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Oxygen Mask Experience – a disaster or a blessing?

I just boarded a Southwest Airlines flight in West Palm Beach, FL heading to Islip, NY. I struck out and started my journey home. I was stuck, needed help, and went to Florida to get it. The people I met with were people I had helped over the years, and, on this trip, I learned they were too busy and not interested in helping me.

To put things into context - I just lost a business, a career and much more. I was starting over at the age of 40, with a family and many responsibilities. I needed help and I didn’t get it.

I was sitting in a window seat toward the back of the plane looking outside and thinking to myself, how could this have happened? How did I get into this position after having so much? I helped these people, why are they not helping me? Who else can I ask…, and before I could finish my thought, I was interrupted by the flight attendant’s voice. She was standing in the aisle a few rows in front of me holding an oxygen mask in her hand and demonstrating how to put it on in the event of an emergency. She explained that should an emergency occur - I interrupted her in my mind and said yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, you put the oxygen mask on your kid first - you need to put your own mask on first, before attempting to help your child or those around you. It was at that very moment that things became clear to me. What I was doing was never going to work. I was looking for others to help me when the best and most qualified person to help me was me. If I were going to provide for my family, if change was going to happen, it must start with me.

As soon as I arrived home, I jumped online and enrolled in an NLP class in New York City to learn about my thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and the structure of success and what it means. I joined CrossFit, a high intensity physical fitness program, and started paying attention to what I was eating. Soon thereafter, I met up with a friend, Dan Ritchie, who I hadn’t seen in years. He offered me a job to work with him at Dale Carnegie, a professional development company, which I gladly accepted.

Life was talking, I was listening, and I felt like I was being rewarded. Before too long, I was in the best physical shape of my life, I was learning about change, what it meant for me, and how to create it for others. I was more connected with my family, friends and the people around me. The consulting work I was doing wasn’t paying much but I was learning, growing and helping organizations and their people do the same. I was providing for my family, heading in the right direction, and enjoying the ride.

I struggled with the concept of putting myself first and it wasn’t until a mentor and friend, Neil Toyota, helped me better understand the concept of working on yourself first that it became clean. He used the example of a fire truck and reminded me how a firetruck must be maintained. It must be kept clean, and its instruments & electrical components must be tested and working properly. The truck must always be filled with water and fuel, kept safe, covered, and in great working condition so that it is ready to go at a moment’s notice. He questioned how a fire truck can put out fires if it isn’t working properly. The same applies for people. How can you take care of people if you haven’t already taken care of yourself? It made sense.

My oxygen mask experience helped reframe what seemed to be a disaster into a blessing and a once in a lifetime opportunity to realign my life with who I am and what’s most important. I used to chase money all over the world. Now, I chase opportunities to make a positive difference all over the world. Looking back, I did everything perfectly to be where I was. I wasn’t paying attention to the feedback life was sharing. I was heading in the wrong direction and life tried to warn me. Because I was too busy chasing money and shiny objects, life pulled the rug from under me. It worked - life got my attention and ever since, I have been shining my firetruck and responding to all opportunities to stop and prevent fires.

I no longer work with Dale Carnegie and it’s still my favorite brand. I do continue working with organizations and their people. Now, I help leaders and other successful people voluntarily create their own oxygen mask experience. They put on the mask, look around and listen. They become clearer and more excited about what they want and how they are going to get it. They go from awesome to awesome-r by choosing to change themselves before life forces it on them.

I learned that instead of looking to others for help, I needed to first help myself. This is my oxygen mask story, what’s yours?


Robert Paulson


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