Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Formulas, Secrets, Universal Truths

Graduates, families and everyone who came to celebrate this momentous occasion, thank you for the opportunity to participate.

Thomas Szansz said that boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity is the feeling that nothing is a waste of time. So let’s begin by striking a bargain. If you will choose serenity for the next few minutes (and it is a choice), I’ll try not to waste your time.

Let’s talk about formulas, secrets, and universal truths.

I dedicated my last book to the memory of my grandfather, saying “I wish I had known then what I know now.”

I don’t mean that I wish I had known life’s secrets, nor do I wish that I already possessed the wisdom that can only come from success and failure, tragedy and triumph. What would be the point of living if we knew it all from the start?

What I mean is that I wish I had known better and sooner how to listen, how to pay respectful attention in order to better build my own belief system sooner.  

Here are a few tidbits of the advice that I received before I really paid attention:
            You have two ears and one mouth so you should listen twice as much as you talk.
            Life is not fair; deal with it.
            Successful people make a habit of doing things other people don’t want to do.
            Spend less than you earn; save and invest the difference .
            The workplace is a hierarchy, not a democracy.
            Accept responsibility for all aspects of your life.
            And the one I really did not want to hear on graduation day, “Your education is just beginning.”
With the great advances in technology since my graduation, especially during the last two decades, I am told I must say something about it. So here is my technology story.  

I arrived at my first job after graduation and took my junior accountant seat at an old oak desk farthest from the 7th floor windows of the oil and gas building in downtown Fort Worth.    

My first assignment was to go down into the basement and make copies of a report. You might think I was put off by such an assignment, what with my freshly minted degree. I wasn’t—I had more serious concerns.

In the basement, I saw this giant machine that I knew must have cost thousands of dollars. I had seen a Xerox machine before, but had never used one. I walked around it a few times, afraid to touch the myriad of buttons for fear I would break it. I was about to panic when a lady about my mother’s age walked in and stood behind me, waiting her turn to make copies.

She saw my red face and asked if she could help. Oh, how I hated to admit that I didn’t know how to use that machine. I worried for days whether she would tell my new colleagues just how green I was.

If I can advance from that point to having my own website and writing regular posts to my blog, then I’m not worried about a generation who likely had computers in their baby cribs. Some of you are probably texting right now.

Here is what does worry me. That in the rush to keep pace, we will forget or never learn basic principles that never change—timeless and universal truths that have been recognized by great men and women for centuries. These truths are more important than technology. Much more important.

I learned these critical lessons, but I wish I had learned them sooner. I have told my wife Jan that I want these words on my tombstone. Could have done more, could have done it better, wish I had. If I had only known sooner.

I had eight jobs in eight years after my graduation. Two companies went bankrupt while I worked for them, one more fell shortly after I left. I got justifiably fired from another.

I felt like the cartoon character who walks around with a cloud over his head. I hope your first decade is better. But it is almost guaranteed that you will experience some missteps along the way, if not downright failures.

I discovered later that each of those failures had taught me invaluable lessons—lessons that led me to run a successful business of my own—even to advise others.

But in midlife, it seemed I had reached a plateau in my career and personal life, and that plateau was not very high. I opened branch offices in three other towns. Two failed, one struggled.

This was the era of learning leadership and business principles through books like  In Search of Excellence, Thriving on Chaos, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,  and just about the time I jumped into shark-infested waters, Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive.

A year or so into reading and listening to these great trainers and writers, one of them told me to look in the mirror if I wanted to find the source of most of my problems. So I asked the image in my mirror, “How long before you start applying what you have learned to your own life?”

That look in the mirror led me to self-improvement and positive thinking folks like Zig Ziglar, Jim Rohn, Brian Tracy, and many others.  They convinced me that certain truths applied to a country boy from Klondike, just like the successful and famous. And they taught me how to set goals.

But I was still a skeptic, dismissive of rah-rah and platitudes. I wanted things to be proven by logic and empirical evidence.  I sought the secret, the formula for success, while doubting that either existed.

W. Clement Stone, a poor boy who made good (very good), took Og Mandino, an alcoholic, under his wing. Og went on to write some of the most successful business books ever published, became editor of Success Magazine, and was one of the best motivational speakers I have ever heard.  One of his books was called The Greatest Secret in the World.

Mandino led me to Earl Nightingale and his recorded message in beautiful baritone called The Strangest Secret. The lights began to come on.

Stone also introduced me to a book that virtually every salesman (but few accountants) knew by heart in those days, Think and Grow Rich, written by Napoleon Hill and first published in 1937.  

Hill had been commissioned by Andrew Carnegie to research and write a book about why successful people succeeded. And Carnegie gave him access to some of the world’s most accomplished people. It took Hill twenty years to complete his book.

My skeptical ears perked up when I heard that. In twenty years, Hill had surely found that elusive formula I was seeking.

So now I had it—Hill’s well-researched formula and Mandino’s and Nightingale’s secrets.

They led me to Dr. Joseph Murphy’s book, The Power of the Subconscious Mind, to Maxwell Maltz’s Psycho-Cybernetics, and to Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking. They proved to me the connection between mind and body.

My career took a new direction as I took their ideas and weaved them into the message I was conveying to the relatively new financial planning profession as part of my new company.  One night in Canadian, Texas, the Oasis of the Panhandle, I had another awakening.

I did a presentation for local CPA Mike Gardiner. Mike invited all of his clients to the community room of his church to hear me. After the program, I discovered a set of my handouts had been left in a chair. They had been scribbled all over. Beside each of my formulas and secrets, someone had written a biblical verse. Mike’s pastor had occupied that chair.

At Mike’s house, we looked up the verses.  The man had found biblical prose that espoused every principle in my handout. As my plane took flight out of Amarillo, I looked out the window at the desolate but beautiful Panhandle landscape and understood what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said, “All my best ideas were stolen by the ancients”. Humility settled on me like a warm quilt on a cold night.

Alexander Graham Bell (the Steve Jobs of his day) said, “What this power is I cannot say, all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.”  I now knew what that power was.

I told about my encounter with the preacher to one of the acclaimed trainers and authors I was following; about my discovery that his ideas and others were as old as time; about the
Source of the subconscious; about the connection between affirmations and prayer.

His response: “It took you long enough.”

I asked, “Why didn’t you just say so in the beginning?”

He replied, “Would you have believed me or would you have turned away? You were focused on results, not on principles. The what of things vs. the why. You wanted proof instead of truth.”  

That sent me back to the mirror and a serious look at whether their methods worked. I was  surprised to find that many of my goals had already been achieved. Maybe not exactly when or how I had envisioned, but achieved nonetheless. I had just been going too fast to see it.

As I looked back at some of the irrational, out-of-character, and risky decisions I had made, the only explanation possible was that I had been guided. When I left the path, Guidance set me on the path again. All I had to do was ask. I understood then that life is lived forward, but understood backward.

So what are these universal truths?  

In a quarter century of conducting thousands of client interviews and asking about their fondest hopes, dreams and aspirations, one word was repeated most often. That word was freedom, freedom to pursue life’s path with joy.

We all have a purpose in life-a call, if you will. Find yours. It’s okay to find the correct path by making mistakes, taking the wrong path. In America’s unequaled system of free enterprise, search for your particular way of providing value, whether in a good or a service. Money will follow.

When you find your path, follow it, and ask for help to keep you on the path. The only thing that stands between you and what you want is the will to try and the faith to believe it is possible. Don’t delay, as I did, in finding your purpose. 

Find folks who have been-there-done-that and emerged as successes on a personal and financial level. Study what they did. Read their work, listen to them, seek their advice.  Jim Rohn put it another way when he said, “Find out what failures do, and don’t do it.”
Success formulas and secrets have been known since ancient times.  But it’s in the implementation of the concepts where the rubber meets the road. One quality possessed  by every person Napoleon Hill studied was self-discipline.

You must choose to do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not. Self discipline is also what keeps you from doing what you should not.  

Read at least one hour a day (tweets and texts don’t count).  We need longer attention spans, not shorter.

If you really desire to be successful at anything, you must engage in deliberate practice.
Enjoy the little things, because someday you may look back and see that they were really the big things.
Go wide and deep. And no, I don’t mean football. I mean life. You may have within you  the capacity for several careers and endeavors. But if you must choose between wide and deep, go deep.
Daniel H. Burnham said, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood.  Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.   

One more story: Renowned author and investor Alexander Green knows about universal truths. He was browsing in a bookstore with a friend when they encountered Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author of The Black Swan. All three were speaking at a financial conference close by. 

Nicholas’ announcement that he was planning a book on religion prompted an argument with Green’s friend as to whether a particular theological point "was true."

Nicholas pointed to the fiction section of the bookstore and asked, "How about all those books over there. Are they true?"

"Of course not," Green’s friend said. "They're novels."

Green stepped into the argument. "But they are full of universal truths."

Nicholas smiled with satisfaction and said, "Exactly!"

In Green’s book Beyond Wealth, he says, “Seek enlightenment wherever you can find it. It doesn't matter whether the source is ancient, modern, mythical, foreign, mystical, or verified by the latest scientific findings. It only matters that it's true - and that it has some practical application for more skillful living.”

In his timeless book, As a Man Thinketh, James Allen said:

Cherish your visions, cherish your ideals, cherish the music that stirs in your heart, the beauty that forms in your mind, the loveliness that drapes your purest thoughts. If you will remain true to them, your world will at last be built.

I leave you with my own words to remember when you become discouraged:

Enjoy these days of struggle, the best you can.  Because almost surely you will look back on them with fondness. Try to hear the music that sings in all of our souls. On some days, success will seem to reside on a mountain that reaches through the clouds – a mountain you sometimes tire of climbing. But then there will be other days when success visits like a firefly at twilight, elusive and distant at once, then brushing your cheek or resting on the back of your hand, too swift to touch.  Someday, a firefly will land in your palm. Don’t close your hand around it, because the light will go out. Allow yourself to feel the thrill of success changing from stranger to friend, then let it fly away so you can find it again.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thirteen Moons

I read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain twice—once before watching the movie, and again after. The great cinematography in the movie made me want to go there again on the printed page. I think I may have been a little distracted on the first read, because I recall finding it a tough slog for the first hundred pages or so. I just couldn’t identify or have much sympathy for Inman, the main character. Of course, I almost never quit on a book and my determination was amply rewarded.
Thirteen Moons sat in my unread pile for several years. I can’t explain why. Guess I was worried that it might fail victim to the “sophomore jinx” or maybe I feared it was going to be too literary for an old country boy. Frazier writes so well it probably intimidates me.
 I find it difficult to describe him or his writing. It is lyrical, poetic, and descriptive. But he just does not let me connect to his characters in this one, especially Will Cooper, the protagonist. I found myself forgetting his name and did not have a clear picture of him in my mind. I think it was because we seldom hear him talk (as in dialogue).
Will tells the story from the perspective of an old man nearly ninety. He is twelve when his aunt and uncle send him away as a “bound boy” to a merchant who runs trading posts at the edge of the Cherokee Nation in North Carolina.  At twelve and continuing through his teen years, Will is extremely well read and mature. 
He is an accomplished gambler as well. I know that boys during that era matured much faster than boys of today, but I found that his devouring of major literary works sounded more like the author than the character. Wouldn’t mere ownership of quality literary books by a bound boy of twelve have been highly unusual? Maybe not.   
Will’s gambling prowess with seasoned adults, although explained, seems to also lack verisimilitude (see, I know big words, too). He actually wins a young girl in a card game, starting a life-long romance. The romance develops, but the first encounter between a couple twelve and thirteen seemed a little over the top. Maybe it’s just me.
Will’s exploits as an adult also border on the fanciful, until you learn that the character is loosely based on the historical William Thomas Holland.  I had a hard time swallowing that a white man could become a Cherokee Chief, a merchant with multiple trading posts, and obtain landholdings larger than some states.  Holland didn’t do all these things, but he was a Cherokee Chief.  
 Frazier did win me over with his expert and impartial rendering of Cherokee history, including the Trail of Tears and the tribe’s role in the Civil War, Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction.  Frazier also describes the North Carolina mountain landscape with perfection and enough emotion to make you want to live there.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Last Trip to Klondike

As we passed Dogtown road, my mind left highway 24 and turned south down the road I had traveled as a teenager—to the house where I had lived during high school and college. I was riding shotgun to Willie Tucker in a white stretch limo—nervous about his delayed reactions.  I couldn’t carry on a conversation with my family seated in the back because Willie always thought I was talking to him—his hearing as impaired as his driving reflexes. 

We were following a white hearse carrying my mother on her last trip to Klondike.  The pallbearers, grandsons by birthright and by marriage, followed in a third white car behind us.  Having those strong young men represent the future of the family and their bond with my mother and me provided more comfort than I would have imagined. 

We passed the three bridges where my siblings and I swam with our father when we were children—the bridges where Star, my brother Eddy’s horse that belonged to us all, met his maker courtesy of a milk truck.  That, like this one, was a sad day, but I had little notion of real sadness in those youthful days—the kind that can’t be cured by a hug from your mother.  Now, I knew. 

Daddy was gone, dead at fifty-nine.  Eddy left us too, at only thirty-four.  Now Mother. As we neared the old Reed place where I spent the first fourteen years of my life, the memories started to flow. 

I had walked our gravel driveway and down Highway 24 to school at West Delta many times, giving me bragging rights about braving the cold wind, rain and snow to walk to school.  I never measured it, but I would guess that school was no more than a mile from the Reed place and I usually rode the bus or in someone’s car during bad weather.

But I had hitchhiked to ballgames and practices from this spot.  Those were bright memories, but looking down that gravel road to the old barns and the spot where the house once stood, the memories seemed bittersweet—memories seldom talked about at times like these.  On second thought, maybe only at times like these.

Those memories are cloudy, like the picture on our old black and white television.   Today, I couldn’t relish them like I wanted, because we still had a job to do.  I felt that job getting in the way of the experience.  I felt sure that I should be immersed in the past, but couldn’t get too far out of the present.  Willie’s driving and the job at hand made sure of that. 

The job, of course, was to bury Mother beside Daddy and her two sons, say the final prayers and let her go.  We did that.

Jan and I made the same trip twenty-four hours later. I wanted to try once more to experience the things I felt one should experience when a last parent dies, remember the things one should remember. I couldn’t do that in the funeral procession.  Connecting to them through remembering the past should somehow be healing.   

I felt my breath come in short gasps and I got a catch in my throat when we pulled off 24 onto the old Klondike highway.  When we entered the Klondike cemetery, Mother’s was the only new grave.  No visitors were in the old graveyard. 

As I left the car, the stark dreariness of the weather struck me.  Yesterday had been sunny and cold, my kind of weather—thankful for that.  Today, thin clouds blocked any cheerfulness or warmth the sun might have offered and made it seem colder than it was. The sky was gray and that grayness made the surroundings of the old cemetery seem even bleaker. 

It was the dead of winter, though, and I had been here when the sun was warm and birds sang.  Today, only a soft wind sang, interrupted regularly by the call of crows.  Do crows caw, call, cry or sing?  Lots of people don’t like their sounds, but I always have.  They are lonesome, but peaceful, like the sound of a train whistle.  I wondered if that was Mother’s or Daddy’s way of speaking to me. 

I stared at the mound of dirt over her grave.  Flowers covered part of it, but it was still ugly.  If I had been looking at this old graveyard as a potential purchase, I would have called it just a sorry piece of dirt. 

We had had several days of wet weather and the fresh dirt was muddy. This was the second coldest winter on record and one of the wettest, but that old clay still hung together in huge clods.  Will they ever smooth out?  

I always wondered why Daddy had chosen this place to bury his first-born son and his parents.  It was called the New Klondike Cemetery back then.  Now, calling it new seemed a contradiction, but the sorry piece of dirt had changed into a place of healing. 

I was twenty-six when Daddy died.  I tried to put time into perspective by comparing myself to my father.  Daddy was twenty-five in 1936 when he and Mother lost my brother Richard just before he turned two.  Daddy lost his mother only three years later. 

Now, I almost understood their pain, but hoped that I would never fully understand.  Helping to handle Daddy’s funeral arrangements seemed like a blur to me now. What he must have gone through to bury a son and a mother only three years apart. 

I couldn’t help but picture Mother in that casket in her red flannel gown. It was perfect for her and she looked exceptionally pretty.  It seems that in the absence of pain, her beauty had returned.  But I couldn’t keep her fear of dying out of my mind. 

I think her fear stemmed from having to leave her baby in that cold, damp ground sixty-five years before.  I have heard her refer to the horror of that many times.  I felt remorse for having left her here. I know there was no choice, but it didn’t ease the feeling of guilt.  My faith told me that Mother’s soul and spirit were not there, only her body.  But I loved that old, frail, worn-out body, too. 

In the hospital a short two days before, as I watched Mother draw her last breath, our long odyssey rushed through my mind. More than a decade of various health problems, a crippling disease, broken hips, fractured bones, cuts, abrasions, surgeries, research hospitals and emergency rooms, nursing homes. We had another operational procedure scheduled if she had lived. 

Her problems were overwhelming, her body was worn out, but at that moment and until now, I want to bring her back for one more genuine hug, one more conversation, one more I love you. I need her to say it to me as much as I need to say it to her. 

I want to say I am sorry for all the times I was impatient and short with her—all the times I resented her for intruding in my life.  I wish I could have been more compassionate, gentler, more consistently loving. 

Jan said that in the minute before I returned to Mother’s bedside, a single tear rolled down her cheek.  Was that just a physical reaction, or was it emotion or pain?  Had she heard the myriad of conversations with doctors and nurses about how hopeless her condition was or the conversations about feeding tubes, insurance and Medicare and hospice care?  We tried to speak out of her hearing, but we were all guilty of being careless.  Did she decide she was too much of a burden and will herself to die? 

As I went through the procedures of signing death paperwork and dealing with the funeral home minutes after her death, I irrationally expected to have one more conversation with her, to ask her about her final wishes. She had come back from expected death before.

I waited in the hall and watched as they rolled her out of the room, covered with a gray shroud.  I followed as she went out the back of the hospital, and then got in my truck to follow the hearse down the street.  Finally, I turned south to head home to call my sister and my children as Mother turned north.  The road was blurry as I said goodbye to her one more time. 

As the wind blew softly and the crows called, I stood before that mound of dirt where my Mother’s body lay.  I thought, “She’s in a better place. I did the best I could.”  But I didn’t.  I could have done better.  She told me many times how much she appreciated what we did for her and how she hated to be a burden, and I am sure that she is saying now that we did well. 

Mother’s gift was unconditional love. But I think her last gift to me may be a lesson in living—be more patient, more compassionate, more giving, more loving and more expressive of that love.