Who’s Your Personal All Star Team?

It’s time for the Mid-Summer Classic. It’s the middle of the summer and the middle of the season. Nine guys from each league are out in the field participating in the All Star Game. It’s fun to see who the fans, coaches, and players select to represent each team. It’s even more fun to see them display their skills. They’re the best of the best. It got me to wondering who you’d pick to be the nine all stars in your life.

Every life is filled with people who love and support. They are, in a sense, our all stars. Entrepreneur and motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, once said: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If that’s true (and I certainly think there is a great deal of truth to it), we’d better be intentional about who it is with whom we surround ourselves.

In that vein, I’d like to share with you my own personal all star team. I could put twenty (or even 100) people on this team; but there are only nine on a baseball team, so that’s my limit. I hope it motivates you to contemplate and consider your own nine:

  1. My mom. She brought me into the world, always motivated me to do my best, and from early on gave me a sense of style.
  2. My dad. He gave me the gift of creativity, writing, and the experience of being on stage from the time I was about six-years-old. All these things have served me well in life.
  3. Miss Schroeder, my third grade teacher. She instilled in me the love of music and singing, let me know I had a gift for it, and pushed me hard to use it well.
  4. Gary Lohmeyer, former director of Joy Incorporated. He gave me the opportunity to be lead singer in a Christian band that traveled all over the country with a group great people. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It also led to me meeting my future wife.
  5. John Glover, my friend. We met at the seminary thirty years ago and our friendship is stronger today than ever. John has taught me to appreciate U2, New York City, and good books.
  6. My son, Ben. He teaches me what it means to be brave, step out in faith, go after your dreams, and work hard doing what you love.
  7. My daughter, Ashlyn. She is a gifted and talented actress who has put all that on hold to put her family first. She has always known what she wanted and has gone after it with energy and vigor. One of my great joys in life has been to see her on stage. But an even bigger joy was the greatest gift anyone has ever given me: a grandchild.
  8. My grandson, Crosby. He’s an all star just for being himself. I never knew I could love someone like I love him.
  9. My wife, Tammy. She loves me far, far more than I deserve. She has taught me forgiveness and second chances. I love her sense of humor and adventure. And I appreciate the way she encourages me in ways no one else can.

Who is your personal all star team?

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3 Things to Do When the Pressure Is On

It’s Major League Baseball’s All Star Break, and the Milwaukee Brewers are in First Place in the National League Central Division. The pressure is now on. (If you’re not a baseball fan I encourage you read on. I promise this will apply to your life.) We fans of the Milwaukee Brewers have had a great many lean years. The Chicago Cubs finally won their championship last year. Now it’s the Brewers’ turn, right? The closest they came was in 1982 when they lost the World Series in seven games to the (ahem!) St. Louis Cardinals. (I still can’t stand the Cardinals…sorry St. Louis friends)

The longer the Brewers are in first place the more pressure there is. It’s much more difficult being a fan when expectations are higher. When expectations are low there isn’t much pressure and it’s simply fun to be surprised when your team wins. A few years back when the Brewers were in the playoffs, and I was able to go to a couple of games, it was pure torture.

The good thing is that, at least so far, the team itself doesn’t seem to be feeling the pressure. They seem loose, relaxed, and ready to take on their opponents. There are a few lessons we can learn from them when we’re feeling the pressure in our lives:

  1. Have fun. The Brewers are near the top of the league in home runs. Every time they hit one they’ve got a celebration called “The Gauntlet.” The guy who hits the home run comes into the dugout and the players line up, bump elbows, and do a little dance. They’re having fun with their success. When you have a success in your life, large or small, be sure to have fun with it and celebrate it. It’ll ease some of the other pressure you may feel.
  2. Stick to the fundamentals. One of the reasons the Brewers are winning is that they are playing fundamentally sound baseball. They are hitting well, pitching well, committing very few errors, and turning in some stellar defensive play. When you’re feeling the pressure in your life, remember to stick with the things that you do best. Simply keep doing them well. The results will speak for themselves.
  3. Keep winning. Though the Brewers are in first place, they only have one player going to the All Star Game. That’s OK. Even though they’re not getting respect from the rest of the league the respect will come from their win total. People will begin to take notice. Focus on the small wins you can make in your daily life. Whatever those wins may look like in your line of work, the more you “win” the more respect you will get, and the more people will take notice. It will ease the pressure.

We’ll see how the season turns out. There’s a long way to go. But this is fun while it lasts. I’m hoping the Brewers will withstand the pressure and maintain a lead in the division.

How do you respond to pressure in your life?

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How Many Summers Do You Have Left?

July 4th always marks for me the heart of the summer. When our kids were still in school the 4th was a reminder that there was still plenty of summer left (despite the Back to School ads in the newspaper). The holiday marks the passing of time in a gentler way than, say, New Years’ Eve. I was reminded of this again by, of all people, John Mellencamp. On a recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning, Mellencamp said: “I only have so many summers left and I intend not to waste them being old.”

While I’m not a huge fan of most of Mellencamp’s music, I can certainly buy into his philosophy. Life in this world is short. There are so many things to do, see, learn, feel, explore, and love. There’s no sense in wasting time “being old.”

Mellencamp might take an edgier viewpoint of that statement, but here’s what it means to me. As you age:

  1. Don’t be afraid to take risks. If you haven’t done it (whatever it is), give it a try. Write that book. Start a business. Do the side hustle. Run a marathon. Check the boxes off of that bucket list.
  2. Take the time to travel. Having just returned from an incredible trip to London and Tuscany I can tell you that I wish I would have done much more traveling far earlier in my life. I hope to be able to do much more. I speak with enough elderly people who wish they would have traveled when they had the chance. I’m glad our children have already had the opportunity to do some traveling in their young lives.
  3. Cherish the summers. And for that matter the falls, winters, and springs, too. Every season of the year has something to celebrate. Make the time to do just that with friends and family.
  4. Spend your money on experiences instead of stuff. The older I get the more I realize that “stuff” and “status symbols” are far less important to me. I’d much rather make memories with my family and friends. Since we live in Orlando and are Disney fans, we spend some money on annual passes so that we can enjoy experiences there. This goes, of course, for travel (see #2) too.
  5. Take care of your health. Keep your doctor appointments. Go to the dentist. Get your exercise. Eat well. Doing all this will ensure that you’re able to make the most of the summers you have left. You won’t waste them “being old.”

I don’t know how many summers I have left and I intend not to waste them being old.

How about you?

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How the London Underground Taught Me a Valuable Lesson

I’m still a bit ashamed. On our recent trip to London we made extensive use of the Underground. “Mind the Gap!” What a wonderful and efficient mode of transportation it is. It’s clean, simple to use, and gets you all over the city inexpensively and quickly. And if you’re paying attention, it can also teach you a valuable lesson.

One of our days in London we were rushing from one place to another. (When you take the tube it seems like everyone’s in a rush, so you try to keep up with the fast pace.) As we were descending the steps to get to the platform we were slowed by an old woman. She had a push cart and was taking the steps one by one. My initial thought was: “Can’t this woman hurry up. She’s kind of in the way.”

So we descended the steps and were about to go around her. Just then, two young women ahead of us stopped and said to the woman: “Can we help you?” And they proceeded to lift her cart and help her to the bottom of the steps.

Boy was I put in my place. Here I was on my holiday. I really had no place important to go. We were simply making our way to our next tourist stop. Instead of being annoyed, my first thought should have been to help the woman with her load. But apparently I had to learn a lesson. So two young women showed me what my reaction should have been and provided a perfect example.

The lesson was this: Always be ready to serve. Whether you’re on vacation, in your daily routine, or out and about, keep your eyes open. Look for opportunities to serve. Instead of being self-centered keep your antennae up for ways to help others.

It’s a simple lesson. But it’s a profound one. We live our lives too often keeping to ourselves and thinking only of our own agenda. What can we do to help others that we encounter? In the end it’s really a gift to be able to serve. Those two young women gave me some food for thought. It would have felt really good to help that poor woman with her load down the Underground steps.

Next time I hope to be the one who will jump into service.

Will you?

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5 Surprising Observations About Italy

It was the trip of a lifetime. My wife and I just got back from visiting two places we had dreamed of going our entire lives. First we spent a week in London. Then we had another week in Italy, or more specifically, Tuscany. The whole trip was really beyond words. But as we experienced another country and another culture, I couldn’t help but notice five specific things about Italy.

It’s a whole other wonderful world:

  1. Driving is a real life video game. You know those lines in the middle of the road called lane markers? In Italy they are only suggestions. People disregard them willy nilly. There are automated speed traps that record your speed without an officer being present. I did have the pleasure of driving an Audi with a manual transmission. It was a blast! I just had to keep my eyes open for cars coming straight at me around those hairpin turns in the hills of Tuscany.
  2. Air conditioning and refrigeration is at a premium. While we were there the weather was hot. It got up into the 90’s. Even so, there was very little air conditioning to speak of. When there was it was only slightly cool in a train car or restaurant. Refrigerated bottles of water were only lukewarm. And if you want some ice cubes in your drink you have to ask. Even then you’ll only get a cube or two.
  3. Waste is at a minimum. In the city of Florence there are waste receptacles that go right down into the ground. They come together in groups of three. One is for regular waste, and the other two are for various types of recycling. In addition, cars tend to be very small and economic when it comes to gas. We could learn a thing or two here in the United States.
  4. Stuff is old. One of the first things one notices about Italy is the age of everything. Here in the U.S. we consider something “old” if it’s been around 200 years or so. But in Italy many things are centuries old, and some are millennia old. It’s mind boggling to think that the places we walked have been living, active places for centuries more than our home country has even existed.
  5. Views are spectacular. Drive up to San Gimignano, or Volterra, or Montalcino, and you will see picturesque views worthy of the finest photographers eye. In fact, you’ve probably seen these views in photos at one time or another. But photos don’t do the views justice. It’s breathtaking to see it in person.

Oh, how I’m looking forward to going back. There’s so much more to see and do.

What have you noticed when you’ve been overseas?

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When God Gives You a Miracle Without You Asking

Have you ever been surprised by a gift for which you never asked? You’re happily (or not so happily) going about your life when all of a sudden it plops into your lap. It’s a miracle so precious that you could have never imagined your life without it. Sometimes God makes the world a better place and it’s a complete surprise.

For years people have told me how great it is to be a grandparent. “You get to go visit them and then leave them with their parents ho ho ho…” they would say. “It’s like a brand new part of your heart,” they would say. “You don’t know how wonderful it is to be a grandparent until you become one,” they would say.

Well, now I know. Crosby Benjamin is the miracle that came into our lives at the beginning of January. Every day since then my love for him has grown exponentially. I miss him when I can’t see him for more than a day. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to live in a separate city from him. Those poor grandparents that have to do so. It’s got to be difficult.

We recently left for a vacation. Before we did I told Crosby that the world is a much better place now that he is a part of it. Six months ago we didn’t even know him. Now here he is growing, learning, reaching, playing, crying, and loving. None of us knew what we were missing. Now we move heaven and earth to spend time with him. What were we going to do two weeks without him?

Alas, we will survive. But we will never take for granted the gift God gave us that we didn’t even know we were missing. We didn’t even ask, and He provided. And what a gift Crosby is.

When has God given you a miracle for which you didn’t even ask?

How Stephen Schwartz Uses the Unconscious Mind to Create

For a man I’ve never met, Stephen Schwartz has had a profound impact on my life. Schwartz is the brilliant mind behind Wicked, Godspell, Pippin, and Children of Eden, amongst many other musicals. I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the highlights of my life was the first time our family saw Wicked on Broadway. It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that it involved winning a last minute lottery for two tickets and scoring two other tickets in the twelfth row center as the curtain was about to go up.

If you’ve never seen it, Wicked is both funny and poignant, it tells a great story, and the music is more than memorable. It is the clever backstory of the Wizard of Oz, based on the book of the same title. But Stephen Schwartz has had an impact on me because I’ve had the chance to perform in more than a few of his musicals over the years. I have studied his art. I have literally acted it out. And I have read the book, Defying Gravity, that tells his creative story from beginning to end.

One of the things that fascinates me most about the man is his exceptional creativity. In an interview with musicalwriters.com he gives a little glimpse into his creative process:

For me it is a matter of doing a lot of preparation and then getting out of the way of my unconscious mind. If I have a specific assignment, I will do a lot of research, read a lot of related material and just jot down ideas and phrases that strike me. I may look at visual images — paintings or photographs. Imagine myself as the character and see what words or phrases, rhythms or sounds come to me. Just a lot of things to get my mind in the right place. Then I will let go of all of it consciously, and try to let my unconscious mind go to work. Sometimes I will do things like take a walk, take a shower, go for a drive, or even hit tennis balls or play solitaire, anything to get out of the way of my unconscious. And almost always, the creativity just starts to flow.

The key for Schwartz is to fill his mind with all kinds of related material. Then he lets it sit there. When the time comes for it to be used his unconscious mind goes to work to make connections and bring ideas together. As much as we’d like our ideas to simply come out of thin air, they often require a great deal of background work.

Those of us who want to produce creative content should take a lesson from Stephen Schwartz. The lesson is this –feed your mind with the creative content of others:

  • See art at a museum
  • Read the classics
  • Watch documentaries
  • Attend a play or musical
  • Check out an Instagram account
  • Experience the culinary arts
  • Make a day trip

Fill your unconscious mind. Your creative self will thank you.

How will you fill your unconscious mind today?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Hemingway and the Simply Complicated Way to Creativity

Ernest Hemingway may be the 20th century literary creative icon that stands above all others. He wrote such masterpieces as The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms. When it comes to creativity you could do worse than to look to him. In 1934 a young man named Arnold Samuelson hitched a ride on a coal car from Minnesota all the way to Key West. His goal was to spend at least an hour with Hemingway trying to learn something about the craft of writing. He ended up spending a year with the master.

Amongst the many other things Samuelson learned, this was one that stood out. Hemingway said:

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is never write too much at a time… Never pump yourself dry. Leave a little for the next day. The main thing is to know when to stop. Don’t wait till you’ve written yourself out. When you’re still going good and you come to an interesting place and you know what’s going to happen next, that’s the time to stop. Then leave it alone and don’t think about it; let your subconscious mind do the work.

I’ve heard it said (though haven’t tracked down a reliable source) that Hemingway would use a simple technique to keep his writing moving. He would apparently write half a sentence at the end of the day. He knew how it would end. So he’d be able to pick right up the next day where he left off. It sounds easy. But it’s really not.

The hard work of writing came as Hemingway would write and rewrite. It came as he would the morning hours writing what he had researched and dreamed up in his mind. Hemingway claimed that he rewrote A Farewell to Arms over fifty times. Nothing complicated about it. Write. And then rewrite. Not complicated, but very difficult and very hard work.

Two lessons from Hemingway:

  1. Quit when you know where you’re going next. Use your own trick to “stop in the middle of the sentence” and pick up where you left off.
  2. You won’t have a masterpiece on your first try. Don’t be afraid to tweak, rewrite, re-work, and do whatever you can to refine your work. It will be all that much better.

What tricks do you use to inspire your creativity?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

Edward Hopper and the Repetitive Way to Creativity

Edward Hopper has always been one of my favorite artists. His attention to detail, straight lines, and use of color draw in my eye. But I think what really connects me to his paintings is his exploration of loneliness and isolation. Instead of making us feel sorry for the lonely subjects, we want to know their story. We feel an affinity to them. Their loneliness becomes ours. It doesn’t feel sad or depressing. It’s more of a thoughtful and pensive kind of isolation. That can sometimes be a good thing.

I imagine that Edward Hopper had more than his share of loneliness. But his loneliness was the productive kind. It’s how he fulfilled his unique creative process. The painting you see above is one of Hopper’s most well known. It’s called New York Movie. Before he painted it, Hopper drew 54 studies of movie theaters and his wife as the model. He would spend days and days visiting different theaters and doing drawings. Then he would come home and sketch his wife.

In fact, Hopper drew more than he painted. He painstakingly sketched people and places before he painted. He said that painting was a difficult process for him and he only painted two or three paintings a year. It took him six weeks to three months simply to produce one.

Funny thing is that modern day curators now see the drawings themselves as significant art. Hopper refused to produce a book of his drawings because he didn’t think they were good enough. Apparently others vehemently disagree.

Here are the lessons for anyone creating anything:

  1. We don’t always get to decide whether our art is good or not. Others sometimes see things that we can’t. To paraphrase a famous saying: Art is in the eye of the beholder.
  2. Background work is valuable to the finished product. Hopper’s paintings would never have been as good without the all the preparatory sketches. A first draft of your work will never be as good as a fifth, tenth, or twentieth iteration.
  3. Even difficult (for us) art is worth producing. Hopper had to work hard at his painting. But it made him money and it made him famous. Art doesn’t necessarily come easily. But sometimes effort is very much worth the result.
  4. Time alone makes for great productivity. With a goal in mind, isolation is time for hunkering down and doing the work that needs to get done. It’s what Hopper did with his sketching. And he produced some incredible work focusing on isolation itself.

So do the (sometimes) lonely work that leads to great art. We will thank you for it.

What lessons do you learn from Hopper?

This is part of an occasional series of lessons in creativity from creative masters.

The Secret Power of Anticipation

Anticipation is a powerful thing. For almost as long as I can remember I have wanted to travel to Europe. Specifically, I have wanted to go to England and Italy. It’s been my dream. I’ve been able to travel to the Holy Land, but never Europe. My wife, Tammy, has never been overseas at all. But in just a short while we will be visiting both London and Tuscany. The anticipation has been a powerful motivational factor.

For more than a year now we have been planning, dreaming, and saving for this trip. We are using gifts we have received and the help of dear friends to make this dream a reality. The trip is going to revolve around the 60th birthday of a great friend. We’ll be able to share our experience with people we love, and will miss others who won’t be able to make it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, anticipating something is more than half of the fun. It’s such a blast to picture the places we will soon be. And then it will be fun to compare the way we pictured it with how it really is. The anticipation is so great that I almost don’t want our trip to start. But it must. And it will.

And it will make memories that will last the rest of our lives.

Here’s what anticipation’s secret power did for us:

  1. It helped us save. Goals are great things. When you anticipate something big it brings the willpower to cut back on certain things, put money in the bank, and delay the gratification.
  2. It helped us plan. Anticipation is a great motivator when it comes to education. It’s been so much fun to learn, to read, and to study the places we will be visiting.
  3. It drew us together with friends. We have come to know new friends amongst the group who will be traveling together. It will give a group of people shared memories and topics of conversation for a long time.

If you don’t have something to anticipate right now, try to find something. It’s a powerful way to keep life interesting. It motivates growth. Looking forward to something keeps you moving toward goals.  It will help you save money or move ahead in life. Anticipation even draws you closer to people.

What is it that you are anticipating today?