Monday, October 25, 2010

Messages on a Mirror

Hello NIP,

            I hope you are doing well and that you are working diligently toward making the necessary changes in your life. If you’ve found it difficult for you to initiate that change, I’d like to share a strategy that has helped me tremendously: messages on your mirror. Just simple little sticky notes with a motivational message that will keep you hungry. I am really fortunate to have two excellent role models in my life, both of whom are some of my very best friends. These individuals are driven to chase the best within themselves, which has led to amazing results in their lives. Damon, whom I have known for about 25 years, has always impressed me with his persistence. Even as young boys, I felt he was so different from the rest of my friends because of his drive. He knew what his passion was from an early age and pursued it relentlessly. My other friend, Jason, is similar in a lot of ways, and it is to him this letter is dedicated. His birthday was this past Friday, and Erin and I went out with him, his fiancĂ©e Andrea, and his parents on their boat yesterday to celebrate. While this is reason enough to dedicate the letter to him, the original idea for this letter actually comes from him, only slightly modified.

            A couple of years ago, Erin and I were at Jason’s house. With the main bathroom having an issue, I had to use Jason’s bathroom in his bedroom. There, on the mirror, were several sticky notes with statements written on them. I could tell that they were visions of his future. Goals that Jason wanted to accomplish during his life. I asked him about them when I came back out. He explained that he kept those goals on his mirror to motivate him. To keep him moving in the right direction. I liked the idea a lot, but I modified it to suit me. Rather than focus on certain goals—which is laudable in its own right—I decided to write a few blanket statements that I could apply to all areas of my life. In doing so, the broader vision of who I want to become would make itself manifest by keeping these dictums in my mind, constantly trying to live them out. The reason I chose these maxims is equally important. I selected them in an effort to correct some of my worst habits (or at least one in particular). I currently have four messages on my bathroom mirror, and each has a specific purpose.

Nearly all challenges can be overcome through a resolute imposition of the will.
             This first quote is something that I made up. Will power is perhaps the single most crucial ingredient for personal development. Though many people desire change, most cannot adhere to new ideas and/or regimens because of a lack of will. In my classroom, for instance, I have three words written above my “Top Ten Secrets” on one of the two the bulletin boards: Decide. Commit. Succeed. These are not my words; they represent the slogan/philosophy of Beachbody, Inc., the makers of programs such as P90X and Insanity. While these words do apply to taking better care of one’s physical health, they also readily translate to life’s bigger picture. Any change you want to make in your life is possible, but it will take will power (sometimes tremendous amounts) to see it through to fruition. I have told my students the exact same thing—the first step, the decision, is easy. Recognizing that a change is needed is the initial stride toward lasting results; it’s the second portion, however, that proves to be the biggest stumbling block for most people. Committing yourself to change is difficult, especially when the results you are seeking (such as personal development) are long term. How I was able to be successful with it, though, was by overcoming small obstacles first. All it takes is imposing your will in tiny increments. In time, you’ll find your will power becomes steeled. The more you train your will, the easier it is to focus it and make it work for you. The most important aspect to keep in mind is that you are training to impose your will primarily on yourself, not on others. Over time, you will start to notice how easily it is to say no to things you once said yes to, whether that be the extra piece of cake or the bad habit that had been stunting your own maturation as a human being.

Never put off to tomorrow that which can be done today.

            This quote is attributed to two people, both of whom are oddly similar in their thoughts, views, historical context, et cetera. One is Thomas Jefferson, the other is Benjamin Franklin. Either way, it is extremely important advice for someone like me. And who am I? A procrastinator. Well, at least I was. I had always been a HUGE procrastinator when I was younger (i.e. up until about the time I was 33). I think this stemmed from my own confidence in the knowledge that I could get the task in question done in time, but I never realized what I was giving up in doing so: more productivity. Had I performed the task(s) right away, it would have allowed me to not only have more free time if I wanted, but to tackle other responsibilities right away. Both Jason and Damon are the antithesis of procrastinators. They have always been driven, and it was something that I aspired to be. And while they are partly responsible for the changes I’ve made, no one is more directly so than my beautiful wife Erin. I’ve often said in prior letters that the person I am today could not have been possible without Erin and her influence. Out of anyone, she has been the best role model for me because of our being married. Every day I witness one of (if not the) hardest working people I’ve ever known. It was only a matter of time before I realized that I needed to be more like her. And while we have undoubtedly affected each other in myriad positive ways, I think this has been her greatest contribution to me (besides her love, obviously). By constantly being around people who display an abundance of a quality you want to cultivate, in time it will reveal itself within you. In some ways I am still a procrastinator, but in a healthy way. Now, my procrastination stems from there not being enough time in the day. I often tell others I wish the day were 30 hours long so I could accomplish all that I want to get done. I routinely have to put off things intentionally due to how I prioritize them. If it is something way down on “the list,” then it must come in due time. The most important thing to realize is that by constantly applying your will power, you will find the energy to conquer those tasks that you were putting off, which in turn helps put an end to a cycle of procrastination and, more importantly, personal dissatisfaction.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

            While this is certainly one of the most famous quotes by Gandhi, it isn’t my favorite by him (“Learn as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die tomorrow.”). The reason I have the former quote on our bathroom mirror rather than the latter is two-fold: 1) for the most part, I try my best already to live by that quote; 2) I need this quote to counteract my prior cynical paradigm. Before I started to make these sweeping changes in my life, I stared at the world in a way that prevented me from taking any action. My cynicism almost left me paralyzed because I was always wondering what the point was. “Why should I change? It’s the world that has it wrong.” Or, “The world is a crappy place and there’s nothing I can do about it,” which would inevitably cause me to retreat into my shell. Once I learned to reorient myself to life and the world, I realized how important Gandhi’s quote is. As with everything else, your disposition is a choice, a product of the sum of your choices in fact. By facing the world head on and trying to make a positive change, in time you will see these small changes start to pay dividends. By being inspired we inspire others. So think about all the things you want to change in your world, whether micro- or macro-cosmically, and use your will power to fashion your world to how you see fit. In time, you’ll find that the world will begin to change for the better as you continue to make your impact.

Is that ALL you got?

            I won’t contest that this one is clichĂ© (and, yes, that’s exactly how it’s written). But you know what else it does? It works. Usually I think about this while I’m brushing my teeth. Even on my best day, I can typically find something that I could have done better. As I’ve told my students many times, we’re all human, we’re all fallible, we all make mistakes. But it’s knowing what to do with those opportunities and using them to fuel personal growth. As much as I’ve progressed, a great deal of it has been realizing that I can always be better in every aspect of my life, whether that be a better husband, brother, son, teacher, friend…The reason I think this is due to how I see the minute improvements in my life every day. If I am trying to give my best—a process that undoubtedly makes me better, even if only in slight increments—then that means there is always room to develop further. It’s a cyclical process, if you think about it. Those slight increments in your development translate into further potential by increasing your previous “best,” which leads right back to where you started.

            During my reading of Sharma’s The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, he discusses this idea but with a different name: kaizen. In its simplest translation, kaizen would mean “improvement”; Sharma’s application of the word is more expansive, as he says kaizen is “the act of continual self-refinement.” I immediately felt a connection to his definition because it reminded me of the final two maxims of my own “Top Ten Secrets”: “there’s always room for improvement” and “keep chipping away.” I see kaizen, then, as an amalgam of these two ideas. By striving to better ourselves in the here and now, we will see incredible changes in ourselves over time. Each day when we work to become better individuals, we are shaping our future in a way that doesn’t require too much thought, planning, or effort. With the application of kaizen, the work of art that is your life becomes clearer. You’ll begin to see the statue taking shape, emerging from the stone. Just be sure to be true to yourself and follow your passion while bearing in mind that the next day will always bring something better—an improved you.

            While these messages on my mirror have worked for me, it may take others for you. If you don’t like quotes, try Jason’s straightforward approach and use goals. The crucial part is to look at them every day. Morning, evening, whenever you happen to be in that bathroom, just make sure to look at them, think about them, and visualize them. In no time at all you’ll probably be looking back like me and wondering why you waited so long. I’m not a man of many regrets, but I do wish I had been more motivated when I was younger. Considering how I can’t change that now, all I can do is get up each day for the rest of my life and try to give my best in every moment. It may be tiring physically and mentally, but it’s worth every second.

Take care, NIP

- Ryan    

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Make Your Dreams Your Reality

Greetings NIP,

            I would like to remind you about something that is undoubtedly important to you and the quality of your life: your dreams. I’m a big proponent of dreams, especially how they guide and give shape to our experiences. Much like that statue we are consistently chipping away at to sculpt our lives, the dream itself lay within the stone. We must free it from the rock, but it takes patience and persistence to do so. And if we align our passion and purpose each day with our dreams, it won’t be long before you see your dreams start to become your reality. One of my favorite quotes by Thoreau sums this up nicely:

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

Although Thoreau’s words are poignant and powerful, they should not be misconstrued. One of the easiest mistakes to make, especially in our youth, is to chase what we think are worthy dreams, but in essence are nothing more than vestigial fantasies. But how do we know the difference between dreams and fantasies? Bill Strickland has an interesting answer that I would like to share with you.

            Though I didn’t have time to mention it in my last letter, I recently read Bill Strickland’s exquisite book—and personal mission—Make the Impossible Possible. If you are looking for some inspiration and a guide for how to make your dreams your reality, order this book now. It’s a short read that I couldn’t put down and finished in two sittings. The book is essentially Strickland’s life story, a man born and raised in the severely depressed socioeconomic neighborhood of Manchester, which was once an all-but-forgotten area within Pittsburgh. As a young man, Strickland never saw his life going beyond the ghetto. He felt trapped within his impoverished (literally) paradigm, but his mother gave him the skills he needed to keep his head up and apply himself assiduously. In his senior year of high school, his entire life changed when he discovered an art classroom and a teacher who took an interest in him as a person rather than seeing him as another future statistic. Frank Ross, the teacher in question, introduced Strickland to the potential that we all have inside each of us. For Strickland, it was art. When he began to make pottery in Mr. Ross’ classroom, it was the opening of the floodgates. Strickland knew that the feeling that art gave him could empower others, and he set out on an amazing lifelong quest to fulfill that potential and hopefully show others the way as well.

            Strickland begins with the premise that poverty is what stands in the way of a fully actualized, genuine life. Because we have a tendency to get bogged down in the daily grind, we let our circumstances define us. For people of extremely low socioeconomic status like Bill or anyone else growing up in Manchester as it devolved from a middle class neighborhood into a first rate slum, their circumstances dictated a poverty of hope. That’s what so insidious about poverty, according to Strickland; it's not the lack of financial means to extract oneself from a debilitating situation, but the lack of belief that the capability to do so exists. In his words, “[poverty] diminishes you, it starves you of hope and vision, it forces you to define yourself in terms of what you cannot do or cannot have or cannot be.” So poverty is not simply a matter of lacking wealth, but the lack of a defining characteristic. Strickland illustrates how this poverty could manifest itself in other ways in various lives. For me, someone who had been filled with such self-doubt for so long, it was poverty of courage. I desperately wanted to change myself, but lacked the courage to do so. Once I began to realize that my self-doubt was generated by my own mind and undertook steps to correct it, my life started to blossom in extraordinary (and yet simple) ways. Whether it is poverty of courage, imagination, hope, or vision, there is something that we are lacking but that can be corrected. To move forward with our personal growth in spite of our fears and doubts is the first step to rectifying whatever lack we may have. In doing so, we are then free to build our dreams.

             Toward the end of the book, Strickland painstakingly takes time to differentiate between “dreams” and “fantasies.” This is perhaps worth noting because most people use the words interchangeably at times. To Strickland the difference is one of orientation: dreams are about building something, whereas fantasies are about having something. Dreams are intangible; fantasies are material. Building your dreams into your reality takes courage and conviction, something that is often stripped from us by society as we grow older. We are constantly counseled to take the path of least resistance, to do what “common sense” would dictate. In doing so, we cast aside our dreams for something more “realistic.” What Strickland’s story/book illuminates, though, is that we need to discover what it is that makes us feel most alive or most whole. Our passions are what supply the foundation to the dreams we want to build, but more often than not we don’t pursue our passions for fear of failure. What Strickland did throughout his life—whether it was in the beginning at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild or later on at Manchester Bidwell—is show people how we are all capable of great things when we follow through with our passions and build our dreams. Anyone can do this. With a broad vision and positive attitude, all it takes is the will to relentlessly pursue that dream and in time it will become your reality.

            It has taken me a long time to truly figure out what my passion is. I know now that it is learning. When I went to college, I didn’t have an endgame in mind, such as completing a certain degree to attain a particular career. Instead, I went in with the attitude that I wanted to improve myself. To become a better person through learning. This aspiration led me through all walks of disciplines, especially in the liberal arts, and I feel this certainly contributed to the person I am trying to become. Once you discover your passion, you must then define your purpose. Over the last few days I’ve been reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari and one of the quotes that stuck with me has been, “the purpose of life is a life of purpose.” My purpose then is to teach. If I have become a vessel of learning, it is my ardent hope that I can use this learning to teach others. Whether it is in front of my class discussing AP Human Geography or leading a group in a yoga class, I want to help improve the lives of others. This is my mission, my dharma. “Live to give,” as another line Sharma’s book simply states. Learning and teaching are my passion and purpose, the hammer and chisel with which I carve the meaning from my statue, my life. And all it took was a few simple choices to reorient myself and my life in the right direction. The last two years have been an amazing ride because I have learned to disregard my self-doubt and move forward confidently in the direction of my dreams. By building a life of purpose from those dreams I am making a difference in the lives of others.

            Though you may have different passions, NIP, don’t be afraid to chase them down and use them to your advantage. All it takes is the commitment to becoming that better person you want to be. Don’t waste any more time talking about how you’ll change one day. Discover your passions and let them guide your purpose now. I’m sure it won’t be long before you start to see those dreams take shape, and you’ll probably be adding something positive to the world at the same time. That’s the funny thing about dreams, the more you see them come to fruition, the more you can’t help smiling at the difference you know you’re making not only in yourself, but the world too.

Keep building your dreams, NIP…

- Ryan