I was asked once “What is the key to a happy life?” The person who’d asked wanted me to speak to a business group, providing some of my insights on life-work balance. Immediately, I had a dozen ideas, each with a personal story to back them up. Yet, none of them grabbed me as foundational.
So, I went for a walk.
Many of you know I spend lots of time walking. From the Appalachian Trail to laps around the neighborhood, I love to put miles under my feet. Walking brings silence. Silence nurtures introspection. Introspection enables insight. This walk brought quick insight for my friend’s deep question.
“What is the key to a happy life?” The answer tracks back to my deepest desire: I want to make a difference. I want to look back on life and know that my time here mattered. I want to make a difference in other people’s lives, in my community, and in the lives of my family and friends. Fortunately, early in life I discovered the answer to this process of making an impact on other people’s lives. I discovered it by having it done to me.
“I believe in you.”
My high school nickname was “Tex.” During my sophomore year, we’d moved to West Virginia from the Gulf Coast of Texas. My gym teacher, Coach Jim McGehee, loved to give people nicknames. Mine fit.
One day, as he prepared for the upcoming intramural track meet held each spring, Coach McGehee encouraged me to come out and compete in next week’s half-mile race. There was only one student participating in the half-mile, and he would win by default if not challenged.
“No way, Coach,” I protested. “I’ve never run that far in my life. In fact, I’ve never run at all.”
That wasn’t entirely true… I loved to run in my Converse tennis shoes on our farm, but I’d never sprinted for more than a hundred yards. Coach had an amazing heart for people and was not easily dissuaded. He looked at me in silence for a long moment, then mouthed the words that changed my life.
“You can do it, Tex. I believe in you.”
Jim McGehee was not desperate to fill the slots in that race, but he was desperate to see me grow. He cared about me as a student and as a human being, and he confronted me in that busy locker room to let me know that he cared. It wasn’t a shallow encouragement. He didn’t walk off after he said it. He just stood there, waiting for his incredible statement of faith to sink in. And it did.
A week later, I raced against my only competitor, a fellow sophomore nicknamed “Turkey.” He was a good runner and a member of the track team. I strapped on my red Converse, heart pounding, and I ran like the wind on a track of black coal cinders. I left all my fears at the starting line and beat Turkey by 50 yards, powered around the two laps by Coach’s words: “I believe in you.”
Coach McGehee’s encouragement, and that half-mile victory, led me to join the cross country team the next fall. Sports pulled me out of a deep shell of introversion. Coach McGehee saw a young man who kept to himself and didn’t engage in the world, a student who was ready to “fly”— and Coach was wise and determined enough to “kick me out of the nest.”
He poured himself into my life for the next two years as I grew as a distance runner and as a leader. He poured himself into me with encouragement yet also demanded accountability. That first expression of faith in me changed the entire course of my life, leading me to race, to set records, to apply for college and scholarships, and to pursue a 25-year dream to be an astronaut. Those life-changing words have forever shaped me, my marriage, my family, and my business. Every day, I live by his amazing words, “You can do it, Tex. I believe in you.”
Make More Deposits than Withdrawals
From that pivotal moment when another person expressed life-changing faith in me, I’ve grown to recognize that the key to happiness is not in what you accomplish or in what you have. It’s in making a difference in the lives of others, like Coach made a difference in mine. Happiness comes in pouring yourself into the lives of others. Joy comes through encouraging, leading, healing, guiding, listening and holding others accountable—pouring yourself into the lives of others with no hope of any return.
In that outpouring of yourself, others often shower you with the same love and care. It’s a remarkable thing; the more you give without looking for payback, and the more “deposits” you make in the lives of others, then the more joy you find in life. Like a bank account that grows by the day, pouring yourself into the lives of others through service, prayer, comfort, love, attention, support — and accountability — the more you will find authentic joy.
When we die, we can’t take anything with us except relationships with others and our relationship with God. Make more deposits than withdrawals in the lives of people, and your life’s “bank account” will overflow. The key to happiness? Be Coach Jim McGehee. Pour yourself into the lives of others and remind them every day: “You can do it. I believe in you.”