2021 Success? Simpler Than You Think!

“Congratulations on your recent graduation!” My daughter recently heard those words when she completed her undergrad studies at the University of North Florida and obtained her degree in Elementary Education.

In many ways, we all graduated last year. We survived one of the largest health threats in human history. We obtained our PhD’s in both Economic Survival and Realigned Social Norms and Customs. Instead of a diploma, we get to flip the calendar over to 365 new chances under the name 2021. The degrees we earned will mean nothing, however, if we don’t recognize the struggle it took achieve them and understand the lessons that emerged.

My 2020 degree was a tough one to obtain. What I am about to share with you is not intended to create a score board of who had it worse last year. My intent is to give you a glimpse at my personal journey and how it impacted my choices during the year. The cauldron of 2020 formed my resolve for the new year ahead. Perhaps what I learned will help you create a smoother path in 2021.

The year started with news that my mother had been placed in hospice care. She had only a few months left after her two-year battle with Alzheimer’s. The news was not unexpected, but still difficult to hear. We were in the process of selling her home as well and this new timetable put additional urgency and stress into the mix.

Mom and Dad moved into that house just a few weeks before I was born in the early 1960’s. They lived there together until Dad passed from a massive heart attack in the late 1980’s. Mom continued to live in the home until we had to move her into assisted living due to the progression of her disease. I grew up in that house and hoped it would stay in the family forever.

Mom passed on Good Friday in April, just a few days after we closed on the sale of her home. Her death was devastating but somehow a comfort – she was no longer in pain, she was once again with my Dad, and she could move on to her new role as an angel watching over our family. The loss of the house has been much more difficult for me – all of my childhood memories were there, and I had no idea of the impact losing it would have on me. Nearly 60 years of living, loving, learning, arguing, hugging, laughing, and crying took place within those walls.

Within weeks of Mom’s funeral, I returned home and was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer. Five years ago, I had colon cancer, had a resection and a clear scan, and went back to living life. This time the same type of cancer had reappeared on my liver, in my shoulder and in spots on my lungs. Stage 4 metastasized cancer now in three areas, not just one as before.

I immediately started radiation for my shoulder and chemotherapy for my liver and lungs. 15 radiation treatments, 12 cycles of chemo, and hundreds of hours in doctor’s offices, scanning machines or infusion rooms later, I received a clean scan. I have now been moved to maintenance oral chemo and reduced infusions.

My prognosis is excellent but the words “treatable, not curable” have been thrown around, so the future is not as clear as it was five years ago. I am dealing with mild neuropathy in my fingers and toes and I have few other nagging side effects from the powerful cocktail that was pumped through my body for six months. I am lucky – my oncologist was very concerned in April. He is just short of amazed at the response I’ve had to the treatment so far.

Oh yeah, and there was that worldwide pandemic thing going on as well. Talk about becoming the “boy in the bubble” – if the contagion wasn’t bad enough, my compromised immune system escalated my fear of exposure to pretty much anyone, anywhere, anytime.

So, what could I possibly learn during a year like 2020? I had many choices to make during the year, and the one that became clear to me was to simplify my life – not just weekly, or even daily, but hour by hour. There were a cadre of influences and circumstances that could have shaped my psyche and outlook last year. Most of them were out of my control. A few were firmly in my grasp. I chose to focus on making the most of each hour.

Even when I had the chemo pump at home (a total of 553 hours, or 23 full days last year), it was my choice on how to deal with it. Many of those hours I felt completely uncomfortable while connected to the pump – I slept in a recliner, had to learn to bathe in a whole new way, and sometimes the side effects were menacing. My choice was to focus on the outcome – I had to keep the pump for 46 hours at a time. Every so I often I would say to my wife “36 hours to go” or “just 16 hours til this cycle is over.”

Walking into the infusion room 12 times was another challenge. I spent well over 60 hours in that room, surrounded by strangers who were there for different types of cancer treatment. Several of them looked older or in worse shape than me. A few of them passed away. New patients would appear and join our bizarre brotherhood. My choice was to focus outwardly and to be as upbeat and pleasant to everyone as possible. By mentally moving outside my situation, it simplified the game and gave me a purpose for being there other than my health.

I learned the name of every nurse, assistant, phlebotomist, and office worker and spoke to them graciously and energetically. I had seen what they had to deal with every day. I didn’t want to add to their challenges by being a grouch or acting scared. If I could help lift them up a bit that would make each of our journeys better.

Even during radiation therapy – which can be intimidating with the huge machines and cold treatment rooms – I spoke to each of the techs with my normal humorous, positive tone and got to know them individually during the fifteen straight days I visited the facility. At the end of the treatment, the lead tech told me they were going to miss me coming in every day. She said they looked forward to seeing me because I picked them up emotionally and made them happy – something they tried to do for other patients all day long, but they felt the positive energy from me instead. By simplifying the process and just focusing on the next hour in front of me, I was able to release good energy to those around me.

My oncologist and radiation therapy doctor both said that they believed my attitude had everything to do with the quality and extent of my response to the therapies. They both had gotten positive vibes from me in person and their staffs had mentioned many times how much they enjoyed working with me. I was happy and humbled to hear the impact I’d had on others during such a trying time. What it taught me is that I am in control of my attitude, my outlook, and my ability to share positive energy with others.

Somehow, I achieved that simplicity of thought in the middle of a life cyclone: losing my mother and my childhood home; dealing with a serious medical diagnosis and the possibility of a reduced life span; and coping with a deadly virus that shook the foundations of our country. If I can do that in those circumstances, then you can do it as well in your daily life.

Clean out your closets – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically. Decide what and who is most important in your life and your work – focus on the positives, eliminate the negatives. That may mean staying away from negative people and influences and choosing activities that make you a better individual instead of the bad habits you have developed. Are you willing to make those tough choices?

Make time to act on your goals and if you are a list maker, write down the things you want to do and the challenges that are holding you back. Once you see them on the page they probably won’t seem as large as you perceive them to be. Are you ready to interact with your goals and not just ponder them?

Focus on the hour in front of you only. Do the most you can with those 60 minutes to help others or to move yourself forward. Try to connect with the passions that drive you, especially in work. Are you using your gifts and dreams to make forward momentum or are you ignoring them and staying stagnant?

Finally, leave the world better than you found it. That means at work, with your kids, with your neighbors, maybe even with your doctors and nurses. Be a light that people are attracted to – think about your impact on those around you. What do they say about you when you aren’t around – is it positive or negative? You control that reaction completely.

Simplify, simplify, simplify – we all learned to do it in 2020 whether we realized it or not. Now take this skill and apply it weekly, daily, hourly. 2021 has 365 chances for you to use the PhD earned in 2020 and transform yourself into the new sleeker, simpler, more focused person. You can do it – if you make simplification a way of life, not just a random idea.

Happy New Year!