Two Inspirational Stories

I am reading two books about subjects that are not – on the surface – anything I am interested in.  Yet the books are fascinating.


Yep, first of all, I am reading two books at a time.  That is what I normally do.  I like to have variety of two writers, two ideas going on at the same time.  But second of all, why am I reading about two things that I am not interested in?  On the surface, that sounds crazy.  But both books were recommended to me so I did a little research about them and thought they might be interesting.

One book is Seabiscuit, the story of a champion racing horse in the 1930s.  I am not a big horse lover or a follower of horse racing.  But the author, Laura Hillenbrand, wrote another book I really liked.  And this book was on the list of books my daughter Courtney said were recommended for me based on my reading profile. So I dove in.  Seabiscuit was the classic underdog.  He did not have the height and body of a champion race horse.  He could not straighten his knees all the way.  Early in his career he was uncontrollable.  His original owner ran him in so many races to try to get some money.  All of his attempts failed.  So his original owner gave up on him. seabiscuit cover

But one person (a trainer, Tom Smith) saw something in the small, awkward looking horse.  He convinced aCharles Howard to buy Seabiscuit for a very low price.  This led to the forming of a team that beame ultra successful yet was built from discarded pieces.  The new owner, trainer, and jockey for Seabiscuit were all “rags to riches” stories.  None of them had a lot of money early in life.  They had all dealt with failure.  The jockey was considered “washed up” before he started riding Seabiscuit.  He was living in a horse stall and had been abandoned at a young age. The training was living in a different horse stall (in Mexico) at the age of 56, with no apparent future ahead of him.

Through hard work, teamwork and dedication, Seabiscuit became a hero in America during the depression.  It is a great story of a team of “throw away” pieces, who, when brought together, believed in each other,  stuck together through adversity, finally rose to unimaginable heights.

The second story is A Curious Man by Neal Thompson.  It is a biography of Robert Ripley, the founder of Ripley’s Believe It or Not (BIoN).  I think most people are familiar with BIoN.  Today it is still alive and running.  But I am not interested in the oddities and “freak show” side of the Believe It or Not series.  What is interesting was Ripley’s life.

Robert Ripley was orphaned at a young age.  He never finished high school.  He had teeth that were so crooked everyone made fun of him.  He could not pronounce some letters properly because his teeth were so bad.  At age 14, he was paid for his first cartoon drawing that he did, and he was hooked on cartooning as a career.  Despite some moderate success, he lost his first couple jobs.  He eventually decided to move from San Francisco to New York to try to make it as a cartoonist in the late 1920’s.  Eventually, through networking with others and hard work, he became successful.  At one time he had traveled to more countries of the world than any other human being.  Ripley’s outcomes might not have been that interesting to me, but his story is.

Both books feature inspiring stories of the underdog.  They are a great reminder that someone with a vision and a desire can succeed despite many hardships.  The word that comes to mind for me is GRIT (“firmness of character; indomitable spirit; pluck”).  Somehow they tapped into some personal reserve, some guiding principle that told them the hard work was worth it.   They believed in themselves.  Everyone of us faces some adversity. I find it interesting that two different books came to me at this time with that theme.  The people in the stories are the American Dream.

Don’t we all like to have good dreams?



Trust, Our lives, and Government

Part of life is having trust in others.  It is one of the foundations we all need to have healthy, happy lives.

I read something the other day that I found thought provoking on the subject of trust.  The important point the book brought forward is that one of the elements of trust regards government.  We need to have trust in our governments (and they need to be trustworthy) to generate more meaningful, positive lives.  Whether you like government or not, are politically involved or not, think about government or not, your ability to have trust in your life is impacted by how you trust government.

According to the book (The Reach, by Ulrich Boser), ” Political trust measures our faith in government and is crucial for any large-scale community”.  It points out that by some measures, political trust has dropped precipitously in the USA.  One example is that “trust in the government in Washington has dropped from 73% (in 1958) to 19% today.  Congress, by numerous studies, at its lowest ebb in trust, in recorded history.”

The important points for me are the consequences of this breakdown in political trust on our day-to-day lives.  Some of the consequences mentioned in the book include:

  • The less faith we have in political leaders, the less we are willing to place our faith in people we do not know
  • Governments model trust – and trustworthiness – and when we see wasteful government agencies we are less likely to place faith in strangers.
  • Governments can promote a culture of empowerment, which makes it easier for people to trust others outside their own groups.
  • Government is a type of social contract.  Individuals enter into an agreement for security and stability in exchange for giving up some of our hard-earned money and some freedoms.  If we cannot trust our police force, for example, we have seen the consequences – riots, vigilante groups, boarded up homes/businesses.
  • Trust creates a society where it’s easier to compromise or make a deal. It is where people are willing to work with those who are different from them for the common good. Trust appears to promote economic growth.  Distrust, on the other hand, seems to encourage corruption. At the least, it diverts energy to counting change, drawing up 100-page legal contracts and building gated communities.

The point of all this is that so much of our lives require trust in others.  Our lives are dependent on others – family, friends, people we interact with and others we may never meet.  Each of those groups impact our happiness and contentment with life.  We need to trust each of them to be able to get through life.  We cannot survive meaningfully if we must be hyper vigilant.

Trusting close family members or close friends is generally a given in a happy life.  But people beyond those close bonds are where more satisfaction comes.  We have to trust that the services we receive (from the car repair shop or the dry cleaner, for instance) are done properly.  We have to trust the food we eat is relatively safe for us.  We have to trust that the driver of the car approaching us will more-or-less obey the traffic laws.  We have to trust government to do things for the betterment of society.

We can choose to ignore our government most of the time.  Part of the premise of the book is that by ignoring, we are conceding that we do not trust government.  That lack of trust impacts our daily trust with others.  The effects of this distrust are like a disease we can not pinpoint.  It saps our energy.  It requires our minds to be on guard more often.  It distracts us from more important tasks and feelings.

So what is the solution?  I don’t know.  I am frustrated with our governments, like most people.  I sometimes wonder if governments really matter in my life or not. From this reading and personal reflection,  part of my fulfillment with life requires trust in government, so government does matter.   I guess I need to look for opportunities where government does meet my needs.  Trust that the system we have today will have a positive impact.  Not be naive and think that everything will go my way or that all government programs are for the greater good.  But recognize some good.  Awareness is a powerful ally.

Managing Conflict

I’ve been reflecting on the training in my quest to become a Life/Executive Coach at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland last month.  It was another great, tiring week of learning and exploring.

The focus for the week was on “Differences”.  That gets into the ground of diversity and respecting differences.  It is always a good idea to do some thinking about the issues of diversity.  Most of us have received training in diversity sometime in our lives.  And most of us like to think we have some recognition of the differences in all of us – and that those differences need to be honored.  But a reminder and talking through people’s experiences helps reinforce how we all are different in so many ways.

The area of study that had the most impact for me was around understanding the differences in how we all respond to conflict and stress.  This is a rich ground to cover.  Many people are familiar with the “flight vs. fight” concept of how we deal with conflict.  Some people (“fighters”)  will want to argue at the slightest provocation vs the person (flyer) who leaves the scene at the first sign of conflict.  Equally as important, there are grades or levels to each of these.  For instance, “Flight” might range from: a) allowing your mind to wander about what you are going to do later this day to b) changing the subject quickly to c) physically leaving the scene.  We react differently, using these different grades interchangeably depending on the situation.

We also talked about two more ways of dealing with conflict.  One was “freezing” – the concept of simply stopping all functions when a conflict comes up.  The individual has no outward sign of action.  The other is “fawning” which is the concept of “turning on the charm” or “disarming” people with “flirtatious” behavior.

In any relationship (but in this case for my learning around coaching) it is critical to gain awareness about conflict on multiple levels.  First, how do I respond to conflict and stress?  Second, it is critical to understand how does the person I am interacting with (or coaching) respond?  It is only in gaining awareness of those two sides that we can meet as a duo.  This does not mean both of us have to react the same way.  It simply means that in gaining a greater awareness of both of us, we can better understand the “now” to decide how to work together.

Let me provide an example.  Lets say a person is getting ready for their annual performance appraisal.  One person might do research to have “ammunition” to counter anything the boss says.  They might work themselves up into a great deal of energy to get ready to “fight” for their “rightful” appraisal.  On the other hand, someone else might have the attitude “lets just get this over with”.  That person is going to take whatever feedback they get.  No confrontation, no discussion.  Just get it over with.  If these two people were talking together about their upcoming appraisals, they would be coming from totally different directions.  Without a strong understanding of what they think and why they think that way, they won’t gain any new awareness.  The conversation is probably not going to be very meaningful between the two of them.

However, if you have  a better awareness of your conflict dynamic and someone else’s dynamic, you have ground for learning.  With increased awareness of how you react to conflict or anxiety, now you can begin to decide what you may or may not want to do about it.  Do you react the same way much of the time?  Do you like the way you react or not?  Does your reaction lead you to, or keep you in, a place you don’t want to be? Is your way of reacting causing problems/issues with another?  How might understand what the other person is doing help build a better relationship?

Anxiety vs. Availability

I had a call with a coach the other day as part of my training to become certified as a Life/Executive Coach.  It was a good conversation that left me with a couple things to think about, a couple visual effects for me to apply and a couple “aha” moments.  That is a definition of a good coaching session.  I felt like writing about one of the key items I got out of the session.

One of the “aha” moments was around “Anxiety vs. Availability”.  Am I so concerned, so anxious with some outcome occurring, that I am not allowing myself to be available to that outcome?  It is what we call a polarity – “the state of having or expressing two directly opposite tendencies”.

Here are some of my anxieties: I want to run a mile at a certain speed during a training run.  I am anxious NOW for more clients to coach so I can practice my techniques and fulfill the requirements for my certification.  I am anxious about whether I can really coach someone because they seem so poised, so accomplished in life.  On and on.

What does all that anxiety do?  Do others see it in me?  Does it impact my ability to think clearly?  Does it cause me to become to cognitive, too analytic, and not allow my whole self to be present?  Well, it almost certainly gets in the way of me being whole.

On the other side of thinking, sometimes anxiety might be good.  It may heighten my senses or get my adrenalin going. It may be a signal to me that something is important.  I don’t have to look at it as an interloper or a failure.  It is natural in all me.  But I have to recognize it, become aware of it and decide if I want it to be present.

The “available” me is simply being present in whatever the world has to offer.  It is being open to possibilities.  It is a relaxed state, yet a state of readiness.  Sometimes it may manifest itself in patience, waiting for the right moment to come.  But the characteristic most important to the “available me” is awareness.  “Available me” works best when I have a heightened awareness.  My goal is to recognize within myself “where am I?” mentally.  If necessary, I prime myself to be more ready, more aware, more available.

So now I have a picture in my mind of something called “anxiety” and something called “available”.  Part of that picture is a gesture, a visual using my two hands like a balance.  On the one hand, I have the “anxious” me.  In the other hand, I have the “available” me.  When I sense the anxious me coming to the fore, I need to look inward and consider the available me.  Shifting the balance between the two hands brings me to a more available state.

And that, my friends, in essence, is one example of a great coaching session.  I did not have a huge problem.  There was not a “broken” me.  But there was some thing, some issue holding me back.  Now it has a name (anxiety) and a visual (my two hands) to recognize and deal with it as I choose.  All I need to do is build on that awareness.

Is there something you are anxious about?  A promotion?  A job interview?  A relationship?  A goal you want to get to?  A decision you need to make?  Someone’s opinion of you?

What of the American Dream?

Will our children be better off than us?

I have been thinking about this subject for a while.  Time Magazine published a cover story on the subject a while ago.  “The American Dream” has always been “if you worked hard and play by the rules you will be rewarded with a comfortable present and a stronger future for your children.”  Throughout our history, people have been drawn to America because of this dream.  Time and again, people of modest means have excelled in our country.  To “rise up above your standard” has been commonplace.

To put a clearer definition on this American Dream, some have said it means “to aspire to home ownership, a car, college education for our children, health and retirement security and occasional family vacations”.  Okay, sounds find to me.  But most important to me as a parent is that I am able to witness my children flourishing as adults.

I have been trying to figure out why I feel my children might not have a stronger future.

On the one hand technology has added a lot to lives.  We can connect so much more powerfully despite their being miles between us.   Video conferences with friends, families and co-workers are simple and ubiquitous with Skype or Google Hangout.  The ability to watch videos, movies, tv, etc. on devices whenever you want adds to entertainment.  So my children’s future will probably be brighter if they wish to stay connected.

Is my concern with wages?  My sense is that wages are not keeping up like they have in the past.  So I did a little research.  According to Pew Research, my thinking is not right.  Pew reports: “For most U.S. workers, real wages — that is, after inflation is taken into account — have been flat or even falling for decades”.  Other than the top 10% of wage earners, all of us since the 60’s have been dealing with wages that basically are flat when inflation is taken into consideration.  So it’s not as if my kids will be making less money than me necessarily.

Maybe it is the widening gap between the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in America that is a concern.  Capitalism, one of the foundations of America, is by its nature competitive – oftentimes, someone has to win and someone has to lose.   In modern times (the last 50 years) the divide between those with much and those with little has widened.  But capitalism does not automatically take away equality of opportunity.  Certainly in the past, Americans felt that the opportunity to rise up was there for the ambitious and the hard working.  A person could dream about moving from the “have not’s” to the “have’s” through hard work.  Does it feel that way in America today for the majority of people?

Is it jobs?  The average person is estimated to hold at least 10 jobs in their career.  I was fortunate enough to work for one company most of my career.  Many of my friends did the same.  But most “millenials” (born between 1977-1997) expect to “job hop” every couple of years.  Career stability as I enjoyed it will not be the case for my children’s generation.  But as I think about it, I had jobs that I did not enjoy.  And there were bosses I worked for that I did not like.  But I stayed on the job for a number of reasons.  Young people today have a different mind set.  Who is to say which work practice (mine or theirs) is “better” or provides for a “stronger future”?

Perhaps my concern is driven by my perception of Government and Business leaders who seem less concerned about American prosperity and more concerned with personal prosperity. Will those leaders create a world that is less promising for my children’s generation?  As I think about this more, I’ve read enough American History to recognize that America has gone through numerous times where leadership was lacking.  Yet the country has survived. So this is probably not that big an issue.

I think I finally figured out where my concern is coming from.  I built this story in my mind made up of my prejudices, my frame of reference.  I projected a future.  Projection is “not seeing things as they are; we see them as we are“.

I see a world that is different than my ideal.  Looking at my current great situation in life, it sometimes is hard to see another path that could get a person to such joy.  The fact is my children will by necessity – and by choice – pick a different path to a strong future.  They will prosper based on their perceptions, their needs, their world view, their reality.  Its different than mine, but just as good.

Rose and I have given them a strong foundation for a bright future.  They will get there.

P.S. This line of thinking is one of the great outcomes of the classes I am taking at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland.  I originally had this post written about all the ways that my children’s future would not be brighter.  But the new ways I am learning to look at things has opened my up to new possibilities.  That is pretty cool.