I must tell you at the outset that I am an avowed disbeliever when it comes to people professing that they have found the secret to living a full life. Partly because it's entirely valid that each of us has a separate set of goals, aspirations, ambitions, and values that make life worth living. And, over time, even these may change for you as you encounter the inevitable course corrections brought on by all of those things life serves up without your having asked for them.
So, what I am about to suggest is not a prescription for how to live your life. That's something you alone own and have the responsibility for figuring out. What I am going to share is something that may help you on that journey. It has been my mantra for the past five years, and I attribute much of my own happiness, joy, and ability to live in the present to following it.
Be forewarned that there will be an ask of you, at the end of this column, but it's going to be a simple one. I won't promise it will change your life or make your journey as an entrepreneur easier, but I will confess that it has done both for me. First some background.
I came across this wisdom in the same way that we find so many of life's most profound lessons, through a fair bit of heartache, a good dose of pain, and a pinch of serendipity. In the period of a few months in 2011, my mother passed away, my wife and I filed for divorce, a business venture I'd invested heavily in hit rock bottom, and I cut my speaking and writing to a fraction of what was typical in order to be a stay-at-home dad for my two kids. It was one of the darkest and most difficult periods of my life. Yet, it was here that I discovered a small, but profound, break in the clouds that led me through it.
"I caught a glimpse of a tiny wrinkled piece of paper. Not something I typically would have paid any attention to, but there was something written on it and my curiosity was piqued."
I can't recall exactly where I was or why I was there, but even if I could I don't believe it's relevant to what comes next. I was taking a midday walk, and as I glanced down to step off the curb and cross the street I caught a glimpse of a tiny wrinkled piece of paper. Not something worthy of a second glance, but there was something written on it and my curiosity was piqued. I picked it up and unfolded it.
On one side of it was a short prayer to Saint Jude. On the other were four scribbled words stacked one on top of the other:
I could contrive a wonderful narrative about how that piece of paper got there, why it came across my path, how it found me rather than my finding it, and how the universe manifests our intentions in automagical ways. I'm calling BS on all of that. It just doesn't matter. The universe isn't an Apple Watch, tracking my GPS coordinates and delivering up scraps of paper in my path like Siri reminders. I'm not going to go down that path.
Truth is, I'd expect something a bit more dramatic from a universe that also regularly produces supernovas and sucks galaxies to their death through black holes. It was a scrap of discarded paper. Period.
What is relevant is how I interpreted those four words. That's what has stuck with me and that's what's worth sharing.
As an entrepreneur, you want to control everything. I get it. Been there, done that. I'm not naive enough to suggest that you cede control to fate and serendipity. But there will be many things that you cannot control: the market, customers, employees, investors, to name just a few. However, the worst thing you can do is ignore these because they are not telling you what you want to hear.
In my own case, when I came across that piece of paper, I was refusing to accept that what was happening to me could teach me anything. By shutting out what I felt was the distracting noise in my life, I was also blocking out the lessons to be learned from it. As when a car's engine is making all sorts of strange sounds, you can choose to turn up the radio to drown the engine out or pay attention and get the damn thing fixed.
Acceptance isn't about sitting back and letting things happen with fingers crossed. It's listening carefully to the messages you don't want to hear and growing, adjusting course, and pivoting from the lessons they have to teach.
When bad things happen, the reflex response for most of us is to ascribe blame to someone or something. After all, if we find the cause we can remove it and get back to normal. At the very least, we can find satisfaction in directing our anger and frustration at whatever or whoever is to blame. While there's clearly merit in removing bad actors and flawed processes that are creating problems, there's no benefit to carrying the burden of blame beyond that point.
Yet, all too often, we focus on blame long after it serves any useful purpose. Have you ever caught yourself saying, "If it wasn't for X, I would have been so much better off" or "If X hadn't happened, I'd be happier/more successful/ wealthier."
Carrying that burden is like the aftershock of an earthquake. Whatever damage was done by the main event is now compounded by the burden of keeping the memory of it front and center. Forgiveness isn't absolution. It's letting go so you can move on.
This is one of the most critical aspects of success. It's the ability to not only accept the necessary course corrections in life and business, but to actually embrace them. Yeah, that's a tough one, because it's never what you had planned for. What can I say. Welcome to life.
When I think back on virtually every significant event in my life, I have to admit that although I may have had a certain goal in mind, the steps and the path that led me there were far more circuitous and littered with serendipity (the scrap of paper being a prime example) than anything I could ever have planned for.
Whether it's encountering someone whose perspective is radically different from your own, or a bend in the road that veers you wildly off course, having the fortitude to tolerate, and ultimately embrace, the unplanned and unexpected is as much a part of success as anything else. Case in point, how well are you tolerating the mere proposition of what I just said?
Foremost among the things that contribute to our quality of life, our happiness, and our ability to genuinely live in the present is our acknowledgement of those things that we have to be grateful for. Nothing is harder when you are in the darkest corners of your life, and yet, in those moments, nothing is more important. I've written about this often, because it is such a recurring theme in the experiences I've had and that I've witnessed in others who have had to struggle with the unfairness of life.
I've traveled the world since I was a toddler. I've seen people who had absolutely no apparent reason to be grateful who were much happier than people who seemed to have everything. A good friend of mine, Chris Palmore, who I wrote an earlier column about, founded a nonprofit many years ago dedicated to raising the awareness of gratitude's importance. I recall traveling with him in NYC for a weekend while he interviewed the homeless. He'd ask them what they were grateful for. Each person was quick to list the simple things in their life that they were grateful for.
When life gets hard, we want to believe that there's nothing to be grateful for. It serves some sort of perverse need to wallow in our misery. I don't care how hard or dark life is, if you take the time to notice there are always things to be grateful for. If you cannot come up with anything, I'll give you one. You're here now, alive, reading this. There are 150,000 fewer people on the planet who didn't wake up today and never will. Gratitude comes from acknowledging the gift of each day.
So, there you have it. But wait: That's just half of it. The rest is a question I'd like you to think about and the ask I promised at the start of this column.
As you read through that list, did you think only of how you could accept, forgive, tolerate, and be grateful for other people, things, or events? Because here's the real revelation. Rather than just focus on applying these to the outside, how about also applying them to yourself?
Rather than beat yourself up over whatever isn't going your way and how you're to blame, what if you accepted, forgave, tolerated, and were grateful for who you are, right now, in this moment--flaws, missteps, failings, screwups, and accomplishments--all of it? Because here's what I know as fact. The rest of the world isn't guaranteed to do any of that for you. In fact, it's more likely that it will consistently do the opposite.
If there is a "secret" to this journey we are all on, then applying these lessons to how we think about ourselves may be as close as we get to finding a key to unlocking its core. Besides, until you focus each of the four things onto yourself it's unlikely that you'll be able to project any of them onto others. If you're a leader, or aspiring to be one, pay close attention to that last point. It will be the crucible of your leadership metal.
Lastly, I promised an ask at the end of this column. Here it is. For the next week, try a simple exercise. Make a commitment to start and end every day by keeping a journal of, or by reciting, these four words--acceptance, forgiveness, tolerance, and gratitude. List, after each one, those things that fall under the word. Every day, add at least one new thing to the list for each of the four words.
Simple, right? Will it change your life? Only you can answer that. So, go ahead, pick up the scrap of wisdom, give it a week, and then tell me.