How a series of initiatives to train gratitude changed my life in 2017

I hope this helps you in 2018

Julia Lauren Photography

In the face of more stress, more demands on my time, and running harder every day than I ever have, I have managed to live the most fulfilled and grateful year of my life. This isn’t because enough good things happened to outweigh the stresses or difficulties. It’s the result of a conscious set of choices, focused effort, thoughtful reflection, and doing all of that nearly every single day. I don’t believe a slogan or a retreat or a New Year’s resolution is powerful enough to change my life. As I reflect on 2017 and just finished recording a podcast (launching soon) where we discussed these topics in detail, I hope sharing some of this can have an impact on your life too. I wish I had come across these things in my life earlier.

I would be remiss to not acknowledge that nearly all of these have come from, in some form or fashion, Tim Ferriss directly or indirectly. Besides changing the course of Mizzen+Main after we sponsored his podcast (highly encourage checking out our results here), he has had a profound impact on my life personally. Thank you, Tim.

Initiative: Acknowledge you could die at any moment.

Tool: Memento Mori Medallion

If you’re thinking to yourself “Wow. This is morbid…” I completely understand; however, embracing this acknowledgement can make every moment in your life infinitely richer along with allowing those frustrating moments to become nothing more than a temporary inconvenience that has no real impact. Ryan Holiday created these medallions as a token to remind yourself every day how truly precious life is. He writes:

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” That was a personal reminder to continue living a life of virtue NOW, and not to wait. The French painter Philippe de Champaigne expressed a similar sentiment in his painting “Still Life with a Skull,” which showed the three essentials of existence — the tulip (life), the skull (death), and the hourglass (time). The original painting is part of a genre referred to as Vanitas, a form of 17th century artwork featuring symbols of mortality which encourage reflection on the meaning and fleetingness of life.
The front features an interpretation of de Champaigne’s 17th century painting and the back shows a shortened version of Aurelius’s timeless wisdom. The coin acts as a reminder to not obsess over trivialities, or trying to become famous, make more money than we could ever spend, or make plans far off in the future. All these are negated by death. It’s time we stop pretending otherwise.

I have carried this token with me every moment of every day for nearly four months. It’s hard to describe how powerful of an impact it has had. It’s a healthy reminder to focus on the moment, to embrace the small joys of life, to let the frustrations pass by, to soak up every aspect of the wonderful big moments that you never want to forget, and to not take things for granted.

Real life application: As much as we can challenge ourselves to keep a thought at top of mind, we have countless, never ending distractions. A physical token is always there.

Initiative: Record your gratitude, every single day.

Tool: 5 Minute Journal

I dabbled with the 5 Minute Journal occasionally in 2016. I decided in 2017 I would do it every single day. It has worked in a way I wish every single person could experience. It doesn’t happen overnight. You aren’t likely to really notice it happening at all, until you look back and realize how much has changed with respect to your day to day approach to life and gratitude.

Every night (sometimes the next day), I write down three things I’m grateful for in that day utilizing the iPhone app. It sounds too simple to be meaningful!

Over time, gratitude truly becomes automatic.

As someone who travels a great deal (check out #viewfromplanewindows), often times the thing I’m grateful for is “Got home safely” or “Flight was on time.” When you stop to think about it, these things are seriously AMAZING. Embracing just how amazing makes yet another trip, or even a delay, something to feel truly grateful for. Got a great seat on the plane with extra leg room? Yes! Made it home on time to give my son a bath? Fantastic! Traveling a lot means lots of possible frustrations. They used to really, really bother me in an unhealthy way. It doesn’t anymore. Focusing on making gratitude automatic not only creates more positive energy in your life (obviously), it helps transform the negative into non-impactful. You can’t eliminate negative things from your life. You can decide how they affect you.

As I mentioned earlier, this shift isn’t because more good things happened this year than bad, or that the good generally outweighed the bad. That formula is a recipe for sincere unhappiness. This year alone, we had several emergency room visits because of scary accidents along with the loss of our dog Duke who spent every day for the last 7 years by our side coming to work with us. To say “he was like family” is wholly insufficient. Duke’s death absolutely devastated me in a way I didn’t expect. It took weeks before I stopped tearing up randomly. My heart still weighs heavy almost every day knowing he’s gone. The week before we said goodbye to him, we laid my young cousin to rest. No words can adequately express a 17 year old being laid to rest. There is no appropriate or acceptable explanation for how something so horrific could happen to a life or a family. We celebrate birthdays and holidays without my wife’s mother, Marie, who lost her battle to breast cancer. It’s simply not fair.

Bad things happen in life. Horrific, inexplicable things happen in life. Nearly all of that is out of your control. What remains in your control is how you live your life, your attitude, and where you allow your energy to go. Grief is very hard to process, and it cannot be ignored. Focusing on gratitude every possible moment, and making it automatic, doesn’t make that grief easier or make the horrific moments in life ok. It does make the rest of life significantly richer, happier, and more meaningful especially because of those things we cannot control.

October 24th, the highlight from my 5 Minute Journal says “Loving Duke so much that we saved him from his suffering.”

October 19th, the highlight from my 5 Minute Journal says “Seeing 1,000 people express their love for Christopher Lavelle.”

On those days, the natural tendency would be “how can I possibly be grateful for anything?” After nearly a year of focus and continued determination to make gratitude automatic, I was able to acknowledge what I’m grateful for even amidst the profound heartache. Additionally, it is a powerful tool in processing that grief.

Real life application: As I wrote above, we can challenge ourselves to “practice gratitude” every day. It’s fundamentally different to make yourself to write it down. Over time, it does indeed become automatic.

It’s also worth mentioning how awesome it is to scroll back through a year’s worth of gratitude posts and pictures!

Initiative: Journal your thoughts before you start your day

Tool: Shinola Journal

In Tools of Titans, Tim Ferriss mentions specifically the power of journaling in the morning. He humorously talks about calming his monkey brain by getting it out on paper. The specific tactic that I have found so powerful is handwritten journaling, free form. Tim references the ebook by Julia Cameron called The Artist’s Way. In it, she says morning pages are “spiritual windshield wipers” and

“Once we get those muddy, maddening, confusing thoughts [nebulous worries, jitters, and preoccupations] on the page, we face our day with clearer eyes.”

I rarely go back and read what I’ve written. I’m not hoping to extract genius from it. One day, I may go back and see what I was thinking or feeling. Ultimately, it’s a healthy way to formalize my thoughts related to business, my home life, myself, or the world around me. It is remarkably therapeutic. Doing it by hand is a unique experience and allows the mind to really embrace the specifics of the thoughts as I write much slower than I type.

Real life application: there is a marked difference between pausing to reflect and sitting down and writing these thoughts out by hand. This allows yourself the time and space to process your own “monkey mind.”

Initiative: Get up. Early.

Tool: Sheer force of will

There’s no trick here, unfortunately, and I regularly fail by hitting snooze an unhealthy amount of times. Getting my day started early (between 5 and 5:30 AM) always makes everything else in the day significantly better and enables me to spend more time with my wife and son towards the end of the day. Sometimes though…the bed is just a bit too comfy.

There is one serious life hack to get of bed early.

As Jocko Willink is known to say, “Just do it.”

Real life application: get up. Seriously.

Initiative: Track Your Life in Weeks and contemplate The Tail End

Tool: Your Life in Weeks Calendar

Since reading The Tail End by Tim Urban, I’ve thought about this message nearly every day. It’s as equally morbid/daunting as the Memento Mori coin can be. More importantly, it’s even more powerful and grounding.

Source: Wait But Why

Stop what you’re doing and go read the full posts Your Life in Weeks and The Tail End. Seriously. Do it now.

Welcome back.

Your Life in Weeks led to The Tail End. What you see above is a life lived to 90 years with each box representing one week. 52 columns. 90 rows. Most people don’t live to 90, so this is the exception rather than the rule, but a good illustration nonetheless. Your life fits on one sheet of paper here. At the end of each week. Check off another box. Did you use that box well? You don’t get it back. Below is a more powerful visualization.

Source: Wait But Why

It is staggering to look at this. It truly is. I won’t repeat all the pearls of wisdom in this post because you’ve already read it. (GO READ IT!)

However significantly this rocks your world to see your entire life mapped out so succinctly, Tim takes it to the next level in The Tail End:

“Instead of measuring your life in units of time, you can measure it in activities or events.” — Tim Urban

If you see your best friend from high school every other year, how many times do you have left in your life to see them? How often do you see your parents? Once or twice a year? How many days left do you get with them, if you’re lucky? Tim swings an existential, emotional hammer down with this thought about relationships and the people that matter most in life.

“I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.
Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.
When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life.
It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.” — Tim Urban

The weight of this is almost too much to bear at times; however, utilizing all the tools I’ve mentioned, focusing on making gratitude automatic, and truly embracing this reality, I’ve found that I have profoundly changed the time I do spend with my parents over the course of this year. I wish I had better understood this earlier in my life. Perhaps you can. I am grateful I have come to this understanding when I did rather than years from now or before it was too late.

Real life application: A friend bought me a poster of Your Life In Weeks. I’ve now framed it and will check off a box each week as another tangible reminder. I’ve seen how critical these real world initiatives are. Get your calendar here: Wait But Why Store.

“We tend to feel locked into whatever life we’re living, but this pallet of empty boxes can be absolutely whatever we want it to be. Everyone you know, everyone you admire, every hero in history — they did it all with that same grid of empty boxes.

The boxes can also be a reminder that life is forgiving. No matter what happens each week, you get a new fresh box to work with the next week.”

Initiative: Join/establish a powerful peer group

Tool: YPO, EO, or other personally relevant organization

I’ve had the good fortune of being a part of a group of fellow entrepreneurs in a Forum structure brought together by Entrepreneur’s Organization. We meet once a month for 6 hours plus a dinner. The meetings are absolutely mandatory, require phones off, and have a governing set of rules we’ve all agreed to including penalties for missing meetings, being late, and even having your phone ring during the meeting! While this can seem oddly formal for what has become a group of great friends, it has created a unique environment that pushes each of us to be far better versions of ourselves, professionally and personally, than we were before coming together. We challenge ourselves and each other through reflective exercises that force us to step out of the day to day mayhem and really think about our future, our present, and what from our past we need to better understand. This group is where I was introduced to the Memento Mori along with the poster print of Your Life in Weeks. Though I’d read the posts before, the poster brought those lessons and thoughts to a whole new level.

Real life application: I have a truly deep and special relationship with my wife and several great friends in my life. That said, the formal structure of a set likeminded but distinct group with set meetings and set parameters has created a space to grow unlike anything I’ve experienced before.

Initiative: Meditation

Tool: Headspace

About two years into the journey of starting Mizzen+Main, I was overwhelmed beyond anything I’d ever experienced. I felt like I couldn’t keep my head above water. I was introduced to meditation, and though I laughed at first at even considering trying it (that’s for people in temples or hippies, right?) it brought me back down to a calmer steady state after a few sessions. Despite its impact, I felt I was too busy to keep doing it. That was a mistake.

Utilizing the Headspace app, I have found meditation to be truly a powerful force in my life. I am calmer, slower to respond in anger or frustration, and able to sleep much better than I have in years, despite more activities and stresses every day than ever before.

Though many recommend meditating in the morning to start your day, I have found it to be a really great way to bring myself down at the end of the day after I get home. There are many forms of meditation, from apps to formal sessions and trainers to yoga. Give it a try and stick to it. You won’t regret it.

Real world application: it’s one thing to say you’ll work on being calmer. Taking ten minutes a day to meditate and focus on being calm and training the mind is a different story altogether.

Initiative: Give back

Tool: A great local non-profit like Adaptive Training Foundation

Since Mizzen+Main’s founding, one of our foundational commitments has been to give back to the veteran community. We also want to use our platform and brand to tell veterans’ stories and remind people that our troops are still deployed and those that have come home fight new battles for years to come.

Emmett Pryor and his service dog Radar

As a part of our mission to not only support veterans and their families financially, but spread the word about their service and sacrifice, we sponsor the recognition of veterans at Southern Methodist University sporting events through a program we started called “Game Time Gratitude.” Veterans receive a standing ovation from thousands of people and receive a significant donation from Mizzen+Main.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Wade, Retired USN, is a wheelchair bound veteran (for now!) in the Adaptive Training Foundation program and was honored at a game recently. A few days later, he stood for the first time in years. Shortly thereafter, he was walking, pushing a battle sled. He told his ATF classmates that seeing thousands of people cheer for him made him feel he was not alone. That perhaps his neighbors understood some small part of what he was going through.

Moving forward for the foreseeable future, Mizzen+Main will be directing all its philanthropic efforts to putting veterans through Adaptive Training Foundation and helping rebuild their lives after the program. We are also volunteering as a company as assistant trainers at their facility. We have seen the power and direct impact ATF has on veterans. Of course, what we do as a company is make the world’s most comfortable dress shirt, but we exist for something much more than that. We’ll be measuring the success of our efforts by the number of lives we directly change. Without a doubt, I know they’ll change ours. I hope they change others as people hear their stories over the years to come.

The Adaptive Training Foundation’s mission is to empower the human athlete, restore hope through movement, and redefine the limits of individuals with disabilities. ATF offers a 9-week intensive training program to restore, recalibrate, and redeploy athletes to inspire others in achieving what many would view as impossible. I highly encourage you to check them out for yourselves, including the remarkable story of its founder Dave Vobora and how his life was changed by meeting quadruple amputee Travis Mills.

Real world application: actually getting involved with organizations and seeing what it is like to change lives has so many net positive effects on your own life.

Initiative: Focused productivity and knowing that “busy is a decision”

Tool: Productivity Planner and ToDoIst

With at least several dozen actionable, timely, and important to do’s in a given day, I have spent time adrift more often than not unable to get done what absolutely should get done. After reading more posts than I can count and talking with lots of other founders and busy executives, along with listening to countless Tim Ferriss Show podcasts and combing through Tools of Titans and Tribe of Mentors, I’ve found a productivity groove that keeps me sane and on top of what matters most. Utilizing ToDoIst for ongoing to do list items and Productivity Planner for week ahead and day ahead planning has helped keep me sane and very productive.

It’s so much more important to be proactive rather than reactive. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Debbie Millman’s response to the what would you put on a billboard question is “Busy is a Decision.” This is very true. You are always deciding where to put your time and energy.

Real world application: hoping to be more productive and effective will not change anything. It takes focused effort and finding the right tool that works for your schedule and needs.

Initiative: Personal and professional development

Tool: Books and podcasts

Towards the end of 2016, I started a “book club” at Mizzen+Main to create an opportunity for shared personal and professional development. Some of the books are purely business in their focus, some have been more towards the personal side, while most are a great blend of both. Exposing myself to many new thoughts, perspectives, and frameworks has seriously helped expand my worldview and make me a more effective business leader and better person. This extends to podcasts that have wide ranging topics and perspectives to challenge yourself, even if they have no practical application in your life.

Real world application: if you don’t make continuous learning a priority, it won’t happen. Learning makes you better all around along with giving you a healthy perspective for challenging and exciting times.

Disclaimer: I don’t walk around in a state of zen like calm. I still get frustrated. I forget about some of these or don’t prioritize them appropriately.

To me, it’s not about being perfect and never being affected by anything that happens. It’s about living a life of gratitude and feeling happier and more fulfilled than I ever have in my life, regardless of the circumstances.

Bad things are always going to happen.
You cannot control that.
You can control how you feel.
You can control your reactions.
You can control how you live day to day.

Critical to all of this, and a big reason for my focus on gratitude and being a better version of myself, is my loving wife, our one year old son, my supportive family, an extraordinary senior leadership team at Mizzen+Main, our crew of 30 amazing team members, great friends, and a group of investors that supports our journey and pushes us in all the best ways.

These initiatives and tools have dramatically changed my life for the better. I sincerely hope that some or all of these have a positive impact in yours.

Speaking of gratitude, I appreciate any comments, feedback, or sharing of this piece!