Learning the ART of REGENERATION – From Someone Who KNOWS How!

Growing up I fell in love with a British science fiction series called Doctor Who.  When I first discovered it, the show had already been airing weekly “across the pond” for 20+ years and was picking up substantial cult following in 1980’s America.  Doctor Who owed its staying power to an unconventional but very effective formula.  In a day and age when sci-fi shows and movies focused on blowing their resources on fancy-dancy special effects but placed little (or no) emphasis on story-telling, Doctor Who chose the opposite approach. The series had shoe-string budget which it more than made up for in sheer resourcefulness and creativity.  Since exotic laser blasts and explosions were out of the question, the creators concentrated all of their efforts on crafting and telling compelling stories.  The result was the same kind of delightful alchemy that immortalized the original 1930’s King Kong.  Like the claymation Kong, Doctor Who’s monsters and aliens were obviously not real.  Costumes were rubber and the sets were little more than cardboard and plaster but week after week viewers tuned in faithfully.  They did so because Doctor Who invited viewers to open the eyes of their imagination rather than just to sit idly by as passive observers.

In recent years, Doctor Who has been renewed and updated and has once again gained a large following here in the U.S.  And to my delight it continues to rely on the same story-driven approach that made the series so popular when I was a kid.  I’ve been happy to recently bring the joy of Doctor Who to my own family.  And I’m pleased to say that they’ve become just as enamored as I was.

1st Doctor with Kubli Khahn in 'Marco Polo'

The premise behind Doctor Who is very simple.  The Doctor (the series namesake and protagonist) is the last of an alien race that was once blessed with the knowledge and ability to travel through time.  Furthermore this race, the Time Lords, once shouldered the responsibility for making sure that the structure of time itself (including important events from the beginning to end of the universe) was not altered or manipulated by evil forces.  The Doctor travels in a special time machine that senses disturbances in the fabric of the time-continuum and uncannily brings him to times and places where the universe needs rebalancing.  This leads him not only to Earth (where he meets a Pantheon of historical figures Kubli Khan to Winston Churchill) but to a myriad of other planets and cultures.  The Doctor is a weaponless warrior, who refuses to use guns or bombs to settle his problems, even against ruthless enemies.  Though there are times that he’s had to use lethal force against the universe’s most sinister of criminals he prefers the sword of diplomacy and will go to great lengths to reason with his enemies before resorting to extreme measures.  The Doctor relies on intellect, humor and sharp wit to overcome seemingly impossible odds in (of course) just the nick of time.

To me, one of the most fascinating aspects of the show (and the one that is the catalyst for our little conversation here today) is the Doctor’s ability to regenerate.  When the Doctor sustains a mortal wound his body has the ability to reconfigure and heal the damage.  However, as a side effect, the process also completely changes his looks and personality.  The only thing that remains in tact after a regeneration cycle is his memory, accrued knowledge and logic skills.  He, in essence, becomes a brand-new man.  Since Doctor Who’s debut back in 1963 there have been eleven separate incarnations of the character, each one very different from one another, complete with their own unique strengths and weaknesses.

The 11 Doctors from 1963 to Present

It’s a pure stroke of genius on the part of the show’s creators to build into the storyline mandatory periodic recasting.  Doing so insures that the show can adapt to the times, and remain cutting edge while still being able to hang onto its core premise.  Yet, for viewers the change is always difficult.  On average an actor might play the role of the Doctor for only 3-4 seasons—which is just long enough for us to get to know and love the current Doctor.  Then they unceremoniously have him killed off and replace him with someone we’ve never seen before. “Surely” we reason “this new guy can never fill [the outgoing Doctor’s] shoes.”  But somehow he always does.  And in a few years we’ll be mourning him when it’s his turn to take his final bow.

Change is GOOD—but often painful

My family and I have spent the last few months catching up with the regular viewers thanks to DVD.   Recently, we reached the episode where the 10th incarnation of the Doctor (played by the wildly popular David Tennant) regenerated into the gentleman who currently plays the Doctor.

Truthfully, I was dreading it.

The coming change wasn’t a secret by any means.  I mean, you could look at the cover of the next season’s DVD and there was a different fella there—standing in Tennant’s place.  But this time the regeneration was especially painful to watch.  See, on this particular night the winds of change were blowing in my own life.  Ironically, it was the night before my son Chris graduated from High School.  My work life was in a state of flux because of the economy.  Many of the old, well-worn doors were closing in my personal life as friends moved on.  And to top all of that off it was less than a month before the one year mission of Character-Quest would come to an end.  In a few short weeks so much that I’ve come to know and love would be over.  On that magical, but melancholy evening I felt my own impending change coming on.  It felt as if somewhere in the heavens above God had licked His finger and was reaching forth to turn my page.  As I sat on the couch that night, a willing captive, the Doctor and I both waited for our ‘four knocks’ even as those winds swirled around us.

Then the time came.

For the Doctor the fateful event was cut-and-dried…it always is.  His personal imperative is to help others—even at great cost to himself.  No matter what personal desires he wrestles with, inner demons he fights or hopes for the future that he might have—the one thing that makes the Doctor the Doctor is his proclivity to give himself for others.  On this particular night he faced the choice (just as he always does) of whether to save himself or save some innocent person from imminent peril.  And of course, he always chooses the same way—selflessness—and always at great cost.

With his death impending, the Doctor screams “I could have done so much more!  It’s not fair!” in anger, despair and agony.  Regeneration for him means both death and life.  Sure, he’ll come back.  But much will have changed.  He won’t have the same tastes, dreams and desires.  He’ll feel different; love and hate different things.  His memories will be intact but he’ll be removed a step or two from them because he (like us) sees the past as much with our heart as we do our eyes.  After the moment of despair and weakness passes the Doctor turns to the individual who he had was essentially giving his life for, and with a smile tells him that doing so has been “his honor”.  And then nobly—without regret the Doctor lays down his life for his friend.

At my house there was not a dry eye in the room.

Then it happened.  The Doctor regenerated.  For a long moment he is obviously in terrible pain.  Then all at once he bursts open and radiant energy and light flood the room.  When the flash subsides a brand new man stands in his place.  Gone is the fear, the sadness and the pain.  In their place is a glowing smile.  Immediately, the new Doctor (played masterfully by Matt Smith) begins comically patting down his body to count his various appendages and enthusiastically rejoices over every single one that he finds intact.

Then he’s off.  No sign of mourning, regret or sorrow at all.  For him there’s a whole universe out there to see with ‘new eyes’ and he goes right to the task of doing it.  But first he has to save his ship which incidentally has spiraled out of control while he was regenerating.  This challenge he greets with a hearty “Geronimo!” and an ecstatic laugh.  The former things had passed away.

NEEDED: A Periodic Reboot

Now my fellow Character-Questers the time has come for me to follow the example of the 10th Doctor.  Just like David Tennant on that fateful night, my turn on stage is over, this act of the play is ending and the time has come for me to take my bow.  Character-Quest has been one of my great joys in life.  Its sole purpose was to help me grow and develop both as a writer and as a person.  It’s been the most ambitious endeavor that I’ve ever undertaken in my life.  But it has also been (by far) one of the most rewarding.  To do this—to write these things—has required me to ‘open up a vain and bleed’ (as the old writer’s saying goes).  You have witnessed my ups and downs, my high points and low points—the times I’ve pushed the envelope way to far and the times I walked away when I should have said a lot more.  To do this—this thing—I’ve had to become a new man.  The old one—the one that always self-sabotaged his writing, his opportunities, his character—had to die.  He had to regenerate in someone who was not afraid of stepping outside of his comfort zone, pushing the boundaries or being controversial and guileless.

I risked a lot—and sacrificed a lot—in order to be where I am now and write these sentences for you.  All that I can say is that I’m glad I did and I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. To do so has truly been my honor.

I must admit that I feel a little bit like David Tenant’s Doctor in the final moments before his regeneration.  I am filled with a little fear and despair.  See, I have this computer file that’s FULL of half-written posts and article ideas that have never been developed and completed.  There is SO MUCH MORE that I could have done!  Oh, the places we could have gone together and the things we could have seen…if there was just a little more time!  Aaaahhh!!!  (Sigh) Indeed Doctor, it is quite ‘unfair’.  But that’s what makes life so rich isn’t it?  Every moment—every experience—is precious beyond words because it is here for an instant and then it’s gone—a wave that has graced our shore and then spirited away into the depths of the sea.

The turning of the page

As a kid, Doctor Who taught me so much.  He taught me that it was okay to be different from others. He taught me that true courage having the strength to do right just because it’s right—irregardless of whether doing so was popular or not.  He taught me that real monsters were monsters because they were ugly on the inside. However, what the Doctor has taught me as an adult trumps all of that.  He has taught me to cope with change.  Change is inevitable and necessary for all things.  In fact, change is healthy and good.  The Doctor taught me that it’s ‘OK’ to mourn for the things that are being lost so long as we have the courage to celebrate the things that lie ahead; that when God decides that it’s time to turn our page that the best thing we can do is count limbs, scream “Geronimo!” and run forth to seize the day.  Why?  Well, for one thing, unlike the Doctor, we will meet our end one day.  The time of its coming will not be of our choosing nor will it be on our terms.  Until that time we should learn to truly live and appreciate every moment.

In this next-to-the-last article of The Character-Quest Project I encourage all of you to periodically take advantage of your opportunities to regenerate, re-invent and reboot your self.  Don’t EVER stagnate mentally, physically or spiritually!  That’s not saying you change any of the good things about who you are.  It also doesn’t mean that you quit reaching for your goals.  (The Doctor never quit fighting the forces of evil—not even for one minute.)  Don’t seek to find ‘who you are’ in life.  You’ll see that in the mirror every morning.  Instead, seek to find who you are meant to be and throw yourself into becoming it.

That being said, I have one more thing to share with you before you go.  Within the next couple of weeks you and I will finally reach the mountain side—you know, the one I promised at the beginning of our trip together.  Then this leg of our journey together will end.  But fear not; another begins—it will just look a little different. You’ve come a long way faithful Character-Quest reader. (I’m so proud of you!) And guess what?  So have I!

Until Next Time…..

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Finding the HIDDEN Bridges

Along time ago, in a far a way land, a man went on a journey far from home.  Along the way came to a fast-flowing river that was both wide and deep.  There was no sign of a ferry boat or a bridge anywhere around.  Because his journey was important and others would be expecting him, he dove into the water and began the perilous swim across.

After struggling against the raging water and almost drowning, he emerged cold, tired and wet on the other shore where he was greeted by a young girl from a local village.  Once he had rested a few moments and regained a little of his strength, the girl took him by the hand and led him down the stream and around a bend.  Rounding the curve they came to a place where the river had worn the mountain away into a natural stone bridge unlike anything the man had seen before.

“Too bad that I will not return this way” thought the man “because I surely know how to cross the river now.”  Nevertheless, from then on every time he came to a river or stream he remembered the hidden bridge that the little girl had showed him and would walk for a little piece up and down to search for a better way across.  Often he found one.

I wrote the above story some years ago during a time in my life when I was on a journey—a figurative, personal ‘walkabout’ of sorts.  During this period of self-discovery I found myself arriving at all kinds of proverbial rivers, dead-ends, and blind drops.  And incidentally, every time that I’d fight my way over, through or under these ‘wilderness challenges’ it seemed that I would immediately discover some better—easier way that I could have accomplished my goal.  If I’d only known to try that way to begin with then I could have overcome the challenge with a whole lot less time, effort and pain.  After this happened several times I finally got the point:  If I could only learn to pay more attention and open my eyes to look for ‘hidden bridges’ then I might not always have to do things the hard way.

We can all probably agree that there’s no better teacher in life than experience.  In an ideal world we’d learn adequately by just hearing about or observing the experiences of others.  But unfortunately, human beings are just not wired like that.  The oriental philosopher Confucius said “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand”.  In other words, our best learning takes place when we are tactilely involved with the world.  For instance, as children we’re told by our mother not to touch the stove because it’s hot and we’ll get burned.  But how many of us have ever settled for this advice?  Maybe I’m especially hard-headed but I’ve learned the hard way that Mom was not only right about the stove but that she also had a keen understanding of why we shouldn’t stick paper clips into power outlets, try to pet dogs while they’re eating or pee on electric fences while their ‘hot’.  However, few scrapes, bumps and shocks later I’d developed a much keener understanding of the world at large (not to mention my personal limitations around farm fences) and thanked Mom for her timeless wisdom.

Today, I’d like to ask CQ readers an important question:  Is there an easier, more efficient approach to learning life’s lessons—preferably a way that’s a little less painful than choosing ‘the hard way’ every single time?  There is an old saying that goes: those who won’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  In other words, our success in any endeavor is not dependant upon never making any mistakes at all but rather from learning from those mistakes and making adjustments accordingly.  So, it is possible to use our knots, whelps and cuts effectively—that is if we use them to build up our powers of insight.  We can translate our past triumphs and tragedies into an intuitive compass for helping us to find those ‘hidden bridges’ over the challenges that we’ll face in the future!  However, to do that it requires us to hone our powers of physical and mental observation to razor sharpness…something that doesn’t come naturally or easily.  It requires us to put that skill of observation to work in ourselves and in the world around us—in essence to develop eyes that are both within and without.

The RAFIKI Principle

One of my favorite Disney movies is The Lion King.  In a famous very scene (the story’s protagonist) a young lion named Simba, is talking to the jungle’s resident teacher, a baboon named Rafiki.  Simba is discouraged and brooding because of some serious mistakes that he had made in his past.  Suddenly without provocation the eccentric but wise primate cracks Simba over the head with his staff.  Rubbing his head with his paw Simba indignantly asks why the wise baboon had hit him.  Laughing Rafiki replies “it doesn’t matter—it’s in the past”.  He then tells Simba that there were two things that he could do with his painful experiences.  The first choice was to “run” (then with a sudden burst he swings the staff again at Simba’s head, but this time the wary young lion ducks smoothly under it) “or learn from it” the primate says with a smile and a nod.

This humorous sequence aptly demonstrates that sometimes the biggest hurdles that we face in learning the lessons from our past (and using them positively) are negative / restraining emotions.  For Simba, it was guilt, but for us it could easily be fear, insecurity, resentment, apathy or shame.  Human beings are the only of God’s creatures who create their own barless prisons, fabricated from the dry bones of past mistakes, shortcoming and failures and then pronounce upon themselves a life sentence.  Too often we allow these negative emotions to keep us from reaching beyond ourselves and aspiring towards becoming better people.  When we allow this to happen all of our suffering has been in vain because it’s led to nothing beneficial.  I’ve coined the phrase “The Rafiki Principle” to remind us that we have two choices in dealing with the past: running or learning.  If we choose the former then we will bear a burden that will always eat away at any progress towards growth that we make.  Our lives will be like trying to fill a paper cup that has a pin-hole in the bottom.  However, if we choose the latter then we use our experience as a stepping stone towards being stronger and more balanced people.

Our first goal then should be to identify the emotions, beliefs and ideas that are limiting us and deal with them.  Of course I can tell you from personal example that finding and pushing aside these obstacles is a lot easier said than done.  For instance, I was in my 30’s before I realized how much my parent’s divorce had negatively influenced my life.  Sure, I read all the statistics about children of divorce being prone to depression, anxiety and social unbalance.  But growing up I’d always told myself that my parents divorce made me tougher and smarter because I wasn’t “fettered” by the flowery view of life that “everybody else had”.  Interestingly though, as an adult I suffered a painful and dehabilitating emotional breakdown that destroyed my professional career as well as a lot of my social life.  For me that was my turning point.  I began to analyze my life and overturn so many of the illusions and false paradigms that I harbored for decades.  What I discovered was that because of my parents divorce I had an innate fear of not being secure and had thus fortified my entire life in such a way where I did not allow people to get close to me.  I figured that if I didn’t “let them in” to begin with then I would never be able to be hurt by them when they eventually betrayed me.  As a result I never developed the wide network of close casual or even close professional “friends” that I should have.  Sure, I had relationships—but kept everyone emotionally at arm’s length.

Life is an epic play and ultimately it’s up to us whether we allow it to be told as a tragedy or a triumph.  My life since my ‘Incident’ has been dedicated to hunting down and removing these emotional obstacles one by one.  I am personally determined to make this section of my life more open, outgoing and compassionate than ever…to have a life that is a victory rather than a disappointment.  To do this I’ve had to develop my powers of perception and awareness in regards to my challenges and circumstances.  Through painstaking effort I have trained myself to focus and pay a lot more attention both the things that happen around me as well as the things that happen within me.  I’ve become keenly aware of the emotional state of others as well as myself.  And this has helped me to develop the SCOPE to identify and pre-empt many (especially interpersonal) difficulties before they start.

‘Opportunities’ All Around

Over the years I’ve come to understand that everyday life is a school for character development and personal mastery.  It presents to us ‘opportunities’ to learn the skills and knowledge that we need in order to reach our highest potential.  This happens in two primary ways: First in the forms of challenges, trials, difficulties and dead ends.  (Don’t worry—we’ll have no problem identifying these because they’ll crack us over the head like Rafiki’s staff.)  But the second way that life teaches us is very subtle and often hides in the quiet places of the earth away from the vain hustle-n-bustle.  This is the knowledge that comes from observation of the world around us.  To find this knowledge we have to be willing to walk away from our traditional thinking patterns when we come to “the river” and take the time to walk up and down the bank for a piece with open eyes.  In the book of Proverbs, wisdom (i.e. knowledge gained through careful observation) is personified as an entity which “cries out” in the cities, streets and gates of every town.  Furthermore, the book of Romans tells us that our Creator has encoded and woven limitless amounts of gleanable knowledge into the very fabric of the Creation itself.  In other words, a “student of life” has an inexhaustible resource for learning, developing and growing.  All he/she has to do is have the yielded humility needed to be granted the proper eyes to see and ears to hear.

Over time we learn that life presents its lessons to us in just the right time and just the right place.  There’s an old saying in oriental philosophy that goes “When the student is ready the teacher appears”.  In other words, all of the opportunities, challenges and circumstances that we currently face in life are ideal for helping to prepare us for the next level.  Human beings were created and designed to grow upward in progressive steps—at first to be carried, then crawl and then walk.  All of our experiences throughout life follow this pattern.

Learning to SEE the Hidden Bridges

One of the greatest inventors in history, Thomas Edison once remarked “The average person’s brain does not observe a thousandth part of what the eye observes.  It is incredible how poor our powers of observation—genuine observation—are.”  According to legend, Edison fired 27 of his personal assistants at his Menlo Park, New Jersey factory after they could not tell him how many trees were growing near the entrance.  Each of these men had walked directly through six cherry trees every single day for six months in order to enter the factory, yet when asked, there were some who couldn’t even recall any trees being there.  Edison’s business was in observing the natural principles of the world and translating them into useful inventions.  He would have no place for men who minds were not willfully conditioned to perceive the world around them.  Such men would miss things—important things—and that would never do.

Likewise, we should not be tolerant of a mind that runs blindly throughout its day on autopilot—reacting to every situation it comes across based on impulse or habit!  We have to learn to see again if we hope to discover the hidden bridges in our lives.  We must condition ourselves to become observant—open and aware—taking in and processing everything that our eyes can see rather than allowing our faculties to become snagged on whatever ‘gleaming bauble’ would try to catch our interest.  (And there are so many things competing for our attention these days.)

As a ‘student of life’ we learn to instinctively look around for patterns and prompts; to ask for and then expect to be granted insight.  We constantly exercise ‘stretching forth’ our awareness to search every circumstance and try to perceive both the big picture and the tiny, hidden details.  As a result of constant practice we build what some might consider superhuman levels of insight, intuition and understanding of the world around them.  Truly mature wisdom and its abilities are gifted in stages and take a lifetime to perfect.  However, even the tiniest bit of progress can make a night and day difference in our ability to face our challenges in life, because they allow us to find those “hidden bridges” over the difficulties that we encounter in life.

An AWESOME Tool for Building SCOPE

The story that appears at the beginning of this post is taken from my personal journal.  I’ve found that journal to be among my most valuable and effective tools in helping me to truly open my eyes and perceive the world.  Think about it!  All ‘professionals’ of any discipline—from scientists to athletes—keep meticulous journals.  Why?  Well, number one it helps them to approach their work with open eyes.  They are responsible for creating a useful record, not only the details of their daily efforts (results of experiments, training routine etc.) but also chronicling all of the relevant data that they learn sequentially so that they eventually arrive at a breakthrough.  In that way their journal formalizes the learning process and helps them to get through the learning curve more effectively because it allows their sequential knowledge to accumulate into understanding.

There’s a lot we can learn from these masters of learning.  A true master leaves neither process nor progress to casual chance because too many important details could seep away—spirited away by the “birds of the air”.  But rather they observe and document / ponder and scrutinize every little detail in order to constantly broaden their scope.  In other words, it helps them find their hidden bridges.

I encourage everyone who truly wants to improve the quality of their life and character to keep a detailed personal journal.  It makes a night and day difference.  Don’t worry about whether or not you’re good at ‘expressing yourself on paper’ because the kind of journal I’m talking about is a tool for helping us to examine our lives and our selves more than it is a piece of literature.  You don’t have to memorize any grammar axioms, your 9th grade English teacher is not going to show up to critique and you definitely won’t begin by writing “dear diary”.  No, the kind of journal that I keep is completely informal and all business.  I use it to write down the lessons and observations that I make every single day in life.  This allows me to ‘store up’ personally acquired knowledge from my everyday experiences.  This allows me to occasionally review both the small and large details of my life’s learning.  The surprising patterns and incremental nature of what I see in my own life never ceases to amaze me.  Studying your journal after a couple of years is a testament to watching the finger of God write your life story because it’s only in “hindsight” that we can see that He has ‘passed by’ and revealed Himself to us on the mount.

Personally, I distill the things that I’ve gleaned from everyday life into stories, poems, proverbs and sometimes even Character-Quest articles.  This is a vitally important part of the process for me personally because it allows me to examine and meditate on every single observation in turn—to truly learn and then apply the knowledge that my day had to offer.  It helps nothing important fall through the cracks.  This in turn leads to even greater and more profound insights and slowly but surely reveals the subtle web of purpose that our Creator has woven into life itself.  And that, my friends, is a bridge over anything.

Until next time…

(ANNOUNCEMENT:  In a few short weeks the one year mission of Character-Quest will end.  Hopefully, I will publish 1-2 more articles between now and then and also make an official announcement regarding our NEXT mission.)

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Not a Four Letter Word

(This week we have a real treat for you all!  The following post has been written by a close personal friend and fellow Character-Quester Mammy Oaklee.  I encourage you all to check out her delightful and entertaining blog at: http://mammyoaklee.wordpress.com/Thanks & ENJOY!  Michael)

No it’s not a four letter word. It’s a five letter word. When you really think about it 5 is a more meaningful number than 4 anyways ;) This very simple 5 letter word that has become my known trademark ever since I could pick up a pencil. All my notes and letters written are signed with this symbol of the 5 letter word.

I can’t think of a better way to leave a note, letter, secret message or the likes, than to leave your intended a simple 5 letter word or symbol. Unless of course you don’t want to leave your reader feeling good. If that’s the case maybe you should think twice about writing it to begin with. Or, at the very least burn it when you realize it won’t be fruitful. (Sorry Michael I said a food word again L It’s okay run get an apple and come back).

So as I was saying…I can’t think of any place that this simple five letter word can’t be use. As you really think about it, it’s universally accepted!!

No, it’s not heart. Yes, that is 5 letters and yes it is a symbol of love and life. But it’s just not something you tend to share with everyone.

(Oh, hey Michael! My Dad said to tell you to add a crushed clove of garlic and mozzarella cheese sandwich to your apple. It really boosts your system!)    

Now I bet I just made you do that five letter word albeit you were saying ewwwwww at the same time.

Yes, smile.

It’s simple. It feels good to the one doing it. It’s universal, and it’s free to give.

And yes, we all have to admit even the giant chain we all know even believes in it.

I’m sure we all, as little children could draw a smile long before we could express in print the words we feel to others. What a perfectly good way to leave all your readers feeling better. A very simple gift to give.

I know not all of us write a lot. But hey! What about the little things we write? Like the grocery list or the LOL ‘to do list’, then the love note slipped in hubby’s lunch. Even hubby can leave it by the coffee pot, on the night table, in your child’s bed-time book, the places are endless! A simple little 5 letter word drawn as even a child could, can change someone’s day. I know, my mom told me it was so.

(Okay, Michael I know you’re probably getting antsy now. I better let you go run that off. Just one more thought.)

I noticed that the older I get the less I worry to impress others. I crave more each day to put a smile on someone’s face, just as I did as a child.

And as an adult getting her trademark wrinkles I bring along with me my childhood trademark  and I want you to share it. 

Be great in little things. ~ St. Francis Xavier ~




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REAL Healthcare for REAL PEOPLE!

I’m willing to bet that you or someone close to you is currently struggling with some sort of life-threatening illness.  You probably could even name 4-5 people off the top of your head who are dealing with scourges like cancer, heart disease, diabetes or high-blood pressure.  I know that I can name several myself.  I also know that number would drastically increase if we included our friends, co-workers and family who are also contending with diseases like arthritis, acid-reflux, severe allergies and obesity. In fact, it’s probably a lot easier on us just to list those folks who we know that are NOT suffering from something!

It’s sad that we live in a world that is so sick.  However, it’s absolutely tragic that we’ve come to believe that being sick is “normal”.  Of course all of the gurus in the health-related industries really think that having so many sick people around is great.  And why not?  Illness (not to mention our fear of it) equals a steady supply of cash flowing straight into their pockets.  Think about it!  How many fortunes are being made from ‘specialized’ medications (which at best can only “manage” disease or symptoms) or from exercise DVDs, fitness machines or specialized diet supplements that supposedly will keep us healthy?  Yet overall, America is becoming sicker and sicker and weaker and weaker.  Make no mistake! As far as profit-minded big-business is concerned, eliminating demand for their products (i.e. making people better) would just be slitting the throat of golden goose.  And believe me—there’s just no incentive for them to do that—at all.

Personally, I’m taking my health a lot more seriously these days. And with good reason! My family tree has been hacked at and chewed up pretty hard over the years. I lost my Mom to breast cancer over a decade ago and my Dad finished his last round of chemo for intestinal cancer last year.  Watching them suffer has prompted me to search far and wide for deeper answers when it comes to maintaining my own health.

What I’ve found is surprising!  It seems that some of the most important practices in obtaining and maintaining good health don’t involve pills, powders, DVD’s or fancy-dancy infomercial machines at all.  They don’t even involve drinking some juice squeezed from some exotic berry grown from the side of some mountain inTibet.  In fact, it seems that the things that can give us the most vibrant health and best insurance against disease are actually things that are easily obtainable or equally easy to put into practice.  Unfortunately, they are also the most neglected.

It is my personal opinion that a major part of our personal character development is to strive for mastery over our health or at the very least to take responsibility for it.  So today, I’d like to share with you some of the most valuable things that I’ve learned over the past couple of years about developing/maintaining good health.  As you’ll see, they will serve as an excellent foundation by which you can reach any level of health or physical development that you desire.

The Basic Principle of Good Health

There’s one vital concept that you need to understand up front.  Our body is a complex bundle of simple but efficient interrelated systems.  These systems work together to basically pull in air, water and organic matter and push out a bunch of stuff that is a lot less useful.  When these systems are up and working in harmony we call that “health”.  When one or more of them has become impaired we call that “illness”.  When one of them ceases to function altogether it triggers cascading domino effect inside the body that basically causes the whole business of living to come to an abrupt and unceremonious end.

Now here’s the thing: IF you and I want to stay healthy and live to a ripe old age, THEN we have to make sure that we take care of these basic systems and keep them working as optimally as possible.  Once these systems are damaged—and that damage sets in—it is very difficult or impossible to reverse by human means.  Therefore, the primary focus of any personal health plan must be on preventing disease from setting in to start with!

The following three suggestions (in my opinion) can make a big difference in our body’s ability to fight off disease. They work because they focus on supporting our body’s most vital systems—keeping them clean and conditioned.

1) Practice Deep Breathing: Often!

What you and I call “normal” breathing does not give us enough oxygen for our bodies to work optimally. Chronic high stress coupled with a lifestyle of physical complacency has caused most of us to breathe a lot shallower than we were designed.  If we physically worked or exercised more we wouldn’t have that problem.  (But who wants to get outside and work when we have Farmville, right?)  By habitually “shallow breathing” we only take advantage of a tiny percentage of our lung’s capacity to take in the life-giving, blood enriching oxygen.  This doesn’t allow enough time to extract more than a small fraction of oxygen during a typical breath.  Some sources say that realistically we are only breathing at 10-20% capacity at any given time.

One of the very best things that we can do to energize and detoxify our system is to practice deep diaphragmatic breathing every single day…actually as often as possible.  We need extra oxygen to fuel the repairs and maintenance that’s going on inside our bodies on a cellular level.  Deep breathing is like putting ‘high octane’ performance-grade fuel in our cellular tank!  Your lungs will absorb far more oxygen supercharging your system from your cellular level all the way up.

To practice diaphragmatic breathing, start by sitting relaxed and comfortable.  Slowly begin drawing in breath by concentrating on expanding your belly fully before allowing air to fill the ribcage.  You want to feel like the first 50% of your breath is going into your belly below your bottom rib.  It’s not really—it’s actually fully expanding the diaphragm like a balloon. (This also gives some of your internal organs a good detoxifying massage.) Continue breathing, slowly increasing the volume of each breath but making sure to not strain.  Work up gradually until you can easily draw in a breath that takes 10-15 effortless seconds to fill the lungs.  Then slowly release for an equal count.  Do this 10-25 times in a row every day…or optimally take several deep breaths every couple of hours.  For best results practice this at varying times throughout the day.

2) Unleash the Calvary in your Gut

Believe it or not YOU are made up of more than one living organism.  Yep, that’s right.  In fact, you have trillions of tiny micro-organisms alive and crawling around inside of your body right now!  And, if they weren’t you’d die.  These micro-organisms are called probiotics and they are a large group of beneficial bacteria that aids us with digestion and fortifies our natural defense against illness.

According to The Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide the healthy gut has 500 different types of intestinal flora that are programmed to help keep an entire host of nasty infectious bacteria at bay. The problem is that processed foods, treated water and exposure to antibiotics can kill much of this vital line of defense and leave us vulnerable to infectious diseases.  The bottom line is that if you have a healthy frontline of probiotics defending your body it helps take excess stress off of your already taxed immune system—which then has more time and energy to fight other nasty things in our body like cancerous cells and viruses.

Eating an abundance of fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir or supplementing with quality probiotic tablets will help keep your floral army in peak shape.  I particularly enjoy eating Greek-style yogurt which is packed with probiotics and extra protein.  However, nothing beats naturally fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.  (I will have a special how-to guide for creating these natural powerhouses at home coming in the next few weeks.)  These home-cultured foods tend to have super-hearty healthy bacteria that not only survive a trip through the stomach but survive well in the intestines.

3) Eat close to the Earth

This is the most important nutritional philosophy that there is.  It doesn’t matter if you’re a preacher or a hard-core Darwinist we’ll all agree that human beings are basically reconfigured dirt.  That is to say that all of our nutritional support must come from the soil—although indirectly through plants and meat.  One observation that I’ve made in my research is that the “further we get” from our soil the worse our health becomes.

One of the most damning habits that our culture has adopted is industrial food processing.  Sure, it helps us to preserve food for shipping and storage but unfortunately the process strips many of the most vital nutrients from our food.  What should be good, nutritious power-packed food becomes little more than washed-out junk.  What’s worse are the insecticides, herbicides and chemicals that are added to the processed items that will kill our protective intestinal flora and set us up for all kinds of health issues.

Now understand, eating “close to the soil” doesn’t necessarily mean to picnic in your garden, though that would be excellent and (speaking from experience) pretty fun too.  It simply means to try to eat the majority of your diet from things that have as little industrialized processing as possible.  Ideally they would still have “life” in them per se.  I heard an old adage years ago that said “If you want to live a long time then eat things that are still alive”.  Of course we’re talking about vegetables and fruits and not animated critters of any kind.  My family and I love to have family time growing vegetables out of our garden.  Angie and I have learned that you don’t have much trouble getting kids to eat things that they were involved in growing…plus, it’s a good way to teach them the philosophy about being close to the soil.

In a nutshell

There’s so much more we could discuss on the topic of health.  If room allowed we would discuss the benefits of eating lots of healthy fats, drinking green tea, conditioning our heart and muscles to work efficiently through activity…etc.  But for today I think I’ve given you the most important part:  Take good care of your body’s most vital systems.  There is no drug or treatment that can fight disease better than a healthy immune system.  So, the better you treat your body the healthier you’ll be.  And that my friend is something that we can all live with.

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How to Hit YOUR Baskets!

Stop what you’re doing!  Let’s play a game—I promise it won’t take long and that it will be fun!  Oh, and who knows—we might even learn something. 😉

What game?  Wastebasket Free Throws of course!  And YES, I’m serious!  Take a wastebasket and set it up against the wall at the spot farthest away from you in the room.  Not a corner though—that would make it too easy.  The wastebasket needs to be situated just far enough away that ringing it will be difficult but not impossible.

Go, ahead—don’t just sit there.  I promise when you get back that I’ll explain WHY we’re doing this.

All right!  Now of course you’re going to need something to throw into the basket.  I do not advise using bowling balls, dumbbells or anything that has the remote density of a landscaping stone.  (The sheet rock in your walls thank you!)  Personally, I recommend crumbling up 8-10 pages of used paper.  New paper costs money, so don’t use it unless you absolutely have to.  (Use those joke emails that you printed from Uncle Ned—they’re actually not that funny the second time, and plus, what’s the likelihood that you’ll ever live to see a sheep, a Rabbi and Bill Clinton playing billiards anyway?) However, if you must use new paper, don’t worry, it’s a very small investment of raw materials compared with the personal insight that you’re about gain.

Today, our task is to do some self-examination.  And we’re going to do it in a fun and unconventional way.  Here the thing though: If you’re willing to invest the 3-5 minutes needed to do the following exercises then I promise that you will learn some things (maybe even a lot of things) about yourself that you probably didn’t know previously.  However, the catch is that you have to do the exercises while reading along for the first time.  It will become clear why in just a few moments…but for right now just trust me.  Following along in your head will not produce the best results. Ready?  Let’s do it!

Exercise #1:  Stand or sit in a place that’s the farthest unobstructed place in the room from the basket.  Now make 10 free-throws trying to get as many of them into the wastebasket as possible from this position.  At the end of 10 throws note how many baskets you made.  Did you hit more or miss more? Good.  (See I told you it would be fun.)

Exercise #2:  Repeat the 10 free-throws from the exact same position but observe: are the baskets that you’re missing falling to the right or left side?  (Keep in mind that often we hit the right side but it bounces out to the left.  The main idea here is to see if your throws are ‘pulling’ to one side or the other.)

WARNING!: Last chance kind of thing here. Do NOT proceed forward until you’ve done the above exercises.  This may sound crazy but with the information that’s coming next you will not be able to go back and do Exercise #1 or #2 accurately because the knowledge that I’m about to share with you makes ‘clearing the slate’ impossible.

Quick Break and some Explanation

You probably don’t realize it but the above exercises revealed a lot about yourself and how you unconsciously face challenges.  How so?  Well, for one you probably assumed that the point of these exercises was to see how many baskets that you could make out of ten throws.  But while that is somewhat useful knowledge, today we’re looking for something much deeper and more profound.  For instance, take your choice of where to put the waste-basket in the room.  What made you choose where you put the basket? Maybe the farthest spot in the room was occupied by a bookcase and you chose the second best spot.  Did you move the entire bookcase just to be able to do this exercise?  Believe it our not, statistically, some people did.  Did you choose your spot to make it easier to hit the basket than you could have? Many did.  But on the other hand, (again statistically speaking) some people not only put the basket against the far wall but stood outside in the hall to make their free throws more of a challenge.  Did you try to throw the paper straight in or did you try to let it bounce off the wall?  Were you disappointed when I said not to place the basket in the corner because that sure would have made the challenge easier?  Many of you decided to not play the game at all and just ‘visualize’ the experience despite my warnings to do otherwise.  No matter what mix or variation of these you chose just observe and acknowledge it.

The point of these first two exercises was to show us something about the way that we sometimes unconsciously respond to challenges.  Now, I’m by no means saying that the decisions that you made in a tiny game of wastebasket free throws reflect the exact choices that you make in pursuing your goals in life BUT I am saying that there is a direct correlation.  This is mainly because in these exercises we didn’t know what criteria we were actually being tested for and therefore could not modify our behavior to match expectations.  This allowed us to ‘crack open’ our head and get a glimpse of how our mind may be unconsciously ‘wired’.  For instance, if we were feeling extremely motivated and passionate then we probably did everything in the exercise according to instructions.  If we were tired or feeling particularly uninspired then we probably didn’t do the exercises at all or we set the wastebasket at a place that easily within reach of our current level of throwing.  Again, the idea is not to kick yourself if you didn’t do the exercise but simply to notice the choice you made and understand why.

How far away did you put the basket?  Was it easy to reach?  Was it difficult?  Did your shots pull to the right or the left?  Did you find yourself not making enough baskets and choose to step forward a little or find that you were making too many baskets and step back to make it a little more difficult?  This can tell us something too about our comfort level or even our level of pride.  Again, just acknowledge your choices.  You’re seeing things about yourself that the mirror never shows you.

See, you have lots of self observation and personal insights going on!  I’m proud of you!

Two Last Exercises

Now, let’s get back to the free-throws!  This time we’re going to make a different set of observations that will relate a very important principle that we need to understand firmly if we are ever going to hit our ‘free throws’ in life.

Exercise #3 – Do ten more free-throws.  However, if in the previous exercise you missed the wastebasket to either the right or left then slightly exaggerate or overcompensate your throws to try to correct your shots.  Try doing overhand, underhand and over the shoulder throws to see if that helps—do granny shots if you have to!  All right!  Did you make more baskets?  In your opinion, did compensating help?  (There is no right or wrong answer.  You will either hit more, less or the same number of baskets.)

Exercise #4 –Let’s do one final set of 10 free-throws, HOWEVER, this time we’re not going to just stand (or sit) in the same place.  With every free-throw you make take a long stride closer to the basket.  If you reach the basket before you get to 10 then just drop the balls of paper down into the basket one at a time.  All right!  (Here’s some no-brainer questions but please humor me and answer them.)  Did you make more baskets this time?  Why?  Did hitting the basket become easier as you got closer to it?

The Point

We all have ‘free throws’ in life—‘baskets’ that we want to make.  However, we often find that the biggest obstacle that we face in achieving those goals is OURSELVES.  The problem is that consciously we may know exactly what we want (better career, happier marriage, secure family, etc.) but unconsciously we sabotage and even stack the deck against ourselves.  One of the ways that this happens is that we ‘set up’ our throws in a way that’s either is way too easy or way too hard.  Or worse, we try to skip steps and ring the basket from way too far way.  This leads to frustration and discouragement because inevitably we miss far more baskets than we make.

The WAY of Character Building offers us an opportunity to break this cycle.  It allows us to do what we accomplished in Exercise #4 and move systematically (step-by-step) closer to the basket.  See, the distance between us and the basket is relative to the amount of character needed to reach our goals.  This includes self-discipline, honesty, sense of quality, service, faith, education, etc.  The more of these traits that we develop and ingrain in ourselves the closer we are (or rather the more capable we become) of accomplishing those goals. Mastering little challenges help us to build momentum for accomplishing big ones. For instance, to obtain better career options we might need to get more education, wider experience or learn to sell ourselves better.  For a better marriage we have to do things like: show up, spend time and learn to give without expectation, receive without complaint, etc.  The knowledge, understanding and experience we gain by overcoming little challenges helps us build momentum towards reaching our larger goals.  At last, when capacity of our character matches the quality of our goals then accomplishing them will be just as easy as standing over the wastebasket dropping crumpled paper into it.

Until next time…

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REAL Spring Cleaning – Using our hands to clean the space between our ears!

There’s some serious work going on at the Bowers Homestead these days!  See, springtime’s arrived and that means its time for some good old-fashioned spring-cleaning! There’s bookshelves to be rearranged, pantries to be cleaned out, nooks and crannies to be dusted, floors to be mopped etc.  And that’s just stuff that’s in the house!  Outside there’s roses to trim, garden soil to turn and grass to be mowed.  All I’m saying is that somebody needs to get busy!

Ironically, as I write this the other three members of Team Bowers (aka Lady B and the kids) are a whirl of brooms, mops, dust rags and spray solvents.  For the last few minutes I must say that I’ve really enjoyed watching them as I’ve sat here at my computer-desk sipping my iced tea.  In fact, it’s been almost mesmerizing to watch them dip and bump in perfect rhythm to my Pandora station.  Now wait! Before you judge me—I have a pretty good reason to just be sitting here—two actually.  One is that I am feeling (admittedly) kind of lazy today. (It’s a time change thing I’m quite sure.) Number two is that I’ve got some truly GREAT stuff that I would like to share with you today!  (However, I can tell from the occasional baleful glance that some of the other members of Team Bowers that I might better get busy typing or I might have a full blown mutiny on my hands.  Honestly, they keep glancing at me like I’m on break or something.  Writing is work—hard work!)

Today I would like to talk to you about how to do some REAL spring cleaning.  And I’m not just talking about washing away the streaks of where your four-year-old wrote his name on your bedroom window using his tongue or slaying that crawling, green ooze that lives up underneath your stove either.  No, today we’re going to learn how to use our physical spring house-cleaning routine as a catalyst for doing some high-level mental, emotional and spiritual maintenance to ourselves.  See, just like our homes get junked up, cluttered, dusty, dingy and stale from throughout the long, cold winter months, so can our mind.  If we don’t occasionally take-out-the-trash ‘upstairs’ then our head becomes cluttered with unproductive, unhealthy and genuinely useless thinking—we become bogged down and ineffective in the most critical areas of our lives.  However, a good mental sweep-out can be the most productive way to get us cognitively refreshed, renewed and ready to take life on with a fresh sense of focus.

(Uh oh!  Lady B wants me to take boxes out to storage shed when I get to a “break point”.  I’d better take my time here. So, let’s dovetail with a history lesson because I’m comfortable right now and don’t really want to break a sweat this early in the day.)

The Hidden LESSONS in Spring Cleaning

The origin of the practice of spring cleaning is highly disputed.  Almost every major culture on earth wants to take credit for it.  The ancient Greeks, Chinese and Persians all claim to have “invented” the tradition of cleaning their houses after the winter months had passed.  In my opinion, this is sort of like living beside a river and claiming to have invented the practice of drinking water.

However, most of these ancient peoples were much more in touch with cyclical nature of their natural world than we are today.  When spring came around they simply followed the example that nature provided for them. The winds and rain naturally began to thaw and wash away the old and dead things in the environment and replace them with things that were new.  Sunshine and warmer temperatures naturally boost their body’s biological ‘feel good’ chemicals which provided extra energy. (aka Spring Fever)  It’s pretty much common sense that for these peoples spring was the optimal time to gather food, plant crops and repair any weather damage to their homes.

The real stand-out example where spring cleaning is concerned is the ancient Israelites, who took the practice to a-whole-nother level.  After being delivered from Egypt in the spring of the year they were commanded to do a most unusual type of spring cleaning—one that went far beyond the practices of these other cultures.  Specifically they were to remove all leavening agents from their homes for a period of seven full days.  (Leaven is the stuff that makes your bread rise and become poofy.)  This included any remnants and even the crumbs that might have gotten stuck under furniture or worked into the corners over the course of time.  Invariably, the entire dwelling got a thorough once-over as floors were swept, cupboards dusted and rugs beaten out.

But wait! Why leaven?  I mean there are a hundred other things that seem like they would be optimal objects of discrimination—like good old-fashioned dirt, pet hair or maybe even pollen, right?  The answer to this question is profound!  Leaven is unique from normal dirt or dander because it’s a naturally-occurring yeast spore that saturates the very air around us.  Therefore it constantly rains down on everything much like dust or lint.  And to make matters worse leaven is virtually INVISIBLE!  To truly get rid of it you have to be extra-thorough because you are in essence fighting an invisible enemy—one that permeates everything in your environment! See, leavening, which “puffs things up” was to the Israelites (and moreso to the early Christian Church) an allegory that represented wrongful, negative and destructive thinking and actions that invariably occur from just living everyday life as human beings.  Removing “all” of the leavening from one’s dwelling would be just as difficult as removing all negative thinking from ones’ head!  Therefore, these seven leavenless days represented not only a time of physical cleansing but also of mental emotional and spiritual renewal.

(Whew!  Looks like Chris covered me on carrying those boxes.  Maybe I should rest my fingers for a few.  Uh oh…my daughter.  What does she want? “No, Katie—Daddy’s busy and can’t come wipe down the ceiling fan.  Just stack two chairs on top of each other and climb—okay never mind.  Just hold off on that.  I’ll be there in a few minutes, sweetie…I’m doing something important.”)

A Personal Example

For many years my family and I have kept the form of spring cleaning described above as it was practiced by the ancient Israelites and the early 1st century (pre-Roman) Christian Church.  In our personal faith it is called the Days of Unleavened Bread.  And I can honestly say that I find it to be one of the most worthwhile and fulfilling practices ever because it helps us to approach BOTH the physical and spiritual aspects of spring cleaning with some organization and formality.  In my experience this DUAL approach has always yielded very important lessons and personal insights every single year.  Now, while my goal here is NOT to persuade you towards my beliefs, I think that there are several profound insights about them that you will find useful in your own spring cleaning.

Our approach is very practical.  We begin by planning and assigning a schedule for the dusting, vacuuming and scrubbing to each member of our family.  Everybody in the family has a part.  However, in addition to this schedule we each set aside extra personal time to be used for self-examination and reflection.  We use this ‘redeemed time’ to call into perspective those aspects of our lives that need to be tidied up.  This usually includes time for studying, contemplation and prayer all of which help us to gain access to ourselves but also to the ideals that we are striving to aspire to. (We’ll discuss this more in a moment.) There is a GREAT, virtually indescribable benefit that comes from strictly regimenting and disciplining yourself this way physically and mentally for a period of a few days or weeks.  You are in essence, formally ‘setting yourself aside’ for cleansing.  This approach makes a profound impact on our insights and perspective.  It helps us to find a slightly detached yet profound emotional clarity by which we can examine ourselves in the proverbial mirror.  Attitudes, mindsets and prejudices—emotional knots and negative thinking—become exposed and vulnerable for our judgment.  Personality quirks, unrealized addictions and unhealthy dependencies bubble to the surface where we can at last acknowledge and skim them from the surface of our consciousness like dross. The benefits of setting aside such time every day for an extended period is priceless for showing us specifically what parts of our thinking is “trash” and providing the means to remove it.

(Hold on—sorry.  “What?  No!—Chris you can’t have my car keys!  Huh?  Oh, you want to vacuum it out?  Okay Absolutely!  Go ahead and run it through the car wash while you’re at it… What—money?  I don’t have any change…consider it your contribution to the family.  Don’t go away mad, son… Love you!!!” Now, where was I?)

HOW & WHY Our Mind Accumulates so much JUNK!

There was a time when people believed the world was flat.  And thus, the limits of their ability—what ‘was’ and ‘was not’ possible—became governed by that belief.  As a result, they didn’t sail too far into uncharted territory or seek new places because they feared that they would literally fall off the side of the world and into the abyss.  For many years this flat world was “reality” for entire nations—or it might as well have well been.  And unfortunately, they didn’t have the means (or the nerve) to find out differently.  However, one day it was discovered that the world was actually round, and that new understanding unlocked many, many exciting new possibilities.  All of a sudden there were undiscovered worlds to be explored and things that previously seemed impossible not only became possible but practical!

Believe it or not you and I have our own ‘flat-earth’ beliefs.  And while these beliefs may not be as scientifically absurd they are still just as limiting to us because they restrain us from developing towards our complete potential.  This is why identifying and eliminating this type of thinking is the fundamental essence of true character-building.  But before we can eliminate any of our negative or unproductive thinking patterns we have to understand HOW they come to be in our head to start with.  So, it might be prudent on our part to spend a few minutes talking about that.  So here we go:

Our power of observation is the source of one of our greatest human abilities: the ability to learn.  Unfortunately, it is also the source of one of our greatest weaknesses because what we perceive, or the meaning we ascribe to what we see, is governed by what our brain believes is interesting, important or real at any given time.  At any given moment there are thousands of things that are happening all around us but we only notice one or two of those things at a time.  Our brains use amazingly designed biotechnology to literally filter everything else out. (We’ll see exactly how this happens in a minute.) Magicians take advantage of this ‘disconnect’ between our observation (what we see) and perception (what we think we see) all the time.  They distract us to look at one hand while the other, which never appears to move at all, is doing something that we can’t see.  This fun use of misdirection is called an ILLUSION and we laugh and cheer because it appears that the magician performed some impossible feat.  In actuality all he did was manipulate the natural limits of our observation to make us perceive what in our reality is ‘impossible’.

Even when we are paying close attention we are still missing so much! But that’s a good thing because if we didn’t then our cognitive process would become bogged down under the sheer number of details that it would try to absorb—we’d never get anything done!  Can you imagine walking out into a busy street only to see a truck barreling down on you—but rather than registering imminent danger and firing your reflexes your brain instead began to try to process the truck’s make and model, guess what approximate speed it was traveling and even began to critique the color scheme before letting you know you were in trouble?  If we were all wired to think that way human kind would have died off as a species long ago.  Luckily for us, we’re wired to recognize danger without a lot of detail.  That’s why we can mistake a stick lying in the grass as a snake and physically jump back to get out of danger.  This snake isn’t “real” at all but until we gain enough knowledge/experience to overturn that belief it might as well be a 12-ft python!  Here’s the thing: the same part of our brain that causes us to “assume” that the stick is a snake is also the mechanism that creates many of our biggest cognitive problems.

How does this happen?  Well, how should I put this—in short, our mind knows how to fabricate reality.  It knows how to “fill in the gaps” in areas that we are not paying attention to or (for that matter) interested in—background, landscape and miscellaneous details that we just take for granted exists.  We do see these things in varying degrees but our mind labels them as ‘miscellaneous’ details and actively works to suppress our perception until they generically match our assumptions or expectations.  Our mind is so good at fabricating reality that we can become panicked, depressed, paranoid, angry or disillusioned solely through suggested assumptions.  (Is that a spider crawling beside your left foot?  No—don’t look down!  See it in your mind’s eye, wiggling cautiously towards your foot.  I said don’t look!  LOL! See how easy it is for your mind to fabricate something ‘real’?)  If simple seed-ideas and assumptions can cause us to react so strongly what kind of power do some of our life-long illusions have over our lives?

At any given time in our lives we are not seeing life as it “is” but rather as “we are”.  Even our most cherished memories are a mixture of real events and fiction.  An excellent way to illustrate this concept is to think of an early childhood experience—let’s say a trip to the County Fair.  There are certain aspects of that memory that will be very vivid—maybe the twirling and spinning of the rides, the guy at the booth challenging you to knock over some cups with a ball or even the residual taste cotton candy.  You can probably remember the laughter and joyous screams as people rode the various rides and the probably smell freshly popped pop-corn.  Everything that stood out to you during your visit was recorded into your head.  Your brain tagged these memories as ‘important” and filed them away in a place that you can easily reach later.  But wait!  Isn’t it funny that when you think back again that you can’t “remember” the faces of more than a dozen of the strangers walking around.  Sure, you “see’ them—but only to a point.  The same can go for the grass, the litter, the ticket counter and some of the booths.  Your mind only recorded these experiences in varying degrees based on their level of interest/importance. However, when you get ready to reminisce about this experience it calls up all of these intricately recorded details (which are an infinitesimally small part of all of the events that we actually “saw” during that trip) and for the rest it creates a composite picture based solely from our expectations and assumptions to populate the rest of the experience.  Think of it like green-screen for your mind.

How does this tie into our character?  Well, for one thing you can now see how five people can witness a traffic accident but every one of them can have a slightly different version of the story.  Even if they’re given a polygraph test, all five firmly believe that their experience is the real story.  It also reveals why a close friend can give us five compliments and we don’t even hear it. (After all, they’re supposed say that stuff right?) But, in the same conversation that same friend can give us one critical remark and it will hurt our feelings to the point that we’ll hold a grudge for years. (How dare they, right?)  See, science has proven what is taught by scripture when it says “The heart (i.e. mind) is DECEITFUL above ALL THINGS.  Who can know it?”  Our mind is constantly fabricating and interpreting reality based on a very limited amount of our subjective observations. In other words, it’s a double edged sword!  The same tool that gives us the power to learn, paraphrase and derive meaning from life is also the very mechanism which allows our heads to become cluttered with ‘flat-earth’ garbage like hate, fear, prejudices, paranoia, jealousy, infatuations and many other serious character flaws!  It also shows HOW our attitudes and mindsets become vulnerable to (and thus exploitable by) outside influences whether human or spiritual! Gaining insight into the very way that we think and process information is a skill that’s desperately needed in order to clean out our heads and overturn our own flat-earth thinking!  So, let’s talk about that in our next section…

(Wait! There’s now an eerie silence across the Bowers household.  It looks like everyone has disappeared while I was writing.  Is that whispering I hear?  I think they’re onto me… I’ve stalled about all that I possibly can.  But I have SO much more to say…!  All right, let’s see if we can get to the useful stuff quickly…)

Seeing the TRASH through the CLUTTER

You can now see why it takes conscious effort on our part to sift through our thought patterns and identify what is productive and what is not.  As I mentioned earlier I take a dual approach to this mental/emotional/spiritual cleaning process.  First, I set aside several days or weeks for the task and secondly I tie it in with the physical spring cleaning activities that I have already scheduled.  What I would like to do now is share with you some of the techniques that I use to make this process productive.

1st: Set aside ample QUALITY time for self-reflection – The entire process can take days or (likely) weeks especially if you’ve never done it before.  It should not be approached half-heartedly if you expect to get real or lasting results.  I highly suggest that during the early part of the process that you “unplug” from radio, TV and internet for at least a few days, preferably a week.  I realize that sounds extreme to some people but trust me—the results will speak for themselves.  You might have even winced a little when I suggested unplugging for awhile.  If so, then let that be your first example: a media or social networking addiction.  See how easy it is?  You can do it!

Use time either in the mornings and evenings to reflect a little bit on the things that are happening in your life right now.  This is a good addition to any personal prayer or study time that you are already utilizing.  What challenges or conflicts are you facing in your life? How did they come to be? What are we supposed to be learning from these challenges?  How many of our attitudes and opinions, especially in these troubled areas, are a result of ‘flat-earth’ thinking which is based on assumptions rather than reality? Does this provide any new insight on how this problem came to be or how it could be solved?

Something truly supernatural takes place when we ask the right questions at a time when our heart is truly prepared to receive the answer.

2nd: Try to write it down – Though expressing one’s self on paper can be difficult for some people it is truly one of the most effective ways to find out what is truly going on inside our heads.  A matter of fact, I could argue that the LESS proficient that you are at writing the MORE effective and beneficial that it will be for you to make writing a big part of your self-examination process.  The reason is simple.  The mental faculties that you use to write are very different from the channels used in speech or even in common thought.  Writing makes you access the parts of your brain where knowledge is stored just out of reach from our normal grasp.  Striving to express yourself on paper helps you to call upon these resources that would normally just lie dormant.

Ask yourself good questions (like the ones mentioned above) as a catalyst for brainstorming words, sentences or paragraphs.  You can even draw pictures!  You’ll be surprised at the amount of internal baggage that will be revealed.  But, above all, BE HONEST!  Don’t let yourself edit something out because it makes you sound bad.  THAT is the kind of thing that you are trying to identify.

Once this process is over you can shred or burn anything that you feel that you need to.  It may even be therapeutic to do so.  But until then, keep it and use it to identify negative patterns of thinking.  Remember, if you don’t draw them to the surface and deal with them then they will lay dormant and will unconsciously influence your everyday thinking.  Consider them like a boil.  They are extremely painful and even damaging until they can be drawn to a head and lanced.  And even then the wound must be tended with care to prevent infection.

3rd: Actively Seek Wisdom & Knowledge – We’ve all seen the example of a jar filled to the rim with stones and water.  If you reach in and remove some of the stones by hand then the jar is no longer full but has empty air at the top.  The lesson is that once we remove negative aspects of our thinking (lance the boils so-to-speak) then we must replace those things or something worse (infection) can take its place.

For many years, as a part of my self-examination process I have made absorbing myself in great wisdom and knowledge a valuable part of my routine.  This can be from scripture, inspirational writing, biographies of great individuals and even poetry.  What we are in essence doing is replacing the chatter that we unplugged from earlier with things that are true, uplifting and good.  This constant stream of positive knowledge and energy begins to transform our entire perspective.  It fuels dynamic positive change at a core level and helps us to build momentum in programming our brains to think positively and creatively.

In Conclusion

Well, there SO much more I could say and share with you about this process.  If I tried we’d probably be here for days.  We’ve literally only skimmed the surface.  But what I can say is that taking the extra effort to do some cognitive spring cleaning has been one of the most productive and fulfilling aspects of my life and I hope that in the long run you make it a part of yours.

(Uh oh! The other members of Team Bowers have arrived back on the scene.  They seem to have replaced their mops and brooms with pitchforks and torches.  I guess I really should go to work.  “Where have you guys been???  I was ready to get to work a while ago and couldn’t find any of you!  I figured that you all were taking ANOTHER break and that when you finally got ready to get some work done that you’d come back… Wait! What are you doing with that machete?  Can we talk about this?  I was just kidding!!!)

Until next time….

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HOW to Become Truly GOOD at Almost ANYTHING or Getting to CARNGIE HALL without a GPS

A few years ago I decided to take up guitar.

But wait!  In order for you to fully appreciate that statement it’s important that I clarify a few things about my natural musical ability.  For instance, I’m probably the only kid in the world who’s ever failed 5th grade band.  And no, I’m not talking about the ‘big-kid’ band that has cool instruments like the saxophone and clarinet I’m talking about ‘beginner’s band’ with the little throw-away plastic flute!  (They called it a ‘recorder’ but trust me…nobody wanted to record any of the noises that I made with that thing!) The grand extent of my musical talent stops with being able to play a CD.  But, in my defense, at least when I press play it sounds (well, at least most of the time) like the original artist!

But learning to play the guitar has always been one of my closet fantasies. So one day, in a fit of proactive courage, I decided to cultivate my inner Eddie Van Halen.

My plan was simple.  I’d buy a guitar—not a top of the line (i.e. expensive) model but not necessarily a cheap ‘kiddy’ one either.  At the same time I’d get one for my daughter Katie.  It seemed to me that if she and I used the ‘buddy system’ to practice and encourage each other along then our success would be virtually guaranteed.  My budget couldn’t quite stretch far enough to pay for formal lessons from a real flesh-and-blood instructor so I instead invested in a highly-rated (and fairly pricey) DVD lesson program.  Once that was in hand Katie and I reserved 30-45 minutes every afternoon for meticulously going through the lessons.

Now, enter my first-born son Chris.

Chris asks me if I would also buy him a guitar so that he could practice along with us.  To which I said “No”.  And though he did sulk a little bit…he didn’t really push the point.  Now please understand, it wasn’t that I was trying to ‘be mean’ or ‘play favorites’ between my children.  See, Chris (who was 13 at the time) was a child of above average intelligence coupled with equally above average energy.  And basically, that means that he had above average trouble staying focused on some of the more important things in life like school-work, chores and (at times) personal hygiene.  Simply put, I didn’t see buying a $100+ guitar that in the end wouldn’t do anything more than just sit in his room and collect dust.  Katie, on the other hand, possessed natural patience, a gentle nature and already loved to sing.  These, in my opinion, were the ideal qualities for a successful music student.

Now let’s fast-forward to today.  Those of you who know my family personally, can probably already see where I’m headed with this.  There is only one proficient guitarist in the Bowers family today and it’s definitely not me—or Katie for that matter.  Without a single formal lesson (and to my knowledge not even a single DVD-based lesson) Chris can make his (not-so-cheap) Washburn dreadnaught sing, dance and even sell concessions.  And Katie and I?  Well, let’s just say that we have the privilege of listening to him.  Sometimes we can even make out a couple of the basic chords that he hits and that’s about as far as we’ve got in learning guitar.

How did this turnabout happen?  Weren’t Katie and I doing all of the right things?  After all, we invested our money and time.  We faithfully maintained our scheduled practice sessions.  And we encouraged each other along the way. WHY then didn’t it work? We’re we using the tried and true formula for reaching our goals?  Evidently not!  Furthermore, how could Chris—who had every conceivable disadvantage—have managed to slingshot around us?

Well, don’t worry…our story’s not over yet.  But let’s take a few moments to philosophize about some very important and relevant stuff related to learning things.  Then we can come back and finish our story about how Chris learned the guitar while Katie and I didn’t.  Trust me.  You’re going to love it!

Goals vs. Character

All of us have things we would like to accomplish in life—some discipline or goal that we desire to work towards.  These goals can range from becoming physically healthy or going back to school to learning to play the cello.  In fact, as humans we have inherited a natural longing to improve ourselves, our circumstances and our surroundings.  And not coincidentally, we’re usually happiest when we’re exercising our creative capabilities and the most miserable when we’re not.  This is why being ‘stuck in a rut’ creatively (whether at work or at home) dulls ours senses and leads to complacent thinking and lethargy.  However, exercising our creative powers regularly helps keep both our minds and bodies agile and strong.  How can it do both?  We’ll soon see that endeavors of creativity and personal expansion actually exercises and conditions our human spirit (our fundamental energy) and by extension strengthens every aspect of our lives.

Unfortunately, you and I don’t live in a world that is very conductive to cultivating creativity or learning a discipline.  In fact, if you or I learn to truly master skill or discipline nowadays we’re swimming against overwhelming tides.  Modern culture emphasizes the ‘fast track’ way of living and thinking and in response we tend to rely heavily on quick, push-button, instantly-gratifying (and ultimately short-term) answers.  We want powders that ‘make us’ lose weight, pills that ‘make us’ feel better.  We want video games that simulate real sports and (too often) real life.  We want food that comes conveniently pre-packaged from the freezer section of the grocery store rather than grow or cook truly nourishing things.  The problem is that these quick-fix-solutions only have the ability to take us so far before the universal law of returns brings our ‘pot-shot revolution’ to an end.

Succeeding at any worthwhile goal requires a LOT of self-discipline, resourcefulness, patience and understanding.  Of course these are all the fundamental traits of a strong and balanced character.  In other words they are traits that don’t exist in our repertoire naturally or instinctively—they are traits we have to LEARN and DEVELOP from scratch.  But if we ever hope to accomplish our goals—especially the difficult ones—then we need those traits in their fully developed, mature state as an active part of our mental and emotional toolbox.  If they’re missing from our daily thinking and actions then we can never succeed long-term because we’ll run out of energy, enthusiasm and patience or become frustrated…  We’ll make excuses and even unconsciously sabotage ourselves…  Either way, the net effect is the same: we’ll quit.

Building strong fundamental character skills within ourselves should be the first step to making sure we succeed in our goals.

The Tandem Paradox

Character skills are not learned and developed overnight.  They operate under what Dr. Stephen R. Covey calls ‘The Law of the Harvest’.  In principle this means that in we have to plant in the Spring-time the seeds of the fruits we want to reap in the Fall.  If other words, the hardest work like building patience, self-discipline, mental toughness and focus must be done first.  We have to actively cultivate those traits in ourselves and give them time to grow and mature before we attempt to reach towards those primary goals.

So, how do we proverbially plant and nurture these skills to maturity?  Well, the answer is actually a bit of a paradox:  We pursue a discipline.

Wait—I know!  You’re thinking that I’ve finally busted a gasket.  Am I saying that in order to build the skills that we need to succeed in learning a discipline that we should…learn a discipline?

Actually, yes—that’s exactly what I’m saying!

Let me introduce to you the concept of the Tandem Paradox.  It basically goes like this:  If we want to learn the character skills required in reaching large, difficult and ambitious goals then we can learn and refine those skills by first pursuing a secondary discipline. This secondary discipline serves as the ‘training wheels’ for learning those fundamental skills that we’ll use later.

Let’s break it down.

As human beings, we learn our most fundamental skills in a certain order and progression.  For instance, it’s psychologically necessary for us to crawl before we walk.  The physical act of crawling allows us to build the neurological coordination that we’ll need to eventually learn to be bipedal.  What’s funny about crawling is that it’s not really that much of an easier skill to master than walking.  The only real difference is the height of the fall.  If we take a little tumble while crawling we’re a lot less likely to get hurt.  By having a ‘crawling stage’ we’re allowed the psychological and emotional freedom to independently explore the world around us.  Once that love of mobility and sense of exploration has been discovered we’re never content (at least till lazy semi-adulthood) to be stationary beings again.  Our love of being free and mobile becomes so strong that by the time we’re walking, even a painful fall won’t stop us for too long.  By then we’ve built up the skill set and experience to know that the experience of walking is “worth the lumps”.

As adults our outlook is not that different.  That’s why choosing to master a secondary discipline like oil painting, cooking or writing (i.e. crawling) builds within us the fundamental character skills necessary for us to succeed at the bigger goals in life like a healthier lifestyle or a higher-degree. (i.e. walking).

Unfortunately, it was years after Katie and I attempted to learn the guitar before I learned the Tandem Paradox.  Back then I believed that desire was all that you needed in order to succeed at anything in life.  I was so wrong.  However, since that time I’ve done a tremendous amount of studying and thinking about the subject—and subsequently have learned a lot of things.  In part II of this article I would like to share with you what I honestly feel to be some of the most important knowledge that I’ve ever learned about the subject of learning.  Of all of the things that I’ve ever written for the Character-Quest Project, these principles have served me invaluably in the last few years.  May they do the same for you…


Developing the Attitude & Approach of a MASTER

To understand the difference between a master and a practitioner let’s use our imagination to mentally contrast the differences between a typical high-school basketball player and NBA legend Larry Bird.  Both are athletes.  Both practice the game of basketball regularly.  We could arguably reason that basketball is an important part of each of their lives.  However, the difference is that only one of them possesses the seasoned experience that comes from innumerable hours of practice and actual game time on-court experience.  While the high-schooler has to take extra time to size up each of his free throws Larry Bird (in his prime) had such a working muscle memory that he could sink a basket from almost anywhere on court without hardly a glance.  (He used to practice 300 free throws before every-single game in his career—in addition to his daily on-court workouts.)

The only real difference between these two is: Experience.  Larry Bird has much, much, MUCH more experience than the high school player.  As hard as it may be to believe Larry Bird was not bio-engineered in a top-secret lab solely for the purpose of playing basketball.  He had to learn dribbling and shooting in the exact same way that that everyone does.  In fact, there was a time when even Larry Bird was only a high school rookie.  What’s made him so much better than the average player is that he’s spent a lot more time than them actually playing.

Mastery of any activity comes through constant, submersive experience.  Someone on the path of mastery has to love walking that path (practicing) as much—or truthfully more—than they love reaching the destination (Goal).  The Master loves the burn of the exercise more than the number of calories lost.  They love weeding the garden as much as eating the vegetables.  They’ve found as much joy in preparing a meal as they do eating it.  Yep, that’s right, Larry Bird had to love practicing the fundamentals of basketball…if he didn’t he would have never become that good.

The Master relishes the full experience of their discipline—trying to squeeze every drop of extractable essence from it.

The Dabbler, The Obsessive & The Hacker

In his groundbreaking book Mastery (which has been one of the influential books in my own life after the events of The Incident) George Leonard identifies three thought patterns that are the enemy of Master’s mindset.  When we examine these modes of thinking it’s apparent that everyone we know (including ourselves) exhibits them in some part of our life.

The Dabbler – The Dabbler enters into a learning experience with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm.  They’re so anxious to get the ball rolling in a new hobby that they’ll immediately run out and buy all the equipment and accessories needed to fit into this new lifestyle.   For instance, if they’re taking up golf they’ll not only buy formal lessons but they’ll go ahead and purchase expensive clubs, shoes and 5-6 designer shirts before they’ve ever taken a swing the first ball.  They do this because they believe their investment and sacrifice will help keep them motivated long term.  They’re proverbially throwing down roots.

When the Dabbler finally starts practicing they initially do extremely well and this instant success only fuels their excitement.  The problem comes when that initial enthusiasm begins wearing off.  All at once progress tapers off or worse, they actually lose some ground.  This stage is called ‘the plateau’ and it is a natural part of learning anything…but the Dabbler doesn’t know it (or care).  They want only the constant climax of being somehow better during every-single practice session—and are deeply frustrated when that doesn’t happen.   Inevitably, after a few weeks or months, practice has become nowhere near as exciting or important to the Dabbler as it once was.  They lose interest and decide to “move on” and ‘dabble’ in more exciting, things.

The Obsessive – The Obsessive doesn’t just want to learn a skill—they want to be a ‘natural’ at it.  They are the ones who get all the books on their chosen discipline and ask instructors for constant after-class instruction.  Like the Dabbler, the Obsessive is likely to invest in expensive equipment early on.  However, the Obsessive’s chief motivation is usually peer recognition.  They want to become recognized as an authority in their discipline as quickly as possible.  The Obsessive wants to ‘have practiced’ or ‘seem practiced’ but doesn’t really like to actually physically practice.

What ultimately happens is that the Obsessive hits a point where their practical skills and their book knowledge no longer match up.  This is where that natural dip in progress (the plateau that we mentioned earlier) comes in and once again undermines progress.  The Obsessive begins to experience multiple failures and can’t understand why.  They keep getting rejection letters, burning the soufflé or their swing continues to hook to the left no matter what they do.  After experiencing a few such setbacks and maybe even making a few gallant ‘last stand’-style pushes the Obsessive begins to question themselves and ultimately decides that this particular discipline was “not for them” after all.

The Hacker – The Hacker is the person who takes the lukewarm approach at learning something.  They are content to do just enough to “learn the ropes” of a skill but nothing more.  These kinds of folks hang out on the message boards of a website for a given discipline because they enjoy the camaraderie they feel among other hackers (or more like ‘slackers’).  The Hacker hits the inevitable plateau and just stays there.  They don’t care about bowling a 300 or finishing their golf game under par.  They just want some recreation and relaxation time.

Of course there are mixes and variations of the above the Dabbler, Obsessive and Hacker.  They are not really pigeon-hole labels as much as they are well-worn mental ruts that our thinking likes to settle into.  I’ve seen (and experienced) this kind of thinking sabotage progress in relationships, careers, hobbies and even spiritual things like prayer and Bible study.

The Master – The Master’s attitude has all of the genuine enthusiasm of the Dabbler or Obsessive but a totally different approach.  The Master dedicates himself to the art of practicing.  To him practice is just as enjoyable and fulfilling as a professional performance would be.  In other words, the writer loves to write.  It doesn’t matter how many rejection slips come in the mail.  They would write if it were for no other reason than to stick it in the desk drawer.  The same is true with the painter or the dancer.  In short, the Master loves the process of learning and mastering the skill…they love doing the art.  They see plateaus, setbacks and challenges not as stop signs but merely as stepping stones.

Part III

Developing the Mindset to become truly GOOD at ANYTHING

So far we’ve alluded to the two primary principles of learning and becoming truly good at any discipline.  However, now it’s time to chisel these principles into proverbial stone.  When applied consistently and honestly they will profoundly refine any skill that we ever need to apply whether physical, mental or spiritual.

PRINCIPLE #1:  Find Playtime

Many of the most important principles that we ever learned in life we learned during playtime as children.  For instance, whether we realize it or not, those seesaws, swing sets, marry-go-rounds and trampolines were teaching us all of the laws of physics needed to interact with the world around us.  That’s right!  As amazing as it sounds when we were blissfully trying to kick higher and higher in the swing (so that we could ‘touch the sky’) we were actually learning about the principles of inertia and other laws of physics!  Consider for a moment how all of the various pieces of playground equipment teach us to master our physical skill and coordination.  Sure, scientists label and catalog these principles but they are truly and practically learned on the playground.  And it doesn’t stop there; sandboxes, board games and yard sports to teach us the basics of sharing and interacting with others.  The fact is that the very BEST way to learn about the world around us is by playing with it!

The problem comes we “grow up” in the wrong way.  Somewhere around the time we get our high-school diploma we join what society deems as “the real world” where there is little time left to explore and learn like we did when we were children.  It’s a real shame too.  We become fattened with pre-packaged knowledge—‘book learning’ that is usually based on someone’s theories more than real world experience—rather than taking the time to go and find our own knowledge.  Over time we mentally become as categorized (and as stuffy) as those books and the people that wrote them.  We never reach the moon because we quit dreaming about going there and are instead content to let the Discovery Channel teach us about it.

I’m here to tell you today, whether you’re 10 or 100, the key being able to effectively learn any skill is directly and inseparably tied to our ability to uninhibitedly play.  What applies in the sand-box or playhouse WILL inexorably play out in the boardroom or at home.  So, if you want to mold yourself into someone who has more self-discipline, patience and kindness then allow yourself to learn them in life’s grand ‘Romper Room’.

What should your playhouse or sandbox be?  It needs to be something that excites you…something that you feel passionate about…something that inspires your inner child.  Painting, gardening, playing the saxophone or restoring an old car can be fun as well as rewarding.  Invest a little part of each day into the pursuit of this discipline.  But, whatever you chose to do, make it into playtime.  Don’t become so invested that minor setbacks frustrate you.  Instead anticipate the setbacks and plateaus—in fact embrace them because in order to have reached a setback means that you must have made progress to begin with.  Those setbacks teach just as much and often more than do the successes.  Approach it with the mindset of a child building a sandcastle by the seashore.  When the tide comes in and washes away everything the child has worked on he allows himself a moment to mourn the loss.  But in the next instance he will think of how ‘neat’ it was to watch the ‘tidal wave’ swallow his entire city and wash them away into the sea.  The rest of his time is then spent relocating and rebuilding.  Why?  Because (he doesn’t realize it but) he allowed himself to learn from the sandcastle’s destruction.

Let go and have fun.  Try and try again.  Find the joy. Learn to laugh.  Believe it or not these are the REAL fundamental skills needed to succeed at everything in life.

PRINCIPLE #2:  Master the Art of Practice

Consider the following question:  What’s the difference between a world-class violinist that plays for a large Philharmonic and someone who plays casually?  Is it talent?  Is it genetics?  Doesn’t it seem that some people are “genetically coded” to do certain things better than others.  What about these folks who are super good at Math?  (I’m talking about the folks that can calculate algorithms in their head.)  Doesn’t their brain work in someway that’s faster and more accurate than the average person?

It is true that we all have natural talents and abilities.  We were created that way.  Truthfully, I’ve always felt that one of the major failing of our educational system is that it doesn’t periodically test our children’s personalities to help them find their interests and talents.  This would go a long way in helping them to choose careers and activities that make them happy and fulfilled.  However, modern science has recently proved that innate talent only goes so far towards making an individual successful in any skill.  In fact, it’s found that the world-class violinist only owes a small part of her success to her “natural” musical ability.  There’s plenty—and I mean plenty—of people who have the fingers, coordination, natural rhythm and even the ear for music.  They too could be considered one of the BEST in the world—but many of them have never picked up a violin and thus have never discovered their talents—instead they walk the world as secretaries, salespeople and nurses—and very often their unhappy because they haven’t discovered who they really are.

As we saw first hand earlier by contrasting the average high-school basketball player against hoops legend Larry Bird: practice truly does make perfect.  In fact, we see that the only real difference between the world-class athlete, musician, physicist and chess-player is the time that they’ve spent practicing.  In his recent masterpiece Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell details an enlightening study performed in the 90’s by renowned University of Florida professor K. Anders Ericsson at the Berlin’s elite Academy of Music.  The study was to see exactly how much of a role “innate talent” seems to play in master violinists.  The study divided the Academy’s violinists into three groups.  The first were the “Stars” those who truly had the level of performance that could make them world-class soloists.  The second group was labeled “good” and it was made up of violin soloists of above-average proficiency.  The third group was made up of those players, who though good (And you had to be good to get into the Academy to start with) but did not have the polished skill to excel professionally.

Each member of these three groups were asked questions like what age they began playing the violin and how many hours had they practiced.  The results were startling.  Nowhere—absolutely nowhere among (arguably) the world’s greatest violinists was there a ‘natural prodigy’ who had somehow toddled over to a violin as a small child and busted out some Beethoven.  In fact, the exact OPPOSITE was true in almost every case.  The students who were the most polished, skilled, coordinated and proficient had simply logged more practice time than the students put in other groups; and I mean MUCH more practice time.  In fact, all of the soloists at the Academy had begun playing at around age 5 or 6.  At that level they only practiced only 2 or 3 hours a week.  But by the time they were 8 years old those who had natural musical talent began to practice more than their peers.  After spending those first couple of years learning the fundamental skills, the players became proficient enough to start ‘playing around’ with their knowledge.  This was critical because it helped them to decide that playing the violin was actually fun (and what’s more) that they were good at it!  The net effect was that by age twenty these students were practicing the violin 30-40 hours a week!

There’s a lot we can learn from this study!  First of all, it seems that with whatever discipline that we might pursue that the hardest work—building up the fundamental skillset—comes first.  There’s no way around this mountain other than to ‘dig in’ and climb it all the way to the snowy peak!  But after we reach that summit and ingrain those fundamentals then we have a little more leeway to ‘play’ creatively and productively and thus can have a lot more fun.

How much practice is enough to become good?  It seems that the magic number for becoming a ‘master’ at a given skill is after about 10,000 hours.  In Outliers, Gladwell goes on to quote renowned neurologist and cognitive psychologist Daniel Levitin.  “The emerging picture from…studies is that ten-thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.” writes Levitin “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concert pianists, chess-players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.  Of course it doesn’t address why some people get more out of their practice sessions than others do.  But no one has yet found a case in which true world-class expertise was accomplished in less time.  It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery”. (Emphasis all mine.)

It seems that the answer to two of life’s most fundamental questions (“What ‘makes’ us perfect? and “How do we get to Carnegie Hall?”) have the same answer:  Practice man. Practice.

Conclusion: How My Son Chris Learned the Guitar

Remember how Katie and I set up this nice little practice schedule and bought all of the gear needed to play the guitar?  Remember how we used the “buddy system” to encourage each other along?  Well, it didn’t work! After a few weeks other priorities came up and one (or both) of us and we were not able to keep the practice schedule as regularly as we intended.  The net result was that we never developed those basic skills needed to reach the point where our practice became fun.  In the end we both quit because we thought that we either lacked the talent of discipline.

On the other hand, Chris got angry (i.e. passionate) because I wouldn’t buy him a guitar and allow him to practice with us.  The resulting anger was positive because rather than stewing on it, he put it to work!  He saved up his money—which is pretty hard to come by at 13 years old—and bought his own guitar.  Then he did the most conventional thing imaginable: he began to practice.  No DVD or set time schedule for him!  No sir!  He printed a list of basic chords and looked up the chords for his favorite songs from the internet and practiced them.  He didn’t limit himself to 30 minutes a day either.  He would play the guitar and sing (which me and his mom call “killing the cat”) from 2 to 4 hours per day seven days a week.  When I’d finally break down, get mad and yell at him to ‘shut that racket up’ he would sit on his bed and silently run through the chord progressions with his fingers developing impeccable muscle memory.

My son Chris

After a few months he suddenly reached this point where he was able to start ‘changing up’ (playing with) the progression of his favorite songs.  By doing so he discovered way of ‘reinterpreting songs’ and also found many new chords that sounded really good together.  On top of that, when he wasn’t practicing, he was watching live concert footage of his favorite musicians on Youtube and listening to their stories.  All in all he submerged himself into the culture of music and this profoundly deepened his practice.  It was never work or routine to him—it was play—and that made all the difference in the world!  Today at age 18 Chris is an above average guitarist who composes complex music and lyrics.  I’m very proud of him because in this regard, he’s taught me something.

So what about me?  Well, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since Katie and I got our guitars.  But I think all you CQ readers will be proud to know that a few nights ago I dusted off my old six-string and have begun practicing again.  I don’t have the time (or inclination for that matter) to practice like Chris did but I’ve learned that I don’t really have to.  I’m never going to rock out on stage with Nickelback with thousands of young ladies screaming my name.  (And if I ever did then Lady B would probably frown upon me.)  But with some dedication, practice coupled with an attitude of play I bet that I might be able to bust out a little CCR or Garth Brooks in my living room from time to time.

Until next time…

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