There’s a quote that is attributed to President Eisenhower that asserts, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” His quote mirrors this more popular saying: “the urgent is enemy of the important.” Both quotes speak to the fact that too often many of us focus our resources and time on matters of an urgent nature, which invariably leads to ignoring or devaluing the important.
To illustrate the concept graphically, I have diagrammed a dot and an arrow. The dot represents the urgent, and the arrow signifies the important. Consider that a dot is short term and finite while an arrow is long-term, and even infinite in some instances, which we’ll explore further below.
This dot and arrow issue is a problem that is seen in human nature across time. Yet, as much as we struggle with this, it’s very difficult to elevate the priority of the important. There’s one story in ancient Jewish history that illustrates this point as well as any.
You may recall the story of Esau and Jacob, twin brothers who were polar opposites, and frequently seemed to be at odds with each other. One day, after Esau had been out hunting for an extended period of time, he returned home famished. In fact, he was so hungry that he was willing to sell his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew. In Jewish tradition, the birthright was reserved for the eldest son and offered significant prestige, the carrying on of the family name, the largest portion of the family inheritance and much more. But Esau, living in the dot of the here and now, devalued his birthright, the arrow, and bartered it to his brother Jacob, for a fleeting meal. While he eventually regretted his decision, there was no reversing the course on which he had set his life. His urgent choice permanently sacrificed the important.
As I’ve thought about the tyranny of the dot versus the arrow, I’ve contemplated how often the urgent trumps the important, as reflected in the following examples.
How often have you set out to complete a number of tasks in a given day when all of a sudden an “urgent” matter appears, out of left field? As quickly as the urgent new priority presents itself, the important tasks that you had committed to completing take a back seat. All of a sudden the important is displaced by the urgent, the end of the day comes, and few, if any, of the important goals are realized. The tyranny of the dot, the urgent, replaces the arrow of the important.
Have you ever been tempted to shortcut quality in favor of quantity in your business or job? This is one of those choices we often face in our business or careers, where the urgent can crowd out the important. The demand to meet a quota, or the need to achieve certain quarterly goals can put us in the predicament of choosing the dot versus the arrow. Will we sacrifice the long-term results to realize some short term gains? If so, we will succumb to the tyranny of the dot.
If ever there was a profession that was known for its short-sightedness, it is politics and politicians. It seems that short term wins are all that a politician cares about, at least the vast majority of them.
How will the next vote benefit me? Can this constituent contribute to my campaign? What position can I take on an issue that will most benefit me? But in asking all of these questions, the professional politician reveals he has very few laudable values or principles that guide him. His dot is the urgency of self-promotion, always seeking the most advantageous path to further his position. Sadly though, whenever this occurs, the arrow, which could be campaign promises or resolute principles, can so quickly be sacrificed.
While all the aforementioned examples are significant, they do not begin to rival the importance and priority of eternity. Perhaps the graphic of the dot and arrow best illustrates this when we compare the dot of our “three score and ten” years on earth with the unending arrow of eternity. Too often, for most of us, we are so easily distracted with the urgency of living in the dot during our short years here on earth, that we tragically short-sell the importance of living for the arrow of eternity, an era when 70 years will seem as a few short seconds and a thousand years will be like a few hours.
There is a verse that warns, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” Yet the sad reality is that too many will do exactly that. We will live for the here and now, for the dot of our earthly existence but in so doing, we sacrifice the arrow, the opportunity to experience an eternity with our Creator, who wills that all mankind join Him.
The Christmas season is a time when many of us take some moments to review the past year, our failures and successes, regrets and achievements. And with the New Year just around the corner, it is also a time when we set new goals, and establish plans to achieve them. As we spend this time of reflection and goal setting, I pray that we will resist the tyranny of the dot and commit ourselves to living for the arrow. In our daily routines, resist the temptation to fall prey to those urgent demands. In our businesses or careers, I trust we will never lose focus on the long-term and excellence. If you’re a politician, recommit yourself to your guiding principles and resist the temptation to self-promote, truly seeking the good of others.
But most importantly, regardless of whether you are a millennial, a baby boomer, or somewhere in between, I trust that you will live your life for the arrow of eternity. If you’re uncertain how to do this, I would encourage you to check out this website: Are You a Good Person?
The dot will soon be over for each of us. Will we be prepared for the arrow? I pray we will. Merry Christmas!
1… 24… 168… 8,760
You might be wondering what the above numbers have in common? Or perhaps what they even have to do with you? Of course, you may have also already figured them out.
The truth is, the above numbers apply to all of us equally. Over the next 60 minutes, 1 hour will tick away. This time tomorrow, 24 hours will have passed. One week from now, 168 hours will have come and gone. And this time next year, 8,760 hours will be in the books.
So big deal, right? The same has held true since the beginning of Time.
Some might say time is neutral. That it is neither good or bad. Neither friend or foe.
I say differently.
Time is either your best friend or worst enemy.
And you get to decide which it is. If a friend, you are using it. If an enemy, it is using you.
Let me illustrate.
Have you ever slept in, and when you finally got up the gumption to get up, you just kind of rolled out of bed, spent your morning meandering around the house, and never really got around to doing much? You were just kind of lazy but you justified it by saying you deserved it. Before you knew it, it was mid-afternoon and you really hadn’t accomplished much of anything. By then though, you felt you needed a nap, because you were just tired from not doing much. So you snoozed a little more, and it was soon supper time. The day was nearly spent, and if you even bothered to think back, you’d have to admit you did absolutely nothing. Nada! Zip!
Now that may be an extreme example, and if you’re like me, you cannot think back to a time when you had a day that went like that. But you, like I, might be willing to admit instances in your life where an hour here or an hour there was “spent” on meaningless or non-productive activities. Sure, they may not have been “lazy” things, but they accomplished nothing of substance nonetheless. Can someone say Facebook? Or the 2nd or 3rd football game in a day? Or the fourth episode of your favorite sitcom? Watching Dancing with Stars? Or surfing eBay on the web? Or…
Of course, in and of themselves, none of the activities described above, or similar ones that might come to your mind, are evil, bad or hurtful. Well, maybe not… But here’s the point. Each time I’m engaged in one of them, an hour or two will pass. And the question is: Did I use time, or did it use me? Were you in control of that four letter word?
That is the key. Are you controlling time or is it just happening to you? When you find yourself in a scenario where stuff happens, things just seem to occur with no proactive control or input into what is happening, especially as it relates to your schedule, then time is controlling you. But when you and I are deliberate, scheduled, and focused on a definitive timetable for our day and week, then we are in control of time. And rather than time being our worst enemy, it becomes our best friend, our ally.
Time is what enables us to complete tasks, goals and projects. Time enables you to build your dream home, deploy a detailed business plan, raise a loving family, deepen relationships with loved ones, redevelop a failed inner city, restore a failing nation to its once admired status and more. It matters not the size of the task. Time can and will be your friend and ally if you harness it to bend to your plans versus allowing it to choke us as we remain mired in mediocrity, laziness or simply poor planning and stewardship.
Time is neutral. So you will decide how it plays out in your life. Friend or Foe? Asset or Liability?
You decide. Don’t delay. 1, 24, 168 or 8,760 hours from now, will tell the story.
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If you’re alive, then you’ve failed. And if you’re honest, you’ve failed a lot. I know I have. In fact, I’m confident that my failures outnumber my successes by a multiple of many.
But the truth is that you and I are not alone. In fact, we are in great company. The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, and even religious leaders will all admit, if they’re honest, that their failures are numerous.
Of course, there are many types of failures. There are athletic failures, such as missing the winning shot in the NBA finals. And there are business failures, such as filing bankruptcy when the entrepreneur can no longer satisfy his creditors. There are parental failures, where we may find we have dropped the ball in the raising of our children. And there are personal defeats, where we fail to live up to a standard we set for ourselves. There are moral failures, where one may violate a professional or personal relationship. And there are spiritual failures, where our behavior or choices fall short of the standard established by God Himself.
The first step in overcoming a failure is to acknowledge it, seek forgiveness from those you have wronged, and then put the mechanisms in place to avoid repeating those same failures again, and again, and again.
But when you’ve done this, it’s possible and perhaps even likely that the failures in your life occasionally or even frequently raise their ugly heads to remind you of your shortcomings. It’s human nature for us to replay them over and over in our minds.
It hurts to fail just as it hurts to get thrown from a horse. But if you are going to learn to ride that bucking bronco, there’s only one way to do so and that is to climb back on and try again.
In Psalm 40:12 we read this from King David, “For troubles surround me, too many to count! My sins pile up so high I can’t see my way out. They outnumber the hairs on my head. I have lost all courage.” That’s a lot of failures, and we see what happened when David was focused on his sins. He couldn’t see his way out and he lost all courage.
Bottom line, he was remembering and rehearsing his failures and the more he did, the weaker and more discouraged he became.
We also see there were those who were more than willing to remind David of his failures in the following verse, “May those who try to destroy me be humiliated and put to shame. May those who take delight in my trouble be turned back in disgrace. Let them be horrified by their shame, for they said, ‘Aha! We’ve got him now!’”
Note that if we’re not reminding ourselves of our failures, there is usually someone in our life who is more than willing to do so. And their intent is generally malicious and destructive.
But thankfully, we also read that David found his strength in God when he said, “Please Lord, rescue me! Come quickly, Lord, and help me.”
Like David, we must recognize that when our failures seem to overwhelm us, whether business, personal, moral or spiritual, there is One to whom we can turn. Doing so requires humility, dependence, and repentance, particularly if the failure is a violation of God’s law. But when we humble ourselves, and seek God’s forgiveness, strength and deliverance, it is then that we can regain the courage that was lost by focusing on our failures.
There is another step to be taken in overcoming your failures which we learn from another great historical figure, the Apostle Paul, when he shares, “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead…”
We must bury the past and turn our focus to the future, knowing that what is done is done. The only chapter of our lives that you and I can still affect is the one yet unwritten. So forget those past failures and turn your focus to the future.
So if your failures have haunted you and your courage has been waning, practice the strategies that David and Paul both used: seek God’s deliverance and strength, and forget the past while focusing on the future. Doing so will unleash a new sense of optimism and hope as you fulfill the purpose that God has for your life.
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“Knowing the facts is easy. Knowing how to act based on the facts is difficult.” Han Feizi
A good friend and mentor shared the above quote with me this last week and it got me thinking… In this age of Google and Siri, it has become commonplace to find out the answer to nearly any question we have. No longer do we need to go to a bookshelf, pull out a volume of the World Book encyclopedia, to find out the answer to a problem we might be having.
Case in point. A couple days ago I was struggling to remember the name of the runner from Jamaica who just won gold for the third time in the Olympics in the 100 meter race. So I picked up my phone, and asked my digital assistant: “Siri, who is the world’s fastest man?” In just moments I had the answer along with more facts than I ever asked for: Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man.
Yet, with our 21st century capacity to know the facts on nearly any subject matter known to man in mere seconds, what has not changed for mankind is the ability to know how to act based on the facts. In fact, it remains just as difficult today as it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago.
The truth is, it matters not whether we are talking about our personal life, business, political choices, moral dilemmas, or spiritual quandaries, we often know the facts of a matter, but struggle to make the right choices based on those facts.
There are times when we know the facts, but the proper response to the facts is difficult to discern. It may be that the proper choice is not totally clear. Or it could appear that there are pros and cons to all the various options. So discerning which is the best option can be difficult.
This can occur when we are too close to the matter, or our experience with the facts at hand is limited. When this happens, a second set of eyes, a new perspective, greater wisdom, or even a personal coach, can bring clarity to the matter, resulting in the proper choice coming into focus. So we should never hesitate to bring mentors, counselors or trusted advisors into the picture, whether in our personal, business or spiritual life.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Well, so is a conscience. Our God-given “inner voice” can serve as a guide in leading us to the proper decision in a matter. While this is true, at times we choose to ignore or question the voice. We know what we ought to do, but we resist doing so. The sad reality of this scenario though is that if we do this often enough, at some point our conscience will grow weaker and weaker, to a point that it no longer serves as a voice of discernment in our lives. And what was designed into us as a guide can over time lose its influence, and even grow silent.
There’s a passage in Romans 7 that speaks specifically to this quandary:
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate… I want do do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”
We’re all familiar with the philosophy “the end justifies the means” and most would likely reject it. But the truth is that many of us will at times embrace this reasoning when it can benefit us personally. The opening quote of this post says, “Knowing how to act based on the facts is difficult.” If I were to re-write the quote I would revise it to say, “Knowing how to act correctly based on the facts is difficult.”
Situational ethics can frequently lead us to a justifiable option, but it may be the wrong choice. My set of facts may reveal that I am broke and don’t know how I’m going to put gas in my tank. While I’m in the break room at work I find a $20 bill laying on the counter. No one is around so I justify taking the cash because no one will ever know, “finders keepers, losers weepers” or some other rationalization. I need to put gas in my tank to get home to my family, so I’m ok with doing the wrong thing. So that $20 is now mine. Simple. The end justifies the means.
We know better but we justify our decision, and thus we act based on the facts, but our action is flawed and incorrect. James 4:17 addresses this particular dilemma quite succinctly: “To him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
At the end of the day, it’s critical to look beyond the facts and seek to respond to those facts in the correct manner. Whether we seek out a coach or mentor, or we respond to the truth we know to do, or we resist the temptation to justify inappropriate behavior, if we want to succeed and grow in life, we must all too frequently make the tough but difficult choice.
Are there other ways you’ve found to do what is right but difficult? If so, send me an email or post a comment below and let me know your thoughts.
Last year I wrote about the importance of marriage in “An Entrepreneur’s #1 Partnership,” emphasizing the need to prioritize your marital relationship above your business. But it’s easy to write about doing so, and quite another thing to actually live it out on a daily basis.
Entrepreneurs and employees are often tempted to focus more of their attention and energies on their business or job than the relationship with their spouse. As an entrepreneur, I can affirm the struggle this dilemma often presents. And if you’ve spent any amount of time in business, you know exactly why this is.
Our businesses present a constant set of opportunities, challenges, and other “urgent” matters, that demand our immediate attention. If you’re like me, it’s all too easy to allow these demands to overshadow everything else in life. Whether it’s our relationship with our spouse, our kids, our personal health, or perhaps even our spiritual walk with God, it seems that all too often, the urgency of the immediate drowns out the preeminence of the important.
Granted, there are instances when a scenario is truly urgent in nature, requiring our immediate focus or else catastrophic consequences could ensue. These rare instances are not what I am referring to. Rather, the “urgent” issues I am referring to are the unlimited number of lesser demands that present themselves on an all too frequent basis.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we can see this reality clearly, both in our own lives and sadly in the lives of others. But in the heat of the battle, it’s easy to ignore that internal nagging voice that continues to remind us that the urgent is once again supplanting the important. And when it does, it can result in our cancelling that special dinner with our spouse, or missing our child’s ball game, because a last minute “deal” demands we do so.
So how do we overcome this temptation so that we properly address the urgent without sacrificing the important? There are at least three truths we can embrace to overcome this “urgent versus important” dilemma:
Involve yourself in an accountability relationship with someone you trust implicitly, whether individually or in a small group. Be honest and transparent with this individual in a manner that allows him to provide honest feedback. It is a rare person who can critique his own actions and choices in such a manner that he will self-correct and recalibrate his life when he veers off course. An accountability partner will provide that much needed correction to help us bring the important back to a priority over the urgent. The book of Proverbs affirms this truth when it reminds us that “…in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
The urgent will always be clamoring for immediate attention. The unexpected and unplanned seem to show up on a regular basis, and too often at the most inopportune times. And when the urgent rears it’s head, it seems all else pales in significance. You can likely identify this reality playing itself out over and over in your own life, if you think about it. So it’s critical that we begin to identify when the urgent has arrived and that we be prepared to counter this temptation with a predetermined course of action. Whether it’s one that you’ve devised on your own, with your accountability partner, or perhaps one such as the Eisenhower Decision Principle (named after President Dwight Eisenhower), have a plan ready to deploy when the urgent shows up and seeks to derail the important.
As hard as we try, there will be times when we succumb to the urgent despite our best intentions. One truth that we know about ourselves is that we often fail to live up to our own standards and expectations. It may not be that we intended to, but old habits die hard and we frequently revert back to our old self. But this is just another instance when we must simply acknowledge our frailty, both to ourselves and our spouse and/or family, and then recommit ourselves to steps 1 and 2 above. Meet with your accountability partner, evaluate your actions, and then learn from your mistakes.
I trust that you and I will continually remember these truths and we’ll take whatever steps we need to take in order to insure that we don’t wake up someday and realize that, while we were successful at accomplishing the urgent, we failed in the truly important areas of our life. including that most important relationship, our marriage.
How many times have you heard someone say, “God gave you two ears and one mouth so you can listen twice as much as you talk?” While I don’t know if that’s the reason God made us that way, I do believe in the message that is conveyed.
It seems that many in leadership are frequently more interested in speaking first and listening second, if at all. Perhaps a leader seeks to impress or dominate the conversation. Or perhaps he simply feels he has all the answers. But if there’s one thing that will diminish the respect of others, it is a leader’s lack of interest in what others think or have to say. It may not be intentional on his part, but if a leader cares about those he is entrusted with, it’s incumbent on him to listen more than he speaks.
I think back to the late ’90’s when my business partner and I were opening up one of our more than two dozen senior care facilities. We had the distinct privilege of escorting a noted federal elected official through our property. We obviously felt honored to have him as our guest. But as I recall the encounter, it was clear that the politician had very little interest in our views or concerns. He was more interested in monopolizing the conversation. Since that day, I have had the opportunity to engage with the same individual on a number of other instances and his qualities have never changed. The conversation is always one-sided.
On the flip side, I had a recent encounter in 2015 with one of the Presidential candidates for the Republican nomination and his wife. Following a visit by Senator Ted Cruz, and his wife Heidi, to Chattanooga, I had the unexpected honor of traveling with the two of them on their campaign bus from Chattanooga to Murfreesboro where they were holding another event. I’ve been around three other Presidential candidates in one-on-one scenarios in the past and I had seen the “talk first” mentality exhibited by a couple of them so I fully expected the same from Ted Cruz.
From the beginning of the trip though, I was pleasantly surprised when Heidi Cruz first sat down across from me and some other friends who were also traveling on the bus. Heidi engaged in an interactive, two-way conversation. While she wasn’t the candidate or individual seeking to lead, it was clear that she possessed strong leadership qualities. There was no sense of her desiring to monopolize the conversation but rather she exhibited genuine interest in me, my background and my views.
After 20 minutes or so, Ted came forward from the back of the bus, where he had been engaged in an interview with an NBC reporter. When he joined us, there was no air of “I’ve arrived so it’s time for everyone else to listen up.” Truthfully, Ted was less about him and more about us. He took real interest in what was on our minds and what our concerns were. While we grilled him with questions, his answers were not long or verbose, as I’ve frequently seen from other leaders and politicians. Ted continued to bring the conversation back to us.
In thinking about the leadership qualities and styles of these two elected leaders, I believe there are some distinct lessons that can be learned by those seeking to be good leaders themselves.
Leaders Ask Questions
A leader will ask questions of those he seeks to lead. Questions are the means of finding out what is in the hearts and minds of people. Without asking questions, you’ll never know what concerns others are grappling with. And when you are asking questions, you are talking less.
Leaders Talk Less
There are certainly times when a leader must motivate and inspire others with his words, whether in a rousing speech, or in a call to action with his employees. But generally, a leader must listen more than he talks. As referenced above, questions can serve a useful purpose. But there are frequent times when simply saying little and listening to the hurts, wants, or dreams of your team can be highly instructive to you and healing to them.
Leaders Don’t Interrupt
Interrupting is a trait that is not only disruptive to a meaningful conversation but it can cause frustration and even silence those with whom one seeks to converse. A leader who continuously interrupts others can send a variety of mixed signals such as impatience, superiority, being disinterested and more. So just don’t do it. Wait to speak.
Leaders Remove Distractions
When communicating with others, it’s critical to remove any distractions. In our digital world, it’s easy to be distracted with an iPhone or laptop rather than focusing in on what is being communicated to you. Yes, I struggle with this. But when someone begins talking with you, put everything else aside, look the person in their eyes, and actively engage in the conversation. You will be more apt to retain what was said to you, and the person you are speaking with will be validated in their thoughts and opinions.
Of course, there are many more traits of a good leader we could continue to highlight, but the above list is a good start. Master these, and you will be well on your way to being the kind of leader others respect and will gladly follow. And your effectiveness in addressing the concerns shared by those you lead will skyrocket.