Fate is the hand of cards we've been dealt. Choice is how we play the hand.
This is a wonderful old saying that has been passed around, revised and voiced in slightly different ways by many great people. Basically what it says to me is that we were born with a certain physicality, at a certain location, of certain parents, and so on. And, what we become is in very large part the result of how we, and in some cases if we, choose to use the talents we were born with, learn from the experiences we have, and apply that learning along the way. It's just about that simple.
Because some things are outside of our control, we may feel like victims of circumstance. Victims of fate. I don't accept that. What would life be like if we just accepted the hand of cards we were dealt and lived the rest of our lives in homeostasis?
Imagine a life in which nothing changed.
I'm not talking about working at the same company for years, or staying married to the same person your entire life. Those are choices to be honored, not regretted or derided. They reflect a sturdy permanence worth celebrating.
Nor am I talking about going through life and not changing the food we order in a restaurant, the style of clothes we wear, the music, TV shows, and books we enjoy, even the social and political views we hold. Going through life and never changing our tastes, opinions and everyday preferences is unimaginable -- because our environment won't allow it. The world around us changes and we change with it, if only because it's easier to go with the flow.
What I am talking about is our interpersonal behavior and our resistance to changing how we treat other people. For instance,
The sister we haven't seen or spoken to in years because of some long-forgotten grievance.
The old friend we still tease with a cruel childhood nickname that he's long outgrown.
The neighbor we've seen for years and, out of shyness or inertia or indifference, have never talked to.
The customers we resent for the demands they place on us.
Most of us would mock a restaurant that never changed its menu. But we are not so reproachful or mocking with ourselves. We take a foolish pride in prolonging some behaviors as long as possible, with no regard for who is harmed. Only when it's too late to undo the damage and we have reached some objective distance do we rethink our behavior, perhaps regret it. Why did we go all those years without talking to our sister? Why were we cruel to our best friend? What relationship did we miss by not introducing ourselves to a neighbor? Why not thank a customer for placing the order?
When we prolong negative behavior -- both the kind that hurts the people we love and the kind that hurts us in some way -- we are leading a changeless life in the most hazardous manner. We are willfully choosing to be miserable and making others miserable, too. The time we are miserable is time we can never get back. Even more painful, it is all our doing. It is our choice.
So, now it's your turn. Think about one change that you can make that you won't regret later on. (That's the only criterion: you won't feel sorry you did it.) Maybe it's calling your mother to tell her you love her. Or thanking a customer for his loyalty. Or saying nothing instead of something cynical in a meeting. It could be anything, as long as it represents a departure, however modest, from what you've always done and could continue doing forever.
Now do it. Take that action. It will be good for your friends. It will be good for your customers. It will be good for your family. Most important, it will be better for you. So much better, you will want to do it again!
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Please view the Marshall Goldsmith Thinkers50 Video Blog. The next video in the series Triggers: Fate vs. Choice accompanies this article. I'll post these blogs once a week for the next 50 weeks. The series will incorporate learnings from my 38 years of experience with top executives, as well as material from my previous research, articles and books, including What Got You Here Won't Get You There, MOJO, Coaching for Leadership, and Succession: Are You Ready? The blogs will also include material from my exciting new research on engagement and my upcoming book Triggers (to be published by Crown in 2015). Pre-order Triggers at TriggerstheBook.com!