Dumb Mistake? Brilliant Move.

Who in your life puzzles you the most? Your spouse? Your boss? Your president?

For me it’s my brother Matt. For starters, he’s a PhD engineer with exceptional communication and human relation skills. I know lots of brilliant engineers and lots of talented communicators but both in one person? Harder to find these days than Richard Simmons.

Matt’s married (to a lawyer, of course) with three boys, lives atop a cold, windy mountain in NY State, and tends by himself all 75 acres of land that surround him. He built his own house, cuts his own firewood, hunts and grows his own food, has no TV, and insists on driving total crap cars that he services on his own. You get the picture? Smart, charming guy with a storybook family who could breeze through life but chooses instead to spend his free time laboring like a protagonist from Grapes of Wrath.

Spring Break is a perfect example of Matt the Enigma, as the rest of our family escapes to sunny Florida while Matt chooses to stay home and struggle through a miserable process: making maple syrup. Have you ever done this? It’s novel to tap a couple maple trees and boil a little sap into a spoonful of syrup but go beyond a short afternoon activity with the kids and it turns into a frigid, smoky, sleep depriving slog. Trust me, unless you have the latest equipment and technology (which, of course, Dr. Matt does not), syrup making absolutely sucks compared to a week of R&R in Florida.

For days he taps trees, collects sap, stokes a fire day and night, and slowly boils down over a hundred gallons of sap into a few gallons of sweet nectar, all while his loyal wife gazes out at the snowy landscape and checks in on how the rest of the family is enjoying the beach. (Renee, You are a saint.)

After days of misery Matt’s ready for the finishing touch, draining those few gallons of precious syrup from the boiling pan into a jar. Imagine Matt’s satisfaction as he gently pours his warm, delicious, hard-earned syrup into the jar, knowing he’s forged with his own hands a year’s worth of delicacy.

Why, then, did the Lawrence family’s only-ever PhD end up last week on his hands and knees, buried in the snow, face covered in a sticky mess, howling like an angry wolf that had just lost its prey? Because after all those hours, all that work, all that misery, my kid brother chose to set his jar on an uneven surface. Just as he’d poured the last drop of syrup into the jar, he caught a glimpse of his mistake. To his horror, the jar toppled over and his syrup disappeared beneath the snow.

Oh, the agony! In Matt’s words: “For a second I just stood there, mouth agape, not believing the tragedy I’d just witnessed. Then I fell to my knees and madly began scooping the snow back into the pan in hopes I could salvage some of the syrup. Well, that wasn’t working at all so I figured, “What the hell. Either I gorge myself right now or I’ll never get a taste.””
So down he went, face buried in the snow, gorging for all he’s worth on his self-made maple syrup snow cone.
Back to Matt: “When I finally surfaced, my hands and face were covered in sticky snow and I had the worst ever ice cream headache.”
At least I think that’s what he said because by this part of the story we were laughing so hard neither of us could breathe.

Perhaps like me you grew up with a brother who never had to study, always aced his tests, breezed through college, and can do more with a crescent wrench than you can do with Home Depot’s entire inventory. If that’s the case, then you know I took ZERO pity on a moment of dumbass that made me feel I still have a chance in a battle of wits.

Well, brother Matt, thank you for the flash of dumbo. Even if only for a moment, you gave your brother a sense that maybe, just maybe, you’re a real human being.

To my readers, what can we learn from my brother? For one, gravity always wins. Two, leave the maple syrup process to the experts. Three, show your human side! I gotta tell you, self-deprecating stories about your innocent failures win more hearts than anything you can share about your perfections.

Whatever satisfaction our family woulda gotten from that syrup is nothing compared to the laughter and lessons we learned from my brother’s disaster. Fail often and laugh it off, and I’ll bet you go through life with more smiles and more friends than Mr. or Mrs. Perfect ever will.

Sailing Through Christmas: What Will You Learn?

When I was a kid my dad came home one day with a beat up sailboat strapped down in the back of his work van. I think it was in lieu of payment for some carpentry work but given its condition it’s just as likely he pulled it out of a dumpster. Regardless, we patched it together and occasionally took it out on a small nearby lake. I loved it! Something about harnessing Mother Nature’s wind power and gliding across the water made our little journeys feel like big adventures.

In those same years, my uncle in Annapolis, MD became a yacht broker and would share tales of the mammoth boats he sold and the grand exploits upon which their owners would embark. For a kid growing up in rural Pennsylvania, the lifestyle seemed as unworldly to me as flying to Mars but I dreamed of one day getting a taste of it.

Fast forward through college, marriage, career, and kids and a few decades later the itch to experience high level sailing remained unscratched. Last week, however, my generous and supporting wife and kids gave me a pass to indulge in a sailing adventure I still cannot believe was real. For eight days a few other students and I traveled to Florida and lived aboard a forty five foot sailing yacht where we were drilled on nautical principles, vocabulary, laws, and techniques. Our captain and instructor, Rick, is a retired sailing professional who’s been captaining boats longer than I’ve been alive. Short of a parrot on his shoulder and a patch on his eye, he possesses all the vigor and veracity you’d expect from a lifelong seaman.

The certification program is no joke. Every day you’re challenged to learn new concepts and apply them with hand-on exercises. It’s humbling to be a forty four year old guy as unfamiliar and out of his element as a sixteen year old learning to drive a stick shift. Sure, I’d read a few how-to books in advance of the excursion but having a theoretical understanding of how to reef a sail is a heck of a lot different from actually doing it under twenty five knot winds and four foot seas. Did we make mistakes? Tons of them. Did we learn from them? You betcha.

Eight days later our motley crew returned to the harbor with sore backs, sunburned faces, calloused hands, and – miraculously – a boat in one piece. And you know what else we brought back from this adventure? A brand new skill set, a sense of accomplishment, and a certification to charter a sailing yacht up to fifty feet long.

Am I now a sailing expert prepared to cross the Atlantic? Not even close. But I am confident that my wife, kids, and I can charter a boat in the beautiful British Virgin Islands and enjoy an experience that just might bring the same euphoria that dad’s dumpster boat brought me all those years ago.

To Offshore Sailing School, my fellow students Charlie, Richard, and Crystal, and to Captain Rick I offer a Thank You for a terrific learning experience. To you, my kind reader, I offer a challenge. What’s a skillset that intrigues you? What’s a bucket list item that you’ve long dreamed of experiencing but haven’t explored? This holiday season, forego the gifts under the tree and replace them with a learning experience that expands your comfort zone and instills fresh confidence. And if there are any guinea pigs out there – preferably strong swimmers – who are willing to “practice” with Captain Ben, I’m delighted to deputize you as a first mate 🙂

Wishing you a Happy Holidays!

Nittany Lion Pride and Your 107,000 Fans

None of us had any personal connection with the group who made it happen. No neighbors, no friends, no family on the team. Nor were any of us poised to benefit in any tangible way from this incredible victory. Yet the moment Penn State pulled off the year’s greatest upset in college football, all 107,000 of us lost our minds.

The woman next to me, a complete stranger who could have passed for my high school math teacher, embraced me like a long lost son while she wept (not cried, WEPT) tears of joy. Her husband, meanwhile, bear hugged us both while screaming like a Braveheart warrior. The dad behind me fell to his knees, grabbed his ten year old son, and sobbed uncontrollably. The crowd’s roar was so powerful I literally felt the sound waves reverberating through my boy.

In case you don’t follow sports, this past weekend Penn State’s football team, an unranked squad, defeated the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes who were ranked #2 nationally. Most agree it was the biggest Penn State victory in decades.

Crowds Gone Wild is nothing new, right? Watch any sporting event and you’ll see mild mannered, otherwise even keeled people freaking out when their team comes out on top. But I must say that Saturday’s spectacle seemed more powerful, more significant than any other victory celebration I’ve experienced.

Reflecting upon it and hearing other Happy Valley residents share their thoughts, there are three reasons this win is forever burned in the memories of those who witnessed it. Two of these reasons are factors you and I can immediately apply in our own lives – and I hope we do. The third reason, however, is one I hope none of us ever need to address.

Reason #1: 100% Effort

In the normal course of your day, how often do you witness 100% effort? I’ll guess almost never. Your office is full of sleepwalking people sitting quietly in their cubicles doing who-knows-what. Your grocery store clerk meekly mumbles “Have a nice day” as you check out. Let’s face it, the majority of the world is half-assing it.

Sports, on the other hand, give us an opportunity to watch talented people give everything they have to the task at hand. How refreshing!

For those who watched last Saturday’s game, do you have any doubt the Nittany Lions gave less than 100%? Of course not. The team showed what’s possible when an outranked squad delivers excellence.

Reason #2: Exceeded Expectations

C’mon, be honest. How many of us truly believed Ohio State was going to lose?

Unfortunately for a sports team underdog, the odds of outplaying a heavily favored opponent are slim. On the rare occasion when it happens, though, a fan base is pleased beyond words and doubles down on its loyalty.

The good news for you and me? Exceeding expectations in the real, half-ass world is much easier. Back to your grim workplace: What if you came into work tomorrow with a smile on your face and a box of donuts for your co-workers? What if that grocery store clerk offered you a genuine smile and complimented your beautiful wardrobe? Tiny gestures are all it takes to light up your fan base. You may not get bear hugged by a screaming stranger but believe me, your small efforts will not go unnoticed.

Reason #3 – The reason Penn State fans responded so emotionally to victory, and the factor I hope you never have to chase to salvage your own personal brand: Redemption

Five years ago Penn State’s reputation cratered in a heap of shame and embarrassment. Joe Paterno’s glorious program deservedly became the laughing stock of the sports and academic worlds. As often happens, however, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater. Not everything Penn State football was evil. The long history of extraordinary athletes, high academic achievement, alumni support, fun tailgates, and exciting football was overshadowed by a tragic abuse scandal that to this day sickens me.

But to thousands of fans, Penn State still represents something good. It’s still a university that produces outstanding graduates (I work with Penn State engineers who blow me away every day with their brilliance). It’s still a place that gainfully employs thousands of fellow Pennsylvanians, many of whom are developing groundbreaking technologies and medicine. It’s still a place that gives back to its community. It’s still a place my family and I are grateful to call home. And last Saturday night, it was a place where Nittany Lion fans could celebrate a clean victory bursting with pure effort, storybook endings, and pride.

No, you may never have 107,000 screaming fans cheering for you all at once. But bring a little more effort and kindness every day and you’ll experience one fan’s cheers on 107,000 different – and delightful – occasions.

Danny’s Goal: What’s your takeaway?

A single goal. If you had to sacrifice nearly everything in life that fills your days – your career, your paycheck, your marriage, even your Target shopping excursions – what goal would you pursue and with how much dedication would you keep after it? Short of locking yourself in a monastery, the modern world is so full of options that living a life consumed with a single purpose seems impossible. Heck, most of us cannot focus on a single task for ten minutes before distracting ourselves with email or social media.

That’s part of what makes Danny Chew so special. Danny decided long ago to commit himself to a single goal. By my calculations, he’s already invested more than 50,000 hours in pursuit of it. (In comparison, the average American works 2,000 hours a year, so Danny’s more than 25 “work” years into this.) When he committed himself to this goal he was still a child; today he’s 55 years old.

In lieu of a family, a spouse, a career, a home of his own, or a steady paycheck Danny remains at home with his mother and scrapes together a few dollars to cover the bare essentials. To minivan driving, suburb living, Target shopping adults like you and me, Danny’s life may seem preposterous. Upon reflection, though, Danny’s life is an incredible example of what’s possible when one chooses a road less traveled.

Ah, but a road less traveled is exactly what Danny has not chosen! You see, Danny’s life mission is to travel one million miles. A million miles by car? No, though it would take the average American 72 years to rack up that many miles on the road. Danny is choosing to travel a million miles by bicycle.

It’s not cycling a million miles that I’m asking you to consider as your inspiration, but rather the commitment and discipline you and I know it takes to narrow one’s focus, day after day after day, into a single mission.

As a fellow Pennsylvanian I’ve never come across Danny on any of my rides but some of my cycling friends have. The story usually goes that while meandering down some back road in Central PA, a guy with monster quads riding an old, tired road bike comes upon you and humbly mentions that he’s about halfway through his day’s two hundred mile ride. Good Lord! Two hundred miles in one day? Never in my twenty years of cycling have I reached that but Danny knocks down that kind of mileage without a second thought. Danny’s a legend in the endurance cycling world. He’s twice won the Race Across America and routinely logs more miles in a week than a professional cyclist is likely to log in a month.

A few days ago, Danny’s single goal collided with a serious obstacle: He suffered a crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. As of this writing he’s lying in a hospital bed, heavily sedated so that his body can rest. Danny’s life is about to take a serious turn but does his goal remain or will he have to abandon his dream? Please, this is Danny Chew, the guy who’s spent his entire life fighting headwinds, suffering up climbs, and pushing through pain! As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported, one of Danny’s first comments from the hospital was, “Worst case scenario, I’ll just have to finish my million miles on a hand cycle. So be it.”

Danny, the entire cycling community is cheering for you and praying for your recovery. You will reach your goal, now with more purpose and inspiration than anyone could have imagined.

Note to readers: Danny has health insurance but it carries a large deductible and he faces many expenses following his release form the hospital. If you’re able, please consider a donation of any amount to Danny’s recovery fund: https://www.youcaring.com/danny-chew-640082

Nerves of steel? How to prove you’ve got ‘em

By the time the fire trucks arrived the building was fully engulfed in fifty foot high flames. Fortunately, the police had already cleared the area and everyone was safe. But when the firefighters rolled up and marched directly toward the inferno I feared the safety record was about to take a turn for the worse.

Have you ever witnessed a three alarm fire? Last week was my first, as my daughter and I were out for a bike ride and came upon a small fire at an apartment complex that within minutes of our arrival had gotten out of control.

The scene played out as you’d see in a movie:

People run out of building, police clear the area, firefighters show up to save the day. Hollywood drama, however, ended the moment these brave firefighters moved toward the flames. What made this so different from what we’ve seen in the movies? They walked.

I imagined these firefighters leaping off the truck, sprinting up the stairs, and madly rushing about in a desperate attempt to extinguish the flames. Instead, these guys calmly approached the fire and carefully moved about the scene at a steady pace, even when they were so close to the flames I feared they were going to spontaneously combust.

The situation was growing dire: Their fire hoses weren’t keeping pace with the flames and the roof was beginning to collapse. At that moment, all the fire trucks started blaring their horns while the chief on the ground gestured an “Abandon ship!” signal.

Again, I was certain in that moment these guys would break into a sprint and get the heck out of the danger zone as fast as their legs would carry them. But nope, they calmly changed direction and moseyed down the stairs. Imagine! A fifty foot high inferno at your back, the building in a state of collapse, your boss wildly gesturing for you to get the hell out of there, and you calmly exit the building as if you’re leaving the opera. Nerves of steel indeed.

I have no idea if this is standard firefighting protocol but upon reflection it made perfect sense. Think about it: You’re wearing a bulky suit, you’re peering through a face shield that limits your vision, you’re stepping through a smoke-filled area you’ve never before visited, and a bunch of your firefighting buddies are clustered around you. Under these circumstances, running around like an adrenalized chicken is the worst thing you can do.

You and I may not be firefighters but how often do you find yourself living the watered down corporate or personal equivalent? An angry customer chews you out. Your car breaks down on a busy road. Your boss demands that you complete four days of work in four hours. Your kid runs to you in tears after falling off her bike… Whatever the “Oh s***” moment, our instinct is to freak out.

What did these brave firefighters teach me? Do the opposite.

When you find yourself facing a raging fire and a collapsing roof, SLOW DOWN. Take a deep breath, carefully scan your surroundings, and execute a reasonable plan one slow, steady step at a time.

So what happened to our firefighters? Well, here’s what didn’t happen: They didn’t stumble, they didn’t lose control, they didn’t fall down the stairs, and they didn’t get injured. They all made it safely back to their trucks and a few minutes later successfully got the fire under control.

Take a deep breath. Stay calm. Work together… And thank your local fire department for the dangerous work they do.