Bigger Than Self

My eyes were open today. This means I am alive of course, but even better than being alive, I was conscious today. I was aware of one of those common acts performed with such excellence that it becomes extraordinary, a true example of greatness.

It was a Tuesday after a Monday holiday, which means a busy day in the treatment room as they jam 5 days worth of patients into only 4 days of treatment slots. The faces were all familiar to Celeste, not as much to me, but I sensed an ease in the room.

The woman across from Celeste was clearly on the same treatment. She’d been in treatment long enough to feel comfortable taking a nap on her two hour break between the trial drug and her chemo treatments. Others showed their comfort by napping deeply enough to snore or chatting with the nurses about what each other did over New Years, and in some cases, Christmas.

Celeste was the second patient in the room. She was a good number of minutes ahead of the other lady in her trial, but things don’t always run smoothly with the pharmacy. We had to wait on meds, and the other lady finished about an hour ahead of us. She left her chair, and she and her mother left cheerfully yet wearily, pledging to see the nurses again next week.

With the first bag of chemo down and the second going on, we only had about 45 more minutes and we’d be out of there. We were more than ready to leave for home, a place we left at 5:30am, about 9 hours earlier in the day.

A family of four walked into the room with a medical assistant. Two of the four were an older man and woman, not yet old but later into middle age than Celeste and I. I guessed that the other two were their adult son and daughter. They stood near the door by the nurses station and took in the tour, which consisted of the assistant pointing around the room and explaining its major features: Chairs, bathroom, snacks. They glanced as she pointed but never really seemed to take in what she was showing them. Their eyes would look, but not closely or intently, as if they didn’t want it to really register. This was their new reality, but it didn’t look inviting.

After the tour, per treatment room visitor guidelines, the two younger adults were asked to leave. As they said hushed goodbyes, it became obvious that the older of the two men was the patient. The younger woman looked concerned and tearful as she hugged him. The younger man exchanged an awkward fist bump with him as he departed. They clearly didn’t want to be there, but they didn’t want to leave either.

The couple took the station across from Celeste, the one just vacated by the other woman in the same trial. The man sat in the treatment chair, his wife next to him in the guest chair. As the nurse began to discuss his treatment protocol, we could hear enough. Celeste looked up from her peaceful rest and said to me, “Same trial as me.” I nodded.

The new couple was quiet and spoke in hushed tones and strong accents. As the nurse explained the trial procedures, their accents didn’t seem to get in the way of understanding, but their lack of familiarity with cancer treatment did.

The nurse asked the wife, “What kind of port does he have?” The specifics of ports matter to the nurses. They need to be sure they can do everything they need through the port, such as drawing blood and delivering medications such as the trial drug and chemos. The wife didn’t know the type of port that was recently installed in her husband’s chest. She searched her purse for the specification card she was given when her husband had his port installed. She found it. Celeste carried her port card to her first treatment too. I kept a picture of it in my phone.

“Do you want to use the port for the trial drug today?” He didn’t know. His wife didn’t know. How could they? It was all so new and unfamiliar.

As the man sat in the chair, he seemed completely lost. And he was. That part wasn’t familiar to him. But it was to us. A pancreatic cancer diagnosis is disorienting to one’s experience of life. His blank stare was gazing upon a world that had been turned upside down, and he was not able to trust the sensory input that had oriented him throughout his entire adult life. How does one find his way in unfamiliar terrain without the benefit of any familiar sight to guide him?

His nurse, Cortney, is fantastic. She’s smart, caring, kind, and reassuring. We know this because she’s been one of Celeste’s nurses for going on 6 months now. But despite her best efforts to help him acclimate himself, she couldn’t quite put him at ease. As he returned from the bathroom, before he climbed in the chair to officially become a “chemo patient,” he politely asked Cortney, “Can I take off my shoes?”

“Of course. We want you to be as comfortable as possible,” she said. But even shoes off and feet up in a big recliner couldn’t do a thing to ease the disorder behind his eyes or the rigid, fearful expression on his face.

Our time was up. We started to pack up. As Celeste returned from the bathroom, I handed her her coat and bent over to pick up the cooler and her purse. When she didn’t immediately take the purse from me, I looked up.

Celeste had turned her back away from me. She was now squatting down at the feet of the wife, holding the scared woman’s hands in her warm grasp, moving her gaze from the man to the wife and back again to be sure those lost eyes found something they could recognize.

I could hear her telling them, “It is scary at first, but you will figure it out. And you are in great hands. This team will take great care of you.”

As Celeste continued her reassurance, I looked at the man. His face was no longer frozen with fear. He was smiling. In this new world of uncertainty, he had found something familiar in my wife’s face and the gentle soothing wash of her words: Hope.

Before the man motioned me over to join the conversation, I just stood mesmerized by what I was seeing. Communication is both art and empirical science, and one never knows just how it’s going to go, especially when one is in feared, unfamiliar territory. I often describe it as a lock and key. The receiver’s mind is the lock, and the sender’s words and gestures are like a key that can fit precisely, opening a door to a new world, or jam in the lock, further closing off effective connection.

For whatever reason – experience being the new patient, a caring heart, a loving soul, open eyes, thoughtful understanding – Celeste had found the key to this man’s world at that moment. The transformation in his demeanor was absolutely magical, and it was an act of greatness. She won’t get a trophy for it (and she certainly doesn’t expect it), but she lifted a mountain today. She was doing the best she could do, and she was doing it by giving into something bigger than herself. She was giving her best to others. And that’s what great communication is. It’s a tool for opening up a world bigger than the one that revolves around the little self. She connected with another. She gave this man her time and warm words to improve his experience of one of the worst days of his life. What could be greater than that?

The four of us exchanged names and few quick stories about how they moved from California to Michigan years ago. It was very hard, they said, but they made it with perseverance and grit. “Now we have another thing to deal with,” the man said as he gestured toward his port.

As we left, the man and his wife were smiling, and there was a shine in their once dull eyes. When we got out the door, my eyes were shining too. I was sobbing.

Celeste turned with a smile and said, “What?”
“You,” was all I could manage.

I kept it together with others in the elevator and until we got out of the garage and paid the attendant. Then I had to let it loose. I could barely speak, but I tried to express how special it was to witness what she did for that man and his wife.

As she handed me tissues, I said, “I’m not sad, you know?”

“I know,” she said.

“I’m just so proud of you. Who you are. How far you’ve come the last 6 months.”

Pride gets a bad rap sometimes, and if I am being honest, proud wasn’t the best word choice to describe what I was feeling. I was experiencing something far more profound. More accurate words would be awe, wonder, inspiration, and transcendence.

My eyes were open today. My mind was clear. I was conscious of greatness. And thanks to Celeste and a family starting chemotherapy today, I was part of something bigger than myself.


Have you ever noticed that our favorite stories about mental toughness are the ones in which the protagonist is forced, often tragically, to overcome a situation for which he or she is seemingly unprepared and unequipped? Ever notice that our favorite mentally tough hero has beaten odds even she didn’t believe she could overcome?

When discussing stories of triumph over adversity, I constantly hear people say things like, “I couldn’t do that,” or “I couldn’t handle that.” The truth is you could and you can. We are all capable of much more than we understand. You are as mentally tough as you need to be. Right now, you are capable of mustering as much toughness as you need in any situation. Mental toughness is revealed. It does not need to be built. The only thing blocking you from accessing this mental toughness is your belief in whether it A) already exists, or B) needs to be built.

I used to believe that mental toughness had to be built. I was a big believer in mental toughness training. I spent years of my life earning a Ph.D., writing a 313 page mental toughness training manual, and working my tail off to help people build mental toughness. So what has changed? Why do I now believe mental toughness is revealed and not built? Why have I changed my practice in profound ways in recent years? Some ideas are irrefutable when you apply logic to experience.

On Halloween night 1973, two Michigan State Troopers greeted my mother, hats in hand, to inform her that her husband had just died in a car accident. My mom was devastated. Here she was, 23 years old, a mother of a seven week old baby, and a now she was a widow. She felt like she couldn’t go on, like she’d lost the will to live, the will to parent her newborn. She wondered, “Why did that happen to me? Why my husband? Why didn’t I die instead?” She even wondered at times, much to her own horror and guilt, “If I had to lose someone, wouldn’t it have been easier to lose the baby than my husband? At least we could support each other and rebuild our family together.”

In those moments, it felt like the situation was too much for her and that she didn’t have what it would take to carry on. But then, one day early in her mourning, a thought occurred to her: “I can curl up and die, or I can get on with my life.” Thankfully for me, my mom was capable of choosing to get on with her life. She decided she could rise above the tragedy that occurred and the situations she believed she was up against. The toughness that was in her all along shone through like a light from heaven, and her love created a new world, a world that was unimaginable before tragedy struck.

The personal weight of some tragedies is proof that toughness doesn’t have to be built. It is there when we need it. My mom wasn’t prepared for my dad’s death, and she wasn’t able to build it slowly as she needed it. She needed it revealed in an instant, and it was there for her. To access her toughness, my mom only needed to acknowledge its existence.

For this reason and many others, my mom is my hero. Who is yours?

My guess is that you don’t need to look any further than your own family or friends to find similar examples of someone who beat odds she once believed were insurmountable. If you can’t think of a story off the top of your head, ask around. My guess is you won’t have to look outside your own family. There is a chance you will gain new appreciation for someone close to you, and you might also prove to yourself that you are capable of more than you realized when you woke up today. Mental toughness is yours if you just acknowledge it.

Mental Toughness Reserve

“We all have possibilities we don’t know about. We can do things we don’t even dream we can do.” – Dale Carnegie

I love this Dale Carnegie quote. It’s a concise and elegant way to state the second key factor in making the play: Be awake to possibilities.

Yesterday I wrote about the potential to realize or actualize greater mental toughness in an instant (read Going to Failure here). Imagine how strong you could be right now if you gave up the notion that mental toughness has to be built and instead adopted a new understanding: Great levels of mental toughness are available to you this instant no matter what you’ve accomplished previously.

This is the essence of being awake to possibility. If you love the way things are going, great, but if you want change, be awake to the possibilities that exist for you right now. One of those possibilities is that you have a mental toughness reserve that you’ve never tapped into. You are stronger than you’ve ever imagined. That isn’t a cliche. It’s true.

Be aware that even when the situations don’t seem right for you, it’s just an illusion. You are incredibly strong and can persevere. You live above those situations and are surrounded by opportunities hiding in plain sight. All it takes to see them is a change in perspective, an awareness that the outside world doesn’t control your vision. Get attuned to seeing those opportunities and making the plays that exist. Do what you can, now. Be aware, be awake, and be alive.

Going to Failure

I am fortunate to have some great bosses, and one of them is Steve Hawley, Principal at Lake Orion High School. Steve and I usually have a few short conversations each day, and in addition to education, some of the most frequently touched upon topics are sports and fitness. In particular, we often turn to a topic near and dear to each of us: Middle-aged men’s fitness (insert canned laughter).

The other day, Steve mentioned that he recently read an article on the importance of going to failure (doing repetitions until you cannot do anymore) during resistance training. Naturally, I decided to incorporate failure into my next workout. I started with pushups (because it is a relatively safe way to get to failure), and here is what I noticed:

It wasn’t as easy to get to failure as I imagined (even not being in great shape). It took a great effort, yet as soon as I reached failure and stopped, I realized I had more to give. In other words, rather than reaching my true failure point, I simply gave up. It wasn’t that I could not do any more pushups. I simply would not do any more.

Two days later I gave it another shot. This time, I realized I had more to give, and I gave it. Yet something tells me that even though I thought I got to failure, I still probably had more to give.

Now, from the outside, it appears as if I am training mental toughness, but I doubt this is what is happening. What I am really doing is realizing mental toughness. I’m not training mental toughness as much as I realizing it through the medium of pushups. Experience provides the opportunity to realize what I have inside, but it is an illusion that the experience is the actual trainer.

Because we can’t separate ourselves from time and experience, mental toughness appears to be built, but in reality it is actualized or realized more than it is built. I happen to believe that if we are being honest, this is the only explanation that makes sense. Not only does my understanding of my experience with the pushups help illustrate this for me, daily life is filled with countless examples of mental toughness that is actualized without prior training.

Think about parenting or persevering after the unexpected death of a loved one. I think we can all agree that within an individual these require new levels or dimensions of mental toughness. People persevere through these situations anew every day, and where is the training for them? It doesn’t exist, and yet on a daily basis people display incredible untrained toughness and persevere.

It’s my hope that you realize that you do not need to build mental toughness before you actualize it or realize it in your life. It is available to you right now, and that is an incredibly valuable insight that requires no training or skill.

The (Probable) Power of Positive Thinking

I’m a big fan of positive thinking. Why? It feels good. It’s as simple as that. However, I’m only a fan of teaching others about positive thinking if it’s done the right way. Unfortunately, I don’t consider most of what I see these days as teaching it the right way. So let me give it a shot. After hearing this explanation, I haven’t had one person say they used positive thinking less or less effectively, and the majority of people have actually been relieved to hear this view of positive thinking.

There is no doubt in my mind that positive thinking feels good; however, there is one catch. We aren’t always capable of it. Sometimes we seem to be tethered to a type of low mood or mindset. This is inevitable and not to be feared. Momentarily being incapable of positive thinking is a completely normal, natural state.

Now, I hope you are asking a question: Why wouldn’t we be capable of it? Two reasons. One, positive thinking simply isn’t in our thoughts all the time. Occasionally, we are preoccupied with something else. It’s inevitable. Two, sometimes we can think of something positive, but we have a hard time believing it. In other words, we don’t trust the positive thought or we are momentarily trusting a negative one more.

For many people, they hear about the power of positive thinking, and they go out and try it. Sometimes it works great right off the start, and other times it doesn’t work for people. For those who find it works right off the start, they are often let down later and become confused when it doesn’t always work. I have found that this is especially true if they’ve been taught, “It’s really easy. All you have to do is think positively, and all your dreams will come true!”

Often when people believe the power of positive thinking is always supposed to work they believe they are broken or weak if they can’t use it all the time. This belief that they are broken or weak feels terrible, and they often resort to what I call kicking their own ass for being weak or broken. Kicking ones own ass for believing oneself weak or broken feels even worse than just being weak or broken.

Now, in future posts and (hopefully) videos I want to explain more about why the power of positive thinking is variable, but for now, I hope it is enough to say we aren’t always at our best mentally. This is normal. The up and down ebb and flow of thought is completely normal and inevitable.

Sometimes a good positive thought simply won’t occur to you (just as sometimes you lose your keys, forget a name, etc.). When the capability returns, and it will return, you will be back to feeling better.

Other times, you will simply be down and won’t even believe the positive thoughts that appears in your thoughts. Some people have learned to stick with it in this situation and fake it until they make it, but I have found that for me the best I can do is to understand that the down period of my thinking won’t last. It never does. My capability to put positive thoughts in my head and believe them always returns. Always. Knowing that the power of positive thinking will return is freeing and reassuring even in my lowest moments.

Finally, one last observation on positive thinking. You do not need to be capable of your best thinking to be an excellent performer, and this is true even for mental tasks. Performance is deeper than positive thinking alone, and if you understand that you can perform excellently under less than optimal positivity, you will gravitate toward higher levels of consistent excellence. If you doubt that you can perform excellently even when experiencing negativity, keep this in mind: Because we are all susceptible to the ebb and flow of thought, the only alternative to this belief (that you can perform excellently even when experiencing negativity) is to spend time believing, “I can’t do it now. I really can’t.” I doubt if too many high performers spend much time dancing with this thought. High performers understand that they are truly capable of greatness even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment.

Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting you turn toward chronic negativity, just don’t sweat it when you aren’t momentarily thinking at your best. You can still be great.

In summary, use the power of positive thinking when you can, and don’t kick your own ass when it momentarily doesn’t occur to you or doesn’t work for you. Trust that it will return. It always does. And trust that you can be great even when momentarily down. If you understand this, you will maximize the effectiveness of your possible positive thinking.

Running into Fire

When explaining that nothing outside of us makes us feel or think anything specific, I often like to point out examples from my clients’ own experiences.

One recent day I encountered two great examples based on the same act: Saving people from a fire.

First I had a fireman in my office. I was able to help point out that while most people see a burning building and assume it makes them fearful, he sees a burning building and confidently says, “I’ve got this.” Thank goodness there are people like him who understand that the situation does not control their thoughts and feelings.

Often when I use an example like this with someone else, they will say, “Well yeah, but he is trained to think that way.” This may be true, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that his feelings are coming from his thoughts about the burning building and not the burning building itself. Actually, it emphasizes this fact. It also does not mean that all trained people react to situations with the same thoughts and feelings, or that every person responds with the same thoughts and feelings every time a certain situation is encountered. Our past and our tendencies don’t dictate a specific response either.

Another client the same day illustrated that training isn’t necessary to understand that outside circumstances don’t control our thoughts and feelings. This gentlemen had no training in fire fighting, but he once ran to a burning car and pulled out the teenagers inside while other onlookers gasped in horror or honked their horns, frustrated that he left his car blocking the middle of the road in order to save lives (it is very interesting to me that annoyance was their response to the situation). He said he did so with confidence and without a care for his personal safety. If the burning car could make us think or feel any certain way, all human reactions to the burning car would have been the same. However, my client was able to feel confident that he could save lives (and he did it without any training), others were scared, and yet others were annoyed.

Training or not, when we understand that we have a level of mental and emotional freedom from the events of the world, we gain possibility. What you do with that possibility is based on your understanding of what you can do, but at the very least, please understand that you are not controlled by outside events even if it seems that way. I don’t suggest running into a fire, but it’s a great example of an extreme situation that does not control our response.

My question to you today is this: If I met two guys in one day who run into fires to save lives (one guy trained, the other not), what’s possible for you today? What situation can rise above?

Everything You Need

Even if I don’t know you, I can say for sure that if you are reading this you have always had everything you needed. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying your life has lacked tragedy, pain, or loss. Those are for you to define, and I’m pretty sure we’ve all experienced some level of hardship.

What I am suggesting is the simple idea that even when things didn’t turn out the way you wanted, you trudged on. You persisted. You had as much toughness as you needed to survive. Your presence with me is proof of that.

I often point this out to my clients. Typically, it seems as if they have never considered this fact before. They usually show one of two responses.

The first is that they challenge my statement. “No, I didn’t always have everything I needed. Such and such didn’t turn out the way I wanted.”

My response to their challenge usually goes like this.

“Nobody is guaranteed success or a smooth ride, and I am sure you have not always gotten what you wanted. You have seen difficulties in your past, and yet you survived. You have always had everything you needed to keep going.” This doesn’t always sink in at the moment, but perhaps a seed is planted that will bloom into understanding someday.

The other reaction is that they nod or break into a smile. They realize that although they have experienced what seem like failures, they absolutely had everything they needed to move on to new experiences, new challenges, new plays to be made. It’s amazing how resilient people become after this idea is understood.

My thought for you today is this: What will you do, what plays will you attempt to make, if you know that you have everything you need right now? Best wishes on making those plays.

You Are Where You Should Be

Do you believe there is something from your past holding you back in some way (e.g., holding you back from greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., )? Or do you believe that some situation that exists now (or even worse, multiple situations that exist now) is holding you back?

The more you can say yes to these questions, and the more situations you can list that are holding you back, the more you are giving into the illusion of external control. Giving into the illusion too often or too tightly can sap inspiration, and it runs counter to the understanding that you can rise above the conditions of life because you actually live above the conditions of life.

Pursuing greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., is only a thought away, and this is no trivial matter because it is the only place greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., reside. Thoughts or feelings arise and reside internally, and they are free to vary from external control. The external world is a simply where we project them.

So if we pursue greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., we will project them onto the outside world no matter where we live, and we will experience greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., no matter where we live and no matter the external circumstances. This is essence of understanding, “You are where you should be.”

Of course, none of us are perfect, and each of us is unique. So we attach ourselves to people, things, and situations, and sometimes we find it difficult to get past what we perceive as problems, tragedies, etc. This is completely understandable, and the way it works for the vast majority of us. But the more we understand that even tragedies do not define us or hold us (even though it appears that way, sometimes for quite awhile), the more grit, determination, motivation, tenacity, and effort we will manifest toward overcoming those perceived problems. Furthermore, the more we understand that the idea of problems is just a projection of a personal mindset, the more easily the effort will flow.

Don’t wish time, place, and circumstance away. You are where you should be.