My step-daughter, Laura, is always asking for advice. She's very curious (hurray!) and loves to absorb knowledge -- from what to plant in her New Jersey garden to how to find spiritual enlightment. Currently, she's learning to navigate the stormy waters of corporate America so she now asks about the business world in addition to all her other questions. A while back I shared with Laura some little lessons I’ve learned along the way. She asked if I could write them down for her, so I thought maybe I'd share them with you. I'd really love it if you could add to them so Laura and I can learn from your experiences, as well.
Several years ago, I attended a seminar entitled, “Managing Stress.” It was taught by Michael Douglas, a psychologist who also worked with the Columbus city police. He’d been invited by my employer, CompuServe, to speak to us and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how lucky I was to work for a company that invested in the education and betterment of their staff. I learned so much through the courses offered by CompuServe's HR department – thanks to people like Judy Reinhart, Berry Berkov and John Meier – that I will forever be grateful to them.
I was so impressed by what Dr. Michael Douglas told us sometime in the 1990s that I wrote down some key points that I carried with me in my binder from job to job. Here are my "Lessons learned from Michael Douglas" Many, many thanks to him for sharing his insights with a know-it-all thirty-something in the 90s.
1. Don’t accept stress. Dr. Douglas said that the course was mis-named. If you’re “managing stress” you’ve already let it in and you’re now trying to deal with it. Don’t let it in. You don’t have to accept all the crap that people unburden on you.
2. Be where you are. If you’re standing in a line up at the bank, don’t be worrying that you’ve got to go to the drug store, the grocery store and the cleaners. Be where you are. Accept it. Enjoy it. I think this has gained in importance as cell phone usage has increased. It seems that no one is content with being where they are. They want to be with someone…anyone…because they can’t stand the thought of simply being alone with only their own thoughts to keep them company. If you’re a fan of Eckhart Tolle, this will resonate with you. (Dr. Douglas told us this long before Tolle wrote his books.)
3. Lower your expectations. If you’re constantly being disappointed by people, you’re expecting too much of them. Make sure that your expectations are in alignment with what people can do. Don't set them up for failure.
Don’t set yourself up for disappointment.
4. Believe that everyone is doing their best. Nobody is intentionally trying to screw up. Everyone’s doing the best they can…under the circumstances. If you believe this about people, you’ll be far more understanding and charitable toward them. (Again, Tolle would likely agree.)
Those four little reminders have helped me more times than I can count. “Be where you are” is probably the one I refer to most often, and I’m surprised by how many self-help/spiritual authors also try to teach this message. Be where you are. Don’t be dredging up hurts from the past to torture yourself with guilt or feelings of diminishment. Be where you are. Look around. The world is beautiful. Enjoy it. Be where you are. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. If you’re in pain, learn from it. If you’re feeling ecstasy, be thankful for it.
Okay…now here are some of my own little bits of advice I’ve offered Laura in the past. Maybe you’ll want to share them with someone you love.
5. Be an adult. You’re now in charge of your life. Your childhood is over, so get over whatever disappointments it might have brought you. Stop blaming parents, teachers, siblings. Grow up and take charge of your own life.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people are very kind. Don’t be afraid to say, “I need help. Would you be able to help me?” You’ll be surprised that people will go out of their way to assist you.
7. Ask how. For years I sat in meeting after meeting making requests and being told, “No! We can't do that!” Then it finally hit me. Don’t ask, “Can we…?” Instead ask, “How can we…?” That one word “how” packs a lot of punch.
8. Say thanks. If you’re going to complain, learn to compliment. I’m the first person to write a letter when I think I’ve been mis-treated as a customer. And I’m also the first person to write a letter commending a staff member when I feel I’ve been treated well.
9. Make people smile. Be goofy, or complimentary, or helpful. Assume that everyone you see is carrying around an enormous sack of pain. Lighten it a bit. Go out of your way to be nice to people. You’ll feel good about yourself...and you just might do someone else a great deal of good.
10. Acknowledge and accept what you feel. If you’re sad, acknowledge it and embrace it. There are many, many times when you should feel sad. If you weren’t sad, you’d be a heartless monster. But make sure you know the difference between well-deserved sadness and clinical depression. Depression will consume you. It will convince you that you’ve never had a happy day in your life. Get help.
11. Accept that you’re not perfect. Admit your mistakes and apologize for them. Sincerely apologize! Don’t try to blame others or share responsibility for the mistake with them. If you expect yourself to be perfect, you’re going to spend a life of bitter disappointment. (See “Lower your expectations.”)
12. Don’t hurt people on purpose. This is just plain mean. And if you should happen to hear something ugly about someone, don’t feel compelled to pass it along to them. Instead, stop it from spreading to others. An insult is still an insult even if you preface it with, “I heard someone say that you’re a…”
13. Don’t think you’re all that hot. You need only enough ego to survive. Anything more than that can work against you. If you’re constantly telling yourself or others how great you are, you probably aren’t that wonderful.
14. Be you. You are not the brands you buy. You are not the car you drive. You are not the celebrity you worship. If you think you are, your sense of self is out of alignment. (Or, as St. Ignatius would say you have “inordinate affections.”) Get in touch with yourself or get therapy.
15. Be quiet. The world is a noisy place. Think of what it must have sounded like before the Industrial Revolution. Birds chirping. Wind blowing through the trees. These are the sounds of nature. Take out the earplugs. Turn off the TV. Enjoy the quiet. Ahhh… (Now you know why I take vacations at monasteries.)
16. Be curious. Read. Think. Ask questions. Explore. Learn. Act. Life is not about "having." It's about "doing."
17. Be courageous. I'm a scaredy cat. Really. And there's nothing I hate more than heights. But a couple of weeks before my 50th birthday I walked out onto a little platform, high above a river at the Kawarua Bridge in New Zealand where bungee jumping was invented. I was scared to death. Trembling. But I stood out on that platform, raised my arms and did a swan dive deep into the chasm below. I have never been so frightened in my life. And I've never felt so alive. I can't tell you how good it feels to overcome absolute terror.
Well, that's my list. I hope you'll add to it!