Get on with it

Updated to Life on May 3, 2023.

I was in a car the other day with a radiologist and a neurosurgeon talking about hypertension. 

This conversation is actually not as unusual as it might sound. I volunteer for a local society that does trail clearing in a popular hiking and mountain bike park and many of the volunteers happen to be recently retired doctors. 

Back in the car, one of the doctors happened to mention that recently his medical partner, who is in his early 60’s, had a mild stroke. As we wound our way further up the dirt road to our work site my education continued. 

I learned that strokes are the second biggest cause of mortality worldwide and the third most common cause of disability. The scary statistics get worse. As you age your chance of a stroke doubles every 10 years after 55

There’s a checklist of health conditions that make you more susceptible to a stroke, like obesity, high cholesterol, and diabetes. But the biggest culprit – six times out of ten – is hypertension or high blood pressure. In my books, that’s worth paying attention to.

What’s interesting is that stress, in itself, is not the direct cause of high blood pressure. It’s what we do when under stress that leads to nasty results. We eat too much, drink too much, and move too little. Basically, we deal with stress by making unhealthy choices.

For me, stress starts with worry.

Ngoc Son Temple, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ve had a lot of worries

There is a world of problems you can worry about – take your pick. You can worry that Ukraine will be pummeled into a tiny province of rubble, or that we’ve passed the tipping point with global warming, or the tiny spot on your chin is cancer. 

Or not.

“I’ve had a lot of worries,” quipped Mark Twain “most of which never happened.” Our mind loves a good worry. Like a dog chewing a bone, we want to turn our worry around, looking from all angles, poking and prodding until it swells up into something bigger than it really is.

I used to worry incessantly before every keynote speech. I’d worry I’d miss my flight or wasn’t prepared enough, or I would be greeted by the “audience from hell.” Trust me, when you have 60 minutes to educate, entertain, inspire, motivate, and get laughs from an audience you’ve never met before, any sane person would invent a long list of worries.

It was at one of those events when a fellow speaker opened an exit door for my worries. He suggested that audiences don’t want you to fail – in fact, they want you to succeed. “They want to see you having fun—enjoying yourself. That way,” he explained, “they can enjoy the ride with you.”

When I accepted the long list of what I could never control – my flights, the audience, the speaker before me going overtime – I was free to focus on what I could control.

Enjoying the moment. 

What your life will have been

In her book, Comfortable with Uncertainty, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön tells the story of delighting in the preciousness of every single moment.

A woman is running from lions. She runs and she runs, and the lions are getting closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff. She sees a vine there, so she climbs down and holds onto it. Then she looks down and sees that there are lions below her as well. At the same time, she notices a little mouse gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries emerging from a nearby clump of grass. She looks up, she looks down, and she looks a the mouse. Then she picks a strawberry, pops it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.

Learning what to focus on, and what to ignore, seems to be the ultimate secret to living a healthy, stress-free life. “Whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment,” writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks (a must-read for anyone over 50), “is simply what your life will have been.”

So, what are you focussing on?

What to focus on

You can learn a lot when you’re the dumbest one in a car full of doctors. I learned that strokes are a silent pandemic. And that hypertension is the leading cause of that pandemic. And I learned the leading cause of hypertension is stress. 

I was also reminded that stress is a choice.

We all have lions and tigers in our life. Maybe even a mouse or two gnawing away at something we value. Meanwhile, we have the moment.

Choosing what to focus on (and what not to) might just be the healthiest choice you can make.

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Photo of eggs by Nik on Unsplash
Photo of Ngoc Son Temple by author
Photo of tigers by author

Over the past month, I’ve been frustrated. More than usual.

During dinner with a close friend, I patiently listened as he complained about his partner. We’d had this conversation before and it always ended the same way. Lots of talk – not much action.

Over beers, another friend shared how he loves his new job (by my count his third in as many years) but still can’t find enough time for himself.

I have clients who’ve reached the financial security to allow them to retire. Instead, they continue to work long hours, trading health and family for the next big project.

I could go on and on about things people tell me they want, like more business, money, friends, or happiness but it’s often more talk than action. What about you? Do you have something within arms reach you need to do…like eating better, spending less, exercising more, or cleaning out the damn garage?

I have a solution.

Enter the GOWI retreat

The shuttle van pulls up to the hotel entrance and out steps a small group of excited travelers. Suitcases are wheeled up to the reception. Everyone is chatting – anticipation is high.

“Welcome to GOWI!,” I call out, getting everyone’s attention. “Please follow me to the patio.”

“But, don’t we need to check in first?” Calls out a man wearing what looks like a new Hawaiian-style shirt.

“Ah, no…” I reply, smiling, “You won’t be here that long.”

Once the small group is settled and drinks are served, I launch into my welcome speech.

“Show of hands,” I call out “how many of you have been to a self-improvement retreat before?”

Hands go up across the deck. “Okay, great.” I continue, “Now, how many of you returned home a changed person? I mean three weeks or three months later and you are still using what you learned and living life differently?”

“I know I tried.” I admit, “I took notes, underlined, highlighted – even reviewed my notes on the return flight – and committed to absolutely, definitely use everything I learned and do the things I promised I would do. Pinky swear.”

“And then life kicks me in the face.”

Into the compost

That new keto, paleo, vegetarian, Mediterranean – whatever – diet that promised to help you lose weight, live longer, or smooth the wrinkles are too hard to shop for, prepare, or find on the DoorDash app. So it goes in the compost. 

Back home, the dopamine dries up and you start looking for the next retreat, course, book, or video series. “This is it!” You think as you type your credit card into the order form, “Finally I will get the life, work, relationship, money, and happiness I deserve!” 

Same goes for the yoga practice, morning meditation, journaling discipline, HIIT training, or love-language conversations. It seemed so doable when you sat in a circle or listened to the guru on stage—they were walking on water while the rest of us keep swimming in quicksand. 

Back home, the dopamine dries up and you start looking for the next retreat, course, book, or video series. “This is it!” You think as you type your credit card into the order form, “Finally I will get the life, work, relationship, money, and happiness I deserve!” 

Congratulations. You’re fueling up the self-help industry, but not driving your own growth.

That’s why GOWI is so effective.

You don’t have to spend a painful week sitting cross-legged, enduring long lectures and awkward group meals. You won’t be filling a journal with notes, confessing your sins to a group of strangers, or walking on hot coals. 

Fear not! To spare you the effort I plowed through a long field of “life-changing” solutions. I took the online courses, went to the retreats, bought back-of-room books, signed up for one-on-one coaching – even braved the hot coals. This is better. Much better.

Get On With It

GOWI stands for “Get On With It” That’s it. Get on with it!

Whatever age you are, the clock is ticking. No do-over, no dress rehearsal, or rewriting your day for a reshoot – your movie is rolling and the credits are getting closer every day.

Unless sheep cloning gets into the hands of some unethical scientists, we all get just one life. Whatever age you are, the clock is ticking. No do-over, no dress rehearsal, or rewriting your day for a reshoot – your movie is rolling and the credits are getting closer every day.

It’s time to get on with it.

Sorry, I lied. I’m sure you already figured out there is no GOWI. I’m not going to book a resort in Cabo anytime soon or send folks packing after a short lecture and their first Mojito.

Or maybe I should.


GOWI was inspired by Bob Newhart’s sketch “Stop it.” If you are the only person who hasn’t seen this brilliant sketch, it goes like this. A nervous (and very neurotic) woman enters the psychiatrist’s office to get help for her phobias. “I charge $5 for five minutes,” Newhart’s character explains, “and I can almost guarantee” he adds without cracking a smile, “we won’t go over five minutes.”

Whatever complaint the patient shares, the response from Newhart is “Stop it!” It’s over the top, classic deadpan Newhart. It also takes a shot at the odd wiring we all have that makes us believe we are right (confirmation bias), other people are right (social proof), or what I already have is right (availability heuristic.)

We are not rational. If we were, psychologists would be out of work and we would have everything we want. Instead, we throw the ice cream tub in our basket, waffle down a half bag of Doritos, and refill the wine glass past when we know we’ve had enough. We beat ourselves up, slap our forehead, swear we will change our ways, and then, of course…do it again.

Well, here’s the punch line. 

Even though life is hard, our software needs an update, and we are perfectly imperfect we can still get on with it. Embrace the well-worn idiom better the devil you know than the devil you don’t and do something. You might screw up, fall on your face, or embarrass yourself. Or life might just get a little better. 

If you got this far, you might also like these posts –
The big gunfight, in my mind
The bright side of my aging brain
Why you don’t need more advice
Why you need to look back before you look forward

images of Loreto by author