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10 Statements That Shaped My Life | Perhaps They Can Yours, Too

Julian Fellowes’ superb historical piece drama, Downton Abbey, is chock-full of pearls of wisdom if you listen closely. A Season 4 episode has Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) telling young Tom Branson (Allen Leech), “Life is all about solving problems and then you die!”

By no means exhaustive or ordered, I recently compiled 10 statements, which over time and through life’s ebb and flow have transformed into 10 pearls of wisdom.

1. “Focus on the grass”

To understand this statement a farming image and true story from Mooi River, South Africa, might be most helpful. You can then apply the principle to your personal situation.

How to turn a profitless, underperforming dairy farm in a tight economic market, into a competitive contender and revenue generating one?

The answer? Focus on the means of increased milk production–grass. Everything on the farm took a temporary secondary position to the primary. The farmer increased his time, effort and resources on pasture. Good grass meant happy cows, resulting in increased milk production and a healthy profit margin.

*I wrote at greater length on this in Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”.

2. “Walk on the grass but don’t make paths”

You’ve seen the signs on groomed landscapes–“Keep Off The Grass.” Who would have ever thought they convey a life message? This is the response I got from my South African PhD mentor when I asked him to tell me his philosophy of life.

Transliterated–

“In your search after life’s meanings and truths, courageously risk veering off from your too-familiar life path, and into a pathless wilderness, which might appear at the outset murky, messy, even ominous. Risk the journey, whether it be into the depth of human thought, or the much more unsettling kind: face-to-face encounters with people different.”

3. “Writing is in the editing”

On my Research, Writing and Teaching seminar’s first day, my professor was wise to warn us, “Start your term papers early, because if you want an A-letter grade, good writing only happens in the editing.”

If truthful, we each and all aspire for instant success. It’s not mere vanity, but reflective of our daily struggle to balance life’s demands over and against a 24-hour clock.

In life, like in writing, we want each first act or draft to be near perfect. This is even more true for anal-retentive persons.

So no matter how much we might pursue instant success in life, relationships, vocation, politicking, et cetera, remember that like writing, life is in the editing, in the falling down and getting back up, or in the dogged determinism to keep taking one step forward, even though you know it frequently will result in two steps backward.

4. “Do no harm!”

Fact–In life there are assholes too numerous to count or categorize. This realization and personal experience prompted Stanford University professor of management science and engineering, Robert Sutton to write The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.

The important point here is that you don’t have to be an asshole! And the way to avoid being perceived as or labeled one is to live, think, love, speak and act by the credo, “DO NO HARM”–to yourself, to others, to the environment.

5. “Think and hope the best of people, but be prepared for the worst”

Aka, Mental Health 101. It’s a truth that has helped me avoid incarceration when my life has been persistently frustrated by Robert Sutton’s subject matter above!

People are essentially good––definitely, at least, “more good” than bad. What “evil” they are or possess is much more reflective of nurture (environment and neuroplasticity) than of nature. In fact, it is this positive perspective of human nature that enables one to think and hope the best of people, yet be prepared for the worst.

6. “You can’t parent or love well if all you have to give are your leftovers”

Everyday and ever-present is a ghost of the so-called Industrial Revolution. Industrialization initiated many new mechanized and now technological wonders, but one intangible yet irrefutable feature it brought to all peoples is a rapid change of pace and way of life.

We seem to learn only after fallouts and break-ups that meaningful life relationships take an immense quantity of time, effort and shared experience. If you’re in the process of falling out but haven’t quite yet fallen down, then please read statement #6.

7. “For every new responsibility or relationship you take on, you will have to sacrifice another”

North Americans have a very “can do” mindset. It’s reflected in the slogan of the U.S. Army, “Be All That You Can Be,” and in our willingness to work excessively hard and long hours so as to attain and maintain an accustomed way of life.

The hard truth is this: With too full lives already, for every single new event, role, responsibility and relationship that we choose to involve ourselves in or with, some previous event, role, responsibility or relationship will suffer neglect.

8. “All you need is 20-seconds of insane courage”

You likely will recognize this statement from the movie We Bought A Zoo. It was Benjamin Mee’s (Matt Damon) explanation to his children of how he found the courage to walk up to a total stranger at a cafe and introduce himself. She later became his wife and the mother of his two children.

Every day and in many ways I’m reminded that it only takes 20-seconds of insane courage and action to change negative circumstances, contexts or dour moods into positive ones, and even if the change is small and less-than-transformative, at least it might be big enough to help you re-engage life and its struggles for one more moment or day.

9. “Break the overwhelming into bite-size pieces”

Likely you’ve heard the expression, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Like focus, this, too, is an especially hard statement to put into practice. College graduates remember only too well the first day of the academic year and perusal of each course’s curriculum requirements. Panic!

Every professor seemed to think s/he was our only class. Professional work pressures soon made college expectations seem like child’s play. Yet the same lessons learned apply–break the overwhelming into bite size, daily tasks, and you’ll pleasantly be surprised how much can be accomplished.

10. “What’s the worst case scenario? Can you live with it?”

Aka, Mental Health 201. Fear is a, if not the greatest paralysis. While this statement of question likely provides small comfort to someone given a terminal diagnosis (at least initially), it does provide a modicum of relief for that “punched in the solar plexus” feeling, which makes for a grievous and sleepless night, and which likely resulted due to unwelcome and unexpected news, such as a termination letter or a lover’s betrayal.

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Frazzled, Frustrated or Fearful? Focus on Your “Grass”

Several years ago I asked a friend and former senior executive at Markinor, a market research firm, how they came to a single-word mission statement.

Sylvia recounted the following short story, which I paraphrase from memory.

One evening during a private school board meeting she asked one of the members, a dairy farmer from Mooi River in KwaZulu-Natal, what or who he credited for turning his near bankrupt farm into a profitable one.  She expected any variety of business-type responses, from restructuring to equipment upgrade to marketing.  His response surprised her, as I’m sure it will you – and as it did me.

He said, “I tried this and that for a period of time, yet my multi-focused, fix-it management approach only heightened my personal anxiety and stress, leaving unchanged the farm’s dire financial bottom-line.”

Frustration, anxiety and despondency miraculously gave way one day, like a fog dissipating as the sun rises, when he came to the realization that most variables were beyond his control, including weather, drought, market prices, insect infestation, disease, and consumer demand.

One thing, however, was largely under his control . . . grass.

He then began to focus time and effort on his pastures. Before long, he told Sylvia, his cows were producing record quantity and quality of milk, and the secondary result was a healthy profit margin.

dairy cows

Concluding thought:

A frequent personal challenge of mine these days is focus. After two and a half years of full-time managing our home for three active, school age girls, plus weekly volunteering in client rights at a state mental health hospital, all while my wife completes her advanced practice nursing studies, leaves little time and energy for what is always foremost, yet of necessity, on the back burner of my mind – re-engagement of a full-time job search.  Each day’s challenge is identifying the “one thing” that most requires my attention.

When I hear any “one thing” kind of story, I am always reminded of a line in the movie City Slickers.

Perhaps you, too, identify with Mitch’s (Billy Crystal) near state of emotional frazzled-ment, which in effect, pushed him away from work, home, family and city, in a one last-ditch effort to find an inner sense of peace and fulfillment on a dude cattle drive.

One day rough and scary trail boss, Curly (Jack Palance) asks Mitch “Do you know what the secret of life is?”

Mitch replies, “No, what?”

Curly holds his index finger up and Mitch says, “What? Your finger?”

onething

“Curly” – Jack Palance in City Slickers

Curly responds, “One thing.  Just one thing. You stick to that and everything else don’t mean shit.”

Mitch says, “That’s great, but what’s the one thing?”

Curly answers, “That’s what you’ve got to figure out.”

I hope this story of a dairy farmer focusing on his grass can be a visual motivation and priority reminder as you live out each day.

Perhaps if you’re successful in identifying and tending to that one important variable in your life, job, business, marriage, child-rearing or studies, it will – like the dairy farmer – have far-reaching and positive secondary results in other areas as well.

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