Close your eyes and project your consciousness up into the corner of the room, in your mind’s eye. Imagine you are someone else watching you reading this blog post. Can you picture the scene? Can you see the room you’re in? Can you see yourself? Can you see these words on the screen?
Now try something else. Think about the mood you're in. Can you identify it? What are you feeling right now? How would you describe your mental state?
Now think for a moment about how your mind is working. Is it quick and alert? Are you torn between doing this exercise and evaluating the point I'm trying to make?
Your ability to do what I just asked you to do is uniquely human. It's called “self-awareness,” or the ability to think about your very thought process. This is the reason why humans have dominion over all things in the world and why we can make significant progress generation after generation.
The fact that we can think about this separates us from other living things. Self-awareness enables us to see ourselves from different perspectives, and we can examine our ways of thinking to determine whether they are reality-based and principle-based or if they are reactionary to certain conditions or circumstances.
Henry David Thoreau said, ”I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
It is this idea that I will talk about today. Stephen Covey identifies “Being proactive” as the first habit of highly effective people.
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist in the 1940s in Austria. He was also Jewish. When Nazi Germany invaded Austria during WWII, they imprisoned him. Except for himself and his sister, his parents, brother, wife, and his entire family all died while imprisoned. He was tortured and subjected to countless indignities and difficulties.
However, one day, naked and alone in a small room, he became aware of what he later called “the last of the human freedoms”- the freedom his Nazi captors could not take away. They could control his environment. They could do whatever they wanted to do to his body. But Viktor himself was a self-aware being who could look as an observer at his very circumstances. He had his basic identity, his character, intact. He could decide within himself how all of this would affect him. He could choose how he would react. He could be proactive and not reactive.
Now, being proactive means more than just taking the initiative. It means we are responsible for our behaviors and actions and where we are in life. Our behavior results from our decisions, not our circumstances or environment. We have the opportunity to act and the responsibility to make things happen. We can decide to put less importance on our feelings and place greater importance on our principles and values.
We are not naturally proactive, and if we are not very careful, our worldview will be controlled by external forces like our circumstances or environment. And when external forces are in control, we become reactive.
Reactive people are driven by their feelings, circumstances, conditions, and environment. Proactive people are driven by carefully thought-about, selected, and internalized principles and values.
Proactive people are still influenced by external factors, whether physical, social, or psychological. But their response to those external factors is a value-based choice.
As Eleanor Roosevelt observed, “No one can hurt you without your consent.”
I admit this can be a big pill to swallow, especially if you have had years, even decades, of explaining away your misery by blaming your circumstances on someone else’s behavior. But until a person can say deeply and honestly, “I am what I am today because of the choices I made yesterday,” that person can not say, “I choose to be otherwise.”
It's not what happens to us that hurts, but it is our response to our situation that hurts. Of course, things can hurt us physically or economically and can cause sorrow. But our character, our basic identity, does not have to hurt at all. In fact, our most difficult experiences become the crucibles that forge and develop our internal powers, our freedom to handle difficult situations in the future and to inspire others to do the same.
The bottom line, what matters most is how we respond to what we experience in life.
And in Hebrews 12:11 (ESV) it says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” In other words, being proactive today can be difficult but worth it later.
Changing your perspective and being proactive can be very difficult. But it starts with your thoughts and your language. Here are some tips for becoming more self-aware and proactive in your thoughts and language.
A reactive person says, “There’s nothing I can do.” While a proactive person says, “Let’s look for alternatives.”
A reactive person says, “That’s just the way I am.” And a proactive person says, “I can choose a different approach.”
A reactive person says, “They make me so mad.” But a proactive person says, “I control my own feelings.”
Reactive language poses a significant issue because it makes you feel increasingly victimized and helpless, lacking control over your life and future. You blame your current situation on external factors, such as other people, circumstances, or fate.
A reactive person often projects, saying things like, “You’re never on time.” “Why can’t you ever keep things in order?” “This is so simple. Why can’t you understand?” As the business owner and leader, your attitude is reflected in your store. So, if you have an attitude of being victimized and helpless, you will attract employees and customers that feel the same way. This creates an unfriendly environment causing higher employee turnover and fewer repeat customers.
To stop being reactive, you need to increase your self-awareness, recognize your reactive behavior, and consciously decide to act differently or be proactive. To become more self-aware, look at where you focus your time and energy. You have a lot of concerns in your life–your health, family, problems at work, the weather, the national debt, war, etc. Stephen Covey calls these things your Circle of Concern.
As you look at all the things you are concerned about, it becomes apparent that there are some things that you have no real control over and some things that you have significant control over. Covey calls the things you have significant control over your Circle of Influence.
By determining which of these two circles is the focus of most of your time and energy, you can discover your degree of proactivity.
Proactive people focus their efforts on things in their Circle of Influence. They work on things they can do something about, which enlarges and magnifies their Circle of Influence.
Reactive people focus their efforts on things in their Circle of Concern. They focus on the weaknesses of others, the problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control—their focus results in blaming and accusing attitudes and increased feelings of victimization, causing their Circle of Influence to shrink.
It is natural for reactive people to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their circumstances. In comparison, proactive people accept this responsibility or are “response-able.” They accept that it is their choices that put them in the circumstances that they are in. They are in control and can choose how they respond, giving them freedom. Knowing that you can powerfully affect your circumstances by choosing your response in any situation is inspiring and encouraging.
While you are free to choose your actions, you are not free to choose the consequences of those actions. And consequences can be both positive and negative. A mistake has negative consequences. When a proactive person makes a mistake, they accept the consequences, acknowledge it instantly, and learn from it–turning the mistake into a success. A reactive person blames the mistake on someone or something else and misses out on learning something new.
We have covered a lot of material, but the point is that we have the ability and responsibility to choose our actions in any given situation–to be proactive.
To further solidify the difference between a reactive and a proactive person, for a full day, listen to your own language and the language of those around you. How often do you say or hear reactive phrases like,” “I can’t,” “I have to,” “That makes me so mad,” or “I have no choice”? I think you will be surprised at what you discover.
In addition, consider a recent experience where you reacted impulsively. Reflect on how you, as a proactive individual, would approach that situation differently. How would this affect the outcome? Was the situation within your control? What triggered your reactive response? What could you have done differently to improve the outcome? If faced with a similar scenario in the future, how will you handle it proactively?
Now think about a current problem at your shop. Is it something that you can control? Do you have any influence in resolving this problem? What can you control about this problem? What can you do to improve the situation? Focusing on what we can do and then doing it reinforces our proactive approach.
Lastly, commit yourself to being more conscientious and self-aware of your choices, responses, and actions. Knowing that you are responsible or “response-able” is fundamental to the effectiveness of the rest of Stephen Covey’s habits of highly effective people, which I’ll share with you in the coming weeks.