Hang Out With Good People

The other day, I wrote about finding balance and referred to my friend and training partner Les. After reading the blog, Les responded with a situation and a life lesson from our miles on the bike.

Towards the end of one of our 100 plus mile bike rides, I was leading the ride back home. Since we usually paced about 20 miles per hour on our rides, we were both exhausted and just trying to get out of the heat and finish. Les recalled that we were less than a mile from his home and all he could think about was a cold Slurpee.

Les recounted, “I asked if you wanted to stop and I would treat for a Slurpee. You were so focused I could have been asking you if you wanted a root canal. Just when I thought I had nothing left, it felt like you picked up the pace pushing me to finish strong”. He went on to say, “life lesson for me: hang out with people who will make you better and bring out attributes you didn’t realize you had”. Great point Les!

In our group, no one was ever out to drag anyone else into negativity. If someone was having a bad day and struggling, we were always there to lift each other up. Together, we all reached heights that we would not have found on our own. On race days, of course we wanted bragging rights by being the first across the finish line, but invariably, once we crossed the finish, we would turn around and head back out to the course and cheer each other to the finish.

How many times have you looked around your network at work or church or school and realized that those around you were either dragging you down or lifting you up?

Find those who lift each other up and surround yourself with them. Be the person who can challenge your mates to bring out their best. Support them with positive feedback, honesty, and a goal of positive results. Odds are, at some point, those same people are going to be the ones you rely upon to bring about your best.

Balance Is Key

The best triathlon training group I ever had the pleasure of working with was a network of friends that would spend almost every weekend biking and running together. We had a doctor, dentist, engineer, accountant, mortgage broker, massage therapist, and others. In this group, Mary was the best swimmer; Clint was a phenomenal cyclist while Scott could outrun any of us. I learned to be very good at all three, but not the best at any.

It took a great deal of training for me to be nearly as fast as any in their given discipline. In races, it was difficult to minimize Clint’s advantage on the bike and catch him on the run or build up enough of a lead to stay ahead of Scott. But what great fun to collect on a dinner bet when I did. (Let’s face it; bragging rights is what amateur athletics is really about).

However, race results aside, there has always been one member of that group that stood above all of us when it came to life. He maintained a thriving dental practice, had an amazing family with a wonderful wife and three fantastic children. He maintained his physical, mental and emotional well-being better than any single person I have ever met. His humility, compassion and empathy for others rounded out a work-life balance in a way few of us could hope to achieve.

When I first met Les, I was an arrogant, narcissistic ‘tweener’ who thought he knew everything and was the next best thing to sliced bread. Les was the opposite. Humble and hard-working, Les always seemed to have his life ‘together’. Over the years and miles of biking or running, I marveled at how he achieved his success in life. When I asked him how he did it, his response was something along the lines of ‘I guess I didn’t realize I was doing it. I just enjoy doing what I’m doing. I’m actually surprised that you would think so highly of me’. Never once did Les set out to teach me a life-lesson. Instead, his living example was far greater than any classroom lesson or sermon that I ever heard.

More than thirty years have passed since I first met Les. Our training group has long since broken up; relocations, retirement from racing, or just the evolution of life. But the lessons of a humble man during hundreds of miles of riding showed me that there is a whole lot more to life than being a good triathlete, or a good manager or a good father/husband. He was good at all of those things. Perhaps not the greatest at any, but the most well-balance person I have ever met. I continually strive to emulate him.

It may seem like I’m leading up to a formula for finding your balance, but I’m not. I have no clue what your balanced life looks like. My only advice here is to seek your balance. Strive for it and let others see your example so that they can try to emulate it in their life; just as Les did for me. Dr. Les was not the fastest in our group, but he demonstrated that a well-balanced life was the greatest result I could ever hope to attain.

A ‘Strong willed child’

If you were to ask my mother what I was like as a child, she will politely and diplomatically inform you that I was a ‘strong willed’ child. Note that she will probably be chuckling as she says this. Call it like I see it; I was a hyper-active kid who would not listen to authority. My grades were good, I rarely got into fights, and I did not break the law, but I definitely marched to a different drummer. My parents needed me to find a constructive outlet for my ‘high energy’, so they signed me up for youth soccer. Humorous side note, the league ‘requested’ my father become an assistant coach in order for me to play. My dad had no clue what soccer was about, much less how to coach it.

My very first year of soccer, at age 8, my coach told the team that we were required to run at least a mile every day and two miles every other day outside of practice. So my dad made sure I got out the door and ran my miles. After just a few days of this, I was out the door without any urging. Over the next 45 years, those runs have progressed from a single mile to training runs of as much as 25 miles. Even as I write this, I’m mentally mapping todays route.

Sure, I’m slower now and can’t run the distances I used to cover, but it’s my sanity time. As the pressures mount from COVID-19, racial tensions, casino closure and reopening, national unemployment, grad school, and my children preparing to graduate from college, I need to maintain my balance and perspective. I’ve had employees approach me and say “Boss- get your running shoes and get outta here for a while.” For me, running does the trick. As my mother would say, ‘go find something constructive to do with your energy’.

For me, running is that outlet that helps me maintain my sanity. My friend and employee Bill writes fiction. ‘When I’m writing stories, I can get lost in my own thoughts. It helps me focus. Sometimes I get it published, but usually its just for me’. For my brother, it’s oil painting. An award-winning painter, he is happiest with a brush and a blank canvas in front of him. And what visions he can produce.

In closing, I ask you this; what do you do that keeps you focused on life? We all have that one thing and we all need to keep at it. How else will we cope with the pressures around us? Forgot what it was? Go find a soccer ball.

Accepting Guidance

In a previous blog, I mentioned how inspirational I found Julie Moss’s “Crawl of Fame” at the 1984 Ironman World Championships at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Years later, I had the opportunity to compete in the same race. I can honestly say that the year leading up to the event was one of the single greatest impacts on my life. It shaped who I was to become as a person and where I would go in life.

Before I go on, for those of you who do not know what the Ironman Triathlon is, it is an individual race consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112-mile bike, followed by a marathon (26.2 miles). Although the event takes place in a single day, it takes months or years to prepare. The best triathletes in the world are now finishing the event in less than eight hours. I wish I was that fast.  

When I learned that I had made the race, I was ecstatic. What I didn’t know then was what was truly before me. I had competed in many shorter triathlons, run marathons, ridden 100+ miles a few times, and even swam laps equating to 2+ miles. ‘I’ll just do more’ was my thought. ‘I’m the king! I got this’. After a month of trying to get more miles, I realized that I was in trouble. Every day I would swim at dawn, run at lunch, and bike after work- seven days per week. I was always exhausted and had no time for anything or anyone else.

And here’s the lesson. I didn’t really know what I was doing.

I talked with a workout partner from the pool who advised me to cut down and do less. Less?? I need more! A kinesiology professor advised me “Yes, you need the miles, but the key ingredient is rest”. The owner of my local bike shop advised me to skip the longer rides during the week and focus on one main long training day in each event during the week.  

Bottom line, I really had no idea what I was doing and it took several people putting me under their wing and providing guidance. Each of them would say “there is no one, single way to do this. But these are the things that worked for me.” And they were right. As I took their advice, I learned the very valuable lesson that no matter how smart or good or hard-working we are, we need to stop and listen. Seek advice. As an extremely arrogant twenty-something kid, I had never learned that lesson. That lesson was burned into the retina of my mind’s eye to this day.

Decades later, I remain humbled by that day in Kailua-Kona, but more so by the people who educated me along the way. Now, when I see my coworkers and staff struggling with a task, I can coach them and say “there is no one, single way to do this. But these are the things that worked for me”. I am proud when they come back and tell me of their successes.

I ask this question in closing: who coached you today? Take a minute tomorrow and say to someone “can you show me how to (fill in the gap)”- then see where it takes you.  

“Play from your strength”

Growing up, my brother, who is seven years older than me, would play pick-up games of tackle football at the local school with his friends. They were almost more interested in the ‘hard hits’ on each other as scoring. Often, they would invite me to play. It is important to note, that even when I graduated college, I was still only five feet 6 and 130 pounds, so the disparity in size at age 10 was massive. My brother’s friends loved to see ‘Little Sturtz’ show up to play because they relished the thought of crushing me. My saving grace was that I have always been fast. Whether it was out of fear or pure speed, as soon as I had the ball, it was time to run like the wind or face certain death at the hands of a 17-year old giant. And I did. I also knew that I was not going to tackle the ‘big kids’, so my best strategy was to grab on and slow them down until another ‘big kid’ came along to finish the tackle.

I don’t play tackle football anymore. But the lesson that I learned in those games was to ‘play from your strength’ and let my team-mates do the same. I’m a very strong accounting and finance professional. When I sit with my colleagues at work, I can look around the table and know that I can outperform any of them in those realms. But I also know that their acumen as marketers, chefs, or other profession they are in far outpaces my abilities.

Earlier in my career, as Director of Finance for a casino, my General Manager was a very strong marketer. He looked at operational strategies very differently than me and we would have glorious ‘discussions’ (using the term loosely) about which marketing plan was most effective. He argued from the marketing side; me from the finance side. In the end, we usually came out of the conversation with a better strategy than either of us had come in with. Afterwards, we could head to the bar and have a cocktail. Again; we disagreed as he preferred cinnamon whiskey to my beer. The point is; we played from our strengths and, as a team, our property performance outpaced the competition as well as the rest of the company.

As you finish reading this, think about your ‘team’. Maybe its your work team, volunteer organization team, or your family team. What strengths do you bring that your teammates lack? What do they bring to the table that you lack? Don’t be afraid to accept this balance of strengths and weaknesses. Instead, embrace the gaps and work together. Then have a beer (or cinnamon whiskey).

Crashing leads to teamwork

In the 2003 Tour de France, American Tyler Hamilton was involved in a group crash resulting in breaking his collarbone. Rather than withdrawing from the Tour, in support of his team leader, Hamilton finished the stage and the 21-day event including an epic stage win. Later that same year, while bicycling down a hill in town at 35 mph, I was involved in a freak accident of my own. While laying on the street, I recalled Hamilton’s feat and vowed to at least ride the final miles home. I couldn’t even get up off the road. Turned out that my bicycle was destroyed, and I required an ambulance ride and multiple surgeries over the next few months.

At the time, I was employed as the Assistant Controller for a well-known association. I suspected the Controller (my boss) might question the freak nature of the accident, so rather than calling in, my wife drove me to work so I could speak to my boss in person. Partially medicated and wrapped like a mummy, one look was all it took to convince her that I was not faking it and immediately led me to HR to start the process of temporary disability. Their compassion and assistance were beyond anything an employer would be required to provide. From a professional perspective, that was lesson number one from this event. “Take care of your employees because they will take care of you”. Their simple acts of kindness were the foundations upon which this employee’s loyalties were solidified.

The second professional lesson from this was drastically different. “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket”. During my three-month disability leave, no other employee took over my job duties. Upon returning to work, as I caught up on bank reconciliations, I realized that close to $200,000 worth of customer credit card transactions during my absence had gone unprocessed. Upon my discovery of the issue and immediate disclosure to management, the credit card payments were processed and the association collected their funds. However, many customers were upset by the delays and some payments were refunded. Bottom line, a simple task left incomplete led to financial loss to the association.

As I have progressed in my career, this lesson has stuck with me. Whenever possible, I cross train my employees to have at least rudimentary knowledge of each other’s tasks. I put myself in the same category. I expect my employees to be the experts in their areas, but if I have at least that basic understanding of their roles, we are better able to support each other. Granted, certain employees are better suited for their tasks, but, in the worst of times, my team can support each other. Many times, I have had employees who are reluctant to share their knowledge out of fear for losing their jobs. But once the team understands the supportive nature of cross-training, their fear turns into embracement. Tyler Hamilton’s crash had absolutely nothing to do with accounting functions, but the correlation between the two events has led me to be an advocate for employee cross-training. If we train together, we won’t crash as a group.

What can you do in your organization to help keep your team from crashing? What sort of training opportunities have you been passing up to help your team succeed? Both of these questions are ones that managers should be asking themselves. As managers, our responsibilities include the sustainability of our organizations and the continued education of our teams is paramount to our long-term success. What tidbit of training can you pass along to your team?

What Inspires Us?

In 1985, my college cross-country coach competed in the Ironman in Hawaii. As a motivational opportunity before a big race, he shared pictures and clips of his race and others including Julie Moss’ “crawl of fame” from 1982. Leading the Ironman, but her body shutting down, Moss collapsed repeatedly in the final 100 yards. Waving off well-meaning spectators, Moss was passed less than 30 yards from the finish. No longer in first place, but determined to finish, Moss crawled the final 30 yards. The sheer personal determination and single-minded focus she demonstrated forever changed my mental attitude. ‘Never give up’.

In 1994, I earned the right to compete at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii against such greats as Dave Scott and Greg Welch. True, I was hours behind the leaders at the finish, but the year leading up to and including the event changed my life. Having experienced firsthand the pain and thrill of the Hawaiian coastline I can say that it was not the beauty of the moment that takes my breath away, but the pride and satisfaction of having met the challenge and persevered.

Every single one of us has gone into situations in which we knew we would be challenged. New job, new baby, new marriage, new house. The challenge itself is not what makes the event noteworthy. It’s how we come out of the challenge that counts. Julie Moss crawled her way through her challenge. No longer set to win the crown, her legacy has been to show us what we can do when we never give up. Next time we have that seemingly insurmountable road ahead, we can draw strength from our heroes and create our own legacy of success. Who will look at us and be inspired to ‘never give up’? That is the challenge I hope we all rise up to meet.

Send me your stories of athletes who inspired you. Please share your events that can help make your coworker or spouse or stranger be better today than they were yesterday.