January 22, 1999


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You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.—Henry Ford

How we live, rather than how we talk or how we dream, reflects our priorities.
You can talk all you want, but when it comes down to it, it’s what you do that matters. Say you have two people working for you. They both bring great ideas to the table, but one of them forgets to follow up on those great ideas the moment the conference room door busts open. The other returns to her desk and immediately figures out how to incorporate the ideas and decisions into her daily life. Which employee would you respect more—and turn to the next time you wanted something done? Exactly.

A dreamer is just that. Allow yourself to dream, but make it a priority to act on those dreams. Show people, including yourself, that you’re a do-er, just as much as a dreamer.

Words show a man’s wit but actions his meaning. –Benjamin Franklin

Priority living sometimes begins by unlearning certain popular and conventional thinking on life.
Often in life we have to unlearn and unpack previous misconceptions before we can move forward in the right direction. Where did you collect your data that helps you sort life’s priorities? Starting off with the right point of view helps us practice the Power of One.

Jimmy Carter learned a great deal from his mother, Lillian Carter, about how to relate to people different from himself. Those values—priorities in his mother’s life—modeled the priorities his showed while President of the United States.

The Carter family lived in a small community in Georgia during a time when blacks were oppressed. His mother was a nurse who gave much of the money she made in that profession to blacks in the community who needed medicine. She also opened her home to the blacks—something Jimmy’s father, Earl, disapproved of. But that didn’t stop Lillian, and it didn’t stop Jimmy from learning his mother’s values.

Taking care of the oppressed was central to Lillian’s life, and those priorities were passed on directly to Jimmy. It was a strictly segregated community. It was an accepted situation, but Lillian didn’t pay any attention to it. Black neighbors came to her because she was, in effect, the only doctor they had, said Carter.

Luckily for our country, Jimmy Carter took after his mother’s priorities—not his father’s. Because of this he didn’t have to unpack bad thinking on the area of inclusion and diversity. He actually started believing the good, the right, and the true early in life, which made the practice of the good, the right, and the true easier. We all have collected the raw material that has helped us frame up our thinking on what is top priority in life—and what we can allow to sift to the bottom.

All pursuits in life are not equal.
I had a text message show up on my Blackberry the other day. It said simply, “What real benefit is it if a man gains the whole world but loses his soul?” I then checked to find who sent it. A friend said that he’d been thinking about that quote and just wanted to share it.

It made me start thinking that, even when we’re busy in our lives doing good, some good is better than other good. All pursuits in life are not equal. For example, some will require more of me—and some will return more to me. Some pursuits will allow me to practice the Power of One more easily—and some are more self-centered. My friend’s message helped me to remember what’s important in life, and start to tune out priorities that aren’t so important.

Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.– H. L. Hunt

I have one life and one chance to make it count for something . . . I’m free to choose what that something is, and the something I’ve chosen is my faith. Now, my faith goes beyond theology and religion and requires considerable work and effort. My faith demands — this is not optional — my faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.—Jimmy Carter

Lean into the sobering moments when life shuts down to realign and make course corrections.
Jim’s assistant called me on my cell phone and said that our Monday session was going to be cut short because Jim was scrambling with last-minute clients and customers. On top of that Jim had to go out of town on an unplanned emergency to be with his father who had been admitted into the hospital.

Jim is a CEO that I have been coaching for a few months. He is hard charging and posting record growth and profits. His company is shaking and baking his whole industry. And Jim is in transition with his life. Not a career transition, mind you, but a priority transition.

So we met for lunch. It was an amazing hour and a half. Jim gave me an update on his world and we tackled a couple of issues, like normal. But I sensed Jim had something in his pocket, as it were.

He waved off some of the normal things we might talk through and said he wanted to show me something. Jim pulled out a masterpiece. A one-page document that had captured his thinking and reflection from the last week, where he had spent much of his time sitting in the halls, rooms, and cafeteria of the hospital where his father lay.

Jim opened the discussion by saying, “You ever see any of those trend charts in magazines or newspaper that graph on one page what is in and what is out? I had a lot of time that I could not be on the phone or the computer or my Blackberry, so I spent time with myself and those around me who really matter to me.” He said he and his wife processed this together and he wanted to show me.

I had a sense that this wasn’t just some scribbled note thrown together on the way to a meeting. This water was flowing from a deep well that tapped into some rare and pure water at the core of Jim. Here is his priority list for life:


Vision Dream
Purpose Passion
Significant Insignificant
Authoring Talking/listening
David/Moses/Nehemiah John the Baptist/Barnabas
Build people Inspire people
Save time Spend time
Knowledge Wisdom
Out there Here
Intentions Behavior

These words are nothing brilliant. And they might not mean anything to you or me. But they represent a seismic shift in Jim’s perspective and priorities. He showed movement and development. He was able to get a handle on who he is and had been and then he was able to identify a new world reality for him.

Measuring things against eternity and measuring things during the sober moments of life is very important. Putting things in your life in perspective helps realign your priorities. Even the best of cars get out of alignment after driving. Life is the same way; a few bumps, potholes, and ditches can throw your life out of alignment. It’s up to you to take time to realign it, as Jim did.

Time ripens all things. No man’s born wise. – Miguel de Cervantes

An unreasonable, unworkable, unethical schedule of life’s priorities is never sustainable.
Constructing a reasonable and workable approach to life balance is the first step toward successful priority living. Many people rush to make a quick adjustment in their priorities, but rash decisions leave them disappointed or rejected. It often starts with the noble interest of realigning life correctly. But their attempt is to create a short-list of how life should line up. It is top/down, linear, and idealistic. Does this sound familiar?

1. Faith
2. Family
3. Work
4. Recreation and hobbies

Sounds perfect. But how realistic is it, really? Life just doesn’t arrange itself in neat little boxes that are predictable and controllable. You might say you put your family toward the top—but what happens when a looming deadline consumes all of your “spare” time?

And who ever feels as if they’ve done enough with the husband and daddy role that they can say, “OK, I’ve completed that for the day. Now I’m going to go do the work thing.” Really, even if you could do that, how do the 30 minutes in the morning and two hours in the evening really compare with the eight to 10 hours you spend at work each day? It just doesn’t.

It’s just not possible to always “do life” in the order you think it should go. Life isn’t a “check it off the list and move on” proposition. Instead, it’s figuring out how to live all of those things as once.

Life is more about setting our hearts on things that really matter—and then making sure that we live our lives, juggling all of those things on a daily basis with a lot of give and take with the flow and rhythms of life. A more reasonable and workable model is to identify the balls in life that you have to juggle on a regular basis—then figure out how to keep them all in the air at once.

Just remember that adopting a method that is unreasonable and unworkable is very discouraging. When setting goals, make them realistic and reasonable and you’ll have a better chance of succeeding. But don’t make the mistake of setting goals too low, either. Adopting a method that is unethical will end with disappointment.

Bringing order and peace to my private world always helps center my public world.
Gordon MacDonald first described the difference for me. He said that a “called” person and a “driven” person are not the same. Distinguishing the difference and then converting from a driven man (or woman) to a called man (or woman) can help navigate the perilous waters of priority living. A driven person is:

1. Most often gratified only by accomplishment.
2. Preoccupied with the symbols of accomplishment.
3. Usually caught in the uncontrolled pursuit of expansion.
4. Someone with an often-limited regard for integrity.
5. Often limited or undeveloped.
6. Highly competitive.
7. Often full of volcanic anger.
8. Abnormally busy.

Based on this list would you say that your core is fueled by drive? Or does energy more consistent with “calling” fuel you?

A man must drive his energy, not be driven by it. –William Frederick Book

You can’t walk into a bank and attain a small-business loan without a business plan. If you told the loan officer that you were just looking to spend some time working so that the days would pass by quicker you would surely be rejected. None of us would launch a business without a plan that included our goals and strategies. Yet many of us live our personal lives with little intentional planning. We are carried by opportunity or cultural winds with little examination as to why we are drifting this way or that way.

What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you pound the table with passion? What are you seeking to accomplish in life?

Envision your funeral. This is a morbid thought, but visualize what you would want to hear said about your life and your legacy. If you died tomorrow, what would people say about you? Would it make you proud of the way you lived? Consider this old saying, “If you want to know how to live your life, think about what you’d like people to say about you after you die—then live backward.”

Thinking about how we will be remembered can help us keep our priorities straight. It did for Alfred Nobel, who had the extraordinary opportunity to read his own obituary. It seems that after Alfred’s brother died, a newspaper mistakenly printed Alfred’s death notice. Though the article was positive, describing him as a brilliant chemist who made a great fortune as the inventor of dynamite, Nobel was horrified to be memorialized in such utilitarian terms. Determined to leave a more positive legacy, he bequeathed his considerable wealth to the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.

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