“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” Epictetus, Discourses
I ran across this quote from Epictetus the other day and reflected on how my awareness of it has grown over the years. I’ve been slower in the application of this quote – yet I’ve also come to realize that JUST following this principle dramatically increases personal freedom and contentment.
One of my major moments of truth happened on a dark and rainy night, in the parking lot of the neighborhood Harris Teeter after a LONG day of work. In my usual rush, I was storming out of the store trying to get home to make dinner, make sure homework was done and maybe, just maybe, have a minute to myself before I collapsed in bed. Rather go slightly out of my way to go down the ramp, I pushed my cart over the curb. I also tried to turn towards my car at the same time – because maybe if I cut the corners, I could save time. Right.
It was a big curb. Grocery carts are not built to be turned at full speed over a big curb. Before I knew it, my groceries were strewn all over the parking lot and I was on my knees putting groceries back into torn bags, tears streaming down my face, raining soaking my hair. And I was really, really pissed off. At the grocery store. For having a curb that big. All that time I expected to shave off with my little “let’s go straight to the car at Mach 1” turned into a huge delay and a worse mood than ever.
As I gathered up the mess – blocking traffic and making a lot of other tired people mad – I visualized the incendiary conversation I was going to have with the store manager about their damn curb. How dare they let this happen?
Then suddenly, for a moment, I was outside myself. I could see the ridiculousness of my thoughts, my actions, the whole thing. I CHOSE to go over that curb. Cleaning up my spilled groceries was a predictable consequence of MY choice.
It was a baby step in understanding that my response to what happens to me is a better source of power than blaming others.
In calling this a moment of truth, I would like to say the light bulb went off and forever more I lived in the “light”: The only person responsible for my response is ME! Nope. Wish it were so. I would have saved myself some serious headaches.
The truth of how we can learn to run our own lives is much more subtle. We have had a LOT of training in letting others run our lives. That is how we are brought into the world as children. Until adulthood, our lives are more like tubing on the water vs skiing.
This is an insight I got from a fellow skier, who is quite adamant that kids should learn to ski (or wakeboard) instead of being passive riders on a tube. Tubing is a ton of fun and doesn’t require a lot of skill. That’s why so many people make that their easy choice. In the case of tubing, the experience of the rider mostly depends on the boat driver. There is not much you can do on a tube to control what’s happening.
On the other hand, in water skiing, the boat goes straight and the skier carves their path. While there are parameters, like the length of the rope and speed of the boat, it’s the skier’s skill that determines the quality of the ride.
This subtle, yet very real difference carries through in our lives. We can either let others drive the boat (and decide our experience), or we can cooperate with others while carving our own experience. The choice is ours.
When we are kids, we don’t get many choices. In my house growing up, if Mom was cooking okra and beef tongue, that’s what I was going to eat or go to bed hungry. Most of the time the food was really good, so I’m not saying I suffered or anything. Ok, I did suffer when my parents insisted that I eat canned asparagus. That came right back up onto the table.
The point is this: we spend a good 20 years of our lives being trained and domesticated to live with others on this planet. It’s easy to forget where we have choices. We are told to always have a number 2 pencil for tests and the rest of our lives, that’s the only pencil we buy. Because it’s the “right one.”
This training turns into the rules that run my life – usually outside of my awareness.
One of these rules hit me square in the face while buying pencils in an art store. All the artsy pencils were either super hard or super soft. Art stores aren’t in the business of selling old-fashioned test-taking pencils. But those were the only ones I knew. It felt like I had a teacher standing over me, whispering in my ear saying “Get the Number 2 or I will fail you.” This stupid dilemma reflects the power of our unwritten rules. In this case, I had to say to myself “I’m a grown ass woman – I can buy whatever pencils I want!” in order to get myself to be ok with buying a different kind of pencil.
Over the years, I’ve discovered thousands of “rules” like that buried in my subconscious.
There are thousands more undiscovered. When I am present, the real Lynn shows up to deal with whatever is happening right now, in this moment. At my best, the old rules don’t have the power to determine my experience; only I have that power.
Anytime I feel stuck, I pause and ask myself if I’m getting gripped by an old rule. Often, that’s exactly what’s happening.
Where are your choices? Where are you letting the externals drive your internal experience? What rules are running your life? Where did they come from? Whose “voices from the past” come back to tell you what to do and who to be?
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During a recent visit to the car dealership to get my oil changed, I decided to go for a test drive of a new car rather than sit down and write this blog. Usually, I feel like a creative genius sitting in that waiting room with my headset on, pounding away at the keyboard. Today, I felt that nagging question of “what am I going to write about” hanging in the back of my mind.
With a classic case of writer’s block going, I went for a test drive. It was an avoidance strategy for sure. Perhaps a very expensive one if my avoidance led to getting a new car.
I did what any good test driver of a new car would do: opened it up on the highway to see how fast it accelerated. For a few seconds anyway. As we were making the same circle that salesman has likely made hundreds of times, I asked him how he felt being in the passenger side of a car with a complete stranger flooring it and otherwise putting a car through its paces.
Here is what he said: “I don’t get scared when someone is seeing how fast the car can accelerate or they try the brakes. What scares me is the people who don’t realize just what a bad driver they are.”
His statement reinforced an insight that has been percolating with me for years. It’s something that will be percolating for the rest of my life.
Awareness matters. So does intention. And they are closely linked.
Being unaware (ignorant) can create unfortunate consequences – in domains far beyond test driving a car. Ignorance simply means you are operating based on an unconscious choice and you do not know what you do not know. Like a driver who is oblivious. Like a boss who doesn’t understand the impact s/he has.
What the car salesman basically said was that intention makes his job less scary.
There is a lot of power in intention. This is not a newsflash. There have been books and movies made about the power of intention.
Yet, like anything with depth, there is a WORLD of difference between knowing something in theory and actually putting it into practice.
It’s the “putting it into practice” that has been percolating with me for the last several years.
Being intentional requires awareness and discipline.
Intention to me means that you are operating by a conscious choice. You made a decision and you are acting on that decision.
It means I have to pause to decide on my intention for anything that matters. It’s one of the key leverage points I can use to run my life (instead of letting my life run me.)
So how did I do on that slippery slope of test driving a car? Did I fall prey to the salesman’s charms and drive out with a new car? (By the way, I genuinely am in the market for a new car – and I also love the game of negotiating.)
In this case, when I decided to actually do a test drive, I also decided that my intention was to learn about the car, get a first offer and LEAVE. No matter how good the offer.
The deal they put in front of me was actually pretty good – and I honored my intention. It kept me from making a rushed deal, and when I do buy, it will be on my terms.
Being intentional helps you create the terms for your life. It puts you in the driver’s seat. You can’t control what happens in so many cases.
Intention allows you to respond rather than react.
Where are you exercising the discipline of intention? In what ways are you letting your life run you? What decisions do you find particularly difficult?
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Sitting amongst the 40-60 something women skiers this morning, one of the instructors, a young woman in her 20’s said “We all (speaking of the other young women instructors) hope we can be as fit as you all are when we are your age.” I have to admit, it’s pretty impressive to look around and see these incredibly fit, happy women walking around in their bathing suits - with confidence. No hiding or shirking here. Not one of us has a perfect body.
What we all have are strong bodies, thanks to water skiing.
The strength goes far beyond our toned legs and pumped arms. We are all discovering (or rediscovering) that you get more of whatever you focus on. And that works for things you want and things you don’t. Early this morning, I mentioned to the coach that the sound my ski made crossing the wakes was different on this boat versus mine at home. She said she had never noticed it when skiing. When she skied right after me, she said “Now I’m noticing the sound my ski makes across the wake.”
She is probably not thanking me for that. It shows the power of our mind’s focus. Unless that awareness makes her a better skier, she will probably learn to tune out that distraction.
On the other hand, one of the skiers discovered her strength on the lake with the short set up. It requires the skier to both get up every time and then hold a strong and steady position as the boat whips into the course. It’s not for the faint of heart. Once she was aware of how strong she was in the start up, she took that strength down the lake and immediately improved.
All of us are out there with sore muscles, blisters on our hands and the occasional sunburn trying something new. Inch by tiny inch, we are finding inner strength to take a risk, ask for help, offer support, and yes, go around that next buoy. We are growing stronger.
And “strong is the new strong.” It says so on a T-Shirt worn by one of the women today, so it must be true!
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Lynn Carnes accelerates change and unleashes leadership performance in organizations, especially in context of challenges without easy answers. She loves to hear about how your experiments with these ideas turn out. To contact her or share your experiences email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Inspiring new ways to look at learning, growth, and reinvention, whether in leadership, athletics, art or life.
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