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Monday, December 24, 2012

Sage Advice from a 2000-Year-Old Slave

"The first person you lead is yourself."  
                                                           -Epictetus of  Hierapolis  55 to 135 C.E.

Standing in line at the register the other day in Portland, I couldn’t help overhearing the women on her cell phone in front of me.

Her mother had abused her. Her employer didn’t appreciate her. Her kids disrespected her. By the time she was done, I could have sworn I heard the sun was too bright outside and the birds were singing too loud.

Some things never change…

If a citizen of ancient Greece or Rome were magically transported into the modern era, he would be astounded by the current state of agriculture, transportation, housing, medicine, architecture, technology, and living standards.

But humanity itself would offer few surprises. We remain the same flawed human beings we always were, struggling with the same human faults our ancestors wrestled with millennia ago.

That is why ancient philosophers still speak to us—if we listen. The wisdom of the classical world transcends place and time.

The Stoic philosophy, for example, dominated the ancient world for nearly 600 years, beginning in the late 4th century B.C.E.

Stoics believed that reason was supreme. Tranquility is only achieved, they taught, by suppressing irrational emotions—like regrets about the past—and accepting life’s unavoidable disappointments and setbacks.

One of the great exponents of Stoicism was a slave named Epictetus, born around 55 C.E. in the east outreaches of the Roman Empire.

Epictetus had few advantages in life. Aside from being born into slavery, he had a permanent physical disability. And he was poor, living a simple life in a small hut with no possessions.

Yet he became one of the leading thinkers of his age. When Epictetus was freed from slavery—we still don’t know how—he set up a philosophical school on the northwest coast of Greece, spending his days lecturing on how to live with dignity and tranquility.

As his reputation for wisdom grew, people flocked to hear him. One of his most distinguished students was the young Marcus Aurelius Antonius, who became ruler of the Roman Empire.

Epictetus was not one for airy theories (Read: The Secret). In his view, the job of philosophy is to help ordinary people deal with the challenges of everyday life. And his words, captured in a great book, The Art of Living, are a wise today as when he spoke them nearly 2,000 years ago:

“Keep your attention focused entirely on what is truly you own concern, and be clear that what belongs to others is their business and none of yours.

One of the clearest marks of the moral life is right speech….Glib talk disrespects others. Breezy self-disclosure disrespects yourself….If need be, be mostly silent or speak sparingly.

Let the quality of your deeds speak on your behalf. We can’t control the impressions others from about us, and the effort to do so debases our character. So, if anyone should tell you that a particular person has spoken critically of you, don’t bother with excuses of defenses. Just smile and reply, I guess that person doesn’t know about all my other faults. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have mentioned only these.”

Now is the time to get serious about living your ideals. Once you have determined the spiritual principles you wish to exemplify, abide by these rules as if they were laws.”

Epictetus had a deep understanding of human beings, of society…and of life. But he also understood death, too.

“I must die. If the time is now, I’m ready…How will I die? Like a man who gives up what belongs to another….A good death can only come from a good life.”

Epictetus argued that our prime motivation should be inner achievements, not outer ones. The right attitudes and values allow you to flourish no matter what the external world throws at you. Inner achievement lays the foundation for peace, tranquility, and personal freedom. And so he taught that true success comes from focusing ourselves within:

“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose to respond to them.

“If someone irritates you, it is only your own response that is irritating you. Therefore, when anyone seems to be provoking you, remember that it is only your judgment of the incident that provokes you.”

“Those who are dedicated to a life of wisdom understand that the impulse to blame something or someone if foolishness, that there is nothing to be gained in blaming, whether if be others or oneself.”
If anyone is unhappy, remember that his unhappiness is his own doing…Nothing else is the cause of anxiety or loss of tranquility except our own opinion.”

“He is wise who doesn’t grieve for the things he doesn’t have, but rejoices for the things he does have.”

“Fortify yourself with contentment, for it is an impregnable fortress.

Whether you are janitor or a CEO, Epictetus insists that your main job in life---your most important work---is improving yourself. Yet, always a realist, he emphasized moral progress over moral perfection.

Today Epictetus is widely recognized as the world’s first philosopher of personal freedom (Victor Frankel picks up on the theme in Man’s Search for Meaning). Its attainment, he insisted, is the result of mastering our thoughts, yielding to the inevitable, pursuing virtue rather than wealth and diverting our attention from constant desire, yearning and attachment.

In a modern translation of the Art of Living, philosophical writer Sharon Lebell observes that, “His was a moral teaching stripped of sentimentality, piousness, a and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. What remains is the West’s first and best primer for living the best possible life.”

Ironic, isn’t it? A man born into slavery was among the first to show us a path to personal liberation.

“Anyone is free who lives as he wishes to live,” said Epictetus. “And no one is free who is not mater of himself.”

In the words of another Stoic, Seneca:

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”

Peter Mclees

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Life and Leadership Lessons from "It's a Wonderful Life"

Most of us have seen the classic holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” A lot of us have seen the film many times because it tells such a timeless and compelling story about how any one life can positively impact so many others. While the movie holds many life lessons, we feel it has a few leadership lessons as well.

For those who have not seen it,  “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the story of George Bailey—a man who serves and sacrifices for others. The Bailey Building and Loan lends money to poor people many of them would not own a home were it not for the BBL.  Mr. Potter, the arch villain in the film, is a greedy old man who thrives on exploiting people in Bedford Falls. He continually threatens the Bailey Building and Loan’s survival.

George Bailey is in conflict between his obligations and his dreams—He wants to get out of the small town of Bedford Falls (George remarked, “ I want to shake the dust off my feet of this shabby little town and see the world. I've got big ideas and big plans and I want to build big things.”) And as he said to his father at dinner one night—“I want to do something big and important.” His father replies: “In a small way we are doing something important—man has a fundamental urge to own a roof over his head.”

George’s ambitions are thwarted by old man Potter’s schemes. After his Father died George is on his way out of town. In a character defining moment George agrees to stay dashing his dreams of far-flung adventure—creating instead a more intimate adventure that has a far greater impact on his personal world.

The film shows that real influence comes not from title or rank (as George had no formal title in the town such as Mayor) but from attempting to connect and help the people around us.

The movie also shows us that as we make ourselves available to others with courage and caring our lives develop meaning and a legacy is created, not necessarily along the paths we intended but in small acts that make a difference. George Bailey shows that if we respond with generosity and compassion our lives would have meant something. But he didn't realize this fact until the end of the movie.

Scene: George, faced with financial and personal crisis and feeling that he never made it. He attempts suicide and Clarence his guardian angel (Read: life coach) gives him a privileged look at the impact of his life on the people in Bedford Falls

George Bailey only understands the dramatic difference he made when he sees what Bedford Falls became had he never lived.

Scene: George, in desperation and shock is walking along the snow-covered streets of what is now called Potterville—a town overrun by greed and selfishness.

Clarence  says “Strange isn't it, each man’s life touches so many other lives and when his isn't around he leaves an awful hole.”

In one of the most famous (and emotional) scenes in movie history: When the townspeople all came to George's house to contribute to the BBL deficit, George finally understands how his life of service has created deep commitment to him from the town’s people (when he was in need) even though he didn't know it.

George has a wealth far beyond material goods or power. Frank Capra reminds us that there is no substitute for relationships of integrity, trust and caring. Relationships that are forged through consistent acts of service.

Whatever our position, if we influence the lives of those around us, we are engaged in the act of leadership. And if we are leaders in any sense, we are also creating a legacy as we live our daily lives. Our leadership legacy is the sum total of the difference we make in people's lives, directly and indirectly, formally and informally.

George Bailey had created an enduring legacy because of his acts of caring, compassion, and courage.

Cheers to a new year and another chance to make a difference.

Peter Mclees

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rest in Peace Zig Ziglar

I am genuinely saddened by the news of the passing of Zig Ziglar, “the world’s most popular motivational speaker”. Because I’m grateful for the wisdom he shared, I’m compelled to help preserve his legacy.

My Favorite Zig Ziglar Keepers:

“You can have everything in life you want if you’ll just help enough other people to get what they want!”

“The most important persuasion tool you have in your arsenal is integrity.”

“The way you see people is the way you treat people.”

 “Efficiency is doing things right. Effectiveness is doing the right thing.”

“You cannot make it as a wandering generality. You must become a meaningful specific.”

 “People often say that motivation doesn't last. Well, neither does bathing-that's why we recommend it daily."

“Every choice you make has an end result.”

“Every sale has five basic obstacles: no need, no money, no hurry, no desire, no trust."

“It’s not what you’ve got it’s what you use that makes a difference.”

I was privileged to personally hear Zig speak. It was at one of those motivational extravaganzas in 1987.  His presentation inspired this post about the place where I first gained wisdom and inspiration from him.

Rest in peace Zig Ziglar! Your wisdom and spirit live on.

Peter Mclees

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

My Top 40 Random Thoughts for Elevating Holiday Spirits

Yuletide Greetings ~

It was the week before Christmas last year when I was sitting in the my World Headquarters (My favorite chair) listening to that song “We Need A Little Christmas”. I was not in the Ho! Ho! Ho! holly jolly holiday mood. My outlook was more like Bah! Bah! Bah!...Humbug! "This too shall pass" (meaning the holidays). I didn't like my state of mind so I set out to change the way I was feeling. I made a list of things I've done in the past, could do again, as well as some new things and random thoughts to create laughter, perspective and a sense of well being for myself and those around me.  It's funny how just writing things down boosted my spirits. And when I actually did some of  them---Wowzy Zowzy!

[I apologize for the for the long list but I was on a roll ]

1. Find a way to make a friend, a family member, a co worker or a stranger feel like a million bucks today. It is the best way to get rich quick because you instantly feel like a million bucks yourself when you do.
2. Why not listen to some commercial free (almost) Christmas music here
3. Commit to hearty laughter at least once a day. Once you do that, make sure you help others do the same! Methinks we are taking ourselves way too seriously! I know I do at times.
4. Forgive someone.
5. Be a kid again. We won’t tell anyone!

6. Understand that other than the “5 Golden Rings” in The 12 Days of Christmas, someone basically cleaned out their attic and was trying to unload junk. I mean what am I supposed to do with a bunch of Lords a leaping? Just put them over there next to the swans a swimming, Cabin boy!
7. Sing along to a holiday song. Rinse and repeat!
8. Volunteer at the local shelter or senior home.

9. Take a coworker out to lunch or coffee . . . just because.
10. Between now and the end of the year include messages of hope and inspiration in your status updates.
11. Grab a hot chocolate or some spiked egg nog and look at some Christmas lights.
12. Give someone a few extra minutes of your time.
13. Take at least one opportunity to bite your tongue. (This one's tough for me)
14. Over tip someone who deserves it. (This one's easy)

15. Understand that laughing at the song “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” is sick. Would you really laugh if your Grandmother got run over by a reindeer? What’s next? Grandpa got burned to death roasting chestnuts over a raging fire.
16. Forgive your parents already. Like they didn’t forgive us for the stuff we pulled?
17. Evict negativity from your life. Seek out good. Its there! In the words of Dwitt Jones, "Celebrate What's Right with the World."

18. Give someone the gift of your undivided attention.
19. Tell a loved one how much they mean to you. Unfortunately, there’s an expiration date on this crazy thing we call life! And if by chance you lost that person . . . find a way to honor them!
20. Plan a family night.
21. Find something inspirational and then pass it to your network because quite frankly, we all need a shot in the arm from time to time.
22. Encourage someone. Its free.
23. Answer this question: What am I most grateful for? Take inventory and count the upside.

24. Stop striving for Norman Rockwell Christmas moments. Understand that the beauty of his art was in capturing the chaos and even celebrating it. Might be a lesson in that crazy thought.
25. Donate some food to the local food pantry. They get hit hard this time of year.

26. Change the words to one of your favorite holiday songs. Personally, I like singing “Walking in my winter wacky wear" (Like those embarrassing red sweat pants that only my dogs accept me in) to the tune of “Walking in a winter wonderland”.

27. Commit to wearing your spirit on your sleeve! As William James remarked, "Act as if your cheerful and you'll eventually feel cheerful."
28. Listen to the lyrics of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” and then ask yourself, What’s the deal with that Figgy Pudding and who the heck do they think they are threatening us that “We won’t go until we get some” I wish the person who wrote that song would have stepped back to realize that people are willing to get indignant over a Baileys or a bowl of Candy Cane Joe-Joe's and ice cream, but a figgy pudding? Don’t have any, but help yourself to those Lords a leapin over there instead skipper!

29. Sing a duet of “Baby its cold outside” and then realize that the cacophony that just occurred with your singing is precisely why you both need to keep working your day jobs.
30. Don't OD on the news. Take it in bite sized pieces. They make mega bucks with negativity . . . we don’t!
31. Find a way to create a memory and then visit that memory often! Someday we will refer to today as “The good old days” Make 'em count!
32. 101 Christmas Videos can be viewed online by clicking here
33. Go to a tree lighting, a children’s Christmas concert to get that hometown vibe going!
34. When you find yourself in an exceptionally good mood, don’t ever let anyone take your joy away from you.

35. Mend a fence. Lose the ego and repeat after me “I'm sorry” ( I know that phrase can stick in my craw sometimes). Try it and it will lighten your load.
36. Catch up with someone you lost touch with.
37. Let someone know they inspired you!
38. Let your spouse have the remote control for the entire night...or week. Yikes! I'm already getting the shakes just at the thought of it.
39. Go Elf yourself, your pet or a public figure.
40. Watch It’s A Wonderful Life (again). The economy notwithstanding, we have have a pretty wonderful life!   This season reminds us what is really important -- the relationships we share.  It is those relationships that really make it a wonderful life.

I hope in some small way this list has brought a smile and kicked up the holiday vibe a notch.

Peter Mclees