an epic life

Posts Tagged ‘positive thinking’

Mind Over Mosquitoes…

February 7th, 2018

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” –Viktor Frankl


The date was July 6, 2014. We left Lander, WY, at 3:30am, under a dark sky full of stars, and hit the road that would lead us to the trailhead. We were amped up on caffeine, our anticipation for the adventure was palpable, and the truck’s stereo was turned way up. (For better or worse, I have a fantastic memory, and I can remember some of the songs that blared from the speakers on that drive in the wee hours of the morning, which included Red Solo Cup, Where is my Mind and Happy.) 

I had hired my friend, Randy, to drive us. It would be a two-hour drive on gravel and dirt roads, and I didn’t want to burden myself with such a drive at the front end of what would be a challenging adventure that I was responsible for leading.

About a year earlier, Joel, a former colleague, client – and most importantly, a dear friend – asked if I’d be willing to organize and lead an epic backpacking program for he and his friend, Alan.

Over the years, Joel has done so much to help my businesses, and he was one of the first people to trust me to be his coach, making him special to me. So of course I said Yes.

We arrived to Big Sandy Opening Trailhead at 5:30am. I jumped out of the truck to start unloading our backpacks. I love to being on the trail before sunrise, so I can be out in the wilderness when the sun rises and shines its first light on the mountains. We were cutting it close, so I was hurrying and trying to get us out of the truck and onto the trail as quickly as possible.

But not so fast. Unfortunately, as soon as we got out of the truck, we were overwhelmed by mosquitoes. I do sometimes exaggerate, but this isn’t one of those times. We were under siege by millions of mosquitoes. They were all over us.

I know that July in Wyoming’s Wind River Range is often buggy. While I’ve had some of my best adventures in July, I knew there was a good chance that mosquitoes could be a part of our adventure.

As we all cursed the mosquitoes and tried to locate the mosquito head nets in our backpacks, I recalled a Skype call I had had with Joel and Alan six months earlier. During the call, we were trying to determine a date range that would work for all three of us. It would have to be July or September. I was sharing with Joel and Alan that in July, the weather would be great, but there would be a good chance of mosquitoes. I remember emphasizing, “The mosquitoes could be really, really bad,” to which Alan responded, with a chuckle, that he was from New Jersey where there are huge mosquitoes, adding,“I’m not afraid.” And so we decided on July.

As we swatted and cursed the mosquitoes, I wondered if Alan still felt that way. Thankfully we quickly located, and put on, our bug head nets. (This $5 item would prove to be the most valuable piece of gear for the adventure.)

As Randy drove off, I almost cried watching him leave us behind. The mosquitoes were so bad. I had never seen so many of them at once, and I thought, if this were Jerry and the boys and I, it would be a No Go. But this was a Go, regardless of the mosquitoes. Joel had come from Atlanta, and Alan from Malibu. Both are extremely busy leaders, and free time for them is rare. We had been planning this adventure for six months. There was no turning back.

Joel, me and Alan, in our epic head nets.

As we entered the forest, and started down the trail, I could hear Joel and Alan cursing the mosquitoes and slapping their various body parts in an attempt to kill, or swat the pesky insects away.

I was doing the same thing, although I kept my cursing to myself. I thought to myself, in anger: Are you kidding me? These mosquitoes are going to ruin this trip before it even starts. I had already been feeling a little nervous, what with wanting to make sure to provide an unforgettable, possibly even transformational, experience for these guys. The swarms of mosquitoes compounded my nervousness.

After a few minutes of walking, and hearing the guys’ cursing and swatting, I remembered, with great relief,  the amount of whiskey they had packed. Thank God for the whiskey! I thought to myself. Back at the hotel, I had noticed the abundance of whiskey they were trying to fit into their backpacks, and wondered if it was excessive, and may have even questioned the wisdom of their bringing so much liquor along on what would be physically demanding adventure, not to mention one that would be at altitude. Now I didn’t have any doubt, and I was thankful for their wisdom.

More seriously, though, I realized that how I responded to these mosquitoes would likely influence how Joel and Alan would respond to the mosquitoes. I watched and listened as the swarms hovered in front of my face and all around me. Mosquitoes literally filled the air. (Their buzzing was so loud and constant that I could still hear them a week after our trip!). But then I noticed that the mosquitoes were not getting in. Our head nets were keeping them out. In addition to the head nets, we each wore pants, and long-sleeve shirts, and had sprayed some Off on ourselves before starting. I took stock of all this, and once again, confirmed that the mosquitoes were not getting into the head net, and they were not biting. We were protected.

It was then that I also remembered the words of the late Viktor Frankl. (What would I do without all of the books I’ve read, and the wisdom they have imparted on me?)  

Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychologist, and a Nazi concentration camp survivor. He survived three years in camps. Every day in the camps, people all around Frankl died, yet he lived. After his experience, he wrote Man’s Search for Meaning, which is one of the most influential books I’ve ever read. I’ve read the book three times, and will likely read it several more times.

While starting up the trail, with my cursing and mosquito-swatting friends close behind, I thought of some of Frankl’s words: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I recalled how Frankl was able to choose his existence, and how that made all the difference for him, despite his terrible, life-threatening circumstances.

I decided right then, just minutes into our backpacking adventure, and under siege by mosquitoes, to choose my mindset. Specifically, I decided, “I will not let these mosquitoes hijack this adventure.”

Right there and then, everything would change for the better. And doing that – changing my mindset – made all the difference.  

The mosquitoes, though in great number and incredibly annoying, did not hijack our adventure. Despite the fact that almost all of our photos show us wearing our mosquito head nets, the mosquitoes seldom come up when we recall our experience in the wilderness that July. Despite the mosquitoes, ours was an unforgettable and inspiring adventure.

Yeehaw! Jumping on Jackass Pass, a rare moment that was breezy and therefore, at least for a moment, mosquito-free.

I share this story to illustrate that we all have the power to change our mindset. And yet, to tell the story honestly, it’s important to also share that I didn’t make that decision to change my mindset only that one time, at the start of our adventure. Rather, I made that decision, and chose that mindset, probably hundreds of times over the course of the five days.

And doing so made all the difference.

As I recall this story, I must share another realization. If the adventure were a few years earlier, I seriously doubt I would have had the maturity or the ability to have noticed my thoughts, and to have consciously decided to change my mindset.  And I dread even thinking about how different the experience might have been as a result.

Let me explain. I promise there’s a nugget. 🙂

I have meditated off and on for almost 30 years. Add to that, I hike about 500 miles, alone, each year. In other words, I experience a great deal of “mindfulness.”

But it wasn’t until 2012, after seeing Andy Puddicombe’s wonderful Ted Talk and learning about the Headspace app, that I committed to practicing mindfulness on a regular basis. And Thank God I did.

By the time I was leading Joel and Alan on our Epic adventure, I had spent 10-20 minutes every single weekday morning for 18 months in my simple mindfulness practice.  

Sitting alone with nothing but my thoughts on a regular basis has changed my life in a subtle but important way. For the record, and this will not be a surprise to people who know me well, I have an overactive mind. When I sit in mindfulness, my mind and thoughts wander away from me over and over again. So, in my mindfulness practice, I am constantly working to “fetch” and bring back my wandering attention, to return it to my breath. Let’s just say, I get a lot of practice at redirecting my attention. (I used to think this meant I was “bad” at mindfulness or meditation, when in fact, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that it just means I get a lot of practice at redirecting and focusing my attention.) In the process of all this mindfulness practice, I have learned how to be an “observer” of my thoughts.

Consider the quote I included at the very top of this story: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.”

Before I invested time in a mindfulness practice, I didn’t have that space. But now that I’m an experienced observer of my thoughts, I have this space – this fleeting opportunity that’s mine if only I’ll take it – that is between what is happening right now and what will be my response to it, during which I get to decide how I will respond. (By the way, sometimes I still may freak out, but it will be a choice, rather than a reaction, and let me tell you, that’s a big difference.)

Having the brief “space” allows me to thoughtfully respond, rather than to mindlessly or emotionally react, and it has made a positive difference in all areas of my life.

This is all to say that my mindfulness practice deserves much of the credit for my having the ability and mental wherewithal to notice my thoughts, and to change my mindset at the start of my adventure with Joel and Alan. It was the difference between allowing the mosquitoes to hijack our adventure or not.

I know that dealing with a bunch of mosquitoes on a wilderness trip is nothing compared to more serious circumstances, such receiving a cancer diagnosis, or getting fired or laid off from your job, or having your house burn down, or suffering the loss of a loved one.

But remember, Frankl was able to survive three years of suffering, and survived when so many others around him died, and/or surrendered to their circumstances. For Frankl, his ability to choose his mindset (what he called “the last of the human freedoms”), was the single thing that couldn’t be taken from him, and over which he had control.

In fact, our mindset is one thing over which we have control.

Frankl’s example is a tremendous inspiration for me, and has been for almost 30 years. When I was just 20 years old, I lost my Division I basketball scholarship, and one of the first blessings that resulted from that “failure” was discovering, and reading about Frankl’s story. I remember thinking, if Frankl could choose his existence while trying to survive a Nazi concentration camp, then surely a girl from Wyoming who lost her basketball scholarship could choose hers, too. Frankl’s story had a profound impact on me, and it changed the course of my life for the better.

Reading Man’s Search for Meaning, and remembering how Frankl was able to choose his existence by choosing how to respond to his circumstances continues to inform my life, particularly when I find myself in difficult circumstances.

Chances are, we all have at least some challenging circumstances in our lives right now. It’s hard to be positive and feel optimistic when our circumstances aren’t more favorable. Yet the mindset we have in those circumstances has a lot of influence over how we’ll live through those circumstances. Will we surrender to the circumstances or will we try to improve our situation?

I coach people from throughout the country, from all walks of life. Often, we work on mindset, and reframing and changing the way we view things. I work with leaders on being more responsive and less reactive.

Even the most positive among us struggle with negativity. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist, brain imaging expert and author, says we have 60,000 thoughts a day. Can you imagine? That’s one thought per second. And, did you know that 45,000 of these daily thoughts we each have are negative? Amen calls these Automatic Negative Thoughts, or “ANTS.” So 75% of our thoughts are negative. Not to be negative, but this fact is a real downer!

We all have negative stories that appear, especially when we’re experiencing self doubt, or struggling through difficult circumstances.

Are you old enough to remember cassette tapes? Remember how, as long as the plastic tabs weren’t manually removed,  you could record new music over the old? I try to notice the negative story when it appears, and I then I work to “record a new track” over that old, negative one. Our negative stories are limiting. They hold us back, and cause us grief. We must replace them with new stories that are more constructive. All of this takes practice, and it can be extremely difficult work.

I am thinking now of a time during my Gannett Peak expedition last July when I was in a tent above tree line, surrounded by lakes and tall granite peaks. There was an epic storm going on that included lightning that lit up my tent in between raucous thunder that echoed off the nearby granite. For a few hours, I lay there, alone in my tent, at 10,500’ elevation and 15 miles from the nearest trailhead, terrified. Each time my tent was lit up by the lightning, and each time I heard the cracking and echoing thunder, I thought to myself, I’m going to be struck by lightning! and I’m going to die! And each time, trying to practice what I preach, I worked hard to replace these negative thoughts/stories with, What a spectacular storm! And, Our guides spend nights like this all the time and they are alive. I tried all night to change my mindset, and was not successful. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort!

Thankfully I survived, and among other things, I get to continue my efforts to change my mindset, and to hopefully inspire others to change theirs when it would serve them to do so. It’s important work that can change our lives. I shared only a couple of examples of how changing my mindset changed my experience. There are many more I could share, but you have your own, and I encourage you to reflect on some of them.

Think of a time you changed your mindset, and in doing so, it changed your reality.

A favorite quote of mine, by Anaïs Nin, is “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” When we change our mindset, we see things as we choose to see them.  

Think of a negative situation you’re in, or a negative thought that is a part of your inner dialogue these days. What is a new, more positive thought you can replace it with? Start practicing replacing the negative thought with a positive one.

I love metaphors. So to wrap this up, I’ll return to where we started – mosquitoes and head nets.

What are the mosquitoes that are trying to interfere with you in your work, your life or a relationship? What is an action you can take – a “head net” you can wear – to keep their negativity from getting in, while also helping you shift your mind and attention to something more positive?  

Thanks for stopping by, and for reading my writing. I thank you with all of my heart!

(I hope you’ll check back. Watch for upcoming posts related to mindset, including growth vs. fixed, the science of gratitude, work/job recrafting, and more.)


Want To Make A Change? Try WOOPing!

February 4th, 2016

First of all, I apologize this isn’t a shorter post. But as the saying goes, I would have written less but I didn’t have time.

Do you want to make a change? Then you’ve come to the right place. I have a new system to share that is easy – and proven – for making a dream come true, or a change for the better.

Hi there.

Hi there.

I’ve made significant changes to my life during the last 5 years, and all of them stuck, and so far have lasted.

There is a book that is most responsible for helping me to master change-making, and it is Switch, by Dan and Chip Heath. I can’t recommend it enough. I read it when it came out in 2010, and it has had a huge impact on my life. So much so that I use many of the principles discussed in the book when I coach, and facilitate development for leaders from throughout the U.S.

Now there’s a new book in my toolkit and, if you are wishing for a dream to come true, or to make a change in your life, then I suggest you get your hands on it. It’s Rethinking Positive Thinking, Inside the New Science of Motivation, by Gabriele Oettingen, a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. The book is based on 20 years of research and large-scale studies.

I should come clean here and say I’m an optimist to a fault. I not only think the glass is half full, I think the glass itself is amazing. Among other things, I am an emotional intelligence consultant, and optimism is one of the most valuable traits a person could wish to have. We have the power to choose to be positive, even when things are not awesome. The late, great Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist, and author of the influential Man’s Search for Meaning (another book I so highly recommend!), said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

In addition, having positive fantasies is pleasureful, and optimism helps us alleviate our present suffering, while also helping us persevere through adversity. At the bottom of a mountain, it is absolutely more helpful to thinking positively than it is to think negatively.

However, as Oettingen points out, positive thinking is mostly helpful only in the short-term. Positive thinking, and positive fantasies, while they offer value, do not help us achieve our long-terms goals, and in fact, may help ensure that we don’t.

It isn’t enough to sit and dream; we have to take action and make sacrifices… Our dreams may be realizable, but they come down to challenges that require engagement and action. The good news… is that it’s possible to move energetically toward many of our wishes, and to do a much better job deciding which wishes are worth our effort and which aren’t, writes Oettingen.


Research over the past 20 years finds that dreaming about a desired future leads to low investment and little success, regardless of life domains, such as health, work, and interpersonal relationships. In order to benefit from positive thinking about the future, people need to incorporate in that positive thinking a clear sense of reality.

Most of us do not live our Epic Life, or have our greatest impact, or pursue our dreams because of fear. We fear failure, we fear disappointing others, we fear disappointing ourself, and we fear making a fool out of ourselves. These are fears most of us share, and at least one of them is usually the reason we play it safe instead of daring to do what we want or need to do.

One way to overcome these fears, or to proceed despite them, is to confront them at the outset. As an entrepreneur, goal-oriented person, coach and leadership development facilitator, I often use what Tim Ferriss calls “negative visualization” to help myself, or others, identify and articulate risks. By assessing the fears/risks in advance, often we realize the fears aren’t as bad as we make them out to be, which can have the powerful and beneficial effect of nudging us forward, not to mention keep us from being reckless in our pursuits. This process is also called conducting a premortem – imagining in advance all that could go wrong so that we can persevere if and when things go wrong.

Oettingen isn’t suggesting we do away with positive thinking. Rather, it’s making the most of our fantasies by brushing them up against the very thing most of us are taught to ignore or diminish: the obstacles that stand in our way, she writes.

Oettingen calls this process mental contrasting. And her system for helping us achieve our goals and realize our dreams is calling WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. (In scientific literature it’s called Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, or MCII)


Here’s how it works:

1. Determine a WISH that you have. It can be a short-term goal or a long-term dream. (For example, I tried this out by having a wish, Write a Blog Post Today.)

2. Consider the best OUTCOME. (Given my aforementioned experiment, my outcome was to publish the blog post)

3. Consider the main OBSTACLE that could likely stand in the way of your wish coming true. (I am leaving town at noon, and I also had to write some emails to clients and I also wanted to get a 1-hour skate ski session in. These things could prevent me from having enough time to write and publish a blog post.)

4. Make an If-Then PLAN, such as If (enter obstacle), then (enter desired action). (If I don’t have enough time, then I will skip skiing so I can write and publish the blog post.)
Remember, this system is based on 20 years of research and many large-scale studies. It works. (This blog post is proof, right?! I used the app to create a 24-hour WOOP to accomplish this goal of writing and publishing a blog post before leaving town today at noon. Check!)

A bigger wish I have is related to a family trip we’re planning to Europe. We’re making our first international trip in late May and it will be for 4 weeks. My wish is to really experience and grow with my husband and our three sons while seeing a new part of the world. The ideal outcome for me is for us to further enrich our relationships with one another. A potential obstacle that could prevent the desired outcome is that I’ll be so busy capturing it in photos and sharing them with my networks that I will miss being as present as I’d like to be with my family during the experience. I know with all my being that this is a real threat to realizing my desired outcome. So a plan I will implement is to post only one photo per day from my phone, and then use my camera for the rest of the memory captures.

On that subject of wanting to be present, for yet another book I highly recommend, see Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation. Turkle is a social scientist at MIT, and has done extensive research on our increasing tethered-ness to our cell phones. As a result of this tethered-ness, we are often “alone together” – together, but not really. The book, and Turkle’s work are a real cautionary tale. I have been working on strictly limiting my technology use, and our family tried one week without it. It was hard AND amazing. I blogged about it here if you’re interested.

In conclusion, I don’t know about you, but for me, the higher the stakes, the more critical it is that I not only imagine my dream, but that I do the work required to make it come true.

P.S. Here is an exceptional podcast interview with Oettingen by the great Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman. Also, check out to see many testimonials from people in the health, interpersonal and academic domains who have tried, and had success, using the WOOP system. And/or download the app for free on your cell phone.

Thanks for reading, and best wishes at making your wishes come true using the WOOP technique.