Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You’ll Get no Sympathy from Me!

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When you hear or read that word, thoughts of consoling a grieving friend or loved one might come to mind.  Perhaps you picture yourself assuring a wronged coworker that their boss really is a jerk.

Actually, the latter of these two scenarios is far closer to sympathy than the former, which naturally leans towards empathy.  The difference between sympathy and empathy is as simple as passive versus active.  The sympathetic listener resonates with the sufferer and then reflects the sufferer’s own feelings and reactions.

What is sympathy?

The term sympathetic vibration is used in both physics and music to describe the phenomenon of objects or instruments passively resonating at frequencies similar to other nearby objects or instruments.  Because the passive resonator is not intended to (or was not built to) resonate in that way, what results is either cacophony (in the case of musical instruments) or chaos (a collapsing building or bridge).  Interestingly, you will never see a sympathetically vibrating object in any way benefitting the first object.

Now consider the sympathetic friend described above.  His buddy is grumbling about how unfair the boss is.  Instead of really trying to understand what his buddy is going through, he passively resonates and grumbles with him.  Does this help his buddy work through suffering or solve any problems?  Of course not!  At most, it provides a temporary steam-release for the sufferer, but because they are now resonating at the same frequency, it builds that same anger and frustration in the sympathetic friend.

How about empathy?

In contrast, empathy seeks to actively understand the sufferer’s emotions and the situation as a whole, and then helps to reach in and pull their friend through and out.  This is done even if it means that the suffering temporarily intensifies while working them through.

Since sympathy is not the answer, what would an empathetic friend do?  If everything about sympathy is wrong, the right answer would be the opposite: Don’t resonate with the sufferer and then offer purely objective advice and solutions.  Of course, any man who has ever tried this with his wife knows this is a one-way ticket to a long fight and a long night spent sleeping on the couch.

Surprisingly, the first steps to empathy are similar to, but not the same as, sympathy.  Listen to the sufferer, and listen to them actively.  Resonate with and understand their pain, but don’t resonate with their anger (their pain is a response to external factors, but their anger is a response to their own pain).  Really work to understand what they are experiencing.  You cannot safely navigate someone through danger until you know where he or she is and what the terrain is like on the path to safety.

My experience with empathy.

About a year ago, I lived through a great example of empathy.  I had just been raked over the coals at work and I was ready to scream bloody murder at anyone who would listen.  It happened that I ran into a great friend, also named James, who took me away from work and out to a park.  There, he listened to me as I poured out my anger and enumerated the many flaws I perceived in our senior leadership.

He knew exactly what I was going through… he had been raked over the coals many times before.  He could have said, “Yeah, I know what you mean… they’re horrible!”  Instead, he offered a hand to help me up, dust me off, and move me onward.  Not once did he tell me I was justified or right in my anger, and what he said sounds almost cliché in retrospect, but it was exactly what I needed to hear at the time: “This is probably going to get worse before it gets better, but you will make it through this and you will be even stronger.  I’m sorry and I’m here if you ever need to talk.”

He was right and I knew he was right.  All I needed was someone who understood me to remind me of it and to bolster my hope.  James, if you’re reading this… thanks!

Question: What is one thing you have done, or can do, to move yourself from a position of sympathy to one of empathy?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How to be Faithful: The Tale of the Prince and His Jewels

My blog entry this week will be a little different.  Upon waking this morning, I had an idea for a fable, like those written by Aesop.  While this reads like a children’s story, I believe the moral applies to people of all ages and both sexes.

With that, I humbly offer you The Tale of the Prince and His Jewels.

Photo credit: honorinejewels.com
Not so long ago, be that yesterday or two millennia gone by, there lived a handsome prince in a wealthy, wealthy land.  The prince was coming quickly upon his twentieth birthday, at which point he was required to choose a wife.

Being that this was a wealthy land, and being that the prince was royalty, you would imagine that the prince had servants… and you would be right!  Now, do you remember when I said that the prince was handsome?  Well, his servants were equally handsome, and the prince knew it.

The prince wanted to be sure the maiden he married would not be seduced by one of his servants.  After consulting with his advisors, he came up with a plan.  That day, a royal invitation was sent out to all the young maidens in the land.

On the day all the maidens arrived, the prince made an announcement.

“Greetings, lovely maidens of our great land!  On this day, I offer each of you a challenge.  All who choose to participate will receive a reward of precious jewels.  However, one will become my bride, the princess, and eventually the queen of this land!”

A loud murmur arose from the maidens.  “Jewels!”  “Become the princess!”  “What could the challenge be?”

Once the noise had died down, the prince said, “Over the next thirty days, each maiden who participates will spend the night with a different one of my servants.  During those nights, my servants will use all of their cunning to seduce you.  For each successive night you remain pure, my servants will give you a jewel of greater and greater value!  After the thirty days are over, I will choose my bride from those who have remained pure.”

Thirty days passed.  On the thirty-first day, the prince once more called together all the maidens of the land.  They were all giggling, whispering and comparing their newly acquired jewels.  The prince had his servants count the jewels of each maiden.  Among the crowd, they found two maidens who had thirty jewels each!  They even found one lovely maiden who had no jewels at all.

The prince called forward the two maidens with the thirty jewels.  At the same time, a cruel servant brought forward the maiden with no jewels in order to mock her.  The prince, being a kind man, did not wish to humiliate the young maiden.  He dismissed the cruel servant and called the maiden over to speak with him quietly.

“My dear girl, how is it that you have not even a single jewel?”

The maiden, tears brimming in her eyes, said, “The jewels were not what I wanted, your highness.  I only wanted to be your wife, so I did what I would have done if I were your wife!  I kept myself from being where my purity could be challenged.  I did not participate at all.”

The next day, they were wed.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - Foggy Mountain Breakdown

This week's "Something for the Musician" entry features Ben Clark.  I remember playing gigs with him in little Texas honky-tonk bars, where he was in the band opening up for us.  He was an amazing player back then... one day, I think I remember hearing this faint whoosh sound as he zipped right past me musically.

Since then, he has gone on to perform with artists such as Craig Morgan and Taylor Swift.  Most would consider that a solid success story... Ben resigned from Taylor's band to focus on a major publishing deal with his sisters and make his instructional videos & website.

Aside from being a friend and a great guy, I'm featuring Ben this week because he is an expert with the heart of a teacher.  Someday, in my own way, I aspire to be the same.

I've been watching "Banjo Ben's" instructional videos since he started making them.  Rather than trying to describe the indescribable, here is a classic video of his: Foggy Mountain Breakdown.

If you are interested in studying with Ben, he has quite a few free instructional videos on YouTube.  You can combine those with the TAB files and backing tracks on banjobenclark.com to get a full lesson.  He even does lessons over Skype!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Cherish Your Wife (Leadership Lessons from the Bible)

Photo credit: goodwp.com
Before I start, I know what you’re thinking: “What does cherishing your wife have to do with leadership?”

Boy, I’m glad you asked!

As a Christian man, your job is to be the head of your family.  This means that your first job as a leader, if you are married, is to lead at home.  The way a man treats his wife tells you more about his character than anything else.  Personally, I refuse to have any dealings, other than unavoidable business dealings, with any man who is maritally unfaithful, who doesn’t have the spine to lead his family, or who is just a generally piss-poor husband. (e.g. a bully, an ignorer)

People often quote Ephesians 5:22-24 as an example of how a wife should act, and ignore the fact that Ephesians 5:25-33 (which tells a man how to treat his wife) is roughly three times longer!  With this in mind, I offer 5 ways to cherish your wife.

1)   Praise her publicly, both when she is with you and when she isn't.  If you have ever read the Song of Solomon, you know that King Solomon was tops when it came to heaping praise on his beloved.  While I am not suggesting that you tell all your friends how your wife’s breasts are like two fawns, or that you compare her teeth to a flock of sheep, you can certainly offer honest praise about her cooking, her housekeeping, her sense of humor, her work ethic, her ability to control the household budget, etc.  Don’t just reserve these compliments for when she is with you, or they will seem contrived.  By the way, if you can’t think of anything about which to praise her, you likely aren’t paying anywhere near enough attention to her!

2)   NEVER run her down publicly!  It doesn’t matter whether she is with you or not... it doesn’t matter even if you think you are "only joking".  Proverbs 26:18-19 compares a man who excuses his lies and insults with, "I was only joking," to a madman shooting flaming arrows!  There is no way around it... your little barbs hurt, whether she says so or not!  Each one takes a little bit out of her.  Broadcasting your wife’s faults, be they real or perceived, is the same as you making an investment in a bitter, jaded, introverted wife.  Dumb!

3)   Compliment her when you are alone together.  Going back to Ephesians 5, men are commanded to love their wives the same as their own bodies.  If you enjoy receiving a compliment about your body (and who doesn't?), don’t you think your wife enjoys getting kind words from you?  These don’t have to be about anything physical, although if you aren’t complimenting her on her appearance, find something outstanding and start doing it now!  Whatever she does to make your married life better is up for grabs in the world of compliments.  Every sincere compliment is the same as you making an investment in a joyful, secure, outgoing wife.  Smart!

4)   God is first, she is second, everything else comes next.  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”  Together, you put God first, each other second, kids (if you have them) third, and then triage everything else out accordingly.  Did you get that?  She is more important than your friends, your parents, and even your children!  If your buddies are more important, you’re just an idiot (there really is no way to sugar-coat that one).  Your parents will pass on, your children will grow up and move away, and it will just be God, you and your wife.  If you value anything above God and your wife, you will be living with strangers once everything else moves on.

5)   Do everything you can to become a better man... for God's sake, for your sake, and for her sake.  If you are anything like me, you understand that your wife is a gift from God whom you don’t deserve.  With that in mind, it should be natural to want to fulfill the call to put off your old self and be made new in the attitude of your mind (Ephesians 4:22-24).  Start filtering everything you do, say, and think, to be glorifying to God and beneficial to your wife.  Seek out and read lots of great books on how to be a better, godly husband.  Examine your life, figure out where you need to make changes and then make a plan to start those changes.  Do whatever it takes, but start doing it now!

What are the ways you cherish your wife?

The above is part of a series of blog posts entitled, “Leadership Lessons from the Bible.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - School Days

Anyone who has known me for more than an hour probably knows that I'm a bass player.  While my musical first loves are old school country and bluegrass, I have a soft spot in my heart for the true funkmastas out there.  It is with this in mind that I present, for your enjoyment, one of the greatest upright bass solos I have ever had the pleasure of watching: Stanley Clarke playing School Days.

Friday, July 8, 2011

5 Ways You can be a Better Delegator (Leadership Lessons from the Bible)

The next day Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long, from morning to night. When Moses' father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, "What's going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself, letting everybody line up before you from morning to night?"

Moses said to his father-in-law, "Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. I judge between a man and his neighbor and teach them God's laws and instructions."

Moses' father-in-law said, "This is no way to go about it. You'll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you – you can't do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you. Be there for the people before God, but let the matters of concern be presented to God. Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need to keep a sharp eye out for competent men – men who fear God, men of integrity, men who are incorruptible – and appoint them as leaders over groups organized by the thousand, by the hundred, by fifty, and by ten. They'll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They'll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they'll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you'll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also." (Exodus 18:13-23, The Message)

Picture credit
There are five leadership lessons to take away from the above passage.

1)   Delegation is not an option.  If you don’t do it, you will burn out completely and you will take your followers with you.  Here’s what happens: The better you are at your job, the more you will be asked to do by more and more people.  Everyone has only 24 hours in each day, along with their own personal threshold of how much they can handle at one time.  I assure you, no matter how good of a time manager you are and no matter how smart and strong you may be, there are more problems than you can handle on your own!

2)   Be a teacher and a leader to those you appoint as delegates.  A common problem for those who finally decide to delegate is that they swing to the opposite extreme and take their hands completely off the reins.  If you delegate authority without training, mentoring, and communicating with your delegates, you will have five or six separate missions under you, all being accomplished poorly.  Train, mentor, and communicate with your delegates, and you'll have five or six leaders focusing on a common goal.

3)   Always be on the lookout for people who are competent, both as technical specialists and as leaders.  Look into the crowd and find the folks with the strongest personalities.  Find the ones who don’t join in with bitter, needless complaining.  Seek out the example-setters… those who are experts at their job and do their best work, regardless of having a watchful eye over them.  These are the folks who need to be grown into leaders, and it is your job to get them there!

4)   Delegate to a few people under you, and then to a few people under each of them.  If you trust in their leadership and their insight, you should allow them to choose their own delegates.  If they are young and you see great potential, but they lack leadership skills, choose their delegates for them and make leadership-training part of your mentoring time with them.  Either way, if you don’t let them have delegates of their own, they will be less effective and limited on what and how much they can accomplish.

5)   Delegating does NOT mean that you get to sit back and do no work.  You have to supervise, but you also have to keep your own technical and leadership skills sharp.  While you needn’t know how to do everything (this is part of why you delegate), letting your own technical expertise slide will cause you to lose respect in the eyes of both your followers and your peers.  Your followers need to know that they can come to you when they have really tough, technical questions, and that you will either have the answer, or that you know how and where to find it.

The above is part of a series of blog posts entitled, “Leadership Lessons from the Bible.”

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to be a Follower who Leads (Leadership Lessons from the Bible)

Picture credit: ngururaj.blogspot.com

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.  Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” (Colossians 3:22-24, New International Version)

To begin, we need to do some basic verbiage updating: Slaves becomes followers and masters becomes leaders.  Good, now we are up to the modern day.

One characteristic of a true leader is that he or she stands out from the group.  No one ever became a leader by going along with the crowd… in fact, when young workers who have no leadership experience are assigned as leaders, one of the mistakes they often make is to try and fall in with the group they are leading.  When this happens, no one leads and everyone suffers!

The crowd, without leadership, is known for two time-honored, dishonorable work traditions: complaining and gossiping.  For this article, we will use Dave Ramsey’s definition of gossip: “Delivering negative information – any negative information about anyone or anything – to someone who cannot do something about it.

Since the crowd is known for complaining and gossiping, a follower who leads is known for giving honest & public praise for their leadership, and for addressing concerns & complaints directly to their leaders.

The crowd, without leadership, is known for doing their best work only when under the watchful eye of a supervisor… individual crowd members work their hardest only if there is something in it for them. 

The follower who leads does their best work regardless of supervision and without touting their own accomplishments.  Over time, their work ethic naturally encourages others to do the same.  He or she knows that, in due time, their work will be rewarded.  They do not strive for rewards, but instead realize that rewards are the natural byproduct of being a follower who leads.

The crowd, without leadership, is known for legalizing* everything they can… this gives them more things about which to complain and gossip!

The follower who leads follows lawful orders when given, and later offers suggestions for change and improvement to their superiors at a later time.
                  *Legalizing, in this context, refers to the practice of claiming that a decision or policy is in violation of a certain rule or rules, often twisting the context of the situation in such a way as to validate the argument.

The individual crowd member is neither an effective leader, nor a good follower.  They serve primarily to work with one leg while dragging the other as an anchor.

The follower who leads can be better described with one word: Leader.  Leadership requires no title, no authority, and no official accountability… it only requires you to step outside the crowd so you can inspire them and lead them!

The above is part of a series of blog posts entitled, “Leadership Lessons from the Bible.”

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - Chittlins on Trombone

This week, I submit a note-for-note cover of Bob McChesney's "Chittlins", by trombonist Daniel Bonnin.  This is what happens when massive amounts of talent, dedication, and work ethic come together in one person.  Note-for-note and at tempo, he has recorded and posted videos of himself playing solo excerpts from nine of the ten tracks on McChesney's "No Laughing Matter" album.

If you liked that, the eight other videos from this album are available on his YouTube channel.

Become a fan of his on Facebook.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

What Your Great-Grandpa Thinks You Ought to Know about America

“My ‘American Dream’ is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” –James Truslow Adams

Photo credit: Tomek Waleki
I am an American military service member.  Before I was in the military, I was simply an American.  Call me old-fashioned if you wish, but she is very special to me.  She was a mother who raised me, a mentor who guided me, and now she is an ailing lady in need of care.  Please understand this: I take great offense at anyone who would seek to wrongfully take advantage of her.

America is known as the land of opportunity, but many see her and treat her as a never-ending fountain of entitlement.  From poorly managed and badly abused welfare programs that are neck-deep in bureaucratic red tape and paperwork, to trillions of dollars in annual deficit spending, the people out there who don’t want something for nothing are seriously in the minority.

With this in mind, I humbly offer you six pieces of advice you would have received from your great-grandfather.

·      Get your body out of bed!  Do you want to know why the Army did, “more before 9am than most people do all day?”  THEY GOT UP AT 4AM!!! (they often got up much, much earlier)  If your first action each day is fighting with yourself to get out of bed and playing ping-pong with the snooze button, you are losing some of the best and most productive hours of your day.

·      Get your body in bed!  Turn off the TV (cancelling cable is one of the best moves we ever made) and set a drop-dead time for any work or activities you are doing… they will still be there tomorrow, trust me!  Without proper rest, you won’t have the mental clarity or the physical stamina to go after your opportunities.

·      Quit eating like an idiot!  Eating like an idiot is less what you eat and more what you know about the food you eat.  If you don’t fuel your body properly, you won’t have the mental clarity or the physical stamina to go after your opportunities (notice the pattern).  Seek out information on what you put into your body.

I’m not going to tell you the best things to eat.  The most I will do is point you in the direction of a resource that I’ve used and shout, “GO!”  Just go to your favorite search engine and type in, “Healthy Skeptic 9 Steps to Perfect Health”.

Please search far beyond that on your own.  Your great-grandpa would want you to.  Eating like an idiot is just one symptom of having a large sense of entitlement.

·      Live on Less than You Make and Plan for Your Own Retirement!  If you are in trouble and genuinely need help, I’m there for you.  If you rack up credit card debt, student loan debt, auto debt, and all other sorts of debt, and you overextend yourself far beyond your income, you are not entitled to a comfortable retirement and America is not responsible for providing you one.  You can’t continually live on more than you make, and neither can America.  It has never been sustainable!

·      Vote & get involved, and do it more locally than nationally!  The people who matter the most are the ones closest to you.  Your city council and mayor have far more influence in your community (and, thus, in your life) than your President or Congressional Representative!  I’m not saying that national political office is unimportant.  What I am saying is that local political office is MORE important.

·      Get out of your shell and HELP PEOPLE!  Regardless of your faith, everyone has a civic duty to help those who are down on their luck.  It should start with your immediate family, extend to your friends and local community, and go outward from there.

Look, if you can’t pay your light bill, your cupboards are bare, and you are scraping together every dime you can to get through the month, no one is expecting charity from you... you are the less fortunate.  But if you are gainfully employed, have discretionary income, and you are not helping those in need… what is wrong with you?!?  The only reason that we are in a welfare and social security state is because of people not helping people!

This next statement isn’t going to win me many friends, but I’m making it anyway: If you are not setting aside at least 10% of your monthly take-home income to help those less fortunate than yourself, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM!!!

My beloved America has been wounded many times.  Each time she has healed, it has been because of people who stood up and took the opportunity to make real changes.  The pieces of advice I listed were in that particular order for a reason: You have to take responsibility for your own life first before you can help change the world.

What advice would your great-grandfather have given?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Never Make another Excuse for what You Have to Say!

Hey, for what it’s worth, I hope this doesn’t offend you, but I’m going to hit a touchy subject with today’s blog post.

Picture credit: justonecupcake.com
Doesn’t that make you want to squirm?!?  Not the part about the touchy subject… read the qualifier that preceded it.  You have most certainly heard (or spoken) the following opening words:

“No offense, but…”
“This probably doesn’t apply to you…”
“Hey, for what it’s worth…”
“Listen, I know this sucks, but…”

Those phrases, when placed before the body of your statement, mean just one thing: You have not developed the proper relationship to be making your statement!  If you don’t have the trust and understanding of the person you’re talking with, you should not be making the statement.  If you have their trust and understanding, you do not need the qualifier.

Next time you feel a qualifier coming on, STOP!  Before another word comes out of your mouth, mentally make your statement on its own… without the qualifier.  If it sounds disrespectful, no qualifier is going to make that better.  If it sounds like you are micromanaging something that they already know how to do, no qualifier is going to make your words sound wise.  If this is the case, put the message on the shelf for the time being.  As the proverb goes, it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

If your message is of value, shape your words to convey their intended meaning in a respectful, intelligent manner.  Once you have done that, speak those words... and only those words!  Your message will be clear and the people you are speaking to will respect you.

Monday, June 27, 2011

How my Wife & I Eat Organic on $350 per Month – Part 2

Photo credit: guidanceforgrowing.com

This is a continuation of the article How my Wife & I Eat Organic on $350 per Month – Part 1”.  If you find this article series useful, I hope you will “Like” it on Facebook, “Retweet” it on Twitter, and subscribe to this blog to get it delivered to your e-mail inbox.  Thanks for reading!

Part 1 left off with the first four of “8 Ways You Can Eat Organic on a Budget”.  Here are numbers 5-8.

5.    Shop around, and look where you wouldn’t normally look

Where do we get our organic foods?  Central Market, Safeway, Albertsons, our Commissary, Trader Joe’s, TJ Maxx, Ross, CostCo, Wildly Organic, Full Circle, and several other places that I’m just not thinking of at the moment.  I know, this seems like the exact opposite of the whole “stay out of the store” mentality I’ve been pushing, but hear me out.  If you are going to be in these stores anyway, keep an eye out for organic foods and their prices.  Write them down if you must, but have a good idea of who has the best price on what.  For example, TJ Maxx and Ross are the cheapest for organic teas, hands down.  CostCo kills everyone else on organic eggs and spinach.  Our Commissary has the best prices on organic bananas.  Trader Joe’s offers organic chicken for a steal.  You get the idea.

6.    Avoid packaged foods (organic junk food is still junk)

Look, as yummy as it may be, organic Mac and Cheese is not much healthier than conventional Mac and Cheese… they are both pretty devoid of nutritional value!  Of course, not all boxed or bagged foods are junk foods, but there are very few pre-packaged food items that should be household staples.  Pre-packaged foods are hardly ever local and typically come at a cost premium.  Just say no to them.

7.    Hit the Farmer’s Market… with a PLAN and a LIMIT

Farmer’s Markets are really great places to meet cool people and get wonderful deals on fresh-picked local groceries (eggs laid that morning, carrots fresh out of the ground, 100% grass-fed beef from a neighboring town, etc).  However, if you go there without a plan, you can easily kill a couple hundred bucks in no time flat!  Set a limit on how much you will spend (we usually say $30, but whatever works for you) and go in with an idea of at least a few things you want to buy.  If you have some cash left over, that is the time to decide if you want to try something new and different, or if you just want to save the money.

8.    Agree that it is NOT okay to say, “Okay.”

Living on a budget takes teamwork, and a food budget is no exception.  You both have to agree to hold each other accountable.  If you are having a moment of weakness and your inner red-faced 5-year-old is screaming, “I WANT IT!  I WANT IT!,” you need to know that your spouse will not cave.  You don’t need to be a jerk about it, but there will be times that a firm and decisive, “No!,” is needed.  Reckless spending is similar to an addiction in that it gets hardwired into our psyche.  At first, it is going to be very difficult to rewire your brains.  Enabling each other by saying, “Okay,” to avoid a conflict will only serve to make this more difficult.

$350 is no magic number, and costs will vary depending on grocery prices in your area, how big your family is, and your own personal goals.  Think of doing this in baby steps.  For example, if you typically spend between $700 - $900 on groceries in any given month, consider setting a budget goal next month of $600.  You’ll have $145 to spend for each of your first three weeks and then $165 to spend in the final week.  If you get to the point where that feels comfortable and perhaps a bit excessive, try whittling yourself down to $500 or $550.  Once you have developed good discipline about your grocery finances, you’ll surprise yourself with how little it actually takes to get you through the month!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - A Father's Record Player: Part 1

This week, rather than just offering one song that moves me, I humbly submit 49 of the best songs ever recorded.  This brilliant list was put together by the folks over at RaisingSimeon.  Just hit play and let the music wash over you.  The original list, with commentary notes, is linked below.  Sadly, Grooveshark does not have any Beatles songs (I can only assume there must be some legal issues), so I could not include "Hey Jude" in this mix.  Please enjoy "A Father's Record Player: Part One".

Thursday, June 23, 2011

How my Wife & I Eat Organic on $350 per Month – Part 1

Photo credit: modernecohomes.com

If you are reading this, you probably belong to one of two groups: Either you already eat organic and are trying to save some money, or you are considering going organic but are stymied by the high prices you see on the grocery store shelves.  If so, I understand… I’ve been in both groups.

Over the past two years, my wife and I have steadily shifted our diet towards being nearly 100% organic.  At roughly the same time we were introduced to the benefits of eating organic, we were also introduced to Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University class (our everlasting gratitude goes out to our friends, the Murrays and the Brainards, for introducing us to both).  Let me tell you, trying to eat organic while paying off debt with “gazelle intensity” isn’t easy… but it can be done!  I can say, with absolute certainty, that good health and high energy levels are really helpful for keeping up that level of intensity.

Through trial and error (lots of error), we have developed our own personal system that allows us to eat organic on a budget of about $350 a month.  This is nothing magical, secret, and there is nothing that I want to sell.  My only hope is that this benefits someone out there.

8 Ways You Can Eat Organic on a Budget

1.    Split your monthly food budget into weeks

There may be no single thing more demotivating than reaching the end of the money before the end of the month.  We actually spent all our food money by the 15th of the month... on more than one occasion!  It was then that I realized that it is a whole lot easier to make it through a few days with what is left in the cupboard than trying to power through a couple weeks.  The solution: Take your monthly food budget and divide it by four, and then take five bucks from each of the first three weeks and add it to the last week to account for the extra two or three days in a 30 or 31 day month (obviously, just divide evenly by four in February).  When you know you only have $82.50 to spend, the “I want” items tend to put themselves back on the shelves in order to make room for the “I need” items in your cart.

2.    Limit shopping trips

The more often you go to the store, the more often you will “remember something you forgot” or have a “hey, let’s get some of that” moment.  Grocery store aisles are intended to get you to buy extra stuff on a whim, so do whatever you have to in order to limit yourself to one to two store trips per week… make shopping lists, plan meals, check your stock of cupboard staples, etc.  Just don’t go to the store more often than is absolutely necessary.

3.    Buy local and in-season

Along with the lower prices that accompany local and in-season produce, in-season produce also introduces diversity into your diet.  Buying local also helps to support your local economy… farmers are consumers, too, and they are more likely to support local goods and businesses instead of national mega-chains full of imported goods.  Finally, with fuel prices at record highs, buying local means more of your dollar is going towards production instead of transportation.

4.    Sign up for a home-delivery CSA

If you aren’t familiar with what a CSA is, take a moment to click over to Google and search those three letters: CSA (it's okay, I'll wait... just promise you'll come back).  My wife and I subscribe to two CSAs, each delivering a box of fresh, local, organic produce to our doorstep on alternating Mondays.  Different CSAs offer delivery of various other items, such as meats, eggs, cheeses, milks, coffees, cereals, breads, etc, etc, etc.  The best thing about the CSA is that you place your order directly on the website, select exactly what you want, get it delivered directly to you, and you never have to hear the soft siren’s call of the grocery store shelves.

I would be remiss to not put in a quick plug for our favorite CSAs, so here are the two we use:

This post is getting pretty long, so I will come back with, "How my Wife & I Eat Organic on $350 per Month - Part 2."  See you then!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Are you Treating Symptoms instead of Solving Problems?

     I enjoy problem solving.  Problems are like puzzles and I love getting the best of a puzzle-maker.  The difference between puzzles and problems is that puzzles only have solutions, while problems have solutions and symptoms.  In other words, if you leave a puzzle unsolved, life will go on unaffected by the unsolved puzzle.  Leave a problem unsolved, however, and it creates a world of symptoms to deal with.

Photo credit: lifeasahuman.com
     The above would lead one to guess that people would choose to solve problems in order to avoid the symptoms.  Instead, many choose to leave their problems alone and then deal with the ensuing aftermath, one symptom at a time.  They then treat the symptoms as though they were the true problems.

     One place where this happens is, obviously, in our health.  If poor diet is the problem, the symptoms may include lethargy, gaining body fat, and increased blood pressure.  Instead of eating better, we go on crash diets, start intense and short-lived workout programs, drink lots of coffee (or sugary energy drinks), and take blood pressure medication.  Dumb!

     Going beyond health, this also happens in our work, home, and spiritual lives.  Check and see if any of these seem familiar:

·      John tackles any task given to him at work.  He’s really good at tasks, but lousy at looking past the next task to see if someone, with John’s training and support, could offer help.  Rather than grow as a leader, John takes on more and more tasks, works longer and longer hours, and then blames his excessive workload for his not “being able” to train anyone else.  John’s promotions come few and far-between, if ever.  No one else wants to work at his grueling pace… he has effectively locked himself into his job.

·      Robert has a good marriage, yet he and his wife tend to pick at little things that annoy one-another.  These little things lead to little fights, but instead of taking an introspective look at his life and choosing to mature as the leader of his family, he lets the fights continue.  The marriage stays good, but it never reaches the level of intimacy and connection that it should.

·      Susan believes in God and would call herself a Christian, but she finds herself struggling with certain scriptural issues.  Rather than digging deep into her Bible, searching her soul, and wrestling with her questions, she diverts her attention to others who fail in areas where she has no struggle.  She becomes bitter and judgmental inside while keeping a “happy Christian” face on the outside, keeping herself from developing any real relationship with God.

     If you treat symptoms instead of handling problems, you are a “symptom-medicator”.  It is no different than taking daily medication to treat symptoms instead of eliminating the root cause of an illness.  Here are four symptoms of being a Symptom-Medicator:

1)   The “problem” (aka: the symptom) keeps coming back – Problems, when dealt with, don’t usually return.  Symptoms are caused by problems, so dealing with them doesn’t stop the problem from recreating them.

2)   The only time you take action is when you feel uncomfortable – Think of the man who only deals with his leaky roof when it is raining.  The best time to deal with problems is when the symptoms aren’t distracting you.

3)   You play the blame-game – An easy default for dealing with symptoms is to assign blame for them to someone else.  Strangely, this popular approach treats neither the problem nor the symptom.

4)   You consistently act on your own / you lead without counsel – Seeking the help of others often reveals the underlying problems that cause symptoms

5)   You act without a plan and then react when things go wrong – Symptoms can be dealt with in the moment, but problems almost always require a plan.  If you want to solve your problems, you have to take the time to figure out how you’re going to do it!

     So, how about it?  Do you treat the root causes of problems, or do you habitually utilize the "long-term medication" approach and only deal with symptoms?  What is one problem you could attack at the root?

Photo credit: totalcare4you.com

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - Beautiful Things

Every now and then, I get lucky enough to come across a truly great recording of a beautiful song.  Sometimes these are recorded as solo acoustic pieces; other times they are full band performances.  This recording of Michael Gungor's "Beautiful Things" is both, and features Kyle Aaron, backed up by an all-star band consisting of Kyle Aaron, Kyle Aaron, Kyle Aaron, and... yes, Kyle Aaron (with some beautiful harmonies contributed by Erika Chambers).  I have yet to see someone come up with such a cleverly performed audition video.  Enjoy!

6 Ways to Extend Influence instead of just Expressing Your Opinion

Dave Ramsey
"You can only push someone to the extent of your influence, not your opinion." ~~Dave Ramsey

My wife and I are huge Dave Ramsey fans.  It is because of his influence that we are debt free (except for our mortgage) and on-track to having a fully funded emergency fund in a few months.  I was listening to a podcast of his radio show about a week ago when I heard Dave say the above quote.  He makes a solid point (he’s really good at doing that), and it got me thinking, “How can we be better influencers?”

1) Be patient
Allow other ideas to play out.  Give someone else’s idea a chance and they will be open to trying yours.

For years, Dave was thought of as that nice, middle-aged rich guy with the old-school economic theories.  And then… the market went splat, the housing bubble burst, the banks went nuts, and people started listening to one of the few guys out there who had been talking sense all along.

2) Make it about them
Show them what’s in it for them if they do it your way.

Dave could easily have been just another CNN talking head, blabbering on about how his ideas work sooooo freaking well.  Instead, he chose to get up on stage and show, incontrovertibly, how living a debt free life, having a financial pad between yourself and life’s emergencies, living on less than you make, and investing wisely, could all lead you – yes, YOU (not just him, but YOU… get it?) – to the point of immense wealth and the freedom to live and give like no one else.

3) Lead by example
Be living proof that your idea works.

As Dave says, “If you want to be a millionaire, you do the things millionaires do.  Why would you start listening to money advice from your broke brother-in-law who has a theory?!?”  If Dave hadn’t proven that these steps worked by living them himself, who (other than the most intellectually stymied) would have ever followed him?

4) Present with conviction
You truly believe your idea will work.  This is the time for you to present with the authority of one who knows.

If you ever want to hear what conviction and passion sounds like, listen to a podcast of The Dave Ramsey Show.  In fact, listening to the speeches and teachings of great influencers should be on the to-do list of anyone who seeks to be a great servant-leader*.

*A “servant-leader” is a leader with the heart of a servant.

5) Offer some social proof
Give specific examples of how your idea (or a variation thereof) has worked under similar circumstances.

One of the reasons that Financial Peace University and My Total Money Makeover are so inspiring is this: Just when things start to get technical, you get to hear the testimonial of a family who paid off $125,000 of debt in just two years, funded their full 6-month emergency fund, paid off their home mortgage in the following 6 years, and built a wealth portfolio that will serve them well into their golden years.  Hearing about how your idea has already worked is powerful influence!

6) And then be patient some more
Once your idea is put into play, have the self-discipline to stay the course, even if it isn’t immediately and wildly successful.

Financial freedom does not come easy.  It requires sowing several years of sacrifice in order to reap the rewards of great riches.  If a routine is already in place and heading things down the wrong track, it will take time for your idea, once accepted, to turn things around.  Be calm, collected, and confident, so your followers can feel the same.

Have you been successful at turning your ideas into influence?  What steps did you take?  Will you add to the list above?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How I Learned to Lead My First Follower

Photo credit: marines.mil
Leadership is tough.  I mean really, honestly difficult.  As a leader, your job is influencing people to each do something that they wouldn’t have naturally done on their own, and then getting them all together to work towards a common goal that none of them naturally had in the first place.

You get advice, coming from above and below, telling you the good things you do are bad and the mistakes you make are correct, all for the sake of an individual’s temporary convenience.  As if that weren’t enough, you must search to find the gems of wisdom, coming from above and below, which will help you accomplish the mission and become a better leader.

I don’t even have to go to work to experience this.  When my alarm goes off in the morning, the first thing I hear is a voice saying, “Snooze!  Reset the alarm!  20 more minutes and then I’ll get up… PLEEEEEEEEEASE!!!”  Once I finally wake up, another voice nags, “Check e-mail.  Log onto Facebook… see if anyone left us a comment.”

Amidst all of that mental ruckus, I have a morning mission to accomplish.  My daily morning mission is as follows:
1.     Get up
2.     Clean up (shower/brush/shave)
3.     Dress up
4.     Wise up (read my Bible)
5.     Warm up (practice my musical instruments)
6.     Pack up (gather whatever I need for the day, i.e. lunch, work-related items, etc)

With all of these “ups” just waiting to be done, I was still stuck fighting all these voices trying to keep me down.  For years, the voices won.  I would start every morning with a fight against myself, give in for the sake of temporary convenience (a little extra sleep that wasn’t really restful, time on the computer that wasn't really useful, etc), and end with a race to get out the door and off to work.  Most mornings I spent in a foul mood until some outside force gave me a reason to smile.

I can tell you exactly when I learned to ignore those voices: May 10, 2011.  I had just returned from a tour of northern Oregon and I had to be at work at 5:30am for an early gig.  When my alarm went off at 4am, something clicked and said, “You, and your voices, will be much happier if you get up right now and start your day.”  I didn’t even wait for the normal voices to kick in… I just got up and started my morning routine.  That day was proof enough for me.  Every day since then, I have made it a point to get up early and get started.

I won’t make the claims that I now have all the time in the world, that I always complete my morning mission, or that I wake up feeling fully awake and energized.  I will say that starting each day without a fight has really helped me feel better and take far superior care of business throughout the rest of the day.

The “snooze-button voice” is now basically gone in the mornings, but the “e-mail/Facebook voice” is still there.   The “stay up another hour, you can still get stuff done on the computer” voice is my nighttime nemesis, too.  One demon at a time, thank you… I’m working on it.

My first follower was and is myself.  It took me 33+ years to really learn how to lead him.  When I really paid attention to him, I learned what I could accomplish, figured out when to say no to requests, discovered the difference between complaining voices and true insight, and got more accomplished.

The same lesson is true with anyone you lead.  When you take the time to pay attention to them, find out what motivates them, speak to them with common sense, and make the mission involve them, you won’t have to live each day feeling like you are fighting against your followers.

How can you expect to lead other people if you won't even lead yourself to:
1.     Get out of bed in the morning?
2.     Turn off the TV?
3.     Limit your time on Facebook?

What do you need to learn to lead in yourself?  What can you do to make that start happening today?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

How to Create and Annihilate Your Goals

Photo credit: WithoutWax.tv
Today is an exercise in goal-setting and goal-achieving. This is hands on, rubber-meets-the-road stuff, where you do the work and you reap the benefits. This is also where... you become the writer.

Part One – Start the Article

Give thought to a topic about which you feel knowledgable. It can be a life experience, general advice, or anything. Now, follow these steps:

  1. Write a good 200 word article/essay about it (this will probably fill up a little less than half a page on a 12-point font, single-spaced word processor).
  2. Once you are done, write a catchy headline for it. DO NOT write the headline until you are done writing your article.

A confession from me to you: I love writing.  That aside for now, it can be a real pain to get my thoughts going in a single direction. If you just experienced that too, you just successfully completed Part One of this exercise.  Congratulations!

Part Two – Start with the Headline

Stay with the same topic and general article format, but this time:
  1. Start by creating a headline that promises great things. Really stretch the limits of what you believe  you can deliver!
  2. Now, based upon that promise you just made, start from scratch and write your new 200 word article/essay. If you ever feel stuck, go back to your headline and really work to fulfill your promise.

If I were a gambling man, I would bet that your second article was far superior to your first.  Am I right?

So, James, what was so different about writing the headline first?

When you start by writing the article, you are walking a path until you come to a nice stopping point. You then call it your goal and mark it with your headline.  Start with the headline, however, and you start by setting a goal and making a promise! You have a clear direction, a goal... in effect, you have a mission statement.

Embrace life's larger challenges the way you embraced this exercise. If you set goals and keep them in view, your path will become much more clear.

Did you complete this exercise? If so, please post your two essays and your thoughts about this below.

Monday, June 13, 2011

3 Ways to Add Crucial Insight to your Unstoppable Optimism

"The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty." ~~Winston Churchill

Photo credit: psychologytoday.com
Optimism is a wonderful trait.  Trusting the best possible outcome to occur is great for the soul.  There are almost always multiple possibilities… the one most likely to happen is the one you visualize, concentrate on, and put the most energy into.  With that in mind, offering your energy up to anything less than the best (“Lowered Expectations,” anyone?) is like investing in 4% bonds when a 12% mutual fund with a proven track record is out there for the taking!

Optimism, however, comes in two forms.  When you weigh all possible outcomes that fall within your area of influence and choose to aim for the best one, that is optimism with insight.  If, on the other hand, you choose to believe that something great will happen 'just because', you are in the realm of blind optimism.  Blind optimism is useless at best, dangerous at worst!

Blind optimism is the flipside of needless worry.  Both involve elements you cannot control.  The worrier visualizes the worst possible outcome and then frets about how to stop it from happening.  The blind optimist, on the other hand, comes up with a wonderful possible outcome and, with no rationale to support it, imagines that they have the power to make it happen.

In the movie "The Karate Kid", Daniel's mother moves them from New York to California.  In the first part of the movie, despite all the troubles her son is having adjusting, she believes that California will fix all their problems.  Lucille Laruso was a blind optimist.

Luke Skywalker (Star Wars) worried about not being able to get off his home planet.  He worried about not getting to be with his friends.  He worried that he didn't understand the force.  He worried that his understanding of the force wasn't strong enough without Yoda there to guide him.  If you've watched the original Star Wars trilogy, you know that this list could go on for days.  Luke Skywalker was a needless worrier.

William Wallace (Braveheart) saw injustice in Scotland and realized that something had to be done.  He analyzed that the weakness of the British crown was in the loss of control over their subjects.  He believed that he could lead his fellow Scotsmen to regain their country.  William Wallace was an optimist with insight.

With that in mind, here are three ways to ensure your optimism is grounded with insight:

1)   Ask the question: “Is there any way I can directly control this outcome?
·      If the answer is YES, then devise a plan to achieve the best possible outcome.
·      If the answer is NO, then keep your hands, words, and thoughts off!  If you are a religious person, this is a good opportunity to pray.  Prayer is relinquishing control and asking God to do what you cannot.
2)   Don’t seek to take on tasks that aren’t in your area of responsibility and authority.  This is dangerous for a number of reasons.
·      It steals work from the person who is supposed to take care of the job and demotivates them.
·      If you get the task done, your ego inflates into thinking you can control anything because, after all, you are working outside the responsibility and authority which have been delegated to you.
3)   Recognize people who get the job done, keep their promises, and have a positive outlook.  These are optimists with insight!  When you regularly spend time with these folks, some of their character is bound to influence yours.

Bonus Tip: STOP TALKING ABOUT THINGS YOU CANNOT CONTROL!!!  The more you bring something up in conversation, the more energy you focus on it.  Whatever "it" is, if it out of your control, you are more likely to default to either needless worrying or blind optimism if you keep bringing it up.  So stop it already!

So how about you?  Are you an optimist?  How do you make sure that your optimism is based firmly in insight?

Painting by John Slaby