04/25/2011 08:54 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Forget About Perfection... Just Improve What You Can

If you have been following these posts for some time, you will have noticed an ongoing theme of personal "response-ability." This notion is powerful in making the best of any number of negative circumstances that may have impacted you. (If you're new to the column, I choose to transform the word "responsibility" from the common usage of blame or fault into something that means "having the ability to respond.")

The purpose of these articles is to inspire people to consider choices they may not have previously viewed as possible, choices that can lead to an improved life experience. Notice I did not say anything about a perfect life experience, just improvement. One of the fundamental principles of making a choice to improve is to recognize that the first step toward improvement is a choice that only you can make. However, before making that choice, before taking that first step, is another fundamental principle that the choice to improve requires some sense of hope, some vision of an improved circumstance, some sense of the possibility.

Imagining a better future is a form of positive thinking that I call holding a positive focus. Without a positive focus, it's pretty hard to come up with any choice, much less any active steps you can take toward improvement, other than simple random actions. Holding a positive focus on improvement also needs to be tempered with some semblance of reality.

There are many possible challenges in determining the possibility-probability equation. One person's reality is another person's pipe dream. Possibility and probability are clearly different from one another. Just because something might be theoretically possible (you, too, can become president) doesn't mean it's all that probable. The consternation for many arises from the apparent conflict between focusing on improvement while being faced with apparently overwhelming circumstances.

While there may be a common set of challenges facing many of us, it doesn't really matter what anyone else might be facing, or what anyone else might have been able to overcome. What matters is what you can and are willing to do about your circumstances.

Many of us are up against some pretty difficult circumstances, ranging from lost jobs and homes to personal tragedies of all kinds. It's easy to blame politics and politicians, economic systems, greedy power brokers or basic luck of the draw for what has befallen you. When you're all done blaming, you will still be faced with perhaps the most significant challenge in moving forward: how will you address the conflict between what outcome you can imagine and what you can actually do about it.

I frequently cite examples from people who have made the best lemonade they can out of the lemons that they have found in their lives. Examples have ranged from holocaust survivors like Viktor Frankl, who discovered the meaning of freedom in concentration camps, to people like W Mitchell, who first overcame devastating burns over 65 percent of his body and then wound up being sentenced to life in a wheelchair after a paralyzing small plane crash. I also have printed stories from readers who have managed to take smaller, less dramatic steps forward as they respond to what has befallen them.

No matter the size of the hurdle or the individual outcome, these stories hold one thing in common: each is an individual story of someone exercising what control they had available at the time, even if the only control at the time, as in the case of Viktor Frankl, happened to be in the attitude they chose to adopt. Each person embraced the simple resolve to take the next step forward rather than giving up and blaming their circumstances.

You may well be facing some huge challenges in your life right now. If you can find even a twinkle of inspiration that will help you take even one small step forward, then at least you will be on the pathway forward. Once you do take that small step forward, you may find it easier to take the next one. And once you get accustomed to being on the path, you may find that you become increasingly adept at not only taking more steps, but also making better choices the next time the road forks.

Please allow a little sidebar here: I want to thank the regular critics who roam these pages, taking me and/or these ideas to task. I can imagine some of these regulars are surfing these pages because they care and are concerned for your well-being. Others may have less altruistic motives.

My heartfelt thanks go to each of these critics for many reasons. Their contributions keep the dialogue going, even if dialogue is not necessarily their goal. Many readers have commented on the value they have been able to extract from these writings, often pointing to the fact that the negative frame some critics take provides a good contrast to the positive value of this work.

I'd love to hear from you on the value you have been able to extract from these articles. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life, or how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

You can buy "Workarounds That Work" here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at You can contact him by email at