Tag Archives | mindfulness

What Extreme Athletes Can Teach Us About Overcoming Our Fears

I love the Olympics. From the opening to the closing ceremonies and all the exciting events in between, I enjoy the collective experience of watching these athletes come together to proudly and expertly compete. I also find myself thinking about how incredible it would be to represent your country in such a physical way — a feat many Olympians have been training hard their whole lives to be able to do.

We can learn so much from those who are dedicated to pushing the limits — physically and mentally — continually striving to better themselves, overcome their fears and reach their full potential. When I saw this article from MichaelHyatt.com contributor Andrea Williams, I thought it was great timing to share with you as we cheer on the athletes during these last few days of the 2018 Winter Olympics. I hope you’ll be inspired by it, too!


At twelve years old, when most girls her age were learning algebra and crushing on the members of NSYNC, Samantha Larson was preparing to conquer a fear that few adults would face: climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. By eighteen, Larson had also successfully climbed each of the Seven Summits, ascending to the tallest peak on each continent and, at the time, becoming the youngest person to achieve the feat.

The first time Larson felt real fear was at the bottom of Kilimanjaro, when she and her father (who completed all of the climbs with her) met a gentleman who had gotten sick because of the change in altitude and couldn’t make it to the summit. He warned them that they, too, would probably struggle. But instead of backing out, Larson committed to pressing forward.

“Fear is such a personal thing, but in a lot of situations, fear is just a reaction of the human brain, which is wired to convince us that what we may want to do is a bad idea,” says Larson. “When we face fear, we have to ask ourselves how badly we want that thing that we’re afraid of, and how can we learn to work through the fear when we feel it.”

Trust in the face of fear

We typically assume that the opposite of fear is courage or bravery. But according to the popular saying, it’s actually trust that arises when fear is absent. And this is certainly the case for professional slackliner Heather Larsen.

Slacklining is the process of walking across a tensioned cord that is suspended between two anchors, similar to a tightrope (but with more slack in the line, hence the sports’ name). So what’s the key differentiator between slacklining and the standard, circus-variety tightrope walking? Some slackliners, also known as highliners, choose to trek across canyons, carefully balancing on lines that are literally hundreds of feet from the ground.

Despite built-in safety mechanisms (participants typically wear a harness with a leash that connects to the line itself) highlining definitely falls on the extreme end of the sports spectrum, with risks that include fractures, sprains, broken bones, and even death. For Larsen, who was introduced to slacklining through climbing, the ability to overcome the fears associated with traversing a 2.5-centimeter wire high above the ground is based on her assurance that she will remain safe even if she falls.

“I trust the gear, my rigging team, and my partners, and I trust my skills and abilities to walk the line,” Larsen explains. “[When I first started highlining], I think I easily trusted my gear because of my familiarity with building climbing anchors in the past, and I trusted my friends because I was aware of their experience. I now also have the knowledge and experience to evaluate my environment and the teams I work with.”

Whether you’re an extreme sports athlete, a newlywed, or a startup entrepreneur, being able to rely on a partner or team to carry part of the burden and minimize some of the risk certainly helps to mitigate fear. But this trust doesn’t develop overnight—nor does it develop without personal effort.

“I am constantly learning from others in the slacklining community; my friend just taught me a new knot that is much easier to check and very clean for rigging highlines,” says Larsen. “I think that in order to develop and maintain trust, you have to be willing to be a student [of your industry] and the groups you work with, as well.”

Preparing for victory

Ultimately, the more you study, the better the perspective you have for your circumstances and the greater the likelihood that you will be able to adequately prepare for what lies ahead. U.S. National and World Champion powerlifter Robert Herbst admits that youthful exuberance may have blinded him to the fact that he could be injured while competing. But with age and a twice dislocated sacrum (due to scoliosis that developed when he was a child), Herbst credits preparation for the confidence he feels each time he hoists a bar—weighing more than triple his own body weight—over his head.

Herbst recalls seeing a competitor ahead of him blow out his leg while lifting a weight less than what Herbst was about to attempt. Yet, because of his focus on both physical and mental training, Herbst was more than prepared to make his lift, even in the face of fear.

“Preparation reduces risk because it enables you to deal with situations as they arise,” says Herbst. “If you are prepared, then you know you have the answer, and you can rely on their training. There is then less to fear as you know you can cope.”

According to Herbst, preparation also allows you to ignore the possible consequences and risks when action is needed. You have to be aware of the potential to lose your 401K when launching a business, or the chance that you may alienate your customer base when introducing a new product, but once you have accepted those risks and prepared as much as possible to avoid them, ignoring fears isn’t naïve. It’s calculated and strategic.

“After my deadlift at the World Drug-Free Powerlifting Championships this year, I had broken blood vessels on my face as if I had been punched,” says Herbst. “If during those lifts, I had thought that I might tear something, I maybe would have subconsciously backed off and not have been able to give the same effort. And I think other people in extreme situations know that once they have committed themselves, they have to focus on the moment and what needs to be done, and not worry about extraneous things such as risk. Otherwise, they may not be as effective or successful, and they will still be exposed to the risk anyway.”

Mindful fearlessness

Mountain climber Samantha Larson has come to understand the difference between real, flight-or-flight danger and the mind’s natural tendency to default to the path of comfort and least resistance through her path toward mindfulness. And more than just the buzzword on every wellness guru’s lips, mindfulness can mean the difference between failing to reach our fullest potential and living the lives we were divinely created for.

“More often than not, when we feel afraid, we’re actually safe,” says Larson. “Mindfulness techniques can very helpful in working through fear in almost any situation, and that means going through the process of recognizing that you feel afraid, analyzing whether you are actually in a dangerous situation, using that analysis to consciously decide how you want to navigate the situation, and then trusting in that decision and acting on it with purpose.”

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The #1 Obstacle to Becoming a Good Listener

Recently, the biggest blunder in the 90-year history of the Oscars took place when the wrong envelope for Best Picture was given to presenter Warren Beatty, resulting in an unforgettably embarrassing moment for the entire Academy of Motion Pictures dubbed “Envelopegate.”

How could such a simple task result in such a monumental oversight? After all, this wasn’t the county fair beauty pageant; it was the Academy Awards!

According to reports, Brian Cullinan of Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the accounting firm responsible for administering the winning Oscar entries, was posting on Twitter throughout the show while simultaneously supervising the distribution of envelopes, tweeting repeatedly just moments before he mistakenly handed Beatty the back up Best Actress envelope instead of the Best Picture envelope.

But as author and leadership consultant Bill Zipp notes, “Let’s not be so quick to judge this distracted accountant. We multitask many times a day and commit similar errors repeatedly. Just not in front of 37 million viewers.”

I’ve been sharing in recent posts about the critical role that listening plays in presenting the best version of ourselves. Now, perhaps more than any other time in history, the obstacles that stand in our way to fully engaging with each other are mounting, thanks to the growing number of distractions.

For me, the problem isn’t so much the distractions themselves but our tendency to respond to them by embracing what psychologists call “the myth of multitasking.”

According to neurological research, our brain cannot complete multiple tasks simultaneously; instead, it switches back and forth from each task, costing valuable time, productivity, and energy in the process. As mindfulness expert Nancy Napier puts it, “Each time we move from hearing music to writing a text to talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain.”

In other words, stop deluding yourself into believing you can reply to that email while listening to your mom on the phone, study your Bible while watching Sports Center, or glance at that text while you’re driving home from work. You can’t do it–at least not mindfully, and it only robs you of your time, productivity, and often much more. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission, distracted driving was identified as a factor in at least 10 percent of all fatalities and 18 percent of all crashes overall.

If you still think you’re one of those outliers who can multitask, Nancy suggests a simple test:

Draw two horizontal lines on a piece of paper.
Now, time yourself as you carry out the two tasks that follow:
On the first line, write: “I am a great multitasker.”
On the second line, write out the numbers 1-20 sequentially, like those below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20
How much time did it take to do the two tasks? Usually it’s about 20 seconds.

Now, let’s multitask.
Draw two more horizontal lines.
This time, again while timing yourself, write a letter on one line, and then a number on the line below, then the next letter in the sentence on the upper line, and then the next number in the sequence on the lower line, following the sequences while changing from line to line. In other words, you write the letter “I” and then the number “1” and then the letter “a” and then the number “2” and so on, until you complete both lines.

Chances are it took you at least twice as long to complete round #2 vs. the first round because you had to pause and think before getting the right letter and number sequence. This is exactly what happens when you try to multitask: Your brain actually has to take the time to switch between tasks while we mistakenly think we’re giving equal attention to both simultaneously.

If you want to truly develop yourself as a genuine, empathic listener with the discipline and humility to give others the gift of your undivided attention and presence, make the decision today that you won’t fall for the myth of multitasking. Not only will it help you become the best version of you, it could save your life!

How did you on the multitasking test? What does it reveal about your ability to focus on more than one thing at a time? Finally, how would you assess yourself in your ability to deal with distractions? Are you getting better, staying the same, or getting worse?

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Four Keys to Becoming a Better Listener

In a recent post, I shared a statement from a friend that has become a personal affirmation:

I will be where I am….wherever I am.

For me, presence starts with what Emotional Intelligence expert Dr. Travis Bradberry calls “the art of listening.” Isn’t it interesting that he refers to listening, something that seems as basic to human functioning as breathing or swallowing, as an art? Dr. Bradberry’s description underscores the fact that listening goes way beyond merely hearing. Indeed as he puts it in his best selling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0:

Listening isn’t just about hearing words; it’s also about listening to the tone, speed, and volume of the voice. What is being said? Anything not being said? What hidden messages exist below the surface?

So… why is it so hard to listen?

As I shared in an earlier post on conversation skills, the average person can speak at a rate of approximately 225 words per minute, but we can listen at up to 500 words per minute. Our minds tend to fill in the other 275 words (a huge struggle for me!) which is precisely why it takes energy and concentration to be attentive during a conversation.

“Just try to be a better listener.”

I can think of so many times, after reading an article or listening to a podcast on the importance of listening, when I’ve resolved to “just try harder,” only to find that I forgot the names of the couple I was introduced to at church on Sunday after zoning out during the sermon as I thought about my upcoming busy week.

The fact is, simply trying harder rarely works; listening is a skill and, like any other skill, it requires discipline, intentionality and resolve to improve. As public radio host and TED Talk speaker Celeste Headlee notes:

It takes effort and energy to actually pay attention to someone. But if you can’t do that, you’re not in a conversation — you’re just two people shouting out barely-related sentences in the same place.

In my quest to become a better listener (I do feel like I am slowly making progress!), I’ve discovered a few key behaviors that have a disproportionate influence on my success . Here are four:

1) Maintain eye contact.
When I started my first sales job out of college, selling copiers in Grand Rapids, my manager used to remind me, “You’ll never sell anything to anyone if they won’t first sit down at your desk and look you in the eye.” He was right; it was an insight that never failed to prove itself, whether I was selling copiers, cars, or concepts. Indeed, the desire for genuine communication demands eye contact. It signals to the other person that they have your full attention.

I recall shopping for furniture with my wife shortly after we got married. At the first store we shopped, I distinctly remember the salesperson rarely looking at my wife, even though she was the main decision maker. I also recall that we didn’t buy anything there.

Also, watch your posture–make sure it is open and inviting, and demonstrate your attention by smiling and nodding occasionally. This is especially important if you’re in a conversation with someone you know well and are comfortable with, like your spouse or sibling, where you may be tempted to grab your phone or laptop.

2) Give others the space to speak.
As Stephen Covey points out in his iconic book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply.” Often, especially in a heated conversation (think politics or sports), there’s often an irresistible temptation to either finish someone’s sentence or respond before they’re done speaking. What’s more, it’s modeled every evening on Fox News, CNN and countless other news and talk shows that thrive on conflict and confrontation. The best way to avoid this obnoxious behavior is to train yourself to wait until someone is completely finished speaking, even if there’s a few seconds of space before you reply.

3) Give the speaker frequent feedback.
One of the best tools I learned in an excellent training session at Northwestern Michigan College is the skill of paraphrasing, or reflecting back on what the customer tells you. I recall sharing the highlights of a study in France that showed that restaurant servers who repeated their customer’s food orders to their satisfaction received up to 25% higher tips than those who simply recorded the order.

Also, demonstrate to the speaker that you understand and are interested by their responses. Examples like “You must have been angry,” “What a difficult ordeal for you,” and “How were you feeling?” show genuine interest and concern.

4) Embrace mindfulness.
As a Christian, I distanced myself from even considering the practice of mindfulness, writing it off as a product of new age, eastern mysticism. Then a Christian friend of mine–a trained therapist–shared with me the positive influence of simple mindfulness behaviors in everything from relieving depression to improving sleep in his patients. As I researched it further, I discovered that mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention and living in the present moment. In fact, according to Psychology Today, mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present.”

In our increasingly distracted culture, most people’s minds wander: When they’re at work, they daydream about being on vacation; when on vacation, they worry about work piling up on their desks. They dwell on invasive memories of the past and obsess about what may or may not happen in the future. Being mindful means concentrating your attention and awareness on the present moment–in this case, on the speaker with whom you’re conversing. Research is continually revealing the tremendous benefits of mindfulness–in relieving stress, improving relationships, promoting better health, even accelerating athletic performance. (Note: There is a branch of mindfulness that centers around meditative techniques intended to empty your mind and connect to an alternate state of consciousness–that’s not what I am advocating).

BONUS: Learn to develop genuine curiosity.

Have you encountered someone who is genuinely curious? I recall hosting a neighborhood association meeting in our home when one of our guests noticed a family portrait hanging above our fireplace. Instead of merely acknowledging the photo, she inquisitively asked my wife and me about each of our children. You could tell through the tone of her voice and her persistent follow up questions that she wasn’t merely asking to be polite; she was genuinely interested in our family. She was genuinely curious–she was present. Curious people notice things others ignore, taking the focus off themselves and placing it squarely on others, adding genuine richness and life to any encounter or gathering.

Which one of these listening behaviors resonates the most with you? Which one challenges you the most? How do you feel about mindfulness? On a scale of 1 -10, how would you rate yourself in genuine curiosity? Why?

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Bill’s Friday Five

Last Friday, I received an email from my friend Mary Rogers, who recently started a podcast called Experience50, highlighting Mary’s Friday Five — a fun and insightful list of items and thoughts from her week. To recap this week on a positive note, and inspired by Mary, I decided to create my own ‘five favorites’ list this Friday!

Favorite Blog Post
I read an insightful post this week from Bill Zipp, one of my favorite bloggers. He uses the analogy of sneezing to illustrate how leaders connect with their people in order to bring out their best. The provocative title — “How to Sneeze: 10 Keys to Positive Emotional Contagion”— spells out these simple but effective daily leadership behaviors:
1. Make Eye Contact
2. Smile, Smile, Smile
3. Say, “Please”
4. Say, “Thank you.”
5. Remember and use people’s first name.
6. Ask curious questions
7. Listen intently without being distracted.
8. Compliment freely and praise publicly.
9. Shake hands and give high-five’s. Hug when appropriate.
10.Laugh. A lot.

In Bill’s words, every day we have a choice about what kind of environment we create, transferring negative or positive emotions by our behavior.

Favorite Event
The Northwestern Michigan College Annual Fund kickoff happened this week and students showed me the new unmanned underwater vehicle technology (most of it went right over my head!) including the 70,000 gallon water tank. The advanced technology at NMC is amazing. What a resource for this community! I most enjoyed interacting with the NMC students in aviation, marine technology, and the Great Lakes Water Studies Institute. Their passion and entrepreneurialism was awesome!

Bill and NMC students at NMC Annual Fund kickoff

Favorite Book
Eat, Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath
My big takeaway: While most self-help books focus on time management to improve your productivity, Tom’s well documented research shows that how we manage our energy is the real difference maker. It’s the little choices we make each day about what to eat, how much time we spend standing verses sitting, and how much sleep we get that determine our real productivity and health. One tip: the extra minutes of sleep you get by hitting the snooze button aren’t really restful at all. By training yourself to get up as soon as the alarm sounds, you could go to bed 15 minutes earlier and get more real sleep.

Eat Move Sleep by Tom Rath

Favorite Podcast Episode
I listened to a fascinating health and wellness podcast called “Fat Burning Man” featuring an interview with running coach Danny Dreyer who presented a super-helpful tip on breathing that will not only benefit runners, but also anyone looking to add energy and mindfulness to their lifestyle. Designed to duplicate high altitude training, Danny’s simple instructions include:
· Breath in and out through your nose—NOT your mouth.
· As you slowly exhale, walk as many steps as you can before taking another breath without gasping for air.
· Repeat this 8 – 10 times a day.

Recent research has shown that gently starving your lungs for oxygen like this triggers your body to produce more red blood cells to transport oxygen, increasing the capillary beds in your lungs. This is exactly the benefit that high altitude training provides.

Fat Burning Man feat. Danny Dreyer

Favorite Night Out
Debbie and I enjoyed a BIGS night out this week!  The Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northwestern Michigan Adopt-A-Match Sponsor Dinner was held at The Boathouse on Thursday night. Attendees were treated to a fabulous dinner and all-around beautiful evening for a great cause. Thank you to all the mentors who have impacted the lives of the 365 “Littles” across northern Michigan.

Bill & Debbie at The Boathouse for BIGS

As you prepare to wrap up this week and head into the weekend, what were your favorite things about this week? I’d love to hear from you.

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