Take Charge Of Your Life (It’s Yours, After All)

24 01 2013

Take Charge of Your LifeTrue confession: I don’t like taking responsibility for where I am at in life.  It’s much easier to be a victim rather than a survivor.  And I’m pretty good at it—and at self-deception as well.

I kvetch about working too many hours or having too many things on the schedule.  But I said “yes” for a myriad of good and lousy reasons. And then I’m tired and irritable.  I grouse about looking like a chubby little hobbit but I ate the M&M’s and Tootsie Rolls staring at me from the bowl, saying, “Take me, I’m yours.”

It doesn’t work for me, frankly.  This incident from Scott Peck’s life, recounted in The Road Less Traveled is mighty convicting.  But he nails this whole matter of taking responsibility for one’s life:

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Almost all of us from time to time seek to avoid-in ways that can be quite subtle-the pain of assuming responsibility for our problems. For the cure of my own subtle character disorder at the age of thirty I am indebted to Mac Badgely. At the time Mac was the director of the outpatient psychiatric clinic where I was completing my psychiatry residency training. In this clinic my fellow residents and I were assigned new patients on rotation. Perhaps because I was more dedicated to my patients and my own education than most of my fellow residents, I found myself working much longer hours than they. They ordinarily saw patients only once a week. I often saw my patients two or three times a week. As a result I would watch my fellow residents leaving the clinic at four-thirty each afternoon for their homes, while I was scheduled with appointments up to eight or nine o’clock at night, and my heart was filled with resentment. As I became more and more resentful and more and more exhausted I realized that something had to be done. So I went to Dr. Badgely and explained the situation to him. I wondered whether I might be exempted from the rotation of accepting new patients for a few weeks so that I might have time to catch up. Did he think that was feasible? Or could he think of some other solution to the problem? Mac listened to me very intently and receptively, not interrupting once. When I was finished, after a moment’s silence, he said to me very sympathetically, “Well, I can see that you do have a problem.”

I beamed, feeling understood. “Thank you,” I said. “What do you think should be done about it?”

To this Mac replied, “I told you, Scott, you do have a problem.”

This was hardly the response I expected. “Yes,” I said, slightly annoyed, “I know I have a problem. That’s why I came to see you. What do you think I ought to do about it?”

Mac responded: “Scott, apparently you haven’t listened to what I said. I have heard you, and I am agreeing why you. You do have a problem.”…[cursing] I said, “I know I have a problem. I knew that when I came in here. The question is, what am I going to do about it?”

“Scott,” Mac replied, “I want you to listen. Listen closely and I will say it again. I agree with you. You do have a problem. Specifically, you have a problem with time. Your time. Not my time. It’s not my problem. It’s your problem with your time. You, Scott Peck, have a problem with your time. That’s all I’m going to say about it.”

I turned and strode out of Mac’s office, furious. And I stayed furious. I hated Mac Badgely. For three months I hated him. I felt that he had a severe character disorder. How else could he be so callous? Here I had gone to him humbly asking for just a little bit of help, a little bit of advice, and the bastard wasn’t even willing to assume enough responsibility even to try to help me, even to do his job as director of the clinic. If he wasn’t supposed to help manage such problems as director of the clinic, what the hell was he supposed to do?

But after three months I somehow came to see that Mac was right, that it was I, not he, who had the character disorder. My time was my responsibility. It was up to me and me alone to decide how I wanted to use and order my time. If I wanted to invest my time more heavily than my fellow residents in my work, then that was my choice, and the consequences of that choice were my responsibility. It might be painful for me to watch my fellow residents leave their offices two or three hours before me, and it might be painful to listen to my wife’s complaints that I was not devoting myself sufficiently to the family, but these pains were the consequences of a choice that I had made. If I did not want to suffer them, then I was free to choose not to work so hard and to structure my time differently. My working hard was not a burden cast upon me by hardhearted fate or a hardhearted clinic director; it was the way I had chosen to live my life and order my priorities. As it happened, I chose not to change my life style. But with my change in attitude, my resentment of my fellow residents vanished. 

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This is tough medicine.  But we are responsible for our choices.  You didn’t have to take that job.  Go out with that person.  Vote for Obama or Bush.  Drink too many margaritas.  Eat the M&M’s.

Life is so much easier when we live free.  But freedom comes at the price of taking complete responsibility for all that is in our power.

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Outliers and Factors of Success

21 01 2013

OutliersLast year I read a remarkable book, Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell.  I am stunned by the results of Gladwell’s investigation into the hidden causes of success.  It is one of the most fascinating and upsetting books I’ve read in a long time.  Upsetting in a good sense, that is.  It upsets commonly cherished ideas about how people attain success in life.

In his book The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, M. Scott Peck argues that one of the characteristics and problems of our age is what he calls simplism.  Simplistic thinking fails to take into account that life is complex.  There are many variables that make up the people we live with and the challenges of our time.  The rub is that the variables are not always apparent.  It takes probing, time, patience and labor, for thinking is work.  Really.

The strength of Gladwell’s work is the way he demonstrates that, for example, 1) Bill Gates was not just a computer genius who came on the scene in the 1970’s and through sheer brilliance became the richest living American, 2) Asians aren’t necessarily “better” at math than Westerners but are more patient and their numbers nomenclature more user-friendly, and 3) that some recent airline disasters have more to do with overarching cultural distinctions vis-à-vis authority and power distance rather than simple “pilot error.”

I’m not writing today’s post as a spoiler for Gladwell’s book.  You owe it to yourself to get your hands on it and read carefully.  When I finished the book, I was struck with the reality that I am far too quick to pass judgment on the issues of the day, on why some fail and some succeed, even on theological issues—the area that I’ve given the most attention to since the early 1980’s.  Rarely are all the facts and evidence on the surface.

We are all composites of the influences and environments in which we were raised and in which we now spend our lives.  We are not simply our genetic makeup, products of our DNA.  More often than not, there are hidden factors that figure into the success of some, the failure of others.  Timing often figures in as much as raw ability.  We can thank Malcolm Gladwell and those like him (Scott Peck, Geoff Colvin, etc.) for digging deeper and giving us the full picture.

Here are a few brainteasers with which to bait yourself:

  • What cultural and economic tides are coming in right now that I can make the most of?  In other words, can I discern the signs  and trends of the times?  My friend Christopher Hopper has written extensively on the emerging wave of self-publishing.  You can read about that here.  It most certainly will be a force in the literary world in the days to come.  But it needed a level playing field, courtesy of the World Wide Web, to function and in which to be established.
  • What current politically hot issue engages me the most and do I have solid, consistent thinking and evidence to support my position?  Democrats routinely chide pro-life evangelicals for being oxymoronic—at once militantly anti-abortion and also vehemently pro-war (or pro-death penalty).  Are the criticisms valid?
  • Am I patient enough to thoroughly research problems and find meaningful solutions? Peck again.  You must be patient and resist the urge for simplistic, easy answers.  Thinking is work.  Are you up to it?

Digest Gladwell’s book.  It is a very important contribution!

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Habits of Successful Writers

3 01 2013

Writers and Their HabitsWriters are an interesting lot of people.  They often have the strangest habits.  They are all unique and quirky.  I’m fascinated by the stories writers tell about how they ply their trade.

Consider Ralph McInerny, for instance.  McInerny was a philosophy professor at University of Notre Dame for over fifty years.  He emerged from academic obscurity as the writer of the famous Father Dowling mysteries, a series so engaging that it was eventually made into a television series starring Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame.  He wrote other novels with different protagonists and settings, as well as numerous philosophical treatises, an adjunct of his day job.  He was a prolific and multifaceted craftsman.

McInerny became focused on writing in the early 1960’s.  At that time, he was teaching at Notre Dame, had a large family, and had just bought a new home.  As a result, he was financially overextended and needed to earn extra money to make ends meet.  He’d done some writing before, selling stories to magazines, but had never taken the idea of being a writer seriously.

So, facing a recurrent financial squeeze, he set himself up into an apprenticeship in writing.  Each night after the children had gone to bed, he went into his basement and pecked away on a manual typewriter from 10 PM to 2 AM.  Every night for a year.  Though pooped after a long day, he said about going to his subterranean writing desk, “It was as if the sun came up and it was a new day.  I just loved it.”  He tells the story of his writer’s apprenticeship here.

He did this for a year, having determined from the outset that, if he didn’t sell anything by the year’s end, he’d find a different way to moonlight.

He published over fifty books before he died three years ago at age eighty.

I’m inspired by hard work like this.  Here are some curious habits of some well-known writers:

  • Ernest Hemingway wrote every day for six hours.  Sober.  His average output being about 500 words.
  • Truman Capote always wrote reclining on a couch.
  • Stephen King writes ten pages a day.
  • Dan Brown rises at 4 AM and writes.  Seven days a week.
  • George Will writes his editorials with a fountain pen.
  • Vladimir Nabokov wrote his novels on index cards.
  • Daniel Silva writes all the first drafts of his novels in longhand on yellow legal pads in pencil.

What writers inspire you in your creative tasks?  What are their habits?

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Know Your Time

2 01 2013

Know Your TimeTime is the only inelastic commodity that any of us possess.  We are each allotted 24 hours to the day.  Given the fact that time has an end for all of us, it is priceless and demands we steward it carefully.

Those who make their mark on the universe learn this well, the earlier the better.  I’ve been listening to some outstanding lessons on time management by Brian Tracy.  This material is about a quarter of a century old but is timeless (pardon the pun).  You can drink from the same well here.

A leader advances because he knows his time and that of those with whom he interacts is precious.  So without further ado, here’s some tips that will increase your effectiveness, production and value in the marketplace:

  • Arrive early for any appointments.  People will take note quickly that you are a pro, a force in business.  Being fashionably late may be de rigueur for parties and proms but it will destroy you in the marketplace.
  • Use early morning hours to get a lot of work done.  Tracy points out that it’s possible to get the work of a typical day done in 3 hours of undisturbed effort.
  • Turn off your smart phone.  If it’s important, those trying to get you will leave a message or call back.
  • Find gracious ways of economizing or taking leave of people who tend to waste their time as well as yours.  “Hi.  What can I do for you?”  You’re not helping them or yourself by letting them simply drop in to chew the fat when you should be working. Again, this is for business.  Don’t do this with family or friends.
  • Keep your workspace organized, free of clutter.
  • When making appointments to meet with someone, prepare an agenda on paper, smart phone, PDA or iPad.  Set a definite timeframe for the meeting and announce it ahead of time.  If it’s 30 minutes, end it at 30 minutes and be on your way.  It will speak volumes.
  • Write down the contents of phone discussions or meetings.  When meeting with customers, follow up your discussions with an email.  This keeps assumptions crystal clear.  It will save your time and your neck, believe me.
  • Remember that really high achievers understand the value of minutes, not just hours.
  • When discussing a topic, ask direct and specific questions.  When answering, get to the point.  The only time you should exercise the urge to “Ramble On” is when you’ve got Led Zeppelin’s 2nd album cued up.

Enough for now.  If you follow these steps diligently, you will see your production increase, your influence grow and your income go north.

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Listen To Your Own Life

1 01 2013

Christian and DavidWhat makes you come alive?  You know what I’m talking about.  When a particular subject comes up, you become animated.  Your pulse increases.  Your eyes light up.  Your speech becomes dynamic and dramatic.  People see that something matters  when they look in your eyes and hear your voice.

You can’t hide passion.

One of the most important things I’ve ever heard anyone say is this: Listen to your own life.

This is not psychobabble.  You need to pay attention to what lights you up.  It is a clue to what you should probably do in life to put your own dent in the universe.  Passionate people are far more effective than the complacent and bored.  Passionate people make better art, better commerce, better lovers.   And they’re far more interesting than a thousand people merely getting by, content with mediocrity and playing it safe.

Some time ago, I had an interesting conversation with an even more interesting young man.  He is near and dear to our family.  As he began talking about his love of wildlife and animals, he got excited.  I told him, “Pay attention to yourself.  Do you hear your own voice?”

We are each given different gifts, callings and interests.  You can still the voice of these deposits through fear.  What will my friends think if I want to play the cello?  Can I make a living as a writer?  Do I really want to be a politician—people don’t trust them because they all lie, right?  Listening to these voices will slowly kill something inside you.

The problem is this:  If you stifle who you are and what you are called to do, it will inevitably emerge in a number of different ways, either 1) in inferior forms–like settling for being a technical writer when you’re really a novelist–or 2) in toxic forms.  The depression and frustration that accompany the unfulfilled destiny, like buried nuclear waste, will poison the water table of your life.  And when that happens, you will seek to medicate and mask that pain and discontent with all sorts of unhealthy stuff.  Believe me, I’ve been there.

The next time you find yourself getting excited about some pursuit—creative, vocational or social—pay attention.  Note your own body language.  It doesn’t lie.  If you’re near a mirror, take a look.  What you see is a clue.  A clue to fulfilling your destiny.

Life’s too short to settle for getting by.  You are here for a purpose.  Listen to your life, lock on and pursue.

You and the world will be better for it.