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Posted on 07-10-2018

What distinguishes humans from other animals? One crucial difference is that animals are slaves to external stimuli and can only react to these stimuli in the preprogrammed way that is in their nature.

By contrast, we humans can reflect on a stimulus before responding to it, and we can even reprogram ourselves to respond in a specific, desirable way.

This means that instead of just reacting to the world around us, we have the ability to proactively choose to influence it.

But even though we all have this capacity for proactivity, many people still choose to be reactive and allow external circumstances to dictate their behavior and emotions. For example, they may be in a crummy mood if it’s rainy outside, or if someone made a decision they didn’t like, or if other people have treated them poorly. You can also hear it in the way such people speak; phrases like "It wasn’t my fault" or “I don’t have that luxury” or "It’s out of my hands” are extremely common.  This is the victims approach.  

I can tell you this: people who constantly point at other people or circumstances for their own failures will always be let down, always have something to complain about, and always be left behind.  Sadly, many will never outgrow this.

People who are proactive, on the other hand, make their own weather and circumstance. They assume responsibility for their own lives and make conscious choices about their behavior. They say things like "I’ve decided to…" or “How can I make this work” or "Let’s try to find a solution to this problem."

Proactivity can be a profoundly powerful habit. It even works in the most extreme circumstances. Consider Viktor Frankl, who, during World War II, was imprisoned in multiple German concentration camps. In the midst of this misery, he decided that, although his guards controlled everything about his environment, he was still free to choose how he responded to his circumstances. Though suffering terribly, he could imagine himself in future, happier days, teaching his students what he had learned in the camp. His freedom existed in the small gap between the outside stimuli he faced and his response to it. No one could take away this last freedom, and he nurtured it until, like a tiny spark that blazes into a roaring fire, it inspired those around him, including some of the guards.

Similarly, you too have the power to choose what happens in the gap between a stimulus and your response. Thus, you can change your behavior and your emotions. To put this into practice, commit to a 30-day proactivity challenge: Whether at home or at work, whenever you catch yourself blaming someone or something external for a problem you face, remind yourself that the root cause is your reaction to the problem. Focus on finding solutions instead of accusing others. Exercise the tiny freedom you have before you respond, and you’ll find your capacity for proactivity flourishing.


Many of you will recognize the above as a summary of Habit One from Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”I thought you might find this helpful and interesting.

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