Choose to Choose
At some point, almost all of us have had the feeling of being trapped. We may hate working for an impossible boss who doesn’t respect us, but because we need that paycheck—and this is a lousy time to be job searching—we feel we have no choice but to stay. We may be in a relationship with a partner from whom we have long felt alienated, or whom we no longer love, or who treats us badly—but we stay because we are terrified of being alone.
It is at such moments—when we feel trapped—that we must choose to choose, that we must commit ourselves to looking for new ways to change our life—to finding within ourselves the keys that will unlock the doors of the prison we are trapped in. This is the time to recognize that while objective constraints may, at least in part, shape our life, the trap has at least something to do with our own mind-set as well: Paths are almost always open to us, small or large changes we can introduce to improve our situation. Choosing to choose means searching for the paths that lead to change.
Recognize the power of choosing to choose. Sit yourself down to reflect, to analyze, to think about the possibilities that are open to you. Ask yourself some difficult questions: What do I have to do for my life to be the way I want it to be? Where do I want to go? How do I intend to get there? Write about your options, discuss your situation with those you trust. Refuse to accept “I have no choice” as an answer.
Be Mindful of the Wonder
The best advice for becoming more mindful is to read—and reread—Helen Keller’s essay “Three Days to See.” Keller, who lost her sight and hearing when she was nineteen months old as a result of an illness, writes about what she would do if she were given back the use of these senses for just three days. In the essay, she recounts a conversation she had with a friend who returned from an hour-long walk in the woods. Keller asks her friend what she saw, and the friend replies, “Nothing in particular.” Keller wonders how it is possible to walk through the woods and yet see nothing worthy of note:
I who am blind can give one hint to those who see—one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. . . . Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you.
Sometimes all we need to do is open our senses and take in the wonders of the world. Helen Keller, despite her inability to hear or see, can remind us of how privileged we are to be able to directly experience the most precious treasures that are around us and within us—sights and sounds, tastes and textures, smells and sensations.
Think and Act Purposefully
Imagine that you are going through a difficult period at work. You cannot stop worrying about an upcoming deadline and your strained relationship with your boss. You keep replaying the last few exchanges you had with him, how he blamed you for the failure to meet an important deadline and refused to listen to the reasons why the project was late—reasons that had very little to do with you and a great deal to do with the new policies that he recently put in place. You’re sure your boss thinks you are inadequate, incapable of carrying out the task at hand.
Instead of focusing on the helplessness of your situation, which gets you nowhere, you could choose to engage in an activity that will help you feel better as well as perform better.
Begin by opening a new file on your computer and writing down your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Writing will help you feel better, and the clarity you reach will help you commit to taking concrete steps toward meeting the deadline despite the challenges you face. Once you’ve managed to do that, and your boss is reminded of both your competence and your loyalty, you are able to broach the subject of the new policies and how they are making certain aspects of your work less efficient. Now that you are out of this particular rut, you can work on finding additional ways of improving your relationship with your boss.
Carry Yourself with Confidence and Pride
Marva Collins was born in Alabama in the 1930s. As an African-American girl growing up in the segregated South, she experienced racism and discrimination, and yet she became a highly successful and celebrated teacher, helping thousands of at-risk students succeed. How did she do it? How did she get so many students who were written off as “unteachable” to thrive? She provided her students with the gift they needed most—the belief in themselves, the confidence that they could succeed. The source of the gift she gave others was her own self-confidence, the belief that she had in herself.
Collins says, “In those days it was quite rare to be black and to be successful.” She attributes her success to her parents who, despite their economic circumstances and regardless of prevailing beliefs, brought her up “with a sense of pride.” In the midst of the pervading culture of discrimination and racism that can be so devastating to a person’s sense of self-worth, Collins’s parents taught her to be strong and to stand up for herself.
The importance of standing up for oneself was a concept that her parents took quite literally. From a very young age Collins learned that to be proud it was important to assume a proud posture, one that communicates to everyone—to yourself and others—the message that you are worthy. Collins recalls her mother often admonishing her and her sister, “Get your head up!” Today, in her seventies, Collins still walks with her head high and communicates to all those around her—as well as to herself—her self-confidence and pride. She commands respect through her posture, her voice, her eyes—and of course, her deeds.
Two Zen monks were standing by a river, preparing to wade through it to the other side, when a beautiful young woman approached them. She, too, wanted to cross, but was afraid of the turbulent water. The older of the two monks offered to carry her on his back. The woman accepted his offer, and when they got to the other side she thanked him and went off on her way.
As soon as the woman was out of earshot, the younger monk turned to his companion and chastised him for his action: “You should be ashamed of yourself. We are not allowed to touch a woman’s body.” They continued on their way, and after a couple of hours they approached the monastery. The younger monk turned to his colleague and said that he intends to report the incident to the head of the monastery: “You did a terrible and forbidden thing.” Puzzled, the older monk turned to the younger monk and asked, “What did I do that is so terrible and forbidden?”
“You carried a beautiful young woman across the river.”
“Oh, that. You are right, I did. But I left her by that river, while you’re still carrying her on your back.”
Let go of unnecessary weight that you’re carrying on your back right now. Forgive and make your journey through life lighter, calmer, and happier.
Actively Learn the Lessons of Hardship
In the year 2000, Catalina Escobar tragically lost her son in an accident. Although devastated by her loss, she chose to take action, dedicating her life, from that point on, to saving other children. She decided to focus her efforts in the Colombian city of Cartagena, where infant mortality rates were close to fifty in a thousand (compared to five in a thousand in developed countries). Catalina founded the Juan Felipe Gómez Escobar Foundation, which provides children at risk with appropriate nutrition, and young mothers with important health counseling and services. As a result of her efforts, thousands of children’s lives have been saved, and many more than that will continue to be saved in the future.
Catalina has become a champion of children’s health. She speaks around the world about creating similar ventures that can make all the difference in children’s lives, as well as in the lives of their parents. The organization that she built combines social services with efficient business practices, and has become a model for other poverty-stricken cities in Colombia and elsewhere.
Does Catalina think that the death of her child happened for the best? I doubt it, and I am sure that, were it possible, she would do everything that she could to bring him back. However, as a result of the tragedy she experienced, she discovered within herself remarkable strengths that gave her resilience to bounce back and bring about significant change in herself and, by extension, in her community.
Find the lessons in difficulties that you are facing right now. Look back and learn from hardships that you’ve experienced in the past; you will not only derive important lessons from reflecting on these challenges, you will also realize how much you have grown as a result.
Invest in Experiences
You have just received your year-end bonus, which was significantly higher than you expected. You worked extremely hard during the year, and you feel that you deserve a reward. And here is the dilemma you face: Do you spend the money on a newer, better car, or do you take your family on a vacation? You figure that a vacation would be nice, but it will be over before you know it, whereas a car will last for years. So you decide to get the car.
It turns out that your reasoning is wrong. Research by marketing professor Leonardo Nicolao and his colleagues shows that once our basic needs have been met, we typically derive greater long-term happiness from acquiring experiences than from acquiring goods. Although the experience may be short-lived and the material good remains with us for much longer, we continue to enjoy the experience—to reexperience it—through our memories and conversations, whereas the novelty of a new object wears off very quickly.
It is not only when we enjoy a windfall (such as a year-end bonus) that we ought to think about the value of experiences. Our lesser, day-to-day decisions can also be informed by recognizing the advantage of experiences over goods, leading us to prefer an evening at the theater or going bowling with the family over a new gadget or toy.
Make Others Feel Good
Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, spent his summers working on his grandparents’ ranch in Texas, fixing windmills, vaccinating cattle, and performing other chores. One summer, when he was ten years old, Jeff joined his grandparents on a road trip. His grandfather drove, while his grandmother sat in the passenger seat, smoking the whole time.
Jeff had always been fascinated by numbers. He had recently read that every puff on a cigarette takes two minutes from your life. Roughly estimating how many puffs per day his grandmother takes, and multiplying it by the number of days she had been smoking, Jeff tapped his grandmother on her shoulder and proudly declared, “At two minutes per puff, you’ve taken nine years off of your life.” He expected to be applauded for his cleverness, for his arithmetic skills, but that is not what happened. Instead, his grandmother burst into tears.
His grandfather stopped the car, and he and Jeff got out. In a gentle, soft voice, he told the boy, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”
Thirty-five years later, in 2010, Jeff addressed the graduating class at Princeton University. After sharing with them this story, he said: “What I want to talk to you about today is the difference between gifts and choices. Cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy; they are given, after all. Choices can be hard.”
Before showing off your gifts to others, give them the gift of kindness.
In Hebrew, the words sevel (suffering), sibolet (endurance), and savlanut (patience) stem from the same root. To develop and grow we must learn to be patient, to endure, and that sometimes entails suffering. The expectation that personal change is effortless and fast is a sure way to disappointment and frustration.
A woman was shopping in a supermarket when her young child started to cry. The woman, in a calm voice, said, “We just need to get a few more things, Sharon, and then we’re done.” The tantrum continued, the child screaming even louder. The mother said calmly, “We’ve finished shopping, Sharon; all we need to do is to pay.”
At the cashier, the screaming and crying intensified. The mother, still quiet and collected, continued, “We are almost done, Sharon, and then we can go to the car.” The child continued screaming until finally they got to the car and she calmed down.
A young man came over to the mother and said to her, “I watched you in there, and I just wanted to tell you how impressed I am with your ability to keep your calm while Sharon was throwing her tantrum. I learned an important lesson from you.”
The mother thanked the man, and then added: “But her name is not Sharon. I am Sharon.”