Make this your year to speak up

Updated to Business on December 29, 2022.

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.

Got this far? You might also like these posts:

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

The world is screwed.

Let’s face it, we Boomers have raped and pillaged until our bellies are full, a clown is about to lead the free world and by the time our children reach 20 they’ve spent more time glued to screens than looking at the sky or walking in the woods.

That wasn’t the plan.

Our utopian vision of the future is off track and we need a new path.

And the myth of technology saving the day is, well, just that – a myth. Believe me, we won’t find happiness once our cars drive themselves or computers are the size of a finger nail.

But one thing will make a difference – it always has.

Your voice.

Since the beginning of the human experience (long before the iPhone), ideas and theories, and guesses and even complaining have sparked change. Maybe not right away, but eventually—all our voices matter.

And it doesn’t matter if only 20 people read your blog or 120 watched your latest YouTube video. You have an audience.

You have an audience

You have an audience online,

at work,

in your family,

and in your community.

And that’s why you need to speak up. Take 3 minutes and watch this clip from the ridiculously creative Brad Montague (the mind behind the Kid President series) – I dare you not to feel better after.

I don’t know what’s bugging you or what solutions you’ve already put into words.

But, now’s the time to get it out.

And, you know what?

Maybe nobody hears you. At first.

Just like nobody heard of J.K. Rowling until she shared her first book about a young wizard or Candace Lightner before she started MADD, or Casey Neistat before he committed to a daily vlog (video blog).

But, they did the work anyway—they took a risk.

Walking down the street naked

I know that all too often I play it safe – I catch myself leaving “me” out – churning out sterilized advice anybody could have written.

That’s a mistake.

People really do want to know what you think and feel. Even straightforward “how-to” advice can come alive with a bit of personal reflection or by admitting your failings.

Award-winning author Neil Gaiman, in a commencement speech at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, probably said it best:

“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.”

What have you got to say? I’m listening.