You can’t operate in the physical world without making choices. The alarm goes off in the morning. You choose to get up or to burrow back in. If you realize you’ve put on a few extra pounds, you can choose to begin training for a marathon, decide you’re OK and grab another bag of chips and/or choose a wide variety of other actions to deal or not deal with the situation. You choose to follow the well-grooved way to work or take another route. You choose to watch TV tonight or pay the bills. You choose to shave or to go scraggly. Actually, you can’t NOT make choices. We’re always choosing. Sometimes it’s by default. As long as you’re conscious, you’re making choices. You’re not always aware of the process but it’s there.
This is important: the conditions that conspire to present you with your current set of choices are not always under your control, but the way you respond to them is. Viktor Frankl’s work illustrates this concept quite effectively. You can’t imagine more dire straits than Auschwitz, where the Nazis have the power over everything in your life, including whether or not you get to keep it. But some people, including Frankl, were able to survive their ordeals in the death camps. Being a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, he was intrigued by the puzzle of what makes some people resilient and what causes others in similar life-threatening circumstances to succumb. His observation was that, although people were deprived of choice in all aspects of their lives, those who retained the human dignity of choosing how to respondwere more likely to survive. Those who gave up and acted as if they had no control, no choices, were more likely to die. This was also illustrated in studies of learned helplessness conducted my Martin Seligman, one of the primary developers of the emerging field of Positive Psychology. Dogs who were subject to shocks over which they had no control eventually gave up and stopped trying to escape. Even when the doors to their cages were left open, they would lie down and passively accept the shock rather than trying to get out.
The clear lesson of these results and observations is that we always have the choice of how we respond to a situation, and that’s what allows us to transcend even the worst of circumstances. Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning describes the experiences that helped him to develop these insights. Surprisingly, it’s not a downer to read. In fact, it’s amazingly upbeat and encouraging.
Fortunately, most of us will never have to endure such traumatic experiences. But we still whine and complain. It’s our nature. However, we can transcend our nature at times by shifting our frame of reference, realizing that we in fact do have more control than we think and changing the way we act. If the dogs in the learned helplessness experiments could only realize that the cage door was open, they could escape the shock. But they didn’t have that frame of reference. Similarly, when we change how we think (often leading to the insight that we in fact do have options), we’re preparing to change how we respond and behave. And changes in behavior are what enable us to make things better. We can choose to see things differently and we can consequently choose to act differently. But it takes awareness of choices and the courage to act differently.
How do you begin? If you’re in a bad situation, start with a question: ”What am I going to DO to make things better?” This implies analyzing your circumstances with an eye towards seeing what can be improved. As you do this, you may begin to see alternatives you may not have considered. Then you can see opportunities to act differently. You may not have caused your situation, but you always have the choice about how to respond to it. You have more control than you realize. Sure, it sounds simplistic. But sometimes the simple solutions are the best. Try this:
- What will you DO to make your life better?
- WHEN will you do it?
- HOW will you measure your success?
- HOW LONG will it take before you know whether it’s working?
- WHAT will you do if it’s not working?
Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D. is President and a founding partner of Management Psychology Group. He is a licensed psychologist and board certified in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is the author of Influence for Impact and a founder of eTest.net. He consults with top executives in a wide range of organizations about some of the unique issues of leadership at the top and about the selection and development of key executives and senior leadership teams.