Biography - Part 3

Connections To Positive Psychology

In 2007, I learned from reading Dr. Martin Seligman’s book, “Learned Optimism” that Mom had taught me to be an optimist. Of the three “origins of optimism”, I come relatively blessed:

  1. Mother’s explanatory style – if the mother’s style is permanent, pervasive and personal about bad events, the children learn to be pessimistic and vice versa
  2. Adult criticism – adults can be powerful “wizards”, both for the good and bad. When I was a wee lad, I was sitting on a log in a saw horse while my brother Al who was ten years older was cutting the log into stove lengths with a hand “buck” saw. A family friend commented to me, “You are quite a helper, aren’t you?” And that is something I have said to myself many times as a kid (“positive self-talk”), and what I grew up to be.
  3. Child’s Life Crises – we had things tough, to the point my sister would say, “I’m flat busted! And I don’t have any money either.” But, we really didn’t have crises, and others around us were not all that much better off than we were.
So I was one of the lucky ones, when it comes to learning optimism and willingness to try new things, which has come in handy when the events in my life called for me to be resilient.
Jim and me 
Heading to church 
Confirmation

My Meandering Career – What’s It All About?

After the eighth grade, my vocation agricultural teacher, Dick Breyer, took me under his wing, and gave me great opportunities in vocational agriculture, Future Farmers of America and even co-signed notes for me to invest in various farm projects. Under his tutelage, I won a soil judging contest at the FFA Regional Leadership Training camp which took me to Michigan State as a ninth grader. I grew to believe that my calling was to be in agriculture, to provide the food and fiber for the world. That led to my Agricultural Economics undergraduate degree at Michigan State University and graduate program at University of California, Davis, and back to Michigan to work for the agricultural cooperative. I then went to law school at Stanford to be a better agricultural business manager.

That turned out to be a mistake, as I became overqualified and sort of a fish out of water in agriculture. I settled in WenatcheeWashington after law school, in the private practice of law, among the numerous agricultural cooperatives there in the fruit growing area, hoping to find an opening as a cooperative manager as I got to know people. It never happened, and in the meantime, I got involved in politics, and had some wonderful experiences in OlympiaWashington performing several assignments with the Washington State Legislature, Attorney General’s Office and Governor’s Office that my mentors needed done. That too was a mistake, as my resume became so chopped up that it looked like I could not hold a job. Nonetheless, I gained skills that have served me well since.

In 1989, I finally got the opportunity I was looking for, by becoming the Manager of the Cherry Division of the cooperative in Michigan I worked for before I went to Law School, Unfortunately, I recommended the closure of the division two years later, and then in the next 6 years worked for three other agricultural companies, two of which went belly-up as well due to volatile agricultural commodity markets. Hmmm, time to rethink my career plan.

After 17 months of running an Internet company out of my home, I decided I needed to do something else, something more stable. That is when I became the Business Manager for Adrian Public Schools. As has been my norm, I tried to learn as much as I could in this role, to maximize my performance so I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Educational Administration at Michigan State. Later, I served as Business Manager at Harper Woods Schools, and then as a mortgage loan officer in 2009 until I decided to launch the campaign for State Representative in Michigan in 2010.

Through my many ventures, I have sought to make a positive impact in people’s lives like Dick Breyer did for me. His actions instilled in me a need to make a contribution to others.

Powerful Personal Development Influences in My Life

In 1988, I participated in a very powerful personal development program, delivered by Context Trainings. During the first part, the Pursuit of Excellence, one of the modules was designed for us to identify our “ineffectives” – the “truths”, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that got in the way of us getting what we want to achieve. One of the things I identified was outbursts of yelling in anger at my youngest son, Kirk, then age 10. I wasn’t physically abusive, but he sure could pull my chain. I realized that what I really wanted with Kirk was a closer relationship, and that my reacting to his behavior was creating the opposite of what I wanted.

The Power of Awareness
One of the concepts we were taught was that we have a choice of how we act in response to a stimulus - that we don’t have to follow the ingrained habits or patterns of the past. We can choose a different action, if that different action is more likely to achieve what we want. The wonderful result of this learning was that several times after that awareness raising, I could feel the old anger rising with Kirk, but chose a more productive response than yelling (except once, yes, I slipped once). The result was a closer relationship between us over time. Wow, just being aware was enough to cause a change. This is just one example of how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be successful, but this was without therapy.

After the Pursuit of Excellence, I attended the four and a half day retreat in the mountains that was called The Wall. Two of the days we could not speak at all, except for a 2 minute period each in the morning. We went through numerous exercises designed to reveal to ourselves what was important to us – what had to be there for us to feel like we were successful, with the goal to write our “Definition of Success” before we left. We could then use this Definition of Success to make clear choices thereafter in many situations. During that introspective time, while thinking back to my childhood, two epiphanies struck me.

The first was that subconsciously, I did not expect to live long. Of us six kids, people always said that I was the most like my Dad, who died at age 56 when I was two and a half months old. I was his height, the only one of the kids to reach that, with the others significantly influenced by Mom’s gene, with her 4’11”. When I was in high school, I wrote out an ideal “life plan”, but in 1988, I realized that plan never went past age 40. I had lived my life on a fast track, graduating from high school at 17, graduating from Michigan State in three years and a summer semester, finishing my Ph.D. coursework at UC, Davis in two years, etc. I walked fast, talked fast, and was always looking how to do things more quickly and efficiently. It came as a shock to me that subconsciously I just did not expect to live long, and if I was going to accomplish anything, it had to happen quickly. That drove me to be impatient. Again, just that realization has allowed me to be more patient, no longer being driven by the subconscious thoughts I was not even aware of. It is a good thing us humans evolved to have the power of self-awareness, to have meta-cognition, to be able to think about our thinking, an ability other animals probably don’t have.

The second realization at the Wall was that although I had convinced myself that growing up on welfare and fatherless did not bother me, subconsciously I had a negative self image. The strange thing was that I realized that the negative self-image manifested itself when I got up to speak in public. I had taken the Dale Carnegie Course and had been in Toastmasters for 9 years, getting up to go to meetings with 5 different clubs over the years to become a better speaker, had served (poorly) as an attorney in several trials while in the private practice of law, and had many, many speaking opportunities up to that point, and I still umm, well, I sucked. However, again after the realization hit me, I was not nervous speaking at the Wall, and have not been nervous in front of a group since, not even when speaking to about 2500 one time. The change was miraculous.

The power of the negative self-image was confirmed when I next went home to the Upper Peninsula. Previously in my infrequent trips to my boyhood home area (none of my immediate family lived there any longer), I never felt good - just kind of uneasy feeling. After the Wall, the next time I went home, that feeling did not come over me. Hmm, so that was what was going on the other times, without my knowing just what was happening. The subconscious just was not comfortable back at home.

Growing Connections With My Boys - With Miraculous Results

After the Wall, my wife Linda was gone one August weekend, leaving our two boys, Brad and Kirk, with me. We decided to go backpacking, so we loaded the gear in our brown Ford Fairmont station wagon and drove to the trailhead to walk up to Colchuck Lake, in the Alpine Lakes area of the Cascades in Washington State early on a Friday afternoon. I was loaded down pretty heavily, with the tent, sleeping bags, gas stove, food, clothing, fishing gear, AND the inflatable rubber raft and oars all inside or strapped onto my expedition pack. The hike was four and a half miles, gaining about 2000’ of elevation. The destination is a gorgeous lake in a cirque, with steep mountain peaks on all sides except the north where the outlet creek tumbles down the mountain. Snow still lay in the mountain shadowed slopes. The weather there was also gorgeous, with the bluest blue skies imaginable, no clouds and a comfortable 75-80 degrees. We were able to pitch the tent right on the shore, on the edge of a rock that extended out into the clear mountain lake.

The next two and a half days were spent slowly paddling around the lake fishing for trout and yep, I actually caught some for a change. Between fishing and short day hikes, we lay around in the tent or on the warm granite rocks talking. I shared with them some of the things I had learned at the Wall. We discussed how we wanted life to be between us. It was a wonderful, unforgettable weekend.

The upshot of all this is that the following year, we moved from Washington back to Michigan. In Michigan, Kirk began to behave differently. He actually had not been a nice boy in Washington, to the point that my Mom even said once, “That Kirk, he’s a little stinker, isn’t he?” But, since moving to Michigan in 1989, he turned over a new leaf and has been a joy since. Later he told me, he just did not want to be the same as he had been, so decided to change. I fully believe that he felt he could change because he had seen me change how I acted and how we interacted differently. What an unexpected blessing from the personal development course, and a testament to what we can create when we change how we think.

A Formula for Success

The greatest adventure of my life occurred in 1977, when I decided that I wanted to climb Mt. McKinley, in Alaska, the highest point in North America at 20,320’. I had previously climbed Mt. Rainier (14, 411’) with the guide service, Rainier Mountaineering Inc, as well as Mt. Shasta (14,410’) in northern California with a friend. I joined 8 other strangers and our two climb leaders on Mt, Rainier for a “shake down” and some training prior to flying to Alaska. Then off to Anchorage, then by train to Talkeetna on the “moose gooser”. From there, we flew in Super Piper Cubs in 3’s and 4’s to land on Kahiltna Glacier at about 7200’ elevation on the south side of the mountain in our ski equipped planes.

We started up, going up to 8900’ and camped. Then on up to 10,000 feet and camped. Then to 11,300’ and camped, giving our sea level bodies a chance to acclimate to the altitude. 

Mt. McKinley at 11,300'


Up to this point, we were dragging cheap, red, K Mart sleds behind us with about 80 pounds of gear, while carrying about 60 in our packs, as the glacier sloped gently up. We had food for 30 days, and 15 gallons of gasoline for our stoves. We would have to melt snow and ice for every drop of water we were to drink on the trip. But above 11,300, the ascent got steeper, and we began to shuttle loads, making a carry to 12,800, made a cache in the snow, then returned to 11,300. The next day we climbed to our advance base camp at 14,400’

There we occupied some month or two old igloos, full of junk left by prior parties. We cleaned up the igloos, putting the junk in big, black plastic bags. The next day, on the way down to pick up gear from our cache at 12,800, we detoured towards a large crevasse to through the garbage in. (We knew the glaciers were probably 300 feet deep or more, and that it would be thousands of years before the stuff made its way down to the bottom of the mountain, more than 40 miles away, miles and miles away from any human habitation.) On the way to the crevasse, the middle man on my rope team broke through a snow bridge, beginning to fall into the depths of a crevasse. I dropped onto my ice axe, digging my crampons into the snow, in self-arrest position, and felt myself being dragged to the crevasse. I stopped him about 25 feet down, with room to spare from the lip of the crevasse. The team then pulled him back out. That is a team building exercise I don’t recommend for the timid!

From our 14,400’ camp, we made a carry up the steepest stretch of the mountain to establish a cache at 15,500’, then descended back to camp. The next day, we went back up the same stretch, picked up some of the stuff in the cache, and proceeded along a snow-covered, knife-edged ridge (over 2000’ down on each side) to our High Camp at 17,000’ The interesting thing about this stretch was watching Felix. He had lost his appetite at 10,000’ due to the altitude, had eaten little since, and tired quickly. Watching him trying to get up a short, steep, loose snow stretch was agonizing, as he would take a step up and slide back. But eventually, he made it up there, and on to our High Camp – albeit slowly.

The next day, we went for the summit. It was surreal, with the altitude affecting us all. (In prior experiments, it was proven that the ability to do simple mathematical exercises is reduced in half at 18,000 feet, because of the thin air at that altitude.) But going up the last 300’ of elevation to the summit ridge was painstakingly slow, taking 5 or 6 pressure breaths per step, and even then, having to rest for 10 minutes when we got to the top of the ridge to rest before going along the ridge to the true summit. We all made it!

When we got down to our Base Camp on the Kahiltna Glacier, I marveled to Felix about what he did, asking how is was even possible, as tired as he had been. He said, “I always knew I could take one more step.”

This climb demonstrates the formula for success:
  1. Have a dream or goal
  2. Develop a plan to achieve your goal, breaking down the task into easy bites
  3. Work your plan, step by step
  4. When the going gets tough, when you want to quit, just remember Felix, and “take one more step’


My Biography - The Perfect Life 

Biography - Part 2 (the beginnings)

Biography - Part 3 (top of this page)



We hold in our hands our future. Our future is what we make it. 



Paid for by (even if free) Rick Olson for Congress Committee, P.O. Box 1079, Prior Lake, MN 55372


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