Since graduating high school, I’ve acquired ten years of higher education: 5 years as an undergrad (New England Conservatory), two years working on my Master’s (Yale) and three years as a doctoral student (Boston University). But the most life-changing thing I’ve learned didn’t come from formal education. It came from a used paperback that I bought in 2009 for eight bucks.
That book was Stephen R. Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and I read most of it on flights between Boston and San Diego, underlining entire paragraphs (in a hand made shaky by in-flight turbulence) and writing comments in the margins.
The life-changing lesson that Stephen Covey taught me is this: I am responsible for my own life. It’s not what happens to me that matters, and it’s not what other people are doing (or failing to do). What matters is my chosen response.
That seems like a simple concept, at least on the surface. But its implications are profound.
In every situation, we have a choice. No matter how bleak our current situation may appear, we can choose a response that’s positive and empowered.
Perhaps that sounds a bit like new-age mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps you’re thinking that’s all well and good, as long as our problems are relatively small ones. If our biggest concerns are traffic jams, an annoying boss or bratty kids, then sure- we can choose positivity, no problem. But what if we have real problems?
In answer to that question, consider the life of Nelson Mandela. He spent nearly 30 years in prison for his efforts to end racial segregation in South Africa. During his imprisonment, Mandela regularly turned to the poem Invictus for inspiration. The poem concludes with the line, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Indeed, even as a prisoner, Mandela was studying, learning a new language, and building relationships. He spent the time of his captivity preparing to unify his country- which he eventually did when he became president of South Africa, shortly after his release.
The list goes on. Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa, Mahatma Ghandi- some of the most inspirational people in history began with nothing. Their greatness came from their positive response to challenging circumstances.
This philosophy of “proactivity” is beautifully and succinctly summed up in one of my favorite songs of all time, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. “If you want to make the world a better place / take a look at yourself, then make a change.” I’m making it my theme song for 2019.