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Being challenged in life is inevitable; being defeated is optional.
“This is the last time you will ever speak to your daughter. Tell her everything she needs to know for the rest of her life. You will have an hour with her, make it count.” I was at Camp Joy in the backwoods of Ohio with Kira, then 11 years old, on a Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO) retreat for fathers and their preteen daughters. There was a child psychologist facilitating this exercise for the CEOs, and as I looked around, everyone seemed as wide-eyed as I was. The task felt daunting—especially after hearing we would have just 30 minutes to prepare. I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled some notes, but my head was swirling. It wasn’t making sense. Actually, I wasn’t making sense. Wait, this isn’t really the last time I am going to see her, right? I thought. But, what if it were? Why isn’t this easier? Why haven’t I had this conversation already? What am I waiting for?
Thoughts were still rushing through my head, with nothing usable or even legible written on the scrap of paper that I had tucked into my pocket, when I met up with Kira. But once we started walking, I felt a sense of calm as we strolled hand in hand, with the only sound being the leaves crunching under our feet.
We walked for several minutes before I began. “There are three things I want you to know. The first is family, family, family. Friends are terrific, but they come and go in your life. Boyfriends are fleeting. Online connections are just that. But our family of five is forever. Love more, lean in, lean on, and cherish our bonds. Focus on how you can contribute as well as draw strength from these connections. There is nothing more important than our family, always and forever.” Kira squeezed my hand tightly as she heard my voice cracking.
“Second, it will always be okay.”
“What will be okay, Dad?” she asked, looking up into my eyes and smiling.
“Well, things, a lot of things will go badly from time to time, and at that moment it will seem like you’re facing the biggest unclimbable mountain in the world. But, it isn’t.”
“The mountain?” she asked. I laughed.
“Yes, the mountain can be a lot of things, Kira. You will fail a test. Friends will disappoint you. You will get detention. There will be breakups. Someone close to you will die. You will lose a big game. You will make a mistake. You will fail at something. You will be laughed at by a group of mean girls who then bully you online. You will crash your car [this one was actually a bit prophetic]. There will be a period in your life where you feel like you’re alone and nobody is listening to you or helping you. But no matter what it is, how tough it gets, or how deep you are in that valley, know that it will always be okay. You will always be okay. It will get better. The sun will come up the next day. You have to know that it will always be okay.” I took a deep breath.
“Third, anything, anytime,” I said, feeling more confident.
“What does that mean?” my 11-year-old asked sincerely.
“Anything, anytime. I am here for you. You can count on me. You can call me, text me, FaceTime me, and I will be there. I am here for you. I hope to be a sense of comfort, a reality check, a loving shoulder, a support system, and the person you can call when you need to laugh or cry. I will listen. I will not judge. I will only love. You are never alone. I love you forever and a day.”
That walk established an unbreakable foundation of a relationship between Kira and me, and we continue to build on it today, many years later.
What’s most important (or WMI, as we call it at work)? Yes, that was the question for me, and that is the question for you. This walk and talk taught me a valuable lesson: life doesn’t stop and allow you to say what you feel when the world is swirling and moving so fast. Most of us don’t have the time—or is it that most of us simply choose not to take the time?—to share WMI, what we are thinking, and what we appreciate in others. We need to do more of it, and you will when you choose to be where your feet are.
That is one of the positives that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. It was mostly negative, too many deaths, too much pain, and more struggle than seemed reasonable. However, it forced us to check ourselves, slow down, and even to pause time and space to reflect on the lives we were leading. I started this book before the pandemic, but the time I gained from it would reteach me its lessons in ways that I wouldn’t have thought possible in the rush of everyday life. In the months that followed, which were the beginning of the pandemic lockdown, my wife, three daughters, and I painted, played board games, puzzled, did dribbling drills in the kitchen, baked, ate meals together, had movie nights and cleaning parties, read, and went for family walks … all things that didn’t seem to find their way into our lives before the pause. One night we had “bring your favorite stuffed animal to dinner.” Another night it was “color war,” where we each dressed head to toe in our favorite hue. The things happening in our home had never happened. This is not a real-life version of The Brady Bunch or other perfect TV family, of course, as we experienced our fair share of the emotion, arguments, and disagreements that come with three strong daughters. But we received the gift of time and space, and ever since, I’ve been trying to engage the message sent and the lessons learned to make my life more meaningful.
What helps pull it all together so these takeaways materialize? Making the most of each moment and ridding ourselves of the toxic habit of constantly looking forward to the next thing. Be where your feet are. But how? For me, it has come not only from finding the lessons in my own experience but also in listening to other people’s stories. The result has been better relationships at home, stronger leadership at work, and feeling more engaged in my community.
I was motivated to write this book because I was exhausted from having people ask how to find balance in their work and personal lives. It is a popular ethos that never made sense to me—the idea that we should all seek “balance” is bad misdirection and often leads to failure on all fronts. The problem with this concept of balance is that it has us aspiring to a mediocre middle. Being present, focused, committed, and hardworking at home and at work is the path to finding success and fulfillment.
I am at my best when I am locked in where my feet are. That is to say, I’m 100 percent present and focused wherever I am at any given moment. This is not always easy for me, and it is a work in progress for all of us, but I am trying. My goal in writing this book is to start you on a lifelong journey of self-discovery toward reflection, action, and fulfillment.
The stories told in Be Where Your Feet Are provide an array of tragic, uplifting, and inspiring anecdotes that oftentimes were inflection points in the storytellers’ lives, moving them in a direction they would have found unthinkable until circumstances forced change upon them. Fortunately, if we open our minds and our hearts and embrace the lessons learned, the stories will teach us and inspire us and we will have an opportunity to thrive in the parts of life that really matter.
As you might imagine, a fair share of the stories come from the sports world (hey, that is my day job, as CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils), but there are also plenty about life, love, and learning coming from a dad, a husband, a middle school girls’ basketball coach, a mentor to young men at church, a son, a brother, and a friend. This intersection of life, work, faith, relationships, struggle, and triumph plays out in this collection of moments, memories, and experiences wrapped up in a thing called life. It is important, though, that each moment (good or bad) provides us an opportunity to learn, and if we choose to take it, that opportunity can change our lives, and the world, for the better. This is something that took me decades to understand and appreciate, and it is what we tried to capture in Be Where Your Feet Are. If you get just one nugget of insight or inspiration that helps you live a more present or grounded life, then this book has achieved its goal. So let’s get started …
Copyright © 2021 by Scott M. O’Neil