Emperor’s Log #11: All the Small Things

There was a time when I managed a very profitable furniture store in Florida. Of all the stores in the region, this store had the highest dollars per transaction. The sales staff was optimized to drive this key metric. They were engaged, energetic, and proud of their sales abilities.

And then there came a day when it all changed. The top brass of the organization decided to change direction. No longer were they interested in the higher ticket sales. They gave us a new mission: get more customers to buy regardless of the amount they were spending. They told us it would be better to convert a higher percentage of our traffic into sales.

Old model: 20% of 100 customers spending $150 = $3,000

New model: 40% of 100 customers spending $20 = $800

We had no choice to comply. Our merchandise assortment began to change. The big-ticket items were replaced with smaller ones. Our sales began to plummet. At the same time, the economy was going through a difficult recession. I could no longer support the highly curated sales force in my store. Without the high average sales, hours were cut. Motivation was lost. All this happened around eleven years ago. Today, that company that had over 1,000 stores finally shut the doors on its last 500. Bankrupt.

In a highly competitive market, to change your identity is a dangerous choice. The goal is profitability, and there are several different ways to achieve it. Did this company make the right choice? I don’t believe so. There could have been several factors that finally brought this company down. Maybe:

  • The world lost its interest and moved on,
  • They got ate up by the bigger dogs in the market, or
  • The economy dictated that basic needs were more necessary than specialized wants.

Whatever it was, they were no longer competitive. The end goal should have been profitability and somewhere along the way, they got bogged down until they had no choice to shut down.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I would love to say that on an individual level on I am immune from such catastrophes, but am I? How many times have I lost the big picture and got mired in the bog? How many times has my attention been diverted onto something of little or no significance? No doubt, it has been way too many times. When I think I see the path so clearly ahead, I still get squirreled. When it happens again, and it will happen again, I must not give it more time than it deserves. I need to address it quickly and move on.

A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. -Marcus Aurelius

Emperor’s Log #22: Five Rules

The words of the emperor Marcus Aurelius…

Rule #1: In your actions, don’t procrastinate.

The message: Loud and Clear. The execution: well, that is another story. Like a door that turns on its hinges, I used to be the sluggard that turned on my bed (Proverbs 26:14). I would like to say those days are long behind me, but the truth is that every now and then I have that day where I get bogged down in the mire without a branch of motivation to pull me out.

It is on those days, that I must remember my purpose. How will I get to where I want to go if I am refusing to move? If I waste away these hours and days, then I will never get ahead.

It has been my observation that most people get ahead during the time that other’s waste. -Henry Ford

Rule #2: In your conversations, don’t confuse.

There was some concern on my team that I would be too technical in my speech and too wide in my vocabulary. That is an issue I see with others. When they speak or write, I have no clue what they are trying to communicate even though I am trying my best to understand. I know there have been times when I took that path and drove on despite the glazed over eyes and confused brows.

What is the point of all this knowledge and understanding if it cannot be used in a way that improves the lives of others? If we cannot communicate the things we know then we are not helping anybody. But if simplify our language and communicate clearly, we can be effective in helping others to understand. Friedrich Nietzsche could have easily confused us all, but listen to this gem that he gave us:

Those who know they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound strive for obscurity.

Rule #3: In your thoughts, don’t wander.

The practice of meditation. Oh man, this is something that I really need. It is something I must practice daily, even several times a day. It is not an easy task to sit still in mind and body. Once my mind strays down into the catacombs, it gets tangled and confused. Time will tick away, and I will still be looking for the way out. But then there is meditation, an internal GPS, which centers me and helps me to regain a sense of direction.

We all have the tendency to wander. The question we must ask ourselves is how long before we can regain the path. We are the masters of our minds. We are supposed to be the ones in control of the direction of our thoughts. Buddha was considered to a master of the art of meditation. Ponder these words attributed to him:

As the fletcher whittles and makes straight his arrows, so the master directs his straying thoughts.

We must harness this energy and direct it where we desire it to go. We must be the masters over our minds.

Rule #4: In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive.

The heart is a muscle. If you train it, it will get stronger. If you don’t use it or even abuse it, you will eventually lose it. If you push it too hard, it will give out on you. You must train the heart, train it -just right.

Your heart is your soul. It is where your courage and intuition reside. It must be trained. Condition it by testing the boundaries. Don’t be too soft and don’t be too hard.

I sometimes test the upper limits of the organ. I want to find comfort in the uncomfortable. It is a good practice as it also tests my soul. It can be scary going there sometimes, but the fear is good, even healthy. We just need to remember these words:

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear -not absence of fear. -Mark Twain

Rule #5: In your life, don’t be all about business.

I must catch myself sometimes. There is a relentless pursuit to catch the potential rewards at the end of my goals. The pursuit is exhausting. Am I able to recover from one workout to the next? Am I able to digest my studies before I gorge myself in the next lesson? Are there breaks in between milestones and projects? I might not be going full throttle the whole time, but I do need to stop and refill. The occasional stop won’t prevent me from completing my journey. It may even speed up the process.

The Book of Exodus instructs the children of Israel to rotate their crops (23:10). It is an ancient practice still in use today. And though Seneca is not in the Bible (however his brother does get a mention), he makes a good analogy:

The mind must be given relaxation -a good break. Just as rich fields must not be forced -for they will quickly lose their fertility if never given a break -so constant work on the anvil will fracture the mind.

Take a break, recharge, and get back on your journey.

Marcus Aurelius wrote these rules in his private journal over two thousand years ago. True wisdom holds the test of time.  

Feature photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

A Drop in the Universe, A Speck in Time

I turned out the lights and turned on my Kindle. It was bedtime, and the Kindle my nightly ritual. A little light reading before bed helps me sleep. It tires my eyes and quiets my mind. Usually I read a bit of fiction, but this night I read from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The translation I have is old. It is filled with thee’s, thou’s, and thine’s. I like it as it reminds me of the King James Bible.

The emperor had a way with words and the passage from the sixth book did its magic on me. After a few minutes of reading, I had to put the book down. I had to digest the words. Sleep didn’t come quick this night.

Consider where we are right now in this time, in this space. Compare it to the big picture of the universe. A small point in time. A tiny pinprick in the vastness of the cosmos. Here we are, veritable miracles of life, so small and fragile. But here we are, together. Despite all our differences and problems, we are in it together, occupying the here and the now.

We have a tendency to make things seem bigger than they are. Our problems, because they impact us personally seem, to matter more than the problems of those down the street, those across the globe. Yet in the grand scheme of things, they are nothing but minor trifles.

This is the call for unity. When you meet your fellow humans, it is one miracle colliding with another. The dog, the cat, and even the bird on the front porch, all miracles, all points in time and space. True charity is that we treat all our brothers and sisters with love despite our differences. True charity is to honor those we meet with the dignity and respect that all creatures deserve. We are one moment in time, one speck in the universe. Our impact may seem small. But to those we come across, it can be enormous. The waves our impressions leave can lift others and sweep them to safer shores, or it can crash upon them shattering them on the rocks. What impact will you leave today? How will you be remembered tomorrow?

The words of the Stoic Emperor have made their marks on my soul. I hope it has the same impression on your’s:

Asia, Europe are corners of the universe: all the sea a drop in the universe; Athos a little clod of the universe: all the present time is a point in eternity. All things are little, changeable, perishable. All things come from thence, from that universal ruling power either directly proceeding or by way of sequence. And accordingly the lion’s gaping jaws, and that which is poisonous, and every harmful thing, as a thorn, as mud, are after-products of the grand and beautiful. Do not then imagine that they are of another kind from that which thou dost venerate, but form a just opinion of the source of all.

He who has seen present things has seen all, both everything which has taken place from all eternity and everything which will be for time without end; for all things are of one kin and of one form.

Frequently consider the connexion of all things in the universe and their relation to one another. For in a manner all things are implicated with one another, and all in this way are friendly to one another; for one thing comes in order after another, and this is by virtue of the active movement and mutual conspiration and the unity of the substance. Adapt thyself to the things with which thy lot has been cast: and the men among whom thou hast received thy portion, love them, but do it truly, sincerely. –Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations Book 6:33-35

Do It Now, Not Tomorrow

What are the things we put off? You know, the things we know we should do just not right now.

  • Exercise
  • Eat better
  • Read
  • Study
  • Clean up

If you think about it, this list for some of us could go on forever. So many things that we should do and can do, but we put off until another day. After the holidays, I will stop eating so much and start a new exercise program. I’ll get around to cleaning the garage when the weather is nicer. On and on and someday maybe, which often turns in to someday never. Unless what you have to do is on a deadline, and then it is a mad scramble to turn in a “not your best” effort.

Imagine the benefits of starting now. Imagine the satisfaction of knowing at least it is over and done with. Could you be better off if you did right now what you want to put off until tomorrow? I know I could be better.

You could do good today, but instead you wait until tomorrow. –Marcus Aurelius

Believe It Is Possible

Hope 11/2/2019

Alec has been going to a new gym over the last couple of months. With no boys’ gymnastics class available in our area, he has moved to parkour. His coach teaches gymnastics as well, and she is demanding some very technical skills from him that he has not had to do before. Even cartwheels, which once were very easy for him, are now nearly impossible for him with the form his coach is requiring. It is tough for him, and his Czech coach does not coddle him like his previous coaches had done in the past. She is actually harder on him than she is on the other students. Why? Because he is the only one in the class with a gymnastics background.

He is frustrated. He is trying, but he has not yet mastered these new skills. Of course it is not impossible, but it sure seems like it to him.

We constantly witness feats which seemed impossible only a few years ago. Remember the Miracle on Ice? The Soviet hockey team could not lose, but they did. Or how about those smart watches? They would make James Bond drool. Yesterday’s miracles are today’s norm. But for all the great feats we see achieved by the modern day titans of our time, do we ever stop to consider that we have the ability to do the impossible too? Why can’t it be you or me that does the next great thing? After all, we are the masters of our own unique skills and traits.

Alec might think that those gymnastic tricks are impossible now, but they won’t be impossible forever. He has to believe it can be done, he has to practice diligently, and he has to grow in his confidence and strength. If it is humanly possible, then he can do it. So can you.

Not to assume the impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that it it’s humanly possible, you can do it too. –Marcus Aurelius

To Revenge Not

Justice 10/9/2019

Monday night, I caught a little of the Cleveland Browns vs. San Francisco 49ers football game. In this one-sided affair one incident really stood out to me. Rookie defensive end Nick Bosa of the 49ers sacked the Browns quarterback, Baker Mayfield. It was an excellent play. Bosa then got up and waved an imaginary flag and planted. This was to mock Mayfield’s notorious flag planting of the Oklahoma flag on the fifty yard line of Ohio stadium. That incident happened two years ago, and must have really stung the pride of Bosa. But finally, he got his revenge of national television.

I admit it is a silly analogy in terms of real-life revenge.

Revenge (rəˈvenj) n. to avenge (oneself or another) usually by retaliating in kind or degree. [Merriam-Webster]

I imagine forms of revenge often. Usually for very petty things. I perceive injustices toward me despite the often non-malicious intentions of the offender. When I look back at the acts of actual revenge I carried out in my youth, I can’t help but think how foolish I really was. In truth, the only injury I sustained was to my pride.

Thinking back on football. When there is a scuffle, who is usually the one that gets the flag? It is the one that retaliated. A simple act of revenge that costs the whole team, because the player had to get back at the instigator. He could have just let it go, but instead he allowed his pride to interfere with sound judgment.


Message to my son:

Revenge is a dish best served not at all. You don’t have to get back. The best statement you can make is to go about your business and not seek retribution. In the end, everything will work out. Let karma do its work without your interference. By not retaliating, you will heap coals on the head of your offender and come away blameless.

The best revenge is to not be like that. –Marcus Aurelius

Prudence 5/13/2019: What Are You Pursuing?

I remember when I was younger, how I pursued worthless things. I wanted things at the present moment, because they were pleasing to the senses. They were things that I didn’t think I could live without, things that once possessed became meaningless. I wasn’t careful with money. I wasn’t careful with time. I lived in the moment, and I paid for it.

Fast forward to today. I am not as wise as I should be and still get distracted by the shiny and new. But I am more cautious today than I used to be. I am more interested in things of lasting value. So what are the things I am chasing today? As I advance in age, I think about what I can leave when I am gone. I think about how I will be remembered.  Will my son carry on my values and beliefs and pass them down to his children? Not the shiny stuff I collected through the years, but the legacy I have built. It reminds of the words Benjamin Franklin once said, “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth writing.”

His words are a call to action for all of us. Chase after the things that matter in life. Pursue something worthy, not the trinkets and baubles that lose their value once possessed.

The true worth of a man is to be measured in the objects he pursues. -Marcus Aurelius

Justice 2/6/2019

Does it make any difference to you if other people blame you for doing what’s right? -Marcus Aurelius

Do not worry about the others. At the end of the day, you did the right things and you will be able to sleep at ease.

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The Virtue of Justice

What does it mean to live a just life? If right thoughts and right actions equal righteousness, can we be righteous? Our hope is that others treat us with justice. This of course is no guarantee, but it does not change our responsibilities. It is our responsibility to be honest in our deeds and in our words, and that we treat others with justice.

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Hey Google, Set Timer to 14 Months

A month ago, everything seemed fine. And then three weeks ago, there was a seizure that led to brain surgery. Another incident last week, and the news was delivered to my Father-in-Law, “You have 14-18 months left.” The news is difficult for him. It is difficult for the family. And yes, it is difficult for me. Here is a man who has had an enormous impact on my life. He has taught me so much, and yet, I feel as if there is so much more for him to teach me. Selfish? Maybe. But isn’t this how things have been done within families since the beginning of time? A man teaches his son, who in turn teaches his son. Down through the ages, knowledge is accumulated and passed down, strengthening those who would bear the torch of the family name into an uncertain future. In this case, maybe selfish is really a survival instinct in man’s evolution.

My Father has been given an hourglass. The sands are running. I can’t imagine what he is going through and what he is thinking about. I wonder what he is going to do with his time left. But as I think about his remaining time, I am drawn back to my own selfish thoughts and how this impending doom affects me. He has the timer, but someday I will have it. And yet even that is wrong. I will not receive a timer someday in the future. I already have it.

Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it. -Marcus Aurelius

If I was told I had a year left, what would I do? What would you do? You could make a bucket list. You could go and see all the wonders of this world. Do all the things you have always dreamed of. Making a bucket list would lead to three questions?

Can you afford your list?

I know I can’t. Give me a year, I would probably die in poverty. I wouldn’t want to work, but I would have no choice. I have debt. I like food. I have a family depending on me. Could you imagine clocking in to work every day knowing it could be your last?

Of course, this is a scenario if you are in debt in your last days. If you carry debt and minimal savings, you are out of luck. You will toil unto the last of your days, so that you and family may eat.

Why not do it now?

Remember, all of our days are numbered. We have no guarantee of tomorrow, let alone a year. Why are we not living life to the fullest right now? But you say, “I can’t afford my bucket list, how can I do this?” Start getting yourself in position today. Prepare now that your family may be covered. Prepare now that you are not working to the very end.

What is on the list?

To see the world, you are preparing to leave, is it necessary? Maybe yes, if it is to share those experiences with loved ones. If you have the means and the desire, then go for it. But what if your bucket list was less about travel and experience and contained such things as:

  • Capturing as many sunrises and sunsets as possible,
  • Spending more productive time with family and friends. Hugging a little longer. Loving a little more. These are the ones that will keep your memory alive.
  • Spending more time contemplating the life to come. Some would suggest there is no after life. That may be fine for them, but I would not rather take the gamble. If there is even a one-tenth of one percent of going to heaven, then there is also a possibility of a hell. I would rather aim for a chance at heaven, then risk whatever misery could be waiting in hell.

These three items alone may be the poor man’s bucket list. But are they not of far greater value than a trip to the pyramids or a bender in Vegas?

Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue- if you care for yourself at all- and do it while you can. -Marcus Aurelius

The clock is winding down on all of us, whether we realize it or not. For my Father, he has been given 14-18 months. What does that mean? Death stands at the threshold patient and waiting. The old Marine could go tomorrow or he could go fifteen years from now. He is no different than us, only more aware than us of things to come. He can wallow in grief that the time is near or he can make the most and count each day as a gift. It is his choice. So, it is with us, we get to choose what we do with the time we have left.

You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think. -Marcus Aurelius

Practice What Seems Impossible

As a biased and proud father, I am always amazed by the grace and beauty of Alec’s cartwheels. He extends to his full length and performs the feat with more skill than I have ever achieved. It is no wonder. He has been doing cartwheels now for half of his life. He does them every day and everywhere. In truth, I would be concerned if he was not good at doing them by now.

A few weeks ago, his cartwheels started looking bad. He didn’t look comfortable. He was going faster with less control, not straightening his legs, and not sticking a clean landing. When I asked him what was going on, he informed me that his gymnastics coach wanted him to do cartwheels leading off with his other hand. He knew this task was challenging, and he was becoming frustrated with his performance. Whereas a normal cartwheel was natural to him, this change made it awkward and ugly. It is when he is most frustrated that he states that he can’t do it. There is only one reply I can give for encouragement, “Keep practicing.”

Practice, the master of all things. –Augustus Octavius

 

After reading the lengthy but very informative article, How to Configure Your iPhone to Work for You, Not Against You,” I took the advice of step #15 and installed the G Board for faster typing. In the beginning I made all kinds of mistakes and my messaging speed was cut in half. Learning to type with the swipe method seemed an impossible and pointless task. But a few weeks later and countless keying of the letter “L” (right above the delete button), I am now faster than I was before.

 

…but if a thing is humanly possible, consider it to be in your reach. –Marcus Aurelius

 

Aurelius probably wasn’t thinking in such low terms as changing over to a G Board for faster messaging. But then again, who is to say he didn’t apply this line of thought to all difficult tasks regardless of enormity. This is a person whose advice was to practice with the left hand. Using your off hand more efficiently may not produce a radical change in your life, but getting better at practicing will. If you want to get better in any area, you practice.

Remember all the things that seemed impossible in the past:

 sailing across the Atlantic
 flying in the air or landing on the moon
 instant communication across the world

 

Enormous feats that at one time began in the imagination. Compare that to the much smaller things we imagine that seem so daunting:

 superb health
 financial freedom
 learning a new language
 speaking in public

All those things that seem out of reach to us, and yet are possible. Through practice.

 

Practice even what seems impossible. The left hand is useless at almost everything, for lack of practice. But it guides the reins better than the right. From practice. –Marcus Aurelius