At the start of this new year and this new decade, it seems like a good time to take a self-assessment and to think about my goals for the new year. I am asking myself, “What can I change in my life, and what can’t I?” Then I ask, “What do I want to change so I can meet my goals?”
There are so many things that we cannot change — for instance, we cannot change the things that happened in our pasts, nor can we change our partners’ or other people’s behavior (as much as we would like to!). We certainly cannot change the state of the world — at least not in the short term. These are all givens.
It can seem overwhelming and hopeless sometimes to realize this — until we think about what we can change, which is really considerable …. We each have our own agency. We can change how we live our lives, how we spend our attention and our time, and how we relate to other people. We can change what and who we listen to. We can change how we think about things and what our attitude and outlook are going to be. This last thing is, to me, perhaps the most important and difficult work.
Those who know me know that I am a pretty happy person. I have a sunny attitude and try to find the good in the people around me, and to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I was not always this way. My early life was spent looking at things very negatively and at times I felt very depressed. There were days when it was hard to get up in the morning, and everything felt like a chore. It was a painful way to live.
The first time I realized that I could change my attitude was when I was in my mid-twenties. I was working in a small business with a boss I revered. Then she hired a woman named Laurie [not her real name] to work alongside me. I couldn’t stand Laurie. Laurie was loud and bossy and seemed to be all over the place. Every time I tried to do something, there she was, being a know-it-all, making jokes and snide remarks. It was so annoying. We had to work together for several hours each day in a tiny room. I put a lot of energy into complaining about her when I wasn’t at work, and into groaning internally when I was there. But there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Our boss loved her and she was there to stay. It was really exhausting.
One night, driving south on the West Side Highway (isn’t it funny how you picture things like that in your head when you remember things?), I said to myself, “I’m not going to hate Laurie anymore.” I just decided. And somehow, it worked. She was still brassy and annoying. But I stopped letting it bother me. I acknowledged the fact that her presence was out of my control. But I understood that I could control my reaction to her. I decided that I wasn’t going to waste my energy hating her. I kept my distance as much as possible and stopped wishing she would be different. I took myself out of the middle of the internal conflict I was having with her. And work was much more peaceful after that. I don’t know whether Laurie ever even noticed the shift, but my life was better, and I’m sure I did better work after that.
It was a powerful moment in my life. By recognizing the difference between what I could and could not change, I was able to stop beating my head against a wall and to put my energies into things that were effective. And I freed up the energy to focus on the aspects of the job that I loved.
This is a skill that I’ve worked to develop. It’s not always easy, because, of course, we all have pain in our lives. But even during the hardest moments now, I remind myself to count my blessings. And, like strengthening a muscle, it becomes easier with practice to focus on what is going right in your life and to acknowledge the gifts you’ve been given. And once you operate from that viewpoint, you find that there is so much you can do with those gifts. Without changing anyone around you. Amazing, huh?
So in this new year, in 2020, I ask you, what goals do you have? What can you change so you can meet your goals, and what can’t you? What good will you bring to the world with the gifts you’ve been given? I can’t wait to find out.