I once had a boss who told me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.”
Now, the circumstances surrounding my resting dour face were not exactly common. So let’s set the stage.
I’d just started a job as Chief Marketing Officer for a marketing agency. I earned the position after helping the company land a million dollar account. That was all exciting. It came with a larger salary and a chance to make a real impact helping lead the creative department.
But three weeks into the gig (this was 2007) we learned that ovarian cancer was back in my late wife’s body after nearly two years in remission. She had an emotional breakdown as a result of that shocking news. I didn’t blame her. She’d done the “gold standard” recommended by her doctors and still the cancer came back.
So I walked a daily balance between handling the excitement and challenges of a new job and conducting daily conversations by cell phone with family while trying to manage the health needs of things back home.
Ultimately, it didn’t work out. The job ended after two months, partly the result of my inability to muster full energy for the work at hand. But once I was let go, that allowed me to take care of things directly during a period when the needs back home were profound. And they were.
But we got her through. Then on the very day she was informed of her remission following extensive chemo, surgery and emotional therapy, I landed another job. Wasn’t that interesting timing?
I’m not saying things worked out perfectly in all respects. Going forward, I wasn’t able to paste a smile on my face every day, as my former boss once suggested. But I had kept looking up even when things were truly looking down. That is the yin and yang in all this life on earth.
Throughout my life to that point, I’d learned that keeping faith is important when faced with challenges. Persistence is sometimes all the salvation we need. I recall a moment during my years in advertising sales when an account that had been lost to a competitor finally called me back to purchase an advertising campaign. “You know, I’ve never met anyone more persistent than you.”
I’d never pressured him. Yet I did make consistent courtesy calls to stay in touch. When the day finally came for him to advertise with us again, he knew where and how to find me. I’d kept looking up even when things were looking down.
Motivation from somewhere
No one really coached me on that. Some of these things we do by nature. Yet coaching can help bring out our better traits.
For example, that boss who encouraged me to smile was suggesting it doesn’t help to be negative about anything. Two weeks before my late wife passed away, her gynecological oncologist phoned me up to talk. “Okay,” he told me, “This is coming to a close now. There’s nothing more we can really do. She’s made it eight years and she’s done a really good job. So be positive. Lie to her if you need to. Make the most of this time.”
Now, some people would be surprised or offended by what that doctor said to me: “Lie to her if you need to.” But he didn’t mean what most people might think upon hearing that advice. It wasn’t about engaging in deceit or being false with a loved one. He was suggesting that while walking the tightrope between life and death, it simply pays not to look down.
Sometimes we do have to “lie” to ourselves when fear threatens to overcome us. We overcome our fears by focusing on the present and the job at hand. Sometimes that means smiling even when things get tough.
That’s all her doctor was telling me.
Some of that desire to be resolute can emerge from your experiences as an endurance athlete. There are few things that test your character and ability to remain positive in the face of suffering than pushing yourself to near physical exhaustion. The lessons learned in those pursuit really do matter in life. You come to understand that you can take a lot more pressure and fatigue than you might ever have imagined.
Then when “real” events in life come along, you have the perspective to look at things more objectively, to assess your options and to compartmentalize those moments of fear and doubt.
That’s why achievements liked finishing an Ironman mean so much to people. Those races are symbolic not only of human spirit, but of persistence in the face of challenges. Many people hope that type of persistence pays off in other aspects of life.
Not an Ironman
I’ll never do a full Ironman. That much I know. My body has too many miles on it already from years of training and competitive distance running to embark on that particular journey. So I don’t really feel the compulsion to become an Ironman. I’ve gotten satisfaction from so many other experiences in life that the lure of trotting down that runway and hearing my name called out is not on my bucket list. I am working toward a series of Olympic distance races in the coming year. That makes me happy. And I love a good Sprint Triathlon. Fun and fast.
Yet I certainly understand that for many people, competing in big time events such as an Ironman is a peak experience of great value. Thus I openly thrill at the efforts of others, which is why I support all those who take on the challenge of doing an Ironman or whatever you choose to pursue from long swims to epic rides to gnarly runs.
We all benefit from seeking new heights of personal experience because that’s where we learn to avoid looking down when things are actually looking up.