09/23/2013 03:39 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2013

Don't Sweat the Small Stuff? No Sweat

We're all familiar with the phrase, "Don't sweat the small stuff." Sure, the big stuff may merit a little sweat but certainly not the small stuff. I firmly believe in the value of this phrase, but on a day-to-day basis, I still sometimes become irked by minor annoyances, especially ones that feel like major impediments at the time. Oftentimes, I find there's a gap, perhaps even a chasm, between what we know and believe intellectually and how we go about living our lives.

When someone cuts me off on the highway or stops in the middle of the road without warning or neglects to use their turn signal, I become irritated, even though I know in the grand scheme of things, these unpleasant moments are fleeting and ultimately insignificant. When crawling on the highway at one mile per hour because of a three-car pile up, I become irritated, even though I know I should be immensely grateful that I wasn't involved in the accident myself. When sitting in the aisle seat on an airplane and someone smacks my face with their massive backpack or a flight attendant clips my elbow with the food cart, I become irritated, even though I know what matters most is arriving at my destination in one piece -- a bit bruised maybe -- but in one piece nonetheless. On the whole, I probably spend a good amount of time and energy in a state of irritation. That's not good.

This past summer, I visited a friend of mine on the East Coast and was struck by his radical graciousness and remarkable equanimity. No amount of small stuff seemed to faze him in the least. In fact, he consistently exuded kindness, courtesy and calm. When confronted with an unexpected obstacle that caused the collapse of certain plans, he went with the flow instead of railing against it, whereas I might rail against it. No matter how many delays he faced, he maximized the situation by talking with others, taking in the scenery, or somehow embracing the setback, whereas I might embrace the choice to complain.

When he spotted a pedestrian about to enter the crosswalk, he gladly stopped his car and motioned for them to go. When the tables were turned, however, and the two of us entered the crosswalk, a stream of cars kept whizzing by, barely allowing us to reach the other side of the street. I started to become frustrated but then looked at my friend and saw that he wasn't, so I let go of my frustration. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of people's actions, he refused to waver from his own standards. He wouldn't let other people's behavior compromise his own.

Watching my friend in action, I was so impressed by how easily he deflected the slings and arrows of small stuff. He never internalized the stuff or took it personally but simply acknowledged the nuisance, responded accordingly, and then moved onto more important matters. When I asked him how he manages to avoid becoming bogged down by minutia, he said that he expects for there to be problems, that life comes with problems, it's just part of the package -- so when problems inevitably arise, he's not thrown off track. He said he keeps his focus on the bigger issues at hand instead of wasting precious time and energy stewing over silliness. Why expend energy on small trifles when the bigger more substantial problems are more worthy of his attention? By putting things into their proper perspective, he bypasses squandering even an ounce of sweat on drivel.

I also want to reserve my sweat for the big stuff, so I challenged myself after that visit to change how I react to trivial concerns. Now, whenever I catch myself entering a state of irritation, I pause, assess the situation, decide whether the source of my upset really matters in the long run, and then choose how I'd like to be in that moment in time. Do I want to be someone easily provoked by something slight, or do I want to be someone who lets the small stuff roll right off my back? I'm truly grateful that my friend showed me an alternative way of being. Through his example, I've started to bridge my intellectual understanding of a concept with how I go about living my life. Now, instead of having a hissy fit, I can cultivate my inner calm and keep my sweat stains to a minimum.

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