7 Words of Hope from a Nazi Death Camp

Man's Search for Meaning

One of the hardest books to read, but one of the most rewarding. I just finished psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. During the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of an estimated 17 million humans like you and me, Frankl was moved from camp to camp, doing forced labor in brutal conditions, threatened constantly with death. Man’s Search for Meaning serves both as a memoir of sorts for his time in concentration and labor camps and as an explanation of how that experience shaped his understanding of psychology.

I want to share with you just a few of the words of hope that I found in Frankl’s book, and I hope you’ll be inspired to read the rest of the book yourself. I can’t state strongly enough the impact that this book has had. No matter how sad its stories, I found it to be one of the most hopeful books I’ve read.

 

1. You matter.

Some days you may question whether there’s any point to your being here. But even in the worst of times, Frankl found that if he and his fellow prisoners considered the impact they might still have on others through their love and their work in the future, they could see just how much each of them did matter.

“A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

2. You get to choose your life’s meaning.

Life is a weird path of twists and turns for each of us, and in comparing ourselves to others or to the ideals we think we’ve learned, we sometimes can’t find how we matter. But Frankl learned that peace can be found in giving up the search for an ultimate meaning, and instead choosing what you will live for.

“Everyone has is own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it. . . . Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.” – Viktor Frankl

 

3. You can always find joy and fulfillment in LOVE.

Love is a powerful and beautiful thing. For me, this was one of the most meaningful and helpful messages in the book. In a strongly individualistic society, it is hard to grasp the significance and fulfillment in just loving another person. It is okay to live for love.

“My mind clung to my wife’s image, imagining it with an uncanny acuteness. I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise. . . . A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth–that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.” – Viktor Frankl

 

4. You can reduce your suffering by observing it objectively. 

It’s hard to imagine suffering worse than prisoners in a concentration camp, but even in such intense suffering, Frankl found relief. He discovered that a simple change in how you observe the present moment can make a bad situation much more bearable. He told a story about when, during a particularly awful day, he started imagining that he was actually retelling his situation in a future psychological lecture. Just this simple mental exercise helped immensely, reminding him that life was bigger than his current hurt, that the present was simply a circumstance that could be observed.

“By this method I succeeded somehow in rising above the situation, above the sufferings of the moment, and I observed them as if they were already of the past. Both I and my troubles became the object of an interesting psychoscientific study undertaken by myself. . . . What does Spinoza say . . . ‘Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

5. Feelings of joy and suffering are relative. You’re not stuck in your feelings.

This may be a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it and what focus you choose. Frankl observed that the feelings of despair, suffering, frustration, and sadness, weren’t necessarily worse or more overwhelming, in a situation as awful as a concentration camp, than in a less severe circumstance. Humans tend to feel suffering very completely, whether the stressor is big or little. On the one hand, that can mean a small disappointment can be overwhelming. On the other hand, that can mean that you may handle the very worst circumstances much better than you think–which is a hopeful thought. Studies have shown that people who go through awful events often end up much less devastated, at least after a while, than they think they will be. In the same token, feelings of happiness and joy can be extremely strong, even when found in very simple experiences.

“Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the ‘size’ of human suffering is absolutely relative. It also follows that a very trifling thing can cause the greatest of joys.” – Viktor Frankl

 

6. Growing old is going to be okay.

This one sucks. I always hate thinking of growing old, watching my remaining time in this life get shorter and shorter. This book honestly helped with that. Frankl has the most beautiful perspective on this that I’ve heard. It’s a peaceful and hopeful one. I’ll let him speak for himself. I hope it helps you as much as it helped me.

“At any moment, man must decide, for better or for worse, what will be the monument of his existence. . . . I should say having been is the surest kind of being. . . . The pessimist resembles a man who observes with fear and sadness that his wall calendar, from which he daily tears a sheet, grows thinner with each passing day. On the other hand, the person who attacks the problems of life actively is like a man who removes each successive leaf from his calendar and files it neatly and carefully away with its predecessors, after first having jotted down a few diary notes on the back. He can reflect with pride and joy on all the richness set down in these notes, on all the life he has already lived to the fullest. What will it matter to him if he notices that he is growing old? Has he any reason to envy the young people whom he sees, or wax nostalgic over his own lost youth? What reasons has he to envy a younger person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? ‘No, thank you,’ he will think. ‘Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.'” – Viktor Frankl

 

7. You are always free to choose and change.

Another one that is near and dear to my heart, that inspires compassion and hope for myself and for others: His life in Nazi death camps persuaded Frankl that people are not stuck being, thinking, speaking, or acting as they have, or as they’re conditioned to. Sure, the deck may be stacked against you. And on average, people tend to stick with their patterns. But at the end of the day, each of us is free to choose. Free to choose how we will react to the circumstances life brings to us. Free to choose who we are.

“Man is not fully conditioned and determined but rather determines himself whether he gives in to conditions or stands up to them. In other words, man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. . . . one of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above such conditions, to grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world for the better if possible, and of changing himself for the better if necessary.” – Viktor Frankl

 

Guys, it’s hard to communicate how much I loved this book. It wasn’t the most impressively written, it wasn’t the most exciting, it wasn’t the most pleasant. But it was full of the raw experiences of real life in all its nitty gritty weirdness. It was honest. And it was full of hope and inspiration. So full of hope. Real hope.

I hope you’ll read it. And I hope that every day for the rest of your life, you’ll find hope.

Viktor Frankl - Freedom to choose

7 Life-Changing Books For Your Reading List

If you know me, you know I like to read. A lot. Like a nerdy lot. Especially if audiobooks on commutes count. So I’ve read a lot of books! And I strongly believe in the power of reading to help people make sense of life and discover who (and how) they want to be.

I’d love to say EVERY book is life-changing. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words resonate with me: “I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten–even so, they have made me.” But there are a few books I’ve read that have made such a big difference in my life–personally and professionally–that I can truly say I changed significantly as a person from reading them. 7 come to mind. I’ve found that over the years when people have asked me to recommend some books for them, these are always my go-to’s.

So if you’re looking for your next great read, looking for fuel to grow personally or professionally, or just curious to give reading a shot, try one of these:

power of a positive no1. The Power of a Positive No

This is almost always my top recommendation. I think it’s a universal thing to have trouble saying “no”–no to more busy schedule stuff, no to what people want to get from you, and no to how someone is treating you.

William Ury, a world-famous negotiation specialist, gives an incredibly simple and useful formula for saying no in a way that communicates deep care for the person you’re saying it to. He takes a motivating look at what’s so difficult about saying no in the first place, and why it’s so important to learn to say it anyway. And he makes it all so tangible and relateable that by the time you finish the book, you’re feeling ready and excited for your first opportunity to put it into practice.

I’ve used what I learned from it countless times, including for some of the biggest, scariest no’s I’ve ever had to say. I can honestly say this may have be the most influential book in my life–an absolute lifesaver!     (Reading difficulty: 5 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

drive2. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

This book is exactly what the subtitle says: A surprising and eye-opening look at what makes people want to do things. Whenever I’m asked to recommend a good business, leadership, or professional book, this is the one!

Anyone who leads people, manages people, leads or manages themselves (or is a people), will find this an incredibly helpful read. I remember having so many “aha” moments. It explains so much about why we frequently burn out or lose interest when driven by things like authority or money and other carrots and sticks. And it opens your eyes to a whole world of internal fuel and energy. We do the things best and longest that we really want to do. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry put it, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

This translates exceptionally well into practical management strategy. “Intrinsic motivation” seems truly to be the strongest driver you can help your people find. This book is a game-changer!     (Reading difficulty: 6 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

coming to our senses3. Coming to Our Senses

Here’s a good example of a book you don’t know you need to read until you read it. We live in a crazy, noisy, busy, overwhelming world. This book helps find and grow peace, calmness, happiness, and beauty in that world–all in a down-to-earth, accessible way.

Jon Kabat-Zinn helped bring mindfulness meditation to the west, through developing practices like clinical meditation for stress reduction and, and through popular writings like Full Catastrophe Living. Do yourself a huge favor and give this a shot! I hesitate to say much about it, because there are already so many stereotypes and misinformed cliches about “meditation.” Just know that it’s not what you think. And that if you’ll invest the time, reading this can be one of the most mentally cleansing and freeing experiences in your life, and can equip you to keep that peace with you all through life.

Pro tip: Unless you’re ready to seriously take the plunge, ease yourself into this one by first listening to the abridged audiobook (his own narration, about 3 hours), or through his shorter book Wherever You Go There You Are. Just know that the unabridged Coming to Our Senses is a long one and worth taking the time to chew on.     (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10) | Get it on Amazon) (Abridged audiobook difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Audiobooks)

adult children of emotionally immature parents4. Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents

This always feels like an awkward one to recommend, but I wish the big scary personal life things were less awkward. We’re all human, and we’ve all been through rough times, made mistakes, and struggled with hurt. The truth is, whether this book is about your own experience or about understanding the experiences of other people you love, this is an incredibly eye-opening book. With each page you turn, your appreciation grows a little more for the big-ness of emotional abuse and neglect, and for how it continues to affect people deeply, straight through adult life.

This book is about understanding your own struggles or those of your loved ones. But it’s also just as much a book about hope and healing. It powerfully humanizes the people who have done the hurt (that really impressed me), and it draws clear, freeing pictures of where that hurt came from. It helps you find a way for yourself or your loved ones to step out of the cycle of trauma, to see things for what they really are, and to make positive, healthy, happy decisions about how to do life.

Fair warning: This book is not for the faint of heart. It can be an emotionally exhausting read, but it’s also an incredibly empowering one.     (Reading difficulty: 4 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

fifth discipline5. The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization

This book could be called Long-Term Thinking 101. It’s a management classic, and it’s one I honestly think should be required reading for all executives and mid- to upper-level managers in companies everywhere (or really for everyone).

Peter Senge delves deep into the world of “Systems Thinking,” identifying cycles and patterns that continuously reappear in business, politics, and even in personal life. History repeats itself again and again and we learn too many lessons the hard way, largely because it takes so long to realize the long-term effects of today’s actions and decisions. By the time one initiative brings a part of the company crashing down, the waters have been muddied by ten other initiatives that have kicked off more recently, and few of the managers have been around long enough to trace the cycle of cause-and-effect.

This book is an amazing primer on thinking carefully about how we got where we are today, and how to actually get where we want to go tomorrow–and how to not ruin everything in the meantime. It’s also pretty heavy academic reading, so buckle up and get ready to think hard!     (Reading difficulty: 9 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

escape from freedom6. Escape from Freedom

I feel a little bit weird about putting this on my list. In fact, it might have sneaked its way on here due in part to how recently I read it. But I have a feeling this one’s effects will last a lifetime. It was originally published during World War II and explores why individuals and entire populations make weird and disturbing choices.

Big disclaimer right off the bat: I got to the end of this one and still totally disagreed with a lot of Fromm’s outlook on life and its meaning. But reading this also seriously stretched me. It made me think harder than just about any other book I’ve read. And it made the whole world make so much more sense. Best (and worst) of all, it opened my eyes to a lot of manufactured safety nets I’ve depended on through life that, at the end of the day, won’t provide me the safety I’m looking for. The gist is this: We’re born into a very structured environment. As we grow up we start to see just how arbitrary a lot of authority and tradition is. So we kick and scream for our freedom. And then we get our freedom. And it is terrifying! The intense anxiety that true freedom produces is staggering. So we try to re-submit ourselves to whatever authorities or thoughts used to give us security and confidence in our roles. But it’s too late–we know better, and pretending we still fit into the world we escaped from will drive us (literally) crazy. The other option is to bravely accept the freedom we have found, and live and love honestly.

Don’t read if you’re not ready for some deep reflection. This one is pretty brutal.     (Reading difficulty: 7 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

social intelligence7. Social Intelligence

I’m going to cheat and combine two books: You really should read Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence before this one. Goleman popularized the scientific study of “EQ” (as opposed to “IQ”). In most areas of life, having emotional maturity, strength, understanding, and awareness provides more benefits and leads to more success than does IQ–the more traditional measurement of potential, focused on logic and intellect.

Social Intelligence goes a step further than his first book and explores the intricacies of relationships and communication. It includes fascinating stories about how people work and fit together and great practical tips about how to communicate, work, and live effectively with others. So many things will click into place as you read this. “Oooooh, that’s why…” is a thought I had over and over while I read this, as past and present relationships suddenly made sense.

Both Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence are very easy and very rewarding books to read. I found the second even more helpful for me than the first. Need help being a person? Read Daniel Goleman.     (Reading difficulty: 2 out of 10 | Get it on Amazon)

 

So those are my favorites–the ones that have made the biggest difference in my life.

I always love helping people find helpful books to learn and grow from, so if you’re ever looking for a good recommendation–even if it’s for a specific topic or situation–don’t hesitate to ask!

Happy reading!!!

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” – Henry Ford

Urgent vs important

Henry David Thoreau - Not enough to be busy

Can you imagine the feeling, finishing up a task, sitting back, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm… I literally have nothing left to do today!” That would be really weird, right???

Life just needs to slow down. Right? But I have a hundred things to do today. So much to catch up on. So much to organize, fix, clean, or find. So many people to get back to. Those things I’ve been wanting to try, and stuff I’ve been invited to.

I happen to think it’s a particularly American tradition to live every day at a breakneck speed. We never, ever, ever run out of things to do right away. When my wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy we learned that the entire country traditionally closes its shops and sends its people home from work for a few hours over lunch. I often reminisce about my days in Ethiopia and Uganda, where even hard-working people walk slowly wherever they go and spend hours in peace and quiet with family or friends.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in the States. We have stuff to do. Always. We wear our over-flowing inboxes and day-planners like a badge, like there’s something special about our ability to cram a thousand little things into every single day.

But what are we even busy doing?

 

When are we going to do those deeper, bigger, more meaningful life things? The things we keep putting off “until we have more time.”

I think the big things that we want to do–that we want to look back and be happy about at the end of our lives–we want to do just right, and we want to do with unlimited time and attention. So we keep putting our real life off while we try to catch up with our bottomless stack of to-dos.

 

What would happen if you set aside the urgent stuff today? Let them just not happen? Would you finally start writing that book? Take your kid out to do something fun together? Make a plan to eat healthier and exercise?

And what if you kept ignoring so many of those “urgent” things–would you keep writing, stay more connected to your loved ones, and discover you actually have time to get to the gym most days?

 

Urgent vs Important–we constantly face a choice between the two. Urgent is the squeaky wheel whining for your attention. But at the end of your life, which will you wish you had chosen more often? Urgent or important?

What big life thing have you been putting off for years because you’re always too busy? What if you decided this weekend you were just going to start it–no matter what notifications pop up?

Observation Point, Zion National Park

Last month my wife and her sister and I drove 5000 miles around the western States. We experienced some incredible things. California’s redwoods, the great Grand Canyon, Painted Hills, The Loneliest Road in America, a Ghost Forest off the Oregon coast, and the beautiful paradise of Zion National Park. Oh, and a shocking low flyover by two fighter jets in the middle of nowhere.

There are so many stories to tell. But I want to share just one moment:

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Our first day in Zion, we hiked four miles of switchbacks, through narrow canyons and along sheer drop offs, all the way up to Observation Point. We could see the tiny paths we’d just come from over two thousand feet below. For a while we just sat at the top and breathed it in. It was so peaceful and beautiful.

Suddenly I found myself looking at life through a different perspective. For an amazing moment I saw all the little daily stresses and problems and dramas for what they were. Distractions. Life was not about who said that thing at work or whether my boss will still like me next year. It wasn’t about how much money I’d saved that month. Life was bigger than that. A lot bigger.

I spend most of the year working. Full time hours, narrowly focused, in a stressful environment. And while I sit at my desk I often find myself dreaming of that little corner of life that we call vacation. That thing that comes around once in a blue moon, where you get to go find a hidden gem somewhere to hang onto in your memory till the next vacation comes around.

But here, after several tough miles in the middle of nowhere (switchbacks put you in touch with your human self), I found myself glancing back at the little corner of life called a job. Sure, my work makes a difference, and jobs are important. But my job is just one tiny piece of this great big world that is mine for the taking. I can walk outside into a beautiful, real world whenever I choose. I can always live in that world I find on vacations. I just don’t always look.

My problems and stresses seemed about as small from the top of that cliff as the tiny trees that dotted the ground below. When I have to walk back down to the bottom and clock back in, those trees might look big again. But they’re not. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that. Sometimes I’ll need to step back and remember the freedom and perspective I found on the top of Observation Point, the freedom to live in a bigger world.

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You vs You-with

A scientific study published in 1999 examined how we are affected by listening to others’ opinions about us: First, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the negative stereotype that women are bad at math. Later, Asian women were given a math test to do after reminders of the positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. The subjects performed significantly better when seeing themselves as “Asians, who are good at math” than as “women, who are bad at math.”

There’s you. And then there’s you-with-_____.

You with your boss. You being watched by your in-laws. You surrounded by your employees. You feeling nervous with your date. You with the context of your work situation.

While you-with-anything is still the real you, it can be very helpful to not look at yourself only through the context of whatever is currently going on, whoever you’re with. Try looking at just you by yourself. Apart from the other thing, person, or situation.

Why is this so helpful? We have a huge tendency to define ourselves by the people around us and what they think. We tend to become the average of the people closest to us. We want to fit in, to please people. We also constantly hear their voices, even when they’re not talking out loud. What your boss thinks of you. What your parents think of you. What your buddies think of you.

When I look at a big decision I just made, while examining myself primarily in the context of the two or three employees it affects, maybe the big decision looks like a win. But when I do the mental exercise of separating myself and examining the decision in the context of simply who I have always wanted to be, what I really believe and value–maybe I find the decision wasn’t a win for me after all. Maybe it was just a people-pleasing win for somebody else.

Or vice versa. Maybe what you’re constantly feeling small about, because of how you know it looks to your parents, or what your boss thinks of you now–maybe that thing you’re regretting, feeling down about, kicking yourself over every day… maybe that’s exactly what you truly wanted and you need to give yourself some credit, encourage yourself, celebrate your growth.

If you don’t give yourself the credit of judging yourself for yourself, and instead constantly see yourself through the lens of another or in a context inseparable from others, you will say things you don’t really mean, choose things you don’t really want, and become a person you don’t actually believe in.

Of course there’s a limit to all this–if you completely stop considering what others think, you miss out on a lot of valuable feedback and you can start giving people very wrong impressions. You can stop working well as a team and you can hurt people. Being aware of others and how they feel is very important.

But there’s got to be a balance: “How will my employee take this?” must always be accompanied by, “How do I really see this?” And vice versa.

There’s a reason I encourage you mostly to focus on the independent part, though–seeing yourself distinct from the people and situations currently surrounding you. It’s because what we’ve experienced and learned throughout life has pounded an insecurity into us, leaving us constantly, endlessly agonizing over what others think, how they see us and our choices.

That’s the norm in society: Defining your life, your self assessment, and your worth through the lenses of others.

Try being fair to yourself. Give yourself some credit. What do you really think and want? Forget your boss’s opinion for just a minute. Or your parents’ expectations. What do you really, truly, deep down in your heart, believe and want out of yourself? That is immensely more important to your happiness and peace in life than what you know your co-worker is telling his friends about you.

“I am a woman, so I cannot be good at math.”

“I am an Asian, so I can be great at math.”

Or maybe… “I am me, and I love math.”