Making First Things First

Dr. Gerald Bell is the co-author of the best-selling The Carolina Way with legendary basketball coach Dean Smith. He’s also the founder of the Bell Leadership Institute.

Several years ago, Dr. Bell surveyed 4000 retired business executives, with an average age of seventy, asking one key question: If you could live your over again, what would you do differently?

The number one answer:

“I should have taken charge of my life and set my goals earlier.”

The other top answers included:

– Taken better care of my health.
– Managed money better.
– Spent more time with family.
– Spent more time on personal development.

Few of us are at the beginning of our career; some of us have already rounded third. But it’s not too late to make your life about the things that matter most.

Anyone who’s willing can take charge of their life today, even if there’s not much as time left on the clock as there used to be.

Anyone who’s willing can take charge of their health today, even if it’s more of an uphill climb than it once was.

Anyone who’s willing can begin making themselves available to their closest friends and family today, even if the relationship has faced hurdles in the past.

And so on.

For those still in the early stages of their career, these five values are certainly good guidelines to follow.

For those who are in the later stages of the journey, they’re still good to go by.

It’s never too late to make first things first.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

The Quality-of-Life Reduction Device

When a young Jack Canfield went to work for the legendary entrepreneur W. Clement Stone sometime back in the sixties, long before Canfield’s success with Chicken Soup for the Soul,  Mr. Stone gave him this advice:

“If you want to be successful, stop watching TV.”

Stone referred to the television set as an “Income Reduction Box.”

Canfield took his advice, and ultimately built quite a publishing empire.

Today, nearly everyone we know has in their possession, all day every day, something that could rightfully be called an income reduction device.

Or, maybe, the quality-of-life reduction device.

The more time one spends looking at it, the less time one spends doing their job and/or fulfilling their purpose.

It’s something to seriously consider: With every tap and every swipe you’re making someone else richer, and you’re making yourself poorer — maybe not financially poorer, but poorer in ways that matter more.

While I’m sure we would all agree that these devices serve a useful function, we could also, no doubt, agree with this statement:

“I’ve had many great moments in my life; none of them occurred while staring at my phone.”

Do this as often as you can for as long as you can: Put your device down. Walk away from it for a while. Step outside and listen to the sounds of the real world all around you. Focus on this moment. Experience God’s presence. Say thank you…And stay right there for a bit.

Then, quick, take a selfie and post it on Facebook: Me enjoying some technology-free time!

Just kidding about that last part. Serious about the rest, though.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. (James 4:7)

Idealists and the Fire

Warren Wiersbe said, “A realist is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been purified. A skeptic is an idealist who has gone through the fire and been burned.”

What makes the difference?

It’s not the fire, the heat, or the duration. It’s the attitude you choose to bring out of it.

When you look back on life’s unpleasant events, you can choose to see what you learned from the ordeal, or you can just see it as a bad experience and get nothing else from it.

In every trial, every problem, every difficult situation, God is seeking to teach us something new, seeking to take us to a higher place.

Maybe it’s a chance to exercise a bolder faith. Maybe it’s a chance to identify bad behavior that we must abandon. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to practice perseverance.

The lesson is always there in difficult circumstances; we can choose to be purified and made holy, or we can just allow ourselves to become burned and bitter.

Daniel wrote…

Many will be purified, cleansed and refined by these trials. But the wicked will continue in their wickedness, and none of them will understand. Only those who are wise will know what it means. (Daniel 12:10)

The Show Me Prayer

On February 1966 Navy Captain Gerald Coffee was flying a reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam when he was shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire.

He was soon captured and placed in a military prison in downtown Hanoi, where he would spend the next 7 years of his life: tortured, beaten, and confined to a filthy cell — so tiny that he could neither fully stand up or fully lie down.

How did he endure such inhumane treatment for such an extended time?

In a 2014 interview with PBS, he said…

“Early on my prayers changed from ‘Why me’ to ‘Show me.’

“I quit saying, ‘Why me, God?’ and I started saying: ‘Show me, God…

“‘How can I use this positively? Help me to use it to go home as a better, stronger, smarter man in every possible way that I can, to go home as a better naval officer, to go home as a better American, a better citizen, a better Christian.

“‘God, help me to use this time productively so that it won’t be some kind of a void or a vacuum in my life.’”

Next, he said…

“And after that change in my prayers, every single day took on a new meaning.”

There’s no question that our trials pale in comparison to Captain Coffee’s. And yet, ‘Why Me?’ remains a mantra for many.

Why Me? leads only to a greater sense of despair.

Show Me, on the other hand, moves us in a new direction, where we experience God’s presence and God’s power like never before.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

The Upside of Owning Up

Bum Phillips, former head coach of the Saints and the Oilers, once said, “You’re not a failure until you start blaming someone else.”

This has been the bane of the human race since the beginning: Eve blamed the serpent for her disobedience. In turn, Adam blamed Eve … and he didn’t stop there: He also suggested that God was partly to blame, since bringing Eve on board was his idea in the first place.

Like Solomon said…

A man’s own folly ruins his life, yet his heart rages against the Lord. (Proverbs 19:3)

As long as we’re saying, “Yeah, maybe I did it, but it’s not my fault,” we exclude ourselves from any possibility of a comeback, any possibility of recovery.

We are, in fact, setting ourselves up for it to happen all over again.

Overcoming any kind of failure begins when we’re ready to say, “Today I take ownership of my life: what I think, what I say, what I do. I can’t control everything that happens, but I can control what I do next.”

Placing blame is easy; owning up never is. But it’s the only path to victory.

Lessons Learned the Easier Way

Today’s memo is an adapted version of a fable by Aesop.

he Lion, the Fox, and the Donkey went hunting together one afternoon, catching a large quantity of game. As they prepared to go their separate ways, the Lion asked the Donkey to divide the spoils.

The Donkey sorted everything into three piles, taking extra care to give everyone an equal share.

When the Lion looked at the three evenly distributed stacks, he decided he didn’t like what he saw. So he pounced on the Donkey, killing him in an instant, and tossed him on top of his pile.

Then he turned to Fox and said, “Divide the spoils.”

The Fox quickly put everything in one huge pile. Then he cautiously took for himself the carcass of a single small crow, and slowly backed away.

“Very good,” said the Lion. “But I must ask, where did you learn how to divide things so evenly?”

The Fox said, “It’s something I picked up from the Donkey.”

* * * * *

It’s one thing to learn from experience, from your own mistakes. It’s quite another to be able learn from the mistakes of others. The first is somewhat uncommon; the second is extremely rare.

Many of the stories of the Old Testament serve this purpose: They offer a chance to learn life’s most important lessons, without having to personally endure the inevitable hard knocks that come with experience.

Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction…(1 Corinthians 10:11)

May we learn to learn from the example of others.

Our biggest and boldest prayers.

Our Biggest and Boldest Prayers

I remember hearing someone say in a sermon (actually, it might have been a testimony), “If I had realized all along that my prayers would be answered, I would have prayed better prayers.”

He was being facetious, a little. But there is also some truth to what he said.

We have a tendency to pray safe prayers, small prayers, never presuming to ask for too much. And we’re careful to include the qualifier, “If it be thy will,” just in case nothing happens.

Of course, praying within the boundaries of God’s will is a fundamental element of prayer; we know this. [1 John 5:14]

Our problem, however, is that we often pray for less than God’s will, with something less than an attitude of faith.

We pray for a cabin in the corner of Glory Land, while God is offering us a mansion of our very own.

We ask for the ability to accept defeat, so to speak, while God has promised us victory.

We’re asking for the courage to cope when he is ready to give us the power to overcome.

God has promised us great things. We often respond by asking for small things.

What if we were to zero in on one or two requests that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt are surely part of God’s perfect will for our lives — and what if made these areas a target of our biggest and boldest prayers of faith? Things such as: Holiness. Victory. Joy. Courage. Motivation. Patience. Purpose. Power. Self-Control. And so on.

These are the birth-right of every believer. If they’re lacking in any of our lives, there is arguably only one reason:

You do not have because you do not ask. (James 4:2)

So let’s be sure to ask.

This is our challenge: Pray within the boundaries of God’s perfect will — and keep in mind those are huge boundaries.

And then pray big and bold prayers.

And pray like you know your prayers will be answered.

Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!

Not the Final Chapter

In February 2013 NFL wide receiver Cris Carter was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — an honor well deserved. He had a great career.

However, it didn’t look like he was headed in that direction after his first few seasons in Philadelphia.

Carter was a gifted athlete, but his early career suffered because of off-the-field issues, mainly related to drug abuse.

After being cut by the Eagles, he was picked up by the Vikings. It was around this time that Cris got serious about following Christ.

In Minnesota, he made the most of his second chance. He began the process of turning things around personally and professionally.

And what a turn-around it was: He went on to play in eight consecutive Pro-Bowls, and broke several receiving records, becoming one of only a handful of receivers with more than one thousand career receptions.

In an interview a few days before his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Cris had this to say:

“I wish I had done everything right. I have regrets. And when you’ve got a dark chapter in your life, people will try to make that the final chapter in your life. But it doesn’t have to be.

“For me, when it got the darkest, I said ‘this is not going to be the end of my book.’ I was able to start making decisions and start doing the right things, and one thing happened after another…”


Some days it may appear that you’re at the end of your book, as if the way things are today is the way things will always be.

Don’t believe it. There are chapters in your life yet to be written.

Even today you can begin making decisions to change the outcome of your story.

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Taken from Steve’s book It’s All in the Dailies.
Cris Carter HOF photograph by Eric Daniel Drost.

The Never Again List

Every one I know has had to celebrate Christmas this year in a modified manner. People didn’t travel. Families didn’t get together. Fewer presents were passed around. (One young man told me, “This year my family decided we could only afford to draw each other pictures and write each other poems.”)

That’s how it was in 2020.

I’m sure we’ve all taken a ‘count your blessings‘ approach to the season, making the best of it, being thankful for what we have, rather than focusing on what’s been left out.

This is a good idea, of course, but I would also suggest that we resolve in the coming year to adopt a new attitude: Never Again.

As in:

Never Again will I take for granted the things that were missed or the things that were lost this year.

This year I know people who are unemployed. Others have lost their business. They will never again take a job for granted, and will likely never again complain about having to work for a paycheck, even when the conditions are less than perfect.

This year I know some who are without a home. Never again will they take for granted having four walls to call their own.

This year I know some who are spending this Christmas by themselves, without their kids and grandkids, for the first time in decades. They will never again take for granted a family get together.

We have all survived — maybe even taken in stride — the many required adjustments this season. That’s what most people do, especially those whose lives are built on a foundation of faith.

But it’s OK to feel the absence of that which has been lost this year.

And now is a good time to decide: Never again will I overlook even the smallest of God’s many blessings in my life. When God restores what was lacking this year, as he most certainly will, I will take notice, I will give him thanks, and I will treasure the gift of his goodness.

Cry out, “Save us, God our Savior; gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, and glory in your praise.” (1 Chronicles 16:35)

Merry Christmas!

The Picture Perfect Promise of Christmas

I love Christmas cards. Especially the traditional kind.

Like a snow covered landscape, with a cozy cottage nestled in the woods. In the window you see the decorated tree. The smoke rising from the chimney tells you there’s a fire inside. You can almost feel the warmth; you can almost smell the gingerbread and pumpkin pie.

Or the scene with the rosy-cheeked carolers gathered on the front steps of a neighbor’s home. You can imagine how their angelic voices would fill the crisp winter air as they sing…

Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright…

When I see pictures such as these, I think: What a beautiful world to live in.

But that’s not the world where many find themselves today. Instead of peace and tranquility, they’re surrounded by heartache and pain, even darkness and despair. For many, the dream drawn on canvas seems forever out of reach.

While we hope for a world that we cannot create, we continue to live in a world we cannot escape.

This is why we need Jesus.

He came to change that which we cannot change for ourselves. He came to turn something ugly into something beautiful. He came to…

…comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61:2-3)

Oh, how I love to read these words.

Maybe today you see only ashes — but there is a crown of beauty waiting for you. The oil of gladness. A garment of praise.

The most idyllic scene you can imagine, he came to make real. Not just for a moment, captured in time, but for all eternity.

Merry Christmas!

Friends & Health & Happiness

In The Pursuit of Happiness, David Myers cites research demonstrating that once creature comforts are in place, there is a very weak link between income and happiness.

Neither do citizens of the wealthiest nations experience more happiness than those in developing countries.

In fact, rates of depression and alcoholism have increased in the United States since World War II, in spite of our having experienced unprecedented economic growth.

Money just can’t guarantee happiness.

However, a good circle of friends pretty much does guarantee happiness.

According to a survey from the National Opinion Research Center, the more friends you have, the happier you are.

Other studies show that close relationships promote health.

Author Robert Putnam says, “Social isolation is as big a risk factor for death as smoking. Your chances of dying in the next 12 months are halved by joining a group. By far, the biggest component of happiness is how connected you are.”

It’s been said, “Money is like a glove. Friendship is like your hand. One is useful, the other essential.”

The lesson here is: Make Friends. As the cliché goes, it will add years to your life and life to your years.

Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-10)

The Top of the Fence Post

Alex Haley, author of Roots, had a picture on his office wall of a turtle sitting on a fence post.

He said the picture was there to remind him of an important lesson: If you see a turtle on a fence post, you know he had some help getting there.

Haley said, “Every time I’m tempted to think, ‘Aren’t I marvelous? Look at all I’ve accomplished!’ I look at that picture and remember how this turtle — me — got up on that post.”

(By the way, the turtle-on-the-post illustration has been spun countless ways; I like Haley’s the best.)

This is a good time of the year to take the time to say thank you to the ones — and, specifically, the One — who helped you make it to the top of the post.

Obviously, we begin by giving thanks to the Father for all that he has done.

But let’s not forget also to say thanks to those who play a part in bringing his goodness our way.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now… (Philippians 1:3-5)

Is there someone to whom you can say ‘thank you’ today?