Trough & Peak (#169)

I often joke with my kids that most of the challenges they face are “First World problems,” and they’ve learned to remind me of the same thing.

This phrase is a healthy reminder to be grateful for all the things we have and can do in our lives. It’s also about understanding that, in the grand scheme of things, what we identify as “problems” often really aren’t.

Not only can situations remind us of this, but so can people. Sean Swarner is one such person.

At the age of 13, Swarner was a happy-go-lucky eighth grader playing a baseball game when he heard a pop in his knee. The next day, all his joints were swollen. A few days after that, he was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma and given a prognosis of three months to live.

He immediately began aggressive treatment, adding 60+ pounds to his small frame as a result of various steroids.  While his friends were focused on trivial things, such as what shoes they wore and how popular they were, Swarner was focused on fighting for his life. He borrowed a visualization technique he learned from his swimming training and would imagine a microscopic spaceship flying around in his body with chemotherapy guns killing all the cancer.

A year after his diagnosis, Swarner beat the cancer and was in remission. He refocused his efforts on being a kid and playing sports, including returning to competitive swimming.

After being in remission for 20 months, Swarner went in for one of his regular check-ups. It was then that he learned that doctors had discovered a new, completely unrelated cancer in his body called Askin’s sarcoma.

Not only was Swarner the only person in the world to have been diagnosed with both Hodgkin’s disease and Askin’s sarcoma, but the latter has a six percent survival rate.

Given just 14 days to live, Swarner was started on treatment, the goal of which was to extend his life as long as possible. However, the chemo was so intense that he was put into a medically induced coma for each cycle and the radiation was so severe that he lost the use of one of his lungs.

Miraculously, Swarner beat cancer again, even though he does not remember anything about being a sixteen-year-old. Understandably, he wanted to enjoy the lost years of his youth. In college, he focused on having fun and decided to become a psychology major to eventually help other cancer patients.

Then one day he decided that, to really help and make an impact, he needed to scream hope from the highest platform in the world: Mt. Everest.

With only one lung, Swarner became the first cancer survivor to summit the peak. Ironically, an illness forced him to stay behind at camp on the day his group attempted the summit, which they weren’t able to reach due to inclement weather. After recovering from being ill, the weather cleared and Swarner was able to summit on his first attempt.

Since Everest, Swarner has gone on to become the world’s first cancer survivor to complete the Explorer’s Grand Slam—scaling the highest point on all seven continents and then hiking to the North and South Poles. On his last trip to the North Pole, he carried a massive flag with names of thousands of people touched by cancer. He’s now preparing to run seven marathons, in seven days, in seven continents.

In sharp contrast to last week’s Friday Forward, Swarner’s father always told him that he didn’t have to be the best, he just had to be his best, a core value that he’s carried with him into adulthood. Today, Swarner leads people on trips to Mount Kilimanjaro through The CancerClimber Association, a non-profit he founded to help those touched by cancer learn how to focus on hope. These experiences help young people gain confidence through overcoming adversity and challenge.

Incredibly, Swarner considers himself lucky. Lucky for the knee injury that likely saved his life – twice – and for the serious illness that kept him behind on Everest and allowed him to summit.

By choosing to focus on living rather than dying, he is an inspiration and a testament to the human spirit.

Not surprising, his life story has recently been made into a documentary titled, True North, which my youngest son watched intently. I’d also recommend listening to the emotional interview I did with Sean Swarner on my Elevate podcast. Our conversation has forever changed my perspective on what it means to keep climbing and own your reality.


Quote of The Week

“Want to feel wealthy? Take away everything money can buy and look at what you have left.”


Sean Swarner


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Controlling Reactions (#154)

Apparently, the past few weeks have been a roller coaster ride for global stock markets, with volatile trading and daily swings of several percentage points.

I hadn’t really paid much attention to these events, but that would have been a different story ten years ago.

I developed an interest in the stock market at an early age, influenced by my grandmother who was an enthusiastic, but notoriously poor stock picker.  I started trading and following the markets regularly in college and would get excited by the highs and anxious when the market declined. I distinctly remember during the 2007 market crash being glued to the TV and feeling physically ill as the market dropped 800 points in just a few days in September. I allowed it to negatively affect my work, my mindset and my interactions with others.

Shortly after, I made the decision to stop watching the market and shifted my investments to mutual funds. Later, I hired an investment advisor to make those decision for me without any emotion or short-term bias. It was one of the best decisions I have made.

The stock market hasn’t changed, but my reaction to it has. The same goes for sports.

As a lifelong Boston sports fan, I’ve experienced both improbable victories and agonizing defeats (most of my childhood). Today, I enjoy the games and may get animated watching them, but I’ve trained myself to mentally walk away the minute they’re over.

If Tom Brady has a bad football game on Sunday, I can understand why he would want to think about it on Monday; it’s his job and life. But for me to do so? It’s a useless expenditure of energy. Yet I see others let professional sports affect them mentally for days or even weeks after a game. It’s self-defeating.

Walking away from playing the market and changing my reaction after a game is won or lost are both examples of improving emotional capacity, a critical skill high performers must learn to develop.

Emotional capacity relates to how we react to challenging situations and people as well as the quality of our relationships, which can either increase our energy or deplete it. The process of improving emotional capacity is challenging. It requires learning to actively manage your feelings and accepting a certain amount of uncertainty and unpredictability from both individuals and circumstances.

For example, consider two people who have a negative interaction with each other early in the day. The person with high emotional capacity is able to shrug it off, move past it and continue on with the priorities of their day. The person with a lower emotional capacity would be easily rattled by this interaction. It would likely consume, if not ruin, their entire day and affect their performance at work and at home.

They each experience the same event but allow it to impact them differently. That delta is the differing degrees of emotional capacity.

When dealing with people and circumstances that influence our mindset, high achievers see two options: walk away or change your reaction. While I was able to do this with the stock market and watching professional sports, I’ll be the first to admit that I have many other examples in my life where I am mindfully working to better apply these principles and continue to build my emotional capacity.

The key is to focus on what we can control (emotions and reactions), not the event or external forces. No one should believe they can control the stock market, sports games or unfortunate run-ins, but we each absolutely have the ability to choose how these events will impact us.


Quote of The Week

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.”


Charles R. Swindoll



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Going Bananas (#153)

Over the past year, I have started to share and post more of my content on LinkedIn.

Most of my articles are written in a positive tone and attempt to propose solutions to common leadership and organizational challenges. Therefore, I’m always surprised by people who choose to comment on articles with insults, banter and accusations, often about something that wasn’t even directed at or personal to them in any way.

Posting these kinds of responses and comments on such a public forum is not only unproductive, it’s shortsighted for those in leadership positions; and it’s downright foolish for people who are actively seeking employment.

I would never hire or partner with anyone I found spending their time and energy in this manner and I can only imagine how bosses and team members react when they come across this sort of behavior from a colleague.

I simply can’t comprehend why anyone would intentionally go out of their way to make strangers feel bad about themselves or their beliefs. It’s bananas.

Speaking of bananas, a lot of these individuals could learn from the example of Stacey Truman, an inspiring leader and cafeteria manager at an elementary school in Virginia Beach, VA.

Using a black marker, each morning she writes inspirational messages on the bananas that are a part of lunch that day.

Here are some examples of messages she’s written on her now designated “talking bananas:”

“Not all those who wander are lost.”  

“If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”  

 “You get what you give.”

“Never give up.”

“Your future is bright.”

Writing uplifting messages on bananas was a practice she started for her two daughters (10 and 7) to build them up and help them start their day on a positive note. She then thought that the kids at the school might have a similar feel-good response, and she was right.

In an interview, Truman said, “I want them to succeed in life and have an awesome day at school. Whenever I can put a smile on all of those little faces, I’ve done my job.”

Her “talking bananas” have made a bigger impact than she could have imagined and her story has taken off on social media. She’s now garnering national attention for the right reasons and inspiring strangers to want to uplift and build capacity in others with far less effort than it takes to troll social media looking to pick a fight.

While I don’t expect “talking bananas” to become ubiquitous in corporate cafeterias anytime soon, the lesson is that while we don’t have to agree, we can all be nicer in how we disagree. And we all have the ability to use our energy in more productive ways that inspire and lift others up.

You never know how something as simple—and free to give—as an encouraging word can impact people for years to come, especially if it comes at the right time.


Quote of The Week

“Kind words do not cost much. Yet they accomplish much.”

Blaise Pascal


Image Credit: Washington Post.

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Early Riser (#134)

For most of us, the notion of surviving a near-death experience, whether it be personal or professional, is terrifying. If we’re “lucky,” we may experience it once.

Hal Elrod has experienced it three times.

At the age of 20, Hal was pronounced clinically dead for six minutes when he was hit head-on by a drunk driver going 70 miles per hour. When he woke from a coma, he was told by doctors that he would never walk again. Over the next six days, Elrod had seven surgeries to repair 11 broken bones, a ruptured spleen and severed nerves. He flatlined twice during surgery.

Yet, not only did he walk again, he went on to run a 52-mile ultramarathon.

Then, when the global financial crisis hit, Hal experienced a professional near-death experience.  His speaking engagements and coaching clients canceled their contracts. He had just bought a house and gotten engaged and, without that income, he quickly racked up $425,000 in debt. He was on a downhill spiral and openly contemplated suicide.

Needing some motivation and inspiration, Hal began studying some of the world’s highest achievers (artists, athletes, business leaders, etc.). What he noticed was that almost all of them had a morning routine and they all consisted of a few similar elements.

Not sure which ones to focus on, he decided to develop his own personal morning routine that incorporated all the elements and, with the help of his wife, coined his new sunup ritual “The Miracle Morning.” Eventually, he wrote about his morning routine and how it turned his life around. A short time later his book, The Miracle Morning became both a best-seller and garnered a loyal online and offline community of productive early risers.

I started incorporating The Miracle Morning habits into my life three years ago and have not looked back.

Here are the six key elements of a meaningful morning routine which Hal coined his Life SAVERS:

  1. Silence. This can be meditation, prayer, reflection, deep breathing or expressions of gratitude; done individually or in combination with other steps.
  2. Affirmation: Repeating positive statements about oneself in order to create a positive, self-confident attitude.
  3. Visualization: Using your imagination to create mental pictures of specific outcomes and behaviors that you are hoping to achieve.
  4. Exercise. Even just a few minutes to get your blood pumping and heart rate elevated. It has so many positive benefits on stress, focus and more.
  5. Reading. At least 10 pages a day on a topic focused on personal development or inspiration. This element was the genesis of the idea for Friday Forward. I wasn’t finding what I wanted to read so I started writing it.
  6. Scribing. Writing each day, whether in a journal, pages of a book or just stream of consciousness. Hal actually wrote The Miracle Morning during his morning routine and it’s when I write my Friday Forwards each week.

More recently, in 2016, Hal was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that had only a 30 percent survival rate. He beat that too and now speaks about the critical role that his established Miracle Morning routine played in his cancer battle and remission.

If you do the same research that Hal did, you will find that almost anyone with sustained achievement at a high level –and who is not a night owl—has a morning routine. They get up early and play offense rather than react defensively to the world around them. They start each day with intention and focus on what’s most important to them, not to everyone else. They run their days rather than having their days run them.

Most people insist that they just can’t get up any earlier. I would argue, from my own experience, that you can’t afford not to.

I had the privilege of chatting with Hal a few weeks back on our Outperform podcast. When you listen to the episode, I think you will find, as I certainly did, that his positivity is infectious; his passion for helping others live their best life is genuine; and his steps for how to improve our morning routines to be simple, feasible and life-changing.


Quote of the Week

“Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”

Benjamin Franklin



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Sink or Swim (#97)

In past weeks, I have written about people who’ve overcome adversity to reach new heights. Paul de Gelder is one such person and his incredible story offers a window into how one can create something positive from a seemingly impossible situation.

During his teenage years, Paul spent his time chasing girls, shoplifting, fighting, drinking and smoking pot.  At 20, after waking up beaten and bruised from a fight the previous night, he realized that if he didn’t make a change, he “would be dead by 23.”

So, he channeled his need for adrenaline toward the Australian army and become an Army Paratrooper. Soon after, he fell in love with diving and became a Navy Clearance Diver, an elite unit focused on underwater combat and countermeasures. Paul had found his passion and was loving life.

All of this changed on February 11, 2009. During a routine training drill in Sydney Harbor, Paul was swimming and setting up equipment when a he felt a tug on his leg. He turned around and came face-to-face with the head of a giant bull shark; its teeth were sunk into the flesh of his leg.

He tried to jab it in the eye, but as soon as he tried to move his right arm, he realized that his wrist and hand were in the shark’s mouth, too. When he tried to punch the shark with his free hand, the shark started to shake him and proceeded to pull him deeper under water.

As his lungs filled, everything slowed down and he thought to himself, “You’re gonna die right now…you’ve lived 10 lifetimes in these last 31 years. If it’s my time to go now, I’m ready.”

Suddenly the attack was over.  Although he was in complete agony, Paul was able to summon the strength to swim towards the raft where his team was. They managed to stop the bleeding just minutes before he would have bled out.

Paul ultimately lost his arm and leg. After his surgery, doctors struggled to get his pain under control; he thought many times that he would be better off dead.

That’s when he made a choice.

As Paul recalls, “I remember lying in the hospital bed thinking, what do I do now? I’d fought tooth and nail to make my life amazing from what it was. I’ll be damned if I go back to that life before. I realized that was the only power I had. I might be laying in a hospital bed dripped up on drugs, and I can’t go to the toilet by myself, but I have the power to make a choice.”

What followed was nine weeks in the hospital, another six months of therapy and rehab and then an uphill battle lobbying the military for more advanced prosthetics. Through it all, Paul had one goal in mind: get back to being a diver, something the Navy initially told him he could not do.

Refusing to accept this as an option, he worked out harder than ever, learned how to dive with his prosthetics and returned to work as a dive instructor within six months.

Five years later, Paul travels the world as a sought-after speaker.  He’s written a book titled, No Time for Fear and is also a co-host on Discovery’s “Shark Week.” He’s learned to embrace his fears and become empowered by them.

When I spoke with Paul, I asked him what his takeaway was for someone who had to overcome such a major setback or injury. His response was simple: “Rest, heal and get back in the game better, stronger and more determined.” He also lives his life around the principle of Improvise, Adapt and Overcome, a mantra he learned as a young paratrooper.

Wise words from someone who has the credibility to give this advice.

Paul has created an amazing video of his journey and his training regimen. You can also learn more about his story at

Quote of the Week

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”

Francis of Assisi

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Bad Week (#93)

A Sunday in April 1981 started off a very bad week for Dr. Mary-Claire King. Her husband declared that he was leaving on vacation the next day with one of his graduate students and, subsequently, leaving their marriage.

On Monday, Mary learned that she had made tenure, but the high of that good news was greatly diminished when she returned home to find her house had been burglarized.

That Friday, Mary was scheduled to fly to D.C to give an important presentation to the National Institute of Health (NIH) to make a case for her first research grant.

Her mother had come to town to watch Mary’s six-year-old daughter, Emily while Mary was in D.C. However, shortly after arriving, she accused Mary of being the reason her family was falling apart, saying things like, “How could you do this? How could you not put your family first?” She then decided to promptly return home.

At this point, Mary had no one to watch Emily. So, she called her mentor and told him that she wasn’t going to be able to make her trip to D.C. He told Mary to bring her daughter with her to D.C. and that he’d sit with her while she gave her presentation; He even bought Emily a plane ticket.

In the end, Mary was able to give her presentation and get the grant for her research project, which ultimately became BRCA1 – one of the largest discoveries in breast cancer to date. Mary has been working on this research for over 33 years.

You can read Mary’s story in full detail here, which includes an amazing encounter with Joe DiMaggio.

Mary’s story has several important lessons and reminders.

1) We all need a mentor(s) in our lives to push us forward in our darkest, most difficult times. Friends, while supportive, will often just give us the out if we ask for it.

2) We all have bad days, weeks and even months. The question is not whether they will happen but how we handle them. Can we laugh off our bad luck or do we get immobilized by despair?

3) It was Thomas Fuller who once noted that “the darkest hour is just before the dawn.” Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it might, but then it’s likely to get better quickly. What’s most important is finding a way to keep moving forward.

Mary-Claire King had every reason to quit that week. Very few would have blamed her for doing so. However, had she quit, it’s likely that millions of women’s lives would not have been saved from her ground-breaking research.

Quote of the Week

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Winston Churchill

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