For half a century I’ve been involved in the subject of this book in many different contexts all around the world. If you were to ask me what one subject, one theme, one point, seemed to have the greatest impact upon people- what one great idea resonated deeper in the soul than any other-if you were to ask what one ideal was most practical, most relevant, most timely, regardless of circumstances, I would answer quickly, without any reservation, and with the deepest conviction of my heart and soul, that we are free to choose. Next to life itself, the power to choose is your greatest gift. This power and freedom stand in stark contrast to the mind-set of victimism and culture of blame so prevalent in society today.
Fundamentally, we are a product of choice, not nature (genes) or nurture (upbringing, environment). Certainly genes and culture often influence very powerfully, but they do not determine.
The history of free man is never written by chance but by choice-their choice. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The essence of being human is being able to direct your own life. Humans act, animals and human “robots” react. Human can make choices based on their values. Your power to choose the direction of your life allows you to reinvent yourself, to change your future, and to powerfully influence the rest of creation. It is the one gift that enables all the gifts to be used; it is the one gift that enables us to elevate our life to higher and higher levels.
Over the years in speaking to various groups, time and again I have had people come to me and basically say, “ please tell me more of my freedom and power to choose. Please tell me again of my worth and potential, that I have no need to compare myself with others.” Many also comment that as interesting (or boring) as the speech may have been, the thing that literally electrified their souls was the internal sense of their own freedom to choose. This was so delicious to them, so exhilarating, that they could hardly ponder it long or deep enough.
This power of choice means that we are not merely a product of our past or of our genes; we are not a product of how other people treat us. They unquestionably influence us, but they do not determine us. We are self-determining through our choices. If we have given away our present to the past, do we need to give away our future also?
One of the most profound and truly life-changing experiences of my life- one conceptually fundamental to my work on the 7 Habits- took place while I was on a sabbatical in Hawaii. One day I was wandering leisurely around the stacks in a library. Being in a very meditative and reflective state of mind, I pulled down a book. In it I read three sentences that staggered me to the core:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.
Intellectually, I had learned from many sources about our freedom to choose our response to whatever happens to us. But on that particular day, in that reflective mood, and in those relaxed circumstances, the idea of the space between whatever happens to us and our response to it hit me like a ton of bricks. Since then I have come to understand and believe that the size of the space is largely determined by our genetic or biological inheritance and by our upbringing and present circumstances.
With many who have grown up with unconditional love in supportive circumstances, the space may be very large. With others, due to various genetic and environmental influences, it may be very small. But the key point is, there is still a space there and it is in the use of that space, when facing adverse circumstances, may choose to cave in, thereby reducing the size of the space between stimulus and response. Others with a small space may swim upstream against powerful genetic, social and cultural currents and find their freedom expanding, their growth accelerating, and their happiness deepening. The former simply do not open this more of their conditions than their decisions. The latter, perhaps stumblingly and with great, sustained effort, open this priceless gift of freedom to choose and discover the force that releases almost all of the other gifts given at birth.
The maverick psychiatrist R.D. Laing captured in the words below how failing to notice that we have this space kills our ability to change. Humans alone have self-awareness. Read, think about , and then reread this quotation:
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes out thoughts and deeds.
An awareness of our freedom and power to choose is affirming because it can excite our sense of possibility and potential. It can also threaten, even terrify, because suddenly we’ve taken shelter over years in explaining our situation and problems in the name of past or present circumstances, it is truly terrifying to think otherwise. Suddenly, there is no excuse.
No matter what has happened, is now happening, or will happen, there is a space between those things and our responses to them. If there is even a fraction of a second between stimulus and response, that space represents our power to choose our response to any situation.
Certainly there are things that happen to us over which we have no choice. One such thing would be our genetic makeup. Though we do not choose our genes, we do have the power to choose how we respond to them. If you have a genetic predisposition to a particular disease, that doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily get the disease. By using that self-awareness and your willpower to follow a regimen of proper exercise and nutrition and the most advanced medical wisdom, you may avoid the very illnesses or cancers that have taken your ancestors.
Those who develop increasing inner power and freedom to choose can also become what I call a transition person- one who stops unworthy tendencies from being passed on from prior generations to those that follow (your children and grandchildren).
I was recently privileged to receive the Fatherhood Award from the National Fatherhood Initiative. I was deeply moved by what one of my fellow award recipients said upon receiving the award. His first comment was that this award was a greater honor and more important to him than any award he had ever received. Although other awards were evidence of a successful career, he viewed the National Fatherhood Award he was accepting as a far greater indicator of “success.” He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “ I never knew my father; my father never knew his father; but my son knows his father.” His statement truly represents one of the finest and most worthy successes in life. It indicates true greatness and success; but, more importantly, his role as a transition person will profoundly impact generation after generation in immeasurably positive ways.
You can also be a transition person in the organization you work for. For instance, you may have an absolutely awful boss. Your working circumstances may be not only unpleasant but also unjust. However, but the wise exercise of your freedom to choose, you may change those circumstances and profoundly influence your boss for good, or at least insulate yourself from obsessing or being emotionally taken over by others’ weaknesses. Remember, any time your emotional life is a function of someone else’s weaknesses, you disempower yourself and empower those weaknesses to continue to mess your life up. Again, yesterday holds tomorrow hostage.
Here’s a true story that powerfully illustrates our ability to choose. It is told firsthand by one courageous, inspiring person who learned to influence, even lead, a “bad” boss:
When I came on board as director of human resources, I heard horror stories about what my boss was like. I was actually in his office when he lost his temper with an employee. I vowed then and there never to get on my boss’s bad side. I made good on that promise. I spoke nicely to him in the hallways. I had all my reports in on time to his secretary. I made sure I wasn’t one of the last people out of the office for lunch so he wouldn’t single me out. I didn’t even want to play golf with him in case I beat him.
A short time later, I started seeing myself in all my cowardly glory. I was consumed with things on the job that I had no control over. I’d spend precious creative energy devising solutions to problems that hadn’t even happened yet. Because I was scared, I wasn’t giving the company my best effort. I wasn’t an agent of change. In fact, the only change I felt comfortable instituting was me changing o another company. I even had an interview scheduled.
Ashamed of myself, I canceled that interview and committed to focus only on those things I could truly influence for just ninety days. I began by deciding I wanted above all to create a sound relationship with my boss. We didn’t have to be best buddies, but we did have to interact like colleagues.
One day my boss came into my office. After some discussion and after swallowing and practicing the words in my head a few times, I said, “ By the way, what can I be doing to help you be more effective here?”
He was perplexed. “ What do you mean?” I bravely forged on. “ what can I do to alleviate some of the pressure that you have in your job? It’s my job to make sure your job gets easier.” I gave him a big sort of nervous, please-don’t-think-I’m-wired smile. I’ll never forget the look on his face. That was really the beginning point of our relationship.
At first, I was asked to do just little things, things I couldn’t really screw up, like “type this memo up for me” or “ do you mind making this call for me?” After six weeks of doing that, he came to me and said, “ I understand with your background you know workers comp pretty well. Do you mind working on this aspect of insurance? Our rates are high; see what you can do.” It was the first time he had asked me to do anything that had a significant impact in the organization. I took a $250,000-a-year premium and got it reduced to $198,000. Plus I got them to waive the fee for terminating midstream on our contract by negotiating over some mishandled claims. This was an additional savings of $13,000.
Once when we had a disagreement I proved to him that it stayed behind closed doors. He didn’t hear about it later from the marketing department. I soon discovered that my ninety-day test was paying off. My relationship and influence did grow by focusing on what I could do to change the environment in which I worked. Today, the trust between my boss and me is very high, and I feel I am making a contribution here.
One ship drives east and another drives west. With the self same winds that blow. ‘Tis the set of the sails, And not the gales, That tells us the way to go. Like the winds of the sea are the ways of fate; As we voyage along through life, ‘Tis the set of a soul. That decides its goal. And not the calm, or the Strife. Ella Wheeler Wilcox
I challenge you to think deeply about this first gift- to reflect on that space that exists between stimulus and response, and to use it wisely in enlarging your freedoms and keeping yourself constantly growing, learning and contributing. Eventually, your exercise of that power will enlarge the response until the very nature of your responses will begin to shape the stimuli. You literally create the world in which you live. The great American philosopher-psychologist William James consistently taught that when we change our thinking we change our lives.