action. Now that you know your why, your what will be more clear and it will certainly have more impact.
What are two things (small or large) you could do in the next week to move you in the direction of your vision? Do those. Happy New Year
I received a Christmas card from a friend and former coworker the other day along with a tin of yummy homemade Christmas treats (Thank you, Anna!). When I pulled the card out of the envelope I saw one word on the cover, “Peace.” Inside, the sentiment read, “Warm wishes for peace on Earth and blessings on your Christmas.” The reference comes from the Christmas story (not the movie, the one in the bible). After the Angel announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds a company of Angels joined him and they proclaimed “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will to men!” That reminded me of the words to a Christmas carol based on the same pronouncement.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on Earth, good will to men
Then, very much like the writer of this Christmas Carol, I looked around at our country and our world and thought,
And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on Earth, ” I said
For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on Earth, good will to men
Then the carol reminded me of another promise of Christmas, hope.
Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor doth He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on Earth, good will to men
People hate and fight and war because what they believe about right and wrong differs if they care about right and wrong at all. As a person of faith, I believe there is truth that defines right and wrong and that God is the author of it. I know my understanding is incomplete but, as the carol suggests, God will sort it all out in time. That knowledge allows me to be at peace on the inside even when the circumstances on the outside are not peaceful.
This Christmas week I wish you and yours Peace that comes from Hope that comes from the child that was laid in a manger. Blessings on your Christmas!
I guess there’s a sense in which we’re all in transition. We get older. I’m writing this in December which means we’re in that three-month part of the year when my wife, Suzi, is older than me. Technically she’s always older than me, but between October and January it shows up when we write down our ages. Many years ago I put an ad in the local paper with her picture that said, “Suzi Thomason turns 30 today. Happy Birthday from your 29-year old husband!” Yes, I did! That scenario where she is “older” than me has come around over 40 times for us so far. The first time my progress in years really dawned on me was a few years back when I realized I was the age my dad was when I got married. That gives you some perspective.
Along with getting older comes the empty nest transition. I posted the other day that Suzi and I had gotten our Christmas tree together, alone, for the first time in a long time. That was bittersweet. The kids get older, they move out, they get married (no grandkids yet), have careers, make choices. You transition to a different role in their lives.
Those are transitions that everyone experiences. Well, most everyone, not everyone has kids, but everyone gets older. Then there are those transitions that are unique to you. Maybe you change jobs or even careers. Maybe you relocate to another part of the country or world. You may have experienced the breakup of an important relationship, a divorce, or the loss of a loved one.
The COVID-19 Pandemic caused a huge transition for people all over the world. Every time there is a change in political administration, the country goes through a transition. The point is things are constantly changing and we have to transition to something new.
How do you remain constant when things are constantly changing? We might lose our minds if something didn’t remain the same. Here are a couple of
ideas that have helped me.
- Cherish Today. Yesterday is gone, we can learn from it but can’t change it. Tomorrow never comes. Just as it’s about to arrive, it becomes today. Today is a gift. Maybe that’s why they call it the present.
- Hold on to your values. Don’t follow the path of least resistance. That path makes both rivers and men crooked.
- Follow your north star, that point of reference that keeps you moving in the right direction no matter what. Mine is my relationship with God about whom the book of Provers says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”
- Commit to growth. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You’ll get stronger still if you consistently ask, “How can I grow through this?”
Suzi and I are in the midst of yet another transition. We’ve moved, again, job change coming, possible career change. We don’t know what’s beyond January. I plan to hold on to those four points. I’ll let you know what happens.
The Attitude of Gratitude Revisited
It’s Thanksgiving week. A lot is going in my life personally and in our country and the world. I decided to go back to see what I had written about thankfulness in the past. Two years ago, almost to the day, I posted what I’m reposting today. This was pre-pandemic if you can remember those days! I had just spoken at a church that week and I’m referencing that talk in the post.
Why Be Grateful?
There are more reasons to be grateful then there is space to write about but I shared four in particular:
First, The attitude of gratitude is good for you. Studies have shown that consistent gratitude is good for your mental health and physical well-being. Grateful people are better looking! Think about the most ungrateful person you know. Picture their face. Now picture a consistently grateful person. Who looks better? Grateful people have more friends because gratitude is attractive of positive relationships. Grateful people get more stuff because it’s way more fun to give to a grateful person.
Second, the attitude of gratitude is aligned with reality. The more we align our thinking and living with reality (some call it truth), the better our lives will be. This reality is that everything you have is a gift. I know you’ve all worked hard and earned your way. But, think of this question, how hard did you work to start your heart in your mother’s womb? Or, think of this question, how hard did you work to make sure your parents met? With everything that had to happen, the fact that any of us is even here is a miracle. Our lives are a gift, gratitude is the appropriate response to a gift. Your mama taught you that.
Third, the attitude of gratitude is the antidote to entitlement. We are living in a culture of entitlement (word nerd alert): “the belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.” Entitlement is like a poison that withers people and cultures. It hollows them out and makes them weak. Entitlement is the epitome of ingratitude. Developing gratitude is the antidote. For the sake of ourselves, our children and our culture, we need to become a grateful people.
Fourth, the attitude of gratitude is a mark of obedience. The apostle Paul writes in two places in the New Testament of the Bible: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be Thankful.” Colossians 3:15. And, “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18. God’s commands always have a practical “why.” See the first three reasons for the attitude of gratitude for examples
How Can We Be Grateful?
I approached this question from three angles.
First, how can I have gratitude when bad stuff is happening to me? This is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. We all know about bad stuff happening in our lives. “Feel the burn” is a way of looking at the physical suffering of exercise as a positive thing. It means that our endurance is increasing. The physical suffering of exercise produces endurance that proves itself on the field or court when you perform. Seeing that progress of endurance and improved performance makes you feel good about the result like, “maybe there’s hope for me after all!” The same is true with character (check out Romans 5:1-5 in the New Testament, google it).
Second, how can I develop gratitude? Simply put, train your brain. Experts say we have 50K – 80K thoughts per day. Wow! Fortunately, our brains filter those thoughts so that we are often aware of only a fraction of them. The filter you have is either developed by your circumstances or you can adjust it yourself by what you think about. Your life gravitates in the direction of your most dominant thoughts like a flower grows toward the sun. We become what we think most about.
You have the ability to choose what to think about. As the apostle Paul said, again, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” Try keeping a daily journal of what went well today and what am I thankful for. Study that journal on a weekly basis. That will help train your brain and adjust your filter.
Finally, how can I express gratitude? Use your words. Say “please” and “thank you” often. Use your gifts. When you use the gifts you’ve been given (physical or spiritual) it honors the giver. Finally, use your body. You had to be there yesterday to get the experience but suffice it to say we practiced expressing our gratitude for God and his goodness in the same way we express our excitement over our sports teams.
Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!
The late CEO of PRIDE Industries, Mike Zigler, loved to tell stories about employees who would come up to him in the hall at the office with a big grin on their face, pull out a utility bill, hold it up to his face and say, “Mike, I paid this!” You see, Mike personified the mission of PRIDE Industries which is to create employment for people with disabilities. Those stories were about people who, because of their disability, had never had a job before. They were proud to have accomplished paying their first utility bill on their own, so they just had to tell Mike! And he loved it!
I had a conversation just the other day with another leader. She has quite a story of her own. She is a recovering addict who spent at least a year living homeless on the streets. She has clearly turned her life around. She not only got a job and kept it, but she has advanced past the level of lead to assistant manager and is doing a great job. Part of our conversation was about what motivates her to work hard even when it doesn’t always feel like her peers are pulling the same load. She said that she loves the feeling of accomplishment so much that she will get up and do what she may not feel like doing but needs to be done even if nobody else is doing it. That’s the “Do side of Self-Control.”
What Does It Mean?
To “accomplish” means to achieve or complete successfully. I think we all love to complete things successfully. That’s why so many people go into lines of work that produce a product that you can step back at the end of the day, look at, and say, “I did that.” Whether you’re baking bread, building houses or bridges or skyscrapers, or writing a book, there is a feeling of pleasure in finishing it. I even feel that when I close the cover on a book I’ve just finished reading. Accomplishment feels good.
Why does it feel so good to accomplish something? There is a physiological explanation. The brain releases dopamine, a hormone associated with both motivation and happiness, in anticipation of reward. So when you plan and know you’re going to work for something, you’re in a biological position to feel good. Each milestone gives you another dopamine hit, which makes you want to keep going with the job. Another reason is that accomplishment taps into one of our intrinsic motivators – Autonomy. Completion of each task can make us feel better about ourselves because it proves to us that we’re in control of our own destiny and competent enough to achieve our goals. We did something.
What Does It Mean to You?
Thomas Edison once said, “There ain’t no rules around here! We’re trying to accomplish some[thing]!” John Maxwell included that quote in his book Leadershift: The 11 Essential Changes Every Leader Must Embrace. It’s in his chapter on the shift from “Maintaining to Creating” where he’s talking about mental blocks to making that shift. The specific mental block in view where he quotes Edison is the one that says, “Follow the Rules.” After quoting Edison, Maxwell adds the following note, “Most revolutionary ideas have been disruptive violations of set rules.”
I can hear people of a certain personality type cheering and saying, “Yes! Let’s break some rules and get something new done!” But I can also hear others saying, “No, no, no, no, the rules are our friends. They’re there for a reason.” Accomplishment for each of those people will look different from the other. But it is still accomplishment and it still feels good. Do you check a box or do you cross the item off your list? Have you ever written something down that you already finished just so you could feel the pleasure of checking the box or crossing it off? It feels good to finish something.
Since it feels so good to accomplish something (and who doesn’t like to feel good?), let me leave you with two questions. First, why wouldn’t you organize your day around accomplishing things? Second, why wouldn’t you celebrate those accomplishments in some way? Here’s a bonus question for you leaders (BTW leadership is influence, if you have influence in anyone’s life, you’re a leader). Why wouldn’t you celebrate the accomplishments of those you lead?
Small changes can have huge consequences.
In 1979 a passenger jet carrying 257 people left New Zealand for a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and back. Unknown to the pilots, however, there was a minor 2-degree error in the flight coordinates. This placed the aircraft 28 miles to the east of where the pilots thought they were. As they approached Antarctica, the pilots descended to a lower altitude to give the passengers a better look at the landscape. Although both were experienced pilots, neither had made this particular flight before. They had no way of knowing that the incorrect coordinates had placed them directly in the path of Mount Erebus, an active volcano that rises from the frozen landscape to a height of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m). Sadly, the plane crashed into the side of the volcano, killing everyone on board. It was a tragedy brought on by a minor error—a matter of only a few degrees.
One Degree Off Course
Experts in air navigation have a rule of thumb known as the 1 in 60 rule. It states that for every 1 degree a plane veers off its course, it misses its target destination by 1 mile for every 60 miles you fly. This means that the further you travel, the further you are from your destination. If you’re off course by just one degree, after one foot, you’ll miss your target by 0.2 inches. Trivial, right? But…
- After 100 yards, you’ll be off by 5.2 feet. Not huge, but noticeable.
- After a mile, you’ll be off by 92.2 feet. One degree is starting to make a difference.
- If you veer off course by 1 degree flying around the equator, you’ll land almost 500 miles off target!
That would be like heading for Chicago but landing in Memphis instead. That would be inconvenient, wouldn’t it? Off course can be inconvenient or deadly like the New Zealand flight. I’ve read that commercial aircraft are off course 90 percent of the time. Turbulence and other factors cause them to go off course but constant feedback from the instruments allows the pilot to make adjustments and return to the flight plan.
We can get distracted and get off course in our lives and careers as well. Regular instrument checks and adjustments are a good idea.
Replace “Off” with “Change”
What if we took the same principle of “one degree” and replaced “Off Course” with “Change Course?” Now we have a whole new conversation. Now we’re talking about making an intentional change in the trajectory of our life. The same principle applies. A slight change of one degree can make a huge difference. That’s encouraging. You don’t necessarily have to do a complete about-face to make a big difference.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear writes about a time when he wanted to eat healthier. In a section of the book that talks about the power of our environment on our habits, Clear tells how one small change made a huge difference. He used to buy apples and put them in the crisper in his fridge . . . never to be seen again until they were rotten and had to be thrown out. The simple change? He started putting the apples in a big bowl on the kitchen counter where he could see them every time he came into the kitchen. Not a huge about-face, a slight change, but now he is eating the apples instead of throwing them away.
Whether we’re off course or changing course, a slight shift can make a huge difference. That can be a warning or an encouragement depending on your perspective. Which is it for you?
The first year we lived in China, one of the veterans of overseas living said to me, “to be successful living in Asia, you have to be willing to live with ambiguity.” He was right. I learned that the more of my western expectations I was able to let go, the more I enjoyed the experience of living there and the more I learned. Ambiguity means, “the quality of being open to more than one interpretation, inexactness.”
For example, one day soon after arriving in Kunming, my wife and two youngest children were walking outside near our home. My son, who was 9 at the time, overheard a woman talking on the phone. She repeated a mandarin phrase “na ge” (when pronounced it sounds like there is an “r” at the end of “ge”). He asked my wife, “Are these people racist?” My son is black and he thought she was saying the “N” word. It turns out that is a phrase that simply means “that one” and is used by some as a filler like our “um.” We had a good laugh about that misunderstanding when we learned the truth.
Fast forward a few years and my youngest daughter (twin to the boy in the previous story) is a high school basketball player. She is over 5-10 so she played in the middle a lot. One thing her coach worked on hard with the girls was their footwork. Footwork is fundamental to every basketball skill and one of the fundamental footwork moves is the pivot. When you want to move and not dribble, you have to establish a “pivot foot” and can only move the other one while that one stays planted. So you essentially swivel on that fixed pivot point.
Players pivot to protect the ball, to get open for a shot, or to get clear to pass the ball. Janessa was a great rebounder. She had a knack for pulling the ball down, pivoting to find her open teammate, and getting the ball to her quickly to move up the court. It was fun to watch.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Life happens?” I’ve learned that my friend’s quote from the beginning of this post is true of living anywhere, not just in Asia. The more you are able to live with ambiguity, the more flexible you are, the more you are able to pivot, the more successful you will be. The opposite of that is to be brittle, and brittle often gets broken.
Probably the biggest of many pivots we’ve made in life was when we moved overseas. I had been laid off during the economic downturn of 2008/2009 and as a result, we lost our home. No one was hiring at the time so we had to pivot. Through an unexpected set of circumstances, we wound up in China. As you can probably tell by how often I reference it in my posts, that 2-year experience was wonderfully transformative for our family. We would never have had that opportunity if life hadn’t happened as it did.
Just like in basketball, we may pivot to protect something. We may pivot so we can take our shot, or we may pivot to give someone else a shot by passing off to them. Those are all potentially great moves in the game of life.
I know we all prefer autonomy. We want to direct our own lives and be in control. But, when everyone wants that, life happens. Sometimes your best autonomous move is to pivot.
I like to say, “You only truly believe that which activates you.” In other words, you can say you believe it’s going to rain, but if you leave the house without your umbrella, do you really believe it? Belief leads to action (by the way inaction is an action for our purposes just like not making a decision is a decision). Since results come from actions there is a direct connection between what you believe and the results you’re getting. W. Edwards Deming said, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” You could say something similar about our lives.
We get the results we get in life largely because of our B.S. Funny, what first comes to mind when we see those initials often describes our Belief Systems, which is what I mean by B.S. Many people are held back in life because of faulty or limiting beliefs. Beliefs like, “I could never do that,” or, “Nothing good could come from this,” or, “I have to be certain of the outcome before I do that,” will lead you to act (or not act) in certain ways. Voila! You have your results.
Actions Not So Much
In business we want results. If we don’t like the results we’re getting, we work to change people’s actions. It seems to make sense because you can draw a straight line from actions to results. The problem is that if you make people act outside of their beliefs, they may change for a short time, but they will usually snap back to their previous actions that align with their beliefs pretty quickly. It isn’t enough, by the way, to get them to “believe” that if they don’t do this or that, they will get a beating!
We can use “carrots” and “sticks” to “motivate” people into certain actions. But real change will come from addressing their beliefs. For example, let’s say I’m a hospital housekeeper. I’m in my area, doing my thing but I never see my supervisor. They never come to my area to see how I’m doing, to see if I need anything, to see if I’m doing my job right or not. What will I believe about the importance of my work or about whether or not quality matters?
On the other hand, if my supervisor comes two or three times a day and provides support and constructive feedback, what will I believe about the importance of my work and about whether or not quality matters? Can you feel the difference? So can our people.
I Believe What I Believe
True. But where do those beliefs come from? In my example above, I believe what I believe about my work based on my experience with my supervisor. Our experiences inform if not shape our beliefs.
A good friend of mine grew up with a father who was critical and demoralizing. There was one particular event in his early life that crippled his belief system about himself. Later, as an adult, he was talking to a counselor who had him revisit that crippling memory. “This time,” he said, “Imagine it like this …” and he gave my friend a new way to imagine the event that turned it into a positive. This new way of “experiencing” that event led to a new belief system that truly helped my friend.
Athletes use something called “visualization” to help them prepare for their events. It’s a form of mental practice and is based on the reality that the mind doesn’t make a huge distinction between real and imagined activity. An athlete can imagine performing a certain way over and over until that imagined experience boosts their confidence (belief system) and alters their performance (actions and results). If athletes can do it, so can we.
On April 25, 2014, I heard an interview with musical artist Jewel talking about her song, “Hands.” She said, “I was homeless at the time and I was shoplifting . . . I realized I couldn’t get track of my thoughts, but I could watch what my hands were doing, and your hands are the servants of your thoughts. And I thought if I could see what my hands are doing and change what my hands are doing maybe I can change my life. Which was really learning to control my thoughts because its the only power I had. That’s how my life turned around.”
If you want to know what you believe, look at what you’re doing. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, ask yourself what B.S. is driving those actions. Then ask yourself where that B.S. came from. Then, like my friend, like Jewel, like athletes, imagine a different experience that will support a better belief system. It may just turn your life around.