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The Power of Seeing Your Life as Story

Manuscript by Muffet via Flickr

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Shakespeare, As You Like It

Many writers have spoken of the power of seeing your life as a story. Joseph Campbell has devoted much of his life to exploring how our myths shape us. Paulo Coehlo teaches that each person must discover their own “personal legend.”

I too believe that a vital part of the examined life, the successful life consists of seeing your life as story. Why? I see three distinct benefits. One is rooted in the past, one is anchored in the present, and the third is planted in the future:

1. Seeing your life as story lets you see how far you’ve come, the chapters you’ve already accomplished

2. Seeing your life as story gives you clear direction and focus for what actions you need to be taking now

3. Seeing your life as story gives you hope for the future, that there will be ever greater & more exciting chapters in store for you

To see your life as story, one useful technique is to think of your life as chapters. In each stage of your life there is a major challenge or conflict, and a major way that you need to grow to overcome the challenge, win the conflict, climb the mountain until you reach a new vista of awareness, strength, maturity and opportunity. What’s more, the lesson learned, the growth obtained in one chapter both paves the way for the challenge of the next chapter and equips you to successfully surmount it.

I can see these truths so clearly in my own life. Looking back over the past fifteen years of my life, I see four major chapters that I have lived. Each chapter has had its own challenge & growth, and the close of each chapter has opened the next. Now the chapters have overlap– it’s not that I was in chapter one for exactly four years and three days, and then chapter two started, but they have certainly been distinct passages I have traveled through.

The first chapter, starting about fifteen years ago, is titled “Man Experiences God.” In my early thirties I was still stuck in the foolishness, immaturity and self-centeredness of youth. Although I was outwardly successful as a physician, and though I had been active in church all my life, God was more a theoretical concept than an active reality in my life. I knew quite a lot about God, but I didn’t know God– His love, His acceptance, His presence, His guiding spirit.

Looking back, I see that is why I had made little progress spiritually. I was like a seed that had seen water, knew what water was, but had never actually experienced water, the water of life that a seed must have to start the process of growth. My encounter with God’s love and presence becoming a vital reality in my life was like how Jesus described the wind in John 3– you can’t put a label on it, but its effects are unmistakable.

God’s life-giving presence opened the door for my second chapter, “Man Explores Himself.” During these years I went beyond many of my preconceptions and fixed ideas about who I was. I discovered my passion and talent for writing. I did mentoring and teaching. I did the unthinkable and ran a half marathon. I read dozens of books on spiritual and personal development. I pushed, stretched, and explored myself in a dozen different ways, and in doing so truly became the man God originally envisioned me to be.

As exciting and necessary as that chapter was, it only drove me into my third chapter, “Man Wrestles With God, Himself, & His Path.” Just like Issac of old, coming to grips with who I was and where my path lay was a process & a struggle. Many refer to going through a “mid-life crisis.” Although I never suddenly started wearing gold chains or driving a Harley, exploring who I was forced me to take a hard look at what I had done with my life, where I was, what God wanted for me, and where my future path really lay.

For many people this triggers disillusion, disappointment, and self-destructive behavior. But for some it can be a catalyst for radical positive change. For my friend Richard Iammarino, an honest exploration of who he really was led him to walk away from a secure academic appointment as a pathologist to go back to school to become who God had created him to be– a counselor.

For me, wrestling with God has largely confirmed that I am where God wants me to be, but with a renewed passion & focus on being a teacher & mentor, developing wisdom & loving well. But going through this chapter, and honestly questioning who I was and where my path lay, was an essential chapter to my story that I could not skip.

So now I see myself transitioning into a new chapter, “Man Confidently Walks His Path & Creates His Life.” I am to the point where I know who I am and my big questions about my life are answered, and I am ready to plow ahead with becoming the best me I can be, growing, maturing, creating, serving, loving along the path that God has laid out for me. I turned 48 years old today, and I feel excited and invigorated, looking forward to the years ahead, looking forward to my approaching sixth decade on this planet.

Will there be another chapter in my life beyond this one, one whose title is right now known only to God? I hope so– maybe even several. But seeing this story of my life, stretching from my past, grounded in my present, and reaching into my future, I can live today with confidence, excitement, peace, & joy. Carpe diem!

 

 

Book Review: Max on Life

Perspective. Wisdom. Guidance. They’re always welcome, and often sorely needed, in each of our lives.

And that’s exactly what Pastor Max Lucado delivers in his new book Max on Life— godly pastoral wisdom and counsel on 170 different topics. Questions that he has been asked over his decades of ministry, ranging from “How can I be sure of my salvation?” to “How can my husband and I agree on spending?”

The questions are grouped under seven topics: hope, hurt, help, him/her, home, haves/have-nots, and hereafter. Each question is succinctly answered in Lucado’s trademark straightforward style in a page or two. At the back of the book is a short addendum with some of his advice to aspiring writers as well.

What shines through each page is how pastoral these answers are. They are not the discourses of one theologian to another, nor are they simply feel-good self-help mantras. They are ordinary answers targeted to ordinary people, gentle, kind, soaked in Biblical wisdom, always looking to God’s love & grace. Even though you probably will think, “Yes, I knew that…” at each answer, Lucado’s way with words will cause you to pause, reflect, and see the truth just a bit more clearly.

I can see this book being used as a devotional, as a gift to a young believer, and as a resource when you need a starting point for counseling or encouraging a friend on a difficult issue. A fine addition to any Christian’s library.

Thoughts for a New Year

2010 has been such a good year. I feel so blessed to have been a part of so many people’s lives: patients, friends, & family. It was a blessing to help in their challenges, share in their sufferings, & rejoice in their joys. And I feel I have grown in so many ways this year too.

As I was reflecting on the year, I wanted to share some quotes on life. They come from a variety of sources. Many I have scattered on the walls of my office. Yes, I know they are all generalizations, and some are more on target than others, but all of them have reminded me of important truths about life. I hope they can do the same for you.

Life consists not in holding good cards, but in playing those you hold well.

Each day comes bearing its own gifts. Untie the ribbons.

Don’t live in the past— you’ve already been there.

How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?

The best things in life aren’t things.

When suffering comes, do not resent it or resist it, but welcome it, for it brings depth & richness & wisdom to your life, just as beauty.

No Winter lasts forever, no Spring skips its turn.

Do not regret growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Let your life lightly dance on the edges of time like dew on the tip of a leaf.

Smiles reach the hard-to-reach places.

You must let go of what you are to become what you can be.

One hundred percent of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.

When writing the story of your life, don’t let anyone else hold the pen.

Tension is who you think you should be; peace is who you are.

Between the “don’t know the reasons why” of the past & the “don’t know what lies ahead” of the future lies today. Today is where God wants you to live.

You never lose by loving. You always lose by holding back.

What you don’t experience positively you will experience negatively.

To the extent that you give the world your gifts you will feel joy.

A visionary is someone who realizes that they can choose how they will look at the world & how they will interpret every event.

If lessons in life were easy then they wouldn’t be lessons.

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

You’ve got to say no to some things to say yes to others.

Take life for what it IS and what it CAN BE, not for what is was or what you wished it would be.

You can either accept what is, resist what is, or change what is, but regardless you must deal with what is.

There will always be pain.  There will always be joy.  Choose joy.

The only way to live a life fully saturated in love is to live a life fully saturated in God.

The events of life aren’t important; the meaning we choose to assign to them is.

There is only one happiness: to love & be loved.

The Principle of The Path

This is one of my “spiritual seed packs”— a condensation of a book that lays out its big ideas in a way that you can digest them in a few minutes.  The Principle of the Path by Andy Stanley is a timely tome on a timeless principle– that direction, not intention, determines destination.  Every single person can apply the truth of this principle to their life.  The following contains both direct quotes and my own reworking of the book’s main thoughts.  The original book is a recommended read and is available through Amazon by clicking here.

What is a Principle?

Principle: a truth that shapes your life

A principle is powerful: it will shape your life whether you are aware of its existence or not
A principle is immutable: principles like “you reap what you sow” will never change
A principle is unavoidable: you can’t evade it or change it
A principle is useful: once you know it you can use its power in your favor

If you don’t master life by learning to use principles, then you are left to learn by experience.

Experience is not the best teacher, it is the most brutal teacher.

Why? Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time

Trying to learn simply by experience will fill your life with regret, and regret brings despair, addiction, and a whole host of life-destroying emotions.

What is the Principle of the Path?

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a “yellow brick road” that would take you to whatever destination you wanted in life? Marriage, security, happiness, success, peace?

If there were, you would stop trying to find solutions, stop trying to “fix” your problems, and just follow the right path.

But that actually is how life works.

Simply put, you & I will win or lose in life by the paths we choose.

No matter what it looks like or what we think, we don’t actually have “problems” in our life to fix. That’s not the right way to look at life. Instead of looking for a solution, look for a direction, a direction in the path of your life to change.

The Principle of the Path:

Direction –not intention– determines destination.

You can dream & desire where you want to be all you want, but it is only the direction that you actually chose to walk in the past that has resulted in where you are right now, and it is only the direction that you choose to walk today that will result in where you will end up in the future.

The Problem With Getting Lost

People who are somewhere in their life they don’t want to be are lost.

No one gets lost on purpose, and no one know exactly when it happens, but it is always a result of taking the wrong path.

Direction is everything. Every choice in life we make changes our direction, which in turn changes our destination. That is why we cannot afford to live unaware lives, where we don’t see the connection between our daily choices, the direction that they head us in, and the destination they lead us to.

When you get lost on the road, you lose a few minutes or hours, and those are easy to make up. When you get lost in life, you can lose years or even decades, and you can never get them back. They will be wasted opportunity, gone forever.

Looking Ahead–

“the prudent see danger & take refuge, but the simple keep going & suffer for it” Proverbs 27:12

See the difference: both wise & foolish people are on a path that leads to danger, but the wise see it, look ahead and realize where the path leads and change their course, but the foolish do not look ahead, do not realize where their path is going & suffer for it.

Life is short. The seasons of life pass quickly. And each season is connected to the one that follows. Today’s decisions create tomorrow’s experiences.

Truth & Lies–

When we stand at the crossroads between prudence & pleasure, we lie to ourselves. We begin selling ourselves on what we want to do rather than what we ought to do.

We try to defend pleasure decisions with justifications that aren’t founded in truth. You can’t have it both ways when at the fork in the road pleasure goes one way & prudence goes the other.

Our problem is rarely a lack of information, it is a lack of honesty with ourselves. We deceive ourselves about why we choose the things we choose. And then we spin a web of excuses to protect ourselves, excuses that over time we come to believe.

As long as we are lying to ourselves, it is impossible to get to where we want to be. Maps are useless if you don’t know where you are.

Lying to yourself saying “everything is going to work out” or “I can handle this” doesn’t help when you’re lost, it actually keeps you from stopping, getting help, & changing direction.

Telling yourself the truth about where you are & why you got there is painful, but it is the only way to free yourself to move from where you are to where you want & need to be.

Why am I doing this, really?
If someone in my circumstances came to me for advice, what course of action would I recommend?
In light of my past experiences and my future hopes & dreams, what’s the wise thing to do?

What’s Better Than Information

The challenging aspect about picking the right paths is that the choices are now. The outcomes are later. There’s no way to unmake choices— which is why it’s so crucial for us to make the right choices up front.

But how do we make the right choices?

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

First: Don’t trust your heart, trust God with your heart.
Second: Acknowledge God: recognize Who He is, & act like it.
Result: God will make the best path unmistakably clear.

Divine direction begins with unconditional submission.

In order to make the best decisions now, we need much more than information, common sense, or conventional wisdom. We need God. If the wisdom, understanding, and insight of a man like Solomon does not ensure against choosing the wrong path, isn’t it foolish for us to lean on our own limited insight & understanding?

Why do I hesitate to give God full access to every part of my life?

What do I fear will happen on the other side of that decision?

What is the most difficult area of my life to yield control?

Cutting Through the Fog of Emotion

Your decision-making environments are not emotionally neutral. More often than not, the circumstances we face are saturated with powerful emotions. Those emotions easily turn into misguided passions. In the end, emotion clouds the ability to accurately evaluate the circumstance in order to choose the right path.

Life is too short to allow the emotions of the moment move you in a direction you will later regret.

Three questions:

Does this option violate God’s law?
Does this option violate a principle?
In light of the story I want to tell of my whole life, what is the wise thing to do?

Whose map are you using?

Would you get driving directions from someone that had never been where you wanted to go? All of us take cues in life from someone or something. Many of our “maps” are subconscious, yet we still use them everyday to steer our path.

One of the most crucial decisions you will make is the decision regarding whose map you are going to follow.

Successful people attribute their success to the wisdom & insight they garner from others.

Successful people know when they’re in over their head. They don’t deceive themselves or others.

Chances are, you would have avoided what turned out to be your greatest regret if you had sought out and listened to wise counsel. The wise are always listening. That’s how they became wise.

You will never reach your full potential without tapping into the wisdom of others.

The Power of Attention

We have a tendency to drift in the direction of the things that have my attention.

Attention determines direction.

The perceived cost of disentangling ourselves from the unhealthy things that have our attention seems too high to us, as is the price of focusing on healthy things with a payoff that seems far away.

We don’t drift in good directions. We discipline and prioritize ourselves there.

Dead Dreams

What do you do with dreams that can’t come true, destinations that are unreachable?

You can choose anger, or despair, or manipulating, but at the end of it all, you will be just as far away from whatever you desired as before, but you will also be far away from God. Your only other option is to go towards God, pour out your heart, and confess, “Not my will, but Yours.”

The Pillars & Planks of the Man of God

The time was September 2002. My oldest son Andrew had just turned nine, and I was amazed at how fast the time had passed. I remembered that day in 1994 when I first held him in my hands. I was overcome with a profound sense of the responsibility of having this tiny life in my hands, both in a literal sense and in a sense of the responsibility of guiding the life of his soul. I remembered feeling totally inadequate to the task, and asking God for His grace.

Nine years later, I again felt keenly in need of God’s grace. No, there was no major crisis, but I saw how that tiny baby that it seemed like just yesterday I was cradling in my hands was now a cub scout, and I saw how this boy would soon grow into a man. I looked around and thought how little this world and this culture would be a positive influence on his journey into manhood, and how it was my responsibility, more than any other person, to be a mentor, example, and guide to him.

The boy would soon be a man, I thought. But that realization begat the question, what is a man? What defines manhood? How does God define it? What are the values that will allow a man to look back at the end of his life with a sense of deep & lasting satisfaction, and what will cause the heart of God to speak over his life, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased?”

I wanted to give my son some guideposts, some markers along the way that would be faithful & true. And so I turned to the Scriptures, and saw three vertical pillars that define the relationship between a man and his God, and fourteen horizontal planks that characterize a life well lived. These pillars and planks can describe the lives of both men & women of God, but I wrote them originally for my son, and set them in a frame that hung as a daily reminder in his bedroom.

The first of the three pillars that I chose was that a man enjoys God with all his heart. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself also in the Lord,” and yet so few people structure their lives around that command. It is so easy to slip into a mere religion of rules and end up delighting in religion itself like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, or adopting today’s materialistic mindset that adds God as a once a week afterthought to a life really focused on the things of this world. I wanted my son to steer a true course between both of those errors first and foremost.

The second pillar posted on his bedroom wall stated that a man depends on God for all his needs. I wanted to cultivate in him a constant gaze toward God, meditating on Philippians 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” I knew that if he always looked to God, God would never fail him.

The final pillar I gave to him was that a man glorifies God with all his life. Looking to the Westminster Confession and to Paul’s command that, “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God,” ( 1 Corinithians 10:31 ) I did not want him to fall into the trap of dividing his life between the secular and the sacred. I didn’t want him to ever think that God would consider it acceptable to give a mere portion of his time, talent, & treasure to the Kingdom. No, I wanted him to see all of life as a marvelous quest to enjoy God, depend on God, & glorify God.

With these pillars firmly set, I next outlined the “planks”– the values that characterize the man of God. I first reminded him that a man was passionate–that he loves God and loves life with all his heart. A life not driven by passion is a life that accomplishes nothing. I wanted the first commandment to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” ( Matthew 22:37 ) to be more than just words to him, but the life blood of his own heart.

Next I wrote that a man was selflesshe shows God’s love to others. Jesus in John 13:34 gave us a “new” commandment to love one another. What was new about the love Jesus commanded? His love was a selfless, sacrificial, divine love, the love that He himself showed to us. I wanted to pass on that challenge to my son, to let his life be characterized by selfless Christlike love.

The third plank was that a man needs to be humble. I defined a humble man as one who knows he needs God, who admits when he’s wrong, and who isn’t proud when he’s right. Humility begins with the realization of who I am in relation to who God is. Humility demonstrates itself day to day by accepting responsibility in the face of failure, and avoiding pride in the face of victory. As Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:5, the man who can consistently live out humility is the one who gets much grace from God.

But in his humility a man also needs to show that he is brave. The definition I wrote was that a brave man is committed to do what’s right whatever the sacrifice, for he knows that God is faithful.  I crafted each word to clearly define what a God-honoring bravery is: it takes commitment, it must be in the service of what’s right, it must be prepared to pay the price, and it must have as its foundation the faithfulness of God toward His people.

Another essential quality I saw was being thankful: to know God’s love is behind every blessing & every trial. The Bible warns of both flavors of ingratitude– that of the man in plenty who forgets God, and the man in want who blames God. Every man experiences times of both want & plenty, and I wanted my son to be prepared to obey the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to give thanks in everything.

The sixth plank in my list was for him to be committed to being honestalways telling the truth no matter what. Telling less than the truth is always the easy way out of a difficult situation, but it is never the right way. As a memory verse I wrote down Proverbs 12:22– Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal truthfully are His delight.

I next wrote that the man of God is a holy man, in that he lives as a temple of the Holy Spirit, as 1 Corinthians 6:19 teaches. The concept of personal holiness is so often misunderstood & even mocked, both within & without the church. I wanted Andrew to see the Biblical view of holiness, as being honored, chosen, and set apart for God’s use.

I also wanted him to learn the true way to be strong– that supernatural strength is found in following God. The prophet Isaiah gave us this secret of the true source of strength thousands of years ago when he wrote,

He gives power to the weak,
And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
And the young men shall utterly fall,
But those who wait on the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They shall mount up with wings like eagles,
They shall run and not be weary,
They shall walk and not faint. ( Isaiah 40:29-31 )

A godly man also reflects God’s own character in being faithful– he knows that God expects him to keep his promises. I want my son to one day hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” ( Matthew 25:21 )

In order to be faithful, a man must be hard-working– knowing the opportunity to use all his might for God’s glory is an honor and a pleasure. I most certainly did not want him sprawled across my couch at age 29 playing video games. I wanted his life to demonstrate 1 Corinthians 15:58 with him “always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that (his) labor is not in vain in the Lord.”

I longed to see him grow up to be wiseseeing things as things as God does, as well as patient, seeing God’s timing as perfect. I knew that without patience & wisdom no man will go far.

But with the strength & wisdom & patience, I did not want him to be directionless in life. I wanted him to be a man of purpose– always searching for what God wants him to do. I knew that God never tells us the whole story of our life, but I wanted him to always be assured that there was a story that the Father had specifically written for him. I wanted him to know that he could live with the same confidence that Jesus displayed in John 12:49 and know that God had sent him into this world for a specific purpose as well.

Finally, I wanted to sum up all I wanted him to be for God, for his family, and for himself. I chose the word deep. The man who is deep gets that way by committing to grow by knowing himself, the world, and God better each day. By living his life daily by these pillars and planks, he develops into a man of depth who is of inestimable value to God’s Kingdom.

So, eight years later— how is my child who is now a man? Well, at 17 he still has a way to go, but he is on the path. As he continues to learn from God and walk with God, I trust that he will continue to be a son that makes his father proud. For that matter, I hope that we all want to live by the same pillars & planks to make our Father proud as well.

Living From Your Strengths

Everyone wants to experience life as exciting & fulfilling, but most of us find that a challenging task. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be hundreds of books published every year to help us figure it out.

What is the real secret to leading a happy, successful life? There is a growing body of research pointing to living your life based on your strengths.  At the vanguard of this strengths movement are researchers and authors such as Marcus Buckingham, who has written a series of books on the subject of living in your strengths, including Now, Discover Your Strengths, The Truth About You, and his latest targeted toward women Find Your Strongest Life.

So what is a strong life? How do you intentionally plan and live your life according to your strengths? First, you need to think about what you are actually using now as your plan for living.

What is Your Plan for Living?

Everyone has one: their plan for living. You do too. It’s your unwritten belief system of what you assume “works” in life. In other words, it’s what you’ve assumed to be the right way to get to the life you want, and you have structured your life to reflect it. Your first step is to recognize what your plan is, and then ask yourself the Dr. Phil question, “So, how’s that working for ya?”

You might have bought into keeping your life “balanced”— thinking the secret to living is to keep everything evenly divided between work, family, friends, & time for yourself. The problem with trying to plan your life by balance is that perfect balance is almost impossible to achieve, stressful to maintain, and not very satisfying to actually live out day by day. Balance is frustrating, draining, and unfulfilling.

Or you might have swung in the complete opposite direction and hung all of your fulfillment hopes on one specific dream or goal. It might be a career goal, or it might be a personal achievement or certain financial position. For many it is a relational goal like finding the perfect spouse or raising children.

There are several problems with structuring your life around one dream or goal, however. One problem is that research has proven that we are notoriously unreliable in predicting what specific goals will fulfill us (the “spend your life climbing the mountain & realize it was the wrong one” syndrome). Research also shows that the fulfillment we receive from a specific goal is almost always less than what we thought it would be (the “reach the top of the mountain, look around, and think, well, that was nice” syndrome). And of course, we don’t need research to know that sometimes life derails the best laid plans, and a dream that we had invested all our hopes in becomes impossible to achieve.

So, what’s the alternative to life by balance or life by goals? What actually works? It is a life based on strengths, but to live by your strengths you first have to know what they are. What, then, are your strengths? How do you find them? How do you then live by them?

What is a Strength?

The simplest definition of a life strength is that it is any activity which makes you feel strong. Engaging in a strength gives you energy to enjoy & persevere & accomplish. It provides you emotional power; it makes you come alive. Strengths are hard-wired into the very core of our genetics and our soul, and although they grow and develop, their essence remains relatively fixed throughout our lives.

A strength is not necessarily what you are “good” at. Many people may be highly skilled at doing something they hate or that makes them feel miserable. No matter how “good” you are at something, if it sucks life out of you it is not a true strength and it is not something you should base your life upon.

How can you tell if something is a true life strength? Buckingham cites four S.I.G.N.s that will be present in any true strength:

  • Successful — you feel effective & capable in what you are doing
  • Instinctive anticipation — you feel a gut level sense of being on the right track & enjoying the ride when you are engaged in it
  • Growing and learning — you will love growing and learning more about what you do, you will easily “get lost” in what you do (what people call being “in the zone” or “flow”)
  • Needs fulfilled — you feel your relationship needs and recognition needs are being met when you are doing this, that people who matter to you are celebrating your successes and reinforcing your strengths

You’ll notice that all four of these signs have to do with feelings, and not any kind of “objective” measurements. There is a deep reason for that: we live our lives through what we feel. To some of us, that sounds shallow, to base any kind of life plan off of “feelings.” But in reality, we all know the stories of people who were “rich” or “successful” yet were miserable– yes, they FELT miserable. So any life plan that doesn’t respect our feelings, what will make us personally FEEL fulfilled & happy, is doomed to failure. Buckingham says that a strong life is not what you do, but what you feel.

Am I Leading a Strong Life Now?

In Find Your Strongest Life Buckingham poses five questions to help you assess how well you are integrating your strengths within your life:

How often do I feel an emotional high in my life?
How often do I find myself positively anticipating my day?
How often do I become so joyfully involved in what I am doing that I lose track of time?
How often do I feel invigorated at the end of a long, busy day?
How often do I get to do things I really like to do?

How did you do? Could you say “yes” most days to every question, or at least 4 out of 5? That is how a life based on strengths plays out, every day.

That kind of life is possible, if you (you guessed it) learn to listen to, live in, & be led by your strengths. It is a life not of balance but of fullness, where each part of your life (career, personal achievements, relationships) fill you up, and all contribute to a life well lived. Buckingham says that it means “mastering the skill of using life to fill you up.”

Listening to Your Strengths

The first step in this journey of living by your strengths is to listen to your strengths. Listening to your strengths means to learn who you are and what makes you strong. God has wired us all differently, in a unique combination of physical, mental, & spiritual capabilities, and these all together form who we are.

Before Lance Armstrong was even born, he was wired, body, mind, & spirit to become the greatest cyclist of the century. What if he had become an accountant? Or even a baseball player? He would have missed what God created him to be.

We may not be Lance Armstrong, but God has wired us all to grow & excel & become great using our own unique strengths. Buckingham truthfully states that as you grow, you become more and more of who you already are. We will always be able to grow most in the areas of our strengths.

But how do you find out what your strengths are? One key way is to search for what Buckingham calls strong moments. A strong moment is just that: a moment where you catch yourself at your best, where you feel strength & life & joy, where you’re “in your groove.” It can be at work or play or home, it could be working on a project or cleaning out a closet.

Be curious and open; Buckingham recommends you keep a small notepad with you and scribble down what you are doing when you feel strong, like, “I feel strong when I’m asking someone how they can solve a problem” “I feel strong when I’ve organized my to-do list” “I feel strong when a friend confides in me.”

If you do this for several days and review your list, you will see patterns of major strengths. Try to distill your list into three specific strength statements that you can keep fixed in your mind. When I first did this exercise, I came up with these strength statements:

I feel strong when I create.
I feel strong when I communicate truth.
I feel strong when I connect with people.
I feel strong when I’m learning.

A second way to seek out your strengths is to discover your key role in life. Buckingham defines people falling into one of nine major key roles: their optimal way to approach life and relationships. The roles are Advisor, Caretaker, Creator, Equalizer, Influencer, Motivator, Pioneer, Teacher, & Weaver.

There is a 23 question quiz on his website www.stronglifetest.com that will help define your major life role, and there is additional information in his book Find Your Strongest Life. The online test questions are structured for women, so your results may not be as accurate if you are a man.

Knowing your key role will help show you where you’ll be most effective and most fulfilled in a situation, whether at work or at home. It will help point you in the direction of strong moments and guide how you can maximize your results within any area of your life. I, for instance, am a very strong CREATOR according to his role scheme, and I have always drawn strength whenever I am creating (especially writing!).

Another clue to your strengths can be in your childhood, the things you loved to do before the pressures and conflicting voices of “growing-up” took their toll on your spirit. Did you love to build? Run a lemonade stand? Were you always interested in how things were put together? Always singing or dancing? Those earliest expressions of your strengths may be powerful guides to you today.

When I was in elementary school, I wrote plays & poems (actually placed in a national contest), read incessantly, and sketched out new inventions one after another (all strong signs, of course, of a creator!). What did you love to do as a child? How can it clue you in on your strengths that are still deep within you?

Living in Your Strengths

It is not enough to simply know your strengths; you must live your life through them. You live your life not in the past or the future, but in the present, in the moment. A strong life is made of strong moments: when you’re living out one of your strengths, and in that moment recognize and embrace the energy and joy and life that it brings you.

This is a present-oriented approach to life, in that “moments matter most.” Buckingham states,

The secret to living a strong life is not hidden from you. It is not cached in some recessed corner of your personality. It is not “out there” somewhere in the future, in some perfect job you have yet to find or some goal you have yet to reach… it is right in front of you, calling to you every day…. hidden within life’s daily blizzard of moments are some specific moments that can energize you, and that you are both perceptive enough to identify them and powerful enough to push your life toward them.

Buckingham teaches that you must learn to “catch & cradle” your strong moments to allow them to nourish & guide you. To “cradle” a moment means you:

  • Concentrate on it: you pay attention to it, look at it from different angles, delight in its detail
  • Accept it: you “feel its weight and allow it to move you”— even if it is in a direction you didn’t expect or plan
  • Nurture it: you protect it, you give it what it needs to grow & change

Being Led By Your Strengths

As you learn to observe and discover your strengths and then live in them, you then allow them to lead you. You lean your life into your strengths; you intentionally imbalance your life, using your strengths to tilt your world toward them. You actually strive for imbalance, because imbalance creates direction and forward motion and progress. A ball on a perfectly flat surface doesn’t go anywhere, but a ball on the top of a mountain will start rolling down, picking up more speed and more defined direction as it moves.

Create the time & opportunity for your strong moments: plan the place, carve out the time, put in into your schedule, and stick to it. If your strength is sewing dresses, then fix weekly or daily time for it. If it is public speaking, then do something like join a Toastmasters club to throw yourself into speaking opportunities consistently. Continue to refine your strengths & look at them from different angles, and celebrate them— share them with others.

In each area and responsibility of your life (work, family, church, friends) find one or two strong moments that can nourish and energize you. For instance, if you are a teacher, let that shine in your work team and seek to be the one who is learning about the latest in your field and sharing it with others. If you are a weaver, let your house be the one that all your children’s friends come to and hang out. If you can’t find any way to apply your strengths to an area of your life then reduce or eliminate that area.

Remember that attention amplifies everything. As you focus your attention on your strengths, they will increase in your life and the energy, joy, and fulfillment you draw from them will grow. It’s so easy to by led by your weaknesses, to focus on what’s wrong with your life, that you can wind up with the weaknesses of your life becoming your life. It is far more powerful to focus and be led by your strengths.

Passion. Vision. Growth. Momentum. Fulfillment. All these are the fruit of learning, living, & being led by your strengths. I’ve seen all of these expand in my life as I’ve increasingly lived in my strengths. So, now it’s up to you: take the time and effort to learn, live, and be led by your strengths. It’s a marvelous journey, and you can start today.

Book Review: Find Your Strongest Life

Marcus Buckingham has bad news: it’s tough to be a woman.

But he also has good news: every woman can surmount her challenges and live a full life by listening to, living in, and being led by her strengths.

This is Buckingham’s latest book on the subject of strengths, and it is directly targeted towards women.  He starts out by spewing out a slew of sad statistics.  He points out how women, as a population, are sadder than men, sadder as they grow older, and sadder now than they were 40 years ago.  They are also more stressed and far more likely to suffer clinical depression than their male counterparts.

Why is this? He argues that both the complexities and responsibilities of a modern woman’s life have mushroomed, and the push to “have it all” but lead a “balanced” life have led to a massive stress overload.

What is the solution?  Buckingham offers a strengths-based life as a path out of the jungle the 21st century woman finds herself entangled in. For those unfamiliar with his previous works, he defines a person’s “strengths” as actions that give a person a feeling of satisfaction & accomplishment.  These are specific areas that are hard-wired into a person and stay fairly constant throughout life– the roles they were born to play.

The secret to a fulfilling life is to discover your areas of strengths, to nurture them, and to let them guide you.  Chapter by chapter he discusses strategies for searching for “strong moments” (specific times you feel “in the zone”) and then intentionally “imbalancing” your life towards them.  There are also specific tactics chapters for career, relationships, and kids.

I think the book suffers from some inevitable tunnel vision: while I believe living in your strengths is an important component to a fulfilling life, it is only a part.  He also makes trusting one’s feelings a major focus of the book, and (sorry, Marcus) feelings can’t always be trusted. Finally, he skitters too close to “Law of Attraction” like concepts in some of the material for my tastes.

All in all, Find Your Strongest Life is, (couldn’t resist it!), a strong book.  Reading and applying its principles will indeed help women navigate the jungle of 21st century living to find their strongest life.  I found it useful myself, both for its universal principles and also to help me understand the challenges that women face today.  Highly recommended. Available here through Amazon.

Seven Rules to Get You Moving Again

Have you ever felt stuck?  Had a decision or situation or place in your life where you felt that you just couldn’t move?  Felt like your wheels were spinning but you were just getting deeper in the hole?

Sure, we all have been there.  We’ve all felt stuck before. And maybe that’s where you are right now in your life: you feel just as stuck as that poor car in the picture.  The question is, how do you get unstuck?  How do you get yourself moving again?  Just follow these seven rules and you’ll be moving again today:

Rule #1  Remember You’re Never Really Stuck

The first rule of getting unstuck is to remember that you’re never really stuck, you just feel like you’re stuck.  The mere fact that you’re human and you’re conscious means that you have the power of choice.  You always have the power to make a decision, take a step, and move forward.  Until you realize you have that ability to choose, no matter what your situation, you will never get unstuck.

“But I really am stuck– you don’t know my situation…”— your mind may be saying that, but don’t believe it!  Everyone has the power to choose, no matter what.  Just because you don’t have the power to choose what you most want doesn’t mean you have no power to choose at all.

You may be out of a job, and say, “I don’t have the power to choose to go to work this morning”— but you can choose to get out of bed.  You may be out of a relationship, and you may not be able to choose to go out with the date of your dreams tonight, but you do have the choice of going out by yourself and smiling at a perfect stranger, or staying home and calling a friend you haven’t caught up with in years.

No one has unlimited choice; no one can choose their exact perfect choice 100% of the time; we all have limitations.  But we all can make a choice.  The first step in getting unstuck is to convince yourself that yes, you can get unstuck.  Yes, you can make a choice.

Rule #2 Leave Your Past in the Past

It’s so easy to get stuck in the past.  There’s so many miry pits that seem to swallow us up.  A thought of the past will wander into our thinking, and it seems to swallow us up like quicksand.

But as long as we’re living in the past, we’re (guess what?) living in the past.  We can’t move forward until we leave the past behind.  Living in the past comes in three flavors: blame, guilt, & glory.

Blame: “He did this to me.”  “I was never able to do this because of her.”  “If only this hadn’t happened to me”  The voices all say the same thing: there is some choice we wish we could make that we cannot, because of the action or inaction of someone else in our past.  Well, here’s the bottom line you tell yourself:  “It’s in the past!”  Leave it, let it go.  Yes, there’s choices no longer available to you, but you still have options, and the only way you can truly fail is if you choose to do nothing.

Guilt & Regret: “If only I had…”  “If only I hadn’t…”  All of us have those whispers in our thoughts, because we’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all had failures and missed opportunities.  Guilt & regret can paralyze us just as much as blame, and the solution is the same: Let it go, and move on.

Glory: This is a more subtle flavor of living in the past, because you’re living in something wonderful that used to be.  “I had the best spouse ever before they died.”  “That was a great vacation.”  “I couldn’t ask for a better friend than she was.”  Although it’s good to enjoy and be grateful for the past, don’t let it prevent you from living your present.  Your journey hasn’t ended yet; you still have new experiences and joys that you can’t even imagine IF you’re willing to get moving & grow.

Rule #3 Forget the Future

Don’t fall prey to “Someday My Prince Will Come” syndrome.  It’s tempting to spend all your mental energy on your dreams, imagining how things will get better, how that ideal relationship or job will someday appear, how you’ll have the house by the lake or the idyllic retirement.

Well, none of those futures will just magically appear.  To get to that future destination will require you to make smart choices now, and get going.  Focus on what you need to do today, and the future will pleasantly suprise you.

Rule #4 Dump Despair

Everyone has discouraging days; everyone has times when they think, “Well, what’s the use?”  The problem is not if you have discouragement, but what you do with it.

First, simply acknowledge it.  Say out loud, “I’m feeling discouraged right now.”  Next, realize that discouragement is just an emotion, it’s not a statement of fact.  It is your emotional interpretation of a situation, and you can choose a different interpretation.  Your discouragement is not you, and you can change it just as you can change your clothes.

There are whole books written about the how part of how you can turn around discouragement, but remember to (1) Take care of your body with healthy food, exercise, and sleep (2) Spend as much time as you can around supportive, positive, clear-minded people (3) Take care of your spiritual health by spending time with God every day and (4) Realize that persistent, worsening despair should be evaluated by a physician.

Rule #5 Dispel Doubt & Fear

The twins doubt and fear have kept many frozen in their tracks, unable to move, both literally and metaphorically.  Although we laugh when we see doubt and fear played for laughs in characters like Barney Fife, it’s not so funny or even recognizable when the character is us.

Sometimes we try to camoflague our fear by saying we’re being conservative or cautious, or that we just don’t like to try new things.  Doubt can take the form of “I’m just waiting for more information” or “I’m planning on getting to that next week.”

Don’t let your life be wasted by these emotions.  There’s no such thing as a sure thing: life is risk.  The only sure bet is that you’ll miss out on everything if you stay where you are.  Plunge ahead, take the chance, and live your life.

Rule #6 Deny Difficulty & Diversion

When the way is hard, it’s easy to “stop & take a breather.”  “I’ll just lay off the diet for today.”  “I’ll start exercising again next week.”  “I’ll talk to my boss about that tomorrow.”  “Maybe I’ll call her later…”

Maybe those excuses sound familiar, because they’re (guess what!) excuses! There’s not a sound reason in the bunch.  You’ve got to stare them down and say, “No, I’m going to keep going and do what I promised myself I would do.  The decision has already been made.

More alluring than difficulty is diversion.  It seems to give even better excuses than difficulty.  “The sale is only on today.”  “I didn’t know that movie was on tonight.”  “Oh, look at this I could do instead.”  and the dreaded “I haven’t checked my facebook for over an hour!”

As any productivity expert will tell you, the only way to knock down a target is to keep hitting at it. The time to accomplish that goal is NOW.  If you have to think twice about whether you should take that “break” (whatever it is), then don’t.  Focus, focus, focus.

Rule #7 Stop Procrastinating & Start Moving Now!

Are you all out of reasons to not get moving?  No??? Well this should take care of all the other reasons in your hat:  JUST DO IT!  Seriously.  At some point you’ve just got to pull your face out of your navel and do it.

So, here’s your plan:  Pick something that you’re stuck on.  Go ahead, I know you have something.  Pick it now.  Ok, now choose to do something about it TODAY.  You don’t have to climb Mt. Everest, just pick one simple action that you can do today.  Ok, now DO IT.  Promise yourself right now that you won’t take no for an answer, that you will do this before your head hits the pillow, NO MATTER WHAT.  And once you’re moving, congratulate yourself and celebrate by sharing this post with someone else who needs to get moving again.

The Principle of the Path

All of us want to arrive at the right destination.  The key is in choosing the right path.

That, in a single sentence, is the message of this book.  The one thing you must focus on in life to achieve any goal, to arrive at any destination, is to choose the right path.

At first I thought, is that worth reading a whole book about?  I found out, yes, most definitely it’s worth reading, if it’s written by the right teacher.  Andy Stanley has done a masterful job of taking this one theme, and leading us through how to apply it to the business of daily living.

Chapter by chapter, he lays out how it is our direction, not our intention, that determines our destination.  In other words, we can say where we want to go in life, and want to go there, but unless we make the right choices, we will end up someplace else.

The book delves into why we so commonly make choices that cause us to arrive at the wrong destination.  At the heart of our bad choices is, well, our heart.  As Stanley puts it,

Your decision-making environments are not emotionally neutral.  More often than not, the circumstances we face are saturated with powerful emotions.  Those emotions easily turn into misguided passions.  In the end, passion clouds the ability to accurately evaluate the circumstance in order to choose the right path.

In the end, Stanley says there are three great questions we must ask ourselves:

  1. Why am I doing this, really?
  2. If someone in my circumstances came to me for advice, what course of action would I recommend?
  3. In light of my past experience, my future hopes, and my dreams, what is the wise thing to do?

It’s usually not that we can’t get the answers to these questions, but that our hearts often don’t want to face the answers.  That’s where we have to submit to God and be willing to trust Him.

The Principle of the Path is a book that will benefit anyone who is willing to be humble enough to read it while taking an honest look at themselves.  I took pages and pages of notes as I read through it. Stanley is gifted in stating truth in just the right words to make it stick in your heart.

It’s not that there are any hidden secrets to the universe in this book, just a lot of ancient common sense presented in a way that will change your life if you let it.  Read this book.  Read this book.

Book Review: The Noticer

noticerPerspective.

When you’re facing a crisis, having someone tell you that you need “perspective” sounds trite, simplistic, and/or offensive.  You don’t need perspective, you need what’s wrong to be right.

However, once you gain perspective, you look back and realize it really was was the most important thing you needed.  Without the right perspective, you cannot take the right path.

The Noticer is a wonderful little book about perspective.  How lost our lives can become without it.  How rescued our lives can become with it.

The book itself plays out like a “Touched by an Angel” episode, where a variety of people in a town are all helped by a mysterious stranger named Jones.  In each of their situations, the help that Jones gives them is a new perspective on their life situation.  As he tells a young homeless man, “I give them a broader view… and it allows them to regroup, take a breath, and begin their lives again.”

It’s a clever and winsome way to wrap up some disparate observations & wisdom on living into a book.   Although I usually prefer heavy, deep, non-fiction tomes on this sort of subject, I enjoyed reading The Noticer.  It made me think, and it made me smile.  Jones goes up to a married couple and tells them, “Now then.  You are having marital problems.”  Shocked, they ask him how he knows.  He slyly replies, “Because you’re married.  When you’re married, those are the kind of problems you have.”

Over the course of the book Jones helps a young homeless man, a married couple on the brink of divorce, a chronic worrier, some teens with dating woes, a lonely widow, and an unethical young businessman, all with a few words of insight.  His last words of wisdom are perhaps his best:

Your time on this earth is a gift to be used wisely.

Don’t squander your words or your thoughts.

Consider that even the simplest actions you take for your lives matter beyond measure… and they matter forever.

Will The Noticer change your life? Not likely.  Is it a pleasant little read for a few hours when your don’t want your brain to be in high gear?  Yes, I found it so, & I think you will too.