Be a Swan with this Easy Acronym

Every day is a new chance to practice gliding through life with the serenity of a swan. So when I find myself flapping about like a chicken with its head cut off, I picture a swan peacefully floating on a placid lake. Then I think of my acronym for SWAN. These four little words help me quickly adjust my attitude and face the world with a modicum of elegance and grace.


Simple. Confucius said, “Life is really simple, but we insist on making complicated.” We humans are infamous for making mountains out of molehills. There are few things in life that wouldn’t benefit from a little more simplicity. From our possessions to our words to our busy-ness, simplicity is the secret to our serenity and wellbeing. 

Wise. Being wise means showing good judgment. Some synonyms include being prudent, discerning and insightful. A quick look around may indicate these qualities have fallen out of fashion, making them ever more precious. Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” 

Accountable. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we lived in a world where people accepted responsibility for their own behavior? When we are accountable, we stop being deceitful, blaming others and making excuses. Accountability reminds us, despite the behavior of others, we can always be in control of our own actions and reactions.

Nice. Sometimes it seems people are just too busy to be nice. It only takes a second to smile, hold the door, say thank you, or ask about someone’s day. Our minor irritations are no reason not to be nice. Billionaire Sir John Marks Templeton said, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.” 

We routinely find ourselves in situations that offer the opportunity to be a swan. Recently, I was headed to the grocery store when the skies opened into a pouring rain. A driver ran a stop sign causing me to slam on my breaks. My purse flew off the seat spilling the contents on the floor.

As I began to pull into a parking spot, I had to swerve to avoid another driver going the wrong direction. To my surprise, she was angrily cursing at me out her window. My cell phone slid deep under the passenger’s seat. I practically stood on my head while moving the seat forward and backwards trying to grab the phone that was just out of reach.

By the time I retrieved it, I was cold and wet. Muttering to myself and ready to stomp into the store feeling anything but serene, I paused and thought about the swan acronym.

Wouldn’t we all be a little better off if we embraced the virtues of simplicity, wisdom, accountability and kindness? Such an easy way to peacefully glide through life like a simple swan. §

Memento Mori Makes a Great Birthday Gift

I celebrated my birthday this week. While I blew out the candles and toasted to my good health, I had in mind these two words: memento mori. In English, the Latin phrase means, “Remember death.”

Now, before you think I’m the world’s biggest party pooper, hear me out. The point of memento mori is not to be maudlin or morbid. On the contrary, it is meant to provide inspiration to embrace every day as a gift not to be wasted or taken for granted.

The inevitability of death has been recognized throughout the history of the world. It is a central theme in religion, art, architecture, music and literature. The phrase memento mori can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Socrates said the proper practice of philosophy “is about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

I always knew I wouldn’t live forever, but as I rounded the sun for the sixty-first time, it really started to sink in. Like Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I do not want to come to the end of life and discover I had not lived.”

Contemplating my mortality urges me to take Thoreau’s advice to simplify, simplify, simplify! The best place to start is with our physical possessions. Evangelist Billy Graham said, “I never saw a U-Haul behind a hearse.” What a good reminder that, in the end, we won’t be taking anything with us.

However, I’ve found stuff isn’t the most difficult thing to simplify, nor is it the only thing that fritters life away. Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” I shudder at the thought of how much time I’ve wasted doing things that had no real purpose, saying things that had no real meaning, and thinking about things I couldn’t control.

Memento mori reminds us our days are indeed numbered and helps us get crystal clear about our priorities. We can start with our possessions, but from there we must examine our behavior, pursuits, relationships, finances and attitude to see if they reflect what is truly important to us.

This constant awareness that life is short leads to living more intentionally. Intentional living means building your life around your core beliefs and values. Instead of acting on impulse, cruising on auto-pilot, following the herd or trying to impress, our daily life becomes more purposeful and authentic.

The best gift we can give ourselves is permission to spend the rest of our lives living each day as if it’s our last. This doesn’t mean shouting, “YOLO!” while doing something stupid or irresponsible. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Seneca said, “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let’s postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day.”

I’m excited to start the rest of my life with memento mori tatooed on my consciousness. To remember I must die inspires me to remember I must live. After all, as Thoreau reminded us, “Living is so dear.”

Birthday Wishes and Wisdom

Cue the balloons and confetti because tomorrow is my birthday. Actually, for me, birthdays are less about celebrating than they are about reflecting and improving. (I know, I’m a real party animal.) In my lifetime, I’ve spent way too much time worrying about things I can’t do anything about. So here’s my birthday wish: the wisdom to focus on what is in my control.

These familiar words are from The Serenity Prayer, “God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Reinhold Niebuhr is credited for writing it in 1943, but the idea goes back much further.

Epictetus, a former slave turned Stoic philosopher, wrote during the second century, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions – in short, whatever is our own doing.”

An 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar wrote, “If there’s a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?”

A 1695 Mother Goose nursery rhyme expresses the sentiment more lightly, “For every ailment under the sun there is a remedy or there is none. If there be one, try to find it; if there be none, never mind it.”

In 1801, Friedrich Schiller wrote, “Blessed is he who has learned to bear what he cannot change, and to give up with dignity what he cannot save.”

Just this week, Ryan Holiday wrote on a similar theme in his email Meditations on Strategy and Life. He suggests one of the most important questions we can ask ourselves, “Is this in my control?” He writes, “Making this distinction will make you happier, make you stronger and make you more successful if only because it concentrates your resources in the places where they matter.”

It seems humanity has long-acknowledged the simple wisdom of heeding what is in our control and letting go of the rest. Tomorrow, when the smoke clears from 61 birthday candles, I’m claiming that wisdom as mine.

Write Your Own Mission Statement

I’ve been adrift. Like a battered old rowboat, I allowed myself to be tossed about on the sea of life. I needed an anchor and something to remind me what floats my boat. With the help of several resources, I wrote a personal mission statement.

I am nothing short of shocked how a simple mission statement is helping me do everything with more confidence, clarity and inner peace. Every decision is easier. Life is easier.

Writing an effective mission statement can take time, but Laurie Beth Jones offers a helpful formula in her book The Path: Creating a Mission Statement for Work and for Life. This is certainly not the only way to write a mission statement, but it is an excellent way to get started. The idea is to fill in the missing blanks to create your personal mission statement.

My mission is to
_______________, ______________, and _________________
(your three verbs)

(your core value or values)
for (to or with)
(the group/cause which most moves/excites you)

Let’s look at an example. A woman Jones worked with initially said her mission was to raise a happy family. Sounds good, right? Wrong. This mission requires her family members to be happy, which isn’t within the woman’s control. The only thing she controls are her own values and actions. While a mission should benefit others, the hard truth is that the people in her family could leave her. If that should happen, she can and must continue with her mission.

Using Jones’ formula, here’s how that dedicated mom re-wrote her mission statement: My mission is to create, nurture, and maintain an environment of growth, challenge, and unlimited potential for all those around me.

Now it’s your turn. First, consider what is most important to you. These are your core values. Next, consider the talents you have that could help you move your core values into action. These are your verbs. Now, think about who will benefit from your mission and why. Finally, put it all together to write your mission statement. Shuffle it around, sleep on it, keep at it until it feels right.

Your personal mission statement should be broad enough to help you create a clear vision for all areas of life. When changing tides, unsettling ripples or tsumani-sized waves rock your boat, your personal mission statement allows you to stay steady, strong and unsinkable.

Fall Leaves Show How to Let Go

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This time every year, nature gently teaches us the beauty of letting go. Colorful falling leaves release their hold and dance and twirl in the autumn wind, gracefully showing us the way.

There’s a scientific reason deciduous trees let go of their leaves in winter. It’s a process called abscission. Rather than fruitlessly expend energy during the harsh winter months, trees shed their leaves to conserve resources. The process helps trees retain water and keeps them from blowing over. As a bonus, fallen leaves add replenishing nutrients to the soil. In a beautiful act of self-preservation, trees let go in order to stay healthy and alive.

The trees’ annual decluttering process might initially inspire us to let go of a few  material things ourselves. Broken things. Meaningless things. Uncomfortable things. Too many things. Perfectly wonderful things that no longer suit our current season of life.

It’s no easy task to rake all our physical clutter into a big pile like so many fallen leaves. Harder still is letting go of intangible things that clutter our hearts and minds. As we watch the autumn leaves cut loose and fly, what can we let go of to help protect, replenish and nurture the very root of our being?

Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” We convince ourselves we must tightly cling to old memories, thoughts, and behaviors, and we spend precious energy feeding and keeping them alive. Letting them go frees us to rest, grow stronger and be happier.

If we were sitting in my classroom, I might assign us to draw a tree with falling leaves. On each leaf, we’d write something we’re ready to let go. Those little leaves would probably hold some very big words like worry, resentment, guilt, hurt and anger. What would you write on a leaf you are finally ready to let drift away?

Poet May Sarton wrote, “I think of trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep. Imitate the trees.” Autumn is such a special time of year. Let’s follow its lead and graciously let go in preparation for a golden season of gratitude and abundance. §

“What would you write on a leaf you are finally ready to let drift away?”

Quality Over Quantity

The famous oil painting known as Girl with a Pearl Earring, by Johannes Vermeer, features a young woman wearing an exquisite earring. Her bare face and turban-wrapped hair bring focus to the pearl earring and the simple beauty and elegance of the girl. 


I think of my own jewelry box and note the painting is not named Girl with a Bunch of Cheap Earrings. My jewelry is just one area that I could apply the concept of quality over quantity.

Quality can be defined as the standard of something as measured against other things of its kind. For example, one could indulge in a single luscious Godiva chocolate or a whole bag of check-out counter candy. Quality over quantity means choosing better over more. 

We don’t live in a time that supports this lifestyle. Fast food means we can eat a big greasy meal for less than the tip at a sit-down restaurant. Fast fashion means we can own ten trendy shirts for the cost of one well-made one. We can get the kids a cartful of plastic toys from the dollar aisle, or one classic board game. 

There are many good reasons to adopt the idea of quality over quantity. It reduces clutter. It’s more sustainable for the planet. It saves money in the long run. It honors fine craftsmanship and design. It helps us gain more clarity about our personal preferences. 

I’ve long understood the wisdom of quality over quantity, but glancing around my bathroom, I see evidence to the contrary. There’s a shelf of half-empty bottles of hair and skin products that didn’t live up to their promise. There’s a drawerful of makeup that might look good on someone else. There’s a basket of gloppy nail polish I’ll never wear.

I’m committed to eliminating the clutter, forgiving myself for the waste, and finding the best version of the products I truly want and need. Here are just a few areas where we can more consciously apply the concept of quality over quantity: 

  • clothing and accessories
  • food and pantry items
  • furnishings and home decor
  • cleaning products
  • books and magazines
  • toys and games

Quality over quantity doesn’t just apply to material things. We can think about quality when choosing our activities, our entertainment, our relationships, our leaders, our conversations, and even our thoughts.

I recently read an anonymous quote that made me sad. It said, “People who aren’t used to quality always chase quantity.” Quality has become a unicorn. It does not seem to rank high on our collective list of values, but we can reclaim it. We can return to the elegance of expecting and choosing quality over quantity. §

“It is quality rather than quantity that matters.”

A Simple Story about Mangos

As I shuffle through the mail, I casually chat with my husband about things on my list of home improvements. Among the bills and catalogs is a familiar envelope that makes me stop and flush with embarrassment. It’s a letter from Lukas, an eight-year-old boy who lives in a village outside of Entebbe, Uganda, one of the poorest nations in the world.

The envelope includes a sweet picture drawn by Lukas and a letter written in English by a translator. Lukas asks how we are doing and tells us more about himself. We know the names of his brothers and sisters. He likes to read and play soccer with his friends, and his favorite color is green.

Reading the letter out loud, my voice cracks, “Lukas also adds that he appreciates so much his birthday gift of 86,350. With that money, he bought a mattress and a piece of candy.”

We forgot his annual birthday gift of $25 had been automatically withdrawn from our bank account. Lukas didn’t replace an old mattress with a new one. He bought the first mattress he’d ever had to go with the mosquito netting he bought with last year’s Christmas gift.

The little boy’s grateful words tangibly hang in the air next to my greedy ones. The ones about all the things I need in order to sit squarely in the lap of happiness – things Lukas has no idea even exist.

The next part of the letter is something neither Mike nor I can get out of our minds – something incredibly humbling and beautiful. It reads, “The thing that makes Lukas happiest is climbing trees for mangos.” My heart feels simultaneously heavier and lighter.

We love mangos. We buy them at the grocery store when they’re available. Mike is good at picking a perfectly ripe one. He slices through the yellow-red skin and makes neat cuts in the bright yellow flesh to release cubes of the tropical treat. Biting into the fruit brings a burst of floral sweetness with a slight hint of pine. If eaten mindfully, it’s heaven.

I imagine our young friend nimbly skittering up a mango tree in his village. His bright brown eyes spy a ripe fruit. His tiny hand picks it off the limb and stuffs it in his pocket. He climbs back down the tree, laughing. He sits on the ground and leans against the base of the tree. Pulling the golden prize from his pocket, he takes a big bite, juice dripping down his smiling face.

When we find ourselves getting caught up in our first world delusions and disillusions, Mike and I need only say one simple word. Mangos.§