Provision #826: First Things First

Laser Provision

What are your top priorities in life and do you give them the attention they deserve? My struggles with epilepsy over the past 12+ months, reflected upon more-or-less weekly since the end of November 2012, in my current Provision series, Seized by Life, has brought those questions to the fore in my life. How do they sit with you? Today’s Provision, reprinting a powerful commencement speech given last June at the Stanford University School of Education, helps to frame those questions and to challenge deep thinking. I encourage you to read on and to ponder your own priorities in life.

LifeTrek Provision

This has been a crazy season of our lives, with many steps backward and forward. Sometimes, the backward steps have the upper hand. Other times, the forward steps take the lead. Of late, it seems to be a draw, and that’s a bit discouraging given how long this has been going on. We may even be sliding a bit backwards. Who would have thought it possible! But that’s where we find ourselves and so we press on, healing as we go, to the best of our ability.

One thing this experience has done for me, my wife, my immediate family, as well as my extended community of family and friends, is that has helped us to put and keep things in perspective. As I have written about before in my current Provision series, Seized by Life, the things that matter most to me now are the things that not only extend the length of our days and, more importantly, that enhance the quality of our lives. Everything else pales in significance. The next time you find yourself “crying over spilt milk”, I would encourage you to keep that in mind.

Today’s Provision will help you to do that. It is truly a lovely story included in the commencement address given by Edwin M. Bridges to the Stanford University School of Education on June 17, 2012: a little more than 2 months before I had that first, fateful seizure in August. Dr. Bridges joined the Stanford faculty in 1974 and retired in 1999. I encourage you, as you read it through, to think about how it may speak to your own life direction, priorities, and work. The bottom line: don’t forget to put first things first.

It is an honor and a privilege to be your commencement speaker. After accepting the invitation from Dean Steele, I consulted my oldest and one of my dearest friends. Since he had served as the president of four Canadian universities and the Chairman of the Board for a fifth university, I knew that he had listened to many commencement speeches and delivered a few as well.

Over a Guinness one afternoon, I said, “George, what advice could you give me?” He paused, leaned over, and spoke softly and slowly. Here is what he said: “A commencement speaker is like a body at an Irish wake; the organizers need you for the party and don’t expect you to say much.” I intend to follow my friend’s advice and talk briefly about how my life was changed following a taxi cab ride I took more than 40 years ago.

Before recounting this story, however, I would like to preface my remarks with a few details that don’t appear in my bio or curriculum vitae. They provide a context for the important lesson I learned during my taxi cab ride. Elliott Eisner speaks of career planning as an oxymoron. Others refer to professional careers as a happenstance or just plain luck. They are right as far as I am concerned.

To these cogent observations, I would add the words spoken nearly four decades ago by one of my three sons, then 6. At the dinner table one evening, my son said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a baseball player. What do you want to be when you grow down?” How prophetic that question was. Since retiring, my height has shrunk 2 inches, and I am still trying to figure out what I want to do next. My professional career certainly had a life of its own.

As a 16-year-old, I walked across the stage at Hannibal High School in Hannibal, Missouri, to receive my high school diploma. Having received first place in the state for a news story I had written for the school newspaper, which I edited, I planned to enter the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri and become a reporter.

To offset my expenses, I worked one summer in a shoe factory and another summer as a Gandy Dancer, an occupation immortalized in a song titled, “The Gandy Dancers Ball.” Believe me, it was no ball. During the day we laid railroad tracks in the hot Missouri sun, drove spikes, shoveled gravel, and set railroad ties. At night we slept in boxcars on a railroad siding. The closest I came to journalism school was to marry one of its graduates, Marjorie Anne Pollock, who became the reporter in the family. Next month we celebrate our 58th wedding anniversary and a wonderful life together. That was one of the best choices of my life.

Now let me turn briefly to that fateful taxi cab ride and the lesson I learned that had a profound effect on my life. The lesson I learned concerns choices. Every choice involves a sacrifice, for oneself and for others. That statement is hardly profound; however, its consequences are. Often, we are so blinded by our wants and desires that we ignore the sacrifices inherent in the choices we make. My work in the shoe factory and later as a Gandy Dancer led me to appreciate that everyone, regardless of their station in life, has wisdom to share if you bother to listen.

Many years ago I flagged a cab in Chicago and began a conversation with the cabby. Here is what he said that influenced my life: “I wanted a nice home for my family in the city, a summer home on Lake Michigan, and a car for my wife and each of my two children. To afford these, I needed to work two full-time jobs. And, indeed, we had the nice home, the summer home on Lake Michigan and cars for everyone in the family. But my wife divorced me, and my children would have nothing to do with me. By working two jobs, I got what I wanted, but I lost what I had. What I had was more important to me than what I wanted.”

This cabby, fine man that he was, was so blinded by his desires that he failed to consider the sacrifices for his family and for himself. Sadly in my experience, this is an all-too-common mistake. Equally sad: if I had been riding with the same cabby today, I probably would not have learned this valuable lesson. Instead of listening to him, I would have been talking on my cell phone, surfing the Internet with my smart phone, texting, or tweeting.

In light of this cabby’s story, let me ask each of you in the audience and on stage two questions: 1.”What are the three or four most important things in your life?” and 2.”What sacrifices are you unwilling to make no matter what the choice or opportunity is?” These are tougher questions to answer than you might think and even more difficult to act upon. I know from my own experience.

Not too long after the cabby told me his story, I created a mental list of the things in life that meant the most to me. This list exerted a major influence over my choices for the rest of my professional career: 1. my family; 2. my students, including teaching and advising; and 3. my research and writing on practical problems, no matter how controversial they were or whether they were valued by members of the academy.

With the benefit of hindsight, I should have added a fourth – my own personal health. With all due respect for my former deans: annual reports and faculty meetings did not make my list. Thanks to that cabby, I can enter the checkout line when my time comes with few regrets. I am not estranged from my four children. My wife and I like, as well as love, each other. I have students who continue to care about me as I continue to care about them. I also have several really close friends, the kind who feel comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings with each other.

Strangely, the more I paid attention to the sacrifices and set aside my desire for professional recognition, the more recognition I received. At every Irish wake, it is customary to offer a toast to the body. Instead, let me offer a toast to this year’s graduates. May you experience success, enjoy your journey, and end your life with few regrets because you did not let your desires blind you to the important sacrifices inherent in your choices.

Coaching Inquiries: How would you describe your life priorities? Why have you made them what they are today? Are you happy with them? How might they be changed to better reflect your true self, to better express your true values, and to better contribute to the wellbeing of those you love and of the world at large?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.


Your weekly Provisions are always thoughtful and thought-provoking. Your latest message on the futility of controlling our lives is particularly insightful. Your revision of the “Serenity Prayer” is quite helpful in illustrating how to redirect one’s energy in productive ways. You delivered a whole sermon in a few paragraphs. My best wishes as you work and heal, love and live.


Wow, since your comeback these weekly Provisions are better than ever! There is a depth of insight now that touches very deeply. Keep it up Brother! I can empathize with your sense of confinement, being unable to drive a car. Thank you for your openness in sharing that. It’s no doubt worse because the country you live in requires you to use a car to go practically anywhere. By contrast, here in Scotland one could live a lifetime without an automobile and never miss it.

How right you are that our sense of control in life is utter illusion, and how fortunate you are to find that out now, before all of us finally realize that truth on our deathbeds. Control is the stock-in-trade of the false self, the ego identity that we spend most of our lives carefully grooming. Deep down the ego is very insecure, so it hides behind the fantasy of control: control of one’s destiny, control of one’s surroundings, control of other people, control of God.

Our task in the second half of life is to let go of the illusion of control, to discover that the ego-created false self is itself sheer illusion. When we do, we can awaken to our True Self, that Divine Reality which was indwelling in us all along, the Self in whom we live, move and have our being for all eternity. Hardly anyone experiences this enlightenment without pain, without some kind of unwelcome experience, some kind of deep and upsetting loss that so shatters the business-as-usual of our lives that we are finally able to see through the illusion of the false self.

For some the precipitating event is the loss of a career, for others it’s a serious financial downturn, and for others it might be a painful separation from someone much loved. Perhaps, for you, it was this totally unheard of seizure disorder that came out of nowhere. What you are experiencing now is a precious gift from God, and how generous you are to share that gift with all of us! May we not fail to learn what you have to teach us, and to keep these lessons close to our hearts long after your seizures have passed and your health is fully restored.


I love your interpretation of the Serenity Prayer! What a lesson for all of us who think we have to always be in control. I pray for you daily!


I appreciate your insight about inviting and being open to the Spirit of wisdom. I find my need to control is often challenged by the gift of the spirit instructing patience and direction to an open heart. My present journey is calling me to listen to the spirit as it speaks gently from within. I try to accept my journey and to be open to the possibilities that each moment presents. I sense the phrase “being able to embrace sadness and joy at the same time, and knowing that it is good” is my recent challenge. And it is still peace, not that I create. It is the peace you talk about from wisdom knocking at the door of our heart. Peace be with you. 


May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching Internationalwww.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformationwww.SchoolTransformation.com
Past President, International Association of Coachingwww.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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