Next/Next Process Critical To Success

Life is not always about what happens next, but rather what happens next/next.

Good and bad things happen to all of us. A decision at work does not go our way, or maybe a doctor delivers news about a life-changing medical condition. On the other hand, perhaps we are receiving end of an aunt leaving a few thousand dollars following her passing, or you finally earn the advanced degree years in the making.

Life is not always in what happens, but more so in the ones immediately following.

A couple of years ago, our daughter discovered herself diagnosed with a chronic health condition altering the course of her life. After doctors warned the long hours and high levels of stress baked into her career field would be the wrong prescription for successfully managing her health, she sat deflated.

Long years of dreaming evaporated before her eyes – and she took it hard.

But what happened next/next is where she truly succeeded. After a good cry to three, she created a dedicated social media thread, sharing what she was learning about her condition as well as her personal journey. Photos of her in hospital beds or medical supplies spread out across a table began to connect with others of her situation. A community of individuals thirsty to learn – not pity each other – sprang up from social media feeds. And as she helped others, followers paid forward with suggestions and tips they’d gleaned. Without knowing it, our daughter discovered the same media skills she was developing for her targeted career allowed her to see a higher purpose to her condition while helping others.

And as a parent, I could not be more proud.

But she is not alone. Bad things happen all the time. But often, the real damage occurs after one lets the impact derail the one inside of them. No event or action should be allowed to become the ending result rather than another bump along the road to tomorrow. The next/next step we take is most times the most significant predictor of whether we allow the moment to define us or become only another dent in our armor.

My mother died when I was young. I loved her with all my heart. But her passing, as close to my emotional center as it could be, was not an excuse to negatively impact my long-term direction in life. What would happen next/next, I figured out, would determine my longer-term outcome. In such a journey, days become months, months become years, and years become decades until you finally create a lifetime of experiences. My mother did not expect, nor would she wished, for my life to end the day hers did. Instead, she would have wanted me to rise and take her spirit forward into the world and become the best me I could create.

Next/next is a process you adopt and repeat your entire life. And having the courage to do so will make all the difference in life.

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My Generation Is Guilty As Charged

My son blames my wife and me for ruining his youth.

Years ago while our son was away at college, he once complained about all the rules and regulations required to hold even a small party or event on a modern campus.

“Apparently, your generation had too much fun and messed it up for the rest of us,” he said.

Well, he might have a point – we did have a great time.

His words dropped by for a visit while I was at a business lunch earlier this week. Among the four of us, three of us came of age in the last century. The other guest, however, is only a few years out of college.

A co-worker was talking about how she would and friends would cook themselves while trying to get the perfect tan during the summers.

“We’d cover ourselves in oil mixed with iodine,” she said. “We’ve even laid on tinfoil to reflect the light back up on us.”

The face of the youngest member at our lunch table went slack, hoping my friend was joking.

Another guest spoke up.

“Yes, we even held up cardboard trays covered in aluminum foil to focus the sun on our faces.”

I think our youngest guest began to realize the rest of her table was from a much different world, one not only from the last century but one where people lived with a different attitude towards life.

Finally, the youngest guest spoke up, bring the rest of us back into the 21st century.

“I try never to go into the sun with our at least 100 SPF,” she said.

The rest of us know she is right – each us probably harboring sun damage somewhere on our bodies. But at the time, we were young, invincible, and our tomorrows were more conceptual than anchored in reality.

Our days were seasoned with all-night road trips without cell phones or going out with friends long after what is now our regular bedtimes. And as for all we knew, our tomorrows were unlimited would only get better.

Like probably every generation at their time, we were determined to out-celebrate, out-music, and out-define our time in the spotlight. And as happens when you keep raising the stakes, the returning to reality can have its downsides.

Today I see the scars of years of the unprotected sun on my skin, I’m now seriously considering hearing aids, and I wish I’d understood the concept of compounding interest when I was twenty-three.

But then again, there is the other side of the coin. Our generation bought tickets to see the best bands for $15 and thought cholesterol was a food additive. We thought hair could always be a bit taller, the music louder, and shoulder pads might even look good inside a t-shirt.

While we were wrong about the last item, we had our fun. And we did it big.

And while my generation sincerely wishes the newer generations their good times and self-discovering experiences, we are – as my son accuses us – guilty as charged.

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Doing Right Takes Effort On Our Part

We like to believe we will always do the right thing – that is, until we don’t.

Last week a figure leaned against a wall to my right while walking into a local restaurant. Even without a direct glance, I could tell the man was bordering between blending into the stucco wall and hoping to get someone’s attention. He was in need but unable to ask.

Helping others is easy to sign up for, harder to do without fail. Life distracts us, tricks us into thinking whatever we are doing is more important. Human nature swings both ways.

At the moment, I was scanning an email on my phone, walking towards the restaurant’s glass doors. But inside of me, I knew I was missing an opportunity. But I was, so insisted the selfish voice inside of me, in a hurry.

Inside the restaurant, the voice worked to reaffirm my decision. But the inaction stubbornly hung over me like the smell of the chicken fajitas on the crackling in the restaurant’s kitchen.

The door closed behind me, and my world moved forward – that is, until I heard the sound of metal scraping and banging from aluminum doors behind me. Turning around, I saw a younger man helping an older couple maneuver a heavy wheelchair through the narrow opening.

“Here you go,” he said. “Let me help you.”

Neither knew each other.

His sun-kissed hair danced like angry ocean waves. Silver bracelets draped from his muscled and colorfully inked arms. His energetic voice seemingly illuminated the room an extra 10 percent.

Once in the door, the older couple settled at a wooden table, and the younger man stepped into line to order his meal with his friend.

I sat down, thinking about how fortunate the world is when people are tuned in to the opportunities of helping others. I was also licking my self-inflicted wounds from earlier – no matter how hard the little voice inside tried to justify my selfish response. I’d whiffed on two opportunities.

Minutes later, the young man’s order was called, and a plate overflowing with food appeared. Getting up, he turned and stepped outside, returning with the man behind from the shadow. Bundled in a heavy coat and his most valuable possessions stored in a stained backpack, he looked down at the food. The younger man invited the shadow man to sit down and eat.

The conversation didn’t make it to me, but I did see the other man appeared uncomfortable to sit down and eat, among others. The younger man, understanding, grabbed an employee, and packaged the food to go. He then placed his hand on the man’s shoulder, made meaningful eye contact, and shared a few words of encouragement.

We all say we will do the right thing when presented with the opportunity to help others. But we don’t. I will always remember the day the universe decided to powerfully remind me there is a vast gap between signing up and acting with heart.

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De-Consumption Drives New Questions

Lately, I am motivated more and more by less and less in every aspect of my life. Eating less food, buying fewer items, and worrying about things I cannot change.

I call this a life de-consumption.

I’ll admit, coming of age in the last century, the society raised us to consider consumption our default function – buy, use, dispose. Repeat often as possible. The newer, the cooler. the bigger, the better. And the flashy the more likely to project success and happiness.

But as I’ve grown older and put a few decades behind me, I realized this formula is as accurately representative as the bowl of cereal in an advertising photo. The lasting satisfaction from grabbing consumption trophies is no more real than the glue in the container holding each breakfast flake in the perfect photographic position.

I’ve also learned over time the relationship between the number of possessions and happiness if false. In increasingly wonder if the volume of consumption isn’t merely and reflection of filling an aching hole in someone’s inner self.

The happiest people I’ve met in the world comparatively have the least in terms of possessions.

I once in a novel, the writer wrote something along the lines of “growing up we never knew we were poor until we were old enough to know we were poor.” I guess, to a certain extent, we can all relate to the day consumption fever takes hold. No matter your station in life, you one day discover worlds out there – both higher and lower than yours. And from all outward indicators, the former is where all the trappings of success and happiness are rooted.

Unwinding this cultural programming is difficult. I’ll admit the fever infected me coming of age later decades of the last century: bigger houses, more clothes in closets, the need for 3 or 4 slot garages.

Today I find myself actively unwinding this ingrained expectation. No longer do I feel the need to consume without a genuine need. Replacing the mailbox house becomes a challenge of whether a different coating of paint does the job. Big and small, these little decisions are taking over, impacting what comes and goes under my roof and life.

Buy a new shirt? Take two to the Salvation Army. New shoes? Same. Tip generously, flood the world with kind words and always be on the watch to help someone else.

De-consumption is about turning an existing formula on its head and asking what do you need? What can you do – or do without – to make the lives of someone else better? How many coffee mugs does someone need?

Today I spotted a colorful doormat for sale. The colors teased, encourage me to reach down and carry it home. But then my de-consumption kicked in asking me if I already had one at home, and could it be cleaned up or possibly redecorated?

The colorful doormat remains for sale. Me? I’m learning to de-consume and happier because of it.

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Bride And Groom Wear Age Proudly

The new bride is glowing from the inside; the groom so proud he can hardly get the words out fast enough.

“We’ve been married exactly 2 hours,” he said. “My first and her last.”

True love does not arrive on a schedule convenient exclusively to the young.

I’m standing outside a hotel, valets moving back and forth like leaves swirling winter breeze.

“We both last saw each other in high school,” he said. “If you flipped the pages of the yearbook, there we were together.”

She tells me how they were good friends years ago before they went their separate ways – she created a life and family one world, and he went off to Europe and other faraway places. They reconnected recently.

They are heading out for their first dinner as husband and wife. There is no flowing white wedding gown or stuffy black tux in front of me. On the contrary, they are entering the world this night as man and wife dressed with confidence gained experiencing life.

My wife and I share hugs with them and head inside the hotel, leaving the newlyweds to their night. I can’t help but feel as if all is right in the universe this night and I’ve seen something special.

Love is strange. Hard to define, difficult to accurately describe, but when you see the real thing, you know it instantly.

“Youth is wasted on the young,” so goes a saying handed down from one generation to the next. And as each of us gains another year on the calendar, we tend to agree more. “If we only knew then was we knew now,” we say to ourselves.

Love is one of those areas, too.

The other day I found myself apologizing to my wife for my immaturity early in our relationship. And as much as I realize I am not the only husband wearing a badge for selfish behavior, that does not relieve me of self-aware guilt I carry for my actions.

“Hey, you’re here now,” she says. “And we’re here now.”

When young, you feel as is if love is something magical, bursting into fire and forever burning in hearts. But the truth is, as intense are the fires of young passion, so are dangers of inexperience in the hands of youth. Many of us do not have the needed toolset to manage and navigate the fierce heat of passion. Too often, we find our immaturity dousing the embers with self-inflicted mistakes, sucking out the oxygen, a critical ingredient for the fire to continue.

Love is like a campfire. A good one burns long and healthy, putting off the needed energy to cook a nourishing meal, providing warmth to cut the chill on a cold night, and offering an added layer security from threats or predators.

As for the newlyweds outside the hotel, I’m betting they are in a better position to navigate the unpredictable road of love. As I said, when you see the real thing, you know it.

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Brown Thumb A Real Affliction

Last week I watched a potted lily jump from a store shelf and onto the concrete floor below in hopes of discouraging my wife from putting the plant in the back of the car.

I might be a bit incorrect in my first assumption, but I fear the word is out: my wife can kill a plastic plant.

We all have our God-given talents. You won’t find a more beautiful and caring heart than the one beating inside of my wife. Tough as galvanized nails when need be, her heart also swells ten times, large enough to absorb all the pain from the person in her arms.

But plants simply do not have a chance.

Know this is a time-honored fact in our family. Our kid’s regularly mentioned her brown thumb. And the sight of an empty dirt pot around the back of the house is viewed with a little surprise as walking across a tombstone in a graveyard.

There does not seem to be a logical reason for the untimely demise of the botanical wonders. She gently showers them with water and fertilizes them with encouraging words of love. One day the branches are flowering and pushing upward into the sky and the next are jockeying for a spot in the long lineup against the back of the house. I quietly fear if plants can spawn ghosts, we are in some serious trouble.

“Shh,” she said to me last spring as we walked into the house. “Don’t look at it, but the Crepe Myrtle has some blooms on it.”

This roots from her planting one in the yard at our home in Georgia. It never bloomed – that is until the year we sold the house. All I can figure is the plant was trying to not call attention to itself.

The chronicles of plant deaths read like a Stephen King novel. One time when in college, we walked into her apartment to find a bedroom window blown open. As we wiped the snow from our shoes, I found the plants frozen so stiff the green leaves shattered with a single touch.

The deck of our first apartment after getting married was decorated with a gas grill and depository of plastic pots – absent living plants of course.

But she won’t give up. We stop along the streets and study landscapes, searching for the perfect blend of color, low-maintenance, and impossible to kill with water, love, and attention.

To this day a visit to a nursey is accompanied by the phrase “so who will your victims be this year?”

Recently she ran across a vine-inspired flower that reproduces with the productivity of a tank of guppies and seemingly can’t be killed with $20 gallon of weed killer. Maybe there is a positive to this genetic engineering after all.

My wife has two remarkable children-now-adults to her name. God blessed her with a heart like no one else. But when it comes to plants, I am convinced that plant jumped.

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Time and Technology March Together

Later this week will cIMG_5435.JPGross into not only a new year but a new decade.

Time is a funny thing, marching on continuously oblivious to whatever is happening at the moment. Wars, technology, even climate change (ask the dinosaurs). But the one thing for sure, no matter how smart we think we are, the future will always be unpredictable.

At the turn of the 20th century, many thought technologies rendered war fruitless. The invention of the airplane would allow scouts to fly over troops formations and record their positions and movements making field maneuvers useless. Technology would finally end the scourge of war forever – or so was the original thought.

Then, as legend has it, a reconnaissance pilot took a firearm up and shot at another observational pilot and the rest is history. Bombing was introduced in 1911 during the Italo-Turkish War and soon became fully an offensive tool during the Great War of 1914 – 1918. Technology, in a story as old as time, was again weaponized.

Fast forward to the development of the internet – a remarkable network of connections between scientists to share information. Tracing back to 1983, the idea was to flatten the world of scientific research and accelerate the speed of developing solutions for the benefit of mankind. A decade later the door to commercialization began trickling in and quickly compounding its intrusion into our daily lives at a head-shaking speed. Today’s economy and even how we contact our dear old aunt two time zones away is unrecognizable to a shoulder-padded citizen of the 1980s.

The original promise of easy sharing of opinions and information and allowing everyone to make informed decisions based on trusted information quickly came off the track. While commercialism prospered, so did the attraction of bad players with a different set of goals – to use the platform for their gain. Thieves will always find a way into a room full of gold and political forces will always show up where a group of people is hanging out. And in the blink of a historical eye, the internet became stained with residue of bad actors using the platform for their gain.

As we sit on the cusp of a new decade we are staring into the eyes of AI or artificial intelligence. And today’s narrative sounds remarkably familiar, one filled with ultraistic potential: the ability to make your life easier without any sacrifice on your part. Self-driving cars are no longer science fiction. Limitless server space gathers and indexes everything you do and say. We even now have digital devices in our homes, aptly named ‘digital assistants’, serving as little more than fancy tools to tell us the temperature outside in exchange for hearing and capturing every word we say.

AI is fueled by Big Data. And as much as the caretakers in the clouds assure us that the collection of our information harmless, I can’t help but be skeptical of their promises whenever I see a plane fly overhead.

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Learning To Help Is Not Exclusively Holiday Spirit

Did you ever think of how little each of us would have if we only had what we needed?

The holiday season seems to bring a reminder of how truly blessed we are and how many others need our help.

God promises He will provide. And to His word, he generally does. But too often, we tend to split hairs here, allowing our selfish wants to blend in with our needs. We need to get over ourselves.

Each day I drive past people with nothing more beyond the shirt on their back. To them, everything is disposable and temporary. Survival does that to one.

I understand there are reasons for people to be displaced, in pain, or alone. And many times, this is self-inflicted. But if we are honest with ourselves, this should not prevent us from us helping them gain – or regain – their self-respect.

God put us on earth to do good towards each other and watch out for those who can not. Unfortunately, most of us, me included, come up short. The distractions of daily life – the need to earn, the keeping up of outward appearances, and the managing of all that comes with our everyday life – can prove to be powerful distractions.

Forgive me as I blend the gospel of Jesus Christ with Dr. Seuss, but both support the concept that happiness does not come wrapped in ribbons and bows, but rather in our love for each other. Material possessions are temporary. Regardless of what many believe, we do not leave this life with our toys.

Most of us live better than 98% of the earth’s residents. And if you want to argue this point, I’ll be happy to suggest a few spots to visit. But better yet, you might want to look under the bridge you are driving across in the morning.

In the past few months, I’ve seen children run along the water’s edge chasing plastic bottles they’d tossed into the waves. They laughed, played tag, and not one owned an iPhone. They were happy in the absence of all the essential material possessions a kindergartener in our zip codes would expect.

Here is a painful exercise if you dare: how many pairs of shoes do you need? How many shirts? How many boxes of cereal? How about knives and forks?

It does not take long to appreciate most of us harbor enough possesions to change or improve the lives of many.

Let’s do a better job of taking care of each other, especially those in need. Regardless if you are religious or a big fan of Dr. Seuss, we all owe it to ourselves to help improve the world we occupy – no matter how large or small.

Give generously to charity or volunteer your time – or both. Find opportunities to help, even if that means slipping a few dollars to someone who looks like they could use a hand. The world needs all of us – even those who are afraid to or can not ask.

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Storytellers Wield Magical Powers

I love a good story.

Being raised in the Midwest, embellishment was frowned upon if not outright discouraged. In a land where the terrain rolls as flat as the accents, directly speaking was the rule. Wasting time with unnecessary words was considering insulting – regardless if the absence ruffled a few feathers or hurt one’s feelings. Walk it off.

Then I moved away and discovered storytelling was not a linear equation, but rather an art form as captivating as any gallery painting. And in the hands of a true master, few emotional experiences can compare.

Traveling the South on back roads is always a treat. Beneath the proud, majestic homes, landscapes with trees melting into the ground like something from a Dr. Suess book, lays the artistry of storytelling crafted over generations of time.

My wife and I recently stayed in a circa 1836 home along the banks of Mississippi River. There we discovered deep pools of master wordsmiths. In the South, the ability to tell a story is an honored – if not a critical – skill of survival. An artform where truth is blended with – or possibly absent of – a handful of details to deliver the listener to the desired destination of the storyteller.

“My mother once said her cousin was an outright liar,” said a new friend in the small town. “She’d say ‘I’ve known her since she was seven years old, and a good 20% of what comes out of her mouth is a damn lie.”

Curious why she would continue to associate with his aunt, he asked.

She leaned in and said, “Because it is that 20% is so darn interesting.”

Storytelling, like any art form, requires the knowledge and respect of the tools at hand: word choice, voice inflection, and a surgical sense of timing. Each must effortlessly play in the background, never revealing themselves for fear of breaking the intoxicating spell.

The owner of the house we stayed in was one of these men. With each story came a firey ignition of my imagination, willingly transporting me to whatever moment in time or place he wished.

Standing in a dining room filled with furnishings as foreign to a Midwestern boy’s eyes as the tall skyscrapers in New York City, he extended his arms as if to invite us.

“My grandfather always said to us, ‘surround yourself with beautiful things and beautiful people.” And then, after a pause, he nodded in our direction as if let us know we were now a part of his collection.

As he toured each room of the four-story pre-Civil War home, each room, each piece, each painting, carried a critical story to tell – as if they were books in a carefully curated personal library. And I melted effortlessly into each tale.

I cannot begin to catalog what I learned or heard, but then again, that is the result of true storytelling. Instead, I left drenched in the magical and emotional majesty of the artist. And I don’t care what part of the stories was 20%.

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Angel Arrives Early For Christmas

Angels come in all shapes and sizes.

“Stop, stop!”

To my right, a woman runs out onto a street where a car and pickup truck are aggressively accelerating away from a nearby traffic light.

Her arms wave wildly overhead as if to make her body appear even larger. Shoulders and body squared towards the oncoming traffic, she is not giving up her ground. Her voice echoes off narrow buildings with the terror only a parent instantly recognizes.

The traffic pauses, and so do the sounds of life around us. The woman, dressed in an animal print top and black rubber boots, is looking to the other side of the street.

To my left, I see a man scooping up a small boy and racing back to the safety of the other side. A small car seat is tossed aside, abandoned when the man realized what was happening. The two jump back behind the protection of a silver pickup truck.

The small boy, now safely in the arms of his dad, deeply burrows his head into the flannel shirt of his dad’s shoulders.

The woman makes her way back to the other side of the road where a group of friends waits. I can see she is shaken. Her friends hug her, thank her, and kiss her.

Back across the street, the man is speaking with his son, at times holding the boy’s face in his large hands so they two can connect eyes.

From where I am standing, all I can hear are small passages escaping over the sound of the resumed traffic.

“Never, never,” seem to be repeating themes followed by extended and deep hugs.

About 50 feet of asphalt separate the boy and the woman who saved his life by putting herself in danger. At no point was she going to give up her ground to save the boy’s life. Adrenaline is most likely still powerfully pulsating through her body.

Her actions were selfless instinct, most likely those of someone never considering the danger to herself, but instead singly focusing on pain or death of a small child.

Today’s world is hyper-charged with people spouting hurtful words towards others based on everything from failing to signal a lane change in traffic to one’s choice of a political candidate. Unfortunately, we seem to be focusing more on what pushes us apart rather than what brings us together. And a pot of boiling separation soup never tastes good.

The man, with the boy in his arms, walks across the street to the woman. The boy gives her a hug next one, followed by the dad.

“I was a bad boy,” I hear the little boy says.

Soon his eyes spot Christmas decorations in a nearby window. A tree is dressed with blinking lights and decorated with boxes with bows below. The boy’s imagination is thinking of that magical day only a week or so ahead on the calendar.

Fortunately for him, angels also wear animal print tops and black rubber boots.

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