Motivational speakers urge striving to act ‘above the line’

It’s all about choice in how to deal with life’s challenges.

That was at the center of the presentation that Willow Sweeney and Tom Cody gave to an audience of about 175 in the Princeton High School performing arts center (PAC) on Thursday, Feb. 28.

Sweeney and Cody are with the St. Cloud-based organization Top 20 Training, which made presentations to coaches and school administrators, as well as 25 or so students in the Princeton Alternative Secondary School. The evening presentation, which included a free meal, was for the public.

The Princeton Area Chamber of Commerce piggy-backed on the school district’s hosting, by scheduling a noon presentation by Sweeney at Steven’s Restaurant. It attracted an audience of 90, most of them business people. The information in this story is from the evening presentation.


Top 20 and above,       below the line

Sweeney asserted that about 20 percent of the population go “above the line” in dealing with life’s difficulties, while the other 80 percent go “below the line.” People will primarily be on one or the other, but will move at times to the other side of the line.

Cody and Sweeney used personal stories and illustrations to explain their premises. They portrayed “above the line” behavior as being more rational and calmer and putting situations more in perspective. They described “below the line” behavior as being negative and such behavior making life unpleasant for people around them.

Cody gave an example where he once went below the line and regretted it not long after.

It happened when he was a math teacher, meeting parents at a parent-teacher conference. He said he was getting weary as the conference neared the end and it was then that a parent came in and thrust their child’s report card in front of him and demanded to know why he had given the child an F. During the exchange that ensued, he told her the reason he had given the child an F was because the school didn’t give out a G grade.

For a short time that evening, he felt good that he had been able to come up with a reply to top her. But he later realized that the story being told by the parent that he had been tough on, was not a flattering portrait of him.

It’s all about choice, in what a person does in communicating with others, said Cody, who said he has experienced the roles of husband, coach, teacher and  neighbor.

Sweeney used play acting to explain how a parent’s trip to the grocery store with young children after school can end up either above or below the line when everyone is “tired, hungry and cranky.”

Her above-the-line version had the parent acting diplomatically and responding calmly when the children asked for Oreo cookies and candy, when one of them spilled juice on the floor, and when the store clerk commented how cute her children were. In that version, she had the children split the candy, worked with them to clean up the juice and responded to the clerk, “I think they’re cute, too. I’ll keep them.”

In her below-the-line grocery trip, Sweeney was short-tempered and yelled at her children. When it came time to clean up the spilled juice, she told the children she would take care of it because it was her “cross to bear,” and told the clerk that she could buy the children.

A person can choose how to deal with every situation in different ways, and it could be the case of being mad about the approach of winter, or about a job, Cody said.

Sweeney talked about the word “potential.” She said that for many years she had thought that if she was told she was not working up to potential, it meant she was “not good enough.”

The correct meaning is that everyone has the potential to do better, to become happier and to be more successful than they are today, she explained.

Sweeney described above-the-line thinking as “serving in our best interest,” and below the line as not doing that.

Sweeney added that if someone is above the line they could say: “I have energy and passion for what I am doing. I am more patient, especially with our children. I am more compassionate, supportive, fun, nice and funny, but not hurting your feelings.”

Below-the-line would mean “unhealthy, negative, sarcastic, cynical, unproductive, crabby, angry, negative,” and thinking the “whole world revolves around you,” she said.

Sweeney and Cody recommended determining “where you are” at a given time in regards to being above or below the line.

The first of three main points of the presentation, was that people develop mental habits as a young child, and those habits are difficult to break.

The second point Cody and Sweeney made was that people think about things differently, according to whether they are above or below the line. The Top 20 training manuals explain that if a person is above the line, they are aware that they may not know a situation completely and thus will be more open to other people’s perspectives.

The third point that Cody and Sweeney made was to not make decisions when you are below the line in your thinking.

Sweeney called such times, “submarine moments” and said it’s important then to let the spouse or significant other know when that is taking place in order to be given a breather to come back above the line.

Otherwise, it may turn out to be a “spray and pray,” meaning yelling all kinds of things at the spouse and hoping for forgiveness, Sweeney said.

Sweeney and Cody also talked about how children take negative comments personally and how a child’s development will affect the older generation. The children of today will someday be the ones placing “tubes into you at the rest home,” Cody said.

Sweeney said she now has a different perspective on life, understanding that everyone has a limited number of days. It means each day is valuable and raises the question of how many of those “perfectly good days” have been wasted on “silly things,” Sweeney said.