What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Just because Nicholas and I bailed on our March break camping trip doesn’t mean we hated the cold. Far from it. We were as Canadian as moose and maple syrup, built for blizzards and booger-freezing conditions.

Exhibit A: the Snowy Gauntlet.

Growing up in rural southwestern Ontario was great. But country living does require you to find imaginative ways to entertain yourself — whether it’s smacking around flaming tennis balls or diving headfirst into pits of clay. 

One Saturday afternoon in the depths of winter, Nicholas and I came up with a brilliant way to pass the time and win a few bucks in the process. We challenged our three older brothers — Dan, Chris and Damien — to a battle of absurd proportions.

The bet was simple: if Nicholas and I successfully ran around the house, our brothers had to pay us five bucks. Their mission? Stop that from happening. 

There were a couple rules. Number one, each of our opponents was assigned a side of the house to guard and they weren’t allowed to leave their zone. For example, if Nicholas and I managed to slip past Damien, he wasn’t allowed to follow us into Chris’s territory. That way, they couldn’t gang up on us. 

Rule number two: while the others could bundle up as much as they pleased, Nicholas and I had to run the snowy gauntlet wearing nothing but the shortest shorts we owned.

The east side of the house was guarded by Damien. Damien has always been an ideas man, a crafty fella known for building his own toboggans and conducting psychological experiments on his siblings. Well over six feet tall (and fully recovered from the frying pan blow to the knee), Damien was certainly a physical threat. But he was also the kind of guy who might set a tiger trap or engineer a snowball cannon to wipe us out. 

On the north side was Chris — or Critter as he’s better known to us. Critter appears to have been born without the ability to modulate his intensity levels. While most people get more serious and competitive as stakes increase, Critter always operated at maximum intensity. 

Euchre game against grandma? Maximum intensity. Friendly croquet game? Maximum intensity. Tic tac toe against a four-year-old? Oh, you better believe he’s playing to win. So the fact that this was a five-dollar bet against his two little brothers didn’t matter. Critter’s competitiveness would be dialled to eleven.

And that left the west side of the house, guarded by Dan — the oldest child in our family and a natural-born leader. With his charisma, it wouldn’t have surprised me if we rounded the corner to find Dan had rallied an army of neighbourhood kids to stop us.

Bottom line: we had substantial opposition ahead of us. But with cold hard cash on the line, we got our game faces on and readied ourselves for the cold hard battle. 

We started off strong. Despite our concerns about Damien’s cleverness, he was surprisingly easy to outsmart. Together, Nicholas and I charged forward as though we planned to tackle him. However, at the last second, we broke to either side of him, splitting before he could grab either one of us. 

Safely past the borders of his territory, we were met by Critter. True to form, he wasted no time attacking us. I managed to sidestep the charging beast, but Nicholas wasn’t as lucky. Running toward the west side of the house, I heard Nicholas squeal while Critter wrestled him to the ground. 

Dan stood waiting ahead of me, the last obstacle standing between me and victory. I wanted nothing more than to get back inside the warm house. But in the end, I just couldn’t leave Nicholas behind. 

Bellowing like a madman, I turned around and raced back to save my little brother from Critter’s evil clutches.

To no one’s surprise, my heroic efforts failed.

Critter easily brushed off my attack and proceeded to drag Nicholas back toward the east side of the house, handing him off at the border to Damien. Itching for vengeance, Damien wrapped Nicholas in a bear hug and dropped to the ground, rolling him around in the snow until my teammate had no choice but to give up. 

With Nicholas dealt with, Critter turned his attention to me. Pinning me to the frozen ground, he shovelled snow in my face until I too surrendered — officially forfeiting our five-dollar fortune in the process. 

Looking back, I could have easily just kept going without trying to rescue Nicholas. Assuming I got past Dan, I could have emerged victorious with $2.50 in my pocket. But I probably would have felt pretty lousy about it, knowing I had abandoned my comrade-in-arms. 

We tend to gauge our level of success according to achievement — the job we have, the amount of money in our bank account, the place we finish in a race. And while achievement is great, I think it’s an incomplete model of success. 

Yes, what we do matters. But how we do it is often more important. I’m not saying you should dismiss achievement from your definition of success. But by weaving “how” into it, we get a better, kinder interpretation that allows anyone — regardless of their position in life — to demonstrate “success” on a daily basis. 

So at the end of each day, go beyond asking yourself what you did, and ask yourself how you did it. Were you kind? Were you patient? Were you engaged in the moment? By looking at success in broader terms, you empower yourself to feel accomplished and satisfied in between the milestones of achievement. 

Yes, I failed to complete the snowy gauntlet. And yes, I ended up with a face full of snow in the process. But I’m happy with how I did it — refusing to abandon Nicholas — and that’s not nothing. 

That approach helped me when I was going through cancer as well. Not long after my diagnosis, I took time to consider how I wanted to define success on this journey. After a lot of deliberation, I decided on this: I won’t let this disease beat me — even if it kills me.

By that, I meant that no matter how bad my cancer got — even to the point of it ending my life — I was determined to stay positive and do everything I could to prevent it from breaking my spirit. Because I might not have been able to control how well I responded to treatment physically. But I could always control how I responded to my predicament psychologically. 

It was a mental reframing that gave me greater agency over the situation. And like the snowy gauntlet, that perspective shift made a tremendous difference. 

Now. How. Wow.

I love happiness hacks — quick, easy habits that set you on a positive track for the day, give you a dopamine hit or snap you out of a momentary funk. One of mine is something I like to call “Now, How, Wow.” Here’s how it works:

NOWA grounding exercise to put you on a solid footing. Pick a colour, any colour. Now spend the next 30 seconds or so making a mental inventory of everything around you containing that colour — your coffee mug, a car outside the window, your socks, etc. (Essentially, it’s the game “I spy with my little eye” but with no wrong answers.)

I’m amazed how quickly and effectively this grounding exercise gets me out of my head and brings my attention back to the moment and my surroundings. It has a calming effect, slowing the flurry of thoughts pinging around my brain and making the day ahead feel less stressful.

HOWA daily intention to focus your approach to the day. After finding every blue, red or green item in your kitchen, ask yourself this question: “How do I want to be today?”

Inspired by the snowy gauntlet, this exercise isn’t about identifying what you want to accomplish or what’s on your to-do list. Instead, it’s an opportunity to be intentional about the attitude or energy you’d like to bring to the day.

For example, you might want to approach the day with a patient or productive mindset. Maybe it’s setting a goal to be kinder to your co-worker. Or more outspoken on the weekly Zoom meeting. Whatever it is, making a conscious decision about how you want to act as a person can be a great way to add direction and focus to the day.

WOWA moment of gratitude. Finally, count your blessings. Simply take a moment to reflect on two or three things you’re grateful for. Sure, the world is full of stressful jobs, scary pandemics and stupid jerks who cut you off on the highway. But it’s also full of awesome things, and reminding yourself of that fact can be a powerful mood booster.

***

And that’s it! Three steps. Two minutes. One easy way to rev up your day. To help make the habit stick, piggyback it with another one you’ve already established — like doing the exercise while you’re brushing your teeth or driving to work.


Next: Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

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Did you know? This resource is also available as a print book called “Simply Blunderful: A cancer survivor’s illustrated guide to flaming tennis balls, camping catastrophes and the many obstacles life throws our way.” Click here to learn more and order your copy.

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience