Never Surrender

Plant busting through asphaltMy mom’s boyfriend had just thrown me to the ground and kicked me senseless with his steel-toe boots, eventually cracking two ribs. When I covered my ribs he riddled my face with four of five quick punches. Once he had his fill, he drug me to my room and threw me on the bed, swearing curses over me if I tried to defend my mom again. Then he slammed the door shut. I rolled onto my side and licked the cut on my lower lip as I tried again to draw a deep breath.

“What’s the point?” I gasped.

I was fourteen years old and fighting day in and day out with my mom’s grown boyfriends when I should have been enjoying life with friends like a normal kid my age. That night my heart began crying out, over and over: “Why does life have to be so hard? What did I do to deserve this?”

I began sobbing into my covers. “I can’t do this anymore,” I choked out. “No one cares. No one has ever cared. Who would even miss me if I was gone?”

I had come face to face with the toughest fight every one of us faces—the fight within ourselves. I wanted to thrive, to live a good life, and to reach my potential, but it seemed foolish to believe it was possible. Inside, I knew I had only two options. I could wipe off the blood and tears again and keep fighting for my dreams. Or I could surrender to my circumstances and let them dictate my future. It was ultimately a decision about my potential. Most importantly, it was my decision.

I closed my eyes and thought about everything I’d been through. Then I thought about everything I still wanted to do in my life. In my head, I wanted to quit. But my heart screamed, “Don’t surrender!” I went back and forth between my head and my heart for nearly a hour, dabbing the blood from my mouth every couple minutes. Finally my heart wore down my head. I closed my eyes and made a vow to never again let quitting be an option. If somebody stole my life that was one thing; but I wasn’t going to surrender it on my own. Neither should you. NEVER surrender your dreams.

The One Success Requirement Nobody Likes

Mt Everest rangeBy the time I was 25, I’d risen above all the collateral damage of growing up with a drug-addicted mother and achieved a high degree of success. I was a professional basketball player over in Europe and I was having a great year on the court. Offers were coming in from teams all over Europe. I was being sponsored by a major shoe company. There’s no question I had made big sacrifices to get where I was in that moment. The success felt good.

What I didn’t yet understand was that for me to continue pursuing my dreams—my biggest dreams of all—I would have to make an even greater sacrifice. I’d have to give up the very dream that inspired me to fight through my brutal childhood: basketball.

I’d be lying if I told you it was easy. It’s not like I was riding the bench. I was voted to start the All-Star Game. I’d won the dunk contest in my rookie year. I was my team’s leading scorer. Leaving basketball, in perfect health and with my best years ahead of me, was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. But in the end I came to see that continued success requires continued sacrifice.

Nobody likes the sacrificial part of success. Giving things up, especially good things, is never easy. The reason so few people become great in any given field is that so many people become good and then refuse to make the extra sacrifice it takes to reach higher. But the fact remains; if you want to be great at anything in life, if you want to reach your highest peak of potential, you will have to sacrifice something that’s good along the way.

Don’t settle for good enough. Strive for greatness.

The Power of Your Dreams…

We all have dreams when we are young and resilient and capable of extraordinary faith in our future. It’s a time when we still believe that whatever we desire from life can become a reality one day. The truth is, that reality never changes. What does change is that as we grow older, we begin losing our faith in our dreams.

Somewhere along the way, this thing people call “reality” hits. Suddenly you realize that your circumstances are not connecting the dots to the future you imagined. Maybe your parents are divorced and you have no money or you’ve been abused or you are not the right size or color or gender or…fill in the blank.

For whatever reason—and there are always reasons—what you dream of doing and what you believe you can “really” do become two very different realities. Others’ comments often fuel this belief.

They begin asserting things like, “You can’t do that,” and, “You need to live in reality,” and, “That’s impossible,” and, “Maybe in your next life.” The comments are occasionally from a place of good intentions, especially if family and friends are just trying to protect you from disappointment. But such comments do not convey the truth about you or your future.

The fact is that all dreamers, including the greatest achievers in history, have heard these same comments:

Harrison Ford was told he couldn’t act.

Oprah Winfrey was told she was unfit for television.

Michael Jordan was told he couldn’t play varsity basketball.

Amelia Earhart was told she was the wrong gender.

Albert Einstein was told he would amount to nothing.

Anne Frank was told she didn’t matter.

Elvis Presley was told he wasn’t going anywhere.

Rosa Parks was told she was the wrong color.

The difference between those who realize their dreams and those who don’t is simple: Those who realize their dreams refuse to accept someone else’s “reality” for their lives. They dare to keep pursuing their dreams despite the unfavorable odds and constant objections.

Be Teachable. And Stay That Way.

Throughout my teens I was often reminded that I would never reach my dreams unless I continued improving in every aspect of my being. There was no room to regress into know-it-all mode or into some sort of arrogance that I already had everything it took to succeed.  The truth was that as a teenager I wasn’t even close—even though I was tall and could jump high. I still had a lot to learn before I could become the professional basketball player I wanted to be. And I definitely had a lot to learn to become the husband and father I wanted to be. Even today, after 23 years of marriage and with two kids of my own, I am still learning how to be a better husband and dad. And that’s the key.

Remaining teachable means that you never really “arrive” in any important aspect of your life. While you can certainly reach a point where you are highly skilled and highly confident in your ability to produce great results, the moment you think you have everything you need is the moment you begin to falter.

Life is so unpredictable because we can never control every force around us. Our environment is constantly changing. Just when you think you have a grip on your future, something shifts. Maybe a parent gets sick, or maybe you sustain a severe injury and can no longer play your sport. Or maybe you didn’t receive the scholarship for which you worked so hard, and you’re going to have to find a job to pay for college.

Or like a businessman named Erik Wahl (1), maybe a recession forces you to rethink your dream in another career.  Erik co-owned a successful business for nearly ten years, only to have it crumble after the 2000 recession. With a wife and three kids under the age of four, and very little money in the bank, he didn’t have the luxury of spending six months relaxing on the beach and hoping the next step came to him.

On a whim he went to an art supply store and picked up some paints, a few brushes and a couple of canvases.  At the very least, he thought that painting would give him an outlet that would help reduce his stress. He’d always had an interest in art but he had no training whatsoever. In fact, the last time he had tried to paint something, his elementary teacher insisted that art was not his thing. But something inside him was still fascinated with painting.

Over the next few days, Erik’s little stress-reducer started to become something much bigger. He found himself spending more and more time painting and studying new techniques and the history of the medium. He was soon hooked on art, and he poured all his energies into becoming a great artist.

Do you know what he’s doing today, 12 years later?  He’s not running a business. He’s a highly sought-after graffiti artist who can paint a perfect likeness of a well known face in about three minutes, upside down, before a live audience.

Do you know who his audiences are? Businesses, like the one he used to own, that are looking for ways to become more creative. If you were to ask Erik today if he wishes he had his old career back, he’d laugh. He knows that the unexpected path he followed ultimately led him to his dream job. But he would have never discovered it had he not remained teachable and continued to learn.

Britain’s great Prime Minister Winston Churchill explained it best when he said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” If you want to reach your dreams and sustain them for the rest of your life, the only thing you should know for sure is that you will never know everything you need to know. There will always be more opportunity for growth, sometimes where you least expect it, sometimes where you’ve been looking all along.

Be teachable. And stay that way.

 

(1) Erik Wahl, Unthink. Crown Business, 2013.

Bouncing Back From Adversity

One of my biggest challenges growing up was learning to own the life I’d been given. That may sound like a no-brainer to those of you that have heard my story. After all, I had no choice in all the experiences of those early years. But the truth is that everybody experiences things they didn’t choose.

Many people spend the rest of their lives protesting and rebelling against the injustices of their past. They fill their minds with a long list of excuses for not chasing their dreams.

Others choose to own their lives and rise above their circumstances regardless of what happened.

One of the keys to bouncing back from adversity is accepting responsibility for your future, in thick and thin. That doesn’t mean you remain where you are. And it doesn’t mean you downplay negative circumstances or act like you enjoyed every moment you’ve been alive. What it does mean is that you reach a point where you admit, “Nobody but me can make something of my life.” It’s ultimately an admission that you have no excuses for not giving your all to be successful.

I know because I’ve been there. There were so many days that I had every excuse to strive for nothing but survival. I could make a compelling argument that life was out to get me. Yet, instead of finding excuses for not succeeding I realized that I had to find a way around them and do whatever it took to be successful.

We all have reasons – some of them very legitimate reasons – to stop pursuing our dreams. I must have had a couple thousand before I reached middle school. You might too. But you can’t let your reasons for quitting dictate what you do. Instead of spending time wallowing in your past, you have to spend your time finding a way to a brighter future.

In the end, excuses are the nails used to build a house of failure. It’s OK to acknowledge they are there, but to be successful and achieve your dreams you have to learn to not pick them up. People who succeed do what they say they’re going to do. People who fail make excuses for falling short.

Excuses are a sign of weakness, and they pave the road to failure. Excellence is a sign of strength, and it paves the road to success.

Drop the excuses and embrace excellence at every turn.