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Life Lessons Learned After 50

Throughout our lives, all of us learn many valuable lessons. I know I have. 

My own career began in the United States Navy off the coast of Vietnam. I went on to run Junior Achievement in Tucson, San Jose and Southern California, and later the Los Angeles Zoo. I’ve had a few stumbles along the way, but they taught me some of the best lessons of my life.

But through all of that, I didn’t really learn who I was until I was 50. 

One of the best ways to stay mentally sharp is to simply keep learning new things as we get older. Researchers have also confirmed what most people know instinctively: that staying socially active and having a purpose in life are good for us as we enter our later years.

And that’s my message to you today, however old or young you are. Have a passion. Seek out new experiences. Listen to the wisdom of everyone you meet.

What I Learned After 50

Twenty years ago, I began working for an organization called SIFE, now known as Enactus. It empowers university students around the world to better people’s lives in their communities.

It was during these years, after I had turned 50, that I became a different person. My job took me to a different country every few weeks. My travels taught me that people everywhere all want the same things. A better life for their kids. Love. Opportunity. Freedom.

I learned those things, not from textbooks or lectures, but from people. People from a rich tapestry of cultures. Nigeria. France. China. India. Brazil. I learned from their optimism, their astute knowledge, and their peaceful, loving spirit.

In Kazakhstan, when I complimented my interpreter on the fact that she knew two languages, English and Russian, her response was revealing. “No sir,” she said. “I don’t know just two languages. I know five.” She also spoke French, German and Tajik. 

My travels also taught me lots of lessons about life in general.

  • To listen. To become interested, instead of always trying to be interesting. Listening is the most important communication skill anyone can have, and it’s essential for healthy relationships and professional success. Learn how to stay engaged in the conversation, rather than simply preparing an answer. 
  • There’s no such thing as an “overnight success.” The entrepreneur, entertainer or athlete who is proclaimed an “instant success,” is actually a person who has taken 10 years or 10,000 miles to get there. And they have all failed a few times along the way. As Vince Lombardi reminded us, “It’s not whether you get knocked down. It’s whether you get up.”
  • To have a passion. According to entrepreneur Nyaima Smith-Taylor, “Passion is the steam to your locomotive that drives success.” I’ve also learned that passions change throughout your lifetime. As a young man, my passion was promoting free enterprise and the values of our country. Today, my passion is coaching leaders to become successful, kind and humble.
  • To give back. After retiring, I set up a consulting practice to coach CEOs and business owners through all of the perplexing issues they face. I assisted a few nonprofits in building strong boards and raising capital campaign funds.
  • The importance of music in our lives. It makes us happier and healthier, and it helps us overcome many different challenges. Although I love all sorts of music, I’d say I’m a classic rock guy. I grew up with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Eagles. That music got me through those difficult, nerdy years as the teenager of divorced parents. 
  • Just how lucky I was to be born in America. We are a country of unmatched diversity, which always made me proud upon re-entering the USA. Diversity fuels innovation and leadership, both for businesses and society as a whole. I would always reflect on that when arriving back in my homeland, and all the freedoms that too many people still take for granted.

Man speaking to another man.

Lessons for Every Generation

As you can see, life after 50 has held many valuable lessons. And no matter how old you are, allow me to offer each generation a takeaway for your own journey.

  • If you’re under 40, take some risks, have fun, love living and don’t lose track of your friends. Find a mentor. Discover and hold onto your ethical compass and what you stand for.
  • If you’re in your 40s, come home. Don’t work too hard. Your family needs the same attention you give to your job all day long. If you are skilled and have a strong work ethic, don’t worry. You’ll be duly recognized and rewarded. 
  • If you’re in your 50s, I challenge you to reflect on what’s ahead. Is it time for a career move, lifestyle change, or an attitude adjustment? Retreat to someplace quiet and meditate on what is next in your life, because it will go by quickly.
  • If you’re in your 60s, find your purpose. Whether you’re already retired or you’re counting down to that magic day, don’t sit in that La-Z-Boy chair. That’s what my brother did. After his wife passed away, he never found a new reason for living. Within a year and a half, he died of inactivity, drinking and smoking and watching TV. The moral of this tragic story is this: Find your purpose in life, no matter how old you are. 
  • If you’re 70 or older, I suggest your purpose is to give back. When my best friend of 55 years died, it was amazing to see how he was remembered. Not for his award-winning career as a high school teacher, principal or superintendent. Instead, people remembered his service to the poor around the world, houses he built for the homeless, and his generous support of many worthy causes. In the twilight of one’s life, there is no greater purpose than to give back. 

I may not have told you anything new today. However, we can all use a good reminder now and then. Don’t wait, like I did, until my life was two-thirds over, to be a better leader, parent, spouse, and person.

Reflect on your life. Have a purpose. Stay interested and humble. Show gratitude for the blessings you have. And above all, stay engaged.

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Because It Was Hard: Leadership Lessons from Apollo 11

Footprint on moon with Earth over the horizon

“We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” — President John F. Kennedy

Neil Armstrong noticed something in the final minutes before the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The intended landing site was at the center of a large crater, pockmarked with rugged terrain and huge boulders. 

With fuel running dangerously low, Armstrong gently guided the Eagle to a safer landing site, quickly averting a potentially catastrophic disaster. NASA has released a simulated video of what Armstrong saw during those pivotal moments.

From President John F. Kennedy’s unwavering fortitude, to Armstrong’s steady hand in one of the most harrowing situations in human history, America’s mission to the moon 50 years ago still offers many leadership lessons for all of us.

Embrace the Hard Stuff

Some people scoffed when Kennedy stood before Congress in 1961 and challenged America to send humans to the moon by 1969.

After all, weren’t we behind in the space race? How could we possibly hope to achieve what Kennedy was proposing?

It’s often said that leaders need a compelling vision, along with clear objectives for achieving that vision. 

JFK understood that. He also understood another necessity: that of taking risks. 

Big, audacious risks.

After Kennedy gave our country this improbable task, investment in NASA doubled. More young people sought careers in science and engineering. Innovations appeared that would power us to the moon and revolutionize our daily lives. 

On top of that, a country facing turbulent times suddenly believed in itself again. Sometimes challenging people to do more than they think they can is the best motivator of all.

Value Your Team

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had very different personalities. They were not close friends. Perhaps that’s why they made history together.

Great leaders understand that successful teams need brilliant minds with unique abilities and perspectives. 

Like the reserved Armstrong and the gregarious Aldrin.

And Michael Collins, who orbited the moon in solitude, so that all three astronauts could return home safely. Someone willing to excel behind the scenes and let others have the limelight. 

And the hundreds of thousands of men and women, whose names we will never hear, who contributed their own talents to the Apollo project. 

Be Ready to Improvise

The Eagle had less than 30 seconds of fuel remaining when Armstrong landed her safely.

Just like the Apollo 11 astronauts, great leaders display grace under pressure. They move swiftly to Plan B, Plan C or beyond when the unexpected happens. 

As when Armstrong found that safer landing site. Or when the astronauts used a pen to power the engine after a switch broke. 

Learn from Mistakes — and Keep Moving

Three astronauts lost their lives in 1967 when their Apollo 1 command module caught fire on the launch pad.

After such a tragic loss, it might have been tempting to give up on the Moonshot. But America chose to persist.

Great leaders never stop learning. That’s because mistakes are the seeds of growth.

The Apollo 1 failure forced NASA to reexamine a long list of critical issues, root out complacency and pay greater attention to safety. Subsequent investigations yielded numerous improvements that contributed to the success of Apollo 11. 

Even 50 years later, I still marvel at how Apollo 11 unified Americans in a way that few things have since World War II. 

It still inspires us to dream big and lead boldly.

What lessons do you draw from Apollo 11? How can it guide leaders today? 

And what challenge are you willing to seek out — because it’s hard?

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Who Do You Admire?

Conversation between two businessmen

Think back over your life for a moment. Who do you admire the most? Who has had the greatest influence on who you are today?

Every year, the Gallup Organization comes out with their annual survey of the Most Admired Men and Women. We see the names of Presidents, First Ladies, business tycoons, media moguls and other movers and shakers on the list.

Most of us admire the rich, the famous and the powerful. I think I’ve probably done that most of my life. We watch them on television. We see them at conventions. We see them at all sorts of places.

But I’m not sure I admire them quite the way I used to.

Now, I look up to people that are kind and compassionate. Men and women who give back into the community. Those whose passion lies in seeing others do well, and not just their own self-interest.

I find myself in humble admiration of those who make it their life’s work to help others enjoy a better life. 

It’s the dedicated teachers who dig deep to make sure their students have all of the the school supplies they need. It’s the doctors, nurses and therapists who go the extra mile to provide compassionate care with a friendly smile. And so many others in every industry, who treat their jobs as an act of service, and not just a paycheck.

We have so many benefits in this country. We have so many privileges in this country. And many people don’t have what you and I have.

That’s why it heartens me to see more than 77 million everyday Americans sharing nearly 7 billion hours volunteering in the past year. According to the most recent report, U.S. volunteers freely provided $167 billion worth of services for the many outstanding nonprofit organizations who serve our neighbors.

We saw that giving spirit alive and well last fall, when so many people invested tens of thousands of hours providing food, water and other supplies to hundreds of thousands of people affected by Hurricane Michael. Time and again we’ve seen a similar outpouring of love after other natural disasters.

All across our country there are generous professionals offering homework help, encouragement and a listening ear to the deserving kids who attend Boys and Girls Clubs

We hear one story after another of neighbors helping neighbors, co-workers lending a hand to a colleague in need and communities coming together to uplift those in despair. In spite of all the negativity that often fills our airwaves and Facebook feeds, it’s these stories of kindness that give us reason to hope for a brighter future.

If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to find that cause that you care about and go out and make a difference.

If you’re wealthy, congratulations. If you’re famous, well done.

But at the end of your time on this earth, what have you done? How have you made this place a better place than when you arrived?

I think it’s important that you figure out how to be kind, and gentle, compassionate to other people.

What is that cause? It may be caring for the poor, providing shelter to the homeless or food for the hungry. It may be caring about relationships. It might be working to clean up our environment. 

Go out and find your passion, and spend some time on it, and I’ll follow you all the way.

And tell me about someone you admire. What do you feel are the most important things to admire about someone?

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Remembering Our History

“The eyes of the world are upon you…I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower

The eyes of the world were once again upon Normandy, France, recently, as leaders gathered to pay tribute to the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Also present were more than 60 veterans who fought in the Battle of Normandy throughout that harrowing summer of 1944. During that battle, more than 9,000 brave Americans selflessly laid down their lives in order to liberate Europe from the evil grip of the Nazis.

As I thought about those heroic men, who landed on those shores, under enemy attack, and went on to capture all those cities across France, I was reminded how much I love American history. I studied it throughout high school and college, and to this day I love reading about the people and ideas that make our country great.

So much of this is taken for granted. But as we reflect on the D-Day anniversary and the upcoming 4th of July, let us pause to remember the immense sacrifices so many have made to give us the way of life we enjoy today.

We recall those valiant patriots, led by General George Washington, who won our independence in the Revolutionary War. And the brilliance of our Founders, who crafted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and all of the groundbreaking ideas embedded in the documents that created our country. If you haven’t seen the Broadway play Hamilton, go see it.  It illustrates these sacrifices in song, dance and words.  

We honor the leadership of our greatest presidents. Famed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has published an excellent book, called Leadership in Turbulent Times, which details the lessons we can learn from four of them: Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. Each of these men faced unique challenges from their youth. But they all stepped up when their country needed them to guide us through some of the greatest challenges we have faced.

Lincoln’s steadfast persistence preserved our country through the darkest days of the Civil War. FDR’s fortitude led us out of the depths of the Great Depression to our ultimate triumph in World War II. Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress following the assassination of President Kennedy.

We celebrate the Civil Rights leaders who fought to ensure that all Americans can fully enjoy the blessings of liberty. From Rosa Parks standing her ground by keeping her seat on a bus, to Martin Luther King Jr.’s soul-stirring “I Have a Dream” speech.

And of course we admire the innovative thinking of America’s great entrepreneurs and the strength of our free enterprise system — from Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs, to the many hard-working individuals who continue to drive our society forward today and into the future.

These are but a few of the many people who have made this country great. I’ve always been inspired by their heroism and dedication to the cause.

To this day, I still get moved by hymns like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America.” I still tear up when I hear our national anthem. I am proud to be an American.

How have you been impacted by our rich and storied history? What makes America great to you? I’d love to hear your story.

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Take a Step Back to Move Forward

Woman walking on beach

It’s been an eventful past few months since my last blog post.

For one thing, I had to say goodbye to a dear friend who passed away after a battle with cancer. Plus, I had several clients I coach who needed my total focus.

My friend was a man of boundless energy and generosity whose personal challenges never got in the way of his passion for preparing the next generation to lead us into the future. After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, he spent more than three decades as a high school teacher, principal and superintendent for one of the most innovative school districts in the nation. His giving spirit continued into retirement, as he traveled to more than a dozen countries building homes and providing eyeglasses for families in need.

Reflecting on my friend’s experiences led me to take stock of my own life and relationships. I found myself exercising more. Eating a little better. Caring a bit more. Taking nothing for granted.  

Life moves at a break-neck pace for most of us. Like you, I, too, have felt overwhelmed at times. After decades of being a CEO and many years of coaching clients who do heroic work for

others while facing many significant hurdles of their own, I’ve experienced first-hand how stressful the responsibilities of leadership can be.

When so many people are depending on you — at work, at home, in your community and around the world — it feels as though you’ll lose control if you take your eyes off the ball for even a fraction of a second. How could you possibly have time to stop and take a breath every once in a while?  I must keep my phone on the fear of missing out. I must call the office just in case they need me.

But the truth is that sometimes taking a step back turns out to be the best way to move forward. Clarify your vision. Reflect on your mission and values. Simply spending some time alone with your own thoughts empowers you to re-center your energy on what’s important instead of getting mired in the swamp of trivial details.

BizON Founder and CEO Nunzio Presta points out that how you step back will look different for everyone. For some of you, it could mean a sabbatical. For others, it might be a weeklong vacation. Or a long weekend enjoying the great outdoors. Or just simple afternoon walks in the park.

If you’ve never taken the time to reflect, recharge, and refocus, I invite you to do so.

If you have, I’d love to hear your story.

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The Power Of A Story

One thing I would encourage all of you to do is tell stories.

You know, we can stand up before our staff at an all-team meeting and read them the rules, tell them the announcements. We can gather people together at a sales conference and talk about features and benefits. We can go see a client and try to convince them that our product is better than the competitors. We can talk to a family member about improving relationships. But what I would encourage you to do is to weave these conversations around stories.

Tell your prospective customer a story about how your product made a difference in somebody else’s life. Tell your management team what’s going to happen in the world or in your community if your organization implements a particular program. Give them an example of how somebody’s life was changed. Share with them a story.

I remember one time I was on a sales call and I was talking about our program, and I was telling the client about the difference it had made in the lives of some people in the country of Kenya. My client stopped me right in mid-sentence and said, “you really believe in this stuff don’t you?” You know what, I knew I had him, because he saw the passion I had and the belief I had in our product.  And we got the order. So tell stories. Tell stories about your life, what is happening in the community. You’ll get a much better listening audience.

What’s your story?

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Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow – I’ll Take Today

I think I’ve told you before that my favorite group is the Eagles. My wife’s favorite group would be the Beatles and I’d have to say they’ve had some powerful songs over the years – songs that have stayed classic through the decades.

One of the most meaningful songs in a simple way is “Yesterday” sung in solo by Paul McCartney. I’ve seen him sing it as a young man and I’ve seen him perform it live as a much older man.  The words are a simple love song. He’s yearning for yesterday and wished his words had been different to his girlfriend who went away.

My message to you is that you cannot dwell on yesterday. Or really worry too much about tomorrow. All you can worry about is today. Will you be a better person?  A better leader? A better spouse? Parent?

Will you do something as a citizen of the earth to make this place better? So worry about today, not yesterday.

But I sure love the music. Let’s hear a few bars.

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You May Know Your Why, But What Is Your Wow?

Recently I traveled to California to record some videos for a company called Wisdom Capture. I encourage you to go to their website and learn more about them. They capture wisdom from key executives within corporations so it can be shared with employees, customers, and clients. It serves as a legacy of those lessons learned by people that came before the people that are there now.

One of the videos I recorded for them was entitled What Is Your Wow. Not “What Is Your Why” from Simon Senik, but “What Is Your Wow?”

What is that accomplishment? What’s that task? What is that achievement that you’re going to do for the organization? The one that’s going to make people stand up and say “this organization is different.” The thing that will make them think “This leader is taking this company to a new place.” or “This new product or service is going to make a difference in my life.”

So – watch the video. Then tell me in the comments – What’s Your Wow?

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What I’ve Learned From The Beatles & My Grandson

Normally my blog starts off with some music. I will play a song that has been important in my life. Perhaps it’s a song that has moved me to be a better person. Or it might be a song that has motivated me to work at a higher level, taught me a lesson about issues that we face in the world and how I need to participate in solving some of them.

Sometimes they’re just fun songs that make me smile and make me happy, and make me reminisce a little bit about something from the past.

Today’s video is a little different. It’s not actually a song but it’s certainly about music.

The lesson is about the power of practice and routine and focus and passion.

This short video illustrates that by focusing on learning – that skill that you need to be a better athlete, to be a better leader, to be a better person in your family and in your relationships can be achieved if you just focus on it and practice on it.

Enjoy this video. I’m a proud grandpa.


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Find Your Ukulele

I’d like to thank everyone who listens to my blog each time I send it out.

I love music. I love the power of lyrics and what music can do to you. It can take you to the next level. It can help you deal with discouragement, bring you closer to the person you love. It motivates you to take that next step.

I have always been a lover of music. As a child, I took music lessons. I played drums for eight years. I can play a little bit of trumpet.

Last Christmas, I asked for and received a ukulele along with some lessons. So each week I go to the music store and go into one of the little tiny practice rooms where my ukulele instructor teaches me new chords and new songs. They are songs that I ask him to give me the chords to – probably many rock ‘n roll songs that have never been played on the ukulele before. But you know what, I’m having fun. I’m learning. I’m doing something I’ve never done before.

I promise I’m not going to sing to you. I do not have a recording voice. But, I just challenge you to think of what you should do. What is that new skill you need to learn? What’s that new hobby you’ve been dying to start. What’s that sport you should try. Next time you’re on vacation, what will you sign up to do that you’ve never done before? At work, volunteer for something that’s outside of your comfort zone. We all have to be lifelong learners and we can do it in a fun and exciting way.

So, find your ukulele and enjoy it. I enjoy mine.

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