A lesson from my son on the value of mistakes.

Over the past week my family and I enjoyed a spring break trip to Texas. On Good Friday my son Johann and I got up early to nab poolside seats for our last day before returning home. In fact, we got down to the pool before it was open for the day. But there was no moose out front telling us the pool was closed for two weeks for cleaning and repairs. So we found some Adirondack chairs near an outdoor fireplace, and sat and talked, like fathers and sons should.

Good Talk Russ

Good Talk Russ

Johann is one of my favorite people to talk to because his mind dances. We talked about whether Star Wars took place in the past or the future. While I said it all seemed futuristic, he reminded me that it took place long ago in a galaxy far, far away. We covered funny Chris Pratt lines from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. And we talked about the leaning tower of Pisa.

The Leaning Tower

As we discussed the leaning tower from a long time ago in a country far, far away, Johann shared an interesting observation. He said, ‘You know Dad, no one would care about the tower if it wasn’t leaning. It is the leaning that makes it interesting.’

I asked Johann if he thought there was a life lesson to be learned from the leaning tower. He quickly replied,

‘Even our failures can be a work of art.’  -Johann Albrecht (age 11)

Key Takeaway

Don’t beat yourself up over your failures. They make you and your story more interesting. Make the lean in your tower work for you. Make a wrong turn at Albuquerque, then make that your catch phrase. Don’t avoid your mistakes. Embrace them. They are often blessing that pay dividends for years, or even centuries to come.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.

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I found this inspiring JFK quote on the road.

This week my family and I loaded up the old Family Truckster for a road trip across the Lone Star State. We are covering Dallas, Fort Worth, Frisco, Plano, Waco, Austin, San Antonio and more. What I like most about this type of travel are the unexpected gems you discover along the way.

Doing Dallas

While we were in Dallas we decided to see the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It was both interesting and sobering to see where this historic event occurred in 1963. We saw the book depository, although I still don’t know what a book depository is. We saw the route JFK’s motorcade was traveling in his last moments. We saw some grassiness. We saw some knoll. And we saw the JFK Memorial. Which made me think they must not have had many memorial options.

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The JFK Memorial in Dallas. It’s a cement box. 

The JFK Quote

We stopped into the JFK Museum store, where I was greeted by a JFK quote I had never heard before. Of course there are plenty of famous JFK quotes:

  • “Ask not what your country can do for you… ask what you can do for your country.”
  • “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
  • “Honey, let’s keep this our little secret…’

But I liked the new-to-me JFK quote better than any of the others.

“Things do not happen. They are made to happen.”  -John F. Kennedy

Making Things Happen

This quote summarizes everything I know about making an impact and achieving great things. It summarizes how you build and maintain a strong network of friends and family. It applies to everything from gardening to creating a new law to building a business from dust. These things don’t just happen. You have to make them happen.

None of the things you want in life will happen on their own. They require energy and action. This is both a warning and an inspiring call to action. It warns us that without action you will get nothing and have nothing. But with action you can have anything you are willing to work for.

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The inspiring JFK quote in the museum store in Dallas.

Key Takeaway

Action is everything. It is the difference between dreaming and doing. If you want something to happen you have to force it to happen. You have to will it to happen through your vision, action and energy. This simple rule applies to friendship, to entrepreneurship and every other ship in between.

Also, do more road tripping. It is the best way to collect dots and connect dots.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.

What this crazy astronomer can teach you about business.

500 years ago there was a rebellious Polish astronomer named Nicolaus Copernicus. He was born with a name worthy of a faculty position at Hogwarts. More importantly, we was blessed with a contrarian world view. Copernicus developed a crazy heliocentric model of the cosmos. In this model, he declared the sun was the center of the universe, and the Earth and the other planets actually revolved around it. #ohnohedidnt

The Universal Truth

At the time heliocentricity was considered a radical idea. But as every graduating preschooler now knows, Ni-Co was right. His revolutionary solar-centered model of the universe soon changed how we viewed and understood the world. It applied rules and order that helped the world make sense. It also gave employees at the local Sunglass Hut a false sense of superiority.

Copernicus-Style Thinking At Work

The same thinking that makes sense of the cosmos can also be applied to business. You must never lose sight of who is at the center of the business universe: the customer. In your arena the customer might be called the client, member, student, attendee or John (#nojudgement). Regardless, the person paying for goods or services is the central figure around whom everything else in business revolves.

Customer-Centric

Your actions and decisions should always be driven by your customer’s wants and needs. Your products and services only exist to serve your customers. It is the customer that provides the forces that propel all business activity. Because without customers businesses drift into oblivion. (#Blockbuster #Sears #AllianceofAmericanFootball)

Your Customer’s Customers.

At my advertising and idea agency, The Weaponry, everything we do is driven by 2 forces: our customers, and our customer’s customers. Without those forces money does not move and business does not exist. Sales, marketing, engineering, research and development, customer service and accounting are all driven by the gravitational pull of the customers. Remember, you can dance with yourself, but you can’t do business alone.

Key Takeaway

If your business is not customer-centric, it is time to re-center. Ask yourself ‘What Does The Customer Want?’ before every business decision. Even better, ask them what they want, and what they want to avoid. It will help you maintain proper focus on the star of your show. And prevent you from thinking the world revolves around you.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.

The best way to pay lower taxes next year.

April 15th is once again upon us. If you pay a lot in taxes it might feel like Uncle Sam is upon you too. This time of year people always complain about how much they owe the government in taxes. Clearly the complainers don’t know how easy it is to dramatically lower your tax burden.

Disclaimer

Before I share my surefire tax lowering technique I should acknowledge that I am not a licensed tax professional. So anything I share here should be verified by your tax consultant, or by actually reading the IRS publications. But I am pretty sure this is not the same tax lowering strategies used by Wesley Snipes, Martha Stewart or Willie Nelson.

Tax Paying Experience

While I am not a certified tax professional, I own my own business and file taxes in 3 different states. I have been paying taxes since I was 14 years old. I have calculated my taxes on my own and I’ve used Turbo Tax. Today, I use a team of professional tax accountants. All 3 of these tax preparing approaches have confirmed my bulletproof tax reduction strategy.

My Tax Reduction Technique

My surefire technique for lowering your tax burden is so easy anyone can use it. Even better, it is legal in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

If you want to pay far less in taxes next year simply make far less income.

The Ultimate Tax Hack

If a lower tax bill is a high priority, simply throttle back your effort and contribution at work. Unless a family member owns the company, or you are really, really good-looking (#Zoolander), you will certainly feel an equal drop in both your compensation and your tax liability. It’s that easy to do. In fact, it is much easier to lower your taxes significantly than it is to raise them.

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This is not me. It’s a stock photo created to represent someone doing business or taxes. Or perhaps it’s a photo of a magician about to make that phone disappear by drawing your attention to the succulent in the upper left hand corner, then slipping the phone up his sleeve. Any hoo, the image is here to add visual interest to the story. I hope it helped.

My Tax History

When I was in high school and college, I typically made between $3000 and $5000 working during the summer. As a result my taxes were tiny. In fact, I am pretty sure the government lost money on the time they spent reviewing my taxes.

In the first year after I graduated from college I made $21,000. My taxes were still really low. In fact, the government gave me almost all of the money I paid in taxes back to me. When I received my refund check from the IRS that year it was accompanied by a note that said, ‘Thanks for the laugh!’

My Taxes Today.

Now I make a lot more money. And I pay a lot more in taxes. In 2016 I started my own advertising and idea agency called The Weaponry. Clearly I didn’t listen to those who told me that if my income goes up, my tax bill will too. In fact, this year I will pay more in taxes than I made in gross salary during the 7th year of my career. And I love it.

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Reinterpreting Those Damn Taxes

Taxes are a sign of success. To pay a lot in taxes you have to make a lot of money. If you are paying a lot more now than you did a few years ago, congratulations! You must be making a lot more. If your total tax bill is obscene, even better! You must be making an obscene amount of money!

The Tax Reminder

Remember, taxes enable us to pay for things together. If it weren’t for taxes, you would have to build your own roads, your own schools, and your own parks. But thanks to the tax system, we all give a little and get a whole lot in return. Which means that taxes help us save money overall, and increase our quality of life. If you are not paying taxes it is like going to a pot luck dinner and not bringing any pot or any luck to share. That makes you a mooch. Or a free loader. Don’t be that kid.

Key Takeaway

To pay a lot in taxes you have to make a lot of money. Never lose that perspective. Be proud of that money you contribute to benefit us all. I hope you make a boatload of money next year. Then I hope you ship a life raft’s worth of tax payments to the IRS to help save us all. Be proud to pay a larger tax bill each year. It’s a sign of success. Sure, it’s easy to slash your tax bill by lowering your income. But after you’ve done that once you will realize it feels a lot better to pay a lot more.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this message, please share with them.

Why I now have a curiosity curfew.

I am a self-proclaimed Early Owl. This rare avian species is a cross between an Early Bird and a Night Owl. Which means I love to go to bed late AND get up early. It’s how I am squeeing* as much as I can out of life. (*Squeeing is just squeezing without the required Zzz’s).

Night School

I don’t sleep nearly as much as I should. But I recognize the value of good sleep. Whenever I force myself to get a little more of that night magic I feel even better. Lately, I’ve been going back to school on the power of sleep. My coursework includes the writings by born-again sleep evangelist, Ariana Huffington, including her books Thrive and The Sleep Revolution.

I have learned that only 27 percent of American grown-folk get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night during the week. Only 10 percent prioritize sleep over other daily activities. And I want to be in that number, when the saints come marching in.

Your Best Bet Is A Better Bedtime

The key to getting more sleep is going to bed earlier. In fact, going to bed early is the adult version of sleeping in. Historically I have had serious trouble with this. And I have identified the main cause.

My late nights are not a result of drugs or alcohol. I never found the on-ramp to either of those hobbies (although they look fun). I don’t stay up late playing video games or studying pornography (although they both look fun too). I don’t guzzle coffee or energy drinks. Unless you consider chocolate milk an energy drink. I just call it delicious.

My Problem

My sleep problem is a result of a chronically curious brain. At night, when my wife and three children are in bed, my curiosity and I are ready to party.  I love to read. I gobble up books, magazines, and online articles like a turkey. My curiosity helps me chew through online videos, social media posts, and Netflix programing like a starving goat. My curiosity will devour everything and anything. The whole world is interesting to me. Which makes my curiosity the #1 enemy of my sleep.

If my curiosity is allowed to run feral, it will sprint past midnight, and well into the early morning hours. But my alarm is always set for 6am, whether I go to bed at 10pm (never) or 2am. I typically get under 6 hours of sleep. But I am working hard to up that to 7 hours.

The New Plan

I have come up with an idea to help me sleep more. It is borrowed from an idea that has been around since the invention of the teenager. I have implemented a self-imposed Curiosity Curfew. As of 11pm on weeknights, I have to put the books, magazines and iPhone down. I turn my TV/Netflix/Internetting device off. If I have work to do I can still do it. But no more exploring the world. It is the best thing I can think of to get my head to bed earlier.

Key Takeaway

Sleep is important. It’s how you refresh, recharge, rebound, reenergize and regenerate. If you are going to bed too late, identify the cause, and implement a curfew on the offender. It will help you increase your overall sleep. And getting enough sleep is both a health and quality of life issue. As good as you may think you are with little sleep, you are always better with more.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them. 

The latest, greatest life lesson from sports.

Most of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in life have come from sports. They come from the successes and failures I have experienced personally, and from the countless sporting stories I’ve witnessed. The lessons have come from all levels of athletic competition. And from sports ranging from horse racing to floor hockey. #Epic3rdGradeGymClassComeBackStory.

I have been collecting life lessons from sports since I was a little boy. From The Miracle On Ice, I learned that miracles really do happen. From Kirk Gibson and Ray Rice I learned that sometimes all it takes is one swing. Billy Buckner taught me that there is no such thing as a routine ground ball. Steve Bartman taught me that people love a scapegoat (my wife Dawn was at that Cubs game and called me, afraid for his life). Buster Douglas taught me to take every opponent seriously. And my New England Patriots taught me that even when there is a 99.5% chance that you will lose, you can still win. I wrote about that in The most inspiring statistic in Super Bowl history.

My Greatest Lesson

In high school I learned my own sports lessons through football and track and field, with an emphasis on the field. But the greatest lesson I ever learned came in the fall of my senior year back in Hanover, New Hampshire. During an ordinary football practice, 4 weeks into the season, two of my teammates crashed into my left knee, tearing both my ACL and MCL. If you are lucky enough not to know these acronyms, they refer to two of the critical ligaments that hold your knee together.

Not only was my knee crushed, so were my spirits. But following knee reconstruction surgery at the end of October, I set my sights on coming back to compete in the spring track season. Competing was a long shot. But I was 100% determined to make it happen. I rehabilitated my knee completely on my own. I didn’t need any outside motivation. I was obsessed.

The Comeback

Just 7 months after surgery I completed my unlikely comeback. At the New England High School Track and Field Championships in East Hartford, Connecticut, I won the boys discus title. Even better, I set a new New Hampshire state record in the discus. A record that would stand for 12 years. As a result, I learned that determination is your most valuable asset. 

The University of Wisconsin

That fall I enrolled at The University of Wisconsin, where I continued my track and field career. My senior year I became the 4th best discus thrower in school history. Even better, our team won its second consecutive Big 10 Track & Field Championship.

But there was another significant event that happened just before my senior year at Wisconsin that feels even more relevant this morning. That’s when the great Dick Bennett was hired as Wisconsin’s head men’s basketball coach.

The Bennetts

Coach Bennett is a wonderful man and a brilliant coach. He came to Madison from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he had created an off-broadway powerhouse of a basketball program. The shining star of the UWGB Fighting Phoenix was Dick’s son Tony, who I believe still holds the all-time record for career 3-point shooting percentage.

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Tony Bennett, pre-dab.

I loved seeing Dick Bennett around the McClain Center, our athletic facility in Madison. He always had a pleasant greeting for this unknown track participant. And I had high respect for everything he did for the basketball program. In fact, he was the 4th head coach for the Badgers in my 5 years of college. Just 4 years later, in 2000, he would lead the team to the Final Four.

During my senior season, and the following summer I would often see young and handsome Tony Bennett in the McClain Center weight room. His wife Laurel would often work out there too. I regularly talked with Laurel, and learned that she was from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and went to LSU. Her accent was as cute as she was. We talked about some of my favorite memories from competing in track meets at LSU. Including the tiger cage right next to the discus cage, the crawfish, Lou’s Fries, Pleasant Hall and my favorite track and field venue on earth.

Virginia Basketball

Based on my casual acquaintance with the Bennetts, I followed Tony’s career closely, and always pulled for him as if he were one of my own. I was thrilled to see him land the job as the University of Virginia’s head basketball coach in 2009. In fact I began rooting for this seemingly random school’s men’s basketball program. Tony’s rise in Charlottesville came quickly. Which would set Tony and his team up for a historical fall.

The Loss

In 2018, with a 31-2 record, Virginia earned the highly coveted #1 seed in the men’s championship tournament. Everyone who has ever filled out a March Madness bracket knows that you never pick a #16 seed to upset a #1. Because it had never happens. Never-Ever. In fact, it had never happened in the history of the NCAA tournament. Until last year.

Following what had been a dream season, Virginia suffered a nightmarish loss to UMBC. Most people had no idea what those initials even stood for. It was not the University of Michigan-Battle Creek. It was actually the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But it could have been the University of My Butt Crack for all I knew of this team.

Yet suddenly, the UMBC Retrievers were the ultimate dragon slayers. They did what people said no one could ever do. As a result of their victory, Coach Tony Bennett and his Virginia team would have to carry the burden of their unprecedented defeat for the rest of their lives.

What Happened Next

But Bennett’s response to the unfathomable loss was composed, dignified and gracious. He would later refer to the loss as a painful gift. The Virginia team, lead by Bennett, then did the hardest thing in sports. Perhaps the hardest thing in life. After crashing and burning, they rose again from the ashes, like a fighting Phoenix. They used their historic loss as fuel. And they powered forward with new resolve.

Another Chance

The 2019 regular season would prove to be every bit as successful as 2018 for the Virginia men’s basketball program. The team went 29-3 during the regular season and ended the year ranked 2nd in the country. They once again won a #1 seed in the NCAA Division 1 Championship Tournament. And this time, the whole country watched to see if they would once again exit the Big Dance under historical circumstances.

Unfortunately, it soon appeared they were doomed to repeat the past. In the first half of their matchup against 16th-ranked Gardner-Webb they were down by 14 points, before pulling out of their nosedive, and rallying to a 71-56 win. They then won a series of heart stopping victories over Oregon, Purdue and Auburn.

In the unbelievable win over Auburn in the semi finals, Virginia was down by 2 points with 0.6 seconds on the clock. But a foul on a 3-point shot attempt sent Virginia’s Kyle Guy to the free throw line, where he coolly hit all 3 free throws to win the game and send his team to the National Championship.

The National Championship

Last night in the title game, Virginia played like champions. So did their rivals, Texas Tech. The result was a thrilling 68-68 tie at the end of regulation. But in the overtime period, Bennett’s team showed their true character, pouring on a dominating performance when it was needed most. When the final buzzer buzzed, the scoreboard read Virginia 85, Texas Tech 77.

The New Lesson

And just like that, the world of sports had another lesson for its followers. It came from the too-good-to-be true story of the 2018-2019 Virginia men’s basketball team. The team that suffered the worst defeat in the history of college basketball, and then bounced like no one has ever bounced before. And in just one year, this team of character, grit, brotherhood and respect rebounded to win a national championship. The first in school history.

Tony Bennet has a belief that he often references: ‘The most faithful wins.’ Well, I for one believe. I believe that if you believe in yourself, have faith in your abilities, in your teammates, in the power of hard work, sacrifice and determination, and in a higher power to strengthen you, great things will come your way.

Key Takeaway

Bad things will happen to you. This is a simple fact. But it is how you respond to the setbacks that makes all the difference. If you see your losses as painful gifts, and not prepackaged excuses, you have already won. Because you have put yourself on the right path for future success.

Have faith that if you do all the right things, the right things will come to you. Virginia’s championship now serves as a monumental reminder of this lesson. It’s a wonderful story that will be revisited for decades, as coaches, parents and friends console athletes after devastating defeats. Because with the right mindset a loss is not a loss. It is a painful gift that can positively change your life forever.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.

Why I don’t believe in a work-life balance.

I don’t believe in a work-life balance. It implies that our work and our lives are two separate entities. Which they are not. Those hours you spend at work each day comprise a gigantic chunk of your life. If you are not happy at work, you are not only wasting your career, you are wasting your life. Those are just the facts.

The notion of a work-life balance implies a teeter-totter or seesaw life construct. It requires our work to sit on one side of our personal fulcrum, and our lives to sit on the other. The two sides are separate, but equal, and balanced. Other than in fairy tales, outer space, and 1960’s TV programs, you are never going to find the two of equal weight. Which is why I am a registered Work-Life Balance Atheist. (Although I still believe in God, Jesus, and Sampson.)

Something Better

I believe in work-life integration.  We need to construct our lives as a system in which all the parts work together to provide a natural flow. When our personal lives need to step forward and take the lead, they naturally do, even during the work day. And when work needs to be addressed while we are at home or on vacation, we can naturally allow for that to happen.

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Me and my sisters Donielle and Alison, and my nieces Norah and Celia on the set of a film shoot for Mizuno in Houston. Jennie Finch-Daigle, Olympic Gold Medal softball player, was there too.

My perspective could be skewed because I am a business owner, and my life and my work are inextricably linked. But you are no different. And the sooner you and your employer (or employees) accept that, the sooner you can create a happier, more satisfied coexistence of the two.

Work-Life Integration At A Macro Level

This work-life integration is the reason that my family relocated our home base from Atlanta to Milwaukee 2-years ago. For Non-Americans, this is a move of 800 miles, mostly north. And there is a story.

In the summer of 2015 I began serious plans to start my own advertising agency. It was an exciting time in my career, as visions and logistics danced through my head. But at the same time a major storm was brewing in my personal life.

My Mother-In-Law

On an ordinary August evening in Wausau, Wisconsin, my Mother-In-Law, Cynthia Zabel, coughed up blood. Fortunately she has more sense than Jim Henson, so she called her doctor and saw him the next day. He ordered an MRI, which revealed a small spot on her lung. He decided to do a biopsy to investigate. The biopsy revealed a benign tumor, that the doctors decided to remove.

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My wife Dawn and her mom, Cynthia Zabel.

The Surgery

My wife, Dawn, decided to fly home to Wausau, from Atlanta, to be with her Mom during her surgery.  Everything was calm and routine. Until the doctor emerged from the operating room to talk to Dawn following the operation. He said,

‘Well, that didn’t go as planned. We didn’t see the tumor we were expecting to see. Instead, one of your mother’s lungs was completely encased in a tumor. I only had two options. I could leave everything exactly as it was and we would take our chances. Or I could remove the entire lung. And that is what I did.’

So Dawn’s mom, now 78-years old, had only one lung, and, as the new biopsy would reveal, two forms of non-smoking related lung cancer. She would soon be preparing for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation in order to give her every chance of survival.

Our Tribe

Our Tribe quickly rallied around us. Including our close friend and Atlanta neighbor, Dr. Crain Garrot, who is an Oncologist. He became our cancer translator and counselor throughout the process. My uncle, Allan Sprau used his connections to get us an immediate appointment with a specialist at the Mayo Clinic.

However, Cynthia felt she was in good hands with her local doctors. And with good reason. She had battled cancer with the same team before, and won. In fact, in 2015 she was a 14-year breast cancer survivor. And she trusted her doctors to help her navigate through the new and more daunting challenge.

Life Impacting Work

Cynthia’s cancer diagnoses had a major impact on our family’s life plans. Since Dawn and I were going to start our own business, we believed the business could be located anywhere. With the cancer battle ramping up, and my parents reaching retirement age, it was time to make proximity to our parents a priority.

We considered relocating to 4 great cities. Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison and Minneapolis. After visiting each of the cities, and a thorough evaluation (worthy of a separate post), we decided on Milwaukee. This great city on a great lake, put us right between Cynthia in Wausau, Wisconsin, and my parents in Lafayette, Indiana.

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My wife, parents, children and I got together in Wisconsin a few weeks ago for basketball and mac & cheese.  

One year after Cynthia first coughed up blood, we moved to Milwaukee’s northern suburb of Mequon for the excellent schools and quality of life for our family of 5. We found a nice home on a 1-acre lot, on a pond. The Weaponry, the advertising and idea agency I initially founded in Atlanta, moved headquarters to Milwaukee without missing a beat. And just like that, Atlanta had paid back Milwaukee for taking the Braves in 1966.

Update

Yesterday, April 6, 2019 was a great day. In fact, two great things happened. My mother in-law turned 82 years old and is doing great. But even better, we live close enough that we were able to drive to surprise her at a restaurant in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, enjoy several hours together on her birthday, and then drive home again. It was exactly what we envisioned when we decided to integrate our work and personal needs, and be closer to our parents during this chapter of our lives.

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Dawn, Cynthia & my daughter Ava yesterday, celebrating Cynthia’s 82nd birthday, four years after her lung-ectomy.

Key Takeaway

Integrate your career and life plans into one beautiful, fully functioning design. Don’t force the two to fight against each other. And don’t settle for less. We didn’t. As a result,  Dawn and I have been able to spend quality time with both of our parents in the last few weeks alone, here in Wisconsin. Which makes me feel like I am winning at life.

Additional Takeaway

If you are having health problems see a doctor right away. Take it from Cynthia Zabel, it could save your life.

*If you know someone who could benefit from this story, please share it with them.