By Mike DuBose
Ten years ago, at 56 years old, I decided to reinvent myself. Today, I can say that it worked and I am a very happy person! While I have a lot of mental scars, have made many mistakes, and have failed more than most of you in this room, I’d rate my life today at a 9 out of a 10. I don’t think anyone can be happy all the time or consistently be a “10”—at some point, all of us will experience tragedy, heartbreak, sadness, pain, and disease. There are still some days that I am very unhappy as I handle a crisis within one of my companies or my personal life.
When I decided to begin making these life changes in 2006, I committed to becoming a better person, and I learned to love myself—and others—in the process. Many of us are afraid to let our true selves be seen and known. As recommended by the bestseller The Gifts of Imperfection, I let go of the person I thought I was supposed to be and learned to embrace who I really am and who I want to be. This person was always there; it just took some soul-searching to find him and a lot of work to release him.
Don’t we all want to die without regrets, bitterness, or negative feelings towards others? We want to look back on our lives from our deathbeds and say with a smile on our faces, “It was a good life!” Yet sadly, I have seen many people die filled with regrets, guilt, bitterness, and remorse, feeling as if they missed out on something. My objective today is that every one of you here takes just one small piece of what I am about to say and uses it to improve your life and the lives of others.
In 2006, I was on top of the world…or so I thought! I had created several very successful companies; had everything that anyone would want; and was, in fact, shopping for a Lear jet. But God had other plans for me. I want to share with you how the worst and most painful times of my life turned into the greatest gifts I could ever receive. What I am about to tell you is my story of what I did to create a new, happy life. I hope to humbly share that journey with you without sounding arrogant.
I have always been a very curious person, and continual improvement is my middle name. I want to get better and better, so I am always trying to learn from others about how they improved their lives, businesses, and leadership. I also have training in psychology, which leads me to look for patterns in people’s thoughts and behaviors. When I keep hearing the same comment over and over, I know that it must be sound.
Shortly before I began my reinvention, I was teaching Sunday school to a group of individuals in their 60-80s (yes, I’m there now!). When I had conversations with the older individuals, I would always ask things like, “If you could live your life over, what would you do differently?” I became increasingly concerned every time I heard one after another say with pain and regret on their faces, “I wish I had spent more time with my family, and less time focused on my job!”
I was very driven in 2006, and success and money were the loves of my life. While I tried to balance my role as a father and husband, with some minor attention to God, it was a hard act. There was only so much energy left at the end of the day to share with everyone! There’s nothing wrong with success, but there is always a price to pay.
When people asked me what I liked to do for fun, I promptly and proudly replied, “I like to make money!” To me, it was a thrilling game of trying to figure out how to make as much money as possible. When John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest people in American history, was asked how much money would make him happy, he would say, “Just a little more!” Likewise, I was always seeking “just a little more” of everything, trying to satisfy an insatiable itch.
After my change, one of my vice presidents would tell me that she used to get knots in her stomach before meeting with me because I was a perfectionist when it came to customer service, standards of excellence, and making a profit. I was always pushing people to be the best they could be, but the method I used was not compassionate. Once, it got back to me that one of my employees had said, “Can’t we ever please him?” Another senior leader told me that I was greedy. A colleague informed me that I talked too much about success. Another friend said that I needed to learn to listen rather than dominate the discussion. When I asked my wife what changes I could make, she simply answered that she would like to have the person she married back. So, I had a lot of brutal feedback from others to help me create a new path of happiness and contentment.
I read Good to Great by Jim Collins for the first time in 2006, eventually reading it three more times. In this bestselling book, Collins and his team studied great leaders from very successful companies. I decided that I, too, wanted to build a great family of companies. But Collins had found that the best leaders were humble, whereas I was arrogant. I thought I knew most of the answers, a feeling seemingly reinforced by my success. Combined with the people who had been speaking to me about the importance of focusing on others rather than myself, Good to Great moved me to consider changing my life. A thought began tugging at me: if I could create great businesses, could I also build a great life?
Then, my world began to unravel. One day, thirty minutes before teaching a graduate class of 125 people where a film crew would be taping my three-day presentation, I went blind! It was pretty scary, and if you have read the story about Paul on the way to Damascus in the Christian Bible, I was there! I taught the class blind with the help of another staff member. Fortunately, the blindness was reversible, and after many surgeries, I can see again. I have had some other major health surprises along the way, like open heart surgery for a seemingly perfect heart that was actually about to blow up, and a delightful stroke that resulted from the open heart surgery. I also faced a major family crisis that brought me to my knees in front of God.
With all of these thoughts and circumstances as fuel, I finally realized that I had been trying to buy my happiness and live up to the standards set by my dead father. He had programmed me for success instead of being a humble, loving, and caring person, and I could never please him or live up to his expectations. While I thought I was happy, deep down, I was not. Over a long period of time, I had created a negative, harmful set of habits and ways of thinking that were leading me down a path of self-destruction and unhappiness!
So, nine years ago, both as a researcher and as a person who wanted to be happy, I began to study happiness. What makes individuals happy? Why do some people with few financial assets seem so happy, while many wealthy people don’t? Why do some couples enjoy long, happy marriages, while others divorce or live miserably together? Why do some people who are struggling with disease, failures, or mistakes seem content with their circumstances, while others with great blessings don’t? Why are some people smiling all the time, letting nothing negative come out of their mouths, while others are gloom and doom, thinking and talking only about the worst?
In my quest for knowledge, I interviewed many happy people, studied scientific research, and read twenty books on the subject. I decided that I wanted to be a happy person without an emphasis on success or materialistic things.
What I discovered in my studies is that when we are young, we are pretty happy. If we are ever unhappy, we’re naïve enough not to know. As we enter our teenage years, we begin to act according to our peer group behaviors. Our parents’ expectations also guide our lives, and sometimes we arrange our lives around them versus what we really want. After we graduate from high school, college, or graduate school, we chase careers, money, and power—not necessarily our passions or what we love to do. We build layers of others’ expectations around the person we really wanted to be.
We have children, which (like marriage) is one of the hardest things in life if you try to do a decent job. We place our children and our jobs over our marriages, which begin to fizzle, and we slowly drift from being lovers to roommates. Many live beyond their means, and we become slaves to financial obligations. When both spouses are employed, most of their time is spent on work, child rearing, running from one children’s activity to another, and household chores, and there is little energy left for the marriage. It’s sad to see so many couples who once passionately loved each other end up divorced and hating each other.
We quit having fun and don’t have much to look forward to. Life becomes burdensome and monotonous. We reluctantly get out of bed every day to the same old grind with few good things to anticipate. In fact, Gallup polls document that 70% of the workforce is unhappy or disinterested in their jobs. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a large university study that found the unhappiest people are professionals with business degrees. When we graduate, we sometimes get stuck in jobs that we don’t enjoy, but that pay the bills and impress others. When asked what we do, our ego says, “I’m the manager for a successful corporation” instead of saying with passion, “I’m a very happy artist.”
As our children leave to build their own lives, the nest becomes empty and we have no purpose. Suddenly, we are in our 50s, 60s, or 70s, looking around and thinking, “This is not the life I imagined.” Some call this a midlife crisis, but it’s a state of unhappiness that has been ingrained in us since our early years. We mistakenly believe that the responsibility of making us happy comes from things outside ourselves like jobs, possessions, and other people.
Once we realize we’re unhappy, we experience regret and try to blame others. We begin looking for greener pastures, not realizing that although the grass over there may appear greener, it’s just as hard to cut. Most of the time, there could be green, luscious grass all around us if we just took the time to look at, fertilize, and appreciate it. We are not satisfied and experience a lack of fulfillment. I meet so many unhappy people these days; some know it and others don’t. After all, 50 percent of marriages fail, and now 60 percent of people aged 60 and over will divorce, and the numbers are growing. Yet, we see others who keep the fires stoked and make life something spectacular, and we wonder: what’s their secret?
Fortunately, I was able to avoid the fate I have just described, and my advice for you is to be careful not to fall into these traps. But even if you do, there is always hope to escape into a wonderful life as I did!
I want to share what I learned over the past eight years and how I turned that knowledge into a life where I look forward to getting up every day with excitement, love, and contentment. Here are my suggestions for a happier journey:
Tell yourself that you are pretty dumb. The older I get, the dumber I realize I am. Throw out everything you know, stay open to change, and create a new, exciting life. It’s OK to be imperfect, to make mistakes, and to fail. In fact, those are the greatest teachers! When you are wrong, admit it. Eagerness to learn and willingness to change are two keys to a fulfilling life.
Want a new life. You have got to really believe that a better life is possible. About 50% of our behavior and thoughts are driven by genetics, so it may be a fight to change, but the other 50% can be altered for the better!
Go somewhere by yourself for a week (I love Hawaii) and reflect on your life back to childhood. Make a list of things you enjoyed, your passions, and what you really wanted to do in your life. What excites you? What are your opportunities for improvement? Socrates once wrote, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Design a new strategic plan for your life. Listen to the voice inside you that is screaming for happiness.
Take baby steps. Harvard University psychiatrist Alex Vuckovic once told me a profound statement: “If you want to change behavior, it will take time.” You cannot get up one morning and say, “I am going to be happy from this day forward!” It just won’t work and no one will believe you. It’s like wine: it takes time to age and acquire a great taste.
Tell others (with some advanced notice) that you would like to improve your life and be a better person and you would appreciate their candid, and maybe brutal, feedback. Then, LISTEN. Now, you may hear things that hurt you, as I did! However, it is worth it to move toward your better life. Also, define what “being a better person” is to you. To me, it means being a compassionate, caring, humble, and helpful person who wants his life to end with many people saying, “He helped me!” You have to love your neighbor as yourself, and in fact, more!
When you know the changes you want to make, establish a purpose for your life. If someone were to ask you, what would you say your purpose is? Most individuals don’t have one. My purpose and that of my companies is to “create opportunities to improve lives.” The “lives” referred to by my purpose are those of my family, employees, customers, community, and others I come into contact with. Over the years and with the help of others, I have created a happy work environment where our staff members look forward to coming into work most days and enjoy their company’s culture.
Forgive others and ask for forgiveness. Research has confirmed the difficulty of moving into the future with happiness if you have unresolved conflict, unforgiveness, and bitterness in your heart. All of us have been wronged in our past, and many times, we cannot let go of it. Confront the person who wronged you (that’s hard sometimes) and tell them you forgive them. If that person is dead, write a letter to them, burn it, and move on with your life. You can’t forget pain, but you can recognize how suffering may have actually helped you to grow. In my case, I learned from my relatives what not to do in parenting or grandparenting. I had to pray to God and ask Him to help heal my wounds and allow me to forgive. After all, if He can create the universe, He can help you! Sometimes, it may also take the help of a skilled counselor who can guide you through the storm. Remember: all storms eventually run out of rain.
Think about anyone you may have harmed, hurt, or said regretful things to and then seek their forgiveness. I had to sincerely apologize to some people I offended. I also had to ask God to forgive me. You’ve got to erase the slate to find happiness, and quite frankly, it’s not easy! Our minds are programmed not to forget and to harbor resentments.
You will never forget some things that have been inflicted on you, but you can choose not to dwell on them. When I start thinking too much about my painful past or the stupid stuff I have done, I instantly tell myself, “I will not think about that!” You can train yourself in this way to avoid negative, unhelpful thoughts. If you repeat this over and over, combined with the help of your faith, you can hypnotize yourself and the painful memories fail to surface. The brain learns that negative events are unwanted!
Follow your passions. Figure out what you love to do. Envision what would make you want to get out of bed in the morning excited about the day. Then, plot a course towards that passion, even if it means giving up a good, high-paying job you may not like and following your dreams instead. It will take some time, but if you can dream it, you can do it! My passion is connected to my purpose. I love to research a subject, look at all my relevant mistakes, failures, and experiences, read books on the topic, and then create articles that can help others. When I write and publish one article, it helps hundreds of people!
Have fun! Figure out what you love to do for fun. My hobby is no longer making money, but collecting classic cars from the 1950s and 60s, traveling, and helping others. I get an emotional high in writing and publishing articles that will improve others’ lives. It’s not work to me, even though I put more than 100 hours into each article I write. It’s a source of fun, a passion, and a calling. When we finish an article, my team and I feel like artists who have created a masterpiece.
I plot out four major trips each year (about once a quarter) so I have something to look forward to all year round. Not all of these are big trips to France or Italy (both of which I love), but also less expensive trips to Charleston, Hilton Head, or New York (another one of my favorite cities where there are a lot of strange and interesting people!). Planning these trips is exciting and keeps me eagerly anticipating the joy they will bring. When you travel, I recommend really relaxing and having fun without a lot of structure and fast-paced action. Just enjoy life and the culture around you!
If you are married, place your spouse first. The most wonderful thing that has happened in my life is that my wife and I have fallen back in love. Think your marriage is just average? Those fireworks are still there; they just need lighting! Make your husband or wife feels special most of the time. Spend quality time alone together, listen well, and be there without any interruptions from cell phones or outside noise. When I studied the longest living people on Earth, these people were also the happiest and still had romantic relationships with their spouses into their 80s and beyond!
If you have them, spend quality time with your children and grandchildren as well. Don’t wait for them to come to you; go to them! Don’t try to show your love with presents; rather, give them your time and attention. My two-year-old granddaughter and I love trying to find squirrel nests; searching for butterflies; and dancing in the rain. Most things that make our children and grandchildren happy cost nothing! They just want to feel special and know that you are proud of them and love them unconditionally. Let your actions speak to the way you feel. If you have adult children, don’t offer advice unless asked. It’s painful, but you have to let them carve out their own life and that means allowing them to stumble and fail. In return, they will frequently ask you for advice. When they do, give options and not specific directions.
Surround yourself with positive people. Negative individuals will only drag you down and draw you into negative thinking. They can poison your well and trap you in their dark corners. Instead, you need people who will lift you up in bad times, fill your glass when it’s empty, and inspire you.
Don’t watch the news or political talk show hosts. The media can be compared to drug pushers who spew their negative news into your mind and make you angry or depressed. I read four daily newspapers and I choose the news I wish to read. I also avoid any discussions about politics, because as the Wall Street Journal recently concluded, cockroaches are now more popular than politicians!
Hope for the best and plan for the worst! Enjoy the highs and joys of life, but know that pain and suffering will also be a part of living. No one is exempt from the unexpected. Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind, once said that, “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” If you look at pain and misfortunes in your life as a gift, then you can pass the learning on to others.
Reduce stress. Most of the stress we experience is brought on by ourselves. Make a list of anything that bothers or stresses you and do something about it! It has been concluded by solid, long-term studies that stress disables us, promotes disease, and brings unhappiness. Stressful workplaces and stressful lives are killing us! When you are under constant stress, the body emits disease-causing hormones like cortisol. Recent research is finding that happy people who can withstand and handle stress in their lives live 10 to 15 years longer than unhappy individuals.
Try to lead a healthy lifestyle. I love to eat, and at one point, I was forty pounds overweight and approaching a size 42. Research indicated that my unhealthiness would lead to early disability and a shortened life, so I took steps to eat healthier, incorporate exercise into my life, and lose some weight. With what I learned studying weight loss, I wrote an article entitled How I Lost 35 Pounds…While Still Eating Fried Chicken! (Kroger, by the way, has my favorite fried chicken!) Find a great medical internist and see him or her annually for a comprehensive medical exam. If I hadn’t, my heart would have exploded! Scientists are also finding that exercise, like walking for 30 minutes daily, is one of the best “drugs” you can take, preventing a wide range of health problems, including depression and dementia.
Embrace mistakes and failures as pathways to success. When I am going through trials and conflicts, while they can be very painful, I am always looking for the opportunities to learn and grow. I have helped so many people from my painful experiences, and I now know that God led me through them to help others. Don’t ever let a crisis slip through your hands without using the experience to help others, and don’t let fear keep you from living your life. As Elbert Hubbard once wrote, “The greatest mistake you can make in life is to be continually fearing you will make one!”
Stop placing people in your box. One of the greatest achievements I made was to quit expecting people to think like me. Individuals are simply different, and we have to appreciate our differences.
Learn to say no! I’m often asked to serve on boards or give of my time. However, life has taught me to follow my passions and use my gifts wisely, doing fewer things really well and impacting the most people versus doing a lot of things fairly well. Always weigh requests for your time, and don’t allow your ego to make the decision. Concentrate on things where you can create excellence and use your God-given talents and experience to generate outcomes that you will enjoy and will benefit others the most.
Be content with what you have. Many people cannot hear, see, or walk. Others are in pain most of their lives or experience disease and disabling conditions. Look at what is right in your life versus what is wrong. Many of us don’t realize the blessings we have until they are taken away!
Live within your means and strive to be debt-free. It’s a wonderful feeling going to bed at night knowing I have no debt and that I do not have to worry about making payments for things I could live without.
Be nice. It’s amazing to see the outcomes when you are nice, loving, and positive. People like to be around you and are willing to go the extra mile to help your cause. Being nice is also a very satisfying state of mind!
Learn. There is a growing body of evidence that challenging our brains can not only increase knowledge, but also reduce the chances of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. We are creatures of habit and the brain prefers to do things it’s familiar with, but learning new things, taking up hobbies, and reading newspapers and nonfiction books can help build new brain cells.
My closing comment is that life is both short and a journey. One day you are in your youth, and then you are approaching your late sixties like me. As the famous philosopher Forest Gump once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get!”
When the end comes—and that could be tomorrow—you want others to celebrate your life and the good things you did, not the success and wealth you amassed. In your funeral eulogy, you want them to say that you were a humble, caring, generous, and loving person who thought about others more than yourself. That is the wealth you want to build on this Earth: leaving seeds in everyone’s hearts as you pass on to the next life that will grow and blossom into the lives to come.
Remember: life begins when you do. You’re never too old to start over! The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Take it! Begin the new life that you thought was unobtainable. No matter your age, it’s never too late to begin a new, joyful journey.
Mike DuBose, a USC graduate, is a former licensed counselor and the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of four debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates, and The Evaluation Group. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book, The Art of Building a Great Business and additional business, travel, and personal articles.
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