How to be successful: Start with presence of mind

How to be successful: Start with presence of mind

I’m going to start by telling you a short romantic story. It is 100% true; I know, because I lived it. After, I will explain how this relates to how to be successful in your own life. 

When I was twelve, my stepfather, who was not in any way nautical and had never done this before (or after), took me to a speed boat race being held in Mission Bay in San Diego. Being of an age when one starts thinking about such things, I found myself looking around at the men who were gathered there. Most of them could have come right out of that old “Grease” movie—hair greasy with gel, white T-shirts, with their cigarette packs rolled up into one of their T-shirt sleeves. “I could never marry anyone like that!” I thought to myself. 

Then I turned to my left as I was facing the water, and there were two young guys walking up the hill with their backs to the water. One of them in particular caught my eye. There was something about him that stood out to me, something different, something deep and profound. “That’s the kind of man I would marry,” I thought. 

Thirteen years later, after a number of “Nope, he’s not the one,” relationships, I was making cold calls in a San Francisco high rise for a firm that placed technical workers for Silicon Valley companies. I talked to one guy running a biomedical instrumentation firm in the Valley.

After a pleasant conversation, I wrote in my notes: “Nice guy. Keep in touch.” I did, and he became a client. For the next six months, Philip and I kept in touch. During that period, I moved south of the City to the Valley, working as a headhunter in another firm placing engineers. After a while, Philip and I started talking almost every day. 

At one point, after another disappointing relationship ended, I decided I would never find my Prince Charming. After years of “steady” relationships, I thought maybe it was time to just “date around.” So I called a few guys I knew. One of them was Philip. “I’ve just broken up with my boyfriend,” I said. 

“Gee, that’s too bad,” he replied, without missing a beat. “When do you want to go out?” 

I was taken aback; he had never once, in all our conversations, indicated a romantic interest (he knew I was dating someone; he was being polite). I held the phone receiver out from my ear and pointed to it, looking at my office mate with surprise on my face. “Um, let’s play it by ear,” I answered, uncharacteristically speechless. 

The next day, driving on the way to work, I had the radio on. They were talking about a “bathtub race” held in the Alameda Estuary. Knowing that Philip was a windsurfer and interested in all things nautical, I called him that morning and asked him if he’d like to enter the race. We decided to meet for lunch to fill out the application. 

He came to pick me up, and I was surprised at how vibrant he looked; I had only seen him twice before in the middle of winter. Before me was a sun-kissed sailor wearing a shirt with a dark blue version of “the kiss” on it (shown in the picture above). We went out together to his car. It was a VW convertible with a rack built on top (he built it) with two windsurfers on it. I had never fallen for a guy because of his car before, but this whole setup just floored me. Definitely more interesting than the usual! By the end of lunch, and for the next two weeks, my cheeks hurt because I was smiling and laughing so much. 

It turns out Philip was the guy walking up the hill that day in San Diego. We have been married for more than 40 years.

We are still in love, happier than ever. We have had many nautical adventures, including building a catamaran in South Africa and sailing it home to New England together, just the two of us. Of course I became a sailor too, starting with windsurfing with Philip in San Francisco Bay. There have been a number of boats and adventures since, large and small.

Presence of Mind: The key to success in life.

Philip asked me recently what it was that caused me to think he was the kind of “man I’d marry” that day when I saw him in San Diego. We talked about it for a while. In another conversation later, we realized that it was “presence of mind.” People with presence of mind are easy to pick out in a crowd; there’s something special about them, and it’s a rare quality. 

Most people are distracted constantly by their inner second guesser. That voice that doubts, judges, anticipates, fears, takes offense, and generally gets in the way of real progress. “Is this going to be good enough? Does he care about me? Why can’t I ever get this right? I can’t believe they are doing that and saying that.” And so on. And on and on and on. 

Only a fraction of their thinking time is focused on the task at hand, taking into account both the task and the environment. Life is only fractionally lived out; opportunities go begging; sadness and disappointment are the main themes. It is the opposite of a happy and successful life. 

Philip is the most “present” person I’ve ever met. For example, in the 8,000-mile, two-month passage from South Africa to New England, I witnessed it so many times. When something broke in the middle of the heaving, endless waves, and disaster was literally inches or minutes away, he was immediately fully engaged (even when I woke him from a deep sleep in the middle of the night), sizing up the situation in seconds and doing the next right thing. In the “sail overboard” case I describe in my journey blog, if he hadn’t, the sail would have gotten sucked under the center of our boat and caused the catamaran to somersault. Which, given that we were halfway between Africa and South America, would have been a Very Bad Thing. 

If you have presence of mind, you are not in any way distracted or discouraged by that second-guessing voice. You are in the moment, in the present, doing what needs to be done. Whatever it is. Work, chores, recreating, interacting with others, solving a sticky problem. Because you are focused, success is much more likely. 

If you were running a race, you would be sure to lose if you kept stopping and second-guessing yourself. “What if I shouldn’t be here? Why am I even doing this? What if I get injured? What if someone runs into me?” The “What Ifs” are very dangerous when we use them this way. 

Of course, if you are preparing for something, “what if” can be useful. When provisioning for that 2-month trip at sea, the first time I had ever done such a thing, the “what if” questions were useful. “What if our little microgarden dies off, and we still have a month to go, with no fresh produce?” “What if the journey takes longer than anticipated? What will we eat?” “What if the fridge/freezer stop working, mid-trip?”

Asking “what if” questions as a way of preparing and thinking something through only helps ensure success. Asking those questions because of fear and self-doubt, especially while in the course of carrying out a task, does just the opposite. 

I see a lot of stumbling in this area, in the working world, when it comes to giving instructions. The un-present manager will give incomplete or disorganized instructions.  

As the task progresses, there will be many questions and many false starts. As Jack Bergman is quoted as saying, “There’s never enough time to do it right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.” Which doesn’t sound too bad, until you are up against the deadline and you still have to get it right, even as you are doing it over. 

People working for a boss whose behavior forces them to constantly “do it over” soon be looking for a better place to work. 

Being present is one of the best gifts you can give yourself, your loved ones, your work, and your life. 

How to be more present

Start by being more aware of your own thoughts. If you find yourself playing those destructive tapes of self-doubt, judgement, and blame, stop what you’re doing and focus on the task at hand. 

Personally, I found that being grateful for the tiniest things started my own thinking moving in the right direction. If I was doing something mindless, such as washing the dishes, and my mind was repeatedly revisiting some disappointment or concern, I would stop those thoughts and replace them with thankful ones. “Thanks for the warm running water to do these dishes with. Thanks for the dish soap. Thanks for a house over my head and enough food to eat.” If you are working, you can be thankful for things you would normally take for granted: the fact that you have eyes to look at the screen and fingers to work on the keyboard. 

The goal is to place yourself in the moment, and then to be thankful in that moment. Being thankful makes you aware of all the positive things that are happening, even as you do the most mundane tasks or deal with difficult challenges. So not only do you become present, but more positive at the same time. 

Any task approached with a feeling of positivity is definitely going to be more successful than one approached with a feeling of dread.

It is true: You are the person most in charge of your own success. Being present in your life is one of the most powerful decisions and actions you can take to ensure that you are more successful. 


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