You Have a Choice

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“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” –Viktor Frankl

You step outside to head to work on Monday morning. It’s raining. For many of us, the natural response is, “damn, it’s raining.” Further, that natural reaction often influences the way we think, feel, and act. You might think the weather gods are against you and arrive at work feeling a bit irritated. This feeling might flow into how you interact with colleagues and how productive you are. In short, a circumstance outside of your control (the rain) has negatively influenced your emotions and ability to operate effectively in the world.  

Fortunately, as humans, we have the unique capacity to choose our response to any set of circumstances. In other words, we are not a function of our external stimuli. If it’s raining outside, you can choose to set aside your natural response and instead think, “I have an umbrella, and this rain is going to do wonderful things for my garden. I’m going to grab my umbrella and have a productive day at work.” Simple, right?

As simple as this principle is, many of us still frequently allow our external circumstances to govern our thoughts, emotions, and actions. This occurs for circumstances as benign as a light morning drizzle to more serious realities like the death of a loved one.

The problem is that when you do not actively choose your responses, you live in a reactive state and are at the whim of the unpredictable, external realities of life. And in this reactive state, where your happiness and effectiveness are a function of circumstances that are outside of your control, your world looks a bit like this:

Reactive state

When it’s raining, you stay in bed. If you discover you have Chlamydia, you resent your ex. If someone important passes, you see the world as an unfair place. It’s perfectly normal to have these natural responses to any situation.

However, in between stimulus and response is choice. And when it comes to maximizing your happiness and effectiveness, actively choosing how you respond to any set of circumstances, rather than accepting your default response, is paramount.

When you begin to harness your unique human capacity to choose your response, you start to have a greater sense of control over your daily thoughts, emotions, and actions. Your world starts to look like this:

Proactive state

The rain no longer stops you from going to the gym. Leaving your phone in a cab no longer means you won’t enjoy the date you’re on. Losing a loved one, while still incredibly painful, now offers an opportunity to reflect on the time you had with them and to carry their legacy forward. As your start to choose your responses to every circumstance, rather than simply react, your world becomes a happier, more productive place.

Putting this principle into practice takes time and concerted effort. The first step is accepting responsibility for every circumstance you face. If your boss yells at you for a mistake a colleague made, it may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to accept the reality of the situation and choose how to respond. In a reactive world, you might shut down, resent your colleague, and think your boss is a jerk. But where does that get you?

Instead, you might take a few minutes to reflect and collect your thoughts. Was this a simple misunderstanding or is your boss really a jerk? If the former, pull your boss aside later in the afternoon and calmly explain the situation. If the latter, you might decide it’s time for you to move on. In either case, taking responsibility for the situation and your response enables you to move beyond your initial reaction, consider potential paths forward, and end up with a solution that you chose.

As you continue to actively practice this principle by taking responsibility for every circumstance you face, focusing on what you can control, and choosing your response, you will begin to naturally think, feel, and act in a more solution-oriented, proactive manner. As a result, you’ll be able to effectively process and respond to nearly every situation you face. Whether it’s a snide comment from a colleague or contracting Malaria on a recent trip to Central America, you’ll be in control.

And once you’re in control, what you can achieve is only limited to your imagination.

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