I’ve never read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People or any other self-help books for that matter, but I recently heard a list of the 7 habits of highly effective people from Stephen Covey’s book. One is “be proactive”.
On this one he talks about your “circle of influence” and your “circle of concern”. Your circle of influence includes all the things you can actually do something about. This would include things like your health, the skills you learn and generally the choices you make in life. The circle of concern includes things that are more or less out of your hands. For example, environmental policy in China, who wins the presidency, national monetary policy, etc.
Proactive people focus on their circle of influence and accept responsibility for their lives via the choices they make. There are some things you can do to address the things within your cause of concern (voting choices, consumer choices, etc.), but nothing reasonable that will alter the way things are done solely by your actions. Proactive people choose not to dwell on these things and instead divert their energy to the things they can actually control. For instance, I could post a graphic on Facebook about Monsanto killing everybody off with high fructose corn syrup and how the Obama administration should step in and do something about it OR I could make choices in my own life to produce as much of my own food as possible and buy food from those outside of the factory farm/GMO world. Which one would get me further? Which one would best advance the cause of limiting factory farming – not giving them my business or squawking to people on Facebook about it?
Health care is another example. My eyes gloss over when people start talking about this subject. There is nothing I can do about the way things are run in this country…but I do have some choices: I tend to make healthy choices in what I eat, I get regular exercise, I do things that limit my stress levels and I try to avoid doing things that are unnecessarily risky (i.e. things that start with “hey, watch this!”). This isn’t a surefire way to avoid the health system – there are always legitimately inherited diseases and accidents, but my odds of not having to deal with the system are a lot better than say, someone who doesn’t exercise, is under a lot of stress, smokes and is under a lot of stress. The last time I was at the doctor was two years ago due to an accident at work where I ended up with a few stitches. I haven’t been to my personal doctor in about four years. Again, I’m not saying that if you do the right things you’re guaranteed to steer clear of that world, but you’ll be doing just about everything you can reasonably do to avoid it.
Covey describes proactive language as things that tend to start with “I can”, “I will” and “I prefer” and reactive language as “I can’t”, “I wish” and “If only…”.
The more I think about it, I know a lot of people who focus way too much on their circle of concern and too little on their circle of influence. I think this leads to a lot of undue stress and wasted time. The world is a much more pleasant place when you’re not screaming at FOX News (or MSNBC), fuming over some comments someone made on Huffington Post or anything like that. It’s ok to have opinions about things and voice them, but I think you’re better off considering what actions you can take in your own life first. I know of too many people with a lot to say about the world around them, but take very few actions to improve their own lot in life. What good is it to get worked up about what some guy who owns Chik-Fil-A said about gay marriage or whether or not Obama held his hand over his heart during the National Anthem while your own life is crumbling around you? Your time is best spent being proactive about the things you can change rather than spending your time reacting to the world around you.
Over the past few years I’ve gotten a lot better about distinguishing between what I can control and what I can’t. Sometimes I slip. I know this winter during the Iowa Caucuses I got caught up spending WAY too much time arguing with people on the internet in favor of the Ron Paul campaign to the point where it affected my personal life. Somehow I doubt that the hours I spent arguing with people on the internet amounted to anything significant. I could have spent that time doing just about anything else to improve my position in life and would’ve been better off.
My point today isn’t to encourage apathy and indifference – in fact, it’s just the opposite. I think that we have more opportunities to take actions to improve our lives, our families and our communities than we realize. I also think that doing our best on the things that are within our circle of influence will pay off a lot more than placing faith in the notorious “they” and “them” that I talk about from time to time to solve the world’s problems.