RLL 59: Lessons from 2018

Real Life Leading #59: Lessons from 2018

This year has been, like all years, full and fascinating and up and down and joyful and painful. It’s been a year of growth and of change, and it’s also been a year to be thankful for the consistency of certain aspects of life. Today, I wanted to share with you a few thoughts on what I’ve learned this year. The last three lessons are ones that I shared last year, too; when I re-read them, I thought, “Those are worth repeating.” So I did. I hope you enjoy this post, and I hope it inspires you to reflect on what you’ve learned this year as well!

1. I LOVE listening to podcasts and being interviewed on them.

This year, I was interviewed on close to 30 different podcasts, and I probably listened to over 200 hours of podcasts: shows on Tolkien, on Lewis, interview shows, shows about history or religion or parenting, etc. I found this year that I can learn a ton on my commute to and from school (a 90-minute round trip each day) by podcasting, and I strongly recommend you find some that you enjoy as well. The Jordan Harbinger Show is great for interviews and motivation, and the Prancing Pony Podcast and The Green Door Podcast are two of my favorite Tolkien-based shows.

2. I am supremely blessed in that every single day I go to work, I also get to do what I love.

Whether I’m teaching a high school history or Bible class, coaching soccer (youth or high school), or doing a presentation on blended family life, leadership, or education; whichever ‘job’ I’m working that day is a job that I love. I consider myself to be among the most blessed people in the world because I get paid to do what I would volunteer to do anyway. And I never want to take that for granted.

3. Temptations to make selfish decisions never fully go away.

Coaching my younger daughter’s church league soccer team for the final year was bittersweet.

Coaching my younger daughter’s church league soccer team for the final year was bittersweet.

One of my biggest failures in the past has been spending too much time on sports and not enough time with my family. As I got older, I thought this would get easier; turns out, I was wrong. What I’ve learned this year is that every single day I have to re-choose to make the right decisions. It’s a never-ending battle in which I have to die to self and choose others. Sometimes I fail; many times, by the grace of God, I succeed. But I am more than ever convinced of the truth spoken by John Bradford centuries ago, when it comes to temptation or to sin: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” I’m not any better than anyone else; only by God’s grace can I do anything good. It’s humbling, because it’s true.

4. 14 and 11 is harder (and easier) than 13 and 10.

This year, my older daughter turned 14, and it was both easier and harder than 13. It was harder because her friends are turning 15, dating more, getting driver’s permits, and transitioning more to adulthood, and she is on the same path. But it was also easier because she’s maturing, she’s making good decisions, and she’s showing that she has the makings of an amazing young woman. I wouldn’t go back to 13 (though it wasn’t bad!), but I’m also not rushing to get her to 15. My younger daughter is now 11 and almost done with elementary school. The thought that my younger one is about to enter middle school is hard, because kids get meaner and problems get bigger. But I’m also excited about the young lady she is becoming, and I’m thankful to get to see her continue to grow and develop and learn, especially as she often imitates her older sister.

5. Dogs don’t understand time changes.

I was very excited about the “fall back” time change, when we gain an extra hour of sleep. My dogs, not so much. Turns out dogs don’t know that the clock says a different time; and that time means that I should get to sleep in a bit! Nope, they’re hungry, or they have to pee, and so at 4:45 (which would have been 5:45), they’re awake and ready for the day to begin. I was not thrilled. We got it sorted after a week or so, but yeesh, I should have seen that coming and prepared.

6. My best friend got married, and I’m so thrilled for him and his wife!

David and his wife April

David and his wife April

I was absolutely honored and thrilled to get to be part of my best friend’s wedding this year. He’s been looking forward to marriage and settling down for some time, and I couldn’t be happier for him and his bride. When we get together, we now laugh about the amusing parts of marriage, and we still recount tales of idiotic things we did when we were younger. The change is subtle but unmistakable: he seems happier, more settled, and it makes me smile each time I think about it. When I gave a toast at his wedding reception, I forgot to say one important thing, and so I’ll say it here: we’ve been buddies for 30+ years, and I couldn’t have asked for a better, more loyal friend. Through ups and downs, moves and changes, pain and joy, he’s been there; and now, we’re thrilled to have his wife as part of our family as well.

7. Reading is a key part of my world.

Listening to audiobooks and podcasts is great, but I also found this year that when I don’t take time to actually sit and read a book (an actual book, with pages and everything; nothing against e-readers, but I just don’t enjoy them as much), I get a bit cranky. So this year, despite the busy, I carved out a bit of time to read at least a few nights each week. And I’m glad I did.

8. Learning history is more important now than ever before.

I’m sure this sounds self-serving since I’m a history teacher, but I believe it is true regardless. Look at the news, follow any major storylines, and you’ll see that people of all political persuasions are taking more liberties with ‘truth’ than ever before. As a result, we need to arm ourselves against those influences by being knowledgeable about the past. And the only way to do that is through learning it. The danger here is that ALL HISTORY that you learn is biased in some way. All of it. Some person wrote it, and therefore the history is influenced by the person who wrote it. We need to remember that is also true of every news article we read, whether about something as huge as politics and tax cuts or something as mundane as a basketball game. The key is: go learn your history, and then you will be better able to see through the biased ‘truth’ being presented by both sides, and you will thus be better able to make an informed judgment about what the truth really is. Start with something simple: sign up for the “This Day In History” email from the History Channel website, and then just read the major headlines each day. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ll learn in a few minutes.

9. Looking to serve other people builds better relationships than just looking to profit from them.

I have always believed in the value of building good relationships, and I learned this year that it’s even more important than I’d realized. Again, I came across this by listening to various podcasts in which Bob Burg (best-selling author of ‘The Go-Giver’ and other books, emphasized how important it is that we serve other people even when it isn’t going to get us more business or help us make better profits. Also, at the recommendation of my best friend, I read a couple of great books by Andy Andrews (The Noticer and The Noticer Returns ) that emphasize similar ideas. Simply by looking to serve first we build better relationships. In the long run, these may help us profit more, but the point is: profit ISN’T the point. Relationships are.

10. “Where there’s life, there’s hope...and need of vittles.” (J.R.R. Tolkien)

My wife and I enjoying a date in Orlando after I spoke at a conference there. It’s hard not to be hopeful when surrounded by beauty.

My wife and I enjoying a date in Orlando after I spoke at a conference there. It’s hard not to be hopeful when surrounded by beauty.

This year, like all years, I’ve spent much time reading through the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and I also began reading works by a man that influenced both of them: G.K. Chesterton. Throughout all of their works, there is a common theme: hope. No matter how bad things are (or seem to be), where there’s life, there’s hope, as Tolkien says. 2018 seemed to be awful for a lot of people in a lot of ways, and unfortunately that means many people are anticipating 2019 to be even worse. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be so. Let’s commit to making our little pocket of the world a better place, full of hope and joy, and together we can make 2019 better than any of us expect! If you don't believe me, that's ok; do me a favor and go read anything by Tolkien (especially 'The Hobbit' or 'The Lord of the Rings') or Lewis (especially 'The Chronicles of Narnia' or 'Mere Christianity') and just enjoy them. You'll also be amazed at how hopeful you feel while reading them.

For a number of years now, I have been reminded of one important truth: we can all be redeemed, none of us is without hope of improvement. I believe that the Bible is true, and it teaches us that all of us are broken sinners; but it also teaches us that we have a hope in Jesus Christ. It teaches us that He will never leave us or forsake us, and it teaches us that through Him, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, His grace is sufficient for us. Therefore, there is ALWAYS hope. Let’s look forward to a hope-filled 2019!

Action Step:

Today, write down five lessons you learned in 2018, and how you hope to apply those lessons in 2019.

RLL 54: How Gratitude Changes Our Hearts

RLL 54: How Gratitude Changes Our Hearts

My best friend, David, and me—just doing what we do at his wedding rehearsal dinner back in October.

My best friend, David, and me—just doing what we do at his wedding rehearsal dinner back in October.

I’ll get this out right up front: I am a short, short human being. I am 5’3” inches tall (that’s 160.02 cm for my metric-minded friends, according to Google), roughly the same height as Napoleon Bonaparte (at least according to British propaganda from the era) and much shorter than many notable celebrities that are considered ‘short.’ Also according to Google, the average American male is 5’9” tall…which puts the average American man as a full 6 inches taller than I am. Half a foot. Shorter than average.

I get hobbit jokes all the time from my students, elf jokes every Christmas season from the whole world, and short jokes from my best friend (who is 6’4”) and his family pretty much always.

As a result of my short stature, I’ve always felt frustrated at many aspects of life that average height men take for granted: getting things off of high shelves, washing my hands in public restrooms (which for me results in getting water from the counter top on my shirt right at belly-button level), etc. But here’s the thing: it could be worse.

When my daughters put heels on, they really are almost my height!

When my daughters put heels on, they really are almost my height!

Over the past year, though, I’ve realized just how much I have to be thankful for, despite the fact that I’m roughly the size of a middle school student. And the more I focused on reasons to be thankful, the more thankful I’ve become. C.S. Lewis talks about a similar phenomenon in ‘Mere Christianity’ regarding how we treat others, and I believe the principle holds true for how we think of ourselves. Here’s what he wrote:

“When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less…[W]henever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less.”

I believe this same idea also applies to how we think about our situations in life: if we constantly focus on the negative, then the negatives only seem to grow. If, however, we choose to focus on the positives, then the negatives seem to fade into the background.

They don’t go away entirely (after all, I still need help getting things off of high shelves), but they’re not as big of a deal as they used to be. And they can even turn into moments of light-heartedness and fun, such as when my children get to laugh as I jump up to knock something off of a store shelf and then catch it before it hits the tiled floor.

I’m thankful that I’m short, because it means I get more opportunities to jump than most adults get on a regular day.

When my wife and I visited Cameron Indoor Stadium this summer, It was fun to see just how much smaller our feet are than those of former Duke basketball players.

When my wife and I visited Cameron Indoor Stadium this summer, It was fun to see just how much smaller our feet are than those of former Duke basketball players.

I’m thankful that I’m short because not once in my life have I hit my head on a pull-up bar, a ceiling fan blade, or the top of a door frame (all of which my best friend has done).

I’m thankful that I’m short because the old “Jump, knock it off a shelf then catch it” trick made for a lot of laughs (and extra tips) when I was a bartender in college.

I’m thankful I’m short because when I played soccer in high school and college, I almost never got called for fouls because referees thought, “Surely that little guy didn’t actually knock that big dude over. He must have been diving.”

I’m thankful I’m short because it’s obviously how God intended me to be.

Action Step: This Thanksgiving week, in addition to just listing things we’re thankful for, I would challenge you to ask yourself how you might reframe your situation mentally (to learn more about ‘reframing,’ check out podcasts from both Bob Burg and Jordan Harbinger). In other words, think of something that normally bothers you or drags you down; then, examine how can you think differently about it so that it becomes an opportunity for gratitude.

(Bonus: For more info on how to do this, also go check out my friend Dr. William Findley over at to learn how to #thinkbetter and #livebetter)

RLL 51: What's Your Story?

Real Life Leading #51: What’s Your Story?

A gift I received after coaching my younger daughter’s soccer team this fall.

A gift I received after coaching my younger daughter’s soccer team this fall.

When I was in 8th grade, I played varsity soccer for a man named Ken McIntosh, and at the end of the season Coach Mac said to me, "You really should think about pursuing soccer as a career." I thought he meant as a professional player, so I really focused on soccer in high school and even played in college. But when I stopped playing midway through college, Coach Mac's words came back to me. I realized he was right: I should pursue soccer as a career, but not as a player; as a coach. I began as a student assistant at Covenant College while I was still a student there, and I've been coaching ever since (a total of 15 + years now).

Coaching soccer has opened up doors I never imagined, from jobs at high schools to getting to coach at camps at Duke University. It's allowed me to work with athletes and players from all areas of the country and of all different ages. And it's also continued to bring me a specific type of joy that I don't find anywhere else. Most importantly, coaching soccer has allowed me to spend many extra hours with my children, coaching them at different levels.


Why do I share this? Because that one comment changed my life, and the stories and comments that you remember and focus on have the power to change yours too. Stories can serve many purposes: transmit information (‘how to’ stories), stir the emotions (every Nicholas Sparks and John Green novel ever written), rally support to a cause (Upton Sinclair’s book The Jungle was written with this in mind), create an identity (think family histories told around the dinner table), and to reinforce beliefs (every religion in the world has sacred texts full of stories and history). But for our purposes, the power of a story is in its power to change your life.

Here’s the key today: the stories we tell ourselves shape who we become.

Many books have been written on this topic, from the Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s classic The Power of Positive Thinking to the more recent Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan. Going back even further, the Bible is very clear about this in many different places. Philippians 4:8 reminds us, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, knew that how we think, the stories we tell, what we focus on, has an incredible impact on who we are and what we do.

So the question is, what stories are we telling? Do you tell yourself you’re not smart enough? Not good enough? Don’t have the right skills? Or do you tell yourself that you can, you’re capable, and you will succeed? As Henry Ford said many years ago, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” This has been true throughout all of history, and it remains true today. If you want to change your world, you first need to start by changing your thinking.


To help people think better and change their lives is the major goal of the BeliefHacker project, recently created by a friend of mine named Dr. Bill Findley (this is not an advertisement, and I don’t get compensated, but I would recommend you check out his work at The premise is simple: “Think better. Live better.” Again, the Bible is also very clear on this when Paul writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2)

My favorite story of all time is The Lord of the Rings. I never tire of reading it or of reading other books about it; I even listen to podcasts and belong to discussion groups devoted to LOTR. The reason is because that story is so powerful to me, with themes of good vs. evil, the possibility of redemption, the necessity of perseverance even against overwhelming odds. I even quoted LOTR in my own book. This story has helped shape who I am, just as the stories you involve yourself in help shape who you are.

One last word, this from the excellent and generous Dondi Scumaci (international business speaker and consultant, and author of Career Moves, and Ready, Set…Grow). She says, “It’s how we tell the story (to ourselves and others) that will ultimately determine how we move forward. How we frame those events—what we pull from those experiences—will shape who we become in the future.”

Action Step: Take a few minutes today to write down the stories that you consistently tell yourself and determine if they are helping you move forward or just holding you back.