The Best Birthday Gift: The Gift of Others' Really Living Moments

I recently celebrated my birthday, and a dear friend who has been along for the Art of Really Living journey managed to give me an "event horizon" moment to remember as a gift. On Wednesday a.m. I received a FedEx package early delivery the day after my birthday and inside it contained these treasures - a typed note from my friend, and 11 hand written cards and notes from 11 girls at a camp. What's unique about these girls is that they all suffer from forms of chronic illness and things that most of us take for granted are a constant source of challenge for them.

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I opened the box and read the note from my friend Andrea:

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John, while at camp, I was inspired to share your Manifesto with my campers.

On Wednesday night, I let them go to sleep as usual: lights out at 11 pm. I waited until all of them were asleep and then I quietly woke each of them up. I told them to put on shoes and sweats and to grab a flashlight and a blanket.

I walked them to a field, told them to lie down, and look up - the meteor shower had started. After about a half hour of quiet observation, I asked them if it was okay if I played something for them. I explained that it was something that had a profound effect on me and that I felt this environment was a perfect place in which to share it with them. And so, we listened.

I know many of them had never seen a shooting star before in their life. I also know that none of them had ever heard anything like what they had just heard. I know this because they told me so. One of my girls was moved to the point of tears.

While walking back, I asked if they’d be willing to share what they took away from the Manifesto. I explained that it was your birthday coming up and that I feel that there is no better gift to give someone than to show them how their life matters. They all enthusiastically agreed.

Some of them wrote narratives and others simply made word clouds of the things they felt represented #reallyliving while at camp. What you DON’T see contained in here is, regrettably, probably the most amazing part. We had multiple conversations about what it means to really live. For the remainder of camp they were excited to tell me how they took a risk they wouldn’t have taken before hearing your work. They were excited to tell me about things they wanted to go home and do because of your work.

On behalf of all of us, thank you. Thank you for affording us that moment to #reallylive and bond and share in that experience. Know that you made a difference in the life of 11 people who are young enough to really make great change for years to come.

I couldn’t think of a better time to tell you how important you are and how important the work you do is than on your birthday.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

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I have been working on the "manifesto" on and off for nearly a year now - first recording the vocals, then layering in music and sound effects, and now, with my partner-in-crime Michael Ziener we are layering in hundreds of images and short videos. Attached here is the audio only version of what the girls heard:

It moved me to tears that something that has been so inspired and inspiring to me could be meaningful to the girls of this camp - as young as 12 years old. So I decided to write them a note through their counselor to let them know how much it mattered.

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To the campers of camp Oasis:

Yesterday I received one of the greatest birthday gifts of my life: the considered thoughts and ruminations of fellow dwellers on this errant planet thinking deeply about what is important, and sharing those thoughts with me. I can imagine it: a dozen of you up on a hill on your backs black in the grass watching the brilliant streaks and smoke trails of meteors, simultaneously disappearing into the immensity of the universe and yet recognizing the proximity of your humanity and the bonds you have with each other.

Thank you for including me, for a moment, in your thoughts. Against the ramparts of the stars, the tides of the wind, and on a mattress of blades you included me in your world and we drew each other into possibility. I don't know you, yet I KNOW you. You suffer, you face daunting challenges, you aren't like everyone else. You too are shooting stars.

I answered a survey yesterday that had the following question, "I go out of my way to spare my friends and people I care about from suffering." I didn't know how to answer it. But now I do. My answer? "Strongly disagree." I wouldn't take this suffering from you, I wouldn't steal this incredible crucible of living and learning from you. You hate it at times I'm sure, but it will design you, refine you, galvanize you, define you. Years from now others will fail to have empathy, will crumble under pressure, will struggle with crisis and you will stolidly stand firm, knowing, "I've been through worse."

Burn bright my meteorites.

-JKC

A "Really Living" Moment in Time - guest post by Pauline Steinhoffer

(Guest Post by Pauline Steinhoffer)

Last week I had a very special Really Living moment with my son, Dante, age six, in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Due to the drought, the south shore is so shallow that you can walk out 150 yards (at least) in ankle or knee-deep water. I took Dante out quite far and then told him we were going under water. He was confused because he'd been swimming all week in the pool and we'd been out on the lake paddle-boarding and kayaking, and he wasn't sure why it was necessary to walk so far out in order to dunk ourselves in the depths of the lake.

I know from experience that summer is simply not complete without submerging oneself in an alpine lake. It's so different from any other kind of water experience. The water is crisp and cool and invigorating and puts you fully in the moment. Nature's baptism. The sun was setting when I went under first. I came up for air feeling completely transformed. Dante noticed immediately and he quickly went under water. He emerged with the most triumphant "YES!!" I've ever heard from him.

I have no idea how much time we spent out there splashing, unable to stop laughing, and sharing a pretty incredible experience together, but I will never forget it.

The Key to Memorable “Really Living” Vacations? Fear and Suffering - Part 2: Vultures in Baja

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Want to go on unforgettable, time-stopping vacations that create an indelible stamp on your memory? One guaranteed way: design in, or stumble onto some form of fear and suffering. Almost always the best and most primary memories have incidents of suffering involved that in the moment were a crisis or a struggle, but with the patina of time and under the golden gloss of memory have subsequently become the highlights of those stories you tell. The human brain is wired to identify with the hero’s journey or monomyth and each hero’s journey contains elements of stress and crisis as the center of the plot. Odds are good, your best vacation stories include some sort of challenge or crisis. Part 2: Vultures in Baja.

As a part of any vacation I always do a search online as well as ask people who have been to the destination about “secret” destinations at the locale, specifically either swimming holes, hidden beaches or dramatic overlooks that are not full of people. Back when we lived in Arizona, Baja beckoned as its vast emptiness was only a 3 hour drive from Phoenix (call to adventure) and in my research I had stumbled upon a secret swimming hole and camping spot oddly positioned dozens of miles out into the desert. It was a bartender in San Felipe, Mexico that originally told us about it in secretive tones (assistance).

A month later we drove across the Arizona - Mexico border at Yuma (departure) and immediately our senses were overwhelmed with new sights, sounds and smells. In the border town of Los Algodones the most noticeable details were the innumerable scraps of garbage flapping in the breeze and the cute barefoot children shouting for our attention as they hawked gum and tissues anytime we stopped for a streetlight.  Open air taco stands emanated blue smoke and the aromas of cilantro, onion and grilled carne asada. We exited the town to a new pattern of emanations: patches of arid desert and the dry smell of sage and dust, contrasting with blooms of humidity near stream fed cotton fields redolent of damp earth and clay. For the next 20 miles we traversed the dying entrails of the Colorado river feeding the farms serving the maquiladoras lining the border. Eventually we passed out of the farmland into the moonscape of the Baja peninsula, traversing switchbacks up into stunted outcrops of twisted rock, aprons filled with smooth white sand.

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After climbing the cordon of foothills guarding the peninsula we descended to a 100 mile stretch of dead straight tarmac across the salt flats - remnants of the tidal swings of the Sea of Cortez. Visibility was probably 50 miles in the desert air. With no other vehicles in sight, we set the convertible's cruise control at 105mph and, watching the sun start to sink to our right over the rising ramparts of San Pedro mountains, we flew south on eagle's wings.

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30 miles from San Felipe was the crossroads I had read about in advance - a paved road heading inland and climbing across the cordillera of the Sierra San Pedro before descending to the Pacific ocean.

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We turned right and headed inland for twenty miles before the key decision point from my research: "as the road bends north there will be a number of sand roads heading towards El Diablo - the tallest peak - choose one and just keep heading west."

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We were in a low slung BMW, and we were worried about bogging down, but my source had assured me, "this is a salt flat - most of the way will be like a highway until the final wadis and streams near El Diablo". We headed west on a parallel set of sand tracks. El Diablo, a 10,000 foot peak rising straight out of the sea level salt flats, grew with each passing mile. Soon we entered a 10 mile section of salt flats. To the left and right it stretched for dozens of miles but straight ahead, the "devil peak" grew ever larger and darker as the sun began to sink behind it.

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On the salt flat I let the straight six of the BMW roar and decided to see how fast we could go, hitting 110, 115, 120, 125mph before letting out the clutch and coasting towards the encroaching greenery as we entered the shadow of El Diablo.

My directions, scoured online from several sources, suggested we would skirt a horse farm before hitting the boulder strewn foothills at the base of El Diablo. There were dozens of forks in the road and we ended up circling for a while (trials) and getting nervous as the sun continued to set but after trial and error I found another fairly light set of tracks heading west and we followed them. True to the guidance, we passed a crumbling horse ranch and stable, and then finally started gaining a bit of elevation as we neared the foot of the peak (approach).

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Soon the sand lanes converged, and we entered a copse of trees in a circular space with no exit without 4 wheel drive. We had arrived. We were speechless with excitement. Above us reared a mountain that went from scorched desert to snow capped tips nearly straight up. Out of its maw was a "river" which, at this time of year, was a small trickle of a stream. As we were to discover later, in a desert with no sources of water, this trickle was a main artery for life of all sizes and kinds.

We layered ourselves with sleeping bags and pads, food and wine, and hiked 1/4 mile into the ravine where the mountain formed a cleft protecting its water source. Soon we could see it, hear it and smell it - sudden humidity in the dry desert air. Then, there it was: pools of crystal clear water flowing down from on high and heading out to dissipate in the salt and sand. We climbed onto a giant -  and I do mean giant - boulder perhaps 15 feet high, 30 feet long and 20 feet wide. It was smooth granite with a flat top and provided a space to sleep and light a fire. There was only one fairly difficult route onto its surface so we felt safe from predators.

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We did not bring a tent - this was part of the magic of desert camping - no rain and no dew. The air was cooling quickly but our boulder radiated the heat of the day to warm us even as the sun disappeared behind El Diablo. We sat and watched the desert and salt flats light up yellow then orange from the shade of our perch. We were safe and warm, dozens of miles from the next human being, but not, as it turns out, from other living things.

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After dark we lit a fire and made dinner. Then we stretched out on our sleeping bags on the smooth granite as our fire died. There was no moon yet. The Milky Way emerged so brightly that we noticed we were casting shadows from the stars. We watched satellite after satellite traverse the skies and then a meteor shower so bright we could see the smoke trails behind the burning meteorites in the deep black sky. We then fell asleep.

An hour or two later we met our first wet sticky thing. It was a frog. A tree frog. On my face. My fiancé screamed, "what is it….?? (trials) Oh Its a cute frog… oh, there are lots of them…" Over the next 15 minutes several hundred sticky wet green and yellow-eyed tree frogs hopped across our campsite, traversing our boulder lair in the sky to ponds or trees unknown. One of them, sadly, landed in a mostly empty wine glass and we discovered his drunken cadaver the next morning. We were later reminded of him by his red police chalk outline at home as we loaded the dishwasher.

An hour passed and then a new intrusion waking us up (trials): cattle. A whole herd. With bells on. They came to drink at the clear font at the base of our boulder and then continued their starlight trek south. They stayed, noisily, for an hour.

More sleep and then another interruption: another set of strange sounds but this time familiar: the sound of horsemen straight out of the movies. Lots of them. Now we were scared. Bandits? (trials) In the dark, 3 dozen horses suddenly appeared surrounding us at about 3 am. But there were no saddles and no riders. Just a band of wild horses there to drink. Another hour, and they clopped their way over the rocks and past us, straight up the mountain to places unknown.

We slept uneasily for a bit until my fiancé screamed again (trials). She was sitting up, eyes wide, and pointing.  With the flashlight I found the 8 inch long "stick bug" that had alighted on her arm in the dark. I was transfixed.

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She transferred him to me and I was fascinated - I had always wanted to see one of these strange creatures and here he was, just lounging on my arm looking exactly like a twig, but moving with robotic movements across my wrist. I let him go and we laid back down wondering what was next.

No more intruders woke us, and we slept well into the burning rays of the dawn until the desert sun heat started becoming uncomfortable. We rose, stretched, packed and climbed down to the car, loading everything swiftly and then driving the narrow track back past the horse farm and onto the salt flats. I was feeling cocky and let the engine roar again. We approached 100, 110 mph before an intuition caused me to slow… too late - a Wadi (creek) stretched before us and even after locking up the brakes, the BMW bounced down and then back up the cut in the salt flats at 50mph. We were thrown against our seat belts as we bottomed out, and as we emerged onto the salt flat the sound of the engine changed and the temperature gauge immediately began to rise as smoke started from the engine. I knew something was terribly wrong and stopped and jumped out of the car to witness all of the remaining motor oil in the engine block gushing out onto the dry salt. Peering underneath there was a baseball sized hole in the aluminum oil tank punched through like tin foil from a rock in the Wadi.

We grabbed our remaining water (slightly less than 1 gallon), and began walking, knowing full well that San Felipe was about 60 miles away and that the nearest paved road was about 11 miles further, and that it was 11am and already 100+ degrees. (Crisis) We walked. We talked… for a little and then got quiet. About an hour later we noticed the wake of vultures that had started circling us (real name for a group of vultures). I thought it was circumstantial, but after another hour the initial 2 or 3 became more like 15 and stayed directly overhead – it stopped being funny. I cursed them.

Our hope lay in the possibility of hitchhiking for the highway, but there was no rest from the burning sun. The heat was unbearable with absolutely no shade. We finished our water within two hours. Thoughts turned to returning to the car to wait until night or me running ahead to try to find help. We were beyond terrified that we could die out there and I was feeling guilt and terror that I might have killed us both.

Then suddenly… in the distance we saw it. Two dust devils, contrails of sand wisping vertically out on the salt flat and then, the faint sound of motors. Like a mirage, two motorbikes appeared in the distance across the salt flat out of nowhere. They sped directly toward us.

They were naturally curious as to our situation. "If you don’t mind me asking, why are you walking through the desert in over 100 degree temperatures?" They asked. We shared our story empty water jug in hand. They conferred, and then shared some water, then they saddled us on their bikes, turned around and rode the 6 miles back to our car. They conferred again, and then pulled out some tubes of  "liquid steel" goo, mashed two packs of it together, and slid under the car. They patched the hole with the clay-like silver material and then gave us the 2 quarts of oil they were carrying. (treasure) Our relief was palpable.

"Let it cure for an hour. It should get you to San Felipe - you can get it fixed there. Here’s some more water." Our good fortune and gratefulness was lost in their smiles and the willful adventure calling them forward - they sped off in the desert in a trail of dust. An hour later we started the car, peering under the chassis to determine that the patch was holding. It held. We drove, slowly, with only two quarts in an engine that holds six.

We drove slowly and made it to San Felipe without overheating (results) . We bought more oil and inquired about repairs. 7 days for the part they said, another day to do the repair. That wasn't going to work, so we spent a day at the beach and an evening on the town, reveling in our good fortune.

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The following day we drove all the way home at 45mph… 7.5 hours to Phoenix on a drive that normally took 5, with a band-aid of liquid steel holding our oil pan together but made it without event (return).

Home at last we began to unpack and re-discovered the outline of the upside down drunken frog in one of our wine glasses. We marveled about that trip for years and wanted to recreate it, (new life) but our next visit found us barred by the Mexican military as the area had started to become a drug trafficking center (result). I suppose it was for the best - any return would only have diminished the magic of that starry starry night, casting shadows from the stars.

The Key to Memorable "Really Living" Vacations? Fear and Suffering

The Key to Memorable "Really Living" Vacations? Fear and Suffering Sound counterintuitive? Perhaps. If the goal of a vacation is to eliminate all stress, then cocooning safely by the pool for hours on end with a cocktail and a book might be just the thing. But from an Art of Really Living standpoint, such vacations are like setting a torch to your most valuable commodity: time.

Do you want to go on unforgettable, time-stopping vacations that create an indelible stamp on your memory? There is one guaranteed way: design in some form of fear and suffering.

Sounds crazy? Counterintuitive? Consider this: think back to some of your most memorable vacations as a kid or even as an adult. Almost always the best and most primary memories have incidents of suffering involved that in the moment were a crisis or a struggle, but with the patina of time and under the golden gloss of memory have subsequently become the highlights of those stories you tell. The endless drives across the country with motion sickness. The time you left your sister at a gas station. Getting lost in a foreign city. The time your car overheated driving up the mountain pass. Getting arrested for skiing out of bounds.

This, then, is the key phrase, "the stories you tell." Narratives without trial and suffering essentially have no plot - and without a plot you don't have a story, and without a story, you won't create meaningful memories.

Need more evidence? Consider the "Monomyth" or "Heroes' Journey" first popularized by Joseph Cambell, which many would argue is the basis of any successful narrative. Think Star Wars, the Matrix, Avatar… virtually any blockbuster movie or novel follows this basic 11 step journey, and core to these narratives are trials, fear and crisis.

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Here's a short video analyzing "The Matrix"

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If we accept that the human brain is wired for stories, and that the heroes' journey is the archetype of the most basic narrative pre-wired in our brains, then it follows that any adventure - particularly on vacation - that follows this narrative is bound to be remembered. A lazy-on-a-beachchair-with-a-cocktail vacation might sound like the perfect idyll, but from the perspective that "life is short and actively getting shorter," such a vacation has no narrative. As such, it is time lost. Time wasted. A vacation you will forget.

So… how to design a truly memorable vacation? There is no direct prescription, but in a series of coming posts we will demonstrate through stories examples of "really living" vacations that slowed, expanded, or even created time.

Narrative One: An Adventure in Playa Del Carmen. 

Last year my daughter and I flew into Cancun and were whisked to a resort on the outskirts of Playa del Carmen for a conference where I was giving a keynote speech. We had a couple of days to relax prior to the event. Considering it was March, we were eager to get out to the beach the moment we arrived to the hotel. It was then that I spawned the notion, "Hey Kat - how about we walk the beach to Playa Del Carmen, get dinner in the town, and then take a cab back." (1 - call to adventure)

Her response, "sure - how far is it?"

We asked the man at the front desk. He didn't know, seemed confused by the question, so we just set out with a hand drawn brightly colored not-to-scale map of the coast as our guide. (2 - assistance) It was about 3:30 and the sun was still bright and warmed our skin as we began our journey. (3 - departure)

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We navigated bays and shallows, marched in each other's footprints, investigated tidal pools and peered into ritzy resorts full of pale-skinned sun worshipers.

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As we progressed south, the beach became more rugged and the hotels disappeared. We had been walking for about an hour and a half when Kat started asking, "are we almost there?" I looked at the map. "I think so - maybe a couple more bays." This pattern was to repeat itself several times over the coming hours.

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We were now away from any development but oddly the bays and estuaries were full of people - Mayan families with naked babies splashing in the shallows laughing, dozens of grills and campfires with blue smoke of delicious smelling grilled meats. The sun was dropping, and in the chiaroscuro light it felt like we had entered another world - one hidden from the lights of the resorts - of real people experiencing the simple joys of the sun and the sand and the waves, droplets in the air like diamonds from the splashing of the kids. At several turns we were offered food and greeted warmly, we these tall other-worldly strangers traversing their alter-world.

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Kat's feet began to hurt about 3 hours in. (4 - trials) "Almost there" I told her as we traversed yet another bay and then rocky shoulder, lights finally appearing in the distance beckoning, but not growing any closer. (5 - approach)

It became dark, but still there were lots of people and fires and we had a flashlight we used to traverse the tricky estuaries and rock outcroppings. We were now both tired and had stopped talking, just endless tramping on the sand. We were both starving and also dehydrated having run out of water hours before. Kat was on the verge of tears I was getting very anxious -I began thinking about trying to move inland to find a cab but the dirt lanes leading to these unidentified beaches didn't seem to lend themselves to public transport, and groups of rowdy and aggressive younger males drinking beer in pickup trucks were starting to become more prevalent. (6 - crisis)

One more bay and rocky outcrop and then, there it was, the long stretch and brilliant lights of the Playa Del Carmen main beach. We were ecstatic. We took the first side street up and entered the pedestrian zone of cobbled streets, upscale restaurants with outdoor seating, and a diverse mix of incredible people watching.

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We lost our tiredness and began fantasizing about shrimp ceviche, lobster pasta, seafood pizza, and steak tacos. (7 - treasure) Finally we settled into comfortable chairs of a gorgeous restaurant overlooking a plaza surrounded by palms and proceeded to eat and eat and eat. We were giddy.  It was 9pm - we had walked 5 hours straight, but now the reward was here, food had never tasted better. (8 - result)

When we returned to the hotel, (9 - return) we ran into our main sponsor. "How was your evening" he asked. "Great," we said simultaneously - "we walked to Playa for dinner."

"Walked??" He exclaimed, "Playa is 12 miles away - that must have taken…"

"5 hours - yes yes it was quite the adventure." The concierge, overhearing said, "Wait wait, you walked to Playa - in the dark?! It is very rocky near the north side…."

Kat said, "oh it was fine - we had a flashlight." It became a story repeated all over the complex not only by our conference group, but by the hotel employees. I could tell Kat was secretly proud, and in subsequent trips, her resilience and willingness to try new things significantly increased. (10 - new life)

Now, a year later, we remember that trip not for the fancy resort, not for the amazing meals, not for the gorgeous pools. What we remember most was the suffering / joy of the long excursion to Playa and the otherworld we entered in the gloaming of the evening where few other tourists had traversed before. Not even para-sailing (a first) was more memorable. (11 - resolution)

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A Really Living Moment: Guest Post By Ira Friedman

Sometimes those moments of really living are grand expansive scenes and sometimes they are private moments when a series of mental tumblers fall in place. Regardless, the common thread of all "Really Living" moments is that they create a dent in your chronometer - a notch in the thread of time running through your brain and hence expand the sense of time spent here on earth. Here's a short but elegant summary from friend Ira Friedman of a "Really Moment" from his memories:

------------ In the 1980’s I was in charge of the paper pickers in a state park in NY. It was my job to scan the beach on a Monday morning to see where trash had to be picked up. It was a hot summer day where the temperature was supposed to reach 100º.  At 7AM I was walking the beach.  It was 78º with a wonderful breeze blowing in my face. I was wearing one of the original Walkmans and listening to Bob Seger singing "Against The Wind." I soaked in that moment and that sensation and vowed to remember that moment so that on any given day when the weather was crappy I would call to mind that experience.  In a small way that is what i believe you are saying about "Really Living" - where memorable moments emerge in a spontaneous way that your mind latches onto.

-Ira Friedman

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A Really Living / Event Horizon Moment: Four Movements in Time

Core to the philosophy of the Art of Really Living is creating those intense, memorable moments that slow time. Designing the "Four Movements in Time" performance did exactly that and became a fractal of itself. By performing a show about about really living and creating event horizon moments we simultaneously created a really living event horizon moment in the form of the show. Time slowed dramatically in preparation for the show. The intensity was probably the highest for me as I had two roles and the lion's share of the content. The event featured all 5 components associated with an event horizon moment:

  1. EMOTIONAL INTENSITY: Talk about terrifying. I've never written poetry before, much less performed it as a rant in front of an audience. 81 lines to memorize while flipping slides, changing the lighting with a remote, holding up props, and then changing roles and personas to the TED talk 5 times during the show. That said, hearing Ani play and watching Tess interpret the message flooded me with joy to be associated with such talent and see it come to life.
  2. PHYSICAL INTENSITY: not for me, but certainly Tess (and Ani) were putting it out there physically as you can see in the photos below. The volume of Ani's playing and dramatic dynamics literally gave me goosebumps. Tess's movements are startlingly athletic and flexible.
  3. UNIQUENESS: This was not like anything I or we had done before and really stretched all of us I think. The mix of piano concerto designed in flow with a TED talk about time, syncopated with a poetry rant interpreted through modern dance was unforgettable.
  4. FLOW: I had moments of flow in preparation - especially when I memorized the rant / manifesto and then once on stage I experienced it most of the time I was up there - I assume the same was true for Ani and Tess. It was 80 minutes long but was over in a second.
  5. BEAUTY: The endless sustain of the final chords of the prologue, Ani's elegant black dress and cheekbones, the lights and colors of the slides and lights with the gorgeous face and movements of Tess and a message I believe is beautiful as well: all this fractalized into a micro of the macro message.

Below are some photos from the event. We also captured it in video - not sure when or how we might share it. Regardless we will do it again.

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Really Living on a River: Guest Post by Al Izykowski

Great story of joy and suffering, beauty and physical and emotional intensity from my great friend Al Izykowski: enjoy. It was a Thursday night, March 5th, 5 degrees at 10pm. The full moon hung huge in the crystal clear skies amidst the silence of the windless air as I gazed out the patio door contemplating my life. Choice…plop on the lazy boy and listen to more low grade TV entertainment and commercialized propaganda perpetuating conformity, or get off my ass and listen to the voice in my head and the wonderful sounds outside the door that cannot be imitated, duplicated or replicated.

I could hear the TV in the other room as I began pulling on my bike shorts, tights, layers of clothing and organizing the bike and gear. My wife looks a what I am doing and looks at me with a glance that says, “you are crazy”. I am not deterred. I finish the prep for the conditions and saddle my horse into the van and head off to my launch point. Before I roll I send a text to you my friend, as there is no one else who would better appreciate and would get it. Your text back was: “fuck yeah!” Inspiration! As I rolled out, the air bit crisply and reminded me that I was not a spectator on the lazy boy, but a participant in the real show. Whatever doubts or concerns I may have had about what somebody may think or whether this was a prudent thing to do quickly vanished as I rolled down the bank of the river in the same place I have several times before in the light of day amidst the sights and sounds of whizzing snowmobiles. This was different, way different. No people, no machines, no sounds, no distractions. For a brief moment my brain went on pause, I wondered maybe I am crazy, nobody else is here. As I charged down the river bank onto the frozen ice tracks my ears were greeted with the overwhelming sound of the snow and ice crunching under my tires, reminding me of special memories as a child, and as a father, playing in the snow.

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So here the little journey begins…on the river….and in my mind. Once I settled into the moment the magic began. The huge full moon hung low casting long shadows as the familiar surroundings took on a new look. Within minutes moving down the river the ambient light of the city and the troubles of the day dimmed and I was moved to a unique place. Everything looked different, felt different, and all the while the only sound was that crunching beneath my wheels. I was in auditory overload flooded by that magical sound as my mind raced to sort out the troubles of my day and life.  Thoughts quickly changed to “now” and I entered the zone of really living. As I rolled down the river passing familiar sights and under familiar bridges, the sound beneath my wheels took me to a place of less familiar sights and sounds, in particular the sounds of the ocean. So, I began to experiment with moving in and out of hard pack, into fluff, into ice, and back and forth and until I found a rhythm. I let my mind wander and remember the sounds of lying on a beach in Grand Cayman and what the ocean sounded like. I sashayed in and out of the different surfaces and created the sounds of waves crashing on the shore, and that subtle sound of the backwash as the wave retreating back to sea, and another crashing on the shore, and retreating, crashing and retreating. I wiggled my toes and I could feel the warmth of the sandy beach between them. For a few seconds at a time I would close my eyes, and despite the icicles hanging from my chin, I was on that beach that I re-created in my mind enjoying the sounds of the ocean that I commanded, as the waves crashed and retreated…I basked in its magnificence listening to the sea on frozen river.

And so it went, as I pedaled my ship totally lost in what felt like a moment.

Well all ships must return to port, and even the longest days at the beach lead back home. As I wiggled my toes again I came to the realization that the grit I was feeling was not sand, but the beginning of loss of feeling, I wanted to keep going nonetheless. The further I got from the city and the safety of my car the more I got into the moment. As I write this I still do not remember making a conscience choice to turn and go back, I just did.

And the journey begins anew. I stopped to take a drink and send a photo to you. The insulated water bottle was a solid frozen chunk of ice, the phone displayed a message I never saw before….do not use device, temperature too low. I packed a bottle of Gatorade in my jacket thinking my body heat would keep it viable as a back-up…also frozen solid. Uh oh, no hydration, no communication, and frozen toes in a pair of leather work boots and cotton socks, a long way out and the temp dropped to zero!

Time to switch gears. Though I experienced all the same sights and sounds as I had on the way out, it was a whole different mind set. The ride back brought a whole different perspective, I couldn’t believe I had gone so far in what seemed like just a moment (right?) Now I realized I may be in some trouble. Ironically, the survival ride back was as rewarding as the pleasurable ride out. Fortunately, I turned back just in time. I was gassed, soaked with sweat, dehydrated and toes on the verge of frostbite. I peered around every bend haunted by those comforting waves hoping the next corner would land me be back to start…seriously wondering if I would make it.

The journey back is always a personal one and the self talk within one’s mind is often the difference that defines the experience.  I thought of your journey back. Needless to say I made it and was never in any real danger. The mystery is, that the initial motivation to get as far away was surpassed only by the motivation to get back.

So, what could have, should have, would have been just another mundane Thursday night in the teeth of an angry winter, had I not seized the moment, was instead a short adventure I will always remember and be indebted to the notion of "really living" for.

As I peeled off the sweat soaked layers while the car warmed up, I looked at the clock and was amazed at what I saw. All of this happened in just 2 hours!

Through my shivers I smiled and thought of the Art of Really Living, the messenger, the message. I realized that I had briefly expanded time, compacted time, and if only for a little while, I really lived! Thank you, thank you!

The best things in life often really are free…..if we are willing to pay for them.

A Story of Really Living: Guest Post by Gary Goebel

Today: guest blog from Gary Goebel, master (mostly unaware) of the Art of Really Living. Gary is a great friend and unassumingly inspiring. Here’s a guy who tends to talk about his risk aversion, his periods spent as a lawyer and teacher, and “domesticated life” as a stay at home dad. What comes out around the edges, is that this is the same guy who left the rock star house-on-the-hill (literally in this case - formerly owned by the lead guitarist for the Scorpions) and along with his star-powered attorney wife Monica, abandoned the money-chasing rat race and moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin to enjoy the fruits of their labors while still young enough to experience them fully. A 2-year sabbatical followed by a job here and there, and then most recently two other massive adventures - first an 8 month sojourn into the jungles, beaches and teeming cities of Central and South America - with 8 and 10 year old boys in tow going to “the school of life.” And now, unhappy with the local school system dynamics with his elder son, Gary has taken on home-schooling an 11 year old boy with traditional curriculum, unique experiences, and lots of TED talks.

Seriously, when other people only dream of taking the big chances and changing their lives forever, Gary and Monica have proven willing to take the risks to do so repeatedly. Every day as I consider what the Art of Really Living is really about, I think of Gary and Monica, and the strengths, resiliency, and time-expanding adventures they have been on over the last decade. With that, I turn it over to Gary and his adventures in time down in Latin America with the only edit being the addition of Really Living elements:

ELEMENTS AND CONTRASTS OF REALLY LIVING MOMENTS:

  1. Unique/Mundane
  2. Beautiful/Ugly
  3. Physically invigorating/exhausting
  4. Emotionally deep (Love/Courage, Hate/Fear)
  5. Flow State

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I have known John Coyle for years, not as long as some, but have seen him in a number of personal and professional settings.  I have always admired his gusto, his pursuit of adventure, and, basically, his commitment to “really live.” I assumed he was just the type of person who "lived large." It was who he was, and of course, this was natural for him. But what about the rest of us?  If we didn’t share his DNA, were these adventures just something to dream about?

It was only recently that I learned that his actions are part of a conscientious philosophy, and that others can follow suit. In fact, he pointed out that my wife Monica and I have a history of the kind of risk-taking and creating incredible experiential moments for ourselves and our two young sons, that represents the heart of The Art of Really Living.

One recent time-expanding experience came in the Summer of 2013.  I had just gotten out of a life-draining business (mundane), and Monica was working from home as a one-on-one business development coach for lawyers. Our two sons were ages 8 and 10.  Monica was hit with an epiphany! We had no jobs that forced us to be anywhere in the foreseeable future. It was time for World Travel!  (unique)

It is too trite to say we packed our bags and hit the open road. That sounds so romantic and whimsical. To plan and tackle a trip like this requires a decent amount of suffering: there was a lot of discussion, disagreement, research, preparation, arrangements, etc. to be made before our new dream could become a reality.

Eventually we settled on a Central America as a starting point. Why? We wanted to learn Spanish and enjoy beaches. Panama fit the bill because unlike the Central American countries a bit further north, there is no hurricane season. Also, flights were cheap, health care good, and they accept the US dollar.

Our adventure started almost a month before going abroad. We rented out our house, much earlier than anticipated, because we found an ideal tenant who was interested in a four month lease of our fully furnished house. Suddenly, we became “homeless.”  That was an experience, but a story for another time. Let me just say that in times like that you know who your friends truly are.  It was like a month long going away party!

Leaving all our worldly possessions behind (except backpacks), and giving our two boys the benefit of “the school of life,” we hit the road for a minimum of four months. We purchased one-way tickets to Ciudad Panama as our launch pad, enrolled in a Spanish Language Immersion School, and arranged to live with host families (unique). We started by spending two weeks in the mountain town of Boquete and two weeks more on the Caribbean island Bocas del Toro, with some exploration time between the two destinations.  (beauty)

Beyond that, we did not formulate a plan. Who knew what we would do or where we would go?  We decided to see what felt right after we arrived. I jokingly told people we would be back when A) We ran out of money; B) We got tired of dysentery; or C) We were kicked out of a country with no where else to turn. Honestly, most family and friends could not get their heads wrapped around a non-itinerary such as that. But that was the plan, or non-plan, if you will. “So really, when ARE you coming back?” Part of “really living” as we have learned is not trying to force amazing moments to happen, but instead trying to create the right kind of environments where possibility for serendipity is ripe.

So how long did we stay? As it turns out, 8 months. We traversed the cities, beaches, jungles and cloud forests of Panama for 7 weeks (physically challenging). Then, we traveled by bus over the border to Costa Rica and lived in a cabana in the jungle near the Pacific Ocean for a month. (beauty, uniqueness)

Next, we took a bus from San Jose, Costa Rica to Panama City to meet John Coyle and his family for Thanksgiving in the San Blas Islands.  There, we sailed for days on a catamaran with Captain Jean Charles and a Guna Yala guide named Ronnie.

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Sadly we all managed to get sick during this period (physically challenging) but bonded in close quarters along the way (emotionally deep). Next, we were dropped off on a tiny palm fringed island smaller than a city block, with gorgeous white sand beaches and a laid back vibe.  We lived in straw huts and ate meals provided by Franklins -- family who owned the island. (beauty, uniqueness)

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After the Caribbean Island time, we flew to Quito Ecuador, and  rented a condo for six weeks. While in Ecuador, we explored the Andes mountain towns, the villages in Amazonia, and the Galapagos Islands.  We traveled by planes, trains, canoes, boats, horses, taxis, vans, flat-bed trucks with benches bolted to the bed, buses, bicycles and foot. (physically arduous, emotionally scary)

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When our three month tourist visa expired, we again traveled over an international border into Peru, but this time on foot, not by luxurious plane. There, we discovered yet another form of travel- we called them loco-motos, but they were really just jerry-rigged motorcycles modified to transport more people and things.  The Peruano ingenuity with these transports was nothing short of miraculous! They could move mountains! But if you have visited Machu Picchu, you know that Peruanos have historically moved mountains.

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Each time  we left a “safe and secure” spot (OK, at least one where we had developed some level of comfort or that felt somewhat familiar), was incredibly stressful.  At least for me.  Were we going to the proper bus terminal?  Did we buy the right ticket?  Would we be crossing a border at the best or safest time?  How would we change our currency?  Was our gear secure? What forms of transportation, if any, awaited us?  Could this taxi driver be trusted?  Would we be over-charged?  Robbed?  (emotional depth - fear, anxiety) Travel here is not the same as there.  I often railed when people asked about our “vacation.”  There may be many words to describe what we did, but I do not see vacation as one of them.  I tend to reserve that word for going to Disneyland or sitting at a resort by the pool with a Mai Tai.

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During our travels, time passed fast and slow, we had periods of quiet contentment, boredom, painfully long journeys, beauty and of course those certain memories that just implant themselves, seemingly of their own accord, and serve to become the “stories of the road” - the experiences that “made a dent” that we will always remember, like:

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  • The dramatic passing of an ancient grandfather in the bedroom next door to the boys on our first night with our first host family; (unique, emotionally deep, beauty too)
  • Taking 36 hours to go from door to door from our tiny cabana in Costa Rica to Park Ridge, Illinois, without cell phone, GPS, my more fluent wife, or any other niceties; (emotionally, physically stressful)
  • Having our cabana burgled while we lounged comfortably on the beach; (fear, anxiety)
  • The intimate connection with the ocean, land and animals in the Galapagos; (beauty, emotional depth)
  • Befriending other traveling American families in one country and meeting up again in another;  (emotional depth, love)
  • Traversing the Sacred Valley of Peru and all that it offered; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Floating down an Amazonia River on inner tubes; (beauty)
  • White river rafting on the border of Costa Rica and Panama;
  • Working to create a new girls’ home for young mothers in Cuzco, Peru
  • Dancing in the streets at Carnival in Chachapoya, Peru (beauty)
  • The camaraderie of fellow backpackers singing around a fire, kicking back beers in hostels, riding bikes on volcanos, and soaking in natural hot springs in the mountains.  (uniqueness, emotional depth)
  • 24 hour bus trips; (physical challenge)
  • Eating exotic “street meats” and quail eggs from vendors, buying artisan cheeses  from colorfully attired indigenous women… almost any of our culinary experiences; (beauty, uniqueness)
  • Chicken Buses (fear, love, beauty, ugliness, uniqueness)
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We could write a small book on the trip (my musings can be found on our blog at http://ottoowenmonicagary.blogspot.com/ ).  Not a day goes by that I do not think back to one thing another about our 8 month odyssey. Did we really live? Unequivocally! We were not just tourists. We absorbed and experienced an entirely different world than the one we had left.  Did we expand time? Absolutely - those 8 months fill our mental data banks with the equivalent of years of memories had we stayed home, and we continue to relive special moments, reach out to new friends found abroad, and explore future roads we might have otherwise closed if not for the experience. Whatever money, convenience, peace-of-mind, etc we sacrificed, has been recouped ten-fold.

“Wait,” you say, “that all sounds fun, but I  couldn’t do that…” Let me challenge you here. . You couldn’t do that because… of your house, your car, your belongings? What are those things “worth?” vs. experiences?     935611_10202178672043468_1905013855_n

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Let me share the story of a certain famous rock star, as related in the book, “What Happy People Know” by Dr. Dan Baker.  In the book, the author relates the story of a famous rock star who had turned to drugs and alcohol because he felt so “trapped” by the establishment - recording deals he HAD to complete, concert tours he HAD to fulfill. Here he was worth a hundred million or more and he was miserable feeling like he had no choices. Easy for us to look in from a afar and say, “wait - you can just walk away, travel the world, live on an island, do whatever you want with all that money… and you still have your talent.”

But how different is that from you and I? Many of us have savings, or could scrape some together if we lived more frugally. We’ve invested in education and careers that make us easily hireable.  Yet .. we can’t take 3 or 6 or 12 months off because... ? Why?  Our THINGS? our JOBS? MONEY?

I challenge you - what are we working for anyway? to die on a stack of money or to “really live?”

Everyone dies, not everyone really lives…  I want to really live!

Yes, I'm Terrified: Join Us for a Study of Four Movements in Time, March 28th

On Saturday, March 28th, I'll be teaming up with concert pianist Ani Gogova,  http://anigogova.com and modern dancer Tess Collins for a unique fusion experience of Art, Poetry, Movement, Talk and Music. In full disclosure, I'm completely terrified. Ani is an amazing concert pianist full of drama and emotion and skill. Tess is an elegant archetype of the modern dancer, flowing like water. Me? I talk good (supposedly). But.. poetry???

I'm not a poet and I know it. Nonetheless in the spirit of The Art of Really Living and in an homage to my lost friend Kevin Bennett, Stanford poet laureate, I'm going to lyricize some poetry in syncopation with Tess's movement, Ani's music and my recent TED talk. I hope you'll join us. Heckling, well, sure...

More information to come, but here's a draft of the flyer:

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Design for Resiliency: Why Almost Dying is Also “Really Living”

Why almost dying is also often “Really Living” As mentioned in the last post, time expanding “really living” moments tend to have a set of consistent characteristics – either they are truly unique, or feature a sense of extreme beauty. They may be physically intense, or emotionally deep, or feature moments of “flow” where you utilize natural strengths to their limits. Occasionally all five of these aspects converge into the same place at the same time and in the magic of that moment create they create an “event horizon moment” where the gravity of the event is so powerful that time stands still and you remember it forever (often “as if it was yesterday.” Often moments such as these feature contrasting emotions of courage out of fear, joy out of pain, beauty out of ugliness, happiness from sadness.

ELEMENTS AND CONTRASTS OF REALLY LIVING MOMENTS:

  1. Unique/Mundane
  2. Beautiful/Ugly
  3. Physically invigorating/exhausting
  4. Emotionally deep (Love/Courage, Hate/Fear)
  5. Flow State

Below is the story of event horizon moment from my life where I suffered and nearly died, but instead thrived and survived, laughed and loved, all wearing only a silver and pink spandex suit….

An “Event Horizon” moment of “Really Living.”

I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. Gray streets, gray skies, gray buses, gray people. Mundane. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.

After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.

I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.

First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. I had no money so... ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand. Unique.

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Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.

Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”

I told them.

“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!” Joy.

I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny). Love, comaraderie.

Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission. Fear, despair.

My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’

A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.

I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible? Exhaustion.

I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.

This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.

I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab. Joy.

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I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” – the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.

The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination. Unique.

“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.

I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.

Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.

Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.

I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.

4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.

The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.

Translation. “Get out.”

That’s what all that meant…

So I got out.

What else could I do? Fear.

I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.

I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp…

Then, location: where was I?  Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.

I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.

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Thank you Timmons.

Now what?

As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.

The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.

I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.

Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.

As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.

As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. Terror. My jaw was still chattering though.

I began again – but back towards the light.

I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.

So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.

Enduring.

My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.

Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.

At some point I began to realize that I could die.

Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind… Despair.

It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.

Unbelievable! Hope! Joy.

Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.

My despair reached new levels.

3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?

No one.

I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.

So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..

After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…

Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.

I resolved to follow a row.

I followed that row.

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It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe  I could…

I stopped. I turned around.

I saved my own life. Hope.

I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.

First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…

What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.

Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.

Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.

Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.

I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.

I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks. Invigorating.

Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.

I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath.  I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.

It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.

I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.

Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm!  I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?

When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday. I was in the middle of a gorgeous golden field glistening w/ the crystalline residue of the rain. Beauty.

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I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through. Joy.

It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’

The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon. Fear.

Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and looked ahead and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.

Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.

Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a combine collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…

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I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.

The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its open-mouthed astonishment – I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.

I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the silver hood – overtop the other 2 suits.

So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…

And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and silver…

Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…

And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!

I began to laugh.  Joy. The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my scarecrow stubbled jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.

I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session. I told them the story in my broken German and we laughed the whole trip. I couldn’t have been happier…

Beauty, Fear, Despair, Joy, Exhaustion, Invigoration, Flow.

An Event Horizon of Really Living.

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So What Do Strengths Have to Do With "The Art of Really Living?"

So What Do Strengths Have to Do With "The Art of Really Living?" (and, what is that anyway?)

WHAT: We all have had moments that were so intense, so memorable, and so full of life, that they created indentations in our memory. I describe these time-expanding experiences as moments of “really living.” The Art of Really Living (TAORL) is a movement and a philosophy to help people design and live strengths-focused resilient lives by designing powerful experiences that slow time and help you live (almost) forever.

"In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years." (Abraham Lincoln)

WHY: Because TIME is the most valuable commodity we have as human beings. Life is short, and thanks to a cognitive bias in our brains that causes our perception of time to accelerate, life is actively getting shorter. People around the globe miss their chances to expand time and “really live,” while they helplessly watch their lives accelerate and race by. They are stuck below their level of capability, trapped by stifling routines and a relentless focus on weaknesses, mired in careers noted by small risks and small rewards, and leading lives of quiet desperation. They are not really living. I want to change that and through TAORL play the role of the chrysalis, breaking the clay of grey men, revealing the colors of the sleeping poet, painter, musician or hidden genius within.

Everyone dies. Not everyone really lives.

HOW:

By designing our lives to reverse this cognitive bias we can slow and expand the ticking of the clock which gives us back the most precious of all currencies: time.

  • S + R x T = TAORL
  • Strengths + Resilience x Time  = The Art of Really Living
  • The Art of Really Living helps people to create these moments by:
  1. Aiding people in designing strengths-focused lives full of willpower, confidence and motivation to pursue these moments that often feature a state of “flow” and create memories
  2. Developing resiliency to weather the intensity and stresses endemic to “really living” moments
  3. Understanding the non-linear nature of experiential time and learning how to design more "really living moments" that will lead to time expansion

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So why is a strengths-focused life essential to "really living" and expanding time? In the end it all comes back to myelin - that mysterious substance in the brain that wraps neurons and increases the speed of impulses and communications in the brain.

Living a strengths-centered life allows for two things to take place simultaneously:

  1. It increases resiliency and the ability to withstand stress and persevere in pursuit of those things that "really matter."
  2. A strengths centered life focuses your time and activity on the myelinated circuits in your brain: those that can communicate up to 1000 time faster than unwrapped circuits - meaning that the amount of data being shared and recorded is orders of magnitude greater than in areas of weakness. Translation: a strengths-centered life records more data, has more moments of "flow," records more memories. More memories = more time.

Living a strengths-centered life allows for us to design and weather the kinds of experiences where "really living” moments take place, and it ensures they are recorded in a high definition camera for a huge databank of time expanding memories.

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Want to learn more about finding your strengths and designing a life for them? I would be so pleased if you would join us for our Strengths 2.0 Summit February 13th in Chicago – details below:

Join John K. Coyle and Dr. David Rendall Feburary 13th in Chicago for our Strengths 2.0 Summit, a half day workshop to use design thinking to find your strengths and design through your weaknesses. Click the link below to learn more and register.

Strengths 2.0 Summit

Looking for Your Strengths? Examine Your Weaknesses… (pt. 1)

Matt Stutzman: IMG_5076

In many ways, Matt Stutzman is just your average guy. A hardworking, married, 33-year old with three children, Matt, like many fathers, goes to work, changes diapers, hunts and fixes cars.

However, unlike most other fathers, Matt Stutzman has no arms. Born with a rare medical condition, Matt has had to learn to navigate life without the benefit of arms, opposable thumbs and everything in between.

Clearly this is a very tangible weakness that created significant adversity for Matt to overcome. Matt had to learn to do all of life’s tasks — mundane or significant — without the benefit of arms and hands. Tying shoes, opening doors, driving, feeding himself, all of this, Matt learned to do with his feet.

What is fascinating about Matt’s story is that in his case, his significant weakness is also an extraordinary and fantastic strength. In 2012, Matt became an Olympic silver medalist and he holds a world record…

…in Archery.

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How is it possible that a man without arms holds a world record in a sport for the “armed”? Matt’s legs and feet are nearly every bit as nimble as the average man’s arms and hands, but are two — or perhaps three — times as strong. So, Matt can shoot more arrows in practice than your average archer without getting tired, use a greater level of resistance on his compound bow when shooting, and hold his aim steadier than, well, anyone on the planet.

[embed]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgEiROtmXwU[/embed]

Consider this: Matt’s greatest weakness, when analyzed in a new light, is also his greatest strength.

Seeking to find your strengths? Sometimes the best place to start is in your weaknesses.

What Strength Will You Focus on in 2015?

“It doesn’t take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go.” (J. C. Watts) In 2015, I will focus on developing some relatively newly-discovered strengths and deliberately designing around the well-trodden paths of my weaknesses.

  • Strengths: I will spend more time writing and speaking (a relatively newly-discovered strength). Both of these activities fill me with energy and purpose, and bring color into my life. I have already discussed this with my employer and designed my job description to focus on these areas.
  • Weaknesses: I will stop pretending that I have significant strengths in detail orientation and follow-through. I will rely on people who are strong in these areas, so that I can dream big and still deliver.

Please share: What strength will you focus on in 2015? Or what weakness are you chasing that you will let go or turn over to someone else?  Please share with our community by commenting below.

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The 1, 2, 3's on Leading a Strength-Focused Life

The 1 / 2 / 3's on Leading a Strength-Focused Life

  1. What are your greatest strengths? Do you know what they are? (If not, why not?)

"Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his/her greatest strength." (Marcus Buckingham)

  1. Is there a strength or talent you have let lie dormant or that you need to focus on in 2015? 

"You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses." (Marcus Buckingham)

  1.  Have you been pursuing a weakness at work or in another area of your life you need to let go in 2015? 

"It doesn't take a lot of strength to hang on. It takes a lot of strength to let go." (J. C. Watts)

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Want help finding your strengths?   http://strengthssummit2015. eventbrite.com

Do Your Strengths Have a Color? Synaesthesia and Talents

Synaesthesia is one of my new favorite words and concepts. As Wickipedia defines it, synaesthesia (or synesthesia) "is a neurological phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes."

Synesthetes often experience this phenomenon in the course of every day life - vowels, for example for many synesthetes have colors where as consonants don't. But I'm particularly interested in the intersection of synaethesia and strengths and talents. What if your strengths and areas of talent have a color or a sound, or both?

For years I've been describing my feelings when in a state of "flow" or deeply immersed in an area of strength as having a color - often a vibrant blue or yellow or orange and conversely moments of weakness as colorless, black or red. What I never talked about and never knew how to articulate is that in these "photisms" or "chromesthesia" episodes I actually SAW these colors, tasted and heard these colors. In fact, my personal form of synaethesia involves color and sound - a hum, or thrumming permeates my brain and I see what I'm doing tinged with vibrant colors of orange, yellow and violet blue that has a fractal nature about it. Examples:

"The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows, blues and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked."

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"I choose to repaint this race differently. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing."

Conversely when I'm suffering or pursuing a weakness, color and sound disappears... an example:

"The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind."

As a kid when I would ride my bike - whenever there was a sprint or an acceleration I would hum inside my head. In the early days it was sort of a motorcycle sound and I assumed it was an artifact not dissimilar to putting a playing card in the spokes to sound like a motor, but over time I just realized I did the same thing when skating or when painting or when working certain subjects in school. Now I get it when I'm writing, riding, racing or traveling.

So an oft repeated question is, "how do I know if something I'm doing is a strength?" "How do I know if something I'm doing is a weakness, or just a skills gap?"

Perhaps one way to know might to be to simply ask, "what color is it? what does it sound like?"

I close every speech on finding your strengths with the following advice: When seeking your strengths, "pay attention to your internal hum: you'll know it when you see it, feel it, hear it."

PS: this whole post was a medium blue, tinged with some yellow.

An Event Horizon Moment: Guest Post by Neil Sprackling

A Moment of Really Living I grew up with an undying passion for soccer and in particular my team Crystal Palace FC, the club where I was born and raised in South London. This has everything to do with my father and my obsession seems to have become greater the older I have become.

Fast forward 40 years and I have a son of my own, Julen, born and raised in Australia and now living in the United States. No reason at all that he should either like soccer or be a blossoming Crystal Palace FC fan. Fortunately for me he is both (which might have a sneaky bit to do with me).

As his loyalty with the club increased, I realized I wanted to do something special for him that I never did at his age: be a match day mascot. Now of course when I was 11, being a mascot was not the experience it is today. So on the eve of the 2012/13 season I called the club to inquire about Julen becoming a mascot. I was told that as long as I wasn't looking for a game in the coming months, it would be no problem. So I chose a game towards the end of the season, mindful that I would need to organise a weekend and flights to London for the occasion.

I waited for a special moment at one of our traditional family Sunday evening roast dinners to tell him. I wasn't even sure whether he knew what a mascot was but on sharing the news of our impending weekend, his face said it all as he broke out into a huge beaming smile. I'll never forget the moment.

Fast forward a couple of months to our weekend together in London. I was intent on making it a weekend we'd never forget so on arrival in London, we spent the afternoon at the Natural History museum and then caught a sci-fi movie. The next day we did an open top bus tour of London, visited the Tower of London and finished the day with my brother and best friend at the theatre seeing Beatlemania. We spent so much quality 1:1 time together, just chatting about anything that came to mind.

We saved the best for last of course. On Saturday April 13, we headed to Selhurst Park, South London, home of my beloved Eagles. We got there 3 hours before kick off to be greeted at the players' entrance and taken to the VIP lounge for lunch. Julen changed in to his full Palace gear  and was shepherded away to meet the team in the dressing room (the only part I couldn't join!). He returned beaming from ear to ear, with the white T shirt we had bought (that said "Love Palace, Love Football") signed by all the players and manager.

I had also arranged for my Dad and my brother to join us on the day and they arrived as Julen disappeared back into the dressing room to prepare for the team's pre-match warm up on the pitch. I was allowed to go pitch side to take photos and much to my delight, I was even given permission to stand by the players' tunnel with my video camera as both teams entered the stadium. As Julen came out hand in hand with the club captain, I had tears in my eyes.

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It was a wonderful game that finished 2-2 and the icing on the cake was that Palace went on to the play off final that year, won the game and got promoted back to the Premier League. The stuff that dreams are made of.

On our last day in London we met up with my Dad and step Mum and they took us on a mini road trip around the area of South London where I was born including the town where my Dad was raised . This was made all the more special by stories from my Dad about growing up in London during World War 2

On our return to the US, I had his signed T shirt framed together with photos from the day and the ticket stub. It was a day that neither of us will ever forget and was truly a "moment of really living".

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How to Speed Through Life With Nothing to Remember:

So… Go ahead, avoid the highs and lows of life – and here’s what you are going to get: Each September will come faster, leaves piled at your feet

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and no one, NO ONE will warm you or sing you to sleep

Want to speed through life with nothing to remember?

Here’s how to reap another pale September:

Watch lots of tv, sit on the couch,

Eat the exact same foods, develop a pouch

Meet no new friends, become a stay at home grouch

Do the same damn thing every single day, walk with a slouch

Your arm chair? The gauze of advil, and air conditioning, Your staid routines and complacent pace?

These things are the warp drive to temporal hyperspace.

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What About Your Life, Is Time Speeding Up or Slowing Down

What about your life – is time speeding or slowing down? 98% of adults feel life is accelerating, I don’t know about you, but that brings me down

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HOW.IS.THAT.OK?

Who ordered the code red? (who let tom cruise in this monologue? – he’s too short – just like your life)

You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth

Here’s your code red:  Here’s the truth:

Experiential time, absent aggressive action to reverse it, will keep speeding up

So… Go ahead, avoid the highs and lows of life – and here’s what you are going to get: