In his book My Personal Best, John Wooden writes,There is a choice you have to make in everything you do, so keep in mind that in the end, the choice you make makes you. Nowhere is this more evident than in your relationships. Nothing will influence your talent as much as the important relationships in your life. Surround yourself with people who add value to you and encourage you, and your talent will go in a positive direction. Spend time with people who constantly drain you, pull you in the wrong direction, or try to knock you down, and it will be almost impossible for your talent to take flight. People can trace the successes and failures in their lives to their most significant relationships.
In 2005, Margaret and I went to see the movie Walk the Line. I have to admit, I didn`t know very much about Johnny Cash before I saw the movie, but I was fascinated by his relationship with June Carter. And that got me reading about them.
During his career, Johnny Cash recorded more than 1,500 songs, had 14 number one hit songs, was awarded 11 Grammys, and sold 50 million albums. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was a huge star. In 1959, he made a quarter of a million dollars by playing concerts. In 1961, he performed at 290 concerts attended by nearly a million people. He was a major influence on performers such as Elvis and Bob Dylan. And he was as much of a mess as the movie depicted him to be.
Cash took his first pill an amphetamine tablet called Benzedrine in 1957. He was instantly hooked.
It increased my energy, it sharpened my wit, it banished my shyness, it improved my timing, it turned me on like electricity flowing through a light bulb, Cash recalled. For the next ten years, Cash was addicted to pills. Every pill I took was an attempt to regain the wonderful, natural feeling of euphoria I experienced the first time. Not a single one of them, not even one among many thousands that slowly tore me away from my family and my God and myself, ever worked. It was never as great as the first time, no matter how hard I tried to make it so. And Cash tried Cash tried hard to make it so.
The damage that it did him was all that the movie Walk the Line showed and even more. At one point, Cash decided that he couldn`t stand to live with it anymore. In his autobiography, Cash explained what happened: I just went on and on. I was taking amphetamines by the handful, literally, and barbiturates by the handful too, not to sleep but just to stop the shaking from the amphetamines. I was canceling shows and recording dates, and when I did manage to show up, I couldn`t sing because my throat was too dried out from the pills. My weight was down to 155 pounds on a six-foot, one-and-a-half-inch frame. I was in and out of jails, hospitals, car wrecks. I was a walking vision of death, and that`s exactly how I felt. I was scraping the filthy bottom of the barrel of life.
Having lost all hope, Cash traveled to Tennessee to Nickajack Cave, a series of deep caves he had visited before, where spelunkers and explorers had sometimes lost their way and died failing to find a way out. Cash intended to share their fate. He parked his Jeep, went in, and crawled for hours until the batteries in his flashlight gave out. Then he lay down in the dark to die.
Cash said in the dark he experienced an encounter with God, and he realized his life was not his own to throw away. With newfound hope, he decided to start crawling in the dark. Miraculously he found his way out. And when he emerged blinking in the sunlight, he was dumbfounded and confused to find his mother and June Carter waiting for him. I knew there was something wrong. I had to come and find you, his mother told him. She had traveled all the way from California.
During the next few weeks and months, June Carter and her mother cared for him, shielded him from negative influences, and nursed him back to health, similar to the way it was depicted in the movie, in the past June had tried to help Cash, encouraging him to give up the drugs, and often getting rid of them. Now Cash readily accepted her help. A few months later, they were married. For the next thirty-five years, they were inseparable. And in the 1980s when Cash got addicted to painkillers due to a stomach problem, she helped him recover again. The battle was so hard-fought that when Cash later underwent heart bypass surgery, he refused any painkillers.
Walk the Line depicted June Carter as a positive influence on Johnny Cash, but even as good a job as it did, it couldn`t capture her true character. Perhaps the best description came from Rosanne Cash, Johnny`s daughter from his first marriage. At June`s funeral, Rosanne said: In her eyes, there were two kinds of people in the world: those she knew and loved, and those she didn`t know and loved. She looked for the best in everyone; it was a way of life for her. If you pointed out that a particular person was perhaps not totally deserving of her love, and might in fact be somewhat of a lout, she would say, Well, honey, we just have to lift him up.
She was forever lifting people up. It took me just have to lift him up. She was forever lifting people up. It took me a long time to understand that what she did when she lifted you up was to mirror the very best parts of you back to yourself. She was like a spiritual detective: she saw into all your dark corners and deep recesses, saw your potential and your possible future, and the gifts you didn`t even know you possessed, and she €œlifted them up for you to see. She did it for all of us, daily, continuously. But her great mission and passion were lifting up my dad. If being a wife were a corporation, June would have been the CEO. It was her most treasured role. She began every day by saying, €œWhat can I do for you, John? Her love filled up every room he was in, lightened every path he walked, and her devotion created a sacred, exhilarating place for them to live out their married life. My daddy has lost his dearest companion, his musical counterpart, his soul mate and best friend.
The bottom line is that June Carter made Johnny Cash a better man. He reached his potential as an artist and as a human being in large part because of her influence. Cash put her impact on him in perspective a few years before they died:
The publicity in the 1960s was that June saved my life, and I sometimes still hear it said that she`s the reason I`m alive today. That may be true, but knowing what I do about addiction and survival, I`m fully aware that the only human being who can save you is yourself. What June did for me was post signs along the way, lift me up when I was weak, encourage me when I was discouraged, and love me when I felt alone and unlovable. She`s the greatest woman I have ever known.
The Impact of Relationships
I think many people mistakenly minimize the impact that other people can have on their lives. My parents understood the influence of relationships. Today as I look back on my formative years, I see how intentional they were about who we spent time with and who we selected as our friends. My parents made our house the place to be in the neighborhood. We had a pool table, a Ping-Pong table, and a chemistry set in our basement. We had a shuffleboard court, a basketball court, and a Wiffle ball diamond in our yard. Everybody wanted to come to our house. And that was the strategy. My parents wanted to be able to know the kids we played with. Typical of the times (it was the 1950s and 1960s), my mom didn`t work outside the home, so she was always there to keep an eye on us.
Mom was always on the periphery of our play, fixing us lunch or a cold drink, putting Band-Aids on cuts, and observing the interaction and behavior of each person. Every now and then, she would ask my brother, Larry, my sister, Trish, or me about a particular friend. As children, we had no idea of the importance of associating with good kids rather than bad ones, but our parents did. They made sure the influences on our lives were positive.
Years later when I was an adult and I spent several hours a week counseling people, I learned through daily observation what my parents knew. Almost all our sorrows can be traced to relationships with the wrong people and our joys to relationships with the right people.
The Direction Relationships Take Us
The relationships in our lives really do make or break us. They either lift us up or take us down. They add, or they subtract. They help to give us energy, or they take it away. Here`s what I mean:
Some Relationships Take from Us
There are a couple of good ways to tell whether a relationship is positive or negative. The first is to note whether a person makes you feel better or worse about yourself. The second relates to how much energy the relationship requires. Let`s face it, some relationships feel as if they could suck the life out of you. In his book High Maintenance Relationships, Les Parrott identifies the types of people who are likely to hurt us and take energy from us. Here are some of them:
Critics constantly complain or give unwanted advice. Martyrs are forever the victim and wracked with self-pity. Wet blankets are pessimistic and habitually negative. Steamrollers are blindly insensitive to others. Gossips spread rumors and leak secrets. Control freaks are unable to let go and let things be. Backstabbers are irrepressively two-faced. Green-eyed monsters seethe with envy. Volcanoes build steam and are always ready to erupt. Sponges are always in need but never give anything back. Competitors always keep track of tit for tat.
Les also offers a straightforward quiz that can help you tell whether someone in your life is a negative person who takes energy from you. Answer yes or no to each of the following questions:
1. Do you feel especially anxious when a particular person has called and left a message for you to return the call?
2. Have you recently been dealing with a relationship that drains you of enthusiasm and energy?
3. Do you sometimes dread having to see or talk to a particular person at work or in a social situation?
4. Do you have a relationship in which you give more than you get in return?
5. Do you find yourself second-guessing your own performance as a result of an interaction with this person?
6. Do you become more self-critical in the presence of this person?
7. Is your creativity blocked, or is your clarity of mind hampered somewhat, by the lingering discomfort of having to deal with a difficult person?
8. Do you try to calm yourself after being with this person by eating more, biting your nails, or engaging in some other unhealthy habit?
9. Do you ever have imaginary conversations with this person or mental arguments in which you defend yourself or try to explain your side of a conflict?
10. Have you become more susceptible to colds, stomach problems, or muscle tension since having to deal with this difficult person?
11. Do you feel resentful that this person seems to treat other people better than she or he treats you?
12. Do you find yourself wondering why this person singles you out for criticism but rarely acknowledges things you do well?
13. Have you thought about quitting your job as a result of having to interact with this difficult person?
14. Have you noticed that you are more irritable or impatient with people you care about because of leftover frustrations from your interaction with this difficult person?
15. Are you feeling discouraged that this person has continued to drain you of energy despite your efforts to improve the relationship?
Les says that if you answered yes to ten or more of the questions, then you are certainly in a high-maintenance relationship.
I don`t mean to imply that only negative relationships require you to put energy into them. All relationships require you to give some energy. Relationships don`t cultivate and sustain themselves. The question is, how much energy do they require? And do they give anything in return? For example, some of the positive relationships that require a tremendous amount of energy in my life include:
€¢ My family€”every family has ups and down, but that`s okay; that`s what it means to be in a family.
€¢ My inner circle of friends€”these people get everything I`ve got, and they give their all, too; that`s what friendship is all about.
€¢ My team€”leadership begins with a serving attitude; I always try to give more than I receive.
€¢ Those less fortunate than I am€”every year I travel to developing countries to train leaders and add value to people through EQUIP, my nonprofit organization.
If a relationship requires you to expend energy some of the time, that`s normal. If a relationship saps your energy all the time, then that relationship has a negative effect on you. You may be able to see its effects in many areas of your life. It dilutes your talent because it robs you of energy that you could be using toward your best gifts and skills. It distracts you from your purpose. And it detracts from your best efforts. In the long run, a negative relationship cannot influence your talent in a positive direction.
Some Relationships Add to Us
Some relationships clearly make us better. They energize, inspire, and validate us. They lift us up and give us joy. We should consider the people in these relationships friends and value them highly. Helen Keller remarked, My friends have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.
In my book The Treasure of a Friend, I reflect on the nature of friendship. Who else but a friend is there . . .
to believe in your dreams,
to share your joys,
to dry your tears,
to give you hope,
to comfort your hurts,
to laugh with you,
to show you a better way,
to tell you the truth,
to encourage you.
Who else can do that for you?
That`s what friends are for.
Not long ago, I sat down and listed the types of people who add value to my life and give me energy. Here is what I wrote:
1. My family the best moments with my family are my best moments.
2. Creative people they unleash creativity within me like no others.
3. Successful people I love to hear their stories.
4. Encouraging people encouragement is like oxygen to my soul.
5. Fun people laughter always lifts my spirit.
6. Good thinkers conversations with them are my favorite things.
7. My team they always add value to me.
8. Learners interested people are interesting people.
Positive relationships take us to a higher level. They encourage us and bring out the best in us. They make us better than we otherwise would be without them. They are some of life`s greatest gifts!
Some Relationships Are Pivotal to Our Lives
Throughout a lifetime, people are in contact with thousands of people in varying levels of relationships. Most have a very limited impact on us. But a few relationships have such a tremendous impact that they change the course of our lives. They are pivotal to who we are and what we do. Relationships commonly go through four stages:
1. Surface relationships. These require no commitment from either person. Examples include the clerk who helps you at the post office, acquaintances at church or the gym, and your favorite waiter at the neighborhood restaurant. You recognize these people and they recognize you. You may even know their names, but you don`t know much beyond what you can observe from a distance.
2. Structured relationships. The next level is a little more involved than surface relationships. Structured relationships occur around routine encounters, usually at a particular place at a particular time. They often develop around a common interest or activity. The people you know from school or work, the parents at your kid`s activities, and people who share your hobbies fall into this category.
3. Secure relationships. When a surface or structured relationship grows, trust develops, and the people involved begin to want to spend time together, it starts to develop into a genuine personal relationship. This is the level where you develop friendships.
4. Solid relationships. When people in a secure relationship build on their friendship and develop complete trust and absolute confidentiality, it can go to the solid relationship level. These relationships are long term and are characterized by a mutual desire to give and serve one another. Your desire should be to cultivate the most important relationships in your life: your spouse, your best friends, and your inner circle.
As the level of relationship increases, so does the influence of people on one another. And each time people try to take the relationship higher, it creates a period of testing. During that time, the relationship can go one way or another, positive or negative. If the dynamic becomes lose-lose or win-lose, the relationship is negative. Positive relationships are always overall win-win.
Every now and then, a relationship goes beyond solid to become significant, a relationship that is pivotal to your life. I don`t think anyone can try to create one of these relationships. I call them simply God`s gift to me. I don`t deserve them€”but I do need them. People with whom I have enjoyed this kind of relationship give beyond reason and lift me up to a level I could not achieve without them.
Tom Phillippe is one such friend. Tom and I have been friends for more than thirty years. We have traveled the world together, yet we also enjoy just sitting at home talking with no other agenda. Not long ago a group of Tom`s friends got together with him to celebrate his seventieth birthday. Each of us had the chance to tell the others how Tom has affected our lives. I wrote what I wanted to say and read it to the group:
Tom has loved me unconditionally. Victor Hugo said, €œThe supreme happiness of life is being loved in spite of yourself. Tom has also loved me continually. In 1980, he encouraged me to join the Wesleyan denomination. In 1981, he began assisting me in starting leadership conferences. He gave me an opportunity to enter the business world. He managed my personal development organization when time would not allow me to do it. He financially kept my nonprofit organization alive in its beginning days. Today it trains millions of leaders internationally. One of God`s gifts to me was Tom`s friendship.
I then closed with a poem called €œYour Name Is Written €¦ at the Top of My List. Tom has changed my life forever. He has been a lifter in so many areas of my life. If you ever encounter someone who has that impact on you, fight to preserve that relationship, show your gratitude often, and give whatever you can in return.
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