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.

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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

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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

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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.

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     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?

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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

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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

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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

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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

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - Stars & Stripes Forever by Chet Atkins

A brilliant musical performance transcends words, so I won't try to describe this.

The world lost one of her greatest musicians and I lost one of my heroes when Chet Atkins passed away in 2001.  Below is one of my favorite Chet performances.  I hope you enjoy!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Do You Make this Critical Leadership Mistake?

“I don’t care if people like me, as long as they respect me!”

This quote has bounced around the workforce to the point of cliché.  On the surface, the idea seems solid: If you spend all your time worrying about whether or not your followers like you, you will be paralyzed for fear of making an unpopular decision.  No one respects an indecisive leader.

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Have you ever said those words?  If so, I challenge you to take a quick look inside your own heart.  Are you using that phrase merely as an excuse to disregard the ideas, opinions and feelings of those you lead?

Sometimes a leader has to make the tough decisions and forsake temporarily being liked for the overall good of the mission... still, there is a line between leading with authority and being authoritarian.

Hopefully, you are lucky enough to have someone on your team who is willing to call you out, in private, on your mistakes.  A leader held accountable for their leadership style is truly blessed.  Whether or not you have that, take time for personal reflection and hold yourself accountable for your actions and decisions.

Have you ever had to make a leadership decision that rubbed people the wrong way and cost you some friends?  Looking back, was it in the interest of the mission, or in the interest of your own personal agenda?  In retrospect, could you have approached your decision differently?

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are You Truly a “Practicing Christian”?

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“I’m a practicing Christian.”

I’ve heard this particular phrase tossed around more than I care to remember.  It usually comes with a hefty dose of superiority, as in, “I’m not just a Christian-in-name… no, I’m a practicing Christian!”


Honestly, that is about as off-putting as what Jon Acuff calls the ‘Jesus Juke.’  They may as well say, “Yes, you are Christian… but I’m Christianier!”  How truly Pharisee of them.

If someone wants to practice Christianity, they need only practice letting their faith, love, and works all naturally shine before the world.

Live, love, and pray in such a way that someone else would say, “Oh, yeah… they’re a practicing Christian!”

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Quit Taking Notes! (or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blog”)

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I love to read!  Presumably, since you’re here, you and I have that in common, so maybe you've had this experience: About a month ago, my venture into the world of blogs led me to a shocking conclusion.  As it turns out, there are people out there who know things that I don't… a lot of people and a lot of things!  Through their blogs, however, they make their wisdom available and free for the taking.

All you have to do is search them out.

Disclaimer: Between my wife, my friends, and my coworkers, there are plenty of people in my day-to-day life who know a lot of things which I don’t.  I’ll save that topic for another blog.

I'd say about a minute after discovering my first blog-based mentor, Chris LoCurto, I discovered my second (Jon Acuff)… and then my third, and fourth, and so on.  Before I knew it, my Read it Later queue was 150 articles long and growing!  As I began reading these blog entries, I was struck by their wisdom and I wanted to make sure that these secrets weren’t lost on me.  I wrote stuff down, printed things out, saved items in my queue instead of deleting them, created bookmarks… anything to keep from missing out on these brilliant tidbits.

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Do you know what that accomplished?  I became one hot mess of disorganization!  I tried to tighten my grip on every little bit of wisdom I could, to the point where nothing was sticking.

I don’t know if anyone has said this before, but I’m saying it now: “Wisdom is like water.  If you try to grab it, it will slip right through your hands.  Just jump in... you’re bound to get some on you!”  The more I kept reading, the more I started to see that the best points of wisdom were, in fact, not secrets held by one evil genius blogger!  Ideas flowed from one blogger to the next like a mystical thread.  Everyone was saying the same thing, but in their own unique voice.

This revelation taught me two things:

1)   I stopped trying to save every little thing that caught my attention, because I knew if I just waited a day or two, it would come back around from another blogger.  Take an idea and repeat it from various sources, and you will internalize the lesson.
2)   I don’t have to worry if I'm saying what has already been said.  My job is to simply put my thoughts out there in my own unique voice.

All the above having been said, there is a precursor to letting wisdom wash over you… you must seek out the source!  If you just wait for the occasional Facebook link from a friend, you will never experience that feeling of wisdom washing over you.  Like anything you want to be good at, the key is daily commitment.

Seek out people who are where you want to be… they are often giving away their “secrets” for free!

Have you sought out the wisdom of those with more experience than you?  What did you learn and how did you learn it?

Monday, June 6, 2011

1 Sure-Fire Organizational Tool for the Internet Generation

Read it Later

Yes, it’s true.  I used one of the cheapest tricks in the blogging world to entice you.  Start with a number, make a promise, mention something that people need, and then declare your audience.  I’m guilty, I admit it… but I did it for a good reason.  If the headline was: “Read it Later – Internet Articles when You Have the Time,” would you have bothered?  I believe this free app is so useful that it deserved a little shameless headline tweaking.  Moving on…

You probably have been in one of the following two situations:

1)   You have given yourself 15 minutes to check your Facebook/Twitter/RSS feed, and you come across a link to an article.  You click it, begin reading, and see a link to another interesting article.  You right-click that, open it in a new tab, go back to the first article, and perhaps repeat that last bit a few more times.  Suddenly, your 15-minute session has snowballed into two hours of articles and YouTube videos!  Death to productivity!
2)   You have given yourself 15 minutes to check your Facebook/Twitter/RSS feed, and you come across a link to an article.  While it seems like something interesting, That Little Voice™ chimes in and says, “Not now.  You don’t have time.  You’ll remember it.  Come back to it later.”  Maybe you write yourself a sticky note.  Perhaps you copy the URL and e-mail it to your account.  Effective, but very inefficient.

And then you think, “Gee, someone should come up with a button to click that would instantly put this in a list.  Then I could read whenever I have time.”

Read it Later does just that.  Through a little JavaScript link you put on your web browser’s bookmark bar, you can save any webpage into your Read it Later queue.  Log into Read it Later -- well, later -- and you’ll see a list of all the pages you have queued up to read.

Even better, it syncs up across devices.  If you have an iPhone, Android, Blackberry, or any of several other smartphones, just install the Read it Later app.  Open up and there are all your articles, downloaded for offline reading (you can even set your phone to airplane mode and read your queued articles on a long flight).

Each day as I browse through my twitter feed, I queue up several articles that catch my interest and then check them out when I have time in the evening.  Not only does it save time, but I absorb more information because I get to read when I am not distracted.

Once you get used to using Read it Later, I truly believe you’ll find it an invaluable timesaver.

Have you used Read it Later?  How did it change the way you surf the internet?

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday: Something for the Musician - Old Love

Today, a couple friends told me about a concert video with Brad Paisley and John Mayer.  I was more than a little excited to get home and search for some videos of this.  Out of them all, this one blew me away... I hope it does the same for you.

Thanks to Joel and Josh for hipping me to this.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What are Your Pillars?

The Parthenon
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Imagine the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, or any big city courthouse.  Now, imagine it without pillars.  What’s left?  Before you wax too philosophical, I'll give you the answer: “A pile of rubble.”

Pillars are crucial, but they are also very easy to take for granted.  Their support is expected.  When you were building from the ground up, you had a great appreciation for those pillars, because they were the only things there.  Once you started building on top of them, however, you paid them less and less attention… they were supposed to be there and their job was to provide support.

Before I go on, I’m going to acknowledge something: This is not a new idea.  I will not win any awards for, “James' Original Pillar Theory.”  You’ve heard this before, told in such ways as, “Put in the big rocks first,” and, “Don’t forget the most important things in life.” (Cat Stevens even touched on it in his song, "Cat's in the Cradle")  I am revisiting this age-old topic for one reason… it deserves revisiting!  This is one of those famous moments of, “If you miss everything else, catch this!”

Take a quick inventory of the people, things, and entities in your life.  What is it that, if taken away, would cause you to crumble?  Now, look at that same list and honestly ask yourself how often you really devote quality, focused attention to those things.  If you are normal, you probably don't spend as much time with your pillars as you should. (keep in mind that "normal" is not a good thing... look at your neighbors, look at the news, look at our media, and you'll quickly find that "normal" is something to avoid)  After all, your pillars are there, supporting you… you can see to them another time and, besides, there are more pressing matters at hand.

If you ignore your pillars for more pressing matters, thinking that you can pay attention to them when you have more time, I will make you a 100%, certifiable, put-it-in-writing and take-it-to-the-bank guarantee: There will always be more pressing matters!!!  So, now that you know the guarantee, are you ready for the remedy?

First, you have to actively budget your focused attention.  Then, when you are budgeting your focused attention, budget for your pillars first and make that base amount of attention non-negotiable.  If there are more pressing matters, they will have to wait, because they are not allowed into that part of your life!

Non-negotiable.  No way.  No how.  No sir, YOU MAY NOT have this bit of my attention… it is spoken for!

My personal pillars are as follows:  God, my wife, and music.  Truth be told, I have been guilty of neglecting all three of these pillars.  They deserve better, and I will give it to them.  Without them, I would crumble.

What are your pillars?  Have you been giving them the focused attention they deserve?  If not, what are you going to do to remedy your situation?

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Goal-Oriented Everything (and the GOPP)

I will begin this post with an assumption about you: You haven’t yet achieved everything you desire.  If I am wrong about you, please accept my humble apology and save yourself the trouble of reading further… this particular post is not for you.  For those who still have a few yearnings to fulfill, onward we venture!

I am a musician.  This is not my hobby after I get home from the J-O-B… playing music is my main source of income.  I am truly blessed to do what I love and make a living from it, and as part of my quirky musician nature, I’m never satisfied with my playing ability.  Mind you, I have quite a few days where I bump knuckles with my bandmates and share the pride of a well-played gig, but I’m always striving to improve.

Ask any musician how to get better and they will say one word: “Practice” (of course, some will also push the latest method books or instructional DVD, but the idea is to include those in a practice routine).  One could practice for three hours each day and, without specific direction, overall improvement would be minimal. In fact, practicing without direction is typically referred to by phrases such as, “noodling,” “messing around,” or, “playing what you're already good at.”  At some point, you must identify where you are, where you want to be, and how to get from point-A to point-B.

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Enter the Goal-Oriented Practice Program (GOPP).  Before I go any further, let me say that GOPP is not my original idea.  I learned it from a phenomenal saxophone player, and it wasn’t his original idea, either.  I’m offering wisdom you would probably pick up listening to your grandfather!  The short version goes like this:

            1)   Something inspires you to improve.
            2)   You identify something specific that you want to improve.  “I want to play jazz better,” doesn’t cut it.  You must quantify what improvement you want to make.
            3)   Figure out where you are.  Be brutally honest with yourself.  Quantify the skill level where you feel comfortable performing.
            4)   Set a timeline to get yourself from where you are to where you want to be.  As an example, I'll use an arbitrary time of 6 months.
            5)  Plot your daily path to get there:
a.     “Where you want to be” minus “Where you are” = “The ground you have to cover” (mathematically known as, “the difference”)
b.     "The Difference" divided by 6 months = How much ground you need to cover per month (we’ll call this the, “monthly difference”)
c.      Rest is important when practicing.  Budget two days per week to step back from what you are learning.  This leaves an average of 21 days practice days per month.  If you don’t rest, your brain won’t properly process and organize new information and skills.
d.     "Monthly Difference" divided by 21 days = Your daily required progress.  
e.   Create a task that will challenge you to achieve this each day.
f.     Set a time limit for how long you will practice (perform the task) each day.  Anything more than 15 minutes at a time on one specific item is too much.

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This works wonders for music, but it applies to everything!  The principle is always the same: Set a large, specific, time-constrained goal; break it down into small, bite-sized goals; accomplish those mini-goals through daily tasks.

Write your regimen down on to-do lists.  Chart your progress.  Hold yourself accountable, and ask your spouse, a close friend, or a mentor to check on you and hold you accountable.

Now it is your turn.  Where do you want to be?  How are you going to get there?  Can you think of a time in your life when you've applied these principles and succeeded?