The Things We Carry

I read a great book several years ago called The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. It is the story of a group of soldiers in Vietnam and the things they literally carried while at war and then the emotions they carried once they returned home. It is a profound and powerful look at the things we never let go of and what the things we carry say about who we are. At war soldiers carry things that help them survive: ammunition, guns, water, rations, etc. Some soldiers in addition to carrying their pack and their guns carried things for the whole platoon like radios or medical supplies. Some carried letters from home, bibles, pictures, lucky charms and other mementos that made them feel like who they were back home. They carried things to help their world make sense, to connect them with who they were and to help them survive both literally and figuratively.

I recently started thinking about what I carry. I live in the suburbs and my life is as far as one can imagine from combat. Yet I have carried things with me for years that you would think my very survival depended on just as the soldiers carried their weapons. I have carried other people’s opinions, past hurts and disappointments, failed relationships, pains and sorrows and “my story.” I also carry wonderful memories, joys, successes, people I love and things I am proud of. My arms are quite full.

The things we carry should be those things that help us not just survive, but thrive, the things that sustain us and give us courage and strength. If I were a soldier, I would have a picture of my family in my pocket as my family gives me strength. I would have a journal to write my thoughts and feelings and to reread things that sustain me and give me hope. I would bring a small object for luck and connection to make me feel closer to home. But I certainly wouldn’t bring the pain of a broken friendship or the disappointment when someone let me down. How would that help me trust my fellow soldiers who I had to trust my life to? I wouldn’t bring my self-doubt and fears about not being good enough with the stories from my childhood to support those feelings. They would also not help my survival.

So because I am not in physical peril at war I can afford to carry things that can’t possibly help me? Do I think that since I know I will “survive” that what I carry is not as important? What if I don’t just want to survive? What if I want to flourish? What if I want to take the hugest most delicious bite out of life every day? Will carrying my past disappointments or old demons help me? Do I need that little voice saying “why bother, you know how this is going to turn out?”

I have decided I going to repack my gear. I am only going to put in the things that will help me flourish. I am going to bring the people who uplift me, the ones who see me as who I can be and cheer for me every day. I am going to bring my family who gives me strength and courage. I am going to bring every memory that supports my best version of myself, every time when I wasn’t sure I could, but then I did. I am going to bring the times I took a risk and opened myself up to another person and connected with them in a meaningful way. I am going to bring the present moment. I am going to bring me.  What are you going to put in your pack?

Be Your Own Incubator

There are several definitions of the word incubator.

  1. An enclosed apparatus providing a controlled environment for the care and protection of premature or unusually small babies.
  2. An apparatus used to hatch eggs or grow microorganisms under controlled conditions.
  3. An organization designed to accelerate the growth and success of entrepreneurial companies through an array of business support resources and services.

In each definition though the common theme is a controlled environment. A premature baby needs to be protected from infection, kept at a certain temperature and given proper levels of oxygen. In a lab setting an incubator is used to grow organisms that might be used to create drugs or to culture infections. Again the key issue is controlling the moisture, temperature and chemical composition. For a business incubator one is looking to provide the key ingredients for success; technology support, financial support and business expertise.

So why is controlling an environment so important anyway? For the premature baby it could mean the difference between life and death. For a scientist growing organisms being able to replicate the process is critical to scale a drug or to be able to isolate what went wrong in an experiment. And entrepreneurs face many pitfalls and being in an environment with people who have been there and done that can increase the chances for success.

So delicate and important things are put in an incubator to insure they have the right environment to grow and develop. Sounds to me like a good idea for all of us. If you want to grow and develop yourself personally or professionally it would only make sense that a controlled environment would be a huge help. If you were trying to study for an exam hanging out in the party house would be an uncontrolled environment. Likewise if someone were trying to diet or stop drinking, putting themselves in a group of eaters and drinkers would make things more difficult.

So what is your controlled environment? Your environment is not just made of the people and the places you hang with, it is also made of the thoughts and energy you surround yourself with. What air are you breathing? What thoughts are you thinking? Have you surrounded yourself with people who believe you can or people who try to pull you down? There may be people in your life who are the equivalent of opening the door to the incubator and letting in bacteria.

You must be your own incubator and be vigilant about the environment you are growing in.   Premature babies survive because of their incubators, but you can thrive because of yours.


Fight or Flight

We’re all familiar with the Fight or Flight response – the body’s automatic response to a perceived threat. It makes our heart beat faster, our respiration increase and blood is sent to our extremities to prepare for battle or escape.   But did you know that the part of the brain that controls this response, the amygdala, can’t distinguish between a real or imagined threat? The amygdala reacts to fear by activating the autonomic nervous system, but it reacts exactly the same way if a rabid dog is chasing you or if you imagine a rabid dog is chasing you. Now the fight or flight response exists within all animals, but humans are the only ones that can “create” it by thought alone.

Now if you saw a dog running up the street towards you and you had once been attacked by a rapid dog, then your amygdala going into high alert would be ok, but what if you were safely in your home thinking about how afraid you would be IF you were ever attacked by a dog. The body’s response is the same. So if your mind doesn’t know the difference between a thought of attack or an actual attack, we better be really careful about what we think!

What if you are obsessing about failure or rejection or worrying about getting on a plane next month? Yep, that darn amygdala is going to work! Now the fight or flight response has a very specific function – TO KEEP YOU ALIVE! All your energy, blood flow and focus are directed towards fighting or fleeing. So how much energy is left for creating or loving or being? You can’t slam on the brakes of your car to avoid hitting a cat and enjoy the scenery at the same time. Nor can you obsess about problems that have yet to materialize and enjoy the moment, any moment.

Gazelles don’t wander the plains hoping hyenas won’t attack them; if hyenas come then they respond. Imagine the time and energy that would be available to you if you waited for an actual emergency to strike instead of ruminating about what could happen or creating problems where none exist. Save Fight or Flight for when you really need it – in the meantime, enjoy, create, live and love.


Finding Heart Shaped Rocks

What does it mean to be in the moment? Some might say it means not thinking about what you are going to do later, or what to make for dinner, or what you’re going to say to your spouse when you get home. But not doing something negative is not the same as doing something positive. How will you know if you are not thinking about what to do later, except to think about what you are doing later?

When you are truly in the moment, you will all of a sudden notice that time has passed and that you’ve thought of nothing but who or what is in front of you. It is a space of clarity and ease. Renowned author Dr. Joe Dispenza, when talking about what people need to do to be happy, says that first you need to stop being unhappy. You might want to read that again. Stop being unhappy. We become addicted to the feelings and emotions that are familiar to us. We think we want to be happy, but are so quick to identify the things that make us unhappy standing in our way. “See I knew it! My boss is a jerk and I’m never going to please him/her so that promotion is never going to happen.” And many people will feel comforted in this thought because it confirms what they already knew and felt – my life is hard and good things don’t happen to me.

So back to the power of the moment. I was hiking recently on a very rocky path. I looked at the various sizes and shapes of the rocks I stepped over and thought to myself how I love to find heart shaped rocks. The first half hour of my hike I had seen many rocks, but didn’t notice any heart shaped ones. But the moment I began to look for them, all of a sudden they were everywhere. The trail hadn’t changed, but my focus had. I was all of a sudden in the moment wanting to see rocks and they appeared. I didn’t fret about how small the chances of finding heart shaped rocks was or how I was bound to be disappointed when I didn’t find them.

The moment has no room for projections or assumptions – it just is. But can you decide to be happy as easily as you decide to see heart shaped rocks? When you are truly in the moment you will be amazed at what shows up. Enjoy the journey!

Going With The Flow

Several weeks ago I sat at my desk gazing out the window at the beauty of spring and saw a number of those twirly things that fall from the trees like whirly birds go by.  I watched one in particular drift across my yard and just as it was about to land a gust of wind took it over the hedge and it disappeared into my neighbor’s yard.  I was so certain that it was going to land on my property and I remember wondering if it would find a soft spot and perhaps twenty years from now be a beautiful tree.  Then with a random gust of wind its path was altered.

I started to think about the randomness of life and how each of us at times has been both that flying seed and the gust of wind.  We are going about our day or minding our own business and a random event alters our path.  So you’ve probably heard the saying, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”  How many of us truly live like that?  How many of us are as happy if we land where we thought we would as if we land someplace entirely different.  Why are we so sure that the first “location” we assumed we would land is actually the best for us?  Maybe in fact the soil is more fertile in the neighbor’s yard and if we’d landed at our first “destination” we never would have flourished.  The reality is that at any time a gust of wind can take us in a different direction and depending on the conditions around us or the conditions within us, we may either take root and grow or just blow away.

The important thing to remember is that either scenario is okay.   If the whirly thing had landed in my backyard it may have grown into a majestic tree that would have shaded whoever lived in my house for generations to come.  Or maybe it was better suited to a yard across town.  The point is that these flying seeds (from Maple trees I have learned) are programmed to be adaptable.  I have seen little maples sprout in sidewalk cracks, gutters and other random “non tree” spots.  In fact, I recently wrote about a fallen tree I saw while on a hike.  The tree was completely uprooted, the entire root ball upended, or so it seemed.  But as I came upon the tree I noticed that though the entire trunk was lying horizontal on the ground, there were small branches reaching toward the sky with new leaf growth.  There must have been even just one root in on the side of the upended root ball that was still in the ground.  It seemed no one had told the tree that it had fallen, no one had told it that it was “dead” so it continued to do what nature programmed it to do.  It began to grow in the spring.  Even the smallest amount of water and nourishment was enough to send the signal to grow and the tree didn’t know it shouldn’t listen.

Similarly, these whirly birds can’t be stopped.  They don’t have the foreshadowing of doom that we as humans do.  When they take flight it seems normal.  When they land it is normal.  When they almost land and then take off again it is normal.  Wherever they finally come to rest, for some percentage of them, the soil and moisture are perfectly balanced to allow the seed to burrow into the earth and grow.  No one has to tell them what to do.  No one tells them that they landed in the wrong place.  For wherever they landed is by definition the right place.

Imagine if we existed by those same simple laws of nature; knowing that wherever you “dropped” you had a opportunity to flourish and create something majestic.  The shoulds and coulds would not exist.  How glorious to just be.  How magical to find the perfect conditions to flourish no matter where you landed and to know that if an unexpected gust of wind suddenly appeared, it would be fine and that if no wind arose that too would be fine.  It would certainly redefine a bad day or put an unexpected gust of wind in a new light.  Just for a moment each day, be the flying Maple seed and bask in the knowingness that wherever you are is just where you are supposed to be and that you can flourish anywhere.

Persistence and Determination

Persistence is defined as the continuance of an effect after the cause of it has stopped; determination as the act of making a decision or being set in purpose.  Both of these words had special meaning for me the last few weeks.  If you watched this year’s Kentucky Derby, the clear favorite, California Chrome won easily.  While I am far from a horse racing enthusiast, I am always interested in the human-interest stories surrounding the event and this year didn’t disappoint.  The story that caught my attention was about California Chrome’s trainer who at the age of 77 was the oldest trainer to win a Kentucky Derby.  While most people at 77 are enjoying their retirement, Art Sherman was still pursuing his dream, still determined to take California Chrome to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby.  Sherman was a jockey for 23 years before becoming a trainer in 1980 and went to the Derby only one other time in 1955 as a teenage exercise rider.  He never “had the big stables or the big money people behind (him),” so the odds were not in his favor, but still he persisted and the results speak for themselves.

What is the difference between Art Sherman and the vast majority of people who give up long before they succeed?  The day after the Derby I thought about this as I hiked through a reservation near my home.  I came upon a fallen tree that caught my attention.   There are many downed trees in this area from the last two brutal winters and I am accustomed to seeing them on my walks, but this tree didn’t seem to know it had fallen.  One end of the tree had been cut by a chain saw to keep it off the trail and the other end was completely out of the ground.  Yet there were many branches coming out of the tree with leaves sprouting.  There must have been one root that was still in the ground taking water and nutrients from the earth and making this tree believe it was still growing, still in the ground doing what it did naturally every spring.

Neither Art Sherman nor the fallen tree had “gotten the message” that their quest was over.  Neither of them as Dylan Thomas said would “go gentle into that good night.”  When Sherman was asked why he hasn’t retired he said, “It’s not in my vocabulary, that word ‘retirement,’ I love the action. I like the challenge of coming up with a good horse…It gives you something to look forward to.”  The tree was much simpler.  If water went through a root and fed the tree, if there was sunlight and nourishment, the tree did what it was designed to do, IT SPROUTED.  It will never stand up again and never by most standards be a tree, but tell that to the beautiful branches filled with leaves reaching for the sky.


Are We There Yet?

How many of us either as kids or as parents took that family car ride to the tune of “Are we there yet?”  The unbearable anticipation of the destination was tortuous to us as kids waiting for the arrival at the theme park or grandma’s house as well as to the parents who were willing the hours to fly by.  In my family, we packed up the car with toys, snacks, music and games all to distract the group from the length of the trip.  But by only focusing on the destination, what have we missed along the way?

When my older son was 2 ½ years old a new playground opened in our town.  For months we had driven by and talked about how much fun it would be to play on the new equipment and build in the sandbox.  My son couldn’t understand why he couldn’t play there NOW.  And then the day arrived.  We loaded up his pails and shovels, his toy trucks and snacks and set off for the park.  I think I was as excited as he was.  I too couldn’t wait to GET THERE.  But when we got out of the car instead of making a bee line for the playground, my son began collecting rocks in the parking lot and watching a few worms crawl on the pavement.

I was frustrated and tried to hurry him along wanting him to GET THERE because I knew how much fun he would have.  It took us almost 30 minutes to GET TO THE PLAYGROUND and he enjoyed every minute of it.  Years later I thought about that day and realized that my son inherently knew what many of us struggle to understand.  THE PROCESS IS OFTEN AS MUCH FUN AS THE END RESULT.  He had as much fun getting to the park and he did when he was there.  But I was so focused on the destination, that I missed his excitement in the journey.

So where is “there?”  As a twenty something, we might feel in balance as we find our life partner and gain success in our job and feel we are “in the right place.”  So are you there?  Now fast-forward ten years and add a few children to the mix.  Now to be happy you need to feel confident as a partner, professional AND parent.  Your priorities and values might change.  So now are you there?  Then your children grow up and your life and priorities change once again.  Where will they go to college?  How will you pay for it?  It’s a good thing I worked so hard when they were young to pay for it.  So now are you there?

THERE IS NO THERE.  At least not in the way we focus on it. There is a place where who you are and who you were meant to be are fully aligned.   When you are true to yourself, your ideals and values, when you believe that what you are doing makes a difference; then you are there.   But we as humans are constantly changing.  Our relationships and experiences introduce us to new challenges and we change and adapt based on our circumstances.

Our society is so goal oriented, so results driven, that the concept of the journey was lost long ago.  We have lost sight of the process, the beauty and the growth of the journey.   What do we miss while we are so busy getting to the playground that we miss watching the worms?  What phone call is so important that as we walk along we miss the elderly person who struggles to cross the street or the parent and child in a tender moment.

Life is all about the journey.  There is only NOW.  If we are so focused on the journey, the destination in the future, then you miss the present.  You are always looking ten steps ahead and you never enjoy where you are.  There is beauty in traffic as it gives you time to talk to the person you are in the car with.  There is joy in missing your plane as it allows you to talk to an interesting person at the airport.  And there is growth in enjoying the job you have now, improving your skills, gaining confidence and learning who you are and what you enjoy instead of envying the person above you.  The irony is that the more you live in and enjoy the present, the easier and more successful your future will be.

Stop and smell the roses.  Spend time with friends and family.  Get to know yourself. Figure out what is truly important.  Then wherever you are is THERE.


What Defines You?

A few months ago I was at a conference and the speaker, a very dynamic and successful woman, asked the audience to take a moment to write down a few words to describe themselves.  I excitedly wrote that I was funny, smart, loyal, insightful and trustworthy to name a few. The speaker then put up a slide with her words.  She had described herself as a mother, sister, daughter, wife, businessperson and marketing executive.  I had used adjectives to describe myself and she had used nouns.  I described myself by my qualities and she described herself by her roles.  What struck me was that we were both right, but why the difference and what was the significance?

I realized that I could be all the things I described myself as in all the roles the speaker used.  I could be funny, smart… as a mother, daughter or friend.  My words transcended what I did.  But her words didn’t tell me anything about who she was, just what she was or how she was “defined.”  I began to think about people who define themselves based on external factors and measures versus their internal barometers.  For example, I know I am funny even if no one laughs at my jokes.  If someone doesn’t get my humor I don’t question whether my assessment of myself was correct, it was simply that that person didn’t appreciate my sense of humor. It has no effect on who I am or how I define myself.  But what if you define yourself by your roles and the role is taken away or questioned?

This issue becomes very evident when you are talking about athletes who are “measured” by external factors such as batting average, shooting percentage or speed.  How can you be “good” if you perform below your own averages?  If you go 0 for 4 in a game are you no longer a good hitter or are you a disappointment to your team?  After a recent loss I asked a few baseball players why they were so down.  They looked at me strangely and stating the obvious said, “We lost” as if that was explanation enough.  I then asked them if they had done their best and if so what else could they have done; that isn’t it possible that someone else’s best is just better than yours on a given day?  Now these are blasphemous words from the parent of athletes and I should know better, but it sparked an interesting conversation.  Are you your performance?  And if you believe you are, then what happens at the next game?  The need for accomplishment becomes even more important because you need to “redefine who you are” and now the game isn’t so fun anymore.

So how does this translate into your daily life?  Do you avoid taking risks because of the fear of public failure?  And what is failure?  Thomas Edison is famously quoted as saying “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”  Edison’s internal assessment was clearly different from the external one.  Imagine the consequences if he had measured himself based on others’ evaluations.

When you live from a place of knowingness about who you are, the potholes and pitfalls of life are interesting and momentary events, learning experiences.  But if you define yourself by your roles and your performances and you come up short or encounter enough situations where someone else’s best is better than yours, you are setting yourself for failure and have left yourself too vulnerable to external assessment.  And ultimately your fears about how others will define you becomes what drives you.


Charting Your Course

So imagine you are taking a trip. You get in the car and your GPS asks you for the address and you realize you don’t have it.  All you know is that you want to go to “Tom’s house,” but your GPS doesn’t know where Tom lives.  I’m sure you would agree that if you don’t know where you’re going there is very little chance you will get there. No GPS system can find a location without an address or coordinates.  You need to have a destination. But the human experience is quite different, or is it?

What if your navigation system took emotions instead of addresses? What if you could get in your car and plug in Happiness as your destination? Where would you start? How would you know you were going in the right direction? Well your car doesn’t have this feature, but your brain does. Let’s call it your Emotional Guidance System or EGS. The question is what destination are you inputting? Are you searching through your previous destinations and selecting frustration, self-doubt, inadequacy or angry young man? You certainly know how to get to those places. In fact you could probably get to these places with your eyes closed.

And if you are happy with your current situation, if you wake up everyday with joy in your heart and anticipation for another great day on earth, then those destinations are serving you well and you should continue your frequent visits. But if your usual routes have left you feeling like something is missing, that you are just waiting to be “found out” or you are just not happy then you need to make a change.

The power of your Emotional Guidance System is that you can choose to go anywhere you want. It is no harder to go to happiness than it is to go to frustration. You just have more practice with frustration. It is no harder to go to self-confidence than it is to go to self-doubt. Just like your car’s navigation system, you will arrive at any destination you set. There is no judgment, just charting a course.

Your car tells you to “make a legal U-Turn” when you are off course, your EGS tells you that something is amiss by how you feel. Are you listening to your Emotional Guidance System or are you ignoring its feedback and consistently surprised when you get lost? You are in control of the destination you set and the decisions to “recalculate.” Choose wisely.