Sometimes I lie in my hammock and just stare at the sky. In those moments, I often reflect on my hopes and dreams. Where will I be in a year? Five years? Ten years? Will life be better? Worse? The same? Frankly, no matter how good my life is at the time, if I were still the same person in ten years, I would consider those ten years a major failure.

We all have dreams about the future. However, it’s hard to get past the thinking stage. If we do get past the thinking stage, we usually don’t get too far before we find valid excuses to stop.

So the question is, how do we push through challenges without making excuses and giving up? If we can find out the answer to this question, nothing will stop us from going boldly in the direction of our dreams of a better life and creating success.

In 1987, Michael Santos was arrested for trafficking in cocaine and sentenced to 45 years. That’s a pretty big wrench in the gears. What Michael chose to do in his predicament will inspire you to quit making excuses and take control of your future.

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Michael wasn’t a violent criminal, but he was thrown into a prison where learning how to be a functioning member of society was almost impossible. In USP Atlanta, a maximum-security penitentiary, dehumanizing prison guards and bloody gang wars surrounded him. He had plenty of valid excuses to adapt into the prison culture, and gamble away his chances of ever reemerging into society as a productive citizen.

With his future on the line, Michael took the road less traveled. He was determined to make the best of his prison sentence and do whatever it took to atone for his crimes.

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“I want to acknowledge that I’m responsible for what I did, and for what I am, and for where I am, and I want to begin to make decisions that will improve my character and my life.”

Michael began immersing himself in literature. Finding wisdom in the words of the likes of Mandela, Shakespeare, Solzhenitsyn, Plato, Dante, Dostoyevsky, Homer, Locke, Hobbes, and Nietzsche, he came to realize that education was the key to his future.

By continuing to educate myself, I’m taking proactive steps to overcome my adversity.

As one of his first major educational leaps, he wrote a book. He finished Drugs and Money, a book that he intended to have distributed to schools, jails and other organizations for at-risk adolescents, after only being in prison for two years. With the help of his sister, he secured $20,000 to cover printing costs so the book could be distributed for free.

With an insatiable desire for learning, Michael eventually decided to get some real credentials behind his name. He enrolled in a college program, and in 1992 graduated inside of USP Atlanta. Three years later he received a Master of Arts with an emphasis on the American prison system. One of the professors he worked with even got him accepted into a PhD program through the University of Connecticut. What happened next launched him into some of the most interesting and successful years of his prison term.

Education has been my solace, and exciting and challenging escape from the monotony of confinement.

As Michael progressed through his sentence, he was transferred to many different penitentiaries. He happened to be transferred to a new prison just before he began his PhD work. The warden of the new prison denied his request to receive books from the university. Shortly thereafter, he was transferred to a new prison and was denied yet again. He was told he was a prisoner in a “federal prison, not a college.”

Accepting that his formal education track was likely over, he decided to shift gears and study law. He found a program that allowed him to study with the existing law books in the prison library. Every prison has a law library so he would no longer have to beg for permission to study.

Knowing he would need a good chunk of change to start his life after his prison term, his plan was to eventually make money charging other inmates for his help with their cases. But before Michael could finish the program, Gary, a man with a strong Russian accent, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He asked Michael to read through his case and see if he could find a way to get his sentence shortened. All Michael had to do was name his price. After Michael got a call from his sister saying $2000 had appeared in her account, he knew Gary was serious. The two developed a friendship that would prove quite lucrative.

Michael read the Wall Street Journal daily and followed stock trends on a TV inside the prison. This was right when Internet companies were going public and Michael wanted to try his hand in the market. He phoned his sister and had her make some risky investments for him. The investments paid off. He turned his $2000 into $6000. When Gary found out about all this, he made a deal with Michael. Gary would give him $100,000 to invest, but only if he took the same risks he did with the $2000. If Michael lost all the money, no big deal. But whatever gains they ended up with, they would split evenly. (Side note: If you know anyone willing to make that kind of deal, send them my way!)

At the peak of it all, they got up to $1 million in equity. Eventually, the volatility of trading through his sister from prison caught up with them. They lost $400,000 in only a couple days. Less Uncle Sam’s cut, they still ended up with a six-figure gain, but Michael realized he couldn’t handle trading stocks from prison anymore.

After stocks were off the table, Michael had to continue his education elsewhere. With the Internet taking off, he began writing articles that his family would post for him online. His writing eventually garnered some high-profile attention and he was asked to write a book about his prison experience. Inside: Life Behind Bars in America was published in 2006.

For six more years, Michael pushed the envelope from behind bars. He continued his writing, led a self-help class for inmates, and even excelled physically by running over 1000 days in a row to the tune of over 10,000 total miles. 4,000 of those miles came in a single year and 700 of them in a single month.

Throughout Michael’s sentence, he never let excuses get in the way of his dreams. When all was said and done, his prison sentence was reduced to 26 years. He walked out of prison in August 2012, and has continued to learn and share his knowledge.

Michael’s story shows us that anyone can improve his or her predicament through education. Most of us will never have the opportunity to use the excuses Michael consistently refused to use. So if we don’t become the person we hope to become, it’s our own fault. And when life does throw us curveballs and we’re tempted to make excuses—no matter how valid—just remember, there are no excuses great enough to make up for lost dreams.

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Michael tells our readers more about his transformation and gives you the techniques he used during his prison sentence to push through setbacks and challenges to reach their goals. Read our exclusive interview in Part II: Lessons from Prison: How to Create Success From Setbacks

Facts and quotes sourced from Earning Freedom: Conquering a 45-Year Prison Term by Michael G. Santos. You can see what Michael is up to now at michaelsantos.com.

How do we find meaning in life? This is a question that has troubled humanity since the beginning of time. I find myself continually searching for more answers to this very question. As a self-proclaimed non-fiction aficionado, I have read the stories of many inspiring individuals who have found meaning and success in life. One of the most enlightening accounts I’ve come across concerning the matter is from Viktor Frankl.

Viktor was a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps for three years during World War II. His is a story similar to many others who were in these camps. However, his philosophies on finding meaning while in the depths of immense suffering helped him and many others survive the long and horrific ordeal.

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“It is easy for the outsider to get the wrong conception of camp life, a conception mingled with sentiment and pity. Little does he know of the hard fight for existence which raged among the prisoners.” –Viktor Frankl

Concentration camps were a death sentence for a large percentage of the prisoners who entered them, but Viktor found that even though death could come at any time, many prisoners did not abandon all hope.

Finding Meaning Without Possessions

When Viktor first entered the camp, he was shoved with 1500 other prisoners into a shed big enough for only 200 people. The prisoners were then corralled into an area where they were stripped naked and shaved from head to toe. All their possessions, their clothes and every hair on their bodies were taken from them. All that remained was their naked existence.

In addition, each prisoner was assigned a number and dehumanized even more. The numbers were either sewn onto their clothing or tattooed on their skin. Prisoners were never addressed by name. They were merely numbers. It would be difficult for anyone to feel a sense of worth in these circumstances. Viktor found hope by focusing on one thing that could never be taken away: his freedom to choose how to respond to the circumstances.

Even when we can’t control what happens to us, we can always control what we do about it. While it may not offset our suffering, sometimes all we need to keep going is a sliver of hope to carry us through until a brighter day.

Finding Meaning Through Tension

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“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

The prisoners who knew there was a task or a responsibility they had to complete were most likely to survive. When Viktor went into camp, he had with him a manuscript for a book he had written but not yet published. That manuscript represented his life’s work. He did everything he could to preserve his work, but like everything else it was quickly taken from him.

For Viktor, knowing that he still had work to finish—rewriting the manuscript—meant he had something to keep him going. His dedication to finishing something that would live on after him was the motivation he needed to fight for his life. While in camp, he would jot down little notes on whatever he could find that would help him rewrite the manuscript once he was liberated.

Viktor believes that having his work stolen not only gave him a task to fulfill but also tension in his existence. It created a need for him to finish something and an obstacle to overcome.

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“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal.” – Viktor Frankl

Viktor likens this theory to strengthening a weakened arch. You do not strengthen the arch by removing weight; you strengthen it by adding weight. The more weight there is the tighter the arch holds itself together.

Finding Meaning Through Others

While suffering through his own tribulation, Viktor found strength in helping others. “Running into the wire” was a common camp slang for committing suicide. When the grim reality of their imprisonment became too much to bear, many prisoners would end their suffering by running into the electric fence that surrounded the camp. Viktor worked diligently to help other prisoners who were depressed and discouraged find something to give their lives meaning. He helped them find reasons to fight for survival instead of ending their lives for nothing.

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“The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. Self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” – Viktor Frankl

I love that quote. I have to really read it over and over just to grasp the depth of what he is saying. It reminds me of a similar quote I found while reading Into The Wild. Chris McCandless abandoned his family and ventured off on a solo, two-year adventure to find himself. However, just before he died—alone in the Alaskan wilderness—he wrote in his journal “happiness only real when shared.” It took a long, lonely quest to realize that life is meant to be shared with others.

Viktor saved the lives of many prisoners as he helped them find meaning in their seemingly endless suffering, and in the process, saved his own.

Today, his work lives on. Viktor’s book Man’s Search For Meaning has sold millions of copies, and his thoughts are cemented into the hearts and minds of people all over the world. While our struggles in life will likely never compare to Viktor’s, we can rest assured that no matter what happens to us, there will always be a way to find meaning.

Facts and quotes sourced from Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

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The Battle of Gettysburg is widely considered to be the turning point that enabled the Union to defeat the Confederates in the Civil War. Had the war gone the other way, America would be very different today. While no single person can take all the credit for the victory at Gettysburg, a man by the name of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was definitely an integral piece of the puzzle.Valor_JoshuaChamberlain_640x400

Rough Beginnings

“I have always been interested in military matters, and what I do not know in that line, I know how to learn.” –Joshua Chamberlain

Chamberlain was a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College in Maine. But as the Civil War progressed, he began to feel a sense of urgency to enlist in the military. His determination and desire to serve the Union eventually opened the door for him to command the 20th Maine, a hodgepodge unit made up of other regiment’s extra men. While other units were given a flag and sent off with the support of their cities, Chamberlain’s men went to war without fanfare or farewell.

If leading an unsupported unit of men into battle wasn’t hard enough, Chamberlain was also given orders to absorb 120 three-year enlistees from the 2nd Maine Infantry into his regiment.

The 2nd Maine men were veterans in the war. They had all served for two years. However, the men were in a state of mutiny. They refused to fight because their unit had been disbanded and the majority of their regiment had been discharged and sent home. While the bulk of the 2nd Maine had signed two-year enlistments, the 120 remaining men had signed three-year enlistments and still had a year left.

Chamberlain was told to shoot the mutinous men who refused duty. Luckily for those men, Chamberlain took compassion on them and worked to fix the situation before it became an issue. He distributed the experienced men of the disbanded 2nd Maine evenly into the ranks of the inexperienced 20th Maine.

Little Round Top

The Battle of Little Round Top was a significant victory that helped make the victory at Gettysburg possible. It was at the Battle of Little Round Top that Chamberlain earned the Medal of Honor for valiantly leading his men in the face of danger.

Geographically, Little Round Top was the far left line of the Union’s defense and a strategic stronghold for anyone who could hold it. If the Confederate troops took the hill, it is not a stretch to assume they would have been able to pick apart the rest of the Union troops, which would have made a significant impact on the outcome at Gettysburg.

To emphasize the strategic importance of Chamberlain’s position on the hill, Colonel Strong Vincent left him with the following order.

“This is the left of the Union line. You are to hold this ground at all costs!”

All or Nothing

Leading up to the Battle of Little Round Top, Chamberlain made a crucial move to band his regiment together. He elevated former 2nd Maine solider, Andrew J. Tozier, to Color Sergeant. As Color Sergeant was usually reserved for the bravest soldier in the unit, Chamberlain was able to instill loyalty and pride in the men who were still feeling mutinous. They began to feel that Chamberlain trusted and respected them. They were ready to go to battle with him.

Once the fighting had begun, Tozier stood his ground in a flurry of gunfire and kept a vulnerable part of the Union line from being overtaken. This act of bravery instilled strength into the rest of the unit, and Tozier was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery.

Though the hill still belonged to the Union, the 20th Maine was weakening. Chamberlain’s men were running dangerously low on ammunition, and many men who had advanced on the Confederates were wounded and close to the enemy. One of Chamberlain’s lieutenants, Holman Melcher, wanted to advance and retrieve the wounded men. Chamberlain agreed and decided not only to retrieve the wounded, but also to mount a bayonet charge on the enemy in a final, all-or-nothing attempt to defend the hill. If death was his fate, he was going to die knowing he had done everything he could.

In the heat of the battle, Chamberlain ordered the bayonet charge. Melcher responded quickly and lead the way into the enemy troops, which were only 30 yards away.

The order was a success. The Confederates had no idea how to respond to such a charge and, in the midst of confusion and fear, were captured. The hill did not fall.

Living With Valor

Chamberlain was a man deeply rooted in academics, but in serving a cause greater than himself, he became an exemplar of valor.

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While most of us will never be in Chamberlain’s situation, we all will have opportunities to be courageous and face our fears. Things that are trying to overtake us may come from the outside, or they may come from the inside. Whatever battles we are facing, it is important that we face our enemies with valor. Doing so will ultimately lead us to the most fulfilling experiences of our lives.

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I invite you to look for and take opportunities that will help you grow—no matter how daunting the task may seem. You won’t regret it if you do.

I imagine if Ernest Shackleton had a business card, it would read something like the title of this article. Allow me to explain.

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Antarctic Explorer

Ernest Shackleton was a master mariner whose goal in life was to adventure into the unknown. He literally wanted to go where no man had gone before: the South Pole.

In 1901, he put his money where his mouth was and joined an expedition bound for the Antarctic. To his great disappointment, Shackleton became seriously ill on the voyage. His dream would have to wait.

He tried again in 1907, but extreme weather forced him to cut his journey short again. In what can only be described as a supreme bummer, another explorer beat him to the punch only a few years later. Just like that, his dream of over ten years was dashed.

Devoted Dreamer

Down but not out, Shackleton was determined to up the ante on his previous goal. He wasn’t just going to reach the South Pole; he was going to cross the entire continent of Antarctica.

Shackleton knew this expedition was going to be far more dangerous than any of the previous. In fact, there are stories told of him placing an ad in the newspaper with the following copy:

“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

While most historians agree that Shackleton never did place the ad, the expedition went exactly as advertised.

Buckle up. It’s about to get real.

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Shackleton and his crew departed from South Georgia toward Antarctica aboard the ship Endurance on December 5, 1914. That was the last time they would set foot on land for the next 497 days.

Only a month into the voyage, the Endurance became wedged between miles of thick, floating ice. Knowing the ship would eventually succumb to the pressures of the ice, Shackleton and his crew abandoned ship and set up camp atop the floating ice. 497 long, cold days later, they made it to Elephant Island, which wasn’t exactly a paradise.

Frank Hurley, the official photographer of the expedition, gave his two cents about the island:

“Our wintry environment embodies the most inhospitable and desperate prospect imaginable.”

On a freezing island covered in ridiculous amounts of penguin crap, the men suffered from toothaches, frostbite, gangrene, infections, and mental and physical exhaustion.

Eventually, in an all-or-nothing, 16-day voyage on a small lifeboat, Shackleton and five of his men made it back to South Georgia. However, the crew’s problems were far from over. It wasn’t until August 30, 1916, after four attempts over more than three-months’ time, that Shackleton was finally able to return and rescue the 22 men stranded on Elephant Island.

Every one of the 28 men on the voyage survived the ordeal.

Shackleton may not have realized his dream, but his determination to overcome failure, his passion for exploring the unknown, and his devotion to the lives of his crew is something we can all learn from. Shackleton lived painfully true to the motto of his family: Fortitudine vincimus, which means, “By endurance we conquer.” The events of Shackleton’s voyage provide a solid source of hope for anyone who must endure any kind of hardship.

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As you can imagine, this short post comes nowhere close to describing the magnitude of the story. I highly encourage you to pick up Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing or South by Ernest Shackleton.

 

Story facts were pulled from the following sources:

http://www.biography.com/people/ernest-shackleton-9480091#later-years

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

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In the age of endless self-documentation and instant gratification, it’s easy to fake passion. If the thing you loved to do was widely believed to be impossible—or people called you a crackpot for trying— would you still do it?

In the late 1800’s, most people believed aeronautical engineers were crackpots. It was widely believed that man-powered flight was impossible. Airplane crashes made for great stories, and journalists were all over that. Who doesn’t love to hear about stupid people getting injured by jumping off roofs thinking they can fly? (cough cough Tosh.0, Ridiculousness, AFV, Jackass… not much has changed in the last 200 years.) But the fear of embarrassment didn’t stop everyone from trying to fly.

The Race For First In Flight

“If we worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true really is true, then there would be little hope for advance.” – Orville Wright

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Orville and Wilbur Wright worked as a team for most of their lives. They started with a printing company, and later opened a bicycle shop. It was the bicycle shop that eventually enabled the Wright Brothers to experiment with flight. But they weren’t the only ones.

In 1887, a man by the name of Samuel P. Langley began experimenting with flight.

Langley held the highest scientific office in the country, so of course the media had an eye on his work. It was Langley who initially inspired the Wright Brothers.

Langley had a full staff of employees working on his machines, which he called Aerodromes. By 1898, with the Spanish-American war on the horizon, the military decided to back Langley and help fund his project.

With financing of $70,000, the support of the U.S. military, and the prestige of the highest scientific office in the country, Langley built what he coined the Great Aerodrome.

When the day came in 1903 to show off the fruits of his five-year labors, the plane crashed into the Potomac on take off. The press had a heyday with Langley’s failure. Embarrassed by the ridiculing stories and the withdrawal of support from the military, Langley halted operations and gave up for good.

Nine days later, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, the Wright Brothers carried out the world’s first controlled, sustained powered flight. But at the time, no one even seemed to notice. In fact, they weren’t even recognized as the first to flight until 1942.

 

Don’t Play It Safe

While there were many things, including the decades long legal battles, that determined who got credit for being the first to flight, I would like to focus on one intriguing aspect of the story.

When it comes to your passion, it’s more risky to play it safe.

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Langley was interested in flight, and would have loved to be the first to do it. But I’m not so sure he was as dedicated as the Wright Brothers. Why do I think that?

All of Langley’s flights were over water.

It makes a lot of sense. If your plane has an issue and doesn’t fly as planned, the safest place to crash would be a body of water. It’s the safe thing to do.

I think playing it safe may have lost Langley the race.

The Wright Brothers focused on control. They had done the research on flying machines. In 1899, the brothers even wrote Langley at his position at the Smithsonian requesting access to his aeronautical research. They credited Langley and his research for having given them a “good understanding of the problem of flying.”

However, Orville and Wilbur understood that the challenge wasn’t in sustained powered flight alone, but in controlled, sustained powered flight. This is evident in the fact that they invented an airplane control system, and later spit flaps (to slow down a plane in a dive), that were both eventually patented.

All of the Wright Brothers’ test flights were performed on the dunes at Kitty Hawk.

No soft water landings if they messed up, so they needed to be able to control the plane once it was in the air.

It’s like in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises when Bruce Wayne had to get out of the pit. He couldn’t do it until he took off the safety rope and sacrificed everything.

Passion is something that will lead you down the road to the happiest, but also the hardest days of your life. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. You’ll have to sacrifice a lot, but in the end, it’s worth it.

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If you have a passion for something, you won’t care if you don’t get any likes when you post about it. You also don’t listen to the critics who try to score a quick laugh at your expense. You believe in yourself, get to work, and eventually prove the h8rz wrong.

The seatbelt light is off. Get up and do something great!

 

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“Why don’t you cure leukemia?”

As a hematologist, this was the charge given to Emil Freireich when he arrived at the National Cancer Institute in 1955. He focused his work on children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Children with ALL suffer from severe bleeding. In the children’s leukemia ward it would get so bad that kids couldn’t eat because their mouths and noses were bleeding so badly. Freireich elaborated on the grim reality of the situation in a 2013 interview.

“These children literally bled to death. They drown in their own blood. Now they’re 4-10 years old, they don’t know what the hell is going on. It’s really horrible.at that time leukemia diagnosis were death certificates. Median lifespan was about 6-8 weeks and 100% of them were dead in 8 months.”

Freireich focused first on the problem of bleeding. He knew if he could at least stop the children from bleeding, he could give all his attention to finding a cure for the disease. When he believed he had an explanation and a remedy for the bleeding, he took it to his superiors. Freireich was told the idea wouldn’t work. He stood firm in his belief and decided to go against the better judgments of many of his superiors.

It worked. The children stopped bleeding.

Up until this time, chemotherapy had really only been done using a single chemical at a time. However, those chemicals were never strong enough to overcome the leukemia on their own. Freireich knew there had to be a better solution.

But if using one toxic chemical didn’t work, who in their right mind would ever think to use more than one—especially on children? No one. That’s why the children and their families needed someone who would try something “insane.”

Freireich had a theory that leukemia could be cured with the same method used in the treatment of tuberculosis—administering multiple drugs simultaneously. The problem was that the cytotoxins used for chemotherapy were harsher. There was more risk with possible side effects. Many leading hematologists, including the world’s expert in hematology, thought the humane thing to do was to forego treatment and create a comfortable environment for the children to meet their end. Why do anything to prolong or increase a child’s suffering?

Freireich didn’t feel the same way. He was going to fight for his kids. The children were going to die anyway. Why not try and help? He chose to discuss his theories openly with the parents of the children he was treating. The parents were in favor of him at least trying for a cure. With a green light from the parents, he began his trials.

Using a combination chemotherapy regimen with three different drugs administered simultaneously—each with a unique purpose—Freireich began to see improvement. But the kids were still dying. It wasn’t until he added a fourth drug to the mix that he found himself on the brink of a cure. The first child he tried his four-combination chemotherapy on was pushed to the brink of death. She suffered immensely from the treatment. She eventually recovered from the effects of the chemotherapy, but later died of an infection.

Freireich went back to the drawing board and made adjustments to the chemical doses. Remarkably, in the very next trial, he got it right. Freireich had cured a child of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Today, a childhood diagnoses of acute lymphoblastic leukemia has a 95% chance of attaining remission.”

Freireich doesn’t deny that concocting a super drug by combining four toxic drugs was insane. He had to make objective decisions that meant possibly killing his patients, because he knew that making those decisions was the only way a cure would ever be found—if one even existed.

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We all have instances in our lives where we can take the easy way out. There are choices that are easy and comfortable, and then there are choices that are difficult and require work.

“…our formulation of the ethics of research was the same as the ethics of getting out of a [sinking] boat, I mean, you just did what you could do…there weren’t any options.”

I invite you to evaluate your life right now. Are there sinking boats you should be getting out of? It’s certainly easier to sink with the boat than it is to swim for safety. Don’t let the ease of doing nothing stop you from swimming. Make the decision to do what you can do and get at it.

In addition, like Freireichs’ combination chemotherapy, each little thing we do to improve our lives adds up. If we make enough little decisions to live better, we’ll eventually find success.

 

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