if i can do it today

if i can do it today - The Best Advice So Far - Barrel of Monkeys monkeys forming a chain across a blue sky

I was a skinny kid with a big butt.

Just calling it like it is.

By skinny, I mean that I’ve been five-foot-nine since eight grade—haven’t grown an inch—and yet, when I graduated high school, I had a 26-inch waist and weighed 105 lbs.

Alas, a disproportionate amount of that sleight weight was carried in the caboose.

For a too-long stretch growing up, I ripped the tags off all my pants, picking the threads apart stitch by stitch with my teeth if need be, just to get rid of the blasted thing. Why, you ask? Well, regular clothes never fit me. And we didn’t have money for alterations. So my mother wound up getting me a “special” brand of “slacks” that, to my recollection, seemed to only make wide-wale corduroys in burnt orange or puce green. But the tag and slogan were the real kick in the pants:

 

HIMALAYAS

For Full-Seated Boys

 

Feel free to cringe aloud as a show of solidarity at the awkwardness and indignity of it all.

(And doesn’t it just figure that burnt orange wide-wale cords are now considered fashionable, all these years later?)

In the 80’s, I discovered the magical properties of mouse and a hair dryer. So at least my hair was big enough to balance out top and bottom.

Still, the voluminous do did nothing to stem the comments and “nicknames” people attributed to me on account of my backside. Basketball Buns. Rhino Rear. Or the more straightforward Big Butt.

The nicest thing anyone ever said to me about it was “Don’t worry about your big butt. Everyone likes them in New York.”

Alas, the closest I would come to New York for many years was driving through on my way to college—where the coach for my freshman gym class wouldn’t allow me to do the one-mile timed run, because my body fat percentage was less than 3% and he feared a law suit.

Bobby was one of my early college roommates. Bobby had a feathered mullet like Don Johnson. He was also the first person I’d ever met who was a serious “weight lifter.” I remember lying on my bunk one day when Bobby came back from the gym. He peeled off his string tank top and started “making muscles” in the mirror.

Turn. Flex. Make tough face. Shrug. Turn. Flex.

I liked Bobby, but this peacocking irked me. (In retrospect, I wonder if it was mostly due to the fact that I was the skinny big-butted kid and he was the movie star.) Rather than scoff, I simply asked him about it. “Hey, Bobby, I’ve seen guys flex at themselves mirrors before but never known any of them well enough to ask why. So… why?”

I’ll never forget Bobby’s response. He didn’t stop his flexing. He didn’t seem the least bit irritated, just took it in stride. “Well,” he said matter-of-factly, “you write music and compose it on your keyboard, right?”

“Right…”

“And I’ve seen you work and work on a song that sounds fine to me. But you keep tweaking it. Listening to it again. Changing this one note or volume or sound or drum hit. Because it’s your song and so you know it best. You know what you want it to sound like in every detail. Well, my body and muscles are my song. I might look fine to you. But I know what I’m looking for, whether everything is even or not, proportioned, weird looking or whatever. So I’m ‘listening’ to my body in the mirror and then I know what needs fixing when I ‘compose’ my workouts.”

It was one of the first times I remember being aware that I’d judged someone unfairly. Bobby was no “dumb jock.” He knew what he was doing and expressed it eloquently.

In fact, the way he answered that question caused me to follow up with, “Would you mind if I… went to the gym with you sometime and tried it out?”

And so, at the age of 18, I swallowed my pride and shuffled my skinny-big-butt self behind Bobby into a gym full of clanging metal and grunting and sweaty socks smell and people I wanted to be. And I picked up a dumbbell and put it down again.

Bobby was unbelievably patient with me. A good teacher. Protective even. He introduced me to people I never would have thought were like me at all. And I made many friends who all seemed to make it their personal project to get the big-butt beginner buff.

I went irregularly at first, but I stuck with it. And by the time I graduated two-and-some years later, I thought I’d really arrived when I tipped the scale at…

… 112 lbs soaking wet.

But it was a different 112 lbs somehow. My butt didn’t look quite so much like the Himalayas in context of the rest of me.

I was sold. And ever since, I’ve continued to hit the gym, pick stuff up and put it down. It’s more than a hobby; it’s a way of life. And while I still haven’t grown an inch in height, I’m now generally in a weight range considered “borderline obese” on the BMI chart, even though my body fat is still quite low.

Yay, me.

Before I lose anyone who isn’t a gym-goer, this post isn’t about working out. I use that only as an example.

There are things each of us enjoys doing, things we’ve worked hard at, invested time in, grown to love and depend on.

For me, in addition to working out, I’ve studied languages for a lifetime.

I’ve played the piano, sung, composed music and recorded original songs.

I’ve mentored hundreds of teens and young people.

I write (obviously).

Your “thing” might be gardening. Or painting. Or dance.

Playing chess. Jogging. Surfing.

I’m talking about pursuits that take time. Skill. Endurance. Dedication. Brain space.

Things we get good at. Take pride in. Things we become known for.

Maybe even things that have become integral to our identity, a core part of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Are you with me now?

Keep your “thing” in mind as you continue.

*****

When I was 25, I seemed to have all the time and energy in the world for my many “things.” All of them, all the time.

I’m no longer 25. And let’s just say… things change.

Life changes.

We change.

In my case, aside from merely adding more revolutions around the sun, I’ve also had serious accidents, injuries, illnesses—events that can knock you down hard and keep you there for a while. Still, youth and the tenacity that comes with it were on my side through many of these setbacks. And so, each time, the day would come when I fought through the mental arguments with myself, steeled my will and faced that first miserable, glorious day back.

Nonetheless, over time, each setback—and each day back—have gotten harder.

And I find certain thoughts creeping in more and more often:

How long before I can’t effectively mentor anymore because teens just see me as “some old guy”?

How long can my brain continue to learn, store and use additional information?

How long until I just can’t find the words and focus and creativity to keep writing?

How old will I be when I just physically can’t work out anymore?

How long can I realistically keep this up?

Now, I’m a positive person. This—as much as any others among “my things”—is a core part of my identity. Moreover, at the center of everything I believe, write, speak about and pass on to others is the truth that “You always  have a choice.”

An actionable part of this mind-set in my own life was the adoption of a certain mantra years ago, one which I’ve repeated to myself and others countless times, whenever those inner voices begin to whisper How long…?

“If I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow.”

Here’s how it plays out with a few of “my things”:

If I can mentor someone today, I can mentor them tomorrow.

If I can learn more Russian today, I can learn more Russian tomorrow.

If I can get through my gym workout today, I can get through it tomorrow.

In fact, if you don’t mind my getting more personal here, I even have a checklist of smaller, more specific daily tasks to which I actively apply this thinking:

If I can sing a quality high G today, I can sing it tomorrow.

If I can put on socks or shorts from standing position today, I can do it tomorrow.

If I can move from a standing position to sitting cross-legged on the floor and back to standing again without using my hands or putting my knees on the floor (I’m not kidding—I really do this every day), I can do it tomorrow.

Sounds simple, right? What’s more, it’s completely logical.

And so, by this accounting, I should still be able to do anything at 85 that I could do at 25. The only quid pro quo is that I commit to perpetually doing each thing “today.”

I suppose there are some hype motivational gurus out there who would leave it at that. Get the crowd chanting the magic words together louder and louder—If I can do it today… I can do it tomorrow!—until the arena is whipped into a frenzy. People would roar and laugh in the face of time and feel invincible.

There’s just one tiny flaw in this powerhouse prescription: none of us actually is  invincible.

You see, I left out one caveat that I sort of try to slip in fast enough that maybe I won’t notice it too awfully much:

Barring illness or injury, if I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow.”

Ah. You won’t see that addition in the social media memes or hear it at the $500-per-person seminar. It just doesn’t sing quite as well, does it? Sort of kills the vibe.

But it’s reality.

Now, if you ask me, even with the exception, it’s still a pretty powerful mind-set. But that little side note is an important one all the same.

I’m coming up on another birthday in August. And somehow—surely due to some kind of space-time-singularity-wormhole-eats-wormhole absurdity—when that day arrives, I will turn 50. Five-zero.

As I say, I’m a positive person who’s practiced certain habits—both physical and mental—for a lifetime. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am also an independent, self-motivated guy who works hard and strives for excellence.  Yet for all of that, there is still no barring illness and injury.

In fact, it’s not just illness and injury that can throw a monkey wrench into things where the “if I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow” philosophy is concerned. Life’s just not that linear. And so there are countless circumstances that could also follow that word “barring”:

Wedding planning

Pregnancy and birth

Intense study

Job transition

Death of a loved one

Breakup or divorce

The list could go on and on. Hence the famous saying:

“The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

I’m here to tell you, that’s all the more true for fifty-year-old mice. (And while I can’t yet speak from experience about older mice, I’m pretty sure they’d back me up on this line of thinking.)

So illness, injury and a host of other interruptions derail us from our “things” we once loved and were able to do with endless energy and passion.

What are we to do?

Get mad?

Sink into depression?

Reminisce in maudlin tones about “the good old days”?

Or simply relent, shrug and say, “Oh well”?

I’m not talking down to anyone. As recently as last month, as I slogged through yet another major health issue—one which preventing me from meaningfully taking part in most of “my things” for more than eight months—I found myself mired down in moments and days of each of those responses above. It’s a reality that prompted one statement from my last post, what if:

“For each of us—even if we live a charmed life—at a certain age, our bodies will begin to break down, leaving us less able to do the things we enjoy as time goes by.”

But each time, at some point, I’ve begun the journey out.

Out of anger.

Out of frustration.

Out of teary nostalgia.

I’ve scrounged around for the one little “something” I could start with, and with all the resolve I could muster, urged myself to move forward again. As Dylan Thomas put it:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

As I offer some suggestions below for getting beyond the “barring” and back to “if I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow,” please know that they’re not just platitudes. They’re lifelines that I’ve relied upon myself too many times to count. In fact, even as I write this, I’m just beginning once again to apply them in several areas where my “things” have fallen by the wayside.

For those who are only newly acquainted with me, this blog and my book, The Best Advice So Far, the advice I share as “the best… so far” isn’t some claim of how awesome and clever I am to have come up with ways to fix people. This is the best advice I myself have collected over decades, advice that has worked consistently for me in living what I find to be a happy, peaceful and purposeful life.

Before wrapping things up with my central points, I want to share with you three pieces of advice from the book, all of which came to me from my best friend’s mom, Carlotta, to whom the book is dedicated. I cover each of these in their own chapters within the book; but for now, I’m just going to drop them on you and then refer back to them further on:

The sooner you accept that life is not fair, the happier you will be.

If you’re expecting someone else to make you happy, you never will be.

You have to start from where you are, not from where you wish you were.

I want you to get the full benefit of these pieces of wisdom; so I’ve created an excerpt of the entire preface and first six chapters from The Best Advice So Far, which you can download and read for FREE HERE. Carlotta’s three gems of wisdom are the topic of chapters 4, 5 and 6.

With Carlotta’s advice in mind, let’s get to specifics.

Do Something

We waste so much time wishing things were different. Wishing doesn’t change anything.

Being angry at unfairness doesn’t change anything.

Blaming someone else or circumstances or God doesn’t change anything.

The only thing that changes anything is embracing your power of choice and taking action.

It almost doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something, however small it may seem.

The opening of Carlotta’s third piece of advice above could stand on its own: “You have to start.

Do It Now

Extending that last bit, “You have to start where you are.”

So often, we try to frame our wish as a goal by picking some future date after which we’re going to start.

New Year’s Day.

Our birthday.

The day after vacation.

But it seems to me that these postponements are often little more than license to feel good about ourselves in the short term. In fact, quite often, they are a license to do even less (or to glut ourselves with something we say we’re going to cut) up until that future date.

If something is really worth doing, it’s worth doing now.

The first step to finding the power in “If I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow”… is doing it today.

And the best day to start marking your “today” is today.

The Best Advice So Far: You have to start from where you are, not from where you wish you were.

Do It Simply

There’s this childish part of each of us, I think, that subconsciously tries to demand that life / God / the universe let us start “where we wish we were” or else we’ll boycott. But this mental sulking about the fact that you can’t do what you used to do at the level you used to do it accomplishes nothing. The only person it hurts is you.

And unless my basic math skills fail me, any percentage of something…  is more than zero percent of everything.

With that in mind, think about something you want to get back to doing (or start doing in the first place).

Then pick something you know without a doubt you can do right now—and do it.

If you used to work out and be able to bench press 315 lbs, I’ll tell you right now… that is a stupid goal to set for yourself if you want to succeed in getting back to the gym.

If you played the piano when you were younger and are remembering how good it felt to play at your senior recital, ordering the sheet music for Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor is setting you up for failure before your purchase even arrives.

Instead, by way of example, if I want to get back to writing after a dry spell, I might open a Word doc, title it (even if that title is “new post” or “next chapter”) and save it on my desktop where I can see it.

In May of last year, I was bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t had any time to study world languages—something I used to do regularly and in depth for decades. Not liking the feeling of kvetching, I downloaded a free app called DuoLingo and set it up to do five mini-lessons in Russian and French daily. This made me feel a little embarrased, to be honest. The part of me that wanted to demand being able to start “where I wish I were” longed to crack open the 1000-page grammars. But at least the app and its mini-lessons were something—something I knew I could do in 10 or 12 minutes a day. I didn’t try to test out of rudimentary skills I probably already knew. I started from the beginning.

In May of this year, the little green Duo owl congratulated me for having done my lessons every single day without fail for an entire year.


That’s over 4200 minutes of regular language study.

Seventy hours.

The equivalent of more than two university semesters’ worth of language study.

All accomplished in easy, progressive, 10-minute bursts.

However, that was only the start. Within a month of consistently using the app, I found myself adding three more language apps which I now also use with consistency. And my floor and night stand are once again littered with those 1000-page grammars.

I started simply. And before I knew it, it had naturally built upon itself. Now, just a year later, I’m officially back on track.

Allow me to tell you one more quick story here.

You may have heard of Rosalie Bradford. Up until 2013, she held the World Record as the heaviest woman, weighing over 1200 lbs at one point. She was immobile, able only to lie in her bed for more than eight years. Depressed. Suicidal.

Then, one day, Richard Simmons sent her an encouraging note, some free exercise videos and a diet plan. But what could she do with those things?

“I clapped my hands along with the videos,” Rosalie explained. “It was the only movement I could do.”

Wonder of wonders, Rosalie also holds the current World Record for most weight loss: over 950 lbs in all.

The important things were that she started.  She started “today.” And she started simply.

Very simply.

Do It Daily

“If I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow” implies that success is based on doing a thing every “today.” In other words, it stands to reason that in order for something to become a new habit, it needs to be done habitually.

The little green owl from my DuoLingo app shows up daily, both in the app itself and via a friendly email, to hoot at me and remind me to do my lessons. I think this is a large part of why, no matter what else was going on in life (including sickness), I’ve managed to turn that goal into an unbroken streak for over a year now.

Just a week ago, I found myself thinking more about why I’d stuck with the language lessons when there were a host of other little things I’ve been wanting to get back to doing but hadn’t. I concluded that it was that daily reminder and record of my progress (as much as it irked me to have to admit that I’m human and needed it). So I did a quick search for a general goal-tracking app and came up with HabitHub. It allows you to set up three daily goals absolutely free, or unlimited goals for a one-time fee of $2.99. It also allows you to set how often you want to be nagged (i.e., “Did you do it yet? Huh? HUH?”) each day and the period during which you want those reminders—anywhere from one reminder a day to hourly notices until you mark the task as “DONE.”

Day one, I added doing a certain number of push-ups and a short abs routine. Lo and behold, that reminder—and the fact that I knew it was going to keep track of my streak—had me on the floor within minutes of setting up the app.

The push-ups took me 90 seconds. The abs routine took about six minutes. So seven-and-a-half minutes total. All I could think was, Why didn’t I do this sooner?

Since then, I figured I’d ad my DuoLingo to the HabitHub app (something I knew I was already succeeding with) as well as daily writing (just 250 words) and using my forearm grips (25 each hand).

In each case, the “dumb” little reminder has been enough to get me to do these things daily since. And within a few days, I’m already meeting or exceeding these daily goals.

Do It On Record

Nearly any habit expert will agree that telling someone about your goals helps you stick with them. So tell someone. Post it on social media. It’s good pressure.

Second, while modern technology allows us to set daily reminders for ourselves, I absolutely believe that the fact that my apps force me to mark things as “DONE” (or to have it marked as “NOT DONE” if I don’t)—and that they keep track of what I did or didn’t do—has played a huge part in my success rate. It’s almost silly, because the only person who really knows whether I did a thing or not is me. But it’s still enough for me, somehow, to see my success or failure in a tangible way.

Maybe you’re not an app person. Doesn’t matter. The concept is an old one. Try making a list and crossing things off as you complete them. Or write shorthand on every block of your calendar and check off each day’s goal with a colored marker when you’ve accomplished it. We all like rewards. Even something as tiny as a cross-out or checked box can go a long way to bolstering our pride and sense of achievement.

*****

Again, we can’t “bar illness or injury.” We can’t stop life or age from happening. But we can continue to make small choices that lead to happier and more purposeful living.

The Best Advice So Far: "If I can do it today, I can do it tomorrow."

Why not make today your  next “today”?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Duo the Owl is hooting at me that it’s time for French…


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