How did we arrive at our present circumstances in life? What caused us to become what we are today? Oh, we might have been nudged along by our genetic code, pressed on by our natural inclinations, pressured by our peers, influenced by our environment, and driven by psychological impulses, but none of these forces created us; they merely added color and texture. The mortar we use to shape our lives is the power of decision, and the individual bricks that form the monument we have erected are the countless choices we have made.
The purpose of this article is to remind you of the enormous power we have. And there are just two things we have to do to unleash that massive power. First, we need to understand that our destiny is shaped not by the circumstances that come our way, but by the decisions we make. Second, we need to act upon that understanding by making choices that improve our lives. Simple, isn’t it? If we want to change our lives, all we have to do is change our minds! If we want to improve our lives, all we have to do is improve the choices we make.
And the remarkable thing is we have the power of choice NOW. It is already in our hands. There is no need to order it and wait for it to arrive in the mail. There is no need to wade through a 700 page instruction manual. No, we already have it. We can be decisive and decide at this very moment to acknowledge that we, and no one else, are responsible for our lives. We can decide from this moment on to make only those choices that will improve our lives.
All during the day we make decisions. Sometimes we decide not to decide. The decision not to act is not necessarily the wrong one. It depends on the circumstances. On the one hand we don’t want to be rash and act on our impulses without considering the consequences of our actions, and on the other hand we don’t want to be indecisive and indefinitely refuse to act, for if we do so, we’ll remain in a rut, with no hope for the better in sight. It’s a matter of balance. And we arrive at that balance by analyzing our decisions and our motives for those decisions. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.
Refusing to act until we have ENOUGH information is a wise decision. But refusing to act until we have ALL the information is probably unrealistic. Many investors lost money in the market because they decided to buy without having sufficient information. But we can never be COMPLETELY certain on how the market will behave, so if we refuse to act until we have ALL the information, all we do is paralyze ourselves and make future gains impossible.
Another mistake some make is believing that there is only ONE correct answer and refusing to act unless they arrive at that answer. For example, a young man may believe there is only one woman in the world that is right for him, so he hesitates all his life, never marrying because he can never be sure his latest companion is the right one. Do you find it difficult to believe that some people are afraid there is only one answer? This belief is more common than you may imagine and exists, in part, because of the influence of religion. You see, most religions teach that there is only ONE way, and a failure to follow that one way leads to grave consequences; mainly, eternal damnation. So, it is not surprising that those who hold such beliefs conclude that there is only one way in other areas of their lives as well.
To make the largest gains, try to be decisive. That is, make decisions quickly. For the faster you act, the more time you will have to make more decisions, thereby speeding up your progress. Yet, you will want to balance speed with sufficient time to make thoughtful decisions. For if you act too quickly, you may make mistakes that slow down your progress or even bring it to a halt. It is prudent to think before we act. Yet, if we refuse to act because we are afraid of making a mistake, we do the very thing we are afraid of because failure to act is a mistake. Failure to act is failure to seize an opportunity. Failure to act is failure to grow and improve our lives. Our task becomes easier when we accept the fact that the decision making process is risky business and we are imperfect. Mistakes are inevitable, but nothing to fear, for they will provide either valuable lessons or delightful surprises.
As I walk through the mall, I may pass a sale on shoes. The decision to buy a new pair is a good one if I need shoes, can afford to buy them, and save money in the process. But what if I’m already in debt and have more shoes than I need? Clearly, then, the actions I take are good ones if I have good reasons for acting; however, if there are no good reasons to act, I will have one good reason not to act.
Yes, we have a great deal of power at our fingertips, and we can release it by asking ourselves questions, answering them, and following through. Some of the questions are, “I know what my present situation is, but what can it be? How can I make it better? What can I do to arrive at the point I wish to be at? What are my options and what are the pros and cons of each option? What are the costs in time and energy? Am I willing to pay the price? Am I capable of making changes? Am I willing to change for the better? If so, when will I begin? Am I willing to commit myself to take action and take responsibility? Am I willing to make a plan, work the plan, monitor my progress and correct it when necessary?”
Making the decision to act is the easy part. Following through on that decision is the crucial part. Be decisive. Don’t allow the following contemptuous words of Winston Churchill apply to you, “They are decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.” You are not impotent. You are important. So, claim the prize you deserve by releasing the power you have, and do it today.
Beginning the Journey
Many of us act as if we’re in rudderless boats drifting in the sea of life. Our destination? Who knows? We arrive wherever the currents and tides take us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, the boat we’re in has a rudder! It can steer us to the shore of success. That rudder is CHOICE. If we use it, we can become the captain of our destiny.
Let’s begin our journey of embracing the power of choice by considering the initial steps we need to take to turn our life around or improve it. Following that, let’s delve a little deeper by reflecting on additional steps that can guide and strengthen the decisions we make.
1. Be aware of your choices. This is not as easy as you think. Why? Because most of the time our “boat” (mind) is on autopilot. Instead of deciding whether to rise at the sound of the alarm or hit the snooze button, for example, we act automatically. We act by force of habit. If it’s a good habit, that’s great, as there is one less decision to make. But if it is a bad habit, our boat will move away from the shore of success and head for the rocks. Imagine not being aware of that! To avoid such danger, force yourself to become aware of your choices. So, decide to decide and choose to choose.
When we act out of habit rather than conscious choice, the path we’re traveling on is a rut, perhaps even a slippery slope. If we don’t want to end up at the wrong place, we have to be awake. We have to be aware and make our choices consciously. The best way to do this is to develop the habit of always looking for opportunities. Scout Cloud Lee also writes about conscious choice: “When we acknowledge that all of life is sacred and that each act is an act of choice and therefore sacred, then life is a sacred dance lived consciously each moment. When we live at this level, we participate in the creation of a better world.”
2. Analyze your choices. Once you become aware of making a decision, ask yourself, “Will this choice help me to succeed or hold me back?” Be aware of where the road you are taking leads. Choose intelligence. Not every decision we make is a moral choice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of choosing between stupidity and intelligence. For example, if you are a young non-smoker and your friend offers you a cigarette, don’t take it. That would be stupid. If you’re looking for the path to happiness, it is easy to find. Just avoid the paths with signs that say STUPID and follow those that say SMART. Easy enough to do, but you have to remember to check the signs before you start down a path. As Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to.”
Whenever we are at a fork in the road, we will find that one of the paths is easier to take, but that may be the only thing good about it. So, look carefully. You may find that one path tempts you and the other ennobles you. Choice the one that ennobles you. Learn how to withdraw from temptation. For as it is written in the Bhagavad Gita, “Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.”
Besides the paths of SMART and STUPID or GOOD and BAD, there is yet another road, and it leads nowhere. It is the road of non-action. It is the path of no-choice. Whenever we face choices and refuse to decide, that refusal is our decision. By refusing, we turn over control to the tides of fate, and instead of shaping our lives, we decide to drift wherever the tides and currents will take us.
3. Make your choice. After realizing whether the choice is helpful or harmful, make a decision for the best.
4. Act on your choice. Decisions without action are worthless, for they are mere pipe dreams, not plans. As Arnold H. Glasow wrote, “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”
5. Multiply your choices. One choice is no choice and two choices may pose a dilemma. However, three or more alternatives offer flexibility and provide you with the option of making the best possible choice.
1. Do what you can. Decide what you CAN do, not what you WANT to do. Our wants are insatiable. We want to do everything. But how can we become anything if we want to become everything? Choose worthwhile goals that you have time for. Set priorities and focus on the important issues. If you run out of time before getting to the minor tasks, at least you would have done the important ones.
Choose to carry out your responsibilities not because you HAVE to, but because you WANT to. Tasks that you HAVE to do create pressure and stress. Actions that you WANT to do, lead to the joy of accomplishment and freedom from inner conflict. Choose to learn how to WANT to do those tasks that you should be doing. For in the end, you will do only what you want to do. Similarly, when you can’t have what you want, choose to want what you have.
2. Look for the good. Some of us may be undergoing great hardships. But no life is so difficult that it cannot be made better by improving our attitude. No matter how dire the circumstances, if you look for some good, you will find it. But how can we find anything good if we occupy our time complaining? The rule to remember is that we are certain to find what we look for. If we search for good, we will find it. If we search for something to complain about, we will surely find it. Choose to search for good. And choose to believe something good can and will happen. Choose to live with hope, rather than despair. Don’t be a dope. Learn to cope. Live with hope.
3. If you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself. We cannot choose what will happen TO us, but we can choose what happens IN us. That is, we can choose to have the right attitude, one in which we view challenges as opportunities instead of problems. Choose to be positive. For example, although he became confined to a wheelchair after his accident, W. Mitchell (author, TV host, and businessman) said, “Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do; now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I’ve lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left.”
4. Remember that happiness is a choice. Shouldn’t we choose to be happy? Groucho Marx thought so, for he said, “I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” In a broken world, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem. It’s your choice. Which will it be?
5. Make conscious choices throughout the day to develop your power of choice. Resist the habit of acting automatically, without thought. You are the captain of your destiny, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!
6. Monitor your actions. Each choice you make leads you closer to or further from your goals, dreams, and desires. If you’re not making the right choices, now is the time to make corrections.
7. Remember, we become what we repeatedly do. If we repeatedly procrastinate, we become a procrastinator. If we repeatedly work hard, we become a hard worker. Since the outcome of procrastination and hard work are completely different (failure or success), we have to carefully choose what we do.
8. Don’t give in to temptation. Instead control your feelings and desires. Heed these words of wisdom by Tryon Edwards, “Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.”
9. Overcome resistance. You probably can relate to these words of author Sondra Anice Barnes: “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.” The lesson here is use empowering language. Don’t use words like have to, must, should, ought to, or have got to because they create resistance. No one wants to do what they HAVE TO, but everyone is willing to do what they WANT TO. So, don’t say “I have to study.” Instead say, “I want to study because the material will be helpful for my career and is interesting.” In a word, choose to use empowering language.
10. Develop self-discipline (self-empowerment). Sometimes, even if you use empowering language, you still won’t feel like doing something. If so, welcome it because if you really want to be successful you will need to develop self-discipline. Doing things you don’t feel like doing should be part of your daily routine. Remember, self-discipline is nothing less than the power to be, do, or have whatever you want in life. We need discipline not only to do what needs to be done, but also to avoid doing what mustn’t be none, such as procrastinate. In this regard, here is a teaching of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi Meng-tse): “Only when someone refuses to do certain things will he be capable of doing great things.”
11. Focus on your goals because you cannot do, be, or have anything if you want to do, be, or have everything.
12. Ponder these words of Brian Tracy: “It is not what you say or hope, wish or intend, but only what you do that counts. Your choices tell you unerringly who you really are.”
13. Don’t limit your choices to what only seems reasonable and possible. Stretch yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Ask again, “What do I REALLY want?” Choose to follow your dream.
14. Live proactively, not reactively. When disaster or misfortune strikes, choose to look for solutions rather than look for things to blame for your unhappiness.
15. Be aware of the passage of time. Do you remember the Tiananmen Square uprising and suppression? When did that happen? Although it seems like only yesterday, it was twenty-five years ago (1989)! Your next twenty-five years (if you have that many, will pass equally quickly. The moral? Accomplish what you want to accomplish now. Besides, now is the only time you have the actual power to choose. The past is gone and the future merely offers potential power, which you may or may not use.
16. Live without regrets. To do so follow these three steps:
a) Do the right thing. If you always do your best to do the right thing, you will have no regrets.
b) We will occasionally slip and do the wrong thing. When you do, learn from your mistake and forgive yourself.
c) Learn from the mistakes of others, and learn from the regrets of those on their deathbed:
For many years, Bronnie Ware worked as in palliative care. She gleaned from her patients the top five regrets of the dying. If you learn from their regrets now, you may avoid experiencing them. Here are the top five regrets, taken from Bronnie Ware’s book.
a) I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
b) I wish I didn’t work so hard (so I could spend more time with my family and do what counts).
c) I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
d) I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
e) I wish that I had let myself be happier.
17. Here’s a poem by Edgar A. Guest (1881-1959) that neatly summarizes the point of this article:
You are the person who has to decide.
Whether you’ll do it or toss it aside.
You are the person who makes up your mind.
Whether you’ll lead or will linger behind.
Whether you’ll try for the goal that’s afar.
Or just be contented to stay where you are.
To launch your life into a higher realm of success and happiness, here are some choices you can choose to make:
“From this day forward, I choose to focus on the positive rather than the negative.”
“To those who share their fears, I choose to share my courage.”
“I choose to stop robbing my future by being irresponsible.”
“I will never be ashamed to admit that I was wrong. For to do so means that I am wiser today than I was yesterday.”
“I will always remember that the true measure of individuals is the height of their ideals, the breadth of their compassion, the depth of their convictions, and the length of their patience.”
And I will give the last word to Leo Buscaglia, “Choose the way of life. Choose the way of love. Choose the way of caring. Choose the way of goodness. It’s up to you. It’s your choice.”
DECISIVE: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
GIVE AND TAKE: A Revolutionary Approach to Success by Adam M. Grant Ph.D.
THE POWER OF CHOICE: A Guide to Personal and Professional Self-Management by Ted Willey
THE POWER OF INNER CHOICE: 12 Weeks to Living a Life YOU Love by Mary E. Allen MCC