Learning from Life and Leadership

Do You Believe in Magic? Three Beliefs To Give Up for Progress

It took centuries to collect the stories that would become A Thousand and One Nights. One character, the best known, was not in the original.

It is the tale of a magic lamp stumbled upon by a peasant named Aladdin. A Frenchman named Antoine Galland added the story of Aladdin in the 18th Century.

Aladdin’s story of finding a lamp and rubbing it to get a genie who grants three wishes resonates with us all. We long for what Aladdin had.–a magic lamp to give us whatever we want, including me.

In short, most of us believe in magic. In a technological age of wonders, we expect drugs to take away disease, devices that answer our questions, and gadgets to dispel our boredom.

Do you believe in magic? Let’s find out.

Believing in Magic

We want easy answers to difficult problems that that took months or years to create.

Organizations retreat into magic. Starting a new program, building a new building, hosting a unique seminar, or listening to a special speaker will solve our dilemmas.

And most do something along those lines, yet the problems remain.

We do it with our personal challenges as well.

In 2012, people spent over 69 billion dollars on lottery tickets. If I hit the right combination of numbers, I can be rich. I don’t have to save, work, earn, or invest. The money drops in my lap.

It doesn’t take much of an internet search to find a pill, supplement, or workout that’s a miracle. It can, in 5 days, transform you into someone who is 20 pounds lighter and ten years younger. When I was a kid, the going thing was fitness belt. A person would put it around their waist, hook the ends to two rotating arms, turn it on and it would “shake the fat away.”

Writers sit in front of blank screens waiting for inspiration to hit. (I know because I have done it many times.)

We do these things, and so much more. It’s because there has to be a lamp with a genie inside. Rub it and, “poof.” It is ours.

The Marks of Magic

How can you tell if you believe in magic? See if any of these resound in your mind.

I want it now.

We take a lifetime gaining weight but want it off next week. If I pop a pill, it will make me svelte and ripped. It’s always overnight.

On Friday afternoons, an organization puts in a new software program. On Monday morning, they expect growth in sales.

The longer you need to wait for results, the more you believe in magic.

I want it easy.

Be honest. None of us likes to sweat. We abhor risk. Sacrifice is not even in our vocabulary. We have been promised “quick and easy” for so long we believe it.

When we believe we can have something without effort and heartache, we believe in magic.

I want it my way.

We tend to come up with solutions and answers that allow us to stay the same as we are. We want it convenient. We need to “like it.” We want changes that don’t change us but change everyone and everything else so we can feel comfortable.

We rationalize this infantile sense by saying, “it will be best for everyone” when it means “I like it that way.”

The sense is “I get what I want in the way I want it.” (That’s what my preschool grandchildren believe.)

Magic has three mantras:

  • I want it now.
  • I want it easy.
  • I want what I want.


The Terrible Truth About Magic

Albert Einstein observed, “we cannot solve our problems with the same problems we used when we created them.” It takes a change from believing in magic.

If the solution were easy, we would have already done it. We would have saved the money, stayed on a diet, made the calls, and written the novel.

The only way forward is to stop believing in magic. Magic is a story, a legend, but not an effective strategy to solve problems in our lives or our organizations.

Give up your ideas for a greater good. What I or any group wants is unimportant as what is best for all. One of the marks of realism is to accept the fact you cannot have everything you want.

Put in the hard work every day. Single events, such as a motivational speaker or session, do not produce results. It is better to put together a process that, when worked over time, pays dividends.

Lengthen your timeline. Things worth doing take a lifetime, not a day. How patient can you be to do the hard work? Michelangelo took over four years (but we don’t know how much over) to paint the Sistine Chapel.

If you find the magic lamp, let me know. But I am not holding my breath.

Turning Success on Its Head

Seldom do you find Genghis Kahn held up as a role model!

Book Cover

Book cover of Barking Up the Wrong Tree

That is what Eric Barker does in his new book, Barking up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong. In it, you find other interesting characters who illustrate principles of success. Included is a diverse cast of characters such as Einstein, hostage negotiators, Emperor Norton (who called himself the Emperor of the United States), and the Navy Seals.

Barker writes a practical and widely-read blog called Barking Up the Wrong Tree. (Note: I have read his blog for some time.) Barker brings insights revealed by extensive research into the time-worn subject of success.

You will not find the typical “think it, live it” banality that flows so from the hundred of internet sites devoted to the subject. Barker takes a different approach. He asks, “what works?” and then opens a window to fresh thinking about a stale subject.

In the book, he stands up the usual cast of characters (long hours, networking, etc.) and gives them the third degree. It makes for a compelling book. He simplifies complex and scary terms to make them understandable. In many of them, the scary mask comes off. It is a much more useful work than the usual diet of self-help books and websites.

My gleanings include:

  • Networking is vital for success but scares us. The word leaves us with sweaty palms and the aroma of greasy manipulators. Instead, he simplifies it to, “be a friend.” Barker details the simple formula for being a friend: give more than you get. (The getting always comes later).
  • Friendship grows from authentic listening, a lost art in modern society. To listen you have to hear the words and the emotions. Until you listen well, you can never connect with another human being.
  • The standard benchmarks for happiness (money, possessions, and position) are wrong. Connection with others brings happiness, not having things.
  • Make a plan and have a goal. Most people wait for life to happen to them rather than doing something about their lives.
  • Success is not what you do or an amount of money or a position or title. It is aligning what you do with who you want to be.


Barker writes in the same easy-to-read and humorous vein as his website. It is one of those books I plan to go back and read again to gain new insights.

Getting More By Going Slower: The Power of Disfluency

We like things that are easy. Our minds like to conserve energy for more important things.

The problem comes when we encounter information. The more information we have, the less we can think . (Having choices is fun. Choosing is agonizing.) We feel like the mythical Tantalus who was punished by being submerged up to his neck in water with food hanging above his head just out of reach. He could not drink or eat, even though both were plentiful.

Technology is our power and our crutch. Phones, tablets, and laptops are ubiquitous. The grease the path so that we don’t have to use our minds. Elementary school children ask school offices to use the phones but then ask, “do you know my phone number?” The number is stored in “favorites” but not accessible to memory.

I have presented lectures and materials to college students. As I talk, they typed. They capture the information but don’t learn the lesson. (I know because I asked their opinion of something I said. They had to go back and read it off the screen but did not give an insight.)

It is too easy. We need to make it harder. That’s where the concept of disfluency comes in.

Fluency is about ease and speed. A person “fluent” in a language does not labor to speak and understand it. When a person is “disfluent” their natural way of mental processing gets interrupted.

My introduction to disfluency came in Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better: The Transformative Power of Real Productivity. He details a Cincinnati school that was the worst in the state. So in true modern fashion, the answer was simple. Throw technology at it. Data by the reams sizzled on memory chips and accumulated on hard drives. Parents received reports and teachers could pour over scores, means, and averages. Armed with this array of technology, it would seem it should solve the problem. It didn’t. Only when teachers wrote out data (by hand) on an index card for each child did things change. They slowed down long enough to see patterns.

Disfluency changes speed to absorb information rather than going fast enough to gather it. We have outpaced our brains.

Princeton University studies show that students who took notes on laptops collected twice as much information as their slower handwriting peers. At test time, it was different. Those who took notes by hand scored twice as well as the technological gatherers.

What does disfluency mean to you?

You have to decide whether having the information is more important. If you want to learn, slow down. Take a different approach. I discovered this by accident. I eat at a restaurant with a sign I have always seen but never read. One day, I saw it on the other side of the glass. The letters were backward. It intrigued me, and I started to make it out. Only by looking at the backward sign did I pay attention to the message on the front.

I am far from a Luddite who despises technology, but I have learned to use disfluency to learn and do more. I have gone back to paper for some things.

Use Paper to Take Notes

I have a Bible study program that lets me cut and paste lines of notes. I tried it for a while and did not get anything out of it. I had information without understanding. When I took out a legal pad and pen and took notes on the same material, I captured less and understood more.

Use Paper to Make Lists

Powerful computer programs track of my tasks and projects. I am glad to be able to capture the information. I need it. When it comes to my daily plan, I write down my top three things to do today in a paper notebook and keep a sidebar of all the things I need to pay attention in the week. My college-ruined scrawl fills the handwritten page. It takes longer to make the lists, but I do more than when I look at a list of 100 projects and my 97 next actions. Paring it down and just writing down with a ball point pen on paper focuses my mind.

Use Paper to Think Through Projects and Problems

I use an outliner program to create outlines. When I get stuck, I resort to the yellow pad and a pen. I can outline, scratch out, mark up, etc. without much effort. As my brain pours it out, thoughts come together that don’t occur to me while I am tapping away.

When you feel confused, turn away from the screen and get the paper and start writing. The process of slowing down will focus your mind and sharpen thinking.

How could disfluency help you?


What Are You Doing Here?

Western society is transient. We ask kids question, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” A man once asked me, “what is your ambition for the future?”
Life tugs at our heart to “be” somewhere else rather than where we “are.”
In John 11, Jesus finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. Lazarus, his good friend, is sick. Everyone assumes he will rush southward to Bethany to heal his friend. Jesus remains there. (Many have decided that’s because he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead.) There’s a simpler answer. When he was at a place, Jesus did what he could while he was there. He was not looking forward but looking now.
Paul, the apostle to the world, had global plans. He was the consummate itinerate preacher moving from place to place. He never “plowed another man’s field.” Sometimes he had “wasted time” such as a prison stint at Philippi. He was busy, and now some trumped-up charge landed him in a dark jail hands and feet in stocks with back cramping. There was work do to…somewhere. The somewhere was in that jail at that time. An earthquake shook open wooden doors and clicked open locks. No one moved with all the doors open. It was Paul’s chance to escape, but standing there in front of him was a jailer panicked with terror for the life he would lose for his failures. It was this man that was Paul’s focus.
Too many times we make plans for the future. What would you do if you had more time, more money, more talent? Instead, what can do you do today, in the place you are, with the people around you? The greatest opportunities are not “there and then” but “here and now.”

Must, Should, Could and Do: 4 Words to Sort Your Life

Life’s phone keeps ringing, like the telemarketer at dinner time. Many opportunities, requests, and demands come to your life. PTA meeting notices come home in backpacks. Dinner invitations arrive in the mail. Friends say, “can you help me out with this small thing?” Most of what arrives on our plate is a matter of volume, not importance. A few “little things” snowball into an avalanche that sweeps you away.

Some believe they are Superman, able to vault any challenge and give unlimited time. It does not take long before you realize there is more to do than there is “you” to do it. Others let things fall through the cracks. People get disappointed or angry when you don’t respond after saying yes.

Before you say “yes” or “no,” ask three questions.

What do I need to do? Some demands in life are uniquely yours. No one can take them off your shoulders. You are responsible for your child. You are the one married to your spouse. You may find yourself in the position of needing to care for an aging parent, and no one else is around. Some responsibilities in life belong to you. What individual responsibilities do you have that you will answer to God for one day?

Could I do it? Many things we could do, but it would not propel us toward our goals. A group asks you to serve (or chair) a committee. Your child’s teacher calls and needs someone to coordinate school parties this year? Can you do it? You get an invitation to a gathering your “need” to attend. Do you go? Because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Does it take you away from something more important? Remember that every yes is in someway a no to something else. Will it take more time than you have? Does it help you become what you want to be in life? The lists of “could’s” is lengthy.

Should I do it? This question is the sticking point with many. Are you the right person to do this? Can someone else do this as well? If I did it, what would the tradeoff be? I have learned I am not a mechanic. (Every time I fix something I cut a part of my body.) I am not an accountant. I don’t know much about investments. I could learn, or I can let those who are better help me. While there are many things you could do, there are many fewer things you should do.

Will I do it? I have my share of orphaned projects. I look at them every week on my projects list. I look and do nothing. I tell myself “one day” but one day never comes. For many things, I came to a simple conclusion. It was either not worth doing, or someone else could do it better. In fact, sometimes letting someone help me gave them an opportunity to grow.

Your list of things to do never goes away. In fact, it tends to grow. There is always more to do than time to do it. Decide if you will. If it fits your skill set and will make a difference to you, then what are you waiting for?

The Best Answer Is…

I keep six honest serving men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.
-Rudyard Kipling-

Someone commented, “When I was in my 20’s, I knew all the answers. When I got to my 60’s, I had nothing but questions.” That statement rings true for many people

Answers are vapors, specters which evaporate under the heat of daily living. Instead of answers, we need something else—a quiver of great questions.
Questions open windows to new opportunities, new thoughts, unexplored ideas. Some, when asked, make me squirm in my skin. Others rupture with wisdom and counsel not attained without letting out of its cage.
Socrates, the Ancient Greek philosopher had students discover truth through asking questions. Today, the Socratic method employs questions to unpack truths buried under notions.
Most questions are not of intuitive thinking. We learn from others great questions. Over time, I have found sources of great questions. Let me share a few (and the sources, when known).
When something bad happens, Michael Hyatt counseled:
“What does this experience make possible?”
When confused or uncertain, ask:
What one thing, if I did it right now, would change the situation?
Sometimes it is issues with other people. Bill McCartney, a long-time coach of the University of Colorado football team asked the question:
Can you help me understand what it is like to be you?
When you are ready to act, stop and ask:
What’s missing? (Especially if everyone is sure)
When you are looking to change jobs, ask:
Am I running toward something, or running away from something?
When you tighten from worry or anxiety, stop and ask yourself:
Is this useful?
When you are making a decision, ask four questions.
What is the worst that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we do this?
What’s the best that can happen if we don’t do this?
What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do this?
It is only by asking mediocre questions do you get mediocre answers. If you ask penetrating questions, you get profound insights. If you ask no questions, you get no answers.
What’s your best question?

An Ancient Story Applied to Modern Life

Aesop was the blind storyteller of Galatia. Why fables? Some believe it was due to the Galatian audience. They were so dull-witted they would only listen to talking animals. Someone also had to tell them “the moral of the story.” (Both of those assumptions are assertions without definite proof, but they are interesting.)
Aesop gets credit for over 600 fables but one stands out—the tortoise and the hare. It is a simple story with an ageless lesson: slow and steady wins the race. We all know it but few of us realize its true genius.
Put another way, Aesop’s fable is a simple formula.
Consistency over Time gives growth.
This principle gets every Olympic gold medal winner on the platform. Every Pulitzer prize winning author puts books on the shelf with it.
Is it true? Think about it:
  • If you eat a candy bar every day, you gain weight.
  • If you exercise every day, you get stronger.
  • If you read something every day, you get more educated.
We recognize its power but ignore its potential. Most of us want to change our lives. Yet, we want that growth to take place both without pain and the results must be immediate. Neither of those conditions lead to life-altering change.
  • If you want to grow closer to God, read your Bible daily. Consistency over time gives growth.
  • If you want to be healthier eat healthier every day and do some kind of exercise every day. Consistency over time gives growth.
  • If you want to learn a new language, practice every day. Consistency over time gives growth.
The examples go on and on. If there is anything you want to grow in your life, you have to put in the time every day to make it happen.
Overnight change does not happen. It is the fodder of late-night cable TV charlatans. If you want to move forward in your life, slow and steady does win the race.
What do you need to do to improve your life? Do it consistently over a long period of time, and you will reach it.

Thanks for Nothing

Tommy Allsup died on January 11, 2017. His name is unfamiliar to most. The rock-and-roll guitarist for Buddy Holly’s band should have died on February 3, 1959.
That was the date “the music died” (chronicled by Don McLean’s 1970 hit, American Pie). The small plane had too many would-be passengers than seats. So, a coin flip decided who went and who stayed.

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Get Uncomfortable to Stay Alive

I am writing this post from a room in a motel in Managua, Nicaragua.

It is not my own room. The shower has no hot water so shaving is difficult. Don’t even think about putting paper down the commode. (I won’t go into the mechanics or alternatives.)

Each year I come to Nicaragua as part of a Health Talents International team on a mobile medical mission trip. I come for a particular reason. My church supports a program that feeds hungry children in four locations. I come to see and then report.

The trip is difficult for many reasons besides cold water, beans and rice for every meal or a different bed. It’s January and it’s hot.

I come to help people. I fit eyeglasses on people who cannot see well. Great doctors give examinations and write prescriptions that are filled by exceptional pharmacists. Dentists extract teeth in chairs made of plywood. All of this happens out of suitcases and in less than professional environments. We help hundreds in a few days.

Then we go home to warm beds, hot water, working plumbing, and loving families.

It is difficult, so why go?

One obvious reason is altruistic—to help people who need the help. Something in all of us yearns to make a difference in the life of someone else, someone who has no way of returning the favor. I can think of no better place to do that than where I am.

A not so obvious reason is what it does to me in a different way. It refreshes me. In no possible universe can you say hard work in dirty areas is refreshing. Yet, the refreshment comes only through that discomfort. I get to experience life in a different vein, see through different eyes, and feel with a different heart. I see things inside of me that are masked by technology and suburbia. I come because in the discomfort of the place, I find peace in my soul. That only happens when you become uncomfortable.

Some people jump out of perfectly good airplane. Others fish, hunt, camp, or sail. All are perfectly acceptable was of getting just uncomfortable enough to make you think.

I like mine. I look into the eyes of worried parents with hurting children. I see children devour food that kids back home twist their faces into a displeasured distortion. I see people standing in heat rather than complaining about how hot or cold they are. I get the change to make some small difference by being God’s representative to them (a role that none of us deserve but are called to do).

I get to be uncomfortable and I get a chance to grow. What about you?