Lessons From Ron Lewison (1938-2008)

On Thursday a good friend and fellow Toastmaster named Ron Lewison was in a serious car accident. He was rushed to the hospital, but his injuries were too severe, including a broken pelvis and a punctured lung. Shortly after his family arrived, he passed away. He was 69 years old and is survived by his wife of 47 years and his children and grandchildren.

On Sunday Erin and I attended Ron’s memorial service followed by a reception attended by his family, friends, and many other Las Vegas Toastmasters. I probably knew about half the people there.

Since Ron had such a deep and lasting impact on me, much more than he probably realized, I wanted to share some of what I learned from him, partly as a way of expressing my gratitude for the man that he was, and partly because I think it may inspire you to rethink a few things about your own life.

Mentor, Coach, and Friend

Ron was an incredible mentor and coach to many people. He was a DTM in Toastmasters International (the highest rank one can achieve) and was Toastmasters’ District 33 Mentor of the Year. He has attended and judged more speech contests than anyone I know. Just last weekend he shared his advice at a free workshop to help local speakers improve their performance in speech contests. Because he was so generous in giving of himself, he touched a lot of people’s lives, including mine.

I first met Ron in October 2004, just a few weeks after I started blogging. Ron came up to me after my first Division-level humorous speech contest (where I finished in 2nd place) and told me that he thought I showed great potential as a speaker and that I should consider joining an advanced Toastmasters club, a club that would challenge me more than my current club. I’d only been in Toastmasters for 4 months at that point, so I didn’t feel ready to join an advanced club.

I didn’t even meet all the prerequisites to join the club he recommended — I had to complete 10 Toastmasters speeches first, and I was only up to 6 so far. But Ron was pretty convincing, so I took his advice and attended a few meetings as a guest. I admit it was a bit intimidating at first because the other speakers were so much better than me — so smooth and flowing even when speaking off the cuff. I clearly remember what Ron said to me though: “It’s always good to join groups where you just barely qualify for membership. You’ll improve a lot faster that way because the other people will help lift you up to a new level.”

I realized he was right, so I joined that club as soon as I was qualified to do so, which happened in April 2005. What an amazing journey that has been! I learned much more from this advanced club than I would have learned if I stuck with the easier, safer path. I’m still a member of that club today, which has since become one of the most successful clubs in Vegas with about 35 members. In fact, Erin is being inducted as our newest member tonight.

In March 2005 I actually wrote a blog entry mentioning Ron’s advice. At the time I used to tease him that because of that blog post, I ranked #1 on his name on Google, so according to Google, I owned him. He seemed to find that amusing.

Having worked many years as a stock analyst on Wall Street, Ron was a great strategic thinker. He was able to look at a speech and make many suggestions for improvement, even though he wasn’t a top contest competitor himself. I can’t even count all the people who owe him a debt of gratitude for his help over the years.

In 2005, about a year after we first met, Ron and I and some local friends attended a seminar on the Vegas Strip. Erin was out of town with the kids (and our only car), so Ron offered to give me a ride. When I got in the car, he said he wanted to pick my brain about blogging, which was a nice exchange because I wanted to pick his brain about speaking and speech contests. There was a lot of traffic that day, so we were a little late arriving, but I didn’t mind because he was such a great person to talk to. He was immensely curious and was always thinking about how certain things could be improved — especially people. ūüôā

Ron was always reading books, listening to CDs, and watching DVDs about communication and presentation skills. Whenever I went to a local speaking or presentation skills workshop, he was there. But instead of applying what he learned for his own use, Ron quickly turned around and passed on the best ideas he encountered to help coach others to improve. He had a great memory and often shared ideas and anecdotes from the vast amounts of information he absorbed. Most of the information products I have on speaking and communication skills were originally recommended by Ron. A glance at my bookshelf triggers memories of many conversations with him.

Ron encouraged me to continue competing in speech contests, saying that it was the fastest way to improve, equivalent to years of regular Toastmasters’ club attendance. Since then I’ve competed in three different contest seasons and learned a great deal from them. Following his advice required more courage, but it was a lot more effective. He helped me shave years off my learning curve. Ron did this for a lot of people.

There are many people who will help coach you up to their level, but what was so special about Ron is that he coached people beyond his level. How many of us can say that we’d willingly coach someone to surpass us? It was noted at yesterday’s service that Ron was a rare man with “the biggest intellect paired with the smallest ego.” I completely agree.

Ron was very encouraging of others, but he truthfully told people what they needed to hear. He didn’t let you squeak by when it was obvious you were performing below your potential. At the same time, he knew when it was best to be gentle with new speakers.

I think Ron approached coaching and mentoring with the mindset of an investor. Just as he once analyzed companies on Wall Street, he learned to recognize mediocre speakers who could eventually become great speakers if he invested some of his time and energy to help them. Ron was good at recognizing speakers who had heart (something he really couldn’t teach), and then he helped teach them the head-oriented stuff they needed to succeed. I imagine it’s a similar skill to recognizing a startup company with lots of raw passion and talent, a company that could do really well with the right mentoring and management.

As Ron witnessed my unfolding success as a blogger, he developed an interest in blogging as well. He attended my local blogging workshops and asked me a lot of follow-up questions. I think he was attracted to the idea of sharing his strategic business knowledge with more people. It took him a while, but he finally got his WordPress blog online and posted some of his articles shortly before he died. He had some trouble with the fonts because he pasted his articles from MS-Word — a common issue for new bloggers — but at least he got it up and running.

I’m not sure if Ron fully realized what a tremendous positive rippling effect he had on others. He was a very mental/analytical guy to be sure, but his actions affected people a lot more deeply than that. When Ron offered detailed advice and coaching, he came at it from the analysis side, probably because that was his background. However, I know that the people he coached, myself included, actually perceived Ron’s help as if he was saying, “I believe in you.” I have no doubt that he really cared about people.

Connecting After Death

Now if you happen to maintain a belief system in which you’ve concluded that communication with the other side is impossible, you may want to skip this next section. On the other hand, if you’re of a more open-minded nature, I hope you’ll keep reading. I won’t be offended if you choose to skip it though since I know that death can be a sensitive subject for many people.

Partly because of my sensitivity to such things as well as the path Erin and I have shared for many years, after I learned of Ron’s death, I wondered if I would sense his presence or be able to connect with him in some way. Well, that happened in a most powerful way. I wasn’t too surprised that it happened since I always felt good about Ron while he was alive. I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.

On Friday (the day after Ron died), I took a 20-minute nap. I usually don’t take daytime naps, but I was out late meeting with someone the previous night, so I started getting drowsy and decided to take a short nap to refresh myself.

During this nap I had a vivid dream (I still dream even during short naps ever since my polyphasic sleep experimentation), and suddenly in the middle of the dream, Ron appeared to me. I wasn’t lucid at the time, so I didn’t know I was dreaming. In the dream I ran up to him, gave him a big hug, and exclaimed, “Ron! What are you doing here? I thought you were dead! What happened?”

Ron, however, just stood there and didn’t say a word. He didn’t even reciprocate the hug, which made me feel a bit stupid for initiating it. At that point I started becoming lucid and realized I was actually dreaming. I understood this wasn’t Ron in physical form, but it definitely felt like his energy. However, I still couldn’t get him to say anything. He didn’t even make eye contact with me. He just stared straight ahead looking stunned.

I woke up from the dream shortly thereafter, feeling very emotional about the experience. I told Erin what happened, and she encouraged me to see if I could tune back in and receive a message from him. I agreed it was worth a try, but I wanted to stay conscious, so instead of going back to sleep, I attempted to reconnect via meditation. I should mention that while Erin also knew Ron, she didn’t know him nearly as well as I did, partly because I was in a Toastmasters club and a National Speakers Association chapter with Ron, but Erin wasn’t.

As I began to meditate, I still felt a strong connection to Ron’s energy, and I could clearly see him in my mind’s eye, but he was just standing there and not saying a word. Nor did he seem to be attempting any sort of symbolic communication. I figured that since he’d just crossed over, maybe I was simply unable to get a clear enough connection. I spent the next 10 minutes attempting to go into a deeper state of meditation, but there seemed to be no improvement. If he had a message for me, I couldn’t tell what it was because nothing aside from his image was coming through.

I didn’t want to give up though. I thought that maybe Ron wasn’t here to give me a message at all. Maybe he wanted something else. Instead of trying to pull down a message from him, I decided just to try reading his energy instead. I picked up very clearly that he was shocked. I thought maybe he was too stunned to communicate with me, so instead of waiting for him to say something, I just starting talking to him. I wondered if maybe he didn’t know he was actually dead, so I figured that was a good place to start. I confirmed for him what had happened and that he had just crossed over. Based on my limited knowledge of what people experience when they cross over, I gave him some advice. I sent him lots of love energy to try to help raise his vibration. While many entities on the other side have a higher vibration than human beings (such as spirit guides and angels) and have to lower their vibration to communicate with us, I could see that Ron was having the opposite problem. Somehow there was a perfect irony in me coaching him for a change.

This energy work helped. I could see that he was rising up from total shock to the point where he was finally able to start processing what had happened. A few minutes later I was able to communicate with him perfectly. For me this came through clairaudiently, so I was actually hearing his voice in my mind. In fact, it was an unusually clear connection. I was surprised at just how perfectly the voice matched his physical voice. It felt like he was right there in the room with me.

We talked for a good 20 minutes, and basically what he told me was this:

He said he had absolutely “no idea” this was coming. Those were his exact words — “no idea” — which he repeated over and over. He was very sad about that. He said he thought he had a lot more time. This whole thing came as a tremendous shock to him, not because he was alive on the other side, but because his human life had ended so abruptly and unexpectedly. All the goals and plans he had in the works were instantly discontinued by his passing, and I got the sense he felt he’d left a lot undone. I could see that it was very hard for him to accept his death and that he was absolutely stunned by it. There were a lot of things in his physical life he really liked, and it was very hard for him to accept that they were gone.

I felt very compassionately towards him, so I did my best to comfort and console him. He communicated that he should have accomplished more as an individual, that he should have been more aggressive about getting things done. You see, Ron was the kind of person who would often talk to me (and others I presume) about his long-term goals and plans, such as getting his own blog off the ground. However, when it came to taking action, he seemed to have a hard time working on his own goals because he poured so much time into helping others achieve their goals. I know this is what his heart led him to do, but I think he had a hard time getting his head around it.

I reminded Ron of all the good he did and all the people he helped. I tried to help him see that in the long run, individual accomplishment doesn’t mean much, especially once we cross over, and that his best accomplishment here was all the positive ripples he created. I encouraged him to give himself credit for all the people he coached, mentored, and inspired. I think this helped to shift his mindset a little, but I could see it was going to take him a while to process all of this. Dying isn’t something that happens to us every day.

I thanked Ron for all the encouragement he gave me over the years. I ran through a few memories with him, showing him some of the good times we shared. I could tell this helped to raise his energy, not to a super-high level but at least beyond the level of shock and disbelief and on the way towards acceptance.

I told him I was surprised and honored that of all the people he could visit, he chose to come see me. I always felt a fatherly connection to him, but I wasn’t sure if he felt the same. I thought he’d be spending this time around his family. His answer was that he connected with me mainly because he could. Maybe I had the right antennae for receiving him because I’ve practiced developing my skills in this area for many years. He indicated that my (100% raw foods) diet made it easier for him to connect with me. This didn’t surprise me because I’ve felt a significant boost in my psychic/intuitive abilities after dropping all cooked foods from my diet. I think another reason is that I intended to connect with him and believed that I could — that tends to work as sort of a beacon. After we learned of his death, Erin also put out the intent for Ron to come to us if he needed help. It still surprised me that he showed up only a day after he died though. I was thinking it would take at least a few weeks before he was ready for that.

The sense of connection with him was so strong I felt like I could have talked to him for hours — if I could have maintained the right state that long. But once I saw that his energy had risen to a reasonable level, I told him he should take some time to process what had happened to him. I didn’t want to overload him. I also suggested that he should attend his funeral because I thought he’d really enjoy it. I knew the place would be filled with others who loved him. That certainly turned out to be true. There was more humor than sorrow as people shared their happy memories of Ron. I cracked up when a friend compared Ron to Yoda… such an apt analogy.

Two days later, I learned that at least two other friends felt they had visitations from Ron. They processed their experiences differently than I did, but I found it fascinating to learn that Ron was already getting around. Perhaps his Toastmasters skills proved helpful to him over there. After all, working on your human communication skills shares a lot of overlap with learning how to share your energy openly and authentically. I also think Ron felt that Toastmasters was an extension of his family, so he already had a very strong connection to members of this group.

I’ve connected with Ron several more times since his passing. He seems to be hanging around a lot, and I continue to help him adapt to life on the other side, giving him suggestions for things to try over there. With each passing day, I can see that he’s doing better and better. He’s learning to accept his death, and I sense that he’s already looking into mentoring and coaching people from the other side. I know he’ll be a real asset over there. I told him that if he needed any help that he could always come to me, and I’d do what I can. I also invited him to keep mentoring me on my own path as a speaker. I told him he should feel free to decline, but he seemed to really like that idea. Even though he never got the opportunity to get going as a blogger, I think he likes having indirect access to a bigger audience than he was ever likely to build for his own blog. Ron was the kind of man who celebrated the successes of those he coached as if they were his own personal victories.

The past few days have been a pretty emotional time for me, but I don’t feel my relationship with Ron has ended. It’s only been transformed. I keep thinking about the ideas I wrote about in The Joy of Sadness — how sadness and joy are really two sides of the same whole. While I’ve cried a lot during the past few days, it’s been coming from a place of deep gratitude, joy, and a sense of the beautiful perfection of life. I feel very much in a place of love, not a place of loss. I know that Ron’s energy will always be a part of me. Yoda has simply merged back into the force.

Paying It Forward

Since he was such a treasure-trove of advice, I learned many lessons from Ron over the years. Perhaps one of the best lessons came from observing what he did. Ron used his knowledge and experience to help other people grow. The new ideas he absorbed were constantly flowing back out again through his continuous sharing.

When I first joined Toastmasters in 2004, I was looking to improve my speaking skills. I knew I eventually wanted to get into pro speaking. From Ron’s example I learned the importance of contributing to others, not just soaking up info for my own use. Even when he wasn’t personally presenting a workshop or training program, he was encouraging other people to do so, and he was actively promoting them too.

In the following years, I delivered a free Toastmasters workshop to help local speakers learn about blogging. I also did two similar workshops for the National Speakers Association, including an all-day workshop on the Vegas Strip. In May of this year, I presented another free Toastmasters workshop on creating compelling content. Creating and presenting these workshops required many hours of extra work. These experiences helped me step into the place of being able to give from my heart without needing anything in return.

A mutual friend told me that Ron’s family would be accepting donations for the Ralph C. Smedley Memorial Fund, to be given in Ron’s name. Ralph Smedley was the founder of Toastmasters. Erin and I agreed it would be nice to make a donation to this fund on Ron’s behalf.

On Saturday evening I was feeling very ungrounded, partly because I was spending so much time in a higher than usual state of being, so I thought it would be wise to go out and do something to ground me back on the side of the physical world. I hadn’t played poker in months, so I thought that would be fun to do, not so much for the game but just to go out and be around people who were at a more “normal” energy level. Erin was happy to spend a quiet evening alone, but she suggested that I donate any winnings to the memorial fund. I thought that was a good idea. I’m a decent player and usually win, but at the low limits I play, I could expect to return with maybe $50 on average.

I popped over to the Red Rock Casino, which is only a few minutes from my house. I’ve never played poker there before, but I didn’t feel like making the 20-minute drive to the Strip, so I figured I’d check it out. On Saturday nights the city’s poker tables can be pretty crowded though, especially during the summer, so I wasn’t sure how long it would take to get a seat. Upon arriving at the poker room, it was packed full, and based on the length of the waiting list, I estimated it could take as much two hours to get a seat. Oh well. I didn’t want to wait that long.

I figured I might as well stretch my legs, so I walked around for a while. The Red Rock is considered by many to be the best local’s casino in town. In addition to the hotel and casino, it has a huge movie theater complex, a conference center, a bowling alley, a spa, a food court, a night club, and lots of restaurants. Portions of the recent movie 21 were filmed there. As I walked around, I sensed Ron’s presence again. I was surprised that he’d come to me in a casino of all places. He didn’t seem to have any message for me. He was just letting me know that he was around.

An idea struck me, so I asked him if he wanted to have a little fun. I never knew Ron to take any interest in casino gambling — I know a few locals who work in the casinos but none who like to gamble — but I figured that due to his Wall Street background, he might be up for something interesting. I told him that poker was out, so I asked him if he was up for some blackjack. He agreed. I told him we’d be playing for a donation to Toastmasters. If I lost the money, we’d still donate maybe $100 (almost two years of annual dues), but if we won more than $100, we’d donate all the winnings. I wasn’t sure if he’d be able to influence anything from the other side, especially since he was a newbie there, but I told him I’d appreciate any help he could provide. Otherwise I could certainly handle myself well enough. I learned to beat blackjack when I was 21, and the skill is so burned into my neurons that I can go a year or more without playing a single hand and still automatically know what to do in every situation without having to think. The play is totally subconscious, much like driving a car or riding a bike.

I picked out a good $10 table, opting to vary my bets from $10 to $50, and bought $200 in chips. If I doubled my money, that would be a really good win. At these limits nobody at the casino is going to care whether I win or lose. On a Saturday night, a $10 table is typically the lowest you’ll find. I can afford to play higher limits, but that doesn’t interest me. For me this was just a game, not a career.

I played for an hour and left the table with $505 in chips, a win of $305. I thought that would be a nice donation. I walked around a bit to stretch my legs. Then I asked Ron if he wanted to keep playing or if we should quit. He said we should go one more round. He seemed like he was actually enjoying this experiment. I picked out another $10 table and sat down. At first I wasn’t getting anywhere, but then when I had my $50 bet out there, I split a pair of sixes and won both hands for a gain of $100. The next hand I got an 11, doubled down, and won another $100. And the hand after that I got a blackjack for a $75 win. After that I got a 20 and pushed. That’s when I heard the signal from Ron, “Time to go.” I left with $780 in chips for a net win of $580 (that’s net of both sessions). For only 90 minutes of play at fairly low limits, this kind of win is just amazing, especially at full tables (which means fewer hands per hour). I probably played about 50 hands total. That means we averaged more than $10 per hand, but my average bet per hand was probably $20-25. That’s a pretty serious win rate.

I could sense Ron’s presence the whole time I played. I don’t know if he was actually able to do anything from his end, but I definitely got far more than my fair share of splits, double downs, and blackjacks. The other players, the dealers, and the pit boss couldn’t help but notice how quickly the chips were flowing to me. Believe me — this win wasn’t due to skill. On average I’d be lucky to win an extra $20 under these conditions, since the edge on blackjack (assuming you really know how to play) is very slight, especially when playing in a multi-deck game. Doubling my money would have been outstanding.

When I got home, I told Erin what happened, and she was amazed. You see, the last time we invited a “spirit” to play with us for a certain cause, we won $445 in 45 minutes, which totally stunned us then. To have it happen again makes it harder to dismiss as a fluke.

Given the rarity of a win like this, I have to credit it to Ron. I don’t know what he did, but it worked. There’s such a sweet perfection in the notion that he could still be contributing to Toastmasters from the other side. Since I felt the $580 was his contribution, I bumped our donation to $1000 to include something from me and Erin as well. Although we already pay dues, conference registration fees, and various other sums to support Toastmasters International, I like that we can give back a little extra to support such a wonderful organization.

Initially I hesitated to share this part of the story, partly because it’s so strange and partly because I don’t want to deal with the headache of people misinterpreting my motivation for sharing it. But ultimately I figured it was best to share this part of the story for three reasons: (1) It’s the truth; (2) I know from experience that when I share a story I’m hesitant to post publicly, it’s going to resonate with someone out there in ways I can’t predict, often in very synchronistic ways; and (3) I’m sure the skeptics could use the exercise.

Seize the Day

Now the point isn’t to pray to your ancestors to help you win the lottery. The point is to live — REALLY LIVE — while you’re here.

What will the people attending your memorial service say about you? How will you be remembered?

Hold your own memorial service at the end of each day. Did you live this day to the fullest? Did you give your very best? Did you express the real you? Did you make the effort to connect with people? Did you seize this day, or did you let it slip through your fingers?

Are you playing it safe just to survive, or are you stretching to give your very best? In the end, do you really think anyone will care whether or not you paid your bills on time?

Life is way too short to waste your precious time doing work you don’t love, enduring relationships you merely tolerate, and settling for limiting thoughts that hold you back. If you decide to waste this day, that’s the same as deciding to waste your life because your life is happening right now.

The mindset that says it’s okay to lose today is the mindset of death. If you’re squandering this day — and I mean today — then you’re already dead. You just haven’t accepted it yet. The rest of your days will be spent the same way. You’re reading this article in the Grim Reaper’s waiting room, waiting for your name to be called.

Too often we treat survival as our first priority, and only after we secure that can we move onto something more interesting than survival, like discovering a life purpose. But you aren’t here to survive. Do you realize you’re not going to survive? You’re going to die. Your physical life here is temporary. If you set survival as your goal, you lose automatically. Everyone who tries to survive fails. That’s how the game is set up. It’s supposed to happen that way.

Even a monkey gets more enjoyment out of life than a human being who works just to pay the bills. Monkeys find it silly to center their lives around paying their bills. They find it much more interesting to hang out with other monkeys — even if it means being homeless.

Would you say that your computer’s primary purpose is to survive? Or is it to provide you with information and entertainment and to empower you? You know your computer is eventually going to die (yes, even your precious Mac), so enjoy it while you can.

Are you enjoying your life while you can?

If you need a little hint to help you find your life purpose, it has to do with going out and connecting with people. If you’re trying to work on your purpose while spending most of your days isolated and alone, you’re missing the point. Go outside! Sure, it’s scary. But do it anyway. If the monkeys can manage it, why not you? Surely you’re smarter and more capable than a monkey.

It’s sad that we often fail to give ourselves permission to just dive headfirst into what we love doing. Realize you don’t need anyone’s permission to do what you love — or to connect with people that attract you. If some people object, let them object; then go do it anyway. The monkeys will welcome you as their new friend.

You know you’ll be happier outside the cage. The cage may be safe and cozy, but it’s no substitute for the freedom of the jungle.

Don’t wait to pursue your dreams. Life is far too precious for that.

Your life is today, not tomorrow or yesterday. Regardless of what happened in the past or what you think might happen in the future, today you have the freedom to make a conscious choice. Will it be the same choice you’ve always made, or will it be something different? Will that choice come from your heart?

Ron Lewison took the time to reach out and connect with people while he was here. He touched a lot of lives in a positive way. He may not have had the opportunity to complete all the projects he wanted to, but he gave more than his fair share. And because of that, I think he’ll find peace on the other side, and perhaps even more opportunities to coach and mentor people. Moreover, he gave the gift of many positive memories to those who knew him, a gift that continues to endure.

Ron, your presence will be missed in the physical world, but I think you’ll make quite a splash in the spiritual world. On the physical side, I may have to say goodbye, but on the spiritual side, I can say welcome home.

You are loved. ūüôā