In the middle of his chapter on his first habit ("Be Proactive"), Dr. Stephen R. Covey, in his famous Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, lays out two circles: the outer circle being your circle of concern, the inner circle representing your circle of influence. His point is that we are concerned with a great number of important universal issues: the economy, global warming, the spread of international terrorism and radical fundamentalism, as well as local issues that affect your particular country or state or locality. Of course, you're very concerned with a large number of important issues. They're all encompassed in your Circle of Concern.
Covey's point (which I pass on to you) is: how many of these issues can you or should you directly influence? Let's say, for example, that you're very concerned with the rise of international terrorism. How can you, as an individual, influence global politics to such an extent that you're going to have a personal impact on the future of this issue? Unless you've committed yourself to a career in international politics, the chances are that this concern of yours, critically important though it may be, will not fall within your circle of influence. Fundamentally, outside of being well-informed on these issues that concern you, your time would be much better spent focusing on the issues that lie directly within your Circle of Influence. It's like that old saying, "Everybody's talking about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it:" Circle of Influence vs. Circle of Concern.
When it comes to Midlife Issues, your circle of influence actually proves to be much wider than you've been led to believe. "I can't do anything about getting older," you may say. True: you can't do much about the fact that you're aging (and have been doing this since the day you were conceived). On the other hand, how you go about the process of aging lies almost completely in your power. It's a 'cop out' to see yourself as a 'victim' of downsizing, or a 'victim' of a deteriorating relationship, or a 'victim' of accident or disease. You have a role to play in each of these scenarios, if you but have the courage to play it.
These are, in fact, the three areas where the midlife transition hits the hardest, and they're the three areas that are the most vulnerable to attack from outside. Can you stop your boss from laying you off? Almost assuredly not . . . as so many people these days are finding out. If your spouse or life partner is determined to get out, can you change his or her mind? If it's already gone that far, chances are very slim that you could have any real impact. Can you prevent your health from deteriorating? Only to a degree. Accidents happen (even to careful people), disease is no respecter of persons, and, even though you can do your best to keep yourself strong and healthy as long as possible, age does take a toll on you physically. You can't change these things. You're powerless over other persons, places, and things. What you can change is yourself.
There are no real tragedies in life (except, perhaps, a person who gives up on him- or herself along the way). There are only events or happenings. Each one is little more than an invitation to grow. Some of these events are exciting and uplifting; others are painful and burdensome. Yet, all of these events have one thing in common, they're going to challenge you in ways that you may never have been challenged before. If you have the courage to meet each of those challenges as they come — no matter how devastating they may appear to you to be — you will emerge from the encounter a stronger and more self-reliant person. One caveat here, though: 'self-reliant' is a sort of misnomer because you can only become truly self-reliant by becoming entirely other-reliant — reliant on your Higher Power, however you may define that for yourself.
When you're faced with something that comes at you from your circle of concern, but that isn't within your circle of influence, you meet that challenge by changing something that is in your control. When you figure out what that is and respond accordingly, you will have learned a valuable lesson. The lessons of childhood, adolescence and adulthood are hard enough, but they mainly concern themselves with the outside world. The lessons of midlife and maturity are different: they concern themselves with the inner you. They deal with self-esteem, values, purpose, meaning, direction, and your unique destiny in this world. These are the real lessons: the ones that really count.
So, next time you're faced with unavoidable, seemingly insurmountable challenges, what can you do? First, of course, you need to take stock of yourself and formulate a plan of action. Then, rather than licking your wounds and lamenting about 'why did this have to happen to me?' you can ask yourself one simple but profound question: 'What is my lesson in all this?' Nothing is wasted, nothing is for naught, so long as you can tell yourself honestly that you learned something from the experience. If you haven't learned a lifetime's worth by the time you're through the midlife transition, you just haven't done it right!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC grew up in an entrepreneurial family and has been an entrepreneur for most of his life. He is the author of The Frazzled Entrepreneur's Guide to Having It All. Les is a certified Franklin Covey coach and a certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Effectiveness coach. He has Masters Degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of Ottawa. His experience includes ten years in the ministry and over fifteen years in corporate management. His expertise as an innovator and change strategist has enabled him to develop a program that allows his clients to effect deep and lasting change in their personal and professional lives.