Focus on things you can change; the power of Niebuhr’s prayer

Only six slots remaining for the Tale of Three Cities trip

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
                  Serenity Prayer – Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

I think often of Niebuhr’s advice. It gives me solace and helps me order my thoughts and actions. It instructs me on when I can take initiative and be aggressive and when I must be calm, even passive. He connects three nouns with three verbs: serenity to accept, courage to change, and wisdom to know.

Most issues in life fall into one of two categories: things that I cannot change and things I can. Consider the following issues. Which ones can you control?

  • Your height
  • Your weight
  • Your parents
  • Your friends
  • The weather
  • Where you live
  • How much money you save
  • The past
  • Your attitude
  • How others treat you
  • How you respond to how people treat you

What category would you place virtues in? (A virtue is a behavior showing high moral standards.) Do you have control over whether or not you are honest, friendly, patient, teachable, or punctual? Or are these somehow genetically determined such that you may be exempt from accountability?

For instance, I once had a direct report who was often tardy. When I confronted him he replied, “Yeah, my grandfather was always late, my father was too, I guess I just inherited it.” I told him that he was wrong. There was no such thing as a “ tardy gene”; it was an aspect of life he had control over. I shared how, as a young adult, I, too, was often late to appointments and disrespectful of schedules but that through discipline and conscientious work, I had changed. Now I am fastidious about being punctual. As an employee, he would need to improve in that area.

There’s just no good excuse for being deficient in any of the virtues.

Living the virtues

Here’s an abridged list of 28 virtues. On a scale from 1 to 10 [1 being “I’m not very good at this”; 10 being “I excel at this.”], rate yourself in each area. Then take responsibility to ratchet up your score in each area. It will be a lifelong pursuit.

If you’re raising children, these virtues create a good curriculum to work on. Before a child leaves home, aspire that he or she understands each area and is striving to excel.


Courteous ____ Humble ____ Generous ____ Loyal ____  Respectful ____ Devoted ____ Unselfish ____ Disciplined ___ Responsible ___ Honest ____ Patient ___ Teachable __ Faithful ____ Decisive ____ Attentive ____ Optimistic ____ Friendly ____ Fair ____   Discreet _____ Takes initiative ____ Cooperative ____ Courageous ____ Resourceful ____ Punctual ____ Consistent ____ Flexible ____ Deliberate ____ Careful ____

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In October, 2018 I’m hosting a trip to the three great cities of the western world: London, Paris, Rome. (We’ll also visit Lisbon, Barcelona, and Florence.) The trip is limited to 44 guests. Only six slots remain. Click here for more information.

Do the hard thing

I’m not sure where this thought came from; it’s certainly not original, but it has thumped me on the nose a lot recently.

You earn a good reputation by volunteering to do hard things and by doing hard things well. Also, it’s usually the right and noble thing to do.

Sometimes it involves doing simple but unpleasant tasks.

  • When my two-year-old grandson went ballistic in a restaurant, I volunteered to skip my meal and babysit him.
  • Boxes—heavy and light—needed to be moved. I went for the heavy ones.
  • Someone must work holiday shifts.

Sometimes it means committing to complicated challenges.

  • Starting a graduate degree later in life.
  • Working a second job to get out of debt.
  • Becoming the caretaker for an invalid.

Some people only do easy things; they always flow in the path of least resistance. At work they do the minimum required to keep their jobs; they don’t want to be inconvenienced in life; they never volunteer for optional tasks. Don’t be like that.

Leap at the chance to do things that other people don’t want to do. When others hesitate, act. Volunteer to do things you’re not responsible for or required to do.

Potential benefits?

  • You’ll garner a reputation for being action-oriented.
  • You’ll be a source of momentum and positive direction.
  • Difficult tasks develop strong “muscles”; you’ll grow in wisdom and ability.
  • You’ll benefit from the fact that accomplishing hard things is usually more rewarding than doing simple things.

I work with a man, I’ll call him Jason (that’s his real name) who personifies this mentality. He’s eager to work, he’s low maintenance, he volunteers for extra assignments, doesn’t mind doing manual labor… Thanks, Jason.

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Abandon the idea that there is only one soul mate for you; the ideal partner is the one you create

Plus - 12 best books I read last year - book 4 of 12

I grew up in a conservative, evangelical Christian environment. From childhood we were taught that “God has just one person He has selected for you to marry. To be happy in life you must find that one person.”

Even as a child I struggled with the mathematical probability of this suggestion. “Okay,” I reasoned, “out of the three billion women on the planet I’m supposed to find that one, and only one, that is right for me? What happens if I make a mistake? Or, what happens if the person I’m supposed to marry makes a mistake and marries the wrong person; am I then doomed to accept ‘Plan B’ and a second-class marriage?”

This is nonsense. Abandon the idea that there is only one soul mate for you; the ideal partner is the one you create.

I do believe that we should seek God’s guidance in all aspects of our lives. I do believe in following biblical parameters. But I also believe that we should use common sense when making decisions and that in any given situation there are probably multiple options that will work. (In this essay I’m using marriage as the primary example of my persuasion but the same thought applies to all aspects of life. There’s not just one job that will make me happy. There’s not just one house that I can live in or only one car I can drive and still be in God’s favor.)

Relative to marriage, I believe that a fulfilling marriage is more made than mystically conceived. It is forged through deliberate and steady hard work. I’ve done enough marriage counseling to know that all marriages struggle and that the good ones have been made so through discipline and steady commitment.

I concur with J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might have found more suitable mates.” He went on to describe spouses as “companions in shipwreck, not guiding stars.”

As I observe couples who have long-lasting marriages, and as Mary and I celebrate our 40th anniversary, I am convinced that good marriages are formed, not born.

Tolkien said, “The real soul mate is the one you are actually married to.”

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay. You can leave a comment by clicking here.

12 best books I read last year – book 4 of 12

The Net and the Butterfly – The Art and Practice of Breakthrough Thinking – Olivia Cabane and Judah Pollack, 2017. The authors combine recent scientific discoveries about the brain with anecdotal stories to weave a fascinating and informative narrative about how to capture great ideas. Click here for more information from Amazon

Avoid intellectual atrophy

Link to free e-book at end of post

I often meet people who have entered their personal intellectual ice age. Permafrost has gradually anesthetized their curiosity and their pursuit of knowledge has stalled.

Of course, some people have never gotten their mental engine up and running. But others have and not sustained it.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid.

Some people reach an intellectual pinnacle but then push the pause button.

I have a friend who is a physician—a good physician—who punched the pause button on his personal development about twenty years ago. I can only imagine how sharp-witted he was when he earned the post nominal “MD,” but having achieved that notable goal, he has since coasted through life. John Maxwell calls this “destination disease”—we reach a desired point in life (graduate from college, start a successful business) but then cease growing.

Some people know a lot about one particular area and they continue to grow in that one area, but they have not expanded to other areas.

I have a friend who is an accomplished accountant. He stays current in his field, but it’s the only field he plows. He has no other interests in life, no hobbies. His curiosity has atrophied. He needs to develop the first part of Thomas Huxley’s suggestion, “Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.”

The best antidote for intellectual atrophy is to read.

  • Warren Bennis said, “One of the marvelous things about life is that any gaps in your education can be filled, whatever your age or situation, by reading, and thinking about what you read.”
  • Mark Twain observed, “Those who do not read have no advantage over those who cannot read.” (I would add: but those who do read are better off than those who can read but do not.)
  • Twyla Tharp said, “Reading is your first line of defense against an empty head. I read for a lot of reasons, pleasure being the least of them.”
  • Sam Harris says, “We read for the pleasure and benefit of thinking another person’s thoughts.”

Click here to see an essay I wrote entitled How to Learn from Reading.

In addition to reading, there are many other ways to stay fresh and vital. I wrote a monograph titled Lifelong Learning—Why it’s more important and doable than you think – and would like to give you a free digital copy. Click here to download Lifelong Learning – Don McMinn.

A commitment to lifelong learning is essential for leaders. Bennis and Nanus studied ninety top leaders from a variety of fields and they discovered that, “It is the capacity to develop and improve their skills that distinguish leaders from their followers. Successful leaders are learners.”

You don’t want your tombstone to read: Died, age 45. Buried, age 75.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Leaders: carefully choose who you listen to

Feedback is a gift, so I want to hear what people are thinking and feeling about my organization and my leadership. I have multiple feedback mechanisms in place to make it easy for stakeholders to share with me their thoughts.

But there are some voices that I listen to more intently than I do others; not all voices have equal influence. To lead well, listen to everyone, but be selective as to who’s input you allow to shape policy and key decisions.

Apply this principle both when people give you unsolicited input and when you actively seek information.

I choose to listen to:

  • Wise people. Some people are more insightful than others. Their discernment may be intuitive or it may have been developed. I have a retired IBM executive in my organization who, for most of his consulting career, analyzed organizations and helped them negotiate structural changes and personnel alignment. His training and experience has rewarded him with insight and wisdom.
  • People who are deeply committed to your organization; they’ve been involved for a long time and they care about its wellbeing. We have a strong leadership team in my organization that is led by an elected president who serves a one-year term. I have created a President’s Council comprised of the past ten presidents. These men and women have demonstrated their love for our organization. They are a brain-trust of caring and committed people. I listen to what they say.
  • Qualified people who can provide “fresh eyes” on your organization. These people don’t have a history with your organization so their thoughts are more objective. You can solicit voices outside your organization (consultants) or you can seek the input of people who have recently joined your organization (this window of opportunity is available for about six months; after which people become assimilated into the culture and loose their “fresh eyes”).

I don’t pay attention to:

  • Simple, narrow-minded people. Many people have a very limited view of the world. They live in a small spectrum, suffer from myopia and are intellectually stagnant.
  • People who have a specific agenda. Some people don’t consider the well-being of the entire organization but are focused on a minute area.
  • People who are negative and oppositional. It doesn’t take much insight or effort to be the resident critic.

I recently asked my staff to list characteristics of people they choose to listen to and those they choose to ignore. Here’s the list.

I listen to people who:

  • Choose their words carefully and only speak when they have something meaningful to say
  • Love people and seek the good of the group
  • Have earned my trust over time
  • Straight-talkers
  • Lead by example
  • Good listeners
  • Rational
  • Seek advise from others
  • Successful in chosen field
  • Have demonstrated seasoned wisdom
  • “Add up”

I don’t listen to people who:

  • Are self-promoting
  • Don’t follow through and finish tasks
  • Make excuses
  • Are close minded
  • Undisciplined
  • Selfish and self-centered
  • Overgeneralize and are shallow
  • Liars
  • Demonstrate foolishness
  • Judgmental and critical

Develop your own criteria and abide by it. Better yet, make a list of people whose thoughts and opinions you value. My list includes: Jonathan, Lauren, Sarah, Chuck, Charlton, Phil, Francey, Sandi, and others.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.