I think we all have them — those quotations, sayings, adages, mottos, etc. that we rely on for motivation — a kick in the pants, for inspiration, or to help make sense of the world.
They could be something you’ve heard a family member repeat.
“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
They could come from a character in a book or movie that left an impression on you.
“Be the ball.”
Or they could be what someone crocheted and your guidance counsel hung in their office.
“Forget the mistake. Remember the lesson.”
I have three. I’m sure you’re familiar with the first two. The third one I made up myself, but it’s probably a knock-off of something someone else said better.
I use this one a lot. I feel it implies that difficulties are a given, and that success is possible regardless. You will face obstacles and frustrations every day, but you will keep trying different approaches until you achieve your goal.
Facing the difficulty is where the learning starts, because you need to think differently than you had when you first started. You create a plan B. Sometimes plan B leads to a plan C or D, or even further. If you will stop at nothing to achieve this goal, you will find a way.
There’s no better example of this saying that I can share than this story about my mom. She was born with poor health — wasn’t even expected to live very long. The two life-long issues she faced were low blood circulation and bad digestion.
To compound matters, for most of her life she didn’t do a lot to mediate these conditions. Her eating habits were far from nutritious — she barely ate vegetables, and absolutely no fruit. Butter and gravy were her favorites. At the same time, she smoked cigarettes for more than 40 years — right up to the day a doctor told her she was going to lose both of her feet due to peripheral artery disease.
First they took her left foot. Then a few months later, her right foot. She was 75 years old, and six weeks after the second amputation, she was walking on two prosthetic legs. The visiting nurses who had taught her to walk were obligated to discharge her early from their care because they had no progress left to report that would justify the expense to the insurance company.
My mom was completely honest with herself and everyone about how her own decisions had brought this drastic condition upon her. But there was no way she was going to live the rest of her life sitting in a wheelchair. She would not accept not walking again, and she didn’t. For her age and as frail as she was, this was a stupendous achievement.
When I was a kid, the local convenience store had a slushy drink machine behind the counter. There were two flavors — two individually spinning left and right containers. Rotating on top of each mixer was an 12-inch or so tall molded character that sort of resembled the Big Boy mascot.
They each spun at their own speed, which correlated to how much frozen drink was in their mixers. Sometimes the one on the left rotated faster; sometimes the one on the right was the fast one.
I remember standing there time and again watching them spin in their own cycles and waiting for the fateful moment when they’d be perfectly aligned. Each still on their own journey, fast or slow as it may be, knowing that in time their cycles would once again be in sync for just that spilt second.
Watching those little guys spin isn’t what formed my philosophy on life, but it does make a pretty sweet analogy.
I’m a believer that our lives progress in cycles rather than linearly. As your life is coming around on a cycle (imagine you’re the left-side slushy drink guy), there are experiences and opportunities that are cycling near you (like the right-side slushy drink guy). Each time your life comes in perfect alignment with a particular experience or opportunity, you will make a decision to accept or reject it. Sometimes embracing it is the best choice and other times letting it pass is the best move.
Whatever way that decision works out will influence your choice the next time your cycle and this chance come full circle again. The opportunity may not look the same or sound the same as it did the last time around, but the underlying lesson to be learned is the same, and that’s what really matters.
Here’s my favorite story that demonstrates this. In 1999, I had created a fundraiser for a cancer-focused charity organization. Some friends and I had coin boxes at a craft show and were collecting donations from passersby.
I was also waiting for a special guest to arrive. She was the mom of a young boy, Ryan, who had all but won his battle with cancer. I had spoken with her a few times on the phone, and when she heard about my fundraising event, she offered to come meet me. She had planned to arrive shortly after we started, but she was running late. Really late. Like, a few hours late.
In the meantime, many of the shoppers stopped to tell us about their loved ones who were suffering or who had lost their lives to cancer. Many people were asking about how the program helps cancer patients, and I answered their questions the best I could.
In particular, one kind, quiet man approached us and said he lived right up the street. He told me his teenage son had just been diagnosed with leukemia. He had been reading a lot about the disease to try to understand what his son was facing and how he could best help his son through this trial. His wife, he said, wasn’t coping as well with the news. He said he’d tried to talk with her about it often, but she didn’t want to hear anything. She was in denial.
I listened to him. That was the best I had to offer him. But that was really all he was looking for from me. After a few minutes he left.
Ryan’s mom finally arrived a little while later. She introduced herself but before she could get through an apology for being so late, another woman interrupted us. With tear-filled eyes, she said, “My husband told me your group was here, and I decided to walk up to see you. Our son has been diagnosed with cancer…,” she paused, choked back her tears and continued, “And I don’t know what to do.”
Ryan’s mom said to her sincerely, “My son has cancer too.” She embraced the woman, and we all cried.
According to my clock, Ryan’s mom was late, but whatever speed her mixer was cycling on that day, whatever decisions prolonged her from journeying to the craft show, they allowed her to arrive at the exact time as the mother down the street, who decided that would be the moment when she’d start to deal with her son’s cancer. That’s when I realized that timing is everything.
I have to use my brother as the best example for this one. He’s not had an easy life, and he’ll tell you what his mistakes were that contributed to his occasional troubles. But perhaps his greatest achievement was deciding to make a career change in his late 40s.
Up until then, he operated printing presses. The big ones — 6-color Heidelbergs. He enjoyed print shop in high school — he made me a mirror with my name on it that hangs in my home office. From there he went to a professional printing school. Then he joined the U.S. Navy and was assigned as the printer for a portion of the fleet. After four years of military service, he continued working as a pressman for two more decades.
He printed a couple of things that impressed the heck out of me. One was the official NASA poster of one of the space shuttle crews. Another was the cover of a fantasy novel that was part of a hugely popular series about a young wizard and his friends at wizard school. But that kind of printing was a dying industry. The demand for his skills dropped significantly year over year, and it got harder for him to find work in that field.
He decided to start over. Like Rodney Dangerfield, he went back to school — to become a heating and air conditioning technician. And like Rodney, we was old enough to be the father of most of his classmates. He instinctively took the role of mentor to many of them, some of whom still check in with him for advice.
Today my brother is trusted by his company owners to lead jobs, oversee job sites, and strengthen the reputation and success of the company. His coworkers look up to him, and his customers are immensely grateful for his work. He treats their homes as if he was repairing his own, and they can see he’s giving them that much care.
I’ve always looked up to my brother, and he’s a great role model for me to see that it pays to take chances and try new things. Like they also say, “The bigger the risk, the greater the reward.”
So that’s where my latest “words to live by” come from. I realized I need to be less of a perfectionist and more willing to try new things. To see where they go and to let go of them if I don’t like the result. I can always try something else new instead. Sort of along the same lines as “Go that way, really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.” Wouldn’t you say so?
Whatever your words to live by may be and wherever they came from, they hold meaning for you. Keep them close to your heart and share them with people around you so they can get a sense of your dreams and priorities.
I’d love you to share the words you live by in the comments. Let us know how they help you to keep growing, learning and loving.
Thank you for spending these moments with me, thinking about life. If you like what you’ve read, I’d love for you to share it. Spread some seeds…