Even Eagles Need a Push: Learning to Soar in a Changing World
By David McNally
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
- Soren Kirkegaard
Jimmy's mother called out to him at seven in the morning, "Jimmy, get up. It's time for school." There was no answer. She called again, this time more loudly, "Jimmy, get up! It's time for school!" Once more there was no answer. Exasperated, she went to his room and shook him saying, "Jimmy, It's time to get ready for school."
He answered, "Mother, I'm not going to school. There's fifteen hundred kids at that school and every one of them hates me. I'm not going to school."
"Get to school!" she replied sharply.
"But, Mother, all the teachers hate me, too. I saw three of them talking the other day and one of them was pointing his finger at me. I know they all hate me so I'm not going to school," Jimmy answered. "Get to school!" his mother demanded again. "But, Mother, I don't understand it. Why would you want to put me through all of that torture and suffering?" he protested.
"Jimmy, for two good reasons," she fired back. "First, you're forty-two years old. Secondly, you're the principal."
There are few of us who, on some days, have not felt like Jimmy. We just do not want to go to school. That school, of course, is life itself, where dropping out or playing hookey can seem a much better idea than facing the challenges that inevitably lay ahead.
Perhaps, however, you have never thought of life as a school. Yet the tally memorable life, one that is celebrated with love and admiration, always has a history rich in accomplishments and experiences. Most important, inherent within those experiences are valuable lessons that greatly enhance the quality of life. Pablo Casals, the great cellist, was asked why, at eighty-five years of age, he continued to practice five hours a day. He replied, "Because I think I'm getting better."
To grasp the significance of this more fully, let me quickly and ruthlessly slay a dragon, a dangerous soul-destroying myth. Our culture perpetuates an Illusion of success. Through the over-exposure and media attention given to the rich, powerful, and glamorous, we are seduced by appearances into the belief that some people have made it. The implication, and the lie, is that they then live happily ever after. Those who have made it to "made it" discover that happily ever after doesn't exist, a realization that can be devastating.
Success begins the moment we understand that life is about growing; it is about acquiring the knowledge and skills we need to live more fully and effectively. Life is meant to be a never-ending education, and when this is fully appreciated, we are no longer survivors but adventurers. Life becomes a journey of discovery, an exploration into our potential. Any joy and exuberance we experience in living are the fruits of our willingness to risk, our openness to change, and our ability to create what we want for our lives.
If you have already risked much and lost much, it doesn't matter. Mistakes don't matter. Failure doesn't matter. What matters is that you learned from your mistakes and failures. What matters is that you moved forward, you grew as a result of those experiences. The mistake-riddled life is much richer, more interesting, and more stimulating than the life that has never risked or taken a stand on anything. Hal Prince, the famous Broadway producer, said, "Anyone who hasn't had a failure is an amateur."
A successful bank president, about to retire, was being interviewed by a reporter: "Sir, to what do you attribute your success?"
"That's easy to answer: good decisions."
"And to what do you attribute your good decisions?"
"That's easier still: the wisdom gained from experience."
"And where did you get that experience?"
"Easy again: bad decisions!"
Inherent within the discoveries and experiences of your life is the wisdom upon which to build your future. This wisdom is your most important asset as you come to terms with what you honestly want for your life. On the other hand, you are destined to repeat the mistakes from which you have not learned. Let me share with you how I came to this understanding.
My own family environment was one where I was the eldest son of two very loving and ambitious parents. I inherited their ambition and decided that I was destined for success and success meant being wealthy. Impatience, combined with an intense desire, led me to forego college and start my first business straight out of high school.
Two qualities fueled my drive for success: boundless energy and knowing exactly what I wanted. I was primed and ready to take advantage of whatever business opportunity would get me to my destination fastest. I was not suspicious or afraid of "get rich quick" schemes; on the contrary, I wanted to get rich, and the quicker, the better!
In my mid-twenties my drive had propelled me to a level of success that many would regard as the American Dream fulfilled. A Rolls Royce, a beautiful country home, Europe as my playground - all of these were evidence of the fact that I had joined the ranks of those who had "made it."
At the age of twenty-eight my business failed. This was a devastating blow to a previously unchallenged ego. Having merged my whole identity with the business, when it disintegrated, so did I. Without my possessions, I not only had nothing, but it seemed I was nothing.
The downhill slide was slow and steady. I slipped in every facet of my being - physically, spiritually, mentally, and morally. Incapable of dwelling on anything but regrets and what its, convinced that I had blown the most wonderful opportunity life would ever present, I saw no promise in the future whatsoever.
I took refuge in drinking with friends. The late nights became so frequent that my marriage was severely threatened. Yet, ironically, it was my wife who rescued me.
One morning I came to the breakfast table nursing a king-sized hangover. For those of you who understand, you know it is not a time in your life when you are looking for advice. That preference notwithstanding, my wife very slowly, quietly, and succinctly uttered some words that, forever, are imprinted in my mind.
"David, you are becoming so ordinary."
Those words blasted through the alcohol and stayed to haunt me for the rest of the day. Deep in my heart I knew that there was no such thing as an ordinary human being. "What has happened to you?" I asked myself. "Two years ago you were on top of the world, and now you are wallowing in the gutter!"
I believe insight comes when - and only when - one is prepared to accept it. In this case, the student was ready and the answers came quickly. Like many others, I had reacted to my misfortune as if it were just that - a (unction of luck, totally out of my control. I saw myself as being victimized, and so spent my time playing the victim's game - blaming, making excuses, and rationalizing. This negative mental state continually drained my energy and was the precursor of self-destructive actions that had been causing a devastating chain reaction.
My deep despair and my wire's words combined to shock me into what is known as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. So life had been unfair to me? So what? Hadn't it also been unfair to thousands - millions - of others? And hadn't many of those people faced far worse circumstances yet had absolutely refused to be defeated?
The most common responses to a life crisis are denial, resistance, and acceptance.
Denial: burying one's head in the sand hoping the problem will somehow mysteriously and painlessly disappear.
Acceptance: not necessarily liking the situation but fully acknowledging its reality and being willing to deal with the truth of what happened no matter how severe.
Denial and resistance effectively prolong the pain, while acceptance opens the door to finding creative solutions to the problem.
In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Victor Frank! relates what he learned from his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz. He writes, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Denial and resistance had been a part of my life for nearly two years. Victor Frankl's words inspired me to make new choices, to finally accept what had happened with ail of its implications and consequences, and then to move forward using the experience as a powerful lesson upon which to build a positive future.
The decision to accept what had happened, to stop being a victim and be responsible, was not easy, but it was, unquestionably, the turning point for my recovery.
The renewal process for me began with a brutally honest assessment of my physical assets and liabilities and my personal strengths and weaknesses. I then shifted my focus from the effects of the business failure to examining why it had originally been successful. Even though I was still wiped out financially, I gradually began to see what I could do about it. The determination then slowly emerged to once again take charge of my life. Sobered by my riches to rags experience, I felt ready this time to do it right.
Over the ensuing years, I developed a successful new business. Building on my gifts for teaching and motivating others, I became the South Pacific franchisee for an international management and sales training organization. Based in Sydney, Australia, we served many of the major corporations in the region.
More important here than any tale of success, however, is the concept that a crisis is often what author and psychologist Dick Leider refers to as one of life's "wake up" calls. Crises force our attention on the disorder in our thinking and can save us as we teeter on the brink of an even greater disaster. It often takes these alarms going off before we become fully conscious of where our lives have been heading.
I now understand that ail human development is determined first and foremost by one's thinking. Whether we are conscious of it, a personal philosophy of life, a way of seeing the world, a point of view, evolves over the years. We make decisions about who we are, what we believe, and what we are capable of. These decisions direct our actions and mold our behavior, the final product of which is the circumstances and conditions in which we find ourselves.
In my workshops and seminars, I still find considerable resistance to this idea. Clearly, many of us are not comfortable with accepting that we have created who we are, for this implies responsibility. It seems there is no tougher challenge that we face than to accept personal responsibility for not only what we are but also what we can be.
For any of us to be truly free - If we are to learn to soar in this changing world - we must first be willing to be responsible for our lives.
Consider the words of Vaclav Havel, when as the newly elected president of Czechoslovakia, he addressed his people shortly after they had broken free from the chains of communism. "We cannot lay all the blame on those who ruled us before, not only because this would not be true but also because it could detract from the responsibility each of us now faces - the responsibility to act on our own freely, sensibly, and quickly. . .. This, it seems to me, is the great moral stake of the present moment."
The past lives now only in your memory, but the future holds a myriad of possibilities. No matter where you find yourself at this moment you, too, can begin the renewal process. Just as your body is constantly regenerating itself physiologically, you can renew yourself mentally by replacing worn out, stagnant thinking with thoughts that stimulate a sense of hope and positive anticipation about your future.
Richard Bach, in his book Illusions, writes, "You are never given a wish without also being given the power to make it true." This is the shared philosophy of those who are in charge of their lives.
In case what I'm saying sounds Pollyannish, let me caution with a note of reality. Although the formula for learning to soar is relatively simple, the application is rarely easy. Leaving the nest requires courage and commitment. Richard Bach added to his statement: "You may have to work for it, however."
The work begins as soon as we choose a new direction for our lives, for confronting our hope and anticipation are competing thoughts of doubt and limitation. We can learn to soar only in direct proportion to our determination to rise above the doubt and transcend the limitations.