Steven Covey’s bestselling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effect People, starts off by telling us that the foundation of an effective life is proactivity.

This is a term derived from Viktor Frankl’s remarkable book, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which Frankl recounts the time he spent in a number of Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. During his time in the camps, Frankl came to realize that real freedom lay in his own mind and that, even in the midst of the most horrendous conditions, he was able to choose his own response to any situation. He wrote,

‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.’

This notion has profound implications. It means that we are truly free, and are not victims of circumstance. We are able to choose how to respond in any situation. This is the essence of proactivity.

The key to proactivity is a set of core values. These are not necessarily the values you have been brought up with, and they are not necessarily ‘moral values.’ They are your own drivers – the impulses that move you at the deepest level, the motivation behind all your actions. Becoming conscious of these values, perhaps reconstructing them, and putting them at the centre of everything you do, is the foundation of a proactive life. With the compass of your values in place, you will always have a way of calibrating your response to any situation. You are no longer reactive, allowing yourself to be carried along by the changing tides and winds of circumstance. If your life is a ship, you are now the captain and not a passenger.

For many people, the idea that we are genuinely in control of our lives may come as a surprise. Most of us were brought up to believe that other people are pulling the strings and that we are the victims of circumstance. From an early age, our parents and teachers used subtle forms of coercion, rewarding us for the kind of behaviour they liked and punishing us for ‘bad’ behaviour. We learned to dance to their tune. We may also have learned to feel powerless and small in the face of a complex and chaotic social world, full of conflicting agendas and power struggles.

The proactivity habit can, therefore, be hard to establish. But with gentle and persistent practice, we can change the way we think about the world and our place in it. We can gain more control and feel more empowered, often to a remarkable extent.

Henry David Thoreau wrote,

‘As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.’

Proactivity – the radical freedom to choose our response to any situation – also implies that we are not free to control other people. This is the main insight of choice theory, a set of ideas developed by the psychiatrist William Glasser.

It is sensible, therefore, to focus on our own inner world. Instead of worrying about other people, trying to predict or control their behaviour, getting annoyed that they are not behaving as we would like them to, it is far more effective to concentrate on what we can change – ourselves. Steven Covey calls this our ‘circle of influence.’ It is what we can change directly and, by spending most of our energies on this, the circle will tend to expand and we will, paradoxically, end up being able to exert more influence over others. Conversely, those who spend more time trying to change things outside themselves end up shrinking the circle and find themselves less in control than ever.

Choosing to respond proactively to situations from a core set of inner values will bring greater happiness and success. Many now famous and successful people had humble beginnings – Oprha Winfrey, Madonna and Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) are examples of people who started out at the bottom of the pile, and through proactively constructing their experience, rose to the top. These people are no different from the rest of us, except that they learned to take control.

Isn’t it time to be the captain?

Author's Bio: 

Mark Harrison is a freelance writer and educator. He writes for a number of self-improvement websites and is the author of several books.

His writing covers a wide range of self-improvement topics, but especially focuses on increasing productivity while reducing workload, and managing change.

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