About a year ago, I decided to re-purpose a part of my life. Among the promises I made to myself was a commitment to blog more frequently. During the past year, I posted almost as many essays on this site as I had done in the prior ten years. So that choice was largely fulfilled.
My purpose in writing today – the first day of yet another year of realizing just how little I actually know – is to share one of my favourite essays with you (from Becoming . . . ). It’s a small way of saying “thanks” for your readership but it also adequately frames both the challenge and the opportunity of new beginnings. Plus, replicating something already written is an “easy way out” as I take leave for my traditional winter hiatus.
If you’re among those who’ve read it before, it’s a good time for review and reflection. For those who haven’t, I genuinely hope you find it timely ….
Life is about choices. The ones we make today determine our tomorrows. They dictate the meaning, quality and happiness of our lives. Since we have but one life to live, we must choose wisely.
We journey through life performing an existential dance of “should I?” or “shouldn’t I?” to the daunting call of an immutable life-altering question: How do I know what I really want to become? We all have the ability to choose how we think, how we act and how we react. This means we are fully capable of taking control of our lives and determining our future.
The alternative to not making deliberate choices is just letting life happen. And the fundamental choice is between will and won’t, not can or can’t. There are some things in life we cannot do. But they are few in number. It’s also impossible to accomplish that which we think we cannot do, even though we might if we at least gave it a try. Consider that doing things others tell you can’t be done may be some of the most prized moments in your life.
Despite our enormous potential, we only have so much time to realize it. Yet most believe what will be will be and, in consequence, their choice is to wait for opportunities to emerge. They justify the waiting by filling their lives with convenient excuses for inaction. The truth is that anyone can achieve provided they genuinely want to achieve. Even when they understand this reality, they do little to further their cause. Because they see themselves as victims, rather than creators, of their circumstances.
If you’re one of those waiting for the right opportunity, you may have reached what psychologists call “the okay plateau.” This is when you decide you’re “fine” just the way you are. So you default to autopilot and stop getting better. In your mind, life as you know it is as good as it can get. If this is what you’ve concluded, why worry about the future? This could be the best day of the rest of your life.
But it’s not okay if you’re buried in a life you don’t want. It’s not okay when you’re bored out of your mind, when you feel you’re drowning in failure or if those you trust have betrayed you. When you don’t have the fortitude to move forward to a better place, it’s not okay.
If you’ve concluded you’re fine the way you are, then you’ve decided to stop getting better. You’re not exploring new realities or taking risks. You’re refraining from networking with interesting new people or treating yourself to the joy of discovery. Accepting just being okay rather than exceptional means you’ve become an exceedingly boring person. If you have nothing new to talk about, people have little interest in listening. If nothing excites you, then you lack the joie de vivre that attracts others. Sooner or later, you will be voted off the island.
Having too many choices can severely complicate life. The paradox of choice is that, by having more options, we reduce our ability to choose. And when we do choose, we are often concerned we may have chosen wrongly. The best way to make meaningful choices is to distil the options to the essential ones. While not always possible, I suggest the optimal number is two. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
When, for example, you are confronted by a situation not of your liking, either change the situation or change how you think about it. When you think of your relationships, the fundamental choice is whether you want to be the trainer or the trainee. Do you prefer to exercise self-control or be controlled by others? When under attack, would you rather go on offence or defence? Do you choose to allow the wrong people to take up too much space in your life, thus leaving less time for those who do count? Choices should simplify life, not complicate it.
Making good choices is predicated on understanding your priorities. When confronted with what you deem important but conflicting priorities, how do you determine which ones deserve your attention? How do you distinguish the big things from the little things, even though all seem to require your attention or resources? If you can’t sort out your priorities, decision-making becomes torturous, procrastination may be your default mode and the search for clarity will forever elude you.
The word priority means some things are more important than others. Many things are important; not everything is a priority. If you conclude that there are ten legitimate priorities in your life, then the likelihood is that you have no priorities. One of the keys to succeeding is to thoughtfully differentiate your priorities from everything else seeking your attention.
The first step is to identify, then rank (with actual numbers) what’s essential to fulfilling your goals and aspirations. While it’s perhaps easy and convenient to say “everything’s important,” the tough part lies in the ranking, because that’s what making choices is all about.
Where on your list of priorities is your health? The happiness of your family? Your personal enjoyment and gratification? Meeting your boss’s expectations? Financial security? Experiencing or learning new things? Spending time with friends? Getting things accomplished? Assign a value to each item on your list: 1 = slightly important; 5 = moderately important; 10 = very important. Alternatively, allocate a percentage to each priority with the total adding to 100. Because 100% of your time is all you have to give.
Our choices are guided by our values. When rationality fails and doubt arises, follow your inner compass. When a cost-benefit analysis doesn’t bring clarity, choose heart over reason. Trust the condensed wisdom of your intuition. When difficult challenges with profound consequences await, often the logical brain proves too analytical to provide us comfort and confidence in our decisions .
The quality of your life depends entirely on the quality of the choices you make. Choose what’s right over what’s easy or popular. Choose freedom over security. Go for different, not same old. Never allow difficulty to guide you toward easier decisions. Focus on success, not failure.
We are doomed to make choices. Saying life is not within our control is refusing to make better choices. The life you now live is a consequence of your prior decisions. The best way to predict your future is to choose the one you want. Pick a destination, write your plan and own your choices. Declare them openly and defend them when challenged. Your destiny is simply a matter of choice.
The one human freedom that cannot be taken from you
is the capacity to choose your attitude in any given set
of circumstances – to choose one’s own way.
– Viktor Frankl