Successful Habits

J. Paul Getty, the founder of Getty Oil Company and by the late 1950s widely regarded as the world’s richest man, said, “The individual who wants to reach the top in business must appreciate the might and force of habit. He must be quick to break those habits that can break him and hasten to adopt those practices that will become the habits that help him achieve the success he desires.”

Good habits are the building blocks of success. Unfortunately, bad habits are the pitfalls of failure.

Psychologists tell us that up to 90% of our behavior is habitual. From the time we get up in the morning until the time we retire at night, there are hundreds of things we do the same way every day. These include the time we get up, the morning rituals of shaving, showering, brushing teeth, and getting ready for the day, the route we drive to work, what we do when we get to work from organizing our desk, to making out our to-do list, to the projects or tasks we perform. Over the years, we develop a set of firmly entrenched habits that affect our work, income, health, and relationships.

The good news is that habits help free up our mind while our body is on automatic. For example, we can plan our day while we shower. We can rehearse our presentation on the drive to a client. We can list the chores we want to tackle when we get home while on a zoom call. We can open the house door, turn on the light, and put away our house keys without even thinking about it because we have implemented the same routine a hundred times.

The bad news is that some habits produce self-defeating patterns and prevent us from living life to the fullest. Why? Because a habit is a routine or behavior performed regularly—and, in many cases, becomes automatic.

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear wrote, “The quality of our lives often depends on the quality of our habits. With the same habits, you’ll end up with the same results. But with better habits, anything is possible (p. 7).” Clear explained, “Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them (p. 16).” Clear revealed, “Success is the product of daily habits—not once-in-a-lifetime transformation (p.18).” Then, Clear uncovered this profound truth, “It doesn’t matter how successful or unsuccessful you are right now. What matters is whether your habits are putting you on the path toward success. You should be more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results (p. 18).”

A familiar quote states, “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they get.” The same reality is true for individuals, “Your present routine is perfectly designed to get the results you currently get.” Whatever habits you currently have established are producing your current level of results. Therefore, if you want to create higher levels of success, you need to adopt practices that will become habits that will propel you to the success you want to achieve. This practice will include breaking bad habits (not returning phone calls, staying up late watching television, making sarcastic comments, eating fast food every day, smoking, being late for appointments, spending more than you earn) and replacing them with more productive habits (returning phone calls within 24 hours, getting 8 hours of sleep each night, reading for an hour a day, exercising four times a week, eating healthy food, being on time, and saving 10% of your income).

Remember, good habits are the building blocks of success. Robert Ringer, the author of Million Dollar Habits, explained, “Success is a matter of understanding and religiously practicing specific, simple habits that always lead to success.” Why? Your habits determine your outcomes. The habits you develop from this day forward will ultimately determine how your future unfolds.

Quite literally, you are your habits. So how do you develop habits that will yield the outcomes you desire?

James Clear identified three layers of behavior change. He displayed the following diagram:

The outer layer is changing your outcomes. This layer is concerned with changing your results: returning phone calls within 24 hours, getting 8 hours of sleep each night, reading for an hour a day, exercising four times a week, eating healthy food, being on time, and saving 10% of your income. Most personal goals are associated with this level of change. Outcomes are about what you get.

The middle layer is changing your process. This layer is concerned with changing your habits and systems: implementing a new morning routine that includes exercise, meditation, and task setting; a work routine that focuses on getting jobs done, limits procrastination, decluttering your desk for better workflow, and making plans for the next day; and an evening routine that allows more time with family, quietness, reading, and getting to bed on time. Most of the habits you build are associated with this level. Processes are about what you do.

The inner and deepest layer is changing your identity. This level is concerned with changing personal beliefs that include your worldview, self-image, judgments about yourself and others, and self-talk. Most of the opinions, assumptions, and biases you hold are associated with this level. Identity is about what you believe.

When we talk about breaking old habits and making new habits, most of us focus on what we want to achieve. We start with the outer layer. We emphasize results by setting goals such as reading 12 books next year or weighing a certain weight by the end of the year. This action leads to outcome-based habits. Clear suggested an alternative to outcome-based habits, which is to build identity-based habits. In other words, instead of starting with the outer layer of outcomes and moving inward on the chart, begin with identity and move outward by focusing on who we wish to become.

It’s a two-step process.

  1. Begin with who you are, not what you want to do.

When I was in the eighth grade, I asked for a typewriter for Christmas. Under the tree that year, I found a mint green Royal 79101t Classic Manual Typewriter. I wanted to write. I began the great American sports novel. I confess that I did not get very far with that project. I was fourteen, and baseball, basketball, and football edged out that pursuit. Fast forward sixteen years later, I was in my first pastorate. I was writing sermons weekly. I became a writer. I remembered the mint green Royal 79101t Classic Manual Typewriter. The thought hit me: Was there a possibility to reuse the sermon material into an article? I began reading books on freelance writing, and one constant refrain was that “Writers write.” I began to set aside time each week to write. I became a writer. Who I was–a writer–led to the habit of writing which yielded the results of over 1,200 articles, six books, and contribution to over ten other books.

My initial goal was to write an article or author a book when I first needed to become a writer. Writers write. My focus changed. I realized that who I am is more important than what I did. I became a writer that writes, and in time, saw articles and books published.

Actual behavior change is identity change. You might start a habit because of motivation, but the only reason you’ll stick with one is that it becomes part of your identity.

For example, the goal is not to read a book; the goal is to become a reader. Readers read, and in time they read a lot of books. I watched a YouTube video of a young man who didn’t like to read but set a goal to read a book a week. At first, he said that he would decide on a book, count the number of pages, divide it by seven, and read the required number of pages each day to reach his goal. At first, it was hard and laborious, but over time his whole countenance changed. In time, he said, “I became a reader. I enjoyed learning and the experiences that came from reading. The goal of reading 52 books a year was easy.”

The goal is not to run a marathon; the goal is to become a runner. Most runners don’t start out enjoying running. It is, after all, a solitary, lonely sport. But in time, those that stay at it become runners. Distant running becomes part of who they are. They are runners.

The same identity works corporately, too. Let’s take a college football team, for example. The goal is not to win championships; the goal is to become winners. I happened to catch part of ESPN’s “Saturdays in the South: A History of SEC Football” recently. As part of this episode, they featured Bear Bryant, the successful Alabama coach. They summarized Alabama’s success under Bryant by saying that they won year in and year out, but there were no celebrations, no banquets, no parades because they expected to win. They were winners.

Your behaviors are usually a reflection of your identity. What you do is an indication of the type of person you believe that you are. So–

–Decide the type of person you want to be.

Imagine two people resisting a cigarette. When offered a smoke, the first person says, “No, thanks. I’m trying to quit.” It sounds like a reasonable response, but this person still believes they are a smoker trying to be something else. They are hoping their behavior will change while carrying around the same beliefs.

The second person declines by saying, “No, thanks. I’m not a smoker.” It’s a small difference, but this statement signals a shift in identity. Smoking was a part of their former life, not their current one. They no longer identify as someone who smokes.

This identity goes more in-depth than I’m not a smoker, a runner, or a writer. My identity was drilled into me by my parents. “You are part of our family. You bear our name. Consequently, you act a certain way. You don’t do certain activities because it would damage our name. You perform certain duties because that’s who we are.”

Christ-followers’ identity is rooted in their relationship with God. Following Jesus’s lead, adhering to biblical principles, obeying God’s law determines practices, activities, behaviors, and lifestyle.

–Prove it to yourself with small wins.

Once you have a handle on the type of person you want to be, you can begin taking small steps to reinforce your desired identity. I read of a person who lost over 100 pounds by asking herself, “What would a healthy person do?” All-day long, she would use this question as a guide. Would a healthy person walk or take a cab? Would a healthy person order a burrito or a salad? She figured if she acted like a healthy person long enough, eventually she would become that person. Her small wins proved useful. She lost weight.  

Ben Hunt-Davis was the captain of Great Britain’s male Rowing Eight team. Previously, the teams had consistently failed to win a medal or even make it into major competitions’ finals. So, in 1998, Ben Hut-Davis, the captain, came up with a simple rule: to every activity that the team thought about doing, they would ask, “Will it make the boat go faster?” They asked the same question with every action they took. When the team dreaded the 20km morning run, they asked each other, “Will it make the boat go faster?” When someone thought about going to the pub, others asked, “Will it make the boat go faster?” Their focus became purely about performance, the results they hoped would follow. Their small wins proved successful. At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the team became the first British team to win Olympic gold since 1912.

Question: Are you becoming the type of person you want to become? The first step is not what or how, but who.

2. Systems are more important than goals.

Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life—getting into better shape, building a successful business, relaxing more and worrying less, spending more time with friends and family—is to set specific, actionable goals. Consequently, many people make New Year’s resolutions. They set goals.

For years I set goals. I succeeded at a few, but I failed at a lot of them.

Two reasons became apparent in my goal setting.

One, too many of my goals were outside of my control. Too often, I set goals that were dependent on other people’s responses. It’s like the salesperson whose goal is to close $1 million in sales. It’s a noble and worthy goal but entirely outside the salesperson’s control.

Two, I eventually realized that my results had little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed.

What’s the difference between systems and goals? Goals are the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results. Note the middle layer in the diagram. Without processes and systems, our goals are aspirational at best.

Every person wants to be in better health, weigh an ideal weight, achieve the right blood pressure, and all other health indicators. Most college football team sets a goal to win the national championship. Every entrepreneur wants to build a million-dollar business. All those are noble and worthy. Nothing wrong with any of them. They provide direction and focus. They are what we want to achieve.

Unfortunately, without the proper systems and processes in place, those goals are doomed to go unrealized.

Question: If you completely ignored your goals and focused only on your system, would you still succeed? Consider this: if you were a basketball coach and ignored your goal to win a championship and focused only on what your team does at practice each day, would you still get results? I think you would. If you were a salesperson and ignored your goal to close a million dollars in sales and focused only on making 50 calls a day, would you still get the results? I think you would.

Goals are useful for setting direction, but systems are best for making progress. The process will determine your progress. In the words of three-time Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh, “The score will take care of itself.” If you want better results, then forget about the goals, focus on your systems instead.

If you are having trouble changing your habits, the problem isn’t you. The problem is your system. Bad habits repeat themselves repeatedly, not because you don’t want to change, but because you have the wrong system for change.

In summary, to develop successful habits begin with who you are—your identity. So focus on who you want to become. Then, determine the right questions to ask that will afford you the small wins along the way. Then, develop the suitable systems and processes on what to do that will get you where you want to be.

James Clear explained: “The real reason habits matter is not because they can get you better results (although they can do that), but because they can change your beliefs about yourself.”

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Find the Joy in Your Life

In the movie, The Bucket List, two terminally ill men who share a hospital room identify a list of things to do before they “kick the bucket.” Together, they stretch the limits of their worldly experiences and rekindle their hearts along the way. At one stop, looking at the Pyramids in Egypt, Carter Chambers says to his friend Edward Cole: “You know, the ancient Egyptians had a beautiful belief about death. When their souls got to the entrance to heaven, the guards asked two questions. Their answers determined whether they were able to enter or not. ‘Have you found joy in your life?’ ‘Has your life brought joy to others?’” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMK-BUKVs0Y

Those are two good questions. One centers on ourselves: Have we found joy in life? The other focuses on others: Have we brought joy to others?

Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, describes three different kinds of happy lives:

The pleasant life, in which you fill your life with as many pleasures as you can.

The engaged life, where you find a life in your work, parenting, or love.

The meaningful life, which “consists of knowing what your highest strengths are, and using them to belong to and in the service of something larger than you are.”

After exploring what accounts for ultimate satisfaction, Seligman says he was surprised. The pursuit of pleasure, research determined, has hardly any contribution to a lasting fulfillment. Instead, pleasure is “the whipped cream and the cherry” that adds a certain sweetness to satisfactory lives founded by the simultaneous pursuit of meaning and engagement.

It’s a big feat to tackle great concepts like meaning and engagement (pleasure is much more doable), joyful people seem to ride both of those pursuits like a train rides two rails.

From Seligman’s observations and the ancient Egyptians questions, it seems that joy is both personal centered (“Have you found joy in your life?” “Knowing what your highest strengths are and using them.”) and others focused (“Has your life brought joy to others?” “To belong to and in the service of something larger than you are.”)

Let’s unpack those.

Personal Centered

Joy has an inherently personal quality and nature about it. It’s an inside attribute and characteristics that flows outward to others. Real joy begins with the person, irrespective of moods, circumstances, or outcomes. We’ve all been around those people who seem to light up the room with their very presence. And when we dig down deep, we discover that they have not lived a charmed life. Instead, they have encountered pain, hardship, and disappointment but somehow seem to emerge from it healthier, stronger, and happier. They have found joy in their lives.

As I have observed joyful people, it seems that they have some of these personal traits and characteristics that lead to joy.

  1. Every moment of every day just they are present. They live in the moment. The present is at war with the past and the future. And living in the past or living in the future will zap the joy of today. Joyful people have let go of the past and they aren’t be overly consumed and controlled by the future.
  2. Each day they are proactive. The act today without procrastination. Procrastination can also zap joy our of today. Joyful people do what makes them happy. They take responsibility for their own life. They live by the mantra: “Dream big, start small, get going.”
  3. Joyful people have a positive, can-do attitude. They see the good in everything they do. They focus on the good. They know there will be disappointment and circumstances beyond their control, but they chose to live above it. They don’t allow life’s pollen and pollutants to take away their joy.
  4. Daily joyful people find things for which to be grateful. They are thankful for where they are and what they have. Joyful people count their blessings. They enjoy their blessings. They have been favored and are thankful for what has come their way.
  5. Joyful people seem to always be ready. They are prepared and often do things that seem like the spur of the moment. But in many cases, they have been preparing for that moment for a lifetime. They live in a state of readiness. They never know what’s around the corner, but they are ready for whatever comes their way. Therefore, they take care of themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, financially, and spiritually.

Others Focused

But joy is more than a personal thing. It also has an outward component that brings joy to others. Joyful people are committed to something larger than themselves. It may be a cause or a purpose or a calling. They have devoted themselves to impact their world, bring about change, and make a difference. They have brought joy to others.

Here a few observations I’ve made of joyful people as it relates to others.

  1. They are selfless. The apostle Paul was a joyful person despite hardship and pain suffered along his way. He wrote a letter to the Church at Philippi that is commonly referred to as the Epistle of Joy because he used the word joy repeatedly. In the letter he said, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4 ESV). That directive is the sentiment of joyful people. They have learned to put others first. They put others before themselves.
  2. We have saying: “Go big or go home.” Joyful people go big. They know that the best use of their time is to invest in that which is bigger than themselves. A wise man once said, “Make no small plans for they have no capacity to stir men’s souls.” And I might add, “give them joy.” Joyful people live for something bigger than they are which minimizes problems and maximizes actions. Problems will quench joy. But joyful people have a greater cause that reduces the size of their problems. Joy comes because they have learned to enjoy life despite problems. Their cause does not erase the problems; it simply minimizes the problems.
  3. They live adventuresome. Joyful people take risks that most consider on the edge or out there. People often question the joyful person’s risk-taking ventures, but joyful people know that life is an adventure, or it is nothing at all. So, they go all the way. They are all in. They leave nothing on the field. They put their life on the line. They know no continuing joy comes without risk.

Divine Dimension

The two overarching traits, personal centered and other’s focused, are like the rails of a train, running parallel with each other. Both are needed in the pursuit of joy. I would like to add a third characteristic that provides the fuel that drives the life of joy down the tracks. I call it the divine dimension of a joyful life.

A joyful life is a God-infused life because God is the source of joy. God is the author of joy. And the joy we experience comes as consequence of knowing him and being in relationship with him. God provides the confidence that operates irrespective of our moods and our circumstances. Joy is the certainty that all is well, however we feel. That certainty comes by knowing that God is at work and in control. Joe Aldrich stated, “Joy is an attitude, a disposition, a deep, settled confidence that a loving heavenly Father is in control of the details of my life.”

Real joy, therefore, comes from a deeper source. It comes from the soul. “True joy,” wrote John Donne, “is the earnest which we have of heaven, it is the treasure of the soul, and therefore should be laid in a safe place, and nothing in this world is safe to place it in.” Joyful people have a direct connection with God who nourishes their soul and provides the fuel to purse joy personally and with others.Studies point to a link between religious and spiritual practice and joy.  

In England, to signify which castle the King or Queen is residing in at the time, a certain flag will be flown over the castle or home. Taking that image, a British educator wrote, “Joy is the flag which is flown from the castle of the heart when the King is in residence there.” True joy comes by submitting our lives to God, as a subject to a king, knowing that he controls the affairs of our lives. Firm confidence in God means that our lives are in his hands. Joyful people have given the worrisome, stress-filled, fearful details of their lives into God’s keeping.

Your Choice

That action does not come easily for we want control. But joyful people know that real joy is a choice. To quote Martin Seligman again, he theorizes that 60% of happiness is determined by our genetics and environment, the remaining 40% is up to us. Joy, therefore, is not something that happens to us but rather something we deliberately and consciously choose.

G. W. Target wrote a short story in 1973 called “The Window”about two men confined to a hospital room due to their illnesses. One man always had to lie on his back; the other had to sit up for one hour every day because of the accumulation of fluid in his lungs. His bed was next to the only window in the room.

Each day for one hour, he would describe to the man in the hospital bed what he saw out the window. The man in bed began to live for that hour; his roommate spoke of the beautiful lake down below, describing the fishermen and the results of their efforts. Another day he described the skyline of the city on the horizon and the busy lives of the people living there. Mountains in the distance, capped with snow were reported on other days.  And so the months and seasons passed with these two men.

Eventually, the man confined on his back began to resent the reports from the window. He was ashamed to admit it to himself, but it didn’t seem fair that his roommate had a window by his bed. In time, this resentment turned to anger, and then bitterness. One night he was awakened by the coughing of the man next to him, desperately needing to clear his lungs. He looked over and saw him stretching to reach the call button for the nurse. It would have been easy to push his own call button, but he didn’t. He chose to offer no help, and in a few moments the coughing ended. It was replaced with labored wheezing, and finally . . . silence.

A few hours later the nurse discovered that the patient by the window had died during the night. His body was removed from the room and the other man said quietly, “Since I am now alone in this room, may I have my bed moved where I can look out the window?”

The nurse agreed, and after the bed had been moved and he was alone in the room again, he summoned all his strength to pull himself up on his elbows. At last he would see all that awaited him outside his window.

It was then that he made the discovery—outside the window there was nothing except a brick wall.

Joy comes when we determine to choose it despite our circumstances. Let’s face it, life does not always go our way. Everything does not always work out as we planned it. What do we do in those moments of difficulty, hardship, and pain? We choose joy. Joy is always a matter of choice.

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” We choose it by investing in ourselves, our causes, and our souls. Let’s not wait until we are about to kick the bucket before we choose joy.

Near the end of the movie, The Bucket List, Carter and Edward have returned from their trip, checking off many of the items on their list. Carter’s cancer has returned. He wrote a letter to Edward. It read: “Dear Edward, There’s no way I can repay you for all you’ve done for me, so rather than try, I’m just going to ask you to do something else for me—find the joy in your life. You once said you’re not everyone. Well, that’s true—you’re certainly not everyone, but everyone is everyone. My pastor always says our lives are streams flowing into the same river towards whatever heaven lies in the mist beyond the falls. Find the joy in your life, Edward. My dear friend, close your eyes and let the waters take you home.”

Carter dies and Edward speaks at the funeral. He began, “I don’t know what most people say at these occasions because I have tried to avoid them. The simplest thing is that I love him, and I miss him. Carter and I saw the world together. Which is amazing when you consider that only three months ago, we were complete strangers. I hope this doesn’t sound selfish of me, but the last months of his life were the best months of mine. He saved my life, and he knew it before I did. I’m deeply proud that this man thought it worth his while to know me. In the end, I think it is safe to say that we brought some joy to one another’s lives. So, one day when I go to some final resting place, if I happen to wake up to a certain wall with a gate, I hope that Carter is there to vouch for me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZIXzxwKVyw

Heed Carter’s request: Find the joy in your life.

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Surviving Unprecedented Change

The New Choluteca Bridge in Honduras was built to last. Completed in 1998, the designers of the bridge wanted to make sure it would survive the hurricanes that frequently battered the region. No sooner had they finished than Hurricane Mitch swept across Honduras, dumping up to 75 inches of rain and pummeling the nation’s infrastructure with 80mph winds. Most of the bridges along the Choluteca River were damaged or destroyed. But not this one. The designers succeeded where others failed. The bridge survived. Truly a reason to celebrate, except for one important detail: The river moved. 

The force of the hurricane and the deluge of rain left the bridge intact but wiped out the connecting roads and caused the river itself to carve a new channel. The result: a beautiful, well designed bridge to nowhere.

It’s worth noting that the designers and engineers did everything right. The bridge exceeded its design specs. There was no mismanagement, no mistakes, no miscalibration. The bridge should have become noteworthy for its survival. Instead, it became a cautionary tale after the ground beneath the bridge literally shifted.

What lessons can be learned from this tale?

  1. Change is scary.

Here are three reasons why change is scary.

First, change is inevitable. Gail Sheehy, in her book Passages, reminds us that life is a “series of critical passages from one stage to another, and then to another and another.” The “winds of change” have given away to the “earthquake of change.” Look around; one would have to proverbially out to lunch to not notice the unprecedented changes going on in our lives. Roles have changed, values have changed, the pace of life has changed, tools of industry have changed, lifestyles have changed, and institutions have changed.

My Daddy died thirty-eight years ago. My mother twenty-four years ago. If they could come back today, they would be astonished and flabbergasted to see cars without keys and some not needing gas; not having to go to the bank to make deposits and get cash, with many people never using cash; purchasing food and clothing and other essentials without ever leaving home; talking on a phone that is not attached to a wall, with using it as talking device only one of its uses.

Second, change is unpredictable. The Honduran government and the Japanese company that constructed the New Choluteca Bridge would have never guessed that a hurricane would dump 35 inches of rain in a short period of time would cause the river to overflow its banks to six times its width only to recede to carve out a new channel. And for that matter, who could have forecasted and predicted a virus that would spread around the globe at epic proportions, causing such disruption and death? But that’s what catastrophic and unexpected change will do.

Third, change is constant. In fact, it’s been said that the only constant in this world is change. “Everything flows and nothing abides. Everything gives way and nothing stays fixed.” Heraclitus proclaimed, “You can’t step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing.” To be alive means perpetual change.

2. Change creates discomfort.

The people of Choluteca were distraught and dispirited after the flood and the loss of their main artery across the river. Change brings challenges and opportunities, but the first reaction is always discomfort. No one like change. Change by its very nature means that things will be different. And we don’t always like different. That’s why we eat at the same restaurants, vacation at the same places, and travel the same roads to work. We don’t like change and we don’t like the discomfort change brings. Let me illustrate: With pen and paper write your name. Now use your other hand to write your name. Cross your arms. Now reverse your arms putting the other one on top. What did you experience? What were your feelings?

And, since no one likes to change but a wet baby, we often resist. “Our dilemma,” wrote columnist Sidney Harris, “is that we hate change and love it at the same time; what we want is for things to remain the same but get better.” We all resist change at some level and on some issues. The innovations, improvements, and intrusions in our world often alarm and concern us. We are afraid of the unknown. Change always involves something different replacing the familiar. The threat of change implies giving up certain rights or privileges or at least the arousing of our lives from comfortable ruts and routines. We resent the inconvenience and the frustrations brought on by the changes. Or we resent the traditions and heritages of our past sacrificed for the modernized.

I’ve been to Honduras on several occasions with mission teams to strengthen churches. Our groups would work with children, build houses or churches, distribute food, or, in my case, train pastors. Sometimes I would go with the construction teams who always worked with nationals. One day we were pouring concrete. The workers gathered around a pile of sand, where mortar and water were added as they stirred it together in what resembled a small mountain. They called it a volcano. Afterwards, I asked on the leaders why they didn’t use a concrete mixer. “Oh, we’ve bought them several, but they won’t use it. They like the way they have always done it.”

3. Failure to change brings demise.

The Honduran workers and the concrete mixer give credence to the old adage: “The seven last words of a dying organization are: ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’”

Sewell Avery, previous chairman of the now defunct Montgomery Ward & Co, created a business strategy where Ward’s failed to open a single new store from 1941 to 1957. Instead the big retailer piled up cash—and sat on it. Why? He purported that a depression had followed every major war since the time of Napoleon. “Who am I to argue with history?” Avery demanded. “Why build $14-a-foot buildings when we soon can do it for $3 a foot?”

Montgomery Ward’s demise sprang from its firm adherence to a bad idea decades ago. And a boss who would not change his mind. The problem isn’t that Ward’s made a mistake. Companies (and individuals) do that all the time. The real problem was that Ward’s stuck with its mistake. This, too, happens all the time, and the results can be disastrous.

Let’s consider something more personal. A recent medical study reveals just how difficult change is for people. Roughly 600,000 people have heart bypass surgery a year in America. These people are told after their bypasses that they must change their lifestyle. The heart bypass is a temporary fix. They must change their diet. They must quit smoking and drinking. The must exercise and reduce stress.

In essence, the doctors say, “Change or die.”

You would think that a near-death experience would forever grab the attention of the patients. You would think the argument for change is so compelling that the patients would make the appropriate lifestyle alterations. Sadly, that is not the case.

Ninety percent of the heart patients do not change. They remain the same, living the status quo. Study after study indicates that two years after heart surgery, the patients have not altered their behavior. Instead of making changes for life, they choose death.

4. Adaptation leads to growth.

Two years after In Search of Excellence reported on forty-three of the “best run” companies in America, fourteen of the forty-three firms were in financial trouble. The reason, according to a Business Week study: “failure to react and respond to change.” What is true for businesses is true for individuals. When we do not change with change, adapt and respond to innovation, we do not grow and survive.

With the world transforming drastically every day, we need to open our minds even more and adapt to change constantly. We cannot keep holding on to old habits, behaviors, and patterns else we might risk becoming obsolete, just like the Choluteca Bridge itself. Adaptability is the key to survival and resilience.

We know this is true biologically. When the doctor’s hand pulled us from the comfort of our mother’s womb into a new and scary environment. Every succeeding day after that has been one change after another. If we did not change, and subsequently grow, we would have died. As we grow into each phase and season of life, we learn to adapt to survive and thrive.

Consider the lobster. A lobster can grow only by shedding its shell. While it could react in anger and resentment to this impending change, the lobster chooses to respond courageously and do what is needed to grow and mature. The old shell cracks, and the lobster seeks a place to shed that old shell. A pink membrane then becomes the new shell. When a lobster is involved in this process, it leaves itself vulnerable to destruction by other sea creatures or by being dashed against hard objects. A lobster will never grow without taking that risk. 

Being alive in the changing world today is often like being a lobster. Frequent “shedding of the shell” and becoming vulnerable is necessary for growth. Change is not all bad. In fact, it often provides the stimulus for our further growth and development.

5. Nail down what is important.

One of the best techniques for adjusting to violent upheaval in one area of our lives is to maintain, during that period, stability in as many other areas as possible. Changes often bring a sense of unsettledness and unreality As the playwright put it, “Sometimes it seems like everything nailed down is coming loose!” With that in mind, here’s what I do and encourage you to do the same.

–The twenty-year spike. I write down the things in my life that I’m confident will not change in the next twenty years and are of highest importance:  My relationship with God, my relationship with my wife, and my relationship with my daughter. I take these unchangeable realities and mentally drive a nine-inch spike to hold each in place.

–The five-year nail. Then, I list other things that probably won’t change in the next five years—like, I’ll be focusing on my chaplaincy service, living in the same house, driving the same car. I take a three-inch nail and fasten these down.

–The one-year tack. Next, I list the things that will stay the same for the next twelve months. I’ll continue to play tennis, have the same set of friends, and fulfilling my writing assignment. I use mental tacks to hold these in place.

So now, while everything else is flying loose in unprecedented change, I’ve nailed down probably 80 percent of my life. These are my islands of stability. These are relatively stable. By being aware of that stability it can help keep my balance and equilibrium. I can also develop an appreciation for the things in my life that change very slowly.

Change is here to stay. We can’t always control the circumstances, sometimes the river changes course, but we can control our perspective and our attitudes. The world is constantly changing. Despite how much we believe that we are still in control, the truth is, we don’t know how the situation might change tomorrow. The Choluteca Bridge is an excellent metaphor for the uncertainty in our own lives—our relationships, careers, goals and even health. So, nail down those things that matter most and adapt to the rest.

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8 Characteristics of Effective Team Players

  1. Calling

Called people have a profound purpose about their lives that flow from a divine perspective. They are not trying to promote themselves, but instead, they support a higher cause. Called people discover something bigger than themselves, a mission, a challenge, a goal, or a movement, that draws them into an arena. Their calling flows around their passion (heart), skills (hands), and expertise (mind).

2. Character

Character is a high standard of living based on a personal code of morality that doesn’t succumb to the whim of the moment or the dictates of the majority. Character is to personal integrity what health is to the body. Character is not reputation—what others think of us, nor is it success—what we have accomplished. Character embodies the total of our being and our actions. It originates with who we are, but it expresses itself in the way we live and behave. No matter how gifted, trained, or seemingly mature a person is, the actual use of those attributes will be determined by character.

3. Commitment

Committed people foster the drive, motivation, and work ethic to get the job done. Commitment spells the difference between mediocrity and magnificence.

4. Compatible

Compatible people are a job, relational, skill, and passion fit. Vince Lombardi once told this team, the Green Bay Packers, “In terms of skill and ability, every one of you is easily replaceable; there are plenty of players around with athletic talent to equal yours.” He went on to explain that the quality that distinguished Green Bay for the other teams was their “chemistry.” The power of chemistry that developed between members and the coach transcended, in Lombardi’s view, individual talent and prior professional experience. He saw it as enabling him to get significant effort from his players.

5. Coachable

Coachable people are aware of their limitations and inadequacies and eager to learn and to improve. John Wooden, the former basketball coach of the UCLA Bruins, said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

6. Competent

Competent people are talented, gifted, and perform at a high level. They know their job and do their jobs well. They bring their “A” game every day.

7. Contributors

They function well as a team player. They are self-aware both of themselves and of others. They thrive in a healthy team environment, wanting the best in themselves and others. Peter Drucker said, “All work is for a team. No individual has the temperament and the skills to do every job. The purpose of a team is to make strengths productive and weaknesses irrelevant.” Contributors work together and help their teammates perform better to accomplish the common goal.

8. Completers

Effective leaders know that teams complete us. When a team comes to a task or a project or an obstacle, the collective whole maximizes strengths and minimizes weaknesses. Bill McCartney, former football coach, said, “We have not come together to compete with one another—but to complete one another.”

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9 Lessons on Why Teamwork Is Needed

We were not built to function well alone. We work best in teams.

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”—Helen Keller

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”—The Harvard Business School

Watch a YouTube time lapsed video of the Amish raising a barn.

Some lessons on teamwork:

  1. A compelling direction is needed.

Everyone needs a compelling direction that energizes, orientates, and engages its members. Goal, purpose, cause, passion.

Everything begins with a vision. Ideas become reality, but first there must be the idea. Begin with the end in mind.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”—Henry Ford 

“The best teamwork comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison.”—James Cash Penney

2. Planning is required.

“Make time for planning: Wars are won in the general’s tent.”—Steven R. Covey

Planning is the process of creating your organizational future before it happens. 

Planning is creating your actions in advance so that life will respond to you. It is writing history in advance.  

Proper planning prevents poor performance.

3. Focus on systems instead of goals.

Goals are about the results you want to achieve. Systems are about the processes that lead to those results.

Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress.

“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”—James Clear, Atomic Habits

“Stop setting goals. Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.”—Stephen Covey

“The score takes care of itself.”—Bill Walsh, Super Bowl winning coach

4. Make good use of people’s time.

“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”—Paul J. Meyer

5. More is accomplished together than alone.

TEAM: Together Everyone Accomplishes More.

6. Fun is necessary for fruitful work.

“If work isn’t fun, you’re not playing on the right team.”—Frank Sonnenberg

7. Rest and socialization must be taken regularly.

“Take a rest; a field that has rested give a bountiful crop.”–Ovid

8. A high level of trust is demonstrated.

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.” – Patrick Lencioni

9. Common people can attain uncommon results.

“Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”—Andrew Carnegie

The 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team were a group of common men who produced uncommon results by defeating the Russian team and the Finnish team to win the gold medal.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

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Followership

Curious. Did you take a college course on how to be a good follower? Ever been to a seminar on how to follow well? What about reading a book on followership? If I’d asked if you had read a book or attended a workshop on Leadership, more than likely, you have.

Leadership without followers, well, is nothing but empty and fruitless. Leadership requires followers who will execute the mission, strategy, and plans of the organization. And followers need leaders who will provide the mission, strategy, and plans for the organization.

A Ted Talk entitled “The First Follower” pictures a lone guy dancing at a festival soon another guy joins the first guy in the crazy dance. Soon others join until there is a crowd all dancing together. It provides an example of a movement that began with a leader but would not have happened without the first follower and the subsequent others who join in. The video states: “Being a first follower is an under-appreciated form of Leadership. The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader. If the leader is the flint, the first follower is the spark that makes the fire.” The video concludes with this lesson: “Leadership is over-glorified. Yes, it started with the shirtless guy, and he’ll get all the credit, but you saw what really happened: It was the first follower that transformed a lone nut into a leader. There is no movement without the first follower. We’re told we all need to be leaders, but that would be really ineffective. The best way to make a movement, if you really care, is to courageously follow and show others how to follow. When you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first person to stand up and join in.”

Leaders need followers, and followers need leaders. Working together, they can accomplish many worthwhile projects and plans. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned along with way about followers and leaders.

  1. Leaders need to be easy to follow.

Leaders need the big three: Character, Competence, and a Cause. They need to have the message, integrity and focus that others are willing to follow. When they do, people follow. I read of a woman who said to her pastor, “Pastor, I would follow you on an assault on hell with water pistols.” That woman found a leader easy to follow. Army Colonel Tom Cordingly explained it this way: “When I served at Fort Knox, the executive officer I worked under would plan the strategy and then turn to me and say, ‘Make it so, Tom.’ I was his right-hand man, the ‘make-it-so’ guy. I found more satisfaction in the right-hand-man role than in leading. I’ve come to the conclusion: Give me a good man to work for, a man I love and respect, and I’ll be happy.” It begins with the kind of leader that others want to follow. Interestingly, most great leaders are not charismatic. They simply have the qualities that make it easy for others to want to follow.

2. Leaders need followers.

Warren Bennis observed that leaders are only ever as effective as their ability to engage followers. Without followership, Leadership is nothing. The key to success in Leadership lies in the collective “we,” not the individual “I.”

In other words, Leadership is a process that emerges from a relationship between leaders and followers who are bound together by their understanding that they are members of the same social group. Leaders are more effective when their behaviors indicate that they are “one of us,” because they share our values, concerns, and experiences, and are “doing it for us,” by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests.

3. Good followers have character, too.

Our culture places limited value on following. We celebrate the great leaders but dismiss the many loyal followers. But, to succeed, leaders must teach their followers not only how to lead, but more importantly, how to be a good follower. That requires integrity.

What makes for good followers?

They complement the leader. Followers don’t compete with the leader but complete the leader. It’s like a marriage; the husband and wife experience mutual submission; they are not in competition with one another but rather complement one another. Leadership is participatory: leaders and followers exist in a mutually beneficial relationship where each adds to the effectiveness of the other. Good followers complement their leaders by using their gifts (leaders while usually exceptionally gifted, don’t have all the necessary gifts to accomplish the task), speaking affirmation (Leadership is lonely and discouraging at times; therefore, verbal confirmation is needed), displaying loyalty (leaders need followers they can count on through thick and thin), extending support (leaders who have no one following are only taking a long walk.) Without the help of followers, leaders are doomed to failure.

Good followers stand in the gap. Often leaders have the vision but lack the management and execution tools to see the idea become a reality. Leaders have needs, weaknesses, shortcomings, imperfections, that are often glaring. So, leaders need loyal and dedicated followers to fill the gaps in their efforts.

Good followers take the initiative. Being a follower doesn’t mean that you just stand around and do nothing until the leader tells you what to do. Leaders provide the overall plan, the vision, but followers execute. Good followers know what to do without being told. Good followers don’t just do something; they do the right things. A great story about this need for the initiative is “A Message to Garcia,” written by Elbert Hubbard. Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia in the mountains of Cuba. Rowan didn’t ask, “Where is he?” or “How do I find him?” He just found Garcia and delivered the letter.

4. Good followers make great leaders.

A study of 218 male Australian Royal Marines was conducted. The Marines differentiated themselves as natural leaders (with the skills and abilities to lead) or followers (who were more concerned with getting things done than getting their way). The researchers tracked the recruits’ self-identification as leaders and followers across the course of a physically arduous 32-week infantry training that prepared them for warfare in a range of extreme environments. The study culminated in the recruits and commanders who oversaw their training casting votes for the Commando Medal award to the recruit who showed most leadership ability. Who got the votes?  Marines who set themselves up as leaders or those who cast themselves as followers? The researchers discovered that those recruits who considered themselves natural leaders were not able to convince their peers that this was the case. Instead, it was the recruits who saw themselves (and were seen by commanders) as followers who ultimately emerged as leaders. It seems that those who want to lead are well served by first endeavoring to follow.

Being a good follower teaches one how to value someone else’s opinion, consider others’ inputs, and develop emotional intelligence. They care about their followers and will demonstrate it. They understand and appreciate the limits of their Leadership and how their followers do make or break them. They know that no matter how many subordinates they have, they are still human and share the same vulnerabilities, shortcomings, and struggles as other humans. They view the people they lead as their equals. They value the contributions of each individual and their importance to achieving the end goals. They don’t punish employees who question and challenge them—because they know that having people who hold them accountable is an essential part of becoming a better leader.

5. The mission takes precedence.

Donald Phillips’insightful book, Lincoln on Leadership, examines the character, behavior, attributes, and attitudes that made Abraham Lincoln our most honored and revered president. When Lincoln took office in 1861, he found that the United States was unprepared for war. The union had an insufficient, poorly trained, and poorly equipped army of only 16,000 men under the command of a seventy-five-year-old general, Winfield Scott. As the war waged on, Lincoln went through general after general for three years before he finally found a responsible, risk-taker man, and, most importantly, who made things happen—Ulysses S. Grant. Lincoln could not have won the war without Grant. Lincoln was the leader, and General Grant was his chief subordinate. Parenthetically, historians consider General Lee to be a better leader than Grant and speculate that the war would have been over in as little as six months if Lee had been with Lincoln. It wasn’t until Grant was added to the mix that Lincoln and the Union Army found victory. In Grant, Lincoln found a strategic, aggressive, creative follower who took the initiative to accomplish the mission.

Donald Phillips comments: “All leaders should realize that they can’t do everything on their own. They simply must have people below them who will do what is necessary to ensure success. Those subordinates who will take risks, act without waiting for direction, and ask for responsibility rather than reject it, should be treated as your most prized possessions. Such individuals are exceedingly rare and worth their weight in gold.”

Businesses, teams, governments, and churches can have leaders who possess exceptional vision and provide direction, just as Lincoln did. Still, they can’t succeed without people like U. S. Grant to carry out the mission.

Leaders need followers to execute the mission.

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Dealing with Your Critics

Supposedly when Robert Fulton was building his steam engine, his wife came to him in his workshop and said, “You’ll never get that thing to work, and even if you do you’ll never be able to get it out.”  Well, miraculously, according to his wife, he got it to work.  The engine sat in his front yard as he worked to fit it on a boat.  His wife came to him and said, “I don’t know why you are spending so much time on that thing; you’ll never get it to the river.”  Well, miraculously, according to his wife, he got the steam engine attached to a boat and got it down to the river.  His wife came down to the river and said, “I don’t know why you are wasting your time; you’ll never get that thing to start.”  Well, miraculously, it did start, and Fulton began moving down the river.  He was happy on two accounts:  one, his invention worked, and, two, he left his wife back on the dock.  He heard a voice calling after him, saying, “You’ll never get that thing stopped.  You never will.”

Criticism is inevitable. It is almost a daily staple for many people, especially leaders. It comes in the form of side comments to direct challenges, from people who walk into your office to anonymous notes sent by people with no courage.

We have become a nation of critics with 24-hour news and sports coverage. It spills over into every aspect of life.

Maybe you face criticism at work, home, or school. The nit-picking boss, coworker, business partner, acquaintance, friend, or family member is second-guessing your decisions and taking pride in pointing out your mistakes. They are like Robert Fulton’s wife, running alongside you, telling you just exactly what you can’t do and why it won’t work.

No matter how hard you work, how great your ideas, or how wonderful your talent, you probably will be the object of criticism.  No one is exempt.  Well, maybe you can evade it.  “Criticism,” Aristotle wrote, “is something you can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” That’s not an option.

How do we deal with the critic? Since we all have them, and since we all are engaged in work that exposes ourselves to the critic, a proper mindset in dealing with criticism should be maintained. Here are ten action steps when dealing with your critics.

  1. Ask yourself if the criticism is true or false.

Take an honest look at yourself. If the criticism is valid, do something about it. Sometimes the best course of action is to respond to criticism. If the criticism is invalid, forget it. Sometimes the best course of action is to ignore it completely. A. W. Tozer wrote, “Never fear criticism. If the critic is right, he has helped you. If he is wrong, you can help him. Either way, somebody gets helped.”

2. Own what you can.

Criticism is a bit like sarcasm, there’s always a hint of truth, even when the bulk of the criticism is false. Find that element of truth and own up to it.

3. Learn from your mistakes.

Since there seems always to be an element of truth in most criticism, we need to cull those out and learn from them. Not all criticism is intended to harm you. A lot of criticism is designed to help you. There is a lesson in every criticism, but you must be willing to find it.

4. Resist the immediate reflex of defensiveness.

Listen for something right and may need improvement or changing while avoiding the strong desire to defend yourself. This action is hard. When we are on the receiving end of a critical remark, our fight mechanism usually kicks in, and we what to retaliate. Refuse to do that. When Lori Deschene took a summer acting class, she made the people around her uncomfortable with her defensiveness. The teacher was giving her feedback after a scene in front of the whole class. The teacher couldn’t get through a single sentence without Lori offering some type of argument. After a couple of minutes of verbal sparring, one of Lori’s peers said, “Stop talking. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

5. Wait twenty-four hours before responding.

Whenever you get a critical email, comment, or phone call, you feel hurt, crushed, and sometimes you get angry. You want to defend, deny, or retaliate. Typically, nothing good happens when you’re upset. Any attempt to respond immediately almost always makes it worse. When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism don’t respond for 24 hours. Instead, use that time to measure the value or worth of the criticism. This step requires excellent self-control that prevents you from becoming impatient and defensive. 

6. Reply relationally.

Just because someone emailed you a stinging criticism doesn’t mean you should shoot off one, too. Just because someone called you out in a meeting doesn’t mean you should return the favor. I got this bit of advice from Andy Stanley. He suggested that you take your response to criticism up one level from how they responded with you. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. For example: If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder in an email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email. Or, if they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person. Or, if they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after. Nine times out of ten, you will take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if they’re healthy, and you own whatever you can, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.

7. Respond with an appropriate comment.

Granted, it is hard not to be defensive when someone criticizes you. What do you say when you get together with your critic? Here are a few statements that you can learn to help you make the right step in learning from your critics while remaining relaxed. These statements let your critics know you are open to their feedback and want to perform better next time. Here are three suggestions:

  • I understand I haven’t lived up to your expectations on this project. How can I do better next time?
  • I’m trying to improve. Please clarify your concerns so I can do better next time.
  • I’d appreciate actionable points with your next feedback.

Responding this way shows that you are not rolling over to become a doormat. It shows you sincerely want to improve.

8. Absorb criticism with grace.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, addressed personal relationships. He stated that when someone slapped you on the cheek, turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). That is hard to do, especially when you have been hurt and offended.

Gary Vaynerchuk provides an excellent example of how to respond to criticism with grace. When Vaynerchuk published his best-selling book Crush It, he received dozens of 1-star and 2-star reviews on Amazon. Negative reviewers claimed that the book was “absolutely awful” and called it a “piece of crap with no value whatsoever.” His book was a best-seller. Rather than fight back and justify his work, Gary decided to respond to many of the negative reviews with a sincere apology. For example, a reader named Frank left a 1-star review for the book in which he complained, “How did this book ever get published?” Vaynerchuk responded to him by saying, “Frank I am so so sorry I underdelivered for you, I hope to meet u and spend 15 minutes apologizing and answering any questions u may have, I guess I needed more details in there for u, I am so sorry.” Despite using grammar from a high school text message, Vaynerchuk ended up getting Frank’s number and called him to talk things over. After their conversation, Frank wrote a follow-up comment on his book review saying, “If Amazon had a people ranking system, I’d have to give Gary 5 stars. One cannot help being impressed by someone who gets back to you so quickly and handles criticism so graciously.”

If you’re going to respond to your critics, then getting a response like that should be your goal. Rather than retaliating with insults, win them back with sincerity. Most people don’t want to be convinced that your work is wonderful; they just want to know that you care.

9. Focus on the task, not the critics.

Many racing experts consider Mario Andretti to be the most successful and versatile racing driver of all-time. During his career, Andretti won the Indianapolis 500, Daytona 500, Formula One World Championship, and the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb. He is one of only two drivers in history to win races in Formula One, IndyCar, World Sportscar Championship, and NASCAR. During an interview with SUCCESS magazine, Andretti was asked for his number one tip for success in race car driving. He said, “Don’t look at the wall. Your car goes where your eyes go.” When young drivers are starting to race, this is one of the most critical lessons that they learn. When you’re driving at 200mph, you need to focus on the road in front of you. If you look at the wall, then you’ll end up hitting it.

The same is said for your life, your work, and dealing with critics.

Criticism and negativity from other people are like a wall. And if you focus on it, then you’ll run right into it. You’ll get blocked by negative emotions, anger, and self-doubt. Your mind will go where your attention is focused. Criticism and negativity don’t prevent you from reaching the finish line, but they can certainly distract you from it.

However, if you focus on the road in front of you and move forward, you can safely speed past the walls and barriers nearby.

When someone dishes out a negative comment, use the feedback to recommit to your work, and to refocus on the road ahead of you. Some people are determined to take things personally and tear down the work of others. Your life is too short to worry about pleasing those people.

Marcus Aurelius said it this way: “The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. Not to be distracted by their darkness. To run straight for the finish line, unswerving.”

10. Know that time answers a lot of criticism.

Time and success have a way of erasing a lot of criticism.

Colonel George Washington Goethals, the man responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal, had big problems with the climate and geography.  But his biggest challenge was the growing criticism back home from those who predicted he’d never finish the project.

Finally, a colleague asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer those critics?”

“In time,” answered Goethals.

“When?” his partner asked.

“When the canal is finished.”

In the end, they don’t build statues to the critic. Robert Fulton’s wife didn’t get one. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

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Responding to the Panic of the Pandemic

In his book Fearless (written in 2009), Max Lucado painted the picture of our fearful generation. He wrote,

Each sunrise seems to bring fresh reasons for fear. They’re talking lay-offs at work, slow-downs in the economy, flair-ups in the Middle East, turnovers at headquarters, turndowns in the housing market, upswings in global warming, breakouts of al Qaeda cells. Some demented dictator is collecting nuclear warheads the way others collect fine wines. A strain of Asian flu is boarding flights out of China. The plague of our day, terrorism, begins with the word ‘terror.’ We are fearful of being sued, of finishing last, of going broke. We fear the mole on our back, the new kid on the block, the sound of the clock as it ticks closer to the grave. We sophisticate investment plans, create elaborate security systems, and legislate stronger military. And yet, today, we depend on mood-altering drugs more than any generation in history.

According to one study that Lucado presented in his book, ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.

We all are acquainted with fear. No one is exempt. It visits the young and old, the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, and the strong and weak.

“Fear,” according to Paul Moede, “is not a private domain of the weak. It strikes at the best of us. It does not restrict itself to the individual, but sometimes it can be transmitted to others. It is most dangerous, in its ability to slap handcuffs and shackles on us and bound us up in a prison of frustration and hopelessness.”

Fear is a virus. We know about viruses, don’t we? I’m guessing if people were asked two months ago to list their predominate fears, they would have said spiders, public speaking, heights, flying, etc. But, if asked today, the list might be vastly different: contracting the Coronavirus, losing my job, making my mortgage payment, finding toilet paper, etc.

Fear is very much a part of life. It’s a God-given emotion. To be afraid is normal.

In its most common form, fear is an internal warning mechanism that signals danger nearby, and we had better do something about it. It sounds an alarm inside of us to take action and remove ourselves from whatever is threatening us. It readies our bodies to flee, hide, or fight. The intensity of our fear is in direct proportion to the immediacy of the danger.

In the ancient Greek language, the word for fear meant flight. It’s the picture of pheasants being flushed from their nesting areas and taking flight because they have been frightened by the approaching danger of a hunter. It’s the soldier in battle fleeing the enemy when being shot. “Did you hear those bullets?” asked one soldier to another. “Twice,” he said, “once when they went past me, and once when I passed them.”

While being afraid is healthy, yet if fear is out of control, it can paralyze. It brings on “cold feet,” makes one a “chicken,” and eats away at one’s “guts.” Fear causes one to miss a sure two-foot putt, a free throw in the closing seconds of a game, a budding opportunity for financial gain, a friendship that could last a lifetime. Fear motivates one to make more money—”just in case;” to always have the resume out—”you never know;” and to look over one’s shoulder—”you can’t trust anyone.” 

Someone described fear as “a small trickle of doubt that flows through the mind until it wears a channel into which all of your thoughts are drained.” Little fears, almost unperceived fears, can build up day-by-day until we find ourselves paralyzed and unable to function.

In broad arenas, fear manifests itself in three ways: something in the past that haunts us, something in the present that upsets us, or something in the future that threatens us. Or, it can be a combination of all three.

Looking at those three domains, what can we do to be confident in the face of our fears?

  1. Considering past mistakes, admit them.

How many of our fears concern themselves with errors and mistakes we have made in the past and the corresponding guilt and fear of discovery? Will someone discover my lack of integrity at work? Will my secret sin be found out? Will my error in judgment cost me the account? Will my affair be discovered? Will my dishonesty catch up with me?

I’ve been there many times. I’ve skirted the line. I’ve taken more than I should. I’ve looked when I shouldn’t have. I’ve added more than I should have.

When our fears concern themselves with past mistakes, what must we do? The proper response is to confess them or admit them. To confess means to admit or concede. It involves stripping away layers of disguise to expose what is really at the center of who we are. Confession is the discipline of making an honest appraisal of ourselves.

In my line of work, we often say that confession is good for the soul. It is. It’s therapeutic. At recovery meetings, one begins by saying, “Hello, my name is Rick. I’m an alcoholic.” I was reading this past week about a man trapped in pornography. He tried to stop on his own. A leader of a ministry that specializes in sexual purity told him: “One hundred percent disclosure in brokenness, humility, continued transparency, and confession to the people you care about is the only way out.” Confession is cathartic. It’s a bold move, but it wipes the slate clean. Confession provides a new beginning, a fresh start. It’s not only good for you personally; it’s right for you professionally.

When New York’s Citicorp tower was completed in 1977, it was the seventh tallest building in the world. Many structural engineers hailed the tower for its technical elegance and singular grace. The structural engineer was William J. LeMessurier. One year after the building opened, LeMessurier came to a frightening realization. The Citicorp tower was flawed. Without his approval, joints that should have been welded were bolted. Under severe winds that happen once every sixteen years to New York, the building would buckle.

LeMessurier weighed his options. If he blew the whistle on himself, he faced lawsuits, probable bankruptcy, and professional disgrace. He gave fleeting thoughts to suicide but dismissed that as the coward’s way out. He could keep silent and hope for the best. But lives were at stake.

He did what he had to do. He came clean. He confessed the mistake. Plans were drawn up to correct the problem. Work began. And three months later, the building was strong enough to withstand a storm of the severity that hits New York once every seven hundred years.

The repairs cost millions of dollars. Nevertheless, LeMessurier’s career and reputation were not destroyed but enhanced. One engineer commended LeMessurier for being a man who dared to say, “I got a problem; I made the problem; let’s fix the problem.”

  1. Considering present pressures, display courage.

How many of our fears concern themselves with the immediate need for protection and comfort? In other words, some of our fears have to do with our present. Will I be adequate in making the presentation? Will I pass the exam? Will she accept my proposal? Will I make the putt? Will they hire me after the job interview? Will I make the pass or hit the note or be able to do the routine? These are the fears of the present, fears of adequacy.

I have to be honest with you. I get fearful every time I stand to give a talk. My palms become sweaty; my blood pressure rises, my stomach develops knots—the fear of speaking in public. I want to do well. I want to be effective. I want people to respond to my message. Sometimes it is; sometimes it isn’t.

What do I do? I display courage.

It’s been said that courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to walk on despite it. Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.” Plato stated that courage knows what to fear. Just because one is courageous does not imply that they are operating without fear.

Karle Wilson Baker penned:

Courage is armor

A blind man wears;

The calloused scar

Of outlived despairs

Courage is fear

That has said its prayers.

Courage confronts fear head-on. Basil King, in The Conquest of Fear, wrote, “Be bold—and mighty forces will come to your aid.” James Coleman stated, “The brave person is not the one who experiences no fear, but the one who acts courageously despite fear.”

We see courage displayed every day considering the Coronavirus. Doctors, nurses, medical personnel are going to clinics and hospitals to treat patients. We see it when First Responders arrive on the scene of a disaster. We see it when military personnel goes to fight battles to protect our freedom. We see it in moms and dads providing for and protecting their families.

Courage is the muscle of character that flexes to give individuals, families, and nations their strength to continue amid overwhelming odds.

General George Patton said, “The time to take counsel of your fears is before you make an important battle decision. That is the time to listen to every fear you can imagine. When you have collected all the facts and fears and made your decision, turn off all your fears and go ahead.”

  1. Considering future threats, walk on.

Does not many of our fears have to do with the uncertainty of things we cannot see or do not know? Aren’t many of our fears hidden in the darkness, both real and imagined? If you’ve ever walked into a room in total darkness, there will be hesitation, caution, and apprehension because you are fearful about making a wrong turn or walking into something. The same would not be true when the lights were on. It is the same way in life, there are troubling, dark times in which fear is increased because we don’t know which way to turn or which way to go. The tomorrows of life are often shrouded in fear. Will I get a job when I graduate? Will I have a job next week? Will I ever get married? Will I contract the virus? Will I be able to send my children to college? Will I be ready to retire? Will the test come back negative?

With looming threats, what must we do? We walk toward our fears. We walk on despite our fears.

In recounting his life long struggle to gain victory over his old enemy rheumatic heart disease, H. C. Brown stated that a friend shared this helpful philosophy for attacking fears: “The way to defeat your fear is to walk toward it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson was right. “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.”

In the last few weeks, as I’ve been making my rounds as a workplace chaplain, the main topic of conversation has been on the virus. Onsite visits that should take two hours have been taking three to four hours. People need and want to talk. They want their fears relieved. They want to be comforted and reminded that this too shall pass.

I’ve told them that this crisis had taught me that much is outside of my control. But the only thing I can control is my response to these events. I can respond in fear, or I can answer in faith. I choose to respond in faith. Faith is the antithesis of fear. Fear and faith cannot cohabitate.  If we want to dispel fear, we must display faith. It takes faith to admit our failures, to show courage, and to walk on despite our fear.

I hope and pray that you too will walk in faith.

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Thriving in a Crisis: 7 Seeds of Opportunity

John D. Rockefeller was barely two years into his first job when the Panic of 1857 struck. Rockefeller could have become depressed and paralyzed by the unfortunate circumstances of a declining economy. But instead of lamenting the timing of the economic upheaval, he chose to perceive events differently than his peers. He looked at them as an opportunity to learn. He often said, “I always tried to turn every disaster into an opportunity.” Within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller alone controlled 90 percent of the oil market. He found an opportunity in a crisis.

The coronavirus crisis has plunged us all into a global health catastrophe and an economic downturn. It has dramatically redefined what a normal life means. It would be helpful for us to look for the opportunity in this disaster. At such times, it’s useful to realize that in both Chinese and Japanese, the word crisis is written with two symbols signifying “danger” and “opportunity.” Every crisis, while deeply unsettling, contains the seeds of opportunity. 

Here are seven seeds of opportunity to plant as you face your crisis.

  1. Reflect on who you are.

Several years ago, three dedicated Christian businessmen in my church lost their jobs. After several weeks of job searching, they came to me individually to talk. Interestingly, each wanted to know what I thought about him leaving the business sector and enrolling in seminary to pursue a ministerial vocation. As they spoke, my questions were: “Why are you considering such an alternative? Why are you thinking of this option currently in your life? What caused you to consider such a career change?” One common thread ran through each man’s story. Each prefaced his remarks by saying, “You know, I’ve been doing a lot of serious thinking lately.”

These were fine Christian laymen. Eventually, they found jobs, and none enrolled in seminary. But by their admission, it took the loss of a job to jar them out of complacency to ask reflective questions.

Crises provide us with an opportunity to reflect on who we are and where we are going. They offer the pause to consider other options and avenues.

2. Reconsider what you have accepted.

Lowell “Bud” Paxson was running an AM radio station in Clearwater, Florida. In 1977, one of his advertisers found himself in a financial crunch and could not afford to pay for airtime. Instead, he offered Bud what seemed a desperate deal. He would pay for the airtime in the currency he had: Rival can openers.

What can a radio station do with a box of red can openers? Bud might have simply sent them back and put his collections department on the advertiser. He could have given them away as gifts to his other corporate customers. But instead, he instructed one of his hosts to sell the can openers on the air.

To everyone’s surprise, this desperate move proved a brilliant one. The can openers sold faster than anyone expected and gave Bud a radical new business model. Instead of selling
advertising to customers who sold products, maybe Bud could just sell the products himself!

A few years later, Bud got the financial backing to launch a cable channel to pursue this business model fully. The channel, named the “Home Shopping Network” (today HSN), would simply sell products on the air 24 hours per day.

The outcome of this story is well known. HSN quickly took off. It was soon carried by cable companies around the country and then expanded into other languages and countries. It spurned an entirely new media category.

Crises allow us to break comfortable patterns of behavior. Had Bud simply been paid in cash, he would have no reason to try selling can openers on air. He would have probably continued doing what he was doing, selling advertising. We feel no urge to change what seems to be working, so when our options are acceptable, we repeat what we’ve done before.

In this dilemma lies the gift of crisis. It provides the opportunity to reconsider what we have accepted.

3. Rise to the top.

A crisis has a way of letting the cream rise to the top. During a disaster, those with the right skill sets and talent—even if they are not the identified leaders or top performers—have a way of rising to meet the challenge, to showcase their skills, to bloom where they are planted, to get the best from others.

Pro football player Kurt Warner was cut from the Green Bay Packers in 1994 and took the only job he could, bagging groceries for $5.50/hour at a local store in Iowa. He then spent the next three seasons as an undrafted football player in the Arena Football and NFL Europe leagues. In 1999, the St. Louis Rams returned from finishing last with a 4-1 record to starting their season in crisis. Their starting quarterback, Trent Green, tore his ACL during a pre-season game. It looked as if the team were on the verge of another disastrous season. Newly signed, second-string quarterback Kurt Warner answered the call that season, throwing for 4,353 yards, 41 touchdown passes, and winning 13 games. Then he won the Super Bowl by attempting 45 passes without an interception and throwing two touchdowns for a record 414 yards. Kurt Warner went from supermarket bagboy to Super Bowl MVP, and the Rams, a mediocre team at best, coalesced around their unexpected leader to rise to the challenge and beat the odds to transform into world champions.

Crises provide the opportunity for under the radar people to shine, to show their worth, and to excel when others thought they couldn’t.

4. Reconnect with people. 

Too often, when faced with a crisis, the human tendency is to isolate ourselves from others, going into hiding. It’s during these times; we most need to connect with others for help, support, encouragement, and strength. Especially, people who provide a mentoring, coaching, and directional role. These people see our blind spots. They love us enough not to let us make stupid mistakes. 

I once faced a personal crisis, stemming from a person who was verbally attacking me with lies and innuendoes. This tension was creating stress at home and frustration in every area of my life. I was mad. I had lunch with my close friend Wilbur and splattered my anger all over him and how I wanted to unload on my enemy. Being the genuine, mature friend that he was, he let me erupt. Tactfully, Wilbur pointed out to me how destructive such an attack would be. He loved me enough to prevent me from making a stupid mistake.

A crisis provides an opportunity to seek out those people who will encourage us and inspire us to be the best we can be.

5. Receive a blessing.

All too often, I cannot correctly interpret what is going on in life at the moment. It is difficult to make sense of all the pain and trials that come my way. Sometimes I cannot tell if what’s happening to me is a blessing or a curse, especially if I am in the midst of a crisis.

When I was playing high school basketball, I collided with a teammate going for a loose ball. He came out of the collision, barely scathed. I, on the other hand, had busted my lip, and my two front teeth were dislodged with one hanging on by the nerve. Rushed to a dentist, he stitched up my mouth and put my teeth back where they belonged.

What appeared to be a horrible accident turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Before that night, a noticeable gap was visible between my two front teeth. When the dentist repositioned my teeth, he was able to align them, so there was no gap. I walked away from his office with a bruised face, stitches in my lip, and a new smile.

As a boy, Thomas Edison received a blow on his ear that impaired his hearing. But later, he believed his deafness was a blessing, saving from distractions. Now, he could concentrate, resulting in some of the great inventions.

Victor Hugo, a literary genius of France, was exiled from his country by Napoleon. But out of that period of exile arose some of his most creative works. When he later returned home in triumph, he asked, “Why was I not exiled earlier?”

Helen Keller became blind and deaf, faced obstacle after obstacle in her life. However, on more than one occasion, she confided, “I thank God for my obstacles, for through them, I have found myself, my work and my God.”

George Frederick Handel was at a low point in his life. His money was gone, and his creditors hounded him, threatening him with imprisonment. His right side became paralyzed, and his health deteriorated. For a brief time, he wanted to give up. Amid the darkness, he picked himself up and began to do the only thing he knew to do—write music. And out of that despair, he wrote the oratorio known as Messiah, which many consider the most significant piece of church music in history.

Crises often reveal blessings. When the current of the crisis moves the sand, we often discover a treasure.

6. React with perseverance.

On a consumer flight from Portland, Maine, to Boston, the pilot heard an unusual noise near the rear of the aircraft. Henry Dempsey turned the controls over to his co-pilot and went back to check it out. As he reached the tail section, the plane hit an air pocket, and Dempsey was tossed against the rear door. He quickly discovered the source of the mysterious noise. The back door had not been appropriately latched before takeoff, and it fell open. Dempsey was instantly sucked out of the jet.

The co-pilot, seeing the red light on the control panel that indicated an open door, radioed the nearest airport requesting permission to make an emergency landing. He reported that Dempsey had fallen out of the plane and requested that a helicopter be dispatched to search the area of the ocean.

After the plane had landed, the ground crew found Henry Dempsey holding onto the outdoor ladder of the aircraft. Somehow, he had caught the ladder and managed to hold on for 10 minutes as the plane flew 200mph at an altitude of 4,000 feet. What is more, as the plane made its approach and landed, Dempsey had kept his head from hitting the runway, a mere 12 inches away. According to news reports, it took several airport personnel more than a few minutes to pry the pilot’s fingers from the ladder.

That is a picture of perseverance—the ability to hang on when it would have been more natural to let go.

A crisis provides us with an opportunity to keep going when it would be easier to give up. So, don’t quit. Never give up. Keep going. Hold on. Like Henry Dempsey, do not let go.

7. Respond in faith.

Crises, by their very nature, are frightening and threatening. There is a tendency to retreat to the past—what is familiar, what is comfortable, what is known.  

When the Israelites left Egypt in a mad dash, the Red Sea stopped them. They faced a crisis of monumental proportions. What would they do? They panicked, fearing the unknown. They wanted to retreat–to go back to Egypt. God says to Moses, their leader, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the sons of Israel to go forward” (Ex. 14:15 NASB). They chose to move forward in faith.

Some forty years later, the Israelites confronted another body of water—the Jordan River, not as big as the Red Sea and with no one pursuing them from the rear.  But, they, nevertheless, were apprehensive. To Joshua, leading the children of Israel into the unchartered area of the Promised Land, God said, “Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own” (Jos. 1:11 NIV). 

Crises are a prime opportunity to display faith. To move past the dangers to meet the possibilities of a new day, to move ahead in life, to grow, always requires faith. As we respond in faith, the unknown becomes known, the darkness becomes light, the night becomes day. Faith is like walking toward an automatic sliding door which only opens as we move toward it. 

Facing a crisis feels like life’s rug jerked from under us. But remember, God is under the rug. He will catch you, support you, encourage you, and soften the blow of the fall. You can count on him for that. He can be trusted.

Let me close with an Oswald Chamber’s quote: “It is no use to pray for the old days; stand square where you are and make the present better than any past has been. Base all on your relationship to God and go forward, and presently you will find that what is emerging is infinitely better than the past ever was.”

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The One Cure for Loneliness

Is it possible to have a million friends on Facebook and countless followers on Instagram but no real friends? Is it possible to go to work surrounded by dozens of people and have no genuine support? It’s not only possible; it’s real every day. And, it’s become a dangerous crisis in America.

Researchers contend that social isolation and loneliness may represent a more significant public health hazard than obesity. Some researchers argue that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Other studies reveal that loneliness is involved in everything from depression, alcoholism, strokes, decreased immune system, and early death. John Corry, in the New York Times, wrote, “Loneliness seems to have become the great American disease.”

The settlers of the North American western frontier learned this reality the hard way. When the challenge to “Go west, young man” came, many left the security and safety of home to stake their claims on the frontier. The settlers built their houses in the middle of their homestead (miles from the nearest family). The settlers, from their new homes, wanted to survey all of their property and say with pride, “As far as I can see, that is mine.” But in time, isolation proved to be a far cry from ideal. When photographers returned from those lonely houses, they showed pictures of wild-eyed women, stooped, gaunt, prematurely older men, and haunted-looking children. Isolation proved difficult.

Why? We are a relational people. We were made and designed to be in relationship with others. A lack of relationships produces isolation. As difficult as people can be, we need each other. Have you ever said, “I love my job; it’s the people I can’t stand”? Or, “If it weren’t for the people, this would be the greatest workplace in the world.” Or, maybe you’ve said, “What I wish I could do is go to a remote spot, build me a cabin, and live alone. Then, I would be happy. I would find peace.” Before you do that, let me remind you that the worst and cruelest punishment is solitary confinement. Loneliness is a threat to your physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Many people suffer from loneliness because they have lost their sense of community. Numerous sociologists have observed that most Americans don’t experience meaningful involvement with a community of people.

Consider once again the settlers on the western frontier. As time went on, the early settlers benefited enormously by building their homes nearer each other. They erected their homes on the corner of their property rather than in the center. Four families, living on the edge of their farms near neighbors, could survive much more comfortably if they loosened their grip on independence. When they came together—being a community—meant hope, security, and survival.

When I moved 600 miles to attend seminary, I did not know a soul. The city was extensive. The people seemed distant and unfriendly. I left behind all my support systems. I was miserable. I was lonely and depressed. A professor told me, “We can make a heaven or hell where we are, but it’s up to us.” God seemed to impress on me that my past support systems—school friends, church friends, family relationships—did not happen overnight. They took years to develop. New ones would not occur immediately, either. The key was involvement and commitment to those relationships. I decided to make a heaven out of my new location. I joined the church I had been attending. I got involved in a small group. I volunteered to serve. I joined a tennis club to stay in shape and to meet new people. Then, along with two other friends at the seminary, we had lunch one day a week at a different restaurant. In time, the feelings of loneliness dissipated. I was enjoying life. The city that I thought was cold and unfriendly became my home for seven years.

Human survival depends on connectedness, with feelings of loneliness serving as a biological signal to socialize. Meaningful, high-quality relationships have the most significant protective health effect on humans. You and I need community. We are doomed without it.

Instead of counting your friends on Facebook, make some real connections, and build a community. It’s the means of survival.

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