Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life

We’ve all heard this expression hundreds of times. So many times that it’s become a cliché. But that doesn’t diminish the statement’s inherent truth.

Every single day is an opportunity to make the most of every day thereafter. We cannot change the past no matter how difficult or painful. Nor should we try. Our past experiences helped create who we are today. They’ve helped shape our worldview, values, and core character. They will always be with us, but they are also yesterday’s news. Today and tomorrow are what truly matter.

Life is short. Too freakin’ short. And we never know when it will end.

Someone much wiser than me said, “Today is a gift, which is why we call it the present.” Please join me in embracing this gift and wholeheartedly embracing the fact that today is indeed the first day of the rest of your life.

“This Is Us” Is Me – And Maybe You Too

Meeting my brother for the first time.

The hit television show This Is Us is a poignant family drama. It’s been an especially emotional experience for me as I’ve watched Randall discover and build a relationship with his newly discovered birth father, William. At the same time, Randall’s relationship with his adopted mother Rebecca deteriorates as he struggles with the knowledge that she purposely excluded William from his life. My story is quite similar.

My father, Paul Spizuco, died when I was 18 months old. I never saw a picture of him until I was in my mid-twenties (and only because my dear Uncle Julie had kept some photos for me). For a long time my youthful mind assumed Paul must have been a bad guy because no one ever talked about him. In my late twenties my grandmother told me Paul was actually fun and generous and I was a lot like him. In my mid-thirties, I learned from a cousin that Paul had been a widower when he married my mother and had three daughters from his first marriage. My mother confirmed that but, when I asked why I had no contact with them, she said they wanted nothing to do with me after their father’s death. I had no reason to disbelieve her. Over the ensuing years, I made some minor attempts to find my half-sisters but with no success.

About ten years ago, I learned that my mother had been the one that purposely cut me off from my paternal family. That’s when I, like Randall, became focused on finding my birth-father’s family. One weekend in 2010, a childhood friend and his wife were visiting and we talked about my quest. They’d had success tracking down their own family trees on Ancestry.com and within two hours, I learned Paul’s deceased wife’s name and when she died. Most importantly I learned that I had two half-sisters and a half-brother. I contacted the woman who had posted the information and introduced myself. Long story short, the next day my 80-year-old brother, Paul Jr., called and we spoke for an hour. He was twenty years older than me and had been in the Marines when our father died. The next day I spoke to the daughter of my youngest half-sister, who told me her mom had always talked about me and her dying wish was to see me one more time. She had died ten months earlier. My older half-sister had died much earlier in life. Each of my half-siblings had large families and I became a “half-uncle” to about twenty nieces and nephews.

Paul Jr. died in 2014. I knew him for less than four years, but I cherish those years and I know our relationship meant a lot to him as well. My most vivid memory was a summer reunion party with all of Paul’s kids and their kids. My daughter accompanied me as we met all these blood relatives we didn’t even know existed. On the way back, she said, “That’s your family.” She explained that they all had the same kind of goofy humor that I’ve never outgrown, and we looked and sounded alike. Even after my brother’s death, I’ve remained in touch with his family and will be attending the wedding of my nephew’s son in July.

That’s the good part of the story. The bad part is that I lived sixty years without knowing any of these wonderful people. And just like Randall, the experience has profoundly affected my memories of my mother. In last week’s episode, Rebecca admitted her mistake. She acknowledged that she’d been selfish in keeping Randall away from William. My own mother never made that admission even when given multiple opportunities to explain the whys and wherefores of her actions.

It’s too late for me to make amends with my mother, and the heartache I feel seems too immense to ever fully overcome. As my eyes welled when William died, I had an overwhelming urge to share my story publicly for the first time. It became clear to me that we humans possess an innate tendency to tell lies in the name of “protecting” ourselves or others. We’re all selfish at times and we’re amazingly proficient at rationalizing our words and actions regardless of how painful and callous they might be.

The moral of the story is that it’s never too late to right a wrong and tell the truth about falsehoods (regardless of how well-intentioned). The longer we wait the more the issue festers. When the lie is finally revealed – and it almost always is – the damage can be irreparable. So if you do need to make amends, I urge you to do it now. Yes, it will be hard; but it will get harder every day you delay. And it will get exponentially harder every single day for the person you deluded to deal with the truth and the lie’s aftermath.

Mindfulness, Photography & Creativity

I’m writing this from the balcony of my hotel in Florence. The accompanying picture is my view. I just returned from the Bargello museum and its small but impressive collection of sculpture, carvings, metalwork, and frescoes. I took a few pictures and then forced myself to stop. Part of it was certainly the realization that a photo can’t possibly do justice to the real thing; but the main reason was that the process of taking pictures was separating me from the experience. It removed me from power of the artist’s creation. It removed me from the moment. I was focused on creating a memory rather than living it.

I talk a lot about mindfulness in my classes, and it’s a constant theme throughout 20/20 Mind Sight.  So I shudder to become a person who advises, “Do what I say, not what I do.” After I post this piece, I’m going to head out for lunch and leave my camera behind. Perhaps it’s my pea-size brain that’s to blame. Maybe I truly can’t do two things at once. Or maybe I’d just rather do one thing well – experience Florence, its food, sights, and people in all its glory – than compromise the moment by taking quintessential touristy pictures. Or maybe – and this is probably closer to the truth – I’ve realized that what really inspires me creatively is beauty in the flesh.

In my case picture-taking impedes the inspirational juices. Is there something in your hands or life today that impedes your inspirational juices? If so, lock it in the safe and continue your journey through life.

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Begin at the End: What You & IBM Have in Common

The best advice I ever got in my career was that I needed to begin at the end. I needed to visualize my legacy. Most people associate a legacy with the transfer of worldly possessions from one generation to the next. So it’s not a great leap to realize that each of us also create personal and professional legacies related to our character, core values, and social impact. The key is to define that legacy – determine exactly who you want to be (not what you want to be), what you want to accomplish, and then focus all your time and energy on making it a reality.

This concept of a visualized legacy is focused on defining and achieving goals. And it gets to the heart of true self-awareness. Visualization is usually associated with athletes – particularly peak performers. Baseball players picture themselves hitting a home run, sprinters see themselves bursting over the finish line ahead of the pack, and gymnasts see themselves performing a perfect routine and sticking the landing to a standing ovation. The process works the same for the rest of us mortals. Architects visualize their design, fully constructed, with people walking through the doors and gliding up the escalators. Attorneys see themselves in the courtroom with the judge and jury hanging on their every word. And marketers of every stripe see their efforts ringing the cash register.

Like all things, visualization does not come easy. It requires practice. Visualization is far different than simply saying “I think I can, I think I can.” It involves images rather than words and narration. And the more vivid the image – the more detailed and nuanced – the more impact it will have on your success.

A Lesson From The Greatest Visualizer Of All-Time

Thomas Watson, Sr. became general manager of the Computing Tabulating Recording Corporation (CTR) in 1914. At the time, CTR was a manufacturer of automatic meat slicers, weighing scales, and punched card equipment. The company had fewer than 400 employees; but Watson had big plans for the small company and, in 1924, he renamed it International Business Machines.

Watson’s description of his thought processes and game plan for the company is far too powerful to paraphrase. So here, in Watson’s own words, is the secret of his personal and professional success:

IBM is what it is today for three special reasons. The first reason is that, at the very beginning, I had a very clear picture of what the company would look like when it was finally done. You might say I had a model in my mind of what it would look like when the dream – my vision – was in place.

The second reason was that once I had that picture, I then asked myself how a company which looked like that would have to act. I then created a picture of how IBM would act when it was finally done.

The third reason IBM has been so successful was that once I had a picture of how IBM would look like when the dream was in place and how such a company would have to act, I then realized that, unless we began to act that way from the very beginning, we would never get there.

In other words, I realized that for IBM to become a great company it would have to act like a great company long before it ever became one.

From the very outset, IBM was fashioned after the template of my vision. And each and every day we attempted to model the company after that template. At the end of each day, we asked ourselves how well we did, and discovered the disparity between where we were and where we had committed ourselves to be, and, at the start of the following day, set out to make up for the difference.

Every day at IBM was a day devoted to business development, not doing business.

We didn’t do business at IBM, we built one.

What’s Your Vision?

Thomas Watson, Sr. didn’t invent the concept of visualization but he embraced it with a fervor that should be an inspiration to us all. Interestingly, it would be very easy to reword Watson’s quote and replace “IBM” with your own name. To wit:

Thirty years from now, I will have achieved all that I am capable of for three special reasons. The first reason is that, starting today, I have a very clear picture of what a successful career will look and feel like when I retire.

The second reason is that now that I have that picture, I can ask myself how a successful career like that would have to be built. I can then create a picture of how I would have to act and interact to achieve that goal.

The third reason I will have been so successful is that once I had a picture of what my career would look like when the dream was in place and how I would have to act, I realized that, unless I began to act that way from this day forward, I would never get there.

In other words, I realize today that for me to become a great __________ (writer, physician, teacher, etc.) I would have to act like a great _____________ long before I ever became one.

From the very outset, my career was fashioned after the template of my vision. And each and every day I attempted to model myself after that template. At the end of each day, I would ask myself how well I had done, and discovered the disparity between where I was and where I had committed myself to be, and, at the start of the following day, I set out to make up for the difference.

Thomas Watson, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, realized that life is short. And he realized that the sooner he articulated his vision the more time he would have to achieve it. The same truth applies to every single one of us.

(This article is adapted from the author’s books 20/20 Mind Sight and Marketing for Rainmakers.)

 

Just Admit You Don’t Know

the-thinkerOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the workplace) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of stating “I don’t know” is amplified by the worries that we should know it, perhaps we once knew it but have since forgotten, and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying “I don’t know.” The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run than admitting one’s ignorance, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations, your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Admit your ignorance and allow yourself to learn something in the process. Confessing that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.

This Is Dedicated…

Dedication - Aunt Gloria & Uncle JulieMuch the process of writing and publishing a book is intense and exhausting. But there’s one aspect that brings nothing but joy – crafting the dedication.

My first book was the young adult novel Good News/Bad News published way back in 1980. It was the realization of a lifelong dream and I dedicated it to the person I loved most in the world: Lillie, my maternal grandmother. My father had died when I was eighteen months old, and Lillie came to live with us in the Bronx. My mother was working and so I spent my days with my grandmother, running errands, watching her cook, learning numbers and letters, playing games, and talking. She was always smiling and laughing. She had a uniformly positive view of the world despite becoming a widow in her thirties and having to raise six kids on her own. Grandma Lillie was a treasure over my entire life. She was always someone I could talk to. She was surprisingly open-minded – even about my high-school-dropout girlfriend whose hair was a different color pretty much every other day or that crazy rock-and-roll music I listened to.

My grandmother was in her eighties when the book was published. She smiled and got teary-eyed when she saw the dedication, but she was clearly a little confused. She seemed to think that the dedication was only on her copy. I told her it was printed on every single copy, and that’s when I got teary-eyed. In that moment I think I was more proud about having given my grandmother joy than I was about having written a book.

The dedication to my grandmother was a public affirmation of how much she meant to me, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to share it with her before she passed away. In the books and years since, I’ve written dedications to my wife, my children, and most recently to my dear Aunt Gloria and late Uncle Julie. That’s all good news, but the bad news is I’ll never write enough books to publicly recognize and thank all the people who have impacted my life.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to strive every day to express my love and appreciation for the people in my life. And here’s the rest of the plan: I want you to join me in expressing thanks – at least once every day – to someone who has made your life better in some way. Make sure they know how much they mean to you. Odds are they will pay it forward and, over time, the world will become a better place because you took the time to say, “I love you,” “I couldn’t have done it without you,” or simply “Thanks.”

You’re Nobody’s Bitch

crossed handsI’ve written several pieces exploring why the male characters in my novels tend to be misogynist A-holes. But I recently had an experience that made me realize I’m looking at the issue from the wrong perspective.

I was minding my own business, when three twenty-somethings sat beside me – two female and one male. It was clear they had just met and the “dude” (‘cause that’s what he was) was in full-flirt mode seeing which of the two he could most engage. He asked what they did and Female A said she was “an executive assistant.” Then she paused and said, “Basically, I’m somebody’s bitch.” Female B chimed in and said she was “also someone’s bitch.” Female A, either in humorous or competitive mode, augmented her status by saying, “I’m an executive bitch,” and Female B concurred saying, “I’m just a regular bitch.”

In the parlance they seemed to prefer, I wanted to bitch-slap both of them right on the spot. The conversation saddened and disgusted me. The idea that my daughter, nieces, or female students would ever describe themselves as “somebody’s bitch” made my skin scrawl. It was terrible on so many levels. The two women were recent graduates of a prominent New England university and just starting their careers. I teach at Boston College and I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is for young people to land their first job. Those first jobs are usually nothing near what they had envisioned, but that’s okay. Every job is a springboard for the next job with more responsibility and higher pay. Every job is honorable and every job provides an opportunity to learn and observe. The world is full of stories of C-level female executives who began their career as assistants, including Christiane Amanpour, Donna Karan, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. I doubt any of them ever described themselves as “somebody’s bitch.”

Words are powerful, and the words we speak aloud define us. Referring to oneself as a “bitch” provides tacit permission for others to view you that way. There’s an old adage that recommends you dress for the job you want. It’s even more important that you think of yourself and conduct yourself in terms of the job you want. I remember hiring a young woman about ten years ago as my “assistant.” When I offered her the position I said, “someday you’re going to be running this place.” Her intelligence, ambition, and work ethic emanated from her words, body language, poise, and self-confidence. She – and anyone who knew her – would never describe her as “somebody’s bitch.” She wasn’t and would never be. Ten years later, her career is progressing on a steady upward arc and the sky remains the limit.

I worry, however, about the career path of these two young women. I worry about their self-perception, the choices they will make in life and love, and their ability to recognize and achieve their full potential.

I’ve long considered myself a feminist. I read and absorbed Gloria Steinem and Germaine Greer back in my twenties. My two best bosses ever were both women. I always believed women could do anything men could do, but I’ve more recently come to the conclusion that women can do many – if not most – things better than men. That’s why I am so adamant and vocal with my female students to speak up for themselves and not be shy or hesitant to trumpet their skills and accomplishments.

That’s also why my novels feature strong female characters who put their male counterparts to shame. Those male characters may indeed be misogynist A-holes, but their failings are amplified in comparison to the smart and capable women they interact with. Their failings are also purposely exaggerated so male readers notice. Us males tend towards the Neanderthal and often have to be hit over the head with an insight before truly taking it in. And there’s nothing I like better than hitting Neanderthals over the head.

 

The Benefits of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

woman gaggedOne could make a strong argument that the three scariest words to state aloud (particularly in the political realm) are these: I don’t know. That phrase is an explicit admission that we’re less than perfect. Our fear of saying I don’t know is amplified by the worries that we should know it and that everyone else knows it.

There are two alternative approaches to saying I don’t know. The first is to remain silent. You might look away and hide your head, try to change the subject, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom or refill your coffee. The second, and far more damaging in the long run, is to act like you know. Think about times when you’re asked a question and you’re confident about the answer. Your response will be concise, definitive, and coherent. If you’re anything like the rest of us, there have probably been occasions when you haven’t known the answer to a question but felt compelled to respond nonetheless. In those situations your response was probably lengthy, convoluted, and effectively meaningless. We use far more words to cover up a lack of knowledge than when we actually know what we’re talking about. And because we have no idea what the hell we’re talking about, we’re far more likely to commit a verbal faux pas that could haunt us in the future.

The recent campaigning in the New York GOP primary provides proof positive. The majority of politicians are Christians, but man do they ever love the Jews come election season. They chow down on bagels and gefilte fish, and wax poetic about core Jewish values like education, family, and hard work. But that’s where they stop, and that’s where John Kasich flubbed it. On a Brooklyn sidewalk, Kasich decided it was time to preach to the choir. These were his words regarding Passover: “It’s a wonderful, wonderful holiday for our friends in the Jewish community.” He could have stopped there and demonstrated a modicum of knowledge re the Jewish calendar and the fact that Passover was indeed approaching. But no, he felt compelled to go further and describe “The great link between the blood that was put above the lamp posts…The blood of the lamb, because Jesus Christ is known as the lamb of God. It’s his blood.” That statement is wrong on so many levels, but the key point is that Kasich would have been far better off keeping his mouth shut rather than spouting off gibberish that wasn’t just nonsensical but was actually offensive.

While Kasich was lecturing on Judaism, Donald Trump was nearby declaring, “I love the Jews. I love’em.” Trump probably couldn’t even spell “Passover” or what it means to the Jewish people, but who cares? He loves the Jews. Notwithstanding the cloying pandering inherent in “I love the Jews,” there is nothing controversial or offensive in the statement. That’s partly why Trump wins. He says so little that it’s difficult to assess anything he truly stands for.

The moral of the story? Do not “fake it ‘til you make it.” Either shut up or admit your ignorance. Acknowledging that you are not an all-knowing automaton is a sign of self-confidence. It will demonstrate your integrity, engender respect and, most significantly, encourage others to embrace the same openness. The culture of an organization, community, or family can be positively impacted when people feel comfortable about sharing their shortcomings. Over time you’ll experience a greater sense of teamwork, increased risk-taking, and more innovative thinking when the fear of looking dumb is removed. It’s a win-win by any standard of measure.