Breaking Through The Wall

The squeegee of window washer Jan Demczur is in the Smithsonian. It got there because of his determination and willingness to use what was handy on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The Polish immigrant was riding in a north tower World Trade Center elevator when a hijacked plane hit the building. The elevator came to a stop on the 50th floor. That's when Demczur and other stranded workers preyed open the door, revealing a solid wall.

Rather than give up, Demczur used his brass squeegee handle to hack away at it. He eventually broke through the wall and lead the group to safety just moments before the tower fell.

Got a wall to break through in your life? There's probably a tool at your disposal that will deserve a place in the Smithsonian if you are willing to work with what you've got and refuse to give up.

Stephen Goforth

Somewhere between boredom and anxiety

A comfortable routine can turn on us, leaving our creativity stifled, dulling us to other possibilities. We become lethargic, sleepwalking through life. Boredom soon nips at our heels.

At the other end of the experience spectrum, we have bungee-jumping thrill seekers. Tired of sexual escapades and rock climbing, they sometimes self-medicate to starve off boredom. Drugs can stimulate many feelings: euphoria, depression, anxiety, even fear. But none induce boredom (though some, like cocaine, can leave the user with a devastating boredom, after the drug has done its thing). Sex, food, drugs, and gambling each stimulate the same dopamine reward pathway in the brain.

Psychologists tell us the cure for chronic tedium is not high-sensation thrills. Somewhere between boredom and anxiety there is a sweet spot called flow. It's an optimal level of arousal. As Dr. Richard Friedman writes:

Flow happens when a person’s skills and talent perfectly match the challenge of an activity: playing in the zone, where there is total and un-self-conscious absorption in the activity. Make the task too challenging and anxiety results; make it too easy and boredom emerges.  Flow get to the heart of fun. It’s not hard to see why the enforced tranquility of a Caribbean vacation could be a dreadful bore for a workaholic but bliss for a couch potato: temperament, as well as talent, have to match the activity or there is trouble in paradise.

Stephen Goforth

A Sense of Urgency

You are your own worst enemy. You waste precious time dreaming of the future instead of engaging in the present. Since nothing seems urgent to you, you are only half involved in what you do. The only way to change is through action and outside pressures. Put yourself in situations where you have too much at stake to waste time or resources – if you cannot afford to lose, you won’t. Cut your ties to the past; enter unknown territory where you must depend on your wits and energy to see you through. Place yourself on “death ground,” where you back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

unlocking closed doors

Houdini was a master magician as well as a fabulous locksmith. He boasted that he could escape from any jail cell in the world in less than an hour, provided he could go into the cell dressed in his street clothes. A small town in the British Isles built a new jail they were extremely proud of. They issued Houdini a challenge.

"Come give us a try," they said. By the time he arrived, excitement was at a fever pitch. Houdini rode triumphantly into the town and walked into the cell. He proudly walked into the cell and the door was closed. Houdini took off his coat and went to work. Secreted in his belt was a flexible tough and durable ten-inch piece of steel, which he used to work on the lock.

At the end of 30 minutes his confident expression had disappeared. At the end of an hour he was drenched in perspiration. After two hours, Houdini literally collapsed against the door--which opened. Yes, it had never been locked--except in his mind. One little push and Houdini could have easily opened the door. Many times a little extra push is all you need to open your opportunity door. Most locked doors are in your mind.

Zig Ziglar, See You At the Top

Adopting to Change

Understand the greatest generals, the most creative strategists, stand out not because they have more knowledge but because they are able, when necessary, to drop their preconceived notions and focus intensely on the present movement. That is how creativity is sparked and opportunities are seized. Knowledge, experience, and theory have limitations: no amount of thinking in advance can prepare you for the chaos of life, for the infinite possibilities of the moment. The great philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz called this “friction”: the difference between our plans and what actually happens. Since friction is inevitable, our minds have to be capable of keeping up with change and adapting to the unexpected. The better we can adapt our thoughts to changing circumstances, the more realistic our responses to them will be. The more we lose ourselves in predigested theories and past experiences, the more inappropriate and delusional our response.

Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

a Self-fertilizing Garden

Psychologist Joyce Shaffer tells the story of a man unable to talk or walk following a stroke. Two years later, he was hiking and teaching thanks to intense physical therapy. When the man died a few years later, an autopsy showed a large area of his brain had been destroyed by the stroke. Yet he had regained the ability to be active and productive.

Schaffer’s explanation: “Moment by moment you create your brain. It is plastic. It can change for better or worse depending on lifestyle choices.. Without challenge, your brain retires. (But) with lifestyle choices a person can turn their brain into a "self-fertilizing garden.”

Stephen Goforth

Self-Renewal and Motivation

The self-renewing man is highly motivated and respects the sources of his own energy and motivation. He has the priceless quality of enthusiasm. He knows how important it is to believe in what he is doing.

He knows how important it is to pursue the things about which he has a deep conviction. Enthusiasm for the task to be accomplished lifts him out of the ruts of habit and customary procedure. Drive and conviction give him the courage to risk failure. (One of the reasons mature persons stop learning is that they become less and less willing to risk failure.) And not only does he respond to challenge, but he also sees the challenge where others fail to see it..

John Gardner

avoiding the ditches

Make your goal a readiness to deal with new and developing circumstances--instead of simply avoiding any possibility of failure by trying to control which circumstances you are willing to deal with. Chasing the latest fade (simply because it is new) or ignoring what’s going on around us (and thus becoming irrelevant to the conversation) are two extreme temptations. We can fall into these ditches in an attempt to avoid regularly thinking hard about life and deal with the uncertainty that surrounds us. To stay on the road of maturity, we have to allow for ambiguity and endure that nagging (and sometimes frightening feeling) about what may come our way.

Stephen Goforth

When resting means death

Two climbers died in a weekend snowstorm on Mount Rainier a few years ago. The men carried warm clothes, sleeping bags, tents and other items with them. They had everything they needed to save their lives. But instead of using what they had brought with them to survive, they first sat down to rest.. and died of exposure.

The climb can be tough. In those desperate moments when exhaustion overwhelms us, we have to choose to go beyond what we think we can do. Otherwise, no amount of preparation can save us.

Stephen Goforth

little decisions

Each person has to rise to the unique challenges presented to him or her. Sometimes, you don't know who's prepared for life's game until the whistle blows. Then, all is revealed. But if we look carefully, we can see there are hints beforehand letting you "read" the players. We have a thousand little decisions to make each day that turn us into who we are. Those small decisions reveal slices of our souls. I'm not always the person who picks up a piece of litter or pauses to listen to someone who's hurting, or sets boundaries in the right places--but I want to be. And I want to understand which seemingly insignificant decisions, if I choose wisely, will prepare me for success in the big game. You might say that I know this to be true: The choices I make, make me.

Stephen Goforth

The best moments in our lives

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times… The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his won record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person, there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expend ourselves.

Such experiences are not necessarily pleasant at the time they occur. The swimmers muscles might have ached during his most memorable race, his lungs might have felt like exploding, and he might have been dizzy with fatigue – yet these could have the best moments of his life. Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery – or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life –that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably imagine.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow

If you’re not being challenged on a daily basis, change something

Reaching adulthood is no excuse to stop learning or growing. It just means now we’re responsible for reaching new heights in every aspect of our lives. Go for a morning jog. Ask your boss if you can have a hand in a bigger project with more responsibility. Meet new people. Keep pushing.

Alex McDaniel

Here's how you can spot who is going to be successful

(Some researchers ran) a workshop for low-performing seven graders at a New York City junior high school, teaching them about the brain and about effective study techniques. Half the group also received a presentation on memory, but the other half were given an explanation of how the brain changes as a result of effortful learning: that when you try hard and learn something new, the brain forms new connections, and these new connections, over time, make you smarter. This group was told that intellectual development is not the natural unfolding of intelligence but results from the new connections that are formed through effort and learning.

After the workshop, both groups of kids filtered back into their classwork. Their teachers were unaware that some had been taught that effortful learning changes the brain, but as the school year unfolded, those students adopted what (the researchers) call a "growth mindset," a belief that their intelligence was largely within their own control, and they went on to become much more aggressive learners and higher achievers than students from the first group, who continued to hold the conventional view, what (the researchers) called a "fixed mindset" that they're intellectual ability was set at birth by the natural talents they were born with.

(The) research had been triggered by curiosity over why some people become helpless when they encounter challenges and fail at them, whereas others respond to failure by trying new strategies and redoubling their effort. (They) found that a fundamental difference between the two responses lies in how a person attributes failure: those who attribute to their own inability-"I'm not intelligent"-become helpless. Those who interpret failure as a result of insufficient effort or an ineffective strategy dig deeper and try different approaches.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III,, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning