The Precious Present

“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift—that’s why they call it the present.”

You may have heard this quotation, attributed to many different people including Eleanor Roosevelt. It reminds me of when I first met Spencer Johnson. He had just finished a manuscript entitled The Precious Present (Doubleday, 1984).  It’s a wonderful parable about a young boy who lived near an older man who always seemed to be happy. One day the boy asked the old man about it.

The old man told the boy that the secret to lifelong happiness was finding the Precious Present. “It is a present because it is a gift. And it is precious because anyone who receives such a present is happy forever.”

“Wow!” the little boy exclaimed.  “I hope someone gives me The Precious Present.”

For years as the young boy grew, he searched high and low, trying in vain to find the Precious Present. Finally, as a grown man, he stopped to recall the things the happy old man had told him so many years ago. At that moment, he realized the Precious Present was just that: the present. Not the past, not the future, but the Precious Present.

It’s okay to learn from the past, but don’t live there. And it’s okay to plan for the future, but don’t live there, either. If you really want to be happy as you go through life, don’t lose what is precious to you. Live in the present.

What a powerful message. I always remember it when I’m feeling bad about something that’s already happened or when I start worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. Living every day to the fullest is really the best way I know to be happy for the rest of your life. Thanks, Spencer.

Taking the Time to Find Your Calling: Two Ways to Get Started

I’ve been reading an interesting book by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro called Whistle While You Work: Heeding Your Life’s Calling. The authors explain that in many instances our calling comes to us when we are removed from everyday routine—that’s when we are able to listen to what authentically moves us from the inside.

Each summer, my wife, Margie, and I spend time at our lake home in upstate New York, where we are removed from our everyday routine and obligations in San Diego. This change of scenery allows me to do just what the authors of the book describe: I get time to think about where I want to make a difference in the world. In fact, I do most of my writing at the lake. I have time to think about the issues leaders are facing around the world and spend time researching and writing articles and books that offer solutions to those challenges.

So what’s your calling—and how do you discover it? In addition to taking the time to quiet yourself by removing yourself from routine, I also think it is important to identify the activities that cause you to lose track of time—that’s a hallmark of a calling versus something you are driven to accomplish. For me, writing at the lake certainly ticks that box. How about you? Think about using vacation time to quiet yourself. Pay attention to what you learn. This concept goes beyond what you do to make a living—think about what you want to do in your community or with your family that will support your values and purpose.

It’s never too late to make changes in your life by taking advantage of your most precious commodity—time. Life is a very special occasion, so celebrate it by finding and honoring your authentic self!


With spring around the corner, I find my mind turning to golf. I love to play golf. I’ve always tried to not take it too seriously and remember that it’s just a game—but I didn’t really love to play until I started to use an approach called NATO golf. In case you haven’t heard of it before, NATO stands for Not Attached To Outcome.

BallWhen you’re attached to outcome, you might be having a good game but then you hit the ball wrong and find yourself focusing on the wrong things—every move you make, every breeze, every bump in the grass. It really tightens you up and you can’t perform as well. You become fearful of your results because you believe that who you are depends on how you score or play that day.

I can’t tell you how much more fun it is to play NATO golf than to grind my teeth over the score. It doesn’t mean I’m not interested in hitting good shots or scoring well—but I know that I am not my score. I am not each shot. As a result, I’m much more relaxed and able to swing freely at the ball without fear. I play so much better when I’m not worried about whether I’m going to be able to hit that hole or make that putt. I just get up there and let it happen. It’s beautiful.

Golf is always interesting to me, because I believe golf is a lot like life. Think about it. Sometimes you’re playing better than you should, so you learn how to deal with success.  Sometimes you’re playing worse than you should, so you learn how to deal with failure.  Sometimes you get good breaks you don’t deserve and sometimes you get good breaks you do deserve.  Sometimes you get bad breaks you don’t deserve and sometimes you get bad breaks you do deserve.  All in four and a half hours!  Ha! And one of the best ways to get to know somebody is to play golf with them and watch how they behave. It says a lot about a person.

In life, as in golf, sometimes we get so focused on outcome that we don’t enjoy the ride.  We’re so uptight about the importance of the outcome that we miss the dance of life, the dance of relationships, the dance of the sales call, or the dance of doing a seminar.

Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” I can’t say that I agree. Golf is a wonderful game as long as you don’t start believing that who you are is dependent on how you score. Don’t get attached to outcome—just be who you are and you will be amazed at how much more you’ll enjoy the game of golf—and the game of life.

How can we build trust within our organization?

During tough economic times, I’m often asked how to build trust within an organization. People seem to be really down and don’t trust their leaders. I got the best advice about this from my friend Ichak Adizes, who used to be a professor at UCLA—a brilliant guy. He said, “You can’t talk about trust until you talk about respect.” There’s a nonverbal and verbal aspect of each of those. If I respect you, I face you, because I want to hear your opinion. If I don’t respect you, I turn my back on you, because I couldn’t care less what you think. But this it interesting—if I trust you, I’m willing to turn my back on you because I know you mean me no harm. If I don’t trust you, I face you because I need to watch your every move. So these two things work together. You can’t talk about building trust until you show respect. I’ve seen a lot of leaders who will go behind closed doors and start making decisions about other people’s lives. And the people outside the door don’t trust the intentions of the leaders inside; they think they’re in there to serve themselves.

One of the things we do to show respect for people in our company is to share our balance sheet with them so they know how the company is doing. We even brought in someone from Colorado to teach people how to read a balance sheet! We share this because we want everyone to always know where we stand as an organization. We have a gain-sharing program where we share a percentage of our profits with our people. We also have a “give back” program where we take a percentage of our profit and give it to our employees so they can each give money to a charity that is important to them. We want them involved—we show them respect and they trust us in return.  I think it’s so powerful and so necessary to understand how those two things go together. If you don’t treat people with respect, they won’t trust you. Trust and respect go together.

Saying “No”

One of the most difficult things I have had to do over the years is to learn to say no.  As a people-oriented person, it is very difficult for me to say no to anyone—I don’t want to hurt their feelings or make them feel unimportant.  As a result, ever since I was a teenager I have been overloaded with things I have agreed to do. I have always made too many commitments.

Saying no is simple, but not simply done by most people.  I have tried all kinds of ways to say no in my life.  When I was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, for example, I became so overwhelmed with things I had agreed to do that I sent out a letter to a number of people saying, “I am dying—dying from good opportunities.  If I don’t do something about it, I will not be long for this world.”  Then my letter went on to say that I had to drop a number of things I had agreed to do, just for survival.  I apologized to each reader because I had to drop something I had planned to do with that person.  The letter helped me out of the crisis in the short run, but was not something that made me proud.

To be effective in the long run in relieving overload, I’ve determined that you have to have a systematic approach and philosophy on saying no.  I recommend three steps:

1)  Be clear about what you are doing, and what your priorities are. If you are purposeful about how you are currently managing your work and time, it is easier to say no to new activities that are seemingly less important. We have a saying in one of our programs that goes, “A person who does not have goals is used by someone who does.”

To be proactive about saying no, you need to be very clear about your own goals. What are you trying to accomplish during a given period of time?  How can you focus your energy on things that will move you toward those goals?  This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and inflexible if a new assignment or opportunity comes along, it just means your goals become your reality check. Within those goals, set priorities and stick to them. Then you will be better able to discern whether something is consistent with your job or area of expertise, which will make it easier to determine if you should take it on.

All good performance starts with clear goals.  Without them you will quickly be a victim, because you will have no framework to make decisions about where you should or shouldn’t focus your energy.  I become much better at saying no when I am more clear about my focus and what my goals are.

2)  Be clear and realistic about the consequences of doing one more thing. This is for yourself as well as the person who wants you to do something new.  I’ve found the best approach is to be honest and direct.  For example, say, “If I do this, I won’t be able to do the other things I’ve committed to.”  Or, if for no other reason than past history, you can say, “With what I’ve got going on right now, if I take on this additional task I feel certain that I won’t do as good a job as I’d like, and we will both be disappointed.”

In recent years when a new opportunity has come my way that I know I’m not able to do, I often compliment the idea (if I feel it has merit) and then simply say:  “I don’t choose to get involved.”  I’m amazed how, when I use this powerful approach, people very seldom say, “Well, why can’t you do it?”  They just accept it and say, “Thank you.”

3)  Offer alternatives and solutions. Suggest someone else who you feel could do the job or who may be available sooner to work on the task.  If the request is from your manager, suggest a project or priority you are working on that could be dropped, delayed, or given to someone else, or ask your manager to do the same.

The degree of flexibility between these three approaches is, of course, a function of exactly what the task is, who is asking you to take it on, and the time frame involved.  A request from your manager is going to involve more consideration and discussion than a request from an associate or someone you don’t know. Still, these basic approaches work.

Research done by Charles Garfield, author of the Peak Performance trilogy, clearly shows that peak performers only focus on a few key things.  And the late, great leadership expert Peter Drucker asserted that the people who truly get things done are “monomaniacs on a mission”—people who focus intensely on one thing at a time.  The more you take on, the greater the chance that you will lose effectiveness in not only getting that particular task done, but in all aspects of your life.  Keep in mind that when you say no to someone, you are not saying no to them, only to their proposition. And never forget the old expression: “Nobody can take advantage of you without your permission.”