The holiday season serves as a wonderful time of faith, fun and family but it can also be a great time to step back and reflect.

For me, that process always starts with tough questions.

How am I doing?

Am I serving and leading my family at the level they deserve? Am I doing everything I can to truly empower my team and clients? Am I living up to my potential – in the eyes of God, my wife, my kids, my parents, my sister, my friends, my team, my mentors, and others?

Some years the answers are better than others but one thing remains the same – the toughest critic always stares back at me from the mirror.

I’m a guy that likes to have a framework to use when I am analyzing something and the past few years I have started using a 3-part framework for my personal snapshot. The framework I use is one of the universe’s most stable and timeless constructions – a three-legged barstool.

To be clear – this reflection exercise doesn’t have to be done on a barstool (though it doesn’t hurt to do it there) – as the more important thing is not the barstool itself, but how balanced we are on top of the three legs that make it up. That balance determines our daily mindset, specifically how content or happy we are.

Despite what many people believe, the legs that balance our life (or not) and create our mindset (and resulting happiness) aren’t people, things, money, success or circumstances, though those things contribute to each leg. Instead, the three legs of the barstool of life are created by the most universal reality on this journey we’re all on – time.

Leg #1: Gone (adjective) ~ no longer present; departed

What does the word “gone” mean to you?

Although the dictionary has a definition for this word, the specificity of it belies the unique, deeply personal meaning it has for each of us.

In some cases, gone feels permanent, like the loss of a loved one that still pains us to this day – gone in a way that feels all too final, often tragic and at times unbearable – particularly during the holidays.

Gone can also mean the loss of a job, business, relationship, skill, physical or mental health, favorite tradition or maybe even some portion of faith. Some of these are permanent and, fortunately, some can be regained in the future.

I reflect a lot each holiday season about the word “gone” because, on one hand, it represents the antithesis to what we now have – what’s here in front of us. On the other hand, “gone” also represents stories, lessons and loved ones whose memories give us comfort and joy amidst current challenges.

If we lean into the regret of this leg of our barstool too much, we sometimes focus on what we don’t have at the expense of what we do. At the same time, there is much in this category that deserves to be honored and celebrated and the cherished memory it provides can offer stability, confidence and comfort.

Leg #2: Here (adverb) ~ in, at, or to this place or position.

We know, intellectually, that what we now have will likely be gone at some point in the future but despite that knowledge, we often take the “here” for granted until it moves into the “gone” category.

Additionally, our happiness or contentment is often connected to our perception of the balance between the first two legs. If we focus more on what we don’t have or what we may perceive as gone, we often miss out on what is here in front of us.

The holiday season is a unique time of year because the “gone” and the “here” often collide in a more prominent way. We grieve the gone but often don’t appreciate the here because of busyness, pre-occupation or distraction – a misplaced treasure in the most important time of the year.

When we live life in the moment, we are better spouses, parents, friends, leaders and servants because we are attentive to and appreciative of those we surround ourselves with. One of the many lessons Ann Voskamp has taught me is that gratitude is the starting point of a happy and impactful life and it makes such an impact on this leg.

Leg #3: Future (adjective) ~ at a later time; going or likely to happen or exist.

The third leg of the barstool is the future, as you may have guessed, and it offers two different definitions depending on one’s outlook.

For some, the future is defined as “what will be,” a resignation to a self-imposed belief that the future isn’t in one’s control – that no amount of personal growth, hard work or moxie can change life’s trajectory. This might be best described as an “it is what it is” approach to what’s ahead on the journey of life and, in my experience, causes significant loss of happiness and/or contentment based on the lack of hope.

The other mindset defines the future as “what could be,” which believes the future can be largely created based on a specific personal design and trajectory for one’s life and work. This hopeful outlook not only empowers us, it often tends to inspire others with its vision and optimism. This kind of mindset does not mean life won’t deal unexpected blows entirely out of our control – it most surely will – but when we live with a belief that our future can be largely created, we empower ourselves with hope. This future we create isn’t just for ourselves, it’s the future we can also empower others to create with the right encouragement, teaching and vision.

I watched “Crazy Rich Asians” on a recent long flight (sidebar: what an awesome movie) and one of my favorite lines came from the over-bearing mother who condescendingly quipped at Rachel “How American” after hearing how passionate she was about her job as an economics teacher. She goes on to lecture Rachel on how different that approach is from her view that a resignation to one’s duty or path (in her case giving up her career to serve the family) is more important than charting one’s own course based on passion.

Rachel was miffed at the “How American” remark but I must admit that I beamed with a bit of pride when I heard it. How on-brand for America! A fabric of this country has always been that our future can be created and although some say we have lost our ‘land of opportunity’ mindset, I think it’s baked into each of us, even if we lose sight of the control we possess to create that opportunity from time to time.

Balance (noun) ~ an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.

The barstool of life is best supported by a balance between the three legs. If time is life’s most precious resource, our view of it is life’s most important balance.

Some years I balance better than others but my hardest leg is often “here” because I can get too preoccupied with the future and miss out on so much as a result.

How about you?

How well are you balancing this holiday season? Which direction do you need to lean into to set up for an even more impactful, fun and joyous 2019?

May we all have the wisdom this holiday season to have mindful gratitude and focus on what is here in front of us – from our family and faith to our work, friends and gifts – while also celebrating the past and creating a specific vision for a future we can create – in 2019 and beyond.

Copyright 2019 Rusty Shelton