Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Never Give Up, Part III - The Boston Red Sox Win the 2004 World Series

In previous posts, I've confessed to being a big sports fan, and during my life I've seen some of the most amazing examples of perseverance you can imagine.
 -  Never Give Up, Part I - Leonard and Hearns "Showdown" in 1981
 -  Never Give Up, Part II - The NC State WolfPack's 1983 Men's Basketball National Championship

Now that Major League Baseball is about to get underway, I'm remembering the 2004 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees - one of the most unforgettable examples of perseverance I've ever seen.

The Yankees and the Red Sox are one of the great rivalries in sports. The Yankees have been loved and loathed for winning too often—especially the World Series. The Red Sox were known, until 2004, as the team that couldn’t get it done in the World Series.

And that’s what was happening in this series. The Yankees had the best record in the American League that year, and Boston made it into the playoffs as a Wild Card. The favored Yankees won the first three games and were ahead in the last inning of the fourth game. It appeared certain that the Yankees were going to prevail again. The Red Sox were one out from elimination and another disappointing season.

But they were able to score and tie the game. Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling was on the mound with a ruptured ankle tendon and his sock was soaked in blood. He held off the Yankees until the 12th inning, when a home run gave Boston the victory, which enabled them to play another game in the series.

Then the Red Sox proceeded to do what had never been done before in the history of baseball: they won the next three games in the seven-game series after being down 0-3. They stole the American League pennant from the Yankees. The following week they swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to win the World Series.

When you’re working through tough challenges, it’s hard to remain confident and optimistic. Setbacks can sap your strength and drain your resolve. You might feel like quitting. Anyone would. But once you quit, the fight is truly over, and you’ve lost.

We can learn two things from come-from-behind victory stories like this one.

First, expect the journey to be hard. Expect mistakes, problems and disappointments. In other words, don’t let adversity surprise you.

Second, as long as there’s any chance at all that you can succeed, simply refuse to quit—no matter what. People quit all the time. You don't have to be one of them. Just decide that after most people have dropped out, you’ll be one of those still in the fight.

[Photo of Curt Schilling courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Used with permission.]

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Confucius Says..." - Ancient Wisdom for Personal Strength in Our Time

I have this memory from my youth of a black-and-white movie in which a little old Chinese man earnestly advises the hero. "Confucius says...."

I don't remember what the old man said. But it must have been wise, because the hero took it to heart and rose to the occasion. I remember wondering, "Who is this guy Confucius?" Did he have that name because the things he said were confusing?

But I grew up respecting the wisdom attributed to Confucius. I particularly liked the way it sounded like common sense, and it seemed pointed at helping me be a better, stronger person. So over the years I've collected quite a few of his sayings.

Confucius was a Chinese thinker and philosopher who flourished about 500 years before Christ. His teachings had a profound effect on Asia. They express a kind of Chinese humanism, although Confucius didn't intend to establish a system or religion. He wanted people to think for themselves. Still, many Chinese follow "Confucianism" as a religion.

The fragments of his thought that have survived are enough for me, and I have dozens of them in my quote collection. Here are a few of my favorites...

On AWARENESS - "Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.'

On CHARACTER - "The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials."

On COMPASSION - "There is one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one's life - reciprocity."

On COMPOSURE - "When anger arises, think of the consequences.'

On COURAGE - "To know what is right and not to do it is the worst cowardice."

On FLEXIBILITY - "As the water shapes itself to the vessel that contains it, so a wise man adapts himself to circumstances."

On HUMILITY - "The superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions."

On INTEGRITY - "A man who lacks reliability is utterly useless."

On PASSION - "Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart."

On PERSEVERANCE - "Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall."

Every day a little better, a little stronger...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Honoring Your Emotions - Nathaniel Branden and the Psychology of High Self-Esteem

Have you ever read any of Nathaniel Branden's books? He's one of my top five favorite nonfiction authors, but for some reason he never achieved what we think of as "guru" status. Nevertheless, in my opinion no one has ever written with more wisdom about self-esteem. 

Self-esteem is a supremely important but controversial topic. Some writers on self-esteem are criticized for going too far - for discouraging negative feedback as potentially damaging to self-esteem. I believe that while you should appreciate you who you are, recognize your strengths and acknowledge your accomplishments, authentic self-esteem is always earned. Saying "that's wonderful" to recognize a trivial act has the opposite effect. It creates cognitive dissonance and causes a person to distrust praise.

But Nathaniel Branden nails it in his book The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. If you read "self-help" books, do yourself a favor and put this one at the top of your list.  

You have a right to your feelings. Feelings are always there to tell you something. But they're not infallible guides to your behavior. 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Personal Strength of Tolerance - The Over-the-Top Extrovert

I was at the grocery store, minding my own business as I moved down the dairy aisle, looking for my favorite organic yogurt, when my consciousness was penetrated by a stern voice that said, "Why aren't you watching the game?"

I have recurring dreams about being in places where everyone knows what's going on but me. Everyone has all their stuff but me. No matter how hard I try, I can't find my stuff. On and on until the end of the dream.

So for a split second, I wasn't sure if I was dreaming or awake. This was not a nightmare, however. It was an old lady with a wry grin, and she was wheeling her cart towards me. Who was she? I wasn't at home watching the game, that’s for sure, and I didn’t have a clue who she was.

"The game is over," I offered in my own defense. Then I remembered. I was still wearing my navy blue sweatshirt with the word DUKE on the front in big white letters.

"My husband went to Virginia."

I had just finished watching Duke beat Virginia in the first round of the ACC tournament, so I offered, "Virginia played very well. They were only three points behind in the second half. Then Duke pulled away. Did you see the game?"

"No, I was doing volunteer work at the hospice."

I said nothing. But I was thinking, Why am I having this conversation? Who is this woman? Who are these people who walk up to total strangers and start talking to you, making cracks and picking up threads of old conversation as if you were a lifelong friend of the family? What am I supposed to say?

Once I realized that she was just a nice, friendly, outgoing lady, I kicked in with my two minutes of benign small talk so I could continue my forward progress towards the yogurt section.

I would never walk up to a total stranger like that and start up friendly conversation. It's just not who I am. I don't see the point in it, and I'm not comfortable doing  it. But I recognize that the world is a rainbow of personalities, and many people are very outgoing. She's not the first total stranger to come up to me and start talking to me as if we were old friends.

The incident reminded me about the importance of accepting people for who they are, while tolerating and making use of the differences. One of the most important things I've learned about life is that people are a lot more different on the inside than they appear to be on the outside. And the differences between us are the good news, not the bad news. It's lovely that she's the way she is, and it's wonderful that I'm the way I am. Her over-the-top extroversion is just a part of who she is, while my way is to analyze everything before I say a word. Two very different people.

Maybe I should have taken off my sweatshirt after the game.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Personal Strength of Responsibility - Three Principles

The other day a neighbor and I were talking about some conflicts that were troubling our property owners association. “You should run for office,” he said.

I let that thought sink in. No. I shouldn’t. I already have a full plate. I’ve served on association boards before, and if I volunteered for this now I wouldn’t be able to fulfill the responsibilities I already have. But for a moment I doubted myself. Was I avoiding a community responsibility?

When I reflect on the concept of responsibility, my thoughts go to three themes or “principles.”

The Principle of Huge and Humble. Often there’s a grand, romantic view of “duty,” that it’s about completing some heroic or exalted mission. Your duty to serve your country. To help save a life. To save an enterprise from failure. To “give back.”

But worthy responsibilities don’t have to be lofty undertakings. Some of the most important duties in life are the simple, practical ones right in front of you. Who will fix the fence? Who will move the neighbor’s trash can that the wind has blown into the street? Who will clean the mess in the kitchen? Who will replace the burned-out light bulb? It can be hard to see mundane tasks as significant responsibilities. If they’re small and uninteresting, it’s tempting to think, “It’s no big deal. Somebody else will take care of it.”

When my wife, Kathleen, and I lived in Vero Beach, our home was only a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. A frequent delight was to walk along the beach after work. More often than not, these walks turned into trash pick-up projects. Kathleen explained that inorganic waste is unsightly and dangerous to pelicans, gulls and other seabirds. Our arms would be full of debris by the time we found a trash receptacle.

Seemingly trivial acts can make a difference. You take care of them without being asked simply because you know they’ll contribute to the general betterment of things. You appreciate the importance of what you’ve done, even if no one else does. And your reward is the improvement you see in the world around you, and the good feeling you have about yourself because you “took care of business.”

In the end, you don’t have to be the one to take responsibility for everything, even if you care about it. You choose your tasks. You choose how you’ll contribute.

The Principle of Follow-through. This one’s simple. If it’s your job, then do it. Once you agree to do something, being responsible means that you actually do what you said you would do. And it means you do it to the best of your abilities. You don't do it half-way. You don’t “phone it in.” You don’t just give it lip-service.

In my youth, I loved playing golf. When I was captain of the high school golf team, I’d sometimes play two rounds of golf in a day. But my career as an Army officer made it difficult to play often enough to maintain my skills. When my scores steadily declined, golf was no longer fun. So I gave it up, and I haven’t played since.

But I still enjoy walking with friends on the golf course. Sometimes I’ll caddy for them. It’s an enjoyable way to get some exercise.

One day, I overheard one of the guys playing in our group say this into his cell phone: “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. I’m on my way there right now.” I wondered where “there” might be.

“Who was that? You gotta go somewhere?”

“Hey, no way. That was my boss. He thinks I’m in my truck doing deliveries. I love these cell phones,” he said as he grinned and walked towards the green.

I was surprised by his willingness to lie so that he could play golf rather than do the job he was being paid to do. Later I heard that he lost that job. And the next job after that.

The Principle of Self-responsibility. Adults take responsibility for their children and make most decisions for them. But children eventually grow into adults, when they’ll need the inner strength to take responsibility for their own lives and make their own choices.

Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve known people who grew up in wealthy families, had everything they wanted given to them and continued to expect their parents to provide for them well into middle-age. I’ve known people who were raised by parents who protected them from hardship and challenges. As adults, they didn’t know how or have the motivation to take responsibility for their own lives. When bad things happened, they blamed other people or external factors for their misfortune.

I’ve also known people who grew up believing that society or the government was supposed to take care of them. They had a hard time dealing with life. They underperformed at work. 

I'm reminded of this sobering thought from Nathaniel Branden, author of Taking Responsibility: "If you are an adult, you are responsible for your life and well being. No one owes you the fulfillment of your needs or wants; no one is here on earth to serve you. If you respect the principle of self-ownership, you understand that no one else owns you and that you do not own anyone else. Only on this understanding can there be peace on earth and good will among human beings."

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The White House Fellowship, Lady Bird Johnson and Texas Bluebonnets

In 1979, I applied for a White House Fellowship. I thought to myself, I'm not your average Army officer. So I tackled the 20-page application, which itself screens out thousands of potential applicants. I was surprised when I was selected to be a regional finalist. A group of 20 excellent people were interviewed in St. Louis for two days. Again, much to my surprise, I was one of the two selected from this group to go to Washington for the national final selection process.

Being a White House Fellow can be a life-altering experience. For one thing, doors open that lead to rare opportunities. So I prepared diligently. For weeks I did background research on 30 national issues so I could speak intelligently about almost anything they could ask me. 

My interviews went very well, and I was optimistic. But 1979 wasn't the year they were looking for white male military officers. For a while, I felt disappointed, but that passed quickly and I'm delighted with the way my life turned out. If I had been selected, my life would have played out differently. I wouldn't have learned what I know now, I wouldn't be involved in my current business, I wouldn't be married to my wonderful wife, Kathleen, and - horrors - I wouldn't be telling you about this in a blog post. 

One of the benefits of the Fellowship selection process was the opportunity to spend time with the Commissioners who interviewed us. One of these was Lady Bird Johnson. I asked her what she had been doing since her time in Washington, and she said she was trying to get some bills through the Texas legislature. One of the bills had to do with the beautification of Texas. She wanted wildflowers to be planted along the roads and highways of Texas. 

In the end, she got her way. Today, one of the validations of spring in Texas is the appearance of a diversity of native wildflowers along state roads and highways. This time of year, Texans everywhere get in their cars and drive along country roads to view amazing vistas of wildflowers. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin carries on the tradition of research and proliferation of wildflowers in Texas.

One of the first wildflowers to appear is the the bluebonnet, the Texas State Flower. Right now and for the next couple of weeks, we'll see them everywhere in the Hill Country. My wife took these photos yesterday. The first is a single bluebonnet stalk:

And a field of them...

With this kind of glorious display going on, it's so much easier to be in the moment, mindful and aware of what's around me. If you don't have spring yet where you are, trust me, it's on its way.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Personal Strength of Optimism - A Realistic Perspective

Sometimes I’m amazed that there can be so much joy in life. 

Other times, I’m amazed at how difficult life can be. 

Both perspectives are legitimate, and I sometimes experience both in the same day. So it goes.

It’s easy for me to remember some of my challenges:

  • In a winter storm, my car slides off the Interstate and into a ravine.
  • I’m not chosen for a career-changing opportunity for which I diligently prepared.
  • Our best graphic designer resigns to accept a government job.
  • I injure my back.
  • A colleague misappropriates $12,000 from my company.
  • My wife discovers she has cancer.
  • My portfolio loses 90% of its value.
And so on. There are, of course, many others. Even the minor challenges have been discouraging, but I know my life is no more difficult than anyone else’s.

The most important thing I’ve learned about disappointment, frustration and pain is that when it’s fresh it's huge, and it can prevent me from appreciating the positives. The upsides are always there. But when bad things happen, the upsides are overshadowed. With the disadvantages of my situation staring me in the face, it's hard to see the advantages. I feel weak, so how can I be strong? With costs piling up, it's tough to get excited about benefits. When faced with so many problems, it isn't easy to believe in solutions. Feeling limited by my crisis, I fail to appreciate the possibilities.

The true optimist doesn't ignore reality. He or she takes a good, hard look at both the positive and the negative aspects of reality.

Some encouragement about optimism...

“We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems.” - John W. Gardner, American author (1912-2002 )

"I have had dreams, and I have had nightmares. I overcame the nightmares because of my dreams." - Jonas Salk, American biologist (1914-1995)

“When one door of happiness closes another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” - Helen Keller, American author (1880-1968)

“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” - Martin Luther King, Jr., American civil rights leader (1929-1968)

Here's what I've learned...

When bad things happen, I need to be strong enough to recognize the possibilities, to work with the resources available to me. At the very least, I can always learn from what has happened. Even if my world is turned upside down, I have the freedom to move forward in a different way. What I do next will open up a new succession of fulfillments and opportunities that would not have been possible if I had not been visited by adversity.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Personal Strength of Excellence - My Friendship with John Cheever

In 1972, while in graduate school at Duke University. I decided to write my dissertation on John Cheever, who in his own lifetime was considered America’s most celebrated storyteller. The author agreed to an interview, and we became friends. After I moved to West Point to teach English, it was easy to visit him once a month at his home in Ossining, New York. During our talks, he revealed far more to me than I could use in my dissertation.

One day, he came down the stairs with a manuscript in his hand. He had a broad smile. “I have written a story,” he said. This surprised me, because he was near the end of his career and he hadn’t published a story in quite a while. “Would you like to hear it?”

We sat at his dining room table while he put his hand on mine and read the story. It was “The Leaves, The Lion-fish and the Bear,” which was published in Esquire in 1974. It was a wonderful story, and I was the first person to enjoy it. What a gift!

Afterwards, John wanted to go for a walk. It was a cold, blustery day, and when we reached the top of the hill above his property, he said, “I’m freezing. Will you hold me?” Cheever was like a surrogate father to me, so I quickly agreed. To my surprise, he also wanted sex. I dealt with that uncomfortable situation as tactfully as I could, and we returned to his house. But my mind was connecting the dots. His bisexuality was evident in most of his fiction, and I hadn’t noticed it. When I pointed this out, he agreed and said it would be fine with him if I treated the theme in my dissertation.

To do the topic justice, I decided to rewrite my entire dissertation. And something else—in the rewriting I would discard the academic tone and adopt a more straightforward storytelling style. The story was important, and I wanted people to know about it.

It was hard to rewrite my dissertation, but my decision to reach for something better paid off. My committee thought it was the most readable dissertation they had ever seen, and I got my Ph.D. More significantly, the facts surrounding Cheever’s sexual orientation became more widely known. After he died in 1982, all three of his biographers treated his sexuality as the central theme of his life, and they described my relationship with him as the catalyst for his “coming out of the closet.” My comprehensive bibliography was published and remains a standard reference for Cheever scholars to this day. So I became a minor footnote to literary history, which is a more satisfying result than what usually issues from a dissertation.

But achieving high quality makes a difference in ordinary life, too. In those days I often felt overwhelmed by my work. I’d come home to my family exhausted, and sometimes when my sons wanted me to read a story, I’d go through the motions just to get through it. And when friends gathered, I half-stepped my way through conversations. I had a full plate, and sometimes I handled other obligations by phoning them in.

So when I remember what my life was like then, I feel a mixture of pride and regret. From the perspective of 40 years of experience, I wish I had tried harder to do even the small, everyday things so well that something wonderful happened—even when I was tired. It was a hard lesson to learn, and the lesson was about excellence.

A Fortune Cookie...

Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way, and people will wonder how you did it.

More Fortune Cookies...

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

[Photo courtesy of Wkimedia Commons. Used with permision.]

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength . Photo of John Cheever from Wikipedia Commons. Used with permission.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Fire You Up on Monday Morning - Rock Classic "Takin' Care of Business"

Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry
Them good ol' boys were drinking whiskey and rye, singing...
This'll be the day that I die. 

Back in 1973, a pop tune called "American Pie," written and sung by Don McLean, dominated the charts for over a year. The lyrics were symbolic and obscure. Nobody knew what they meant. Maybe that's why the song was so popular. People listened to the song over and over, and they could never agree on what McLean was singing about.

My interpretation - Don McLean was singing about "the day the music died," the end of the music of the Vietnam era - the golden age of rock and roll.

An expert has confirmed this theory for me. When I was living in Miami Beach in 1997, I used to get my hair cut by the same high-priced stylist that my wife used. One day Robert was busy making me look like a million bucks when a middle-aged music producer took the seat next to me. Robert played lead guitar in an old-fart rock band on the side, and he was talking to this guy about their favorite rock music.

The producer said: "All the great stuff happened before 1973. Nothing worthy has been produced ever since."

Maybe his opinion was a bit overstated. Still, I identify strongly with the music of that era, and I stopped paying attention to pop music after 1975.

Anyway, my youngest son, who loves music, was born the year "the music died." So he never knew about it. All that great music is just waiting for him to discover it. He grew up on Prince, though, so I wonder if he'll appreciate it the way I do. 

Here's one of my favorites, "Taking Care of Business," written by Randy Bachman, recorded by Bachman Turner Overdrive, aka BTO. I love the loud, blue-collar take on work, the ironic blend of necessity with the dream of an easier, more playful way to make money. 


There! Was that enough to get you fired up for business on Monday morning, or what?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Personal Strength of Initiative - Overcoming Procrastination and Writer's Block

A lot of people ask, "How do you overcome procrastination?" 

People know what they have to do. They sit down to do it. But instead, they do something else. Something urgent. Something interesting. Something else. Anything else. And at the end of the day there's nothing to show it but regret and the melancholy feeling of lost opportunity.

A similar complaint is writer's block - the inability to move forward on a creative project. Writers claim that it's different from procrastination, that the desire is there but the creative next step is not. To the objective observer, however, the behavior looks exactly the same.

I'm not going to torture you with a bunch of intellectual analysis. I'm just going to tell you the cure up front. 

There's nothing fancy or tricky about it. The cure is simply to sit down and begin doing the work. Just start. Just do it. Even if you aren't sure what your next step should be. Like a moving train, you can't go from zero to sixty in an instant. You need some forward momentum. So just begin working, and what you do will instruct you what to do next and how to do it better. The ideas will simply begin to flow.

Two things. First, the cure may sound simple, but it can be a lot harder than it sounds. People avoid getting started for a reason.

Thing two. This "cure" really is the solution. There is no other. Your challenge is to make yourself do this one simple act of initiative, regardless of your motivations to do something else.

Help is on the way. Steven Pressfield, author of the novel, The Lengend of Bagger Vance, as well as several historical novels, has written The War of Art, a brilliant self-help book about procrastination and its cure. Whether you're writing, dieting or working on a project, Pressfield delivers straight talk about overcoming what he calls "Resistance."

I enthusiastically recommend it. It's one of those books that has such important insights that when you finish it, you think, "There are those who've read it, and those who haven't." 

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Stephen Covey - Success Is a Matter of Choice

According to Stephen Covey, genetics (nature) and environment (nurture) aren't the only two determinants of a person's behavior. Unlike other animals, in the human brain there's something special going on between the "stimulus" and the "response" that has nothing to do with nature or nurture. That something is choice - the uniquely human ability to analyze options, decide what to do, and follow through with action.

But is that "something special" a small something or a large something? In this three-minute video, you'll hear a fascinating analysis by one of the great personal development teachers of all time.

Have you enlarged your ability to make choices in that space between stimulus and response?

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Pay Full Price to Change Your Behavior

Yesterday in my post on "muscle memory" I described how the brain learns a skill and that every bit of that memory resides in the brain, not the muscles. A key insight is that behavior change causes physical changes in the brain; a unique neural pathway is established that enables the pattern. 

Another take-away is that the process of connecting the neural pathway takes a lot of repetition and time.Translation: real commitment.

But that much explanation leads to other questions. 

What if you want to unlearn a skill? What if you're like Charles Barkley, the Hall of Fame basketball player with the cranky golf swing? Or Shaquille O'Neill, the big man who could never cure his awkward and ineffective free-throw stroke? Like these athletes who tried to reform old habits - with mixed results - are you doomed to live with your old way of doing things forever?

In other words, how do you change a behavior pattern? How do you improve the way you do something? Is it possible to replace a bad habit with a positive one?

To answer these questions, I'd like to make a few points...

First, we use terms like skills, habits of thought, behavior patterns, traits and strengths. But to the brain they are all the same thing - a way of doing something. 

Second, the brain enables behavior two different ways. If the behavior isn't a familiar, ingrained pattern it uses "brute force." If here's no "hard wiring," no neural pathway that makes the doing seem comfortable, effortless and automatic, the brain works overtime to engage all the relevant perceptual, cognitive and behavioral areas to get the job done. In other words, a lot of concentration is involved, and the end result may be less than optimum. However, with enough repetition, the brain will cause the relevant brain cells to connect with each other in a neural pathway, and the task can be performed without thinking about it. Only then does the step-by-step behavior become a skill, habit or pattern.

Third, the ability of the brain to wire itself to implement behavior patterns is necessary for survival. If the brain couldn't do this, when you got up every morning you'd have to learn how to do everything all over again from scratch. And of course this is impossible. If that were the case, you wouldn't survive.

Fourth, not all of your ingrained behavior patterns are good for you or the people around you. For example, an addiction almost always involves ingrained behavior patterns. Ineffective skills are behavior patterns. Dysfunctional trends such as the inability to control anger are behavior patterns. In fact, changing or improving behavior patterns is the whole point of personal and professional development. Tens of billions of dollars are spent every year to correct inappropriate behavior patterns.

If a neural pathway is ingrained for life, as I said in my previous post, then how can you unlearn it?

The answer is - and I say this without humor - with great difficulty. Because you don't actually unlearn the old pattern. The brain doesn't have a delete key. What happens is you rewire the old pathway or you create a new pathway that exists alongside the old one. And while this isn't easy, millions of people every year overcome addictions, acquire skills, improve strengths and correct problem habits.

How do these people do it? I like to use the analogy of Interstate Highways. Sixty years ago, my family piled into our '51 Mercury and headed west from Missouri to visit my grandparents in Nevada. The best route available was a two-lane road called Route 66. Today, roads like these have been replaced by modern four- and six-lane Interstate Highways. Interstates are a far better solution to long-distance travel by car. As a result, the old roads are no longer used much and have fallen into disrepair.

The brain works the same way. As we learn new behavior patterns, old pathways and linkages are replaced with new ones. In a real sense, the brain rewires itself. It upgrades the old wiring or replaces it with new wiring, depending on how different the new behavior is. We use the new pathways because we enjoy the benefits that result from using them.

After decades of not being used, the brain connections involved in old behaviors aren't refreshed with frequent use. So as people age, some of these old connections can atrophy. Like old Highway 66, stretches of it may still be in your brain, but it's hard to locate it on the map anymore.

But like highway engineering, building these new super-pathways in the brain is expensive. You really gotta wanna. Because in the early stages of ingraining a new skill, habit or pattern, what you're trying to do will take concentration. It won't feel comfortable, and you'll get mixed results. With all this effort and frustration, you'll be tempted to fall back on your old way of doing things. And if you do, you'll lose ground on improving your behavior. Many, many people fail to change a behavior pattern for this reason. It takes a lot of motivation and diligence to put in enough practice.  

So maybe that's why Shaq still can't shoot a free throw consistently.

And why Sir Charles still has trouble hitting a golf ball. Even though they put in a lot of practice, they probably didn't stick with it long enough. The strangeness of the better way caused them to fall back on their old form.

But if you're like Tiger Woods, who has changed his swing twice in his career, you can put in enough practice to make it happen. Or if you're like my brother-in-law, who overcame alcohol addiction and hasn't had a drink in decades. Or my best friend, who used to be a Type-A NASCAR-wannabe urban driver, but who now cautions me on the fine points of defensive driving. Like millions of people, if you really want to change your behavior, you can do it.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking it will be as simple as an insight and some good intentions. Some feedback, a training course and a couple coaching sessions are great, but they won't do the job. If you really want to improve, be prepared to pay full price over the long haul. That means repeating the desired behavior so many times that it becomes second nature.

Knowing how long the journey is will help you maintain the commitment you need to follow through all the way to success.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Muscle Memory - The Truth Revealed

"I know it's been a while. But it's like riding a bike. It'll all come back to you." And it of course it does! This common observation refers to something people like to call "muscle memory." 

Would you believe me if I told you that most people don't know what muscle memory is? I explained it to three friends of mine the other day. Really bright friends. But they were surprised to learn that muscle memory isn't something going on in the muscles. Muscle memory happens in the brain.

So I'm going to clear it up for you, too - once and for all.

What happens is this. The first time you do something, it's not already programmed in your brain. You don't have the "hard-wired" neural pathways that enable the activity. But your brain makes it happen anyway. It coordinates all the various perceptual, cognitive and physical signals needed to do the activity. This requires concentration. Your brain works overtime to put all this together. That's why even though you can do it, the activity feels awkward at first.

When you repeat the activity over and over, neurotransmitter chemicals stimulate the brain cells related to the activity to grow dendrites, which are filaments on the brain cell, to reach out and connect with the other brain cells involved. With enough repetition, the brain cells actually do connect in a circuitry of brain cells called a "neural pathway." 

This growth and connection of the neural pathway takes lots of repetition and time to establish itself. But once it's connected, the brain is literally "hard-wired" with a simple, efficient circuitry that enables the activity. The brain no longer has to work hard to make it happen, so the activity "feels easy" to you, as if it were second nature. You just do it automatically, without having to think about it. "Practice makes perfect," as it were.

The cool thing is, the neural pathway is now a physical part of your brain, so it won't go away. In other words, you can't forget the skill. Even if you tried. That's why riding a bike comes back to you so naturally, even if you haven't done it for decades. You don't have to relearn it. And that's why people call it muscle memory.

But of course nothing in the muscles contributes to this memory. All the memory capability resides in the brain, which tells the muscles what to do. Just wanted to be clear about that one little detail.

Enjoy your skills! 
Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

PERSONAL STRENGTH - More Wisdom from Sports Heroes

I recently rebuked the stereotype that athletes are "dumb jocks" by posting a collection of quotes from sports heroes of the past - and I only got through the A's and B's in my collection! It turns out that sports is a microcosm of life and players on of the fields of friendly strife can teach all of us some things about personal strength.

For all you sports fans who are engaged with March Madness, baseball spring training, hockey playoffs, NASCAR and the upcoming Masters, here's more wisdom from the wizards of the playing fields.

On Effort:  “Good things come to those who work.” - Wilt Chamberlain, basketball

On VISION:   “Everything starts with yourself - with you making up your mind about what you're going to do with your life.” - Tony Dorsett, football

On AWARENESS:  "Ninety percent of my game is mental. It's my concentration that has gotten me this far." - Chris Evert, tennis

On PROACTIVITY:   “I don’t ever look back. I look forward.” - Steffi Graf, tennis

On INITIATIVE: “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you never take.” - Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey

On GRATITUDE:   “As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round.” - Ben Hogan, golf

On CHARACTER:   “Success is not measured by heights attained but by obstacles overcome. We're going to pass through many obstacles in our lives: good days, bad days. But the successful person will overcome those obstacles and constantly move forward.” - Bruce Jenner, track and field

Do you like knowing what "jocks" had to say? If so, leave a comment. I have more.... 
 Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Monday, March 15, 2010

FORTUNE COOKIE - Personal Development

Today I was thinking about some of the people I know who I think of as “life-long learners.” I know well over a thousand people, and probably hundreds of them are actively involved in various aspects of personal development.  

One of my best friends connects the dots faster than anyone I know. He’s a voracious learner, and sometimes he feeds me new information in areas of my passionate interest. I know his personal history, and it seems to me he’s lived seven or eight lives. Now he’s involved in several entrepreneurial ventures. So far, he’s my leading candidate for "The Most Interesting Man in the World"—an amazing human being.

Another best friend has been an avid learner all her life. I remember a time when she had to have a major operation to correct a life-threatening condition. The procedure upset her hormonal system, which caused a chemical imbalance in her brain, leading to depression. Her doctors attacked the problem with medication, but they took years to find the right combination of drugs, some of which were addictive. On her own initiative, my friend slowly reduced and eliminated the medications, while training her brain to approach life with a serene, positive outlook. This monumental effort to improve her condition took several years, and she learned some powerful skills along the way. In the end, it worked. She did for herself what her doctors could not. Now she’s learning how to turn her healing skills into a new business. This month she's mastering a new skill: voice-over narration. She’s my candidate for "The Most Self-Empowering Woman in the World"—one of my heroes.

I think of myself as a life-long learner, too. I got my Ph.D. when I was 32, but most of what I know now I’ve learned since I turned 40. At 65, I still feel as if I'm running to catch up to the learning curve. 

Knowledge, experience and wisdom give us power. As do skills. And we need to develop our bodies as well as our minds. That means continuous learning and new habits for health, fitness and nutrition. 

A Fortune Cookie...

Learn something new, and that treasure will never be taken from you.

More Fortune Cookies...

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Personal Strength of Compassion - The Dalai Lama Speaks on Happiness, God and Money

Have you heard the Dalai Lama speak? In this one-minute clip from the film, "Dalai Lama Renaissance," he expresses his core philosophy, putting religion, happiness, and wealth in perspective. Truth has a way of resonating. As we pursue our dreams, we can use what he says about compassion as a compass to keep us on course.

Don't be compassionate just because God wants you to. Do it for yourself.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Two Great Movies - Jeff Bridges and Sigourney Weaver in Stories of Pain and Evolution

I was gratified to see Jeff Bridges get an Oscar for Best Actor. "His Dudeness" was long overdue. Yesterday I went to see "Crazy Heart" (2009). I can see why his colleagues voted for him. An accomplished actor delivered the best performance of his life. I was mesmerized. It was not Jeff Bridges up there. It was Bad Blake, the alcoholic country singer about to hit bottom.

It was a realistic story about a familiar theme - the downward spiral of addiction, the horror of hitting bottom, and what can happen next. It was also a fascinating behind-the-scenes look into to the modern-day CW music industry. Very cool.

The film reminded me of another wonderful film that achieved very little acclaim or distribution - a British-Canadian production called "Snow Cake" (2006) starring Sigourney Weaver and Alan Ricks. I will go out on a limb here and say that this was the best movie I've seen in the last few years. Keep in mind that I'm very selective about the movies I choose to watch, and I watch over 100 movies a year. 

I was captivated by the script, the acting and the story. How do you play an autistic adult? Sigourney Weaver pulls it off, the finest acting of her career, an Academy Award-level performance. The story is about a British man who has left prison for accidentally killing the drunk driver who killed his son. On his way to visit the mother in Canada, he meets a bizarre free-spirited young woman. That day, their car is hit by a sixteen-wheeler and the woman dies. He survives and decides to deliver her belongings to the mother, a severely autistic woman who lives alone. How he relates to her and the others in the tiny town is the story. The characters evolve in subtle, believable ways. 

I didn't want this movie to end. I wanted two more hours, maybe four. Why the unusual "Snow Cake" title? Watch the movie and find out. You'll be glad you did.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Friday, March 12, 2010

FORTUNE COOKIE - Self-Confidence

A friend of mine is a retired professor of psychology. I once encouraged him to try SCUBA diving. It's quite safe once you get some experience with the equipment, and millions of people have learned how. I described the wonders of the very different underwater world. I told him it's a beautiful peaceful experience, almost like a meditation.

He told me he'd never be able to do it, that it was too dangerous. No matter how much I reassured him, he firmly asserted that he knew he couldn't do it. So he never did.

“If you don’t think you can, you won’t.”  
Jerry West, American professional basketball player (1938- )

And then there are those cocky people, often young, who are sure they can, even though they've never done anything like it before. They figure they'll just jump in and muddle through until they get smart enough to do things right. Fake it till you make it, I guess.

And they often pull it off!

So it's a percentage thing. No confidence = no chance. Over-confidence = a reasonable chance.

Shall you write a book? Move away from your home town? Get a Ph.D.? Run for public office? Change careers? It doesn't matter that other people do these things all the time. Some goals, though highly desirable, can seem overwhelming. People have asked me, "How do you get more confidence?"

Well, you don't get it by pumping yourself up. "I can do it, I can do it!" usually doesn't sustain you when deep down you aren't sure you can.

Like most things, confidence is earned. You believe in your ability to succeed because you've paid your dues. You've prepared yourself. Because you've gained relevant experience.

A secret: most of the time the problem is that people don't give themselves full credit for the knowledge, skills, strengths and experience they already have.

As Thomas Edison said, “If we all did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.”

A Fortune Cookie...

Learn, work and achieve; for your confidence will be earned.

More Fortune Cookies...

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Never Give Up, Part I - Leonard and Hearns "Showdown" in 1981

I’m a sports fan. I love the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. Thanks to television, I’ve witnessed some of the greatest moments in the history of sports. As I think back, the most exciting moments happened because athletes who were about to lose in major competition simply refused to give up.

My first memory of such an athlete was Sugar Ray Leonard, who fought Thomas Hearns for the “unified” Welterweight Championship in “The Showdown” at Caesar’s Palace in 1981. Leonard was a fast, stylish boxer (30-1, 22 by knockout) and Hearns was a powerful, aggressive puncher (32-0, 30 by knockout). Hearns pounded Leonard during the first five rounds. I remember one blow brought Leonard to his knees. The image shocked me. One of his eyes was nearly swollen shut and I could see the pain on his face. He was hurt and behind in points, but he got up and kept fighting. He fought with new energy in the next three rounds, but Hearns regrouped to dominate Leonard and take a commanding lead in the 12th round. Legendary trainer Angelo Dundee shouted at Leonard, “You’re blowing it!”

Leonard fought furiously in the 13th round, knocking Hearns down twice. The fight was stopped in the 14th round, giving Sugar Ray Leonard the victory. Today, when I hear the words persistence or perseverance, I remember that image of Sugar Ray Leonard getting up from the mat, refusing to give up.

Life can deliver heavy blows. When it brings you to your knees, you can either quit or get up and keep on fighting. If you refuse to give up, you still have a chance to win.
Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Rule for Relationships: Forgive the Small Things

As we prepared to go the gym for our morning workout, my wife discovered that she had misplaced her car keys. We searched for ten minutes and finally found them in the car, still in the ignition. Unfortunately, the battery was dead because she was listening to the radio when she left the car the day before.

We called Triple-A, and the tow-truck came to start the car. Problem solved. We went to the gym later that morning. 

But somewhere in the process, maybe when I realized she had left the car with the radio on, there was a perilous moment. My disappointment could have escalated to frustration or even anger. I could have thought, "How could you leave the car keys in the car - with the radio on?" 

Or maybe I could have actually said the words. Or worse. How about: "Why don't you pay attention to what you're doing?" Or "What's the matter with you?"

Do married couples actually say such things to each other? Do friends? Coworkers?

Of course they do. It wouldn't surprise me if some version of this scenario happened a million times a day across the planet.

But it's a costly mistake, for two reasons.

For one thing, it's hurtful. If you react in anger, it's verbally punishing. My wife was probably already feeling bad about it, but to have her husband pile on and put her down would attack her self-esteem. And that's the last thing I want. She's got challenging things to do in her life, and she needs to be strong and confident. 

Besides, I love her.

The other reason it's a mistake is that I'm not in a position to criticize. I've done the same thing myself - more than once. Who hasn't? People aren't perfect. And getting distracted and leaving your keys in the car is a good example of what imperfect people do. In fact, at this point in my life, I realize that almost everything that people can do to annoy me are things that I've done myself at one time or another. 

And besides, it's a small thing. Trivial. Petty. The correct thing for me to do is forgive her instantly. And reassure her that it's no big deal.

Do you want your relationships to endure? Do you want your marriage to grow stronger over time? It's all too easy to give in to anger and lash out. It does take a certain amount of strength to keep your composure and deal with your frustration without hurting the person you care about. But if you care about your relationship, you'll make the effort.

Forgive the small things.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Planets Collided and Life Was Made Possible

How old is the Earth? How did it form? Why does Earth have conditions that support life? Scientists are still pursuing answers, but what they've learned so far is fascinating.

Yesterday, I talked about the chance asteroid impact that caused the extinction of dinosaurs, which made it possible for mammals to flourish and evolve into the human species. Today, I'll talk about another, much grander impact--and the consequences for life on our planet.

A number of factors make it possible for life to flourish on Earth's surface. Two of them have their origins in early Earth history.

One factor is the Earth's electromagnetic field, which is strong enough to extend well into the upper atmosphere. It deflects radiation from the sun and cosmic rays from faraway events in the universe. Without the protection of this field, these deadly particles would reach the surface unfiltered, killing living organisms and stripping away most of the atmosphere. The result would be a planet like Mars, which has no magnetic field, no life and practically no atmosphere.

Not all planets have an electromagnetic field. Earth is unique and fortunate to have a large, molten iron core which is constantly in motion. It is this churning of molten iron that creates the electromagnetic field.

Another factor is that even though the Earth rotates on a tilted axis, it does not wobble. The reason the Earth's axis is so stable is that the moon's size and closeness creates sufficient gravitational pull to hold it in place. The consequence is that climates on Earth are relatively stable. If our moon wasn't as big as it and as close as it is, the Earth's axis would wobble back and forth widely, causing abruptly changing climates, conditions so chaotic that life as we kinow it could not exist.

So why are we so lucky? The answer has to do with with how our moon was formed.

4.5 billion years ago, as the matter left over from the formation of our sun was slowly coming together to form planets, the Earth's surface was a hot radioactive sea of molten rock. Meteors and comets rained onto the surface day and night.

About that time, another of the forming planets, somewhat smaller than the earth, traveled in its elliptical orbit and chanced to collide with the Earth. The glancing blow was catastrophic. The core of this planet merged with Earth's core and an enormous amount of debris was blown into space. As this debris orbited around the Earth, it soon gathered to form our moon.

Earth's enlarged iron core eventually caused our electromagnetic field. And the presence of our large moon stabilized the rotation of the Earth on its axis.

Put another way, this chance glancing blow 4.5 billion years ago--a direct hit might have had quite different, more disastrous consequences--caused our protective electromagnetic field and stable climates.

Put still another way, the chance conditions to support intelligent life in the universe may be more rare than previously thought. Actions have consequences. If this rogue planetoid had missed and continued on its way, you and I would not be here today to talk about it.

[Image copyright byartist James Garry, Fastlight Artwork. Used with permission.]

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Asteroid That Cleared the Way for Intelligent Life

Last week I read a fascinating article from Reuters out of London that reported a panel of 41 scientists from around the world met to discuss the various theories of why the dinosaurs, which had dominated life on Earth for about 100 million years, suddenly became extinct 65 million years ago. 

The most popular theory has been that a huge asteroid collided with earth. Another theory, which I was not aware of, involved a series of super-volcanoes that occurred in the area of what is now India. 

The group decided "once and for all" that the asteroid theory was correct. Their findings are published in a recent issue of Science

The impact was unimaginable - "a billion times more powerful than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima." But it was the after-effects that killed off the dinosaurs: wide-spread fires, earthquakes, massive landslides, tsunamis and a dust-cloud that caused a prolonged period of darkness.

However, the most important consequence of this awesome impact was not mentioned in the article. It's this: once all the dinosaurs were gone, the mammals that survived had the freedom to flourish. In the absence of their former predators, over millions of years many new species of mammals evolved, including modern-day human beings.

Let me state this another way. Because of the asteroid, intelligent life evolved on planet Earth. If the asteroid had missed, life on Earth today would be much different. I'm not saying worse - or better. Almost certainly, there would be no human species.

So, when theoretical astrophysicists speculate about intelligent life on earth-like planets orbiting around distant stars and when they calculate the probability of intelligent life existing there, they need to factor in things like chance collisions with giant asteroids, planetoids or comets.

But the KT extinctions asteroid wasn't the most important collision in Earth history that permitted human life to evolve. It was a collision hundreds of times more awesome. More about that event in tomorrow's post...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Sunday, March 7, 2010

What Athletes Say about Being Strong for Life

Not long after returning from Vietnam, I arrived on the Duke University campus to attend graduate school. My professors were impeccable people, but not all of my classmates welcomed me. I remember one sweetheart called me a "baby-killer." She had embraced some kind of stereotype about military officers. For the record, my memory of my colleagues in uniform was that they were all unique individuals - a practically infinite range of personalities, talents and interests. Just like other people.

We love athletes, but people have stereotypes about them, too. "Dumb jocks." Ha! 

I thought it would be entertaining and instructive to hear what jocks can tell us about life.

On SERVICE:  "Wouldn't it be a beautiful world if just 10 percent of the people who believe in the power of love would compete with one another to see who could do the most good for the most people?" - Muhammad Ali, boxing

On INITIATIVE:  "Good thoughts are no better than good dreams, unless they are executed." - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, basketball

On EFFORT:  “If everything's under control, you're going too slow.” - Mario Andretti, racing

On PERSEVEERANCE:  "Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever." - Lance Armstrong, cycling

On SELF-CONFIDENCE:  "One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation." - Arthur Ashe, tennis

On COMMITMENT:  "What does it take to be a champion? Desire, dedication, determination, concentration and the will to win."  - Patty Berg, golf

On DECISIVENESS:  “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” - Yogi Berra, baseball

On SELF-DEVELOPMENT:   “I don’t know if I practiced more than anybody, but I sure practiced enough. I wonder if somebody, somewhere, practiced more than me.” - Larry Bird, basketbal

On PERSEVERANCE:  “My greatest point is my persistence. I never give up in a match.” - Bjorn Borg, tennis

On CHARACTER:  “Being the first to cross the finish line makes you a winner in only one phase of life. It’s what you do after you cross the line that really counts.” - Ralph Boston, track

So...it takes personal strength for athletes to compete at their level. Plus, they know that. And that just gets us through the A's and B's in my quote database. If you enjoyed this perspective, let me know. I have a ton more wisdom from sports heroes.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Personal Strength of Loyalty - The Glue of Relationships

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell attempts to explain why some people are remarkably successful. His method is to focus on how they’re different from everyone else.  In one story, he describes Roseto, a town in Pennsylvania populated almost exclusively by immigrants from Roseto Valfortore, a small village in Italy. In the 1950s, doctors around Roseto noticed that almost no one under the age of 65 had heart disease. Also, there was almost no suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction or crime there. In fact, the major cause of death in Roseto was old age. After decades of studies, researchers found that none of the usual variables made any difference: not diet, not exercise, not genetics, and not the environment. 

To everyone’s surprise, the evidence showed that the major contributing factor was relationships. “You’d see three-generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries…It was magical.” They had transplanted their unique Italian village culture to create a close-knit community of caring relationships. That, far more than anything else, caused them to live long, healthy lives. 

One force that strengthens relationships is a dynamic we refer to as loyalty. But what is meant by that, exactly?

Our company has a great relationship with our banker, one that has endured more than ten years of high-flying and recession free-falling economies. A practical and personable businessman, he’s been loyal to us all that time. His most recent act of loyalty was to restructure our credit to our advantage, to help us thrive during the recession. He did this of his own initiative, even though it involved some risk to his bank. Naturally, we’ve been loyal to him, too.

So loyalty is earned, and it’s a two-way street. Being loyal means giving a relationship the higher priority. Simple enough—if you care about someone, then be there for them. Be true to them. Do what’s in their best interests. Based on your choice, a relationship will grow—or atrophy. The problem is, most people have many loyalties, including loyalty to oneself. And loyalties can sometimes conflict with each other. So it may be hard to choose one over the other. 

Our landlord, on the other hand, has consistently chosen not to give our company a high priority. The latest incident involved the dishwasher in our kitchen, which no longer works properly. Even though the dishwasher came with the property, he refuses to fix it. Based on his actions, we know that our relationship as a customer isn’t as important to him as the cost of repairing or replacing the appliance. As a result, we’ve started having creative discussions about becoming a virtual company when our lease is up.

Sometimes loyalty to a friend can conflict with loyalty to a principle.

Forty years ago, when I was an advisor in Vietnam, I was on a sweep through the countryside north of Cu Chi. On this occasion, I was riding on top of a mechanized infantry assault vehicle next to an old friend, who was the commander of the U.S. infantry company. On that day we had teamed for a joint mission—my Vietnamese counterpart’s infantry platoon and Butch’s mechanized infantry company. All the soldiers rode on top of the vehicles instead of inside in case one of them hit a booby trap. Together, we hunted for Viet Cong.

Actually, the Viet Cong were smart enough to hear our vehicles coming a mile away and hide until we passed. So Butch had arranged for a Cobra helicopter gunship to fly ahead of us looking for anything suspicious. Mid-morning, my friend got a call from the chopper that a “suspect” was running away in an open field. The pilot asked for permission to open fire. 

“How do you know he’s an enemy?” I asked Butch.

He smiled at me. “The friendlies don’t try to run away.”

“That’s not always true. You need more info.”

But instead, he gave the order for the pilot to engage him. Immediately, we heard a long, loud burst of the mini-gun fire. Butch then gave the order for his company to check the area ahead for more enemy.

We came through the trees to witness a scene that I’ll never forget. A dead body lay in the middle of an open field. The Cobra’s accuracy had been deadly. A young boy came running, screaming and crying. By the time I got off the track, the boy was crying over his father. When I removed the man’s ID card from his shirt pocket, it was covered with blood. But it confirmed that the man was a local farmer, not the enemy at all.

A terrible mistake had been made. An innocent man had been killed. It shouldn’t have happened. It was the result of an impulsive, callous decision. I felt certain that the boy’s sorrow would transform into hatred, and he would eventually join the Viet Cong. We hadn’t destroyed an enemy; we had created one.

This incident bothered me. I felt conflicted. Should I remain loyal to my friend? Or did the value for human life and humane treatment represent a higher loyalty? Later that week, I reported my friend to the authorities. It was a hard call, one that had repercussions. My friend was relieved of his command, a consequence that ruined his career. He and I never communicated again after that. Forty years later, I googled him and discovered that he’s now the CFO for a big company and a benefactor in his community.

For me, this experience had a hard lesson—that loyalty is an issue in every relationship and that loyalty decisions are sometimes hard to make. Also, it’s easy to make bad choices, especially if you aren’t conscious of how loyalty works or sensitive to this element in a particular relationship.

Also this: Doing the right thing usually means doing the hard thing.


Be there for those you care about, and you’ll never be alone.


Think about someone close to you, such as a best friend, a business partner, or a spouse. Then do this:

1.    Assess how much you care about this person.
2.    Then make a list of anyone or anything that might take precedence over this person if you were faced with a conflict of loyalties.
3.    The next time you’re forced to choose between something this person needs and something else, analyze which loyalty is more important before you make your decision.
4.    Make your choice, take action, and make note of the consequences. 

*     *     *
Nurture relationships, and the garden of your life will flourish.
“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” - Oprah Winfrey

"Ah friend, let us be true to one another!" - Matthew Arnold

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Love and Sex - Still a Mystery to Many

I remember when a friend told me, “Last week I met this guy. The chemistry was so wild we made love the first night. I feel something special with him. I think this is serious.” She isn’t a naive teenager. She has an amazing amount of life experience. 

I gave her a friendly smile. Inside, I felt like holding my head in my hands and rocking back and forth. Later, I found out the guy is no longer in the picture.

There's a vast difference between love and sex, and it amazes me that a lot of people who have been around the block a couple dozen times still don’t get it.

Relationship intimacy, when it happens, is a gradual coming together between two people. The more of themselves that people share with each other, the more intimate the relationship becomes. People have to trust each other to open themselves up to each other. It takes time together to achieve intimacy in a relationship.

I like to envision two selves as two circles. As strangers, the circles are apart. When strangers become acquaintances, the circles touch. When acquaintances become friends, the circles begin to overlap. If friends become close friends, there is greater overlap. Ideally, the self-circles of life partners are almost completely overlapped as they share their lives together. The two circles may never completely overlap. It’s probably healthy to keep some part of yourself totally private.

This concept of the merging of selves has helped me assess where I am in a relationship. It reminds me that the trust and affection of friends is earned. Relationships are constantly changing. They require attention, communication, giving and taking.

Sexual intercourse is only physical intimacy. The problem is that sex is often so physically exciting that it produces powerful emotions that can be mistaken for the love and affection of relationship intimacy.

And so it goes...

People are fooled, and we have the comedy and tragedy of love stories.

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., , Copyright 2010. Building Personal Strength .