Opportunity For Growth Begins with Three Parts of Stress

The past few years have been a roller-coaster of emotional turmoil.  You name the stress, we experienced it: sick children, financial binds, cancer, broken friendships, heart attacks, car troubles, college searches, etc.

sadness

The last few  months have been particularly difficult as my wife was been tending to both of her parents out of town with significant health challenges. During those months where  my wife was nursing her parents, may people called me Mr. Mom or Single Dad.

At first, I called it, hell!

Now I call it Opportunity for Growth.

You see, stress is an interesting word.  The Middle English meaning denotes hardship or force exerted on a person for the purpose of compulsion; while the Latin origin is strictus, meaning tight, compressed, or drawn together.  WebMD defines stress as “the body’s reaction to any change that requires an adjustment or response.”  A combination of these definitions leads to one conclusion:

Author Andrew Bernstein once said that stress “doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about your circumstances.”  If stress truly comes from our thoughts about our circumstances—rather than from the circumstances themselves—then we can transform those thoughts to be an opportunity for growth.

John Maxwell calls this big picture thinking.  It brings wholeness and maturity to a person’s mindset. It brings perspective.  Big picture thinking allows you to take your “hell” and turn it into an “opportunity for growth.”  You start to focus on the whole timeline, and not just the heart ache, failure or challenge that brought you to your knees.

Preparing for Rain

Juggling Requires That You Actually Have a Plan

If you want to successfully juggle your family, career and life, at some point you have to begin preparing for rain. With your family, you can no longer check-out all week and check-in only on the weekends.  You won’t survive…they won’t survive.  In your career, you can no longer view the mounting pile of work and attack only the emergencies.  You have to implement a plan to get caught up and stay on top of the pile.

rain

So, what does it really mean to prepare for rain?  

Although I love Any Given Sunday (for its action) and Waterboy (for its comedy), my all-time favorite football movie is Facing the Giants (for its passion). Wanting to encourage the defeated coach with a few words of wisdom, the local pastor in FTG recounts the following story:

“There were two farmers who desperately needed rain in a drought. And both of them prayed for rain, but only one of them went out to plow his field to receive the rain. Now, which farmer trusted and believed that it was going to rain?”

In your life, are you preparing for rain? Unfortunately, there is not a quick-and-easy formula that will make you an overnight success at work and home. However, there is one major thing you can do to prepare for a drenching: draft a plan.

As a busy construction lawyer and husband and father of seven children, my time is limited.  I find myself in “emergency mode” on most days.  I tackle the deadlines, workload, and problems for that particular day, as well as those issues that land in my lap at the moment.  This is not to say that I do not plan for my caseload or family challenges, but I often seem to be living too close to the present without enough reliance on planning for the future.

That’s where Living Forward—a new book by Michael Hyatt and Daniel Harkavey—has helped me identify a plan to get back on track: professionally, personally and spiritually. Even after reading the first chapter, there was a spark in my belly that started to inflame my desire to change. Here’s just one little nugget that I learned within the first few pages: “You may feel that you’ve drifted too far of course to get back on track, like the shore is just too far away. Perhaps you have given up hope and don’t believe things can ever be different. This is simply not true. It’s never too late. Be encouraged. You can’t change the past, but all of us have the power to change the future. The right choices today will radically alter the shape of tomorrow.

This book is about experiencing the life you want, while navigating all the distractions, difficulties, and demands that pile up day-by-day, year-by-year.  It leads you through a simple step-by-step life-planning process so every day adds up to the life you want now and creates the legacy you want to leave behind.  I am currently on the second draft of my plan for the second half of 2016.  Now’s a good time to start.

If I had one bit of encouragement during this process, it would be to keep plowing ahead. You cannot be discouraged by the drought in either your career or family life. I remember the late nights as a young attorney in Washington, D.C. Often I would climb into bed with my wife and groan, “I can’t do this any more.” She would always whisper words of encouragement: “Honey, just a few more days and you will be prepared for this case. And when you win, we can go celebrate as a family.”

Let me whisper in your ear: Keep plowing, keep preparing for the rain…you can make it!

Why Do You Do What You Do?

The Most Important Question to Answer Every Day

Sometimes it is hard to get out of bed.  As you commute to work, thoughts of deadlines, marital disputes, financial stresses and sheer exhaustion consume your every thought.  It is during those times that I ask myself, “Why am I doing all of this?”

why

Many years before my first law school class, I thought I was ready to practice law. At the time, I was already working as a law clerk at a law firm interviewing witnesses, preparing discovery , and drafting legal briefs. Among these tasks, I enjoyed legal writing the most. In fact, I had drafted hundreds of trial court briefs, administrative agency statements, state and federal court appeals, and even a brief to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, DC.

Based upon all my work leading up to that time, I was confident about my preparation for the practice of law. However, a few stumbling blocks remained in my way to becoming a successful attorney, including a bar exam, many non-billable articles and conferences, hundreds of soiled diapers, and tens of thousands of dollars of debt. Ultimately, I survived law school and my first twenty years of practice by answering the question, Why do I want to be a lawyer?  Although I wrestled with that question for many years, it finally came down to the following two words: helping others. 

I determined early on in my career that I wanted to be a construction lawyer to help others use best practices and technology to resolve their problems. I am exactly where I want to be in my career and family life—right in the middle of the adventure. Leadership guru John Maxwell teaches that “success is not a destination thing…it’s a daily thing.”

And that “daily thing” has taken so many turns. For example, in the legal profession I went from from university student, to law clerk, to law student, back to law clerk, to associate attorney, and finally to partner at two different law firms. I initially characterized law school as a temporary layover to my destination of becoming a succe$$ful lawyer. (You knew that success is spelled with two “$$s,” right?) I soon learned that the only $$s in my life as a young attorney were the $$s that I owed someone else for letting me attend law school. Long hours, intense cases, neglected family members, a couple of grumpy bosses, late time sheets, uncollected invoices, etc., soon followed. While you might think these issues became less demanding (or more controllable) as each year passed, it simply has not been the case.

For me, answering the Why? question enabled me to continue in my journey as an attorney, a husband, and the father of seven children. When I finally answered the Why? question, I realized that many of my so-called stumbling blocks were actually stepping stones to a more fulfilling career and life. You may think you are not getting enough experience at this stage in your career. You may be overwhelmed with the huge deadline due tomorrow.  You may be questioning your job, your marriage, or both. Whatever your circumstance, I would challenge you to continue your journey and find success professionally and emotionally. 

You can (and must) make tough choices, which involves a significant juggling act with work, family, finances and health.  And while you have all of those balls in the air, let me ask you: Why do you do what you do?

The Importance of Juggling

Mentorship Is More than Just Seeking and Giving Advice

Someone once joked, “If you can tell the difference between good advice and bad advice, you don’t need advice!” That may be true, but you need more than just advice to make it in this world.  You need a good mentor to reach your potential as a leader, successful business owner, or spouse/parent.

mentor

I remember my first mentor in the law—a generous attorney who had developed a large personal injury law practice in the Hampton Roads, Virginia area. For him, family came first. To be home for dinner by 5:00 p.m., that meant he would often be into work by 6:00 a.m. If there was a deposition out of town, he traveled early on the day of the deposition rather than spend the night away from his family. As I departed this first pre-lawyer job to enter my first year in law school, my mentor gave me a check that would help pay my first semester’s living expenses. My early mentor required me to pay him back in a unique way: he asked me to pay it forward to someone else as my career developed. (And that was five years before Pay It Forward hit the movie theatres!)

A mentor does not have to be involved in your day-to-day life, business, or family affairs.  For example, Cordell Parvin graduated from the same law school that I did, but many, many years earlier. (Sorry, Cordell!) He was a Richmond Spider—so was I. He was a construction lawyer—so was I. He was successful—well, I want to be! One day, I called Cordell, introduced myself, and asked for some advice. More than five years later, I am happy to refer to Cordell as a mentor and friend.  And we have only met in person a few times over the years.

You see, throughout my career I have always relied upon different mentors to help me grow as an attorney, husband, and father. It is important to have a variety of different advisors because, frankly, our lives as attorneys are comprised of so many roles. We have to be good researchers and writers. We have to be good time-keepers. We have to be good telephone-call-returners. We have to be good money-handlers. And, if we go home each night to a family, we have to be good encouragement-givers and storytellers.

Consider yourself a juggler with too many balls in the air.  Every other day, a ball may drop to the ground. You stop. You pick it up. And you start juggling the balls again. I don’t think the answer is to get rid of those balls. I think the answer is to learn how to better juggle. There are many people who have done it right and there are many people who have done it wrong. The key is to build a relationship with someone who can (and wants to) invest in you—whether you need business advice, practice area advice, or even marital and parenting advice. Then, one day, you will be the one teaching another person how to juggle.

Are You Walking Alone?

Why Leaders Need Friendships for Character, Health and Balance

You can imagine all the free time I have with a busy law practice, an active spouse who runs marathons for fun, and seven kids at home. So much so that when I get home from a long day, get kids fed, showered, tickled and put to bed, many days I have enough energy to simply crawl into bed myself.

alone

This schedule has taken its toll on my personal friendships, which I truly did not think I needed for the past few years.  So when I had a chance last week to meet up with some friends, imagine my frustration when I could not find any one friend to escape with for a bite to eat.  I had none. I had not invested in any friendships recently and it showed.  I was alone. (…big sigh, little tear…)

It was not that bad, but the evening made me realize how important friends are to the development of a leader’s character, health, and balance.  Here is why:

  1. Relationships develop your character.  Helen Keller once said, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”  And we do that through walking with, side-by-side, other people.  You live and learn through your experiences with others.
  2. Connections feed your body.  A recent study followed nearly 1,500 older people for 10 years. It found that those who had a large network of friends outlived those with fewer friends by more than 20%.  But why? Not only does the empirical data suggest that friends encourage you to live healthier lives, studies show that loneliness often has a taxing effect on your health.
  3. Friendships spur balance.  When you are overworked, and you add the stresses of family or personal life, your friendships can keep you grounded.  You see, true friends challenge you. They tell you the words you often don’t want to hear: “Spend more time with your children” or “Take your spouse out on a walk” or “Call you parents just to check on them.”

“Your best friend,” Henry Ford laments, “is the one who brings out the best in you.”  And don’t you need to be at your best in order to juggle family, work and life?  Take the time to invest in your friendship—it will be worth it.

Five Things Not to Say During a Presentation

Earlier this year I was speaking at a national construction conference when I made a huge speaking mistake.  At the onset of my presentation, this crowd of more than 200 future leaders in the construction industry was rather quiet. I had to engage them; I had to get them to interact; I had to break the silence.

speech

I was talking about the importance of “communication” in retaining good employees.  The first question I asked was: “Have any of you been through a merger of two companies?”

The question I asked was simple, but not one person responded.  Not one person had been through a merger.  Not one smile—not one hand raised.  The silence was deafening.  In my attempt to make a connection, I lost all connection to the audience.  Everything I said after those words appeared unimportant.

Later, as I thought about the presentation, I realized that details matter…the small things matter…the polish on the speech matters.  Here are five things that I have learned not to say during a presentation:

  1. “Have you ever….?”  The problem with this type of lead-in is that sometimes not one person in the audience will have experienced your lead-in.  You can still share the story you intend to share, but introduce it a little different.  Rather than on open-ended question, tell the audience about the story and the lesson learned.  Use the story to make the connection; use details they can connect with; use common phrase to which they can relate…even if they have not experienced the same event.
  2. “I was so *^?!@*#~ upset…”  Yes, that is right, you should refrain from colorful words.  You may think that society is now more accepting of four-letter words, but you’ve heard me say it before that words matter!  The chances that you will offend someone (…who may even be your next client…) are far greater than you making a real connection with someone because you added a few vulgarities to your speech.
  3. “I did not have time to prepare, but…”   You should never start a presentation with excuses.  Even if you were just added to the roster, or you are not feeling your best, you should give it your best!  The editorial comments that “explain away” your circumstances detract from your message, no matter how prepared you may be.
  4. “I will keep this short.” I cannot tell you how many presentations I have seen where the speaker starts off with this broken promise.  As a member of the audience, I don’t really care.  I came to learn something, or be inspired, or be informed.  You should pick a different intro, such as, “I am going to change how you look at construction law” or “Today you are going to learn how to grow your business by treating your employees differently.” Don’t make your introduction about the length of your presentation.
  5. “As the slide says, …”  Never, never, never read your slides.  In fact, I am a large proponent of slides that do not contain words, or very little words.  The audience is there to hear you share with them a great speech.  They did not come to hear you read your slides to them. If you spend more time de-cluttering or de-wording your slide presentation, it will pay off in the long run. If you have to include detailed information, provide a hand-out or article at the end of your presentation.

Questions:  What mistakes have you made in a presentation?  What have you learned to “never say” during a speech?

Gail and Michael Hyatt Ask: “Are You A Student of Your Marriage?”

They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder.  I agree.  Courtney and the kids have been out of town for the past week visiting family and the dead silence in the home felt nice … for about … an hour.

Home

Over the past few days, however, I heard the return of voices every night I came home after a long day of work. The voices were not those of children giggling, fighting or running amok. They were my own voices:

  • Matt, how’s that juggling thing going?
  • Matt, are investing in people as much as your work?
  • Matt, do you know your spouse better today than when you married her?
  • Matt, are you playing to win? Or just playing to get by?

That last one has been haunting me for months.  You see, as a busy construction attorney and father of seven, it is easy to put on my work boots and trudge to the next deadline and task.  I tell myself that my wife and kids will be there when I get home, no matter how late.   Not so … this week.

I found great solace this morning in a two-part podcast by Gail and Michael Hyatt, called Help, I Married An Entrepreneur. You don’t have to be a businessman or woman to find these messages relevant.  All you need is an open mind and heart to seek some great wisdom from this married couple of over 35 years.  It is definitely worth listening to both sessions, and here is what I learned:

  1. You need to be a student of marriage.  Gail makes this point very clear, in that a successful marriage for them did not happen by chance.  They sought mentors. They read books. They talked with each other regularly.  For me, it means “playing to win” in your marriage.  It is more than just going through the motions of living life with your spouse.  It is attacking your marriage with the same passion as your work.
  2. Marriage is hard work.  Michael and Gail share about some of the valleys they experienced in the early years of marriage.  Perspective and commitment were two recurring themes that enabled each of them to work through the difficult times.  Michael shares that in 2001, he put his business savvy planning into his personal life by writing down a vision for his marriage, family and personal life. (You can get a copy of his Life Plan e-book for free.)  Again, the lesson learned here is: Successful businesses require hard work. Successful marriages take hard work, too.
  3. Words matter in marriage.  As businessman, Michael shares that “encouragement [from Gail] has made all the difference” in the world.  They talk about the importance of appreciation and affirmation.  Appreciation is thanking your spouse for everything brought to the table, whether big or small. It is communicating to your spouse that their sacrifices do not go unnoticed. Affirmation, on the other hand, is focusing on what you love about your spouse.

I would strongly recommend Gail and Michael’s message no matter what your career or circumstances.  If you want to play to win, you need to be purposeful in the steps you take.

Question: As a student of your own marriage, what have you learned?

Image: Powderruns

What Happens When You Drop the Work Ball?

I regularly write about work-life balance. Not because I am an expert at finding the correct mix, but because I am right there in the middle of the challenge…the same as you.  So when a leadership guru like John Maxwell provides good insight on juggling priorities, we should all listen closely.

glass

Maxwell recently recounted a university commencement address by Brian Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises, who spoke of the relationship of work to your other commitments:

Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back.

But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same.

As Maxwell suggests, it is not selfish to take care of your family, relationships, health and spirit.  The work ball will bounce back if you drop it – these others won’t.

Question: As you view your priorities, have you made your work ball out of glass, crystal or some other precious, breakable material?

Image: Eric Petruno

All Hell Breaks Loose at Home and You’re Busy At Work: What Next?

All hell breaks loose…can he say that in a blog post?  Yep, and I am not talking about the Eminem song featuring Dr. Dre.  I am talking about the phone call you receive from your spouse in the middle of the day and you just hear in their voice that something is wrong.  You want to help out, but frankly you are in the middle of putting out fires at work.  What can (or should) you do?

phone

Air expectations.

This means you and your spouse should openly talk about “bothering” each other.  In my marriage, my wife has often said that she does not call me because she is afraid of “bothering” me at work.  Whereas, I have a different expectation: I won’t let you bother me.  Sounds harsh, but let me explain that a little better.  I often have told my wife: “Call me any time. If  I am busy or not there, I won’t answer the phone. If I can talk, I will answer the phone.  If it is an emergency, text me and left me know it is an emergency.”  Over the years, by airing our expectations, we have gotten better in communicating about emergencies.

Answer if possible.

If you can answer the phone, then answer the phone.  There have been times (… I hope she is not reading this…) that her number came up on Caller-ID and I did not want to answer the phone.  I may not have been working on something at that particular moment, but I was sure that I did not want to talk to anyone.  You’ve been there…I know.  Anyway, it just takes a minute to answer the phone and ask them if you can call them back.  If you are kind with your words, then they will certainly understand.  If it is something important, then you will be glad you answered the phone.

Avoid the minimizing.

Sometimes all hell breaks loose at home and, since you are not there, you don’t fully appreciate and understand the stress on the other end of the line.  In fact, this happened today.  I heard kids screaming in the background, but there was a chilling monotone in my wife’s voice, as she said:

“Can you talk?”  Of course.

“I need help.”  This sounded really serious.

“Your son bit himself and blamed his brother.  That’s devious of him and I am so distraught.”  I laughed.

That was the wrong response.  I actually said the words, “Whew, I thought it was something serious.”  In the end, my wife just wanted some encouragement and I (wrongfully) minimized her problem.  I should have saved my humorous words for tonight’s pillow talk.  But, I messed up.  Don’t minimize your spouse’s feelings.

Attend emergencies.

So what happens if the call is truly a family emergency?  You need to do whatever is necessary to attend to the emergency.  If you are in a staff meeting, they will excuse you.  If you are on a client conference call, it can be rescheduled.  Even if you are in a court hearing or in the middle of a momentous marketing pitch, they will (or should) understand.  If they do not, then you may have to make a choice between family and work.  And I suspect depending on the emergency, you will make the right choice.

Question: What do you do when all hell breaks loose?

Image: Victor1558

A Faith Lesson From Three (Not Two) Cinnamon Rolls

For many years now, I have met with a group of other men on an early morning weekday to bond, and to talk, and to vent, and to simply lean on each other. One time, as I was packing up the last three cinnamon rolls from breakfast, I half-heartedly joked, “These three will go to the homeless.”  I say half-heartedly because I don’t know that I had any real intention of finding someone who would want the leftovers.

Gotta love the bacon in this tasty treat.

After a morning workout at the downtown gym, I began walking to my office.  I then immediately saw that God had plans for the cinnamon rolls that sat in my car—two homeless guys.  And the excuses began flowing through my mind, “I don’t have time to walk a block to my car, get the rolls, and walk a block back.” and “There are only two people, and I have three rolls. I don’t want to start a homeless brawl.” I decided to keep walking towards my office.

As I passed those empty and lonely eyes, I was immediately convicted…but not enough to turn around. Instead, I put out a challenge to God (which, by the way, I do not suggest that you attempt this yourself). “God, if you really want these TLM’s (tasty little morsels) to feed the hungry, then put three homeless dudes closer to my car.” After all, I had three (not two) cinnamon rolls.

I walked down the alley and slowly turned the corner. I was like an excited child on Christmas morning coming down the stairwell. I looked up and saw God’s response sitting at back entrance to my garage. There were three (not two) homeless dudes. Thanks, God. I spent the next few moments talking with the three (not two) lost wanderers, who were, by the way, very thankful for a cinnamon roll.

John 14:9 says, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” You see, there’s an interesting relationship between God and man. The link between the two is Jesus—fully God and fully man. In other words, Jesus can teach you a lot about God, as he is every bit God himself. And yet Jesus can completely relate to you, because he is every bit a man. That morning, I was challenged once again to look for God and serve God in the everyday moments. And so should you.