I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.
-Henry David Thoreau
I’m reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and the above quote was printed on the first page of the first chapter as the first habit: Be Proactive.
Being proactive is about not letting life drag you around by the leg. It’s about living, not being lived. It’s about taking responsibility for the decisions we make while also recognising that we can’t control all external events.
I’ll admit that I have moments where I relish getting upset over the things I really can’t control (arrogant/fearful colleagues, idiots on the road, rude people that cut in line). There is a certain pleasure I take in wallowing in my own anger and frustration, and I know I’m not alone. Getting upset over spilled milk is another way of saying “I can’t control this but I’m not willing to let it go or find a creative solution to deal with it. I’m going to mask that reality by stamping my feet and crossing my arms across my chest and generally making a scene.”
It’s lazy and it’s useless to stay upset over things we can’t control. It’s also lazy and useless to just let life live you.
Covey uses an extreme example of making lemonade from lemons, no doubt to also point out the mountains we often make of molehills:
A man was in a concentration camp and lived to see his wife, brother and parents perish before the war ended. He realized at a certain point, though, that no one could take away his intrinsic freedom, and that he could choose how to react, imprisoned or not. He chose to take the circumstances and make the best of it for himself, becoming a powerful and positive force within the camp, even influencing the guards in his area. He later became the world-famous psychologist Viktor Frankl who developed the concept of logotherapy, the belief that striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in human beings.
Covey uses this example and draws a circle of concern and a circle of influence; the former containing those things we can’t control, the latter those things we can. The point is that we should strive to expand the focus on our circle of influence and put our attention on those things we can change.
30 days of being proactive
Covey challenges us to expand our circle of influence for 30 days straight. It’s in everyday actions like handling traffic jams, frustrating conversations, or a flat bike tire, but also in life’s larger paradigms. I challenge you to join me if you suspect you might not be totally proactive. Here are some helpful tips from Covey, which I’ve reworded:
- Pay attention to the dialogues with yourself and other people. Listen up for statements that make you appear completely powerless to external factors.
- Think of an experience you might encounter that would usually make you defensive or reactive. Think about how you can proactively deal with that situation. “Make a commitment to yourself to exercise your freedom to chose.”
- Find an issue that is bothering you and determine how much you can actually control it yourself. Take a first step toward dealing with it within your circle of influence.
- Do it for 30 days. Notice how it expands your circle of influence.
Now, I love challenges like this and recognise that it might be a bit to “self-helpy” for many, but I hope this post at least reminds you to be aware of your circles of influence and concern.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.