Make the Days Count

Over the last few years, as part of my job, I’ve led groups of 5 or 6 employees at a time through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. I pass out books to everyone at the beginning and assign reading. Then we meet weekly and discuss each habit. (I am well aware that many most of them don’t actually read the book. Being an avid reader, I don’t understand that, but I can accept it. I make sure to explain enough that they have a basic understanding, and we discuss it anyway.)

Habit 2 is “Begin with the end in mind,” which is one of my favorite habits to discuss. In the book, Covey introduces the habit by challenging readers to picture showing up at their own funeral someday and imagine what they would like people to say about them. The purpose is to help people clarify what is truly important to them and use those as guiding principles for decision making, both on a daily basis and long-term.

Last November, when I started describing this exercise, I looked across the table and had to pause. In that group was Larry, who had been first diagnosed with cancer 7 years prior and had been actively battling cancer for nearly 3 years.  This was not a hypothetical, many years down the road consideration. This was something that was actively on his mind.

Before that group started, Larry had joked with me that he would read the book if it was about fishing. I found a vintage Field & Stream cover photo online, printed it out and pasted it on the front. When I gave it to him, I told him that I had an extra special copy of the book just for him. The first time we met as a group, he looked at me in all seriousness and said, “You know, Mary, you can’t judge a book by its cover. This book doesn’t talk about fishing at all.”

He participated in the discussions each week, sharing stories about his wife, his sons, and his grandkids. He talked about the things that were important to him – doing his job well, his wife, his sons, his grandkids, restoring antique tractors, hunting and fishing. He played jokes on the others in our group.

A few weeks ago, Mike and I visited him in the hospital. We talked and laughed about tricks he used to play on his co-workers. He talked about how much he loved his job and he wanted to come back to work. He again talked about the things that were important to him – working hard and his family. He looked at me and said, “Mary, that book wasn’t about fishing, but I read it anyway. I thought it was pretty good.”

Yesterday, Mike and I attended his funeral.

Larry had asked his long-time friend and hunting buddy Gary to share some words that he wanted to make sure his wife, kids, and grandkids heard when he was no longer to say them himself. They were lovely words of gratitude and encouragement.

Gary also shared a few words of his own about their times together and the things that made Larry the kind of guy who will be terribly missed for many years to come. Gary said that he looked long and hard to come up with the perfect saying or poem or story to sum up Larry’s life. He came across the perfect one, which was perfect for two reasons. First was that it described Larry so well, and second was that it was short and sweet, which Larry would have liked.

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.” -Muhammad Ali

That’s what Larry did. Only 5 weeks ago, Larry was still debating whether or not he was going to retire at the end of this month when he was to turn 62. He worked until 4 weeks before his death. He only took off work for appointments and treatments as necessary. (He saved a few vacation days for fishing trips and tractor shows. He definitely wasn’t “all work and no play.”) He told me that he tried going to a cancer support group a few times, but he quit going because he felt like everyone wanted to talk about dying, but he was still alive so that’s what he was going to do. That’s what he did. He lived his life.

I could tell a dozen stories about how great a guy Larry was. I heard stories about him long before I met him because he and my brother Zach shared a love for tractors. Zach loved talking tractors with Larry, and I think Larry equally enjoyed talking tractors with Zach. My brother has some special needs, and I notice when people take the time to take an interest in him. Larry was one of those guys. At work, there are tales galore, all completely true, about him playing jokes on people – sending new employees on a hunt for a pallet stretcher, telling people they could make extra money by picking marshmallows off the marshmallow trees, convincing them that spray paint was boot waterproofing spray. He knew a lot about hydraulics and machines, and he would gladly share his knowledge. The one time I saw him truly be angry was when he felt like someone had disrespected one of his boys. His friend Gary said that he was one of those guys that leaves an impression on people, and I agree.

I think, though, that more than remembering him for a great guy, he would rather have people live the way he lived.

Figure out what’s important. Figure out what matters to you. And then just do it. Don’t wait for something better to come along. Don’t wait for the perfect situation. Don’t sit around worrying about the next bad thing to come. Just live. Live your life while you still have one.

don't count the days

Things I Do Because I Am Afraid

Last month, I wrote about the difficulty I was having deciding what Things I Do and Things I Don’t Do. In the back of my planner, I divided a page into two columns. I titled one “Things I Do” and one “Things I Don’t Do.” I’ve added a handful of things to each list.

If I were to sit down and write everything I currently do, it would be plenty long. It might look impressive to list everything, and I might feel good about being able to do so many different things with my life. But that would be missing the point. The point of this exercise is to make a conscious decision to spend the resources available to me on things that matter to me.

As I think of things that I do, I’ve been asking myself these questions:

  • Does this align with my values?
  • Is this an area of my gifts, talents and abilities?
  • Do I find enjoyment and a sense of meaning in this activity?

These questions have been helpful, but I think I need to add another one.

A couple months ago, I started to panic about my undergraduate plans. The degree program that I am in has a set schedule covering all of the specific requirements for a BS in Health Psychology. I already had a number of credits. I took a few classes through the local community college to pick up the math and science credits I was missing. The program allows you to write essays about lessons you’ve learned throughout your life on different topics, and I was planning on doing that for the 7 credits I was short for a bachelor’s degree.

But I am not planning on stopping with a bachelor’s degree. To achieve my goal, I need at least a master’s degree. I have a grad school program selected, and it has competitive admissions. I reviewed the grad school entrance requirements. My coursework is more than adequate, but I started to worry about the educational and professional references. I think I have great educational references, but I probably should have a better professional reference. I would love to have a reference from the field of social work, but who have I had enough contact with in recent years that could provide that?

The program requires prior human services experience via professional, volunteer, internship, or research. I have been involved in the foster care and adoption community for many years, but does that count? Has it been formal enough? What about organizing the Empowered to Connect simulcast the last two years? But that is really only event planning and didn’t involve creating educational material. Does it still count?

I talked to my academic advisor who said that some, but not all, graduate schools accept the credits for prior learning. Well, maybe I could take a couple more classes from the community college. I have more than enough upper level credits already, so they should be sufficient. I signed up for a 4-week summer class. But what about the “experience” part?

The department chair talked to me about a practicum possibility. That specific one wasn’t going to work for me, but that discussion sparked several ideas. Within a few days, I had a potential practicum/internship lined up. I was ecstatic! I would be get college credits, valuable experience working with seasoned professionals, and I would have a solid professional reference! This was going to be perfect.

Three days before my summer class was to begin, it was cancelled due to low enrollment. I was disappointed because I was truly looking forward to the course. I looked at class schedules. It isn’t going to be offered until next spring/summer, and I don’t want to wait that long to get this out of the way. So I signed up for another 4-week course that starts next week.

One week after my class was cancelled, I learned that the internship possibility fell through.

I was again disappointed.

After about 15 minutes of disappointment, I started trying to figure out other options for volunteer experiences for my grad school application.

I told my therapist about this the next time we met. When I started telling him my new plan, he interrupted and asked me why I was doing this. Basically, he told me that it was silly for me to try to fit in a volunteer experience on top of everything else I do at that moment. I disagreed but said I would consider it.

Here’s what I realized when stopped and considered it: I am trying to add more to my already fully schedule because I am afraid.

I’m afraid that I won’t be accepted to a specific program. I’m afraid that I will be told that I’m not qualified. I’m afraid that I will be told that I don’t know enough. I’m afraid that I will be told I’m not enough.

I let the department chair know that I would not be pursuing a practicum or internship.

I’m still afraid that I won’t get in to grad school. But I can’t make myself crazy(ier) trying.

Since then, I’ve noticed that a lot of things that I do are motivated by fear.

So here is the additional question, which might even be the most important one of them all.

What is my motivation? Is this motivated by fear?

If the answer is yes, then it should be listed under “Things I Don’t Do.”