The First, Best Habit for Changing your Life

Snapshot 2009-06-23 14-29-36We were watching “Jeopardy” the other night, as we do frequently.  I can’t remember the category, but the the answer was “‘I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my ___.'”  The buzzer rang and the middle guy said, “Ship!”  Alex said, “Nooo” while I was thinking to myself, “Oh, what is it? What is it–I KNOW that!”  

“Soul” Alex said after time was up.  ‘I am the master of my SOUL.'”   

In response, my mother in law stuck her fingers in among the old papers she was just then sorting through.   She pulled out a yellowed clipping of the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 

One of the most life-changing books I ever read–actually one of the most life-changing chapters I ever read was from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  This is not a find here–millions of people have read this best seller, first published in 1989.  I didn’t get around to reading it until the 90s.  But the idea that was a mountain of a Eureka for me was explained in Part Two:  Private Victory–Habit 1:  Be Proactive.

I have to take issue with the title, however.  It’s not that “Be Proactive” is bad advice.  But I think of proactivity as being a behavior.  It’s a time management tool.  Look ahead, be organized, anticipate, do it now.  

But the gem in that chapter is really more about shifting your attitude to accepting total responsibility for what you do, and what you can do, no matter what your circumstance.  This is also the message of Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.  Frankl, the famous neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, observed people in the German concentration camps.  Those who tended to survive had found a way to rise above horrific circumstances simply by changing their attitudes, and adjusting what Covey calls the Circle of Influence, no matter that the circle of their influence might only be the circumference of their mind.  

If you are not familiar with this chapter, it won’t do it justice to try to condense it into a 800-word blog entry, so I’m simply going to provide a teaser, an image to carry forward and think about, and a personal story.  

Very often we preoccupy ourselves with all the things that we are concerned with.  Some we cannot do anything about, but for others, you can wield some measure of influence.  It may not be much.  Sometimes all we can do at that moment is change the way we look at it, but that’s enough.   Instead of feeling caged by what you can’t control, you can break out of the victim’s prison by looking at those things that you can change.  It’s such an empowering concept!  You are free.  You are free to make choices that will make your circle of concern smaller and your circle of influence larger.  And once you take on that attitude, your internal power and your external influence grows and grows.

When I read that chapter, I was earning very little money in a job I hated.  I was biding my time.  I was “too good” for that job.  My “lucky break” hadn’t come along yet.  So I plodded along, feeling boxed in and resentful that I should be wasting my precious life in this dead-end, nothing job making barely enough to make ends meet.

When I allowed the message of Covey’s Circle of Influence to penetrate my foolish brain, a miracle happened.  I said to myself, “Well, I don’t have the job I want right now.  So I might as well do the best I can with the job I’ve got.”   I injected energy and purpose into my tasks.  I became service-oriented to my internal clients at work.  I made it my goal to make sure I did whatever I could to perform well so that my colleagues and my company would benefit from my hard work.  

In the process, I found things about the job I really liked.  I found ways to expand that part of my job and innovate.  Ultimately, I asked the owner of the company for a promotion, and because I had created a sense of trust, she gave it to me.  

Ten years later, I finally have my dream job.  But I didn’t really go anywhere!  I continued to work in the area in which I never imagined I could find fulfillment.  Over time I grew and grew, and finally left the company to start my own business in that field.  My time is my own, I make a very comfortable living. I have terrific quality of life, working reasonable hours, having flexibility to spend time with family or just take off and spend an hour at Barnes & Noble.   I feel very blessed.  If I sat around waiting for the dream job, it never would have come.  

“When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.” We, as human beings, are so fortunate to have power and freedom and creativity and imagination to make our lives whatever we want them to be.  It doesn’t matter if we can’t walk, or see, or  hear.We don’t have to feel walled in.  That’s OUR choice.  Unfortunately sometimes we resign ourselves the walls in front of us, not realizing that it’s just a few short steps to the secret garden on the other side.