Ever notice everyone's on a low-fat diet after the heart attack?

Everyone has time for their kids after the divorce?

Everyone's a financial genius after a bankruptcy?

As managers, supervisors, and executives, we're trained to judge our success by the size of our departments, budgets, sales, profits, bank accounts, and the deals we make. When I had my own $50 million-a-year business, that's what I thought, too. Being a successful CEO, I figured if I just worked hard enough, I'd wind up on top. Failure is something that happens to the other guys.

That's when it happened to me. I lost everything. Everything I thought was important. 

Money, power, prestige. Gone. My position as CEO? Gone, too.

Although I didn't know it then, I had been given a gift. A "Gift of Desperation" that changed me and my outlook for the better. In the end, it made me a more successful person, too.

We can all recognize a "gift of desperation." It's the "aha" that comes at the darkest of times. Speak with anyone who has had a life-changing experience, and they'll tell you how much it has led them to appreciate each and every day. They have a higher sense of awareness and focus on living each day with joy.

Still need convincing? Look how our country pulled together after 9-11-01. People actually started talking, connecting--and not just our friends and family, but strangers on the street or at the corner store. I had clients all over the country remarking something like this: "I never really appreciated just how important (blank) was, until now." The way that (blank) got filled in varied from person to person and organization to organization, but suddenly I could tell they had begun to notice that there was more to life than profits and possessions. The horror of that experience became a gift to many who chose to see the lessons.

When I received my "gift of desperation" I began to notice, FINALLY, something was missing in my life. It wasn't success that was missing. It was significance.

Most CEOs have the same symptoms I did: We have a gorgeous house, but are hardly around to enjoy it. We eat at private lunch clubs, but we're still hungry inside. Our expensive watches can't keep our time from slipping away.

We have kids, but we may never really appreciate them. I didn't, either--until involuntary unemployment kept me home instead of frantic and at the office. "Pick me up, Daddy!" my three-year-old son kept saying. "It's good for you." Now how did he know that? But you know what, he was right.

Here I had been rushing, rushing, rushing--because I needed everything to be perfect. And then I would finally get back to my family and friends. I just needed to get all my ducks in a row. Have you ever tried to get ducks in a row? I finally realized that I had to stop waiting for my life to get perfect to be happy.

Over time, the life I could never quite find seemed to fall right into my lap. In business, so often we're taught to CYA [Cover Your A--]. Well, I started my own version: Change Your Attitude.

Today I work with people and organizations who are trying to change their attitude and behavior. Many of them, facing their own periods of desperation, are wondering if they will ever recover. They will, with a change of focus.

I've discovered that we can all change our lives dramatically for the better--and we can do it before the gift of desperation. It takes a new sense of focus, and it also takes acting on a few new thoughts:

  • Start each day with an awareness that you are here for a purpose other than to satisfy demands to add stuff to your life. I do this with a few morning minutes of meditation and prayer. Other people read a book or take a walk. After a while, you'll find your own path to peace and self-awareness.

  • Make serving others a primary focus. Help someone in your office be more successful. Hold the door for someone. Start a mentoring program, be a big brother or sister, or call a local volunteering program.

  • Slow down. I was always so busy pushing for the next big break that sometimes I ran right past it. So take a few minutes to take a deep breath, step back, and enjoy life a bit. You'll be surprised how many opportunities personally and professionally just show up.

  • Start now. You don't have to remake your whole life overnight. Small changes when practiced consistently will create dramatic results. Remember, you're choosing to act--before a "gift of desperation" is forced on you. Keep at it and soon you will look back and be amazed how far you've come, and so will your coworkers and loved ones. And while I may believe in deathbed conversions, acting ahead of time is a whole lot more satisfying.

    There's nothing magical about these actions. The results, however, from even small consistent actions can be phenomenal, because not only will you feel better about yourself, but often your professional life will take off, too.

    One Christmas, a group of businesses in Alexandria, Va., got together and repaid money stolen from a Salvation Army. The cost per business was about $500, but the value to the community they served was a hundred times that amount. Managers and employees got out of their offices and began to see each other in a new light. They donated time and distributed toys. These actions began to create a lot of goodwill and press in the community. In the long run, I noticed how much their good works changed the companies involved. Morale went right through the roof. Productivity and profits went up as well. I know from experience this wasn't a coincidence.

    The action taken, willingness to help, and focus on service connected these companies, their employees, and the community in a way that far outweighed the financial costs.

    In fact, smart companies are increasingly using corporate giving as a marketing tool. According to a study published in Business Week, two-thirds of consumers would switch to a product or retailer that supported a cause they believed in. Likewise, employees of companies that promote good causes are likely to feel a strong sense of loyalty to their employer.

    It's no secret that high-profile corporate ethics scandals have rocked the market and hurt companies large and small. In hard times, it's only natural to turn first to reducing charitable contributions and employee benefits--and the newspapers are full of depressing stories of cutbacks and givebacks.

    Instead of following the crowd, think of the positive public attention you can get by increasing your community involvement and awareness. Downward economies don't last forever, but the public's memory of a good corporate citizen often does. Sometimes it doesn't even take money, just the willingness to show up and help.

    Positively motivated people will deliver to the bottom line faster than new technology and a slick mission statement, and nothing will motive people faster than feeling the company they work for sees them and their community as significant.

    Change your own focus, and it's likely you'll also change the way your business works.

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