“Man’s mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions.” OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
As he stood on the flight deck, the young lieutenant watched a jet plane skid out of control onto the aircraft carrier, a wing slashing out and nearly cutting in half a man standing only a few feet away. The only thing that pulled him through the horror of the moment was the booming voice of his commanding officer shouting at him: “Somebody get a broom, and sweep these guts off the deck!” There was no time to think.
He had to respond immediately. He and his fellow crewmen swept their comrade’s body parts off the landing strip. In that instant, nineteen-year- old George Bush had no choice but to learn to deal with the carnage of war. It would be a memory he would recite often to describe the shock of violent death and the necessity to be able to respond.
Another experience that shaped his life was a bombing mission he flew not long after the tragedy on the ship’s deck. He was sent to bomb a radio tower on a small island in the South Pacific. Chichi Jima was a Prisoner of War facility run by an infamous Japanese officer, Matoba, who Bush and his crew knew had committed brutal war crimes against his prisoners: such unbelievable atrocities as cannibalizing some of the men and putting their remains into the soup for meat, feeding it to the other prisoners, and then telling them afterward that they had eaten human flesh.
As young George Bush approached the target, he was absolutely resolved to isolate this madman by destroying his only tool of communication: the radio tower. As he approached his bombing run, he was hit by enemy attack. Smoke filled the cabin, but he was determined to hit his mark. In the final seconds, he managed to release the bomb, smashing the target and destroying the antenna. Instantly he gave the orders to eject. He turned the plane back out to sea, and when his turn came, the bailout didn’t take place as planned. His body was slammed against the tail of the aircraft, tearing a portion of his parachute and grazing his head.
The damaged parachute functioned only partially in breaking his fall, but just before he hit the water, he cut himself loose. Struggling back to the surface with blood oozing from his head wound, he desperately groped for his life raft. He found it, but as he dragged himself into it, he saw that the water and food canisters had been destroyed upon impact with the aircraft’s tail. To make matters worse, the current was slowly pulling him directly toward the beach of the island he’d just bombed. Can you imagine what they would do to him? As his raft was drawn closer and closer to the shore, his fear grew. Then, suddenly, he began to see something in the water. At first he thought it was his imagination, then he realized it was a periscope. He was about to become a prisoner of the Japanese.
But as the huge submarine began to lift out of the water in front of him, he realized it was the Finback, an American submarine! He was rescued, but only in time for him to have to endure yet more peril164. Upon picking up Bush, the Finback dropped quickly as the enemy boats approached and began dropping depth charges on the submarine. All the Finback could do was dive and remain totally still. The crew was unable to do anything but call upon their faith and pray that the explosives would not destroy them.
George Bush not only survived this experience, but also completed many other successful bombing missions, and returned a war hero. He said that his days upon that submarine were some of the most important of his life—days when he began to think about destiny, about who he was and why he was put on earth.
What role did these experiences play in shaping the character, identity, and destiny of George Bush? Clearly, they became the fabric from which many of his core beliefs and values would be cut—the fabric I call reference experiences—these experiences would be part of what would guide him more than forty years later to becoming President of the United States. They also helped to mold his beliefs and his sense of certainty that good must “stand up to evil.” They gave him a sense of confidence that if he gave his all and didn’t give up, he would produce the results he desired against all odds. How do you think these references shaped his actions almost five decades later as he sat in the Oval Office, contemplating his response to Saddam Hussein’s unprovoked invasion of friendly Kuwait?
If we want to understand why people do what they do, a review of the most significant and impactful reference experiences of their lives certainly gives us clues. References—the fifth element of a person’s Master System—really provide the essence, or the building blocks, for our beliefs, rules, and values. They are the clay from which our Master System is molded. There is no doubt that a person who has experienced and triumphed over tremendous adversity clearly has strong references from which to build a consistent level of confidence—a belief or faith in themselves and in others, and the capacity to overcome challenges.
The larger the number and greater the quality of our references, the greater our potential level of choices. A larger number and greater quality of references enables us to more effectively evaluate what things mean and what we can do. The reason I say “potential” choice is that, while references provide us with the foundational ingredients of our beliefs, we often fail to organize our references in ways that strengthen us. For example, a young man may have tremendous confidence and skill on the football field, but when he enters his history class, he may fail to summon that same sense of certainty that could help him to maximize his potential as well in the classroom as he does when he’s facing his foe across the line on the gridiron. If he approached football with the same attitude of defeat or doubt as he did his history class, he’d be incredibly ineffective.
What determines which of our references we use? Clearly, the emotional state we’re in will radically impact which files—i.e., which memories, emotions, feelings, sensations that we’ve stored—are available to us. When we’re in a fearful state, only the references we’ve associated with those fearful sensations in the past seem to come to mind, and we find ourselves caught up in a loop (“fear” leading to “reference of fear” leading to “multiplied fear”).
If we’re feeling hurt by someone, we tend to open the file and remember every other experience when that person hurt us, rather than changing our state by remembering how this person really feels about us, remembering times when they’ve been loving to us. Therefore, the state we’re in will determine how much of this fabric is available for the creation of a quality life. Another factor besides state is to have an expanded reference system, one that can clearly add to our level of understanding as to what is possible and what we’re capable of, no matter what challenges may arise.
There’s no doubt references are one of the most important elements of our decision-making process. They clearly will shape not only what we do, but how we feel and who we become. Contrast Saddam Hussein’s reference experiences with George Bush’s. We know that Saddam’s father physically abused him, that his uncle taught him how to nurture a grudge and to hate the English “overlords.” While Bush was rewarded for heroism, Saddam’s role models were those who learned to control others with murder and propaganda.
Over a period of about fifteen to twenty years, Saddam repeatedly attempted to oust the leader of Iraq, killing anyone who got in his way. As a result, he doesn’t perceive setbacks, regardless of how bloody—as failures; he’s come to believe that in the long run he’ll always succeed.
This is a belief, by the way, that has allowed him to prevail even after his defeat in the Persian Gulf War. By the age of forty-two he had eliminated his opponents and taken control of Iraq. To many, Saddam is a monster, and people often wonder how the Iraqis can support him. The answer is that Iraqis perceive Saddam Hussein as one who helped turn things around in their country: he helped to provide better housing, education, and so on. To the Iraqis, he is a hero. Besides, all Iraqis from the age of four or five are taught that he’s a hero. His image is displayed everywhere, and they see only his best side on nationally controlled television.
Did Saddam Hussein become a murderer purely because of his references of being abused as a child? Far from it. Many people have emerged from very similar reference experiences as compassionate and sensitive people who, because of their pain, would never allow anyone else to be abused around them. Many of these people strive to help others. Could someone else have been on that same ship with George Bush and been devastated by the death of their friend, and used that as a reference for the belief that life is not worth living or that war is never justified? You bet. Once again, it’s not our references, but our interpretations of them, the way we organize them—that clearly determine our beliefs.
Which references play the largest role in our life’s experiences? It all depends on what we get reinforced for. Saddam was rewarded for cutting a wide swath of murder and destruction en route to leadership of his country. George Bush was reinforced constantly for his focus on “doing the right thing,” contributing, and helping those in need. These reinforcements helped to create foundations for very different destinies for these men’s lives.
WHAT ARE REFERENCES?
References are all the experiences of your life that you’ve recorded within your nervous system— everything you’ve ever seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled—stored away inside the giant file cabinet of your brain. Some references are picked up consciously, others unconsciously. Some result from experiences you’ve had yourself; others consist of information you’ve heard from others, and all your references, like all human experience, become somewhat distorted, deleted, and generalized as you record them within your nervous system. In fact, you also have references for things that have never happened—anything you’ve ever imagined in your mind is also stored in your brain as a memory.
Many of these references are organized to support beliefs and, as you learned in Chapter 4, a belief is nothing but a feeling of certainty about what something means. If you believe you are intelligent, it’s because you have activated certain references to support that feeling of certainty.
Maybe you’ve had the experience of successfully tackling mental challenges, such as acing a test or running a business well. All of these reference experiences act as “table legs” to support the idea, or “table-top,” that you are intelligent.
We have enough references within us to back up any idea we want: that we’re confident or that we’re weak, that we care or that we’re selfish. The key is to expand the references that are available within your life.
Consciously seek out experiences that expand your sense of who you are and what you’re capable of, as well as organize your references in empowering ways.
“The knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet.” LORD CHESTERFIELD
Not long ago I heard about a man who found $35,000 cash in a bag on the street. He instantly sought out and returned it to the owner. Everyone who heard the story wanted to congratulate this man, but he shied away from the media and refused to be filmed. He adamantly insisted that returning the money was the right and only thing he could do. It turned out that this money was the life savings of a sixty-eight-year-old woman, and through his one act he probably saved her financial life, yet he refused to take credit. Why? Clearly the references of his past had helped him to develop a belief that taking credit for doing what obviously was the right thing would be totally inappropriate. He didn’t decide to avoid the recognition on a whim; he had a sense of certainty that only his life references could create.
Think of your references, both those you consider to be good and bad, as a giant bolt of fabric woven from your experiences. With the other elements of your Master System—your state, questions, values, and beliefs—you cut a pattern from this fabric that enables you to make decisions about what to do with your life. You have an inexhaustible supply of references that can be designed any way you wish. And each day, you’re adding to this supply. One important measure of a person’s intelligence is the way in which they use their fabric of references. Do you craft a curtain to hide behind, or do you fashion a magic carpet that will carry you to unequalled heights? Do you consciously dig through your life experience and pull out those memories that empower you most on a consistent basis?
As you learned in Chapter 4, probably one of the most valuable things that references do for us is to provide a feeling of certainty. Without them, we would live our whole lives afraid or in doubt; we wouldn’t be able to function. Would it disturb you if this book suddenly levitated, floated away, and came to rest five feet in front of you? The only reason you would feel any fear is that you have no references for this. You’d have no idea how to interpret what it means. Why will a baby reach into a dirty ashtray, pull out a cigarette butt, and chew on it? Isn’t it because they don’t have any references that tell them this is not good for them? (Of course, some adults still haven’t figured this one out!) Let me ask you again. How do you use your references? Do you consciously interpret them in ways that empower you, in ways that support the achievement of your goals? Or does your brain automatically latch on to individual experiences where you’re not supported, and develop beliefs like “Everybody’s out to get me,” or “Every time I try anything, I get knocked down,” or “I don’t deserve to be loved”?
The way we use our references will determine how we feel, because whether something is good or bad is all based on what you’re comparing it to. When a businesswoman checks into a hotel room, whether or not she thinks the room is nice is based on her past references. I guarantee that if you took someone from Eastern Europe and got them a room in the simplest budget motel here in the United States, you would find that they’d be thrilled, thinking that these were top-rate accommodations. Sometimes we lose perspective that good and bad are merely based upon our references. Date With Destiny is one of my favorite learning environments because I’m able to consistently see how people’s references are being used to shape their behavior. As part of an in-depth questionnaire participants fill out before the seminar, they list five experiences that they feel have shaped their entire lives. What they are doing is sharing with me some of their most powerful references, and it amazes me how many different meanings they take from the same references. Some people have been raped, sexually abused, abandoned. Some have come from broken or impoverished homes. Yet some people interpret these experiences in a way that helps them form the belief that their life is not worth living, and others use it to motivate themselves to study, to expand, to grow, to share, to be more sensitive.
It’s true that Saddam Hussein was abused as a child, but so was Oprah Winfrey. Here is a woman who was raped and violently mistreated in her youth, yet today she touches millions of lives daily with her television show. Simply by sharing her own experiences, she has helped people to heal some of the wounds from their pasts. Millions of Americans feel close to her because they know she understands; i.e., she has references of pain, just like they do.
“We lift ourselves by our thought, we climb upon our vision of ourselves.” ORISON SWETT MARDEN
References are not limited to your actual experience. Your imagination itself is a source of references. Remember Roger Bannister and the four-minute mile? No one believed it was physically possible for human beings to run the mile in less than four minutes, yet he created his own sense of certainty through imagined references. He visualized over and over again breaking the four-minute mile, hearing and feeling himself break the barrier until pretty soon he had so many reference legs that he felt certain he would succeed—as certain as other people were that accomplishing this task was impossible.
We need to remember that our imagination is ten times more potent than our willpower. Because Bannister was able to use his imagination as the legs supporting the tabletop of certainty, he was able to produce a result that was unheard of throughout human history. Imagination unleashed provides us a sense of certainty and vision that goes far beyond the limitations of the past.
Recently Mr. Akio Morita sent me his book, Made in Japan. Mr. Morita is the co-founder of Sony Corporation and an unbelievably brilliant man. The destiny of Sony, just like any individual’s, is the result of a series of decisions. In his book, Morita discloses that one of the toughest and most important decisions he ever made was to turn down an offer from Bulova Corporation to purchase 100,000 of his breakthrough transistor radios—at a time when his company was not even moving 10,000 units a month. The amount of money they offered him was ten times what his company was worth at the time, yet after deep consideration he rejected the deal.
Why? Simply because Bulova wanted to put their own name on the radio. He realized that while in the short term saying yes would give his company a huge jump, he would be building Bulova’s name instead of Sony’s. The Bulova executives could not believe he would turn down their offer. He told them, “Fifty years from now, my company’s name will be as big as yours, and I know that the radio I’ve created is going to help us develop that name.”
Of course, all of Morita’s partners thought he was crazy. How was he able to create this sense of certainty that enabled him to turn down such an enticing and profitable offer? He vividly imagined the future of his company, and created references where none existed. He directed his focus and envisioned his goals with clarity, and then backed it up with absolute and active faith. Today, Sony Corporation is not only a leader in the electronics industry, generating $27 billion a year, but has also diversified to industries as far-reaching as film making (acquiring Columbia and Tri-Star Pictures) and music (acquiring CBS Records and Columbia House), and is renowned for its quality around the world.
With faith, you can cling to your vision in the face of seeming failure. What if Thomas Edison had given up after his first failed attempt to make the electric light bulb? Or even after his hundredth attempt? Luckily for all of us, he persisted beyond thousands of attempts. He could have taken each instance as a reference to back up a belief that his invention was not feasible. Instead, he chose to use each failed attempt as a reference for the belief that he was getting closer to the solution. Remember, don’t drive into the past using your rear-view mirror as a guide. You want to learn from your past, not live in it— focus on the things that empower you.
READING IS FEEDING YOUR MIND
You are not even limited to your own personal experiences as references. You can borrow the references of other people. Early in my life, I chose to focus on those who had made it, those who had succeeded and contributed and were impacting people’s lives in a major way. I did so by reading biographies of successful people and learned that regardless of their background or conditions, when they held on to their sense of certainty, and consistently contributed, success eventually came. I used their references as my own, forming the core belief that I could truly shape my own destiny.
Do you remember my friend Captain Gerald Coffee who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for over seven years? A good deal of that time was spent in solitary confinement. One of the things that enabled him to preserve his sanity when the outside world gave him no references for joy was to turn to his own rich internal world. As a child he had memorized various poems and stories, which he repeated to himself to create a different “environment” from the one he had to endure day after day. You don’t have to go into solitary confinement to discover the beauty and power of cultivating a bountiful treasure chest of memories and imagined references. How can you fill that chest? Explore the wealth of literature, stories, myths, poetry, and music. Read books, view movies and videotapes, listen to audiotapes, go to seminars, talk with people, and get new ideas. All references have power, and you never know which one could change your entire life.
The power of reading a great book is that you start thinking like the author. For those magical moments while you are immersed in the forests of Arden, you are William Shakespeare; while you are shipwrecked on Treasure Island, you are Robert Louis Stevenson; while you are communing with nature at Walden, you are Henry David Thoreau. You start to think like they think, feel like they feel, and use imagination as they would. Their references become your own, and you carry these with you long after you’ve turned the last page. That is the power of literature, of a good play, of music; that is why we constantly want to expand our references.
I used to believe that going to see a play was a waste of time. Why? Because the only plays I had ever attended were poorly acted, and their pace was painfully slow. But one day Becky and I decided to see the musical Les Miserables. I have never seen, read, or heard anything that moved me so deeply. Since then, I’ve become addicted to great theater, and each time we go to New York City, it’s a priority for us to catch a show.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” ALBERT EINSTEIN
One of the finest beliefs I developed years ago that helped me to enjoy all of my life experience was the idea that there are no bad experiences, that no matter what I go through in life—whether it’s a challenging experience or a pleasurable one—every experience provides me something of value if I look for it. If I pull just one idea or one distinction from an experience, then it expands me.
Back when I was still in high school and scraping together money any way I could in order to attend personal development seminars, my friends were amazed that I’d go back to some of the same seminars again and again. Often they’d ask me, “Why would you go back to the same program?” Inevitably I’d tell them that I understood the power of repetition, and each time I heard something new because I was different. Plus I knew that hearing something again and again would eventually condition me to use it, that repetition truly is the mother of skill. Every time I reviewed a program, I made additional distinctions or heard ideas that impacted me differently and enabled me to create new references, and thus new interpretations, new actions, and new results in my life.
USE CONTRAST TO PUT YOUR LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE
While some references ennoble you and give you a higher vision, others show you a side of life you’d rather not experience. But these are the sorts of references that can be used to help you keep your life in balance. They provide a new level of contrast. No matter how bad you think things are in your life, it’s good to remember that someone else has it worse. At my nine-day Mastery™ programs, I invariably take a portion of one day to bring in people who’ve been through physical or emotional hell and have come out on top—the W. Mitchells of the world, or my good friend Mique Davis, who, in his drunken youth, decided to jump off a bridge but didn’t realize the water was only about two feet deep. He instantly became paralyzed from the neck down. These people begin to share from their hearts how great life is, how happy they are to be alive, how much they’ve been able to accomplish. Or I bring in my good friend Dax, who was trapped in a fire, had his entire body burned, and was blinded. Later, in spite of all these challenges, he became a practicing attorney.
The theme for the day is to establish a simple and profound belief: “I have no problems.” In contrast with the brave individuals who share their stories, everyone else in the room knows they have no challenges whatsoever. Suddenly, the problems they’re having with their spouses, their children’s grades, the loss of a business, or their failure to achieve goals are immediately put into perspective. We can also use new references to motivate ourselves if we start becoming complacent. While it’s true that no matter how bad things are for you, someone else is going through something worse, it’s also true that no matter how well things are going for you, someone else is doing even better. Just when you think your skill has reached the highest level, you find there’s someone else who’s achieved even greater heights. And that’s one of the beauties of life: it drives us to constantly expand and grow.
The power of having new references to raise our standards for ourselves is immense, whether it’s studying the teachings of a great spiritual leader who, in spite of abuse by others, continues to give love, or seeing those who’ve succeeded financially and noticing what’s truly possible. I’ll never forget the first time I met architect and hotel magnate Chris Hemmeter. Becky and I had the privilege of being among the first people to be invited to visit Chris’s new home, along with his family, in Hawaii—a $70 million residence that is beyond verbal description. The front door alone cost $1 million to create. While your rules may say, “That’s an incredible waste of money,” it was also an unbelievably expanding experience of what is possible in terms of business or economic growth.
Suddenly, my $4 million Castle was put in perspective. It barely covered the cost of his front door and marble stairway! Certainly there was room in my life for thinking bigger, pushing limits, imagining the unimaginable. The best part of meeting Chris and his wife. Patsy, was discovering that they are incredibly warm people, that they use their wealth to create an environment that truly inspires them. Using contrasting references is one of the most powerful ways, then, to change our perceptions and our feelings. If I ever start to lose perspective because I feel like I’m working too hard, I think about a man who attended one of my seminars years ago. He was a warm and gentle soul who unfortunately ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. One day shy of his forty-fifth birthday he pulled into a gas station where there were two men who had just that day been released from prison.
From their brief episode of freedom, these men had decided they weren’t comfortable with life on the outside, and they hit upon a plan to get back into prison: they’d kill the very next person who drove into this gas station. It didn’t matter who it was, what their age was, male or female; they’d just kill the next human being. When this man drove up and got out of his car to fill his tank, they attacked and brutally beat him to death.
Now, do you think you have problems? He left behind a wife and four small children. I was devastated by the story; I couldn’t believe it. How do you come out with a positive meaning from an experience that seems to have none? I couldn’t even imagine this happening to a member of my family and what it would do to me. I kept asking myself what I could do to help. I immediately called his widow and offered to help her in any way I could. My primary goal was to make sure that she was trying to find some form of empowering meaning for herself and her children from this experience. It would have been too easy to use this as a reference to back up a belief that life is not worth living, that humankind is evil and destructive, that you can do everything right and still be mowed down like a blade of grass, so why even try?
I communicated to this woman the importance for her children’s sake of somehow finding in this experience a shred of meaning to empower them at some level. When I asked her what this experience could mean, she expressed how deep her pain was, but more important, the one thing about this experience that was positive was that when the story was made known in the newspapers, an unbelievable amount of love, support, and caring poured forth. She received literally hundreds of letters and offers of support from people in the community, people from all walks of life. She said, “I realized that if I believed that people were destructive or that this meant that life was unfair, I’d destroy myself and my children.
So while it’s unbelievably painful right now, I know that this must have happened for a reason. I don’t have a way to back it up; it is just my faith.” This woman found the courage to use faith as the ultimate reference. Her willingness to trust that there must be a reason, even if she’s not aware of it, freed her from the most painful experience of her life and empowered her.
What a powerful woman! How lucky these children are! She told them, “Kids, I want you to notice all these people and how much love they are giving. People are really good. There are a few in the world who are bad, and they need to be helped, but your daddy always believed in God, and now he has gone to a better place. He had things to do while he was here, and his time was up, but our time is not up, and we have to take advantage of it while we are here. We have to use your father’s death to remind us that every day we have to live life to its fullest. And we can’t think about losing him, because he will always be with us.”
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ANT0INE DE SAINT-EXUPERY
Could it be possible that what seem like the worst days in our lives are actually the most powerful in terms of the lessons we can choose to learn from them? Think about one of the worst experiences that has ever happened to you. As you look back upon it now, can you think of any ways in which it had some kind of positive impact on your life? Maybe you were fired, or mugged, or involved in a car accident, but out of that experience you gained a new resolve, or a new awareness that caused you to grow as a person and measurably increased your ability to contribute.
I realize that some situations may be more challenging than others to find something good about, but by this point in the book, you’re no longer a novice. You’ve been stretching your imagination and flexing your muscles of empowerment. You’ve learned how to manage your state and direct your focus by asking better questions. If you were abused as a child, maybe it made you a more sensitive person toward children and caused you to make the decision to break that generational chain of abuse; if you grew up in a very restrictive environment, perhaps it drove you to fight for the freedom of others; if you felt that you never were loved enough, you may now be a major giver. Or maybe just that “horrible” event caused you to make new decisions, to change the direction of your life, and therefore your destiny. Perhaps your worst days have really been your best.
You may protest, “No, Tony, there are some things in my past that have no purpose. I’ll never get over them; I’ll always have pain.” You’re absolutely right: as long as you hold on to the belief that you have been taken advantage of, or that you’ve lost something that can never be returned, you will indeed always have that pain. Just remember, loss is imaginary. Nothing ever disappears in the universe; it only changes form. If there is something that still wounds you, it’s because of the meaning that you have linked to it. Maybe what you need to do is to have faith and say, “Even though I don’t know why this has happened, I am willing to trust. Someday, when the time is right, I will understand.”
Limited references create a limited life. If you want to expand your life, you must expand your references by pursuing ideas and experiences that wouldn’t be a part of your life if you didn’t consciously seek them out. Remember, rarely does a good idea interrupt you; you must actively seek it. Empowering ideas and experiences must be pursued.
A UNIVERSE OF IDEAS AND EXPERIENCES
In expanding our references, we create a great contrast with which to evaluate life and possibility. If you’ve been magnifying your problems out of proportion, consider this: we live in a galaxy that contains several hundred thousand million stars. Then realize that we live in a universe that has several hundred thousand million galaxies. In other words, there are several hundred thousand million suns in our galaxy alone. And all of these suns have planets revolving around them as well! Think of the magnitude. The stars in our galaxy make one turn around the Milky Way’s axis only once every several hundred million years. When you think about the immensity of this universe, and then look at the life span of an average human being (generously about eighty years), does it give you a different perspective? The human life span is but a speck in time. And yet people worry themselves to death about things like how they’re going to pay the mortgage, what kind of car they drive, or how their next business meeting will go.
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” WALT WHITMAN
I’m always trying to expand and improve my references because I believe in the old computer term GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Each day that we live, we’re taking in new information, ideas, concepts, experiences, and sensations. We need to consciously stand guard at the doors of our minds to make sure that whatever we’re allowing to enter will cause our lives to be enriched, that the experiences we pursue will add to our stockpile of possibility. In assisting our children to expand and grow, we need to guide them into experiences that will provide positive references for their future— references that will help them know they’re capable of dealing with virtually anything.
Simultaneously, we need to teach them what to watch out for in life. Certain references denigrate our experience of life. Are you a little bit concerned when you hear music like that of the Geto Boys? One of their recent songs is a rap song about cutting a girl’s throat and then having sex with her corpse. Do you think this kind of reference repeated again and again, not just in children’s minds, but in anybody’s, would be a little bit destructive? I’m not saying that someone’s going to hear this and then go out and do it; I’m just saying that it’s trash. Does that mean I’m promoting censorship? Absolutely not. I think one of the beauties of our country is freedom, but I think that you and I, as leaders, have the right and responsibility to know what references mean and the impact they can have on the quality of our lives.
EXPAND YOUR REFERENCES AND EXPAND YOUR LIFE
We can always use whatever life has to offer in an empowering way, but we have to do it proactively. The choices I have in my life come from a rich set of reference experiences that I have consciously pursued on an ongoing basis. Each day I look for ways to expand. Into my thirty-one years I’ve packed literally hundreds of years of experience. How can I say that? The number of challenging and enriching experiences that I have in a month relates more closely to what most people experience over a period of years.
One of the major ways I began to do this, starting at the age of seventeen, was through the rich experiences that books provide. Early in my life, I developed the belief that leaders are readers. Books could take me to other lands where I could meet unique people like Abraham Lincoln or Ralph Waldo Emerson whom I could utilize as my personal coaches. I also knew that within the pages of books I could find the answers to virtually any question I had. This breadth of references that hundreds of books have given me has provided countless choices for how I can assist people. I pursued these references because I realized that if I didn’t feed my mind with the nourishment it craved, then I would have to settle for the intellectual junk food that could be found in the nightly “sound bites” on television news or through the opinions of the newspapers. If this is our major source of information, then we can expect to get the same results as everyone else in society does.
The most powerful way to have a great understanding of life and people, to give ourselves the greatest level of choice, is to expose ourselves to as many different types of references as possible. In my youth, I was inspired to seek spiritual understanding when I realized that I’d attended only one church and been exposed to only one religious philosophy for the majority of my life. In high school I received a scholarship in journalism to attend a two-week program held at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. On that Sunday we were all given an assignment to write a story about a church service.
As we began to walk through the community, deciding where we would go, I found myself gravitating toward the church of my denomination. But along the way, I heard several of my friends talking about the Mormon Church we had just passed and how “horrible” those people were. It seemed to me that people just aren’t that deplorable; I had to see what was going on. So I attended the service, and saw that the Mormons loved God as much as I did. The only difference was that they had a few rules that varied slightly from my own.
This started my spiritual odyssey, which developed into a personal ritual for almost a year and a half. Throughout my eighteenth and nineteenth years, two or three times a month, I would attend a totally different type of worship: Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Jewish, Buddhist, and so on. As a result of this, I truly began to live at a more spiritual level where I began to appreciate all people’s spiritual beliefs. Even if I didn’t subscribe to their particular rules or perceptions, I had a much broader base of understanding and compassion as a result.
If you want to expand your life, go for it! Pursue some experiences that you’ve never had before. Go scuba diving. Explore the undersea world, and find out what life’s like and what you’re like in a whole new environment. Go skydiving. When you’re sitting on the edge of a plane 12,500 feet in the air, and you know you’re going to fall for an entire minute at 120 miles an hour, to get yourself out of that plane requires absolute faith. You don’t know what faith is until you have this reference!
Go take that helicopter lesson. I assure you, it will change your life forever. Take four days and go to racing school. You’ll learn more about limits and possibility than you could imagine. Go spend an evening at the symphony, if it’s not something you usually do—or a rock conceit, if that’s what you habitually avoid. Expand your level of choice. One day, spontaneously, go by a children’s hospital during visiting hours. Go meet some strangers and tell some stories. The challenge to develop rapport and find a way to touch others’ lives will change you forever. Maybe it’s time to immerse yourself in another culture and see the world through others’ eyes. Maybe it’s time to visit Fiji and celebrate in a kava ceremony with the locals. Or take part in a “ride along” program at your local police department, where you sit in the back seat of a patrol car and see your community through an officer’s eyes.
Remember, if we want to understand and appreciate people, one of the most powerful ways is to share some of their references. Perhaps it’s time to go back to school, to explore the “inner universe” in the form of biology or physiology, or understand our culture better through a study of sociology or anthropology. Remember, any limits that you have in your life are probably just the result of limited references. Expand your references, and you’ll immediately expand your life.
While the possibilities I’ve touched on are exciting and inspiring, they are offered to get your juices flowing. You don’t have to do all of them—or any of them—in order to gain new references. You don’t have to go on safari in Africa; you can just go around the comer, and help a homeless person in your own community discover resources of their own that they never knew existed. Whole worlds open up with the addition of just one new reference. It could be one new thing you see or hear, a conversation or a movie or a seminar, something you read on the very next page—you never know when it may happen.
“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.” ARTHUR C. CLARKE
Now let’s take inventory of some of the most powerful references that have shaped your life. Take a moment now and write down five of the most powerful experiences that have shaped who you’ve become as a person. Give not only a description of the experience, but how that experience impacted you. If you write down anything that seems to have impacted you negatively, immediately come up with another interpretation of that event, no matter what it takes. This may require some faith; it may require a new perspective you never would have considered before. Remember, everything in life happens for a reason and a purpose, and it serves us. Sometimes it takes years or decades for us to find value. But there is value in all human experience.
As you review this list of all the events that have positively shaped your life, I want you to think about some new references that would be very valuable for you to pursue. What are some new experiences you need? A good question might be, “In order to really succeed at the highest level, to achieve what I really want for my life, what are some references I need?” Maybe what you need to do is model somebody who has really made their relationships work; find out what some of their beliefs are, what some of their references are about what makes a relationship work. Or maybe you just need to seek out references that make you appreciate life more or that make you feel like you are contributing. Now think of some fun references to have. Maybe you don’t “need” them, but think of some that would be entertaining or would just make you feel good. I began to study martial arts because I knew what an incredible set of states the discipline would provide. I earned my black belt in toe kwon do in eight months by studying directly with the great Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee and modeling his incredibly intense focus. I realized that if I could have the experience of disciplining myself so fiercely in that area of my life, then that reference would spill over to many other areas—and it did. So, what else could you do?
Once you’ve brainstormed a list of great references to acquire, put a time line and a date on each. Decide when you are going to do every one. When are you going to learn to speak Spanish or Greek or Japanese? When are you going to take that hot-air balloon ride? When are you going to go to the local old folks’ home and sing carols? When are you going to do something unusual and new? What are some references you could provide for your family that would be invaluable? Maybe it is taking your kids to the Smithsonian, maybe it is something as simple as sitting down and talking about the references that the family has already shared, or getting together with some of the grandparents and talking about their lives and what they have learned. What invaluable references these sixty-, seventy-, eighty-,and ninety-plus year-olds have for those of us who are younger! One of the most powerful references I have shared with my family is delivering Thanksgiving dinners to those who cannot or will not visit shelters. I’ll never forget my youngest son’s reaction when he was four years old. It was Jairek’s first time participating, and we went to a park in Oceanside, California. We found an old man who was sleeping on the floor of a bathroom with no doors, trying to cover himself with old clothes he had found in trash cans. My son marveled at his very long beard and was a little bit scared. I handed Jairek the basket of food and other survival goodies, and said, “Go on and give it to this man, and wish him a Happy Thanksgiving.” Jairek approached cautiously. As he went into the bathroom with a basket that was as big as he was, he set it down gently. The man looked like he was either drunk or asleep. Jairek touched the man and said, “Happy Thanksgiving!” All of a sudden, the man bolted upright and grabbed my son’s hand. My heart leaped into my throat, and just as I started to spring forward, the man took Jairek’s hand and kissed it. He whispered hoarsely, “Thank you for caring.” Boy, what a reference for a four-year-old!
Remember, it’s the moments of our lives that shape us. It’s up to us to pursue and create the moments that will lift us and not limit us. So now, get off the bench and step into the game of life. Let your imagination run wild with the possibilities of all those things you could explore and experience— and begin immediately. What new experience could you pursue today that would expand your life? What kind of person will you become? Take action and enjoy exploring the possibilities. Let’s discover the profound change that comes from…
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