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Behold the eye of the pelican

 “A happy life consists in tranquility of mind.”
– Cicero





In need of a break, I took the day off from work to spend at the beach. It was late October, still warm enough to enjoy the Florida sun without the summer crowds. In fact, the beach was deserted. Book in hand, I walked to a quiet spot and settled into my little beach chair, my toes just touching the shallow waves. I was alone.

From the distance, a single pelican glided into view, dipped its wings and landed in the water, not 20 yards from me. She barely bobbed in the surf, slowly rotating until facing me, and then stopped turning – and just stared in my direction.

I stared back.

We both sat on the empty beach, both perfectly still, simply looking at each other. Pelicans have little eyes, but I could see hers clearly, and she was looking straight back into mine. No doubt, she was calm and relaxed.

Only later did I realize that my body had begun to relax, too. I had stopped thinking about everything – my breathing had steadied, my mind was calm. Gazing steadily into the bird’s eyes for what seemed like minutes, all my thoughts had dissolved away. Eventually, my little friend slowly took flight and disappeared, but not before leaving me tranquil.

Only much later did I realize I had stumbled into some form of focal point meditation, with my entire focus centered on the eyes of a pelican.

To this day, when the stresses of everyday life threaten to overwhelm me, I allow my thoughts to drift back to that quiet spot on my empty beach, where I find myself sitting in my little lawn chair, the waves rolling into the sand. I’m sure my eyes gloss over a bit, because while I’m physically present in one place, my inner eye is somewhere else, seeing only calm – and then peace fills me because I’m once again staring into the gentle, quiet eyes of a pelican….


College is about more than finding a good job

DiplomaSome young people today think college isn’t worth the time or money, but such thinking may be shortsighted.

If your only goal in attending college is to land a high-paying job, or if you’re confident you can be successful in life without attending, then I understand why skipping college is an attractive option.

In fact, a wealthy California man is now awarding fellowships worth $100,000 each to 24 young people if they skip college for at least two years and instead spend the time chasing their entrepreneurial dreams. The recipients were selected based on their potential to make major contributions to society without going to college, much like Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to grow

The millionaire offering the $100,000 fellowships is Peter Thiel, who made his fortune by co-founding the online payment service PayPal (after graduating from Stanford Law School).

Thiel’s idea continues a theme which has been building for several years: some high school graduates want to pass on formal higher education and jump right into the working world to make their mark.

While I love the idea of giving young people the means to pursue their dreams, particularly those with great ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit, college is more than a means to land a good job. It can help you prepare for life’s challenges.

Most of what I learned in college came from outside the classroom: the discussions in the dorm and student organizations; the debates while out with friends; the exposure to ideas different from my own; the ability to create and grow relationships, resolve conflicts and solve problems; the opportunity to meet and make friends with people whose cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds were different from mine.

Of course, the classroom work was valuable, too, particularly learning critical thinking skills which continue to serve me well both personally and professionally.

I don’t think college is for everyone. And many people, including Mark Zuckerberg, achieve great success without finishing college, among them Mary Kay Ash (of Mary Kay cosmetics), Michael Dell (founder of Dell computers), former ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings, film director Steve Spielberg, and software mogul Bill Gates.

But if you’re not the next Steven Spielberg or Bill Gates – and most of us are not – I wouldn’t pass on higher education. College can be so much more than just a ticket to a good job….

Living life fully means taking some risks

“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

Among friends, I’m not exactly known as a risk taker. Some might politely describe my approach to life as “methodical,” my days a little too organized for their taste.

To a large degree, this philosophy has served me well. (Fate favors those who know what comes next.)

Still, I’ve learned that living life to its fullest requires taking some risks. The common touchstones of life — getting married, having children, changing jobs, buying a home – do not come with guarantees. It would be safest to live life alone in a cave, but that’s not much of a life.

Years ago, I stumbled upon a television show featuring interviews with dozens of people who were all at least 80 years old. Each person was asked: “Now that you are in the sunset of your life, what are your biggest regrets?”

The answers surprised me. Person after person – all octogenarians – said their biggest regrets were not things they had done, but things they had not done… the risks never taken. One guy still remembered the girl he never asked to the high school dance, another woman reflected sadly on the career she never pursued. Rarely did anyone say “I regret something I did earlier in life.” Most admitted to making a lot of mistakes, but time allowed those decisions to be seen in a new light: life lessons they otherwise never would have learned. By taking the risk and failing, they grew.

The thought reminds me of an old saying: “If you’re not failing at some things, you’re not risking enough.”

Of course, some people live life on the opposite side of the spectrum. They live recklessly and never reach the age of 80, or 50 (or even 20). But if you live too cautiously, will you reflect on a life full of regrets?

Over time, I’ve learned that one key to a happy life is to strike a balance in essentially all things, including the amount risk in your life.

My hope is to lead my life to reach at least the age of 80, and then if someone asks “What are your regrets, old man?”, I want to say with conviction: “I have none.”

A little time means a lot to children

When I get home from work most evenings, my mind is racing.

I’m usually focused on some meeting I just had or the household tasks before me: make a phone call, pay the bills, fix something that’s broken. I’m going a hundred miles per hour.

Thankfully, my daughter has other ideas. She always greets me with a big hug. Then she’s ready to tell me about her day, play a game or engage me in some fashion. She’s a real life air brake, and I’ve learned to embrace it.

We sit on the couch and talk, read a book or review her school work. Often, she’s bursting to tell me a story about her day. How we spend the time is unimportant, but I’m going to give her 15 minutes of undivided attention. No cell phone; no newspaper; no checking the mail. Just family time for 15 minutes, then if needed I can race off to tackle the world before circling around to her later in the evening.

Some weekdays we spend more time together; other days not so much. Regardless, this simple time together means a lot to her — and me. It’s also a remarkable stress reliever: suddenly that crazy project at work isn’t so all-consuming.

The length of time spent with children isn’t always the most important factor. Sometimes, all it takes is 15 minutes….

Children and the Joy of Giving

Many young children have a generous spirit, often nurtured by a parent or loved one. It’s a quality worth emulating.

My mother once told me the story of a young girl she came to know, maybe six or seven years old, raised by her grandmother who lived in a little home in Central Florida. They lived on a fixed income, and money was tight. Occasionally, one of the little girl’s friends would spend the night.

“We don’t have much,” the little girl told my mother, “but we share what we have.”

My mother smiled when she told me that story. She guessed the little girl was repeating what her grandmother had told her.

While my wife and I try to teach our young daughter the importance of sharing, it’s most rewarding to see her learn the joy of generosity on her own.

By age five, our daughter had collected more than 60 stuffed animals and teddy bears. Around Christmastime, I asked if she’d choose one to donate to a needy child. She methodically sorted through all her dolls and teddy bears – she had named each one – but she didn’t like the idea of parting with any of them. I think she was still processing the concept of giving one of her beloved teddy bears to another child.

Eventually, it sank in: she had dozens of dolls; other children had none. After a little more thought, she handed me a brown teddy bear in excellent condition. Shortly after, I overheard her telling my wife she wanted to donate some clothes she had outgrown.

A year later, without any prompting, my daughter decided to sort through her bears and dolls again. This time, she chose more than 20 to give away. She was candid about part of her motivation: she wanted to make room for new dolls and bears. But she was clear that she wanted other children to enjoy her old toys, too. She smiled as she said it, and I knew she had learned one of life’s most rewarding lessons: the joy of giving.

The truth about Santa Claus — and Christmas

<I originally posted this almost two years ago. While I’ve never repeated a post before, I decided to do so now in celebration of Christmas. Have a wonderful holiday!>

Before I became a parent, I thought it a bit cruel to teach children the fantasy of Santa Claus.

Mind you, I wasn’t a scrooge. I wasn’t traumatized when I learned the truth myself as a child, and I still love celebrating Christmas. I also wasn’t overly concerned about the commercialization of the holiday or that Santa has usurped Jesus’ birth as reason to celebrate. I could tackle those problems as a parent.

I simply thought it mean-spirited to build up such an exciting fantasy in the very young, only to crush it for them a few years later. I was like Maureen O’Hara in Miracle on 34th Street.

Now that I’m a parent, I’ve changed my mind.

I realize now that the pre-parent “me” had missed the point because I had focused too narrowly on the literal existence of Santa. In my daughter’s eyes, Santa is indeed real because he manifests Christmas itself – except 5-year-children don’t talk about “manifesting reality” – they think instead of a jolly old guy in a red suit.

In my daughter’s eyes, mermaids and monsters exist; Mickey Mouse REALLY lives in Orlando; and reindeer can fly all over the world, safely landing on rooftops. It all makes sense. She’s not as focused on the reality of Santa Claus as she is the magic of Christmas. She’s at too tender an age to separate the two. By teaching her about Santa Claus, it makes teaching her the magic of Christmas – the important things – much easier.

Today, I enjoy seeing her enthusiasm for Santa Claus. It’s not cruel; it makes sense in her world. When she is a few years older and the realities of life come sharper into focus, the truth about Santa Claus will make sense, too.

Now I understand.

Giving children “everything” without giving too much

Like most parents, my wife and I try to give the best to our daughter without spoiling her. Sometimes, it’s tough knowing where to draw the line.

Just for fun, we once took a weekend trip to Charleston, South Carolina. As we strolled through an outdoor market in the town’s historic district, we came upon a table of hand-made Russian nesting dolls. There were about two dozen sets of the colorful matryoshka, each presented in a different theme: animals, children, flowers.

The dolls were beautiful; my 7-year-old daughter was mesmerized. She eyed each set carefully, working up the courage to ask if I’d buy her one.

I silently mulled how I’d answer her. These weren’t children’s dolls; these were collectibles. The cheapest set was $28, and they escalated in price to about $120. She was looking at a cute set of Panda bears that ran $40.

Candidly, price was not the real issue. I had other concerns. I wondered if she’d enjoy the dolls for an afternoon and then relegate them to a box in her room – home to many other “gotta have it” toys and dolls.

In fairness, on occasion she’ll pull out a stuffed bear or ignored souvenir from another vacation, using it to help recall a fun memory from the trip. Maybe she’d assign a warm memory to the dolls.

On the other hand, my daughter was going through a “I-want-to-buy-something-everywhere-we-go” phase. We often said yes – too often.

Ultimately, I said “no” to the dolls. They were too extravagant for a casual souvenir. My daughter curled her lip for a minute but didn’t complain. I think she understood. Later, we let her choose an $8 children’s book from another booth, and she was happy.

Did I draw the line at the right time – or did I deny her the chance to begin a lifetime love of collecting Russian dolls?

I think I made the right decision, but I’m constantly wondering where to draw that line…..

Life is short: pursue your passion

BD18261I “It is only by following your deepest instinct that you can lead a rich life. If you let your fear of consequence prevent you from following your deepest instinct, then your life will be safe, expedient and thin.”

                                                – Katharine Butler Hathaway


In the 1991 movie “City Slickers,” the tough-as-nails cowboy played by the late Jack Palance engages Billy Crystal’s character – mired in a mid-life crisis – in a discussion about life and happiness.

“The secret to life is only one thing,” says Palance’s wise and wizened cowboy, Curly.

“What?” asks Crystal’s character.

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

I’ve seen the movie more than once, and I always get a kick out of that line: it speaks to the idea that one secret to happiness is to find something you’re passionate about and then to doggedly pursue it.

Good advice, I believe, but easier said than done.

To me, it seems a two step challenge. First, you have to discover your true passion. Then, you must muster the courage to puruse it.

Some people make the discovery at an early age; equally important, they act on it.

In his autobiography Lucky Man, the actor Michael J. Fox says he knew as a youngster that he wanted to be an actor. Indeed, by age 14 or so he was starring on Canadian TV, and then at 18 he skipped college to move to Los Angeles to pursue his passion. Of course, he was enormously successful.

Similarly, Larry King’s 7th grade year book announces his life ambition to be a “radio announcer.” According to King’s autobiography, A Remarkable Journey, a father figure brushed aside King’s talk of working in radio, urging him instead to accept a job working in his factory after high school. Of course, King ignored the advice and pursued his passion, becoming one of the great media personalities in U.S. history.

While not everyone who pursues his or her dream ends up happy, at least they took a shot. Most of us never even chase the dream.

Why not?

For some of us, we never discover our true passion; for others, we find the dream but not the courage to pursue it. Either way, we’re usually too busy playing out roles expected of us: getting married, working a regular job, paying down a mortgage, raising children.

Of course, there are great joys to be had living a simple and honest life, finding stable work and raising a family. It’s the life I’ve chosen, and the rewards are many. Also, not all passions require running away to join the circus or abandoning your day job: it could be as simple as finally learning to play a musical instrument or diving into that hobby you’ve quietly dreamed of trying.

Whether the dream is large or small, it’s worth pursuing. U.S. Army General Omar Bradley said, “We are given one life and the decision is ours whether to wait for circumstances to make up our mind, or whether to act and, in acting, live.”

I think that pursuing your passion is the act of living. My wish is that we all find the courage to discover and pursue what is truly, deeply in our hearts.

I’m careful how I spend my time

CB068219“Lost time is never found again.”

Benjamin Franklin



Nothing is more important to me than my family, so I’m protective of the time I spend with loved ones.

I mention this because my life is full of prospective time robbers – usually well-meaning people who pull and tug at me for my time. Could I attend a breakfast meeting before work? Am I available for a meeting with a local nonprofit after work? Would I mind staffing an educational booth for another group this weekend?

No single request is particularly onerous, but the cumulative effect is pronounced. On occasion, I leave home before my daughter gets up for school and return when she’s climbing back into bed.

Thankfully, those days are now rare, but it took a conscious effort to make it so. I simply had to begin saying “Sorry, but no.” Some people are taken aback when I tell them I’m not available all the time anymore, even when I explain that I’m going home to spend time with my family.

Of course, I haven’t cut myself off completely from off-hours work. I enjoy my job, and the very nature of public relations/marketing work requires an “available at all hours” attitude. No problem, there. I also enjoy volunteer work. But I’ve learned that moderation is the key. Saying “no” is not a crime. In fact, it’s been one of the best decisions of my life. Consider:

  • My father turned 80 this year, and I no longer tell him I can’t play golf on Saturdays.
  • My daughter is already 7 years old. I know I have precious few years remaining to be “cool” in her eyes, when she still wants to show me her drawings and take bike rides together.
  • And just recently, a friend died from a stroke. Her sudden death was a striking reminder that time is so precious.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th century British author, said “Life is not long, and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation of how it shall be spent.”

I know how I want to spend my time. Yes, I want to volunteer, to help others, to be a valued employee and a good citizen of my community.

Mostly, though, I want to be a good husband, father, son and friend. I do that best by deciding how I spend my time.

Mom’s tough life provides perspective

j0438579It’s a well-worn ritual for young people to roll their eyes as their elders lament how tough life was years ago. Every grandparent has a story about walking to school in the snow (uphill, both ways) or living without some modern convenience.

I catch myself now and again telling my 7-year-old daughter about my own childhood – life before the personal computer, the Internet, email, cell phones, cable TV or the myriad of other indulgences she takes for granted.

I’m just continuing the tradition. I remember my father telling me about his first job, delivering ice for “ice boxes” before the days of modern refrigeration.

My mother, though, had the most sobering stories. She never complained.

Mom, a British citizen, was born in 1930, during the United Kingdom’s Great Depression. Both her parents died when she was young, and she grew up in London in the middle of WW II. The city was under heavy Nazi bombing, which killed more than one of her young friends. As air raid warnings blew and Nazi planes dropped bombs overhead, Mom frequently dove into muddy ditches on the way to school. To make money after school, she cleaned houses; food and clothes were rationed. During the war, no light could be visible from any home after sunset, so she spent her nights in the dark.

Mom finished her formal schooling in her mid teens, then worked in a factory for a year or so before joining the Royal Air Force. At 22, she married my father and had eight children – seven boys and one girl, over a 14 year period, all while moving around the world every two or three years. Dad focused his energy at work in the military; Mom raised all eight of us and still found time to volunteer at our schools and in the community. 

My mother never smoked a day in her life but died of a lung disease at the age of 71. Throughout her life, my mother had great common sense and lived by the Golden Rule. She taught her children the importance of personal responsibility. She appreciated the simple things in life.   

I think about Mom’s life whenever someone complains about a minor annoyance, like the satellite TV going out during a storm or the GPS suggesting a wrong turn to a new restaurant.

Her life still provides me with a sobering perspective.


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