Imagine waking up one day with a little tingling in your toes and the tips of your fingers. You might wonder a little about it, but shrug it off. But if a few days later you began noticing a weakness and a bit of klutziness in your limbs, you would definitely be concerned. Fast-forward a few days, and you’re lying in a hospital bed unable to move any muscle below your neck, and the doctors tell you there’s a chance your lungs will shut down too, and you would be terrified.
That’s what happened to Andy Coan a few months ago. Before that, he was a tremendously fit man in his mid-fifties, who looked like he could still swim a 100 freestyle in world-record time, just as he did as a high-schooler in 1976. His body had totally failed him, and he had absolutely no idea what to expect from this strange and savage disease called Guillain-Barre, which attacked his nervous system. Fortunately, he remembered that another swimmer, Rowdy Gaines, had gone through the same ordeal years before. We were able to track him down, and Rowdy gave Andy two things: useful information about what to expect, and–more importantly—hope.
That hope is what sustains him in his fourth month with the disease as he makes his slow and arduous comeback. He can move his legs somewhat and is relearning how to walk with a lot of support. His arms are all but useless. He can move his shoulders slightly, which is what he’s doing in the picture. When I visited him today, he was on the phone with a fireman who went through an even worse version of the disease (he spent four months on a ventilator because his lungs did shut down). The fireman told him that when he began his recovery, he could barely lift a three pound weight, and yesterday he benched 300 pounds!
That’s the kind of stuff that someone like Andy needs to hear, but it took a lot of trouble and some luck to find people who could help him like that. Now, besides his number one goal of getting better, Andy has another project in mind which sustains him. He wants to find a way—maybe through videos, a blog, and so on—to make it easy for others to get the information and the hope they need as quickly as possible if they ever get into the same situation.
What’s wonderful about listening to Andy describe his project is hearing and seeing the enthusiasm he has for helping others, and when he’s thinking about others, his own troubles are the furthest thing from his mind. To be clear: he knows he will get better eventually, but he doesn’t know how long it will take, and his rehab sessions are as tough as any workout he had back in the good old 10,000-meters-a-practice days when he was training for the Olympics. It’s not easy by any means, but there’s no feeling sorry for himself—because he’s focused on something bigger than himself.
Someone at the hospital today said “Everything happens for a reason.” That’s a cliché, and I don’t know if it’s true in the metaphysical or religious sense. But I am definitely sure that it can be true in a practical sense. Because when something devastating happens to you, you can choose to give it the meaning that you want to give it, and the service of others is about as fine a meaning as you can choose.
The list of ordinary things that Andy can’t do right now is long; but the list of extraordinary things is even more impressive. He can teach, and he can inspire, and that’s also about as fine a list as you can choose.
Note: If you have ideas for how Andy can spread the word and reach out to others who may be facing the terror of Guillain-Barre, please let him or me know, or share this with someone you think can help.
On January 1 of this year, I wrote a post about the three words that would describe my focus for 2014: Here’s what I intended and what I actually did.
Focus: I have a restlessly curious mind, which is a nice way of saying I get distracted easily. I am going to focus more this year. I’ve been training myself to focus more deeply and for longer periods of time on a single task, and I am going to up that commitment by blocking out dedicated time slots for my key business and personal priorities. I will read fewer books but suck the marrow out of those I do.
Actual: The dedicated time slots idea worked for part of the time, but I gradually got away from it and I definitely wasted far more time than I should have. I did a little better on my resolution to get more out of the books I read, especially when it came to taking detailed notes and writing summaries. Overall, I would give myself a D-minus on this one.
Connect: I’m a natural introvert in a profession that rewards extraversion. I will communicate more often, make new friends, network more widely, and pick up the phone a lot more. I will go more than halfway in my relationships.
Actual: I believe that I partially achieved my intentions for connecting. I widened my circle of acquaintances, deepened some relationships and friendships, and certainly made an effort to reach out more, even to the point of dedicating time to connecting on a daily basis. Grade: C.
Give: This is partially to balance the first two words. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in your own goals and priorities and forget that others have goals too, that you might be able to help with. I am going to mentor more, volunteer my time, and share whatever expertise or other assets I have with those who ask for help. Please let me know if I can help.
Actual: This was my best focus word for 2014. I volunteered time to StartUp Quest Broward, joined the corporate board of my church, and helped some friends in need. The best part is that, having begun these activities, I am now “locked in” and will already have a great base to build on in 2015. Give was by far my most rewarding emphasis for 2014, because whatever I accomplished in giving to others was returned to me many times over. But there is still much more I can do. Grade: B.
In reviewing my overall results for the year, I clearly fell far short of the potential that was contained in those three words, but I am glad I did the exercise. I’m further along than I would have been if I had not chosen to emphasize those areas in my work and personal life, and I’ve learned lessons that will help me gain even more in 2015. That’s why focus, connect and give are also my three words for 2015.
I gave a speech yesterday in Aspen about the four major lessons I have accidentally learned about selling during my career: thinking outside-in, delivering value through knowledge, the critical importance of preparation, and being real.
As I worked on my remarks, however, I discovered a fifth lesson: it occurred to me that somewhere along my journey, I have found a passion for selling—for the practice, study, and teaching of the craft—that I never would have anticipated when I was younger.
In fact, I did everything I could early in my career to avoid selling. I thought it was beneath me, and I was also a little afraid of it because I thought I had no talent for it.
But life makes unexpected demands on us, ampoule and selling became a part of my job description despite my wishes. I flailed around in it for a bit (because the bank that said I had to do it didn’t provide any training), but gradually worked my way up to at least mediocrity just through trial and error and trying to use common sense.
As I’ve written before, I stumbled on the idea of outside-in thinking during a sales call on a prospect when I had to admit that I didn’t know why he should do business with me; to recover, I was forced to quickly think up some good questions and he opened right up. I soon learned that asking questions, while a good start, is not enough. At some point you need to take what you’ve learned about your customer and combine it with your own specialized knowledge to teach them something new that improves their situation.
I think it’s the first two lessons that seeded my passion for selling. By taking a genuine interest in my client’s success and studying hard to learn new ways to add value, I’ve gained the satisfaction of knowing I’m helping others; I’ve grown from the constant challenge; I’ve met thousands of interesting people.
Psychologists tell us that intrinsic motivation comes from autonomy, purpose and mastery. Selling has given me the first two and the chance daily to pursue the third. Incidentally, I’ve also made a decent living doing it.
At this point, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else, which would be quite a surprise to my younger self.
That’s one reason that I think the well-intentioned advice we give to young people today—to follow their passions—may be misguided. At their age, most don’t know what their passions are. Maybe it’s better to do the best job you can where you can, and find your passion in that.
This question is prompted by a speech that John W. Gardner, a noted educator, delivered to McKinsey and Co. in 1990. His audience was composed of highly successful people in the prime of their lives, (people just like those who read these posts), yet he felt compelled to deliver an urgent message about avoiding complacency and staleness.
“We can’t write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves –are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits? A famous French writer said “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.”
We all know people like this, people who have stopped learning and growing, who haven’t had an original thought since maybe their twenties, who are counting the diminishing number of years until they can retire and really stagnate. Some have checked out because they’re satisfied with where they are, or because they have learned their jobs so well they can basically do them in their sleep. Some less fortunate ones have simply learned to accept their dissatisfaction, defeated by apathy, bureaucracy or boredom. My Dad worked in the private sector all his life, and in retirement went to work for a county agency. After a week on the job his coworkers pulled him aside and told him to stop working so hard, because it made them look bad. He went with the flow at work, but his clock kept running and he kept his zeal for learning. The week he died, at 86, he had just attended a class to learn how to use yoga to improve his golf game.
The good news is that your clock does not have to stop, and even if it has, you can rewind it and start it again. As Gardner explains, life is not a mountain that has a summit, or a game with a final score.
“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”
The important thing is not to lose your zest for learning and growing. No matter how old or how young you are, it is never too late.
Although it’s an extreme example, a story that I read recently in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel illustrates this well. As described in the article, Tom Galjour has Stage 4 metastatic small cell lung cancer. Two and a half years ago, he was told he had at most a few weeks to live. Soon thereafter, he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors prescribed hospice and morphine. His friend Ted Owens called Galjour’s ex-wife and said, “You better come, too—it’s time”, at which point Tom said, “Time? Time for what? This is bull___!” as he ripped off the wires connecting him to monitors. He refused hospice and left to die at home. After suffering in bed for two weeks, he told Ted, “Hand me my guitar. Screw this, I’m not ready to go today.”
Tom managed to get out of bed and restart his life. He decided to supplement his medical care with his own approach, which included buying a $4,000 sniper rifle (hey, everybody has their own way of enjoying life) and lifting weights. At 64, weighing 150 pounds and hooked to an oxygen machine, he recently benched 240 pounds, and now is aiming for 260.
As the article says, medical research hasn’t found a correlation between “fighting spirit” and survival rates. Maybe Galjour would have survived this long even without this attitude – but would that life have contained the same level of zest and richness? He is one man who has refused to let his clock stop…
I’ve written before about one of my favorite books, Mindset by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research has found that children grow up either with a fixed mindset and believe that intelligence and ability are innate and unchangeable, or a growth mindset which holds that we can improve and grow through effort. Her studies have shown that children with a fixed mindset, even those who are very bright, tend to protect their status as “smart” and are less likely to risk their self-image by trying difficult things; they also give up faster. In some small way, even at an early age they are at risk of letting their clocks run down.
Fortunately, a growth mindset can be taught to children at an early age; maybe it’s important to teach and reteach that lesson to adults as well. For starters, we can dispel the myth that entrepreneurship is for the young. Research has shown that there are twice as many entrepreneurs over 50 as there are under 25. In fact, adults who have a ton of life experiences under their belts may be better positioned to make wise choices about how and where to spend their energies.
I’m not referring to working harder; if you’ve gotten to the point where you can still be effective with less work, you’ve earned it. But you will do yourself a favor if you channel that extra time and energy into keeping your clock running, either through maintaining curiosity or increasing commitment to something that is important and is bigger than just you. A good example is John Spence, who recently wrote about his own effort, now that he has turned 50, to devote a part of his time over the next decade to learn how to paint.
Regardless of how successful you are, you have far more capacity in you than you have yet realized. I’ll let Gardner have the last word on this:
The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.
Keep the clock running: stay challenged, curious and committed.