What a Chevy Nova taught me about life

I bought it at one of those buy-here, pay-here car lots. It was a red 1989 Chevy Nova and looked similar to a Ford Escort. It had two endearing qualities. First, I could take the key out of the ignition and engine continued to run. Second, once a cassette tape was inserted into the stereo, it was impossible to eject.

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to a tape in a car, you know that it overrides the radio. Since the tape was stuck, I had two options: stereo on or stereo off.

The only tape I owned was “Chicago’s Greatest Hits”. Nope, not proud of it.

I had two jobs at the time, both requiring lots of driving time. The first 50 hours or so of Chicago were unbearable. So I tore out the stereo, pushed the tape out from the back of the deck and reinstalled it. I asked the owner of the company at my day job for a tape and he gave me a Zig Ziglar cassette. I listened to that tape for 10 months. Over and over. For hundreds of hours while I delivered pizzas and sold fire alarms door-to-door.

The broken stereo changed the way I saw the world. I listened as Zig taught me:

-That a goal set is halfway reached.

-To get everything in life you want, help enough others get what they want.

-Failure is an event, not a person.

-Positive thinking will let you do everything better than negative thinking.

That Chevy Nova lasted a year until the engine gave out (never did get the ignition fixed).

But the car changed my life. For $3,500 I received the incredible gift of repetition. Zig Ziglar showed me a new way to see the world, to value others, to think positively, and to set goals…over and over and over.

The downside of the Nova? I still recoil when I hear a Chicago song and have nightmares about eject buttons.

The world wants you to settle

You may have received this feedback from supervisors;

“You’re doing great, keep it up!”

Or, “Focus on this one thing (e.g. communication, education, experience) and you’ll continue to be fantastic.”

Never believe your supervisor’s feedback.

Why? They want you to succeed.

But who succeeds in any organization? The majority (see the Normal or Gaussian Curve).

So this well-intended feedback they gave you is for success and the majority…because your supervisor wants to be right.

The world hopes you’ll settle too. Natural forces grind down mountains and flood low-lying areas. It seeks the average. Because the average live on and survive to reproduce. Maybe that’s why exercise hurts, eating vegetables is less appealing than sugar, and sleeping in feels better than waking before the sun. The world is hoping you’ll settle for average.

If you want more than average, to make more of a difference than the mean, to change through innovation rather than incrementalism, to go farther and fly higher, listen to the feedback…but remember it’s only a step in the right direction. It’s the minimum bar to the club of normal.

NOTE: My feedback is also average and often intended for the majority to succeed. Remember no one else can tell you how to be your best. It’s something you find out for yourself.

You can’t ride a bike


Four-year olds have no self-doubt. They do crazy things like learn to ride bicycles without training wheels and swim in water that could drown them.

And no one tells a four-year old they can’t ride a bike.

Yes, it’s difficult to learn to steer and brake. It’s even more difficult to balance at the same time. But eventually, they’ll pick it up and race down the street with a huge smile.

After biking comes swimming, video games, tree climbing, and (for the lucky few) fishing.

Kids pick up new skills and abilities nearly every day.

Then it changes.

The unheard voice of self-doubt becomes louder, we internalize failure, and learn to protect our ego.

We learn to quit.

We quit math, organic chemistry, relationships, driving a stick shift, and even exercising. If it doesn’t come easy, it’s not meant for us right?

Tell that to the four-year old. Tell her she can’t ride a bike because she doesn’t have the talent for it.

In a week, she’ll ride past you, two wheels spinning so fast that you’ll forget what it was you wanted to quit.

What if your work disappeared tomorrow?

When days in EHS feel like endless to-do lists, separated by various last-minute emergencies, and bookended by meetings, program evaluations, and quarterly reports, I find it easy to imagine it all disappearing.

And priorities once again become clear.

What if you walked into your office tomorrow and found no trace of EHS in your company? Your desk is gone. No programs. No compliance. No OSHA posters and no one remembers the last time your company had a safety director.

It’s all gone.

But your CEO sees you and thinks you might be useful. She read somewhere that safety is important, and while she’s not sure why, she hires you.

What’s the first thing you do? What’s the single thing you would do to make the biggest impact that first day? The first week?

Write down a few ideas.

Compare this very short list with your to-do list from yesterday and the day before. Are they similar?

If they aren’t…are you doing what matters?

Or have your priorities drifted from what makes the biggest impact to what makes the time pass by quickly?


Tying Shoelaces (Life Lessons)

This week, I spoke with a colleague who was going through some work issues. They’d received a new work assignment across the state and weeks later it was changed, delayed, forgotten about, and eventually cancelled. This was followed by a strong rumor of an overseas transfer.

She was a mess…and justifiably so. No organization that espouses their people as the most valuable resource would do this, right?

This morning I was unlacing my running shoes in preparation for the workout (yes, I’m the lazy guy who slides off his shoes post-workout). I pulled the wrong lace and it knotted up. So I pulled another lace and the knot grew tighter. Now these laces aren’t your normal round laces…they are fancy oval laces made for running. And when they knot, they almost glue together. I frowned and pulled the knot apart with my teeth. Success!

The next shoe knotted as well, but I didn’t pull. I held the shoelace loosely, looked at it, and the tangle of shoelace easily fell apart.

Life is like this. It will get complex. It will go wrong. It will knot up. It can be taken personally and we can rationalize our justification. We can pull, get mad, make it tighter, and feel righteously indignant. (Teeth optional)

Or we can hold it loosely, look at the situation, and allow the knot the fall away.


Just Give Up

Giving up. It’s like quitting. Turning the other way and saying, “Enough is enough.”

Do we do that?

Maybe we should give up more.

Achieving everything you want in life isn’t about wanting it more. It’s about wanting other things less.

I found out I couldn’t read the books I wanted to when I had a cable TV subscription. So I gave up cable. I’ve also given up on conversations involving reality television. I just don’t get the inference.

I couldn’t find time to take classes at night. Between work and sleep, where would school fit in? So I gave up a few years of 8-hour rest cycles, adjusted my alarm to 0300, and finished the graduate degree.

What do you want? And what do you want less?

Are you willing to bear the loss of reality TV for your dream?

Giving up. It’s how you turn, “I don’t have the time” into, “This is my one chance and today is the day.”



Do you want more pot?

Greenhouses and nurseries are filled with them.

Plastic pots, filled with soil, a bit of gravel, and a tiny seedling. The seedling grows quickly with the moisture and stability provided by the black pot. As the seedling adds leaves and height, the roots curl around the bottom of the pot and, for a moment, the plant stops growing.

Expert gardeners maintain development by giving the plant a larger pot. They know plants will grow tall in a small pot, but their stalks remain weak from coiled root balls and limited exposure to the elements. So the gardener’s hands gently break apart the coiled roots and place the plant into a larger container. The transition is tough at first, a little wilting is normal during repotting. After a few days, the roots find their place and growth begins once again.

Are you deliberately repotting? Or is a coiled root ball lulling you into a stability-fueled plateau?

Do you want more pot?

You know, you don’t need to grow old to die. I was dying at the age of 20 as a result of no direction and no purpose.” – Grant Cardone

Hiding Under The Covers

The military training exercise began as a way for the Air Corps to gain publicity (and congressional funding) for airplanes. The rivalry between the Navy and Air Corps only aggravated the event.

In 1937, the capability of the Air Corps, an early name for what would become the U.S. Air Force, was unknown. The Navy scoffed at the Air Corps’ challenge to find a ship on the open sea and accurately strike it with bombs. In what would later be called “Exercise Utah”, the USS Utah sailed off the coast of California and the Air Corps, with its load of colored water bombs, was ordered to find it.

After a day of failed attempts, and ten minutes before the deadline, a squadron of B-17s struck the Utah with the water bombs. A day later, the bombers repeated the strike from a higher altitude.

Military senior leaders were awe struck. The exercise report was never released and therefore no lessons were applied to change military planning.

Four years later, the USS Utah would be struck again, this time at Pearl Harbor and with live bombs. It would sink, never to rise again.

Is your organization learning or hiding under the covers?

Are lessons learned or downplayed to save face?

Is ego more important than mission success?


“People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them.” – George Bernard Shaw, Mrs. Warren’s Profession

Look around at your life. Where are you? Are you where you want to be?

Think ten years ahead. Are you still there? Do you want something else? To be somewhere else?

What are you doing today to move towards that 10-year vision?

Every decision you make reflects your values and beliefs. Every decision changes your life, in big and small ways. Decisions change circumstances and outcomes, in far greater ways than genetics, inborn talent, physical ability, mental acuity, or parental support or neglect. In fact, people with more talent than you have wasted it and people with less ability than you have done far more with their lives.

What circumstances are you making today? When is today THE day?

The Grass is Dying (so check your sprinklers)

Well before sunrise, I throw on running shoes and take off. Then I see the water. Not a river or lake, but water in the street. The sprinklers are broken. Some are pointing into the street, some have been decapitated by errant landscapers, and others simply don’t come up anymore.

The grass dies. But no one checks the sprinklers. Some people even blame the grass.

Do we do this in EHS management as well?

Do we see safety plans (sprinklers) fail and blame the workers (the grass we care so much about)?

Do we build perfect management systems, implement them, and walk away feeling proud…only to fail to come back at night to check on how it really works?

How do your sprinklers work? Do you have water running in the streets too?