Life Outside The Lines

When I was a kid, my mom would scold me for staying within the lines on my coloring books.

“Be bold, Mijo. Make your own lines!” she would exhort. Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 7.55.13 AM

As soon as she would walk away, I would return to the comfort of coloring within the lines and making my grass green and skies blue like my Ritchie Rich comic books. Perhaps this was the safe haven engineering offered early in my career. A vocation experienced, for the most part, within the lines. It was all about solving problems and getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, or at least faster than the next guy. It’s the American way as they say.

Funny how things change

The most meaningful experiences I have had have been the result of having strayed, sometimes by intention, but more times by accident outside the lines, and coloring the sky purple. New careers, public speaking, and Haiti mission trips to name a few.

The challenge has become that as I age, however, venturing outside the lines is more difficult. The complacency of routine undermines the yearn for new experiences. Recently a good friend of mine invited me to an improv acting class. I was surprised at my hesitancy to accept, wondering how much of an ass I would make of myself if I did. The class turned out to be a blast of course, and have since used one of the warm up exercises with a client.

Good stuff.

But I didn’t plan on it and wouldn’t have even thought of attending if I hadn’t been pushed outside the lines. Further, I noticed something important in the process. I am more present outside the lines. I am paying attention to the situation, what the other person is saying, how they are feeling, where we are standing, what the weather is like. On everything but me.

Better stuff.

Nowadays, when I see a coloring book I smile. I think of purple skies and coloring outside the lines. Because that is where life is.

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Cattle Call… – God

I believe we receive calls. But not just any calls. Calls that profoundly change the direction of our lives for good. Make no mistake, it’s not a matter of if we receive them, but when. The problem is most of us are either too distracted or too comfortable to see them, or if we do, too scared to do anything about them. The latter is a good indication by the way that it is a call. It is when your response is, “%$#@!” Then you know its a call.

And they come at the most unexpected times. Mine came while grieving over my mom’s death. A friend was coaching me through some grief recovery exercises and asked me to write her a final letter. Writing the letter was hard and at first the words came slowly, but soon flowed like a broken spigot. As I read it aloud to myself, one sentence in particular screamed back at me.

Your legacy will be my work…with myself and those around me.

I could feel the gravity of what was being called out and my heart thumped at the implications. This would not be easy.

Nor has it been. It was three years before I had the courage to step out and start doing something about it. That explains my Crazy Ivan, going from engineering and running a manufacturing company to leadership coach. And that doesn’t tell the half of it.

I am a healer.

How is that for some crazy shit! “It is what it is,” as my mom would frequently say. Healing is the essence of her legacy and I have taken up the charge to fulfill that purpose.

There have been subsequent calls and signs affirming what I am doing, but none so profound as the first. Perhaps because the first experience of letting go was so unforgettable. Once you do let go, or surrender, or submit, or yield to a higher calling, they become more recognizable when the new calls come. If they do, that is. They don’t always. Mother Teresa had only one, yet it was profound enough to change a million lives. Or more.

The sad thing is, most of us don’t do anything with them. We convince ourselves that either we couldn’t ever do what the call is telling us, or we’ll get to it when we have time, later in life when the kids are grown, or when we retire, or when the house is paid off, or when, or when, or when.

That talk is crap.

In reality, the price of responding to a call, though seemingly higher earlier in life when there are obligations involved, like a family, or a job, or a mortgage, is much less than responding to it when we are free of obligations later in life. Later in life when we are comfortable. Transformation doesn’t happen when we are comfortable.

Following a calling at a time of our choosing rarely works. Timing is everything. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the reward.

For most, we know what the call is. The question is, when are we going to do anything about it?

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Comfort Is A Killer

I used to write. A lot.

Starting from the time my parents died in 2002, through to 2010, I wrote three books and journaled a bunch more. Perhaps by Stephen King standards, that was hardly a walk in the park. But for me, is was substantial. Especially given that I had never been a writer previous to that time. Outside of the essays I wrote for my college english classes where the best I could muster was a C+ (I think the + was because I flirted with the pretty Canadian intern), I didn’t write.

From college until my parents died, I lived an engineer’s life; solving problems that sometimes needed solving, thinking logically and folding my underwear. Then came 2002; my dad died in April (April 1 actually; an irony that still pays dividends amongst the family) from alzheimer’s, and then my mom died in August. All this coming off the emotional events of 911. So I started writing. To start, more as something to do with my time because I kept waking up at 3 a.m. with my head full of thoughts and I had to get them down somehow, certain that I would go crazy if I didn’t. All this was helped by the fifteen year old mattress we had, causing me to wake early in the morning with backaches. Much like my dad, once I wake, it is very hard for me to fall back to sleep. Thus began my writing and it started out as long streams of conscious thought. Over time it evolved into story-telling and as I began to share it with others, I was encouraged to write more and I did because it was flowing and I woke up almost every morning between 3-4 a.m. to write.

Parallel to this was the start of my consulting business in 2005. I left engineering to start a leadership development consultancy. Yeah, I know. I hear the question all the time…”How did you go from engineering to leadership coach?” The easy answer is I just did. The expanded answer is, in the process of writing I discovered there was a larger purpose in my life than being an engineer, and it had to do with making an impact on people. There is much more to that story, but for now we’ll leave it at that.

All to say the first three years of starting the business about did us in until mid-2008. Hanging by a thread both financially and in my marriage, the phone finally began to ring and I began the long march out of the hole I had dug, until which around 2010 the business took off. All of a sudden we didn’t have to play smoke and mirrors with the bills anymore and my wife and I could look at each other and smile again. Simple pleasures.

By 2011, the business had reached a fever pitch and I hit the wall by the end of the year, having worked straight through the holidays and feeling every bit resentful for it. 2012 and 2013 settled into a more consistent rhythm, though contracts would come and go and we would have the inevitable cycles of flush months, then lean ones, but none were like the early years when I didn’t know how I was going to pay for the mortgage.

And yet, in all of this I began to realize there was a larger price I was paying for the success that I failed to recognize until the middle of this year. I was attempting to jump start the editing on my last book and feeling all too apathetic about the work when it dawned on me that the price I had paid for the comfort the business had provided, was the motivation and creative inspiration to write. Further, I no longer had the old mattress anymore. In an instant, I was sleeping through the night and waking refreshed, sans back pain. Both events had conspired to the same result–no writing.

And then, as quietly as it had disappeared, the writing emerged again. September 26th of this year to be precise. Not to the level I was ten years ago, but I am writing, and I am more proficient at it these days, thankfully having learned a few things along the way. Why did the writing appear again? I ask myself. Discomfort. No, my mattress is still providing great sleep, however my mind is working over time these days for a couple of reasons: 1) I merged my business with another earlier this year and I am experiencing the growing pains of being in a partnership again. I hadn’t realized how much I took for granted being working solely for myself until I was in a partnership again. As much as I enjoy the new venture and appreciate what they bring to the table, it has knocked me out of my comfort zone. It takes energy to focus on how I am responding and contributing to the business. I also put a pressure on myself to contribute more than I am taking, which at times is a tall order. It is a challenge for me to rely on someone else and I am learning how to do that all over again. 2) My frustration over not writing has peaked to the point of writing again. As the saying goes, when the pain of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, exceeds the pain of change, then change will come.

All of this speaks of discomfort. Even so, beginning again was challenging. I had to set my judgment aside about why I have not written, how bad my writing is, how I cannot seem to follow a thought for more than a sentence or two, and write again.

I still struggle to start. But once I am rolling, it feels good to be here again. Like hearing an old Marvin Gaye song when driving in traffic and I don’t give a shit who is watching me sing along.

Discomfort has been my companion to write. This I have learned, and is my new challenge. As life goes, there will be times of discomfort, and times of comfort. How I will continue to write between the periods of discomfort is the next mountain to climb.

Wish me well.

Why Worry?

I worry. Though I wouldn’t call myself a worrier by nature, that is, I’m not consumed by it, I still worry. About all kinds of things like, will my youngest who is a senior in high school find the right college, or more to the point, will he ever finish his college applications? Will my shoulder that keeps popping every time I rollover in bed need surgery next year and how will I pay for the deductible? Or, when will the bunion on my right foot make it too painful to run? Will the roof need replacing before I get all the kids through college? How long will my Volvo with 224,000 miles on it last before it blows something major, or, or, or… And the list goes on.

For most of my adult life, I kept thinking that the older I got, I would somehow reach a point where stuff just didn’t worry me anymore. I have achieved that in some respects…for example, I started a business in 2005. I had never worked for myself before, always having had a full time job with benefits, twice monthly paychecks, and evenings in front of the TV trying to forget the drama of the day at the office. I was now experiencing a new level of worry, like where the next contract was going to come from so I could pay our mortgage and put food on the table and clothes on my kids. It took a few years and some tough lessons, but I learned that the market does respond and I didn’t need to worry when business would soften. Rather, I learned to enjoy the times when it did and would take time off to spend it with the family or get caught up on projects around the house because I knew at some point business would get busy again and I would be back hard at it. The result of this was I no longer had the regret of wishing I had spent the down time enjoying it rather than being consumed with worry how I was going to get more business.

The confounding thing about all this is while there are many examples like the above where experience has taught me that I do not need to worry, it only works for the entirety of life if it were static–if what I experienced from here on out were just more of the same. THEN I would not worry because it would be, “been there, done that” for everything.

Not in my lifetime.

If self awareness has taught me anything, I am too much a seeker to be content doing the same thing. I seek new experiences, new challenges, new adventures, and the ONE big implication of all that is I continue to find myself where I haven’t been before. And I worry about how they will turn out. I do recognize a difference, however, and it has to do with doubt. My worry of yesterday was full of doubt. My worry of today is full of question. The difference in experiencing one versus the other, is the sum total of my experiences have taught me that I have somehow solved, figured out, persevered, survived, been lucky enough, to get to this day. And all that is transferable in informing how I experience today’s worry. I don’t doubt that there will be a solution to whatever worry I am facing today. But I question, and my intellectual curiosity and impatience for getting to the answer are the only things that cause me grief in today’s worry.

All this to say, when my worry is more about doubt than question, then I just need remind of where my talents and experience can help me through it. I reassure myself I am in the right place, and I keep moving.

The Love They Have to Give

I have spent too much time in my marriage seeking the love that I thought I wanted, rather than accepting the love my wife was giving. This has been made especially difficult given that I grew up believing in the wrong message–that marriage is about finding the perfect spouse and being in love would always mean experiencing a blissful union. Wow. Was I not prepared for reality.

Marriage is about enduring

The truth is, my marriage has been more about letting go and enduring, than blissful moments. Not that there hasn’t been bliss. There are moments I recall distinctly when we have experienced it: Witnessing the birth of our three children. A particular dinner we shared at one of our favorite restaurants celebrating the start of my business. Huddling next to each other under cold sheets, amazed at the softness of her skin. These, and many more.

The challenge has been, however, that all of these are overshadowed by the imaginary image I thought marriage would be, and worse, the blame I put on either myself or my wife over the inability for us to achieve it. It wasn’t until I became so tired of trying to achieve something that was unachievable, that the truth of our marriage emerged. I was ready to see that the love my wife has to give has always been there. Waiting.

My wife is not demonstrative like I am. Thank God. She shows her love in the small things. Like the sweater she bought for me this week. The dinner she cooked last night. The thousands of meals she has prepared for our family. The flannel pajamas she sewed when the kids were little; the Halloween costumes she made from scratch; the house she painted all by herself with a 5 inch brush; and on, and on, and on.

The love my wife has to give has always been there. We just had to outlast the imaginary image, suffering the indignities of unmet expectations along the way until we learned to appreciate what we had to offer each other. And the strange thing is (I can’t believe I am saying this…), I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. This is not to say I don’t have regrets. I do…over things I have said and thought that were about me and the image. Even so, I just can’t imagine that I would have the appreciation for her, no, the deep respect for her if we hadn’t gone through what we did.

I shared this with her awhile back. “Honey, even if I didn’t love you, I have so much respect for you for staying with me all these years.” The response the image would have expected would be to have her jump in my arms and gush over the acknowledgment. She just looked at me with a wry grin and said, “You’re welcome.”

Now THAT is love!

All to say, when I am feeling particularly unloved in my marriage, I take the time to observe her in the small things she does for me and others. And when I recognize it, the question becomes, am I willing to accept it?