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Workarounds: Are You Willing to Move from Helpless to Helpful?

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Whenever I post something about how you might be able to work around life's challenging situations, some readers inevitably resort to trashing the idea as some kind of "drivel" or "snake oil." I know it's hard for many to imagine that these ideas about taking control of what happens to you actually work; however, these are practical suggestions that do, in fact, work -- but only if you are willing to work them.

Inevitably, life is going to present each of us with difficult situations. Many of us have lost jobs, incomes and homes in the worst economy of our lifetime. Others have been stricken with major health issues, and most of us will encounter personal loss more than once along the way. The question is not so much about how to avoid what happens to you but how to respond.

While you may not be able to control what happens to you, you do get to control how you respond. The real question becomes: how do you work around whatever might befall you?

Here's an example from a reader who sent an e-mail to me on Dec. 30, as New Year's Eve was rapidly approaching. She wanted to share her personal version of moving from victim to victor, with a preference to be known simply as "A Thoughtful Reader":

During the first Christmas Season after my husband's death, I was washing my dishes and thinking despairing thoughts about New Year's Eve and New Year's Day and how my Richard wouldn't be there to wish me a happy New Year. In fact, all my friends would be hunkered down with their own spouses for New Year's Eve or involved in family get-togethers. I made myself feel worse by picturing myself alone on New Year's Eve watching the ball drop on TV and all the people hugging and kissing each other and remembering how my Richard and I had done that just a year before.

As I got deeper into my grief, a phrase popped into my head out of nowhere. Like a disembodied Yoda scolding: "Be helpful not helpless!"

This thought disrupted my pity party and cleared my mind. As I contemplated the application of it, I remembered an idea I had had for many years. I always wanted to host an open house for the neighbors on New Year's Day. Just a simple "drop-in-for-soup-and-sandwiches" type of afternoon. My husband had never been interested in the idea, but now there was nothing stopping me from doing it. As I got busy with the planning, the gloom and doom disappeared. It was a success. I have made it into a yearly event.

This may seem like a superficial example but the phrase "Be helpful not helpless" is the key to guiding me back on the path because it focuses me on possibilities and my strengths and resources. It has become the starting point for all my ventures and I'm sharing this with you because I feel it relates to the point you were making creating life the way we want rather than the one we settle for.

What a great example of choosing to take control of what you can instead of staying mired in the self-imposed hopelessness of the situation.

My new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything that Stands in Your Way at Work," provides numerous examples of how you can overcome complex systems, frustrating processes or negative and resistant people at work. These same principles that can help you succeed at work can also help you succeed in your personal life.

If you want to make a difference in your life, whether it is in your personal life, your career or just life in general, the best advice anyone can give you is to start where you are and make whatever improvement you can right here, right now.

You may not be able to overcome the whole situation right away, but if you at least get going, you will start to experience some improvement, and some improvement is a heck of a lot better than none. As "Thoughtful Reader" found in her own experience, it's time to start moving from helpless to helpful.

What could you do to make your life less frustrating and more successful? Are you willing to own the outcome you prefer and do what you must to move from helpless to helpful?

I would love to hear from you about your ideas and what choices you have that will help you work around whatever stands in your way.

Please leave a comment here or drop me an e-mail to let me know your experience.


If you happen to be in Santa Monica the evening of Jan. 26, please join Russell for a fundraising workshop and lecture where he will take you through various applications of these "Workarounds That Work" for both your personal and professional life. You can find out more by clicking here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. Watch for his new book, "Workarounds That Work: How to Conquer Anything that Stands in Your Way at Work," which will hit the book stores Jan. 10, 2011. You can find out more about Russell at You can also download a free chapter of his new book by going to and clicking "Download a free chapter." Contact Russell by e-mail at

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