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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Above: The Red Sea at Eilat, Israel. See the Exploring Israel blog.

The story beneath the story

Somewhere over the Atlantic ocean on Friday night, after watching two movies and being saved from a terrible special-order dinner (the Alitalia flight crew thankfully found a 'regular' meal for me), I started reading Michael Gerber's E-Myth Mastery, a book I purchased just before leaving on vacation.

I skimmed through most of the book -- Gerber advocates systematization and I have previously observed there are both strengths and limits in his approaches -- but stopped to read closely a few passages where he put aside his general observations, or dialogues with his imaginary "Sarah" business owner, and talked about himself, and his real-life experiences.

Most tellingly, he described the crisis he encountered when he supposedly was achieving great success and recognition through his first E-Myth book; when he had set up a franchise organization to market his business consultancy services. After returning from a vacation, when he thought all was well, he discovered the business actually was in deep crisis -- with angry franchisees, angry creditors, and self-serving employees and consultants sucking the life-blood out of his business.

This story, of course, he can only share safely now -- I'm sure when the crisis was 'live' the last thing he wanted to do was let the world know all was indeed not very well -- in fact, he was living through hell. He obviously survived; largely with the help and loyalty of his wife, and through hard work and determination rebuilt his business. This included giving up the franchise concept and bringing the operation back in-house. (This is an interesting point, because Gerber says he obtained his greatest discovery at a MacDonald's franchise; when he saw how systems and organization -- the franchise model -- represented the change that many struggling business owners need to emulate -- they need to put processes and systems in place so that the system, not an individual employee (or group of employees) controls the business destiny.)

Gerber's second insightful remark occurs near the book's beginning. I'm going to stretch the fair comment rules under copyright and quote extensively (then send you over to to buy the book, if you wish). In his early 30s, Gerber had moved from selling encyclopedias to insurance.

"Some time after I said yes to the elegant,white-haired elder of insurance and no to the gentleman in the black shirt and checked jacket, I found myself sitting alone at a counter in a coffee shop somewhere on Webster Street in San Francisco, early on a sun-drenched crystal clear morning, trying to boost myself up to make a warm insurance call at Presbyterian Hospital next door on a doctor who had been referred to me, having a third cup of coffee to get my nerve up, to bolster my complete lack of self-confidence, finding myself in the strange early-morning world of insurance sales rather than the early night of encyclopedia sales that I had grown so perversely accustomed to. Still on straight commission, more visible at this time of day, unable to hide in poetry or my saxophone, and suddenly, just like that, it happened. One moment I was sitting on the stool at the counter and the very next I woke up with my face pressed to the cold hard concrete floor of the coffee shop looking at something that seemed like a guy's shoes planted directly in front out of my face.

I had passed out!


And I came face-to-face with that place that I have found myself in too many times in my life where I've discovered, to my surprise, that a choice I thought that I had already made was really a step towards a collision with the fact that I had not made a choice at all. I had simply done what was apparently next. The choice was still there to be made. And if I made it, the right decision, my life was never going to be the same again.

And that's when the blessed moment occurred.

Right there on the floor, I came to the realization that I was marking time, that I was living in a closet of my own making, a small, tight, breathless closet called My Life, and I had closed the door behind me, thinking at the time that I was living in the real world.

I was living in a closet and I had just run out of air!

And suddenly, G0d opened the door!

That's what it felt like to me. God opened the door and I was called.

Right there on t he cold floor in a coffee shop in San Francisco, I was blessed. First, I wasn't and then I was. Blam. Just like that.

And that's what set me on fire.

In one moment there was no fire, and in the next moment there was.

In one moment I was burned out, and in the next I was burning up.

They told me at the hospital next door that I had had a panic attack.

Get some rest, they told me.

I didn't go home to rest. I didn't need to.

I sold the doctor some insurance instead."

A few paragraphs later, Gerber observes:

"I had the good fortune not too long ago to talk with a rabbi who had read one of my books and was inspired by it. We talked about Judaism and miracles. He offered many, many examples of how the miracles spoken of in the Bible are not just biblical in nature, but happening around us every single day. Our problem, he said, is we just don't see them for what they are. He went on to add, "If the Messiah were to appear on 42nd Street in New York City tomorrow in the plain light of day, it's probable that only a handful of people would even see him! And everyone else would think he was mad!" The rabbi said to me, "I have come to think that the Red Sea has parted for each and every one of us in our own singularly unique and miraculously unpredictable way, over and over again. The tragedy is we don't see it."

"If we saw it, our lives would be transformed."

Miracles happen, the blessing comes, the Red Sea parts, but then it's up to us. Are we ready to see it, are we moved by what just happened, are we open to the possibility, are we ready to catch on fire?

If not -- and my life has shown me in countless, tragic ways how often I'm not open, not available, not willing to let go and jump -- nothing will happen except more of the same. We'll continue to sell our metaphorical encyclopedias. We'll just drag our weary butts up off the coffeehouse floor and go back to doing it, doing it, doing it some more. the insufferably walking dead, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, in a small, airless closet we call Life.

Being available, that changes everything."
Wow. This stuff caught me cold, in part because just a few week's earlier, I had been IN the Red Sea -- in the underwater viewing area at the Eilat marine park, marveling at the biodiversity at that border point between Egypt, Jordan and Israel.

I had decided last December to take the trip to Israel even though we were in a state of business crisis -- just digging out -- and (not surprisingly!) things didn't work 100 per cent perfectly while we were exploring the Negev and Israeli south.

Like Michael Gerber, I've had my own life-changing insights; one when I was 26, in Africa and learned that the greatest constraint in life is fear, often unfounded; the other, 12 years later, at 38, when I realized I would need to be responsible for my own life do what needs to be done to make it right. In both situations -- but especially that first flash of insight, in Tjoloto, Zimbabwe, on Good Friday in 1980 -- I also appreciated the greatness of God and recognized the combination of humility and strength in the Greater Power.

Gerber reminds me that we are truly responsible for our own destiny; we can seek the advice and counsel of others, we can read, we can learn, we can apply common-sense principals and approaches to create new experiences and dreams, but ultimately we need to think for ourselves, and have the courage to act on our convictions, even when they seem uncertain, and things are not 100 per cent perfect.

Think for yourself. Dare to dream. Be prudent, responsible, rational, and thoughtful. Nevertheless, most importantly, don't be afraid to take risks and experience the things you really want in life. You may not be able to see the parting of the Red Sea, but you may be able to dip your toes into the Red Sea itself.

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