11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2015

You Can Never Get Enough Of What You Don't Really Want

Several weeks ago, at the urging of a good friend, I embarked on this series about aspiring to an inspired life. My piece two weeks ago, "Are You Doomed By Your Circumstances?" struck a chord, and many people responded, some complaining that many really are trapped by circumstances. That lead me to challenge our thinking about what choices we actually have in a variety of situations. "Why Positive Thinking Just Doesn't Work" emphasized that good thoughts alone are insufficient, that positive actions are also required.

Well, this one opened up the floodgates. Many of you left comments and dropped me emails thanking me for the post, with all manner of wonderful anecdotes about how you have applied these lessons in your life.

Then there's the other side of the spectrum. Some of you got pretty hot, accusing me of being anything from disingenuous to insensitive. One character called me a snake oil salesman for even suggesting that one could do something positive about difficult circumstances.

Some apparently missed the point, taking me to task for being "critical" of those in difficult situations. Some went deep into the weeds on how difficult life is for the disabled, the jobless, and others in various forms of "down and out."

The whole point of these articles is that for just about any condition in which we may find ourselves, there are always more choices to be made. As difficult as things may be, there's almost always something we can do to improve. Anyone can point out the extreme situations where even the most positive thinking person will struggle to find a way out.

That's not the point - most of us aren't living in these kinds of extremes. Most of us have more opportunity and more choices than we allow ourselves to consider.

Fundamentally, the most important choice any of us can make when confronted with life challenges is how we respond.

One reader who got it, wrote:

When I stop dwelling on my (less than desirable) circumstances and start taking action to change those circumstances, I find that positive things happen to me. Not always huge, life altering positive things, but positive things nevertheless. Conversely, I have noted that people who concede defeat before they have really begun the battle maintain a negative attitude, and thus do not experience the joy of positive results.

Some went off on my use of the word "responsibility," railing against me for "blaming the victim." I understand that common usage has changed the word to mean fault. However, as I have written in the past, the word is best used to mean "response-able," or, having the "ability to respond." In just about any circumstance, you will have the ability to respond. Sometimes, the choices are more narrow than most of us can ever imagine, and yet the choices are there. How you choose and how you respond just may make all the difference.

Some went nuts because I referenced examples of others who have dealt with adversity in remarkable ways, ranging from holocaust survivor Viktor Frank to W Mitchell who has created a great life despite nearly being burned to death and then becoming paralyzed. The complaint this time? That these are isolated examples of people with some combination of luck and being super human.

Kind of interesting, and perhaps a glimpse into what has become an increasing part of our national psyche these days: when offered useful thought about how to improve your experience of life, the critics come out to say this doesn't work. If we point to examples from third parties, the critics dismiss the examples as unusual or super human.

Probably the best was the reader who wrote:

Who are you to tell people they're doing it wrong if they can't seem to apply your tenets with success? How disrespectful. The very first rule - if I may - for meaningful existence on this planet is not to judge. And your essay reveals a whole lot of negative judgment. I shudder to think what you would tell people who endured the Holocaust or other more recent historical tragedies.

A great example of missing the point, to be sure: examples of choice, response-ability, and positive focus leading to positive action aren't my tenets; rather, they are universal truths that existed way before I wrote about them. Her complaint about Holocaust survivors is just amazing in that not only have I worked quite successfully with dozens of Holocaust survivors myself, but I cited Viktor Frankl who wrote of his responsibility (ability to respond) as being a chief reason he was able to survive the concentration camps. She dismissed this as well.

With so much misunderstanding in place, and an apparent willingness to attack anything positive, let's regroup here and take a good look at the fundamental elements of the message I am trying to bring to these pages.

You Can Make a Positive Difference in Your Life

If you don't agree with this statement, probably no need to read any further.

Making a positive difference doesn't mean you have to wind up at the top of some pyramid. It just means taking a step or two, both internally or attitudinally and then physically in the direction of your desired improvement. Conditions may continue to change with each step along the way, and more choices will be presented. Keep noticing, keep choosing, keep supporting your own improvement.

However, you better be clear on the next piece of advice.

You Can Never Get Enough of What You Don't Really Want

Here I paraphrase longshoreman philosopher Eric Hoffer, from whom I lifted the title for this article. Hoffer encouraged people to know the difference between their material focus and what will ultimately make them happy.

My first article on the HuffPost last summer, started off suggesting that there's a difference between the things most people try to create in their lives and why they want them in the first place, between their quantitative focus and the qualitative experience they seek. The critical element is to look underneath the object of your focus to a deeper level of meaning.

Get Clear On What You Want and Why You Want It

My contention is that what people most want out of life is pretty common across peoples everywhere: the experience of freedom, security, joy, loving, peace, etc. Naturally, these come into focus after basic needs have been met, including food, water, shelter, and safety.

Having worked with thousands of people all over the world, in just about every circumstance you can imagine, I am quite clear on the difference between struggling for basic subsistence, and working to improve the quality of life once these basics have been handled.

It is unlikely that the homeless or deeply impoverished will be reading this article. So, let's not go to some extreme in attacking these ideas or suggestions because extreme conditions exist. Instead, if you care about the homeless, the hungry or the deeply impoverished, why not consider how you could use these ideas to either improve your own circumstances so you are in a better position to help, or how you can use these ideas in whatever volunteer work you already do?

Know the Difference Between a Goal and an Aspiration

There are any number of goals you might have in life, ranging from finding a job to winning an Olympic medal to becoming the world's richest person. I think goals are fine, and they aren't really anything of much lasting value, at least most of the time. If this isn't clear already, consider this: ever want something in life, focus on it with great intensity, work like crazy to get it, and once you "succeed," find yourself wondering why you ever wanted it in the first place?

If your goals rise above these more simplistic measures of physical world success, you may find yourself shifting into something characterized by inspiration and aspiration. Aspiration and inspiration share a common etymology from the Latin and old French referencing a form of divine awareness, sometimes called "a quickening" or "the breath of life." For these purposes, I will simply refer to inspiration and aspiration as being divinely focused, of a higher mind or higher purpose.

Are your goals or life aspirations of a higher purpose? If so, to what do you aspire? What choices will you need to make in order to enable or allow that higher purpose to come through?

Get Real and Focus Positively

Even if you prefer to stay more focused on physical level goals, it is critically important to understand the power of a positive focus coupled with a good dose of reality.

I may want to run a marathon in 2:10 and while there may be some theoretic possibility, the probability is beyond laughable for someone my age. A goal has to be at least 50% believable for you to even give yourself "half a chance" of succeeding - otherwise, you are likely to give up before even getting started.

If you do have a goal that is within some bound of reason, then you really better get your positive focus working. Positive focus means staying aware of, and committed to, the outcome and to the work necessary to get there. Your focus on a positive outcome may be the only thing that pulls you through the challenges you will face along with way.

Positive Focus is NOT the Same as Positive Thinking

In this reference, positive thinking is somewhere between wishful thinking and pretending that things are just fine.

If you just lost your job, found out you have cancer, or have become homeless, there's very little that many will call positive about the circumstances and no amount of "positive thinking" will change the present conditions. However, without some positive thought, the kind that looks for a way to improve, you will be unlikely to create sufficient energy or motivation to work through the situation.

A positive focus is required to find ways to improve, recognizing that any step forward is better than staying stuck in the rut of hopelessness.

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With the First Step

You are surely aware of this famous quotation from Lao-tzu. I have found that it is helpful to add a bit more to this. How long is a thousand mile journey? How many steps will it take?

The cute but true answer: it will take as many steps as it takes. Will there be detours? What do you do if the bridge is out? Would you rather go around the mountains or up and over?

On any path to improvement, there will be unforeseen challenges, new discoveries, and perhaps even adjustments to the goal.

The point of all this is to set yourself on a direction of improvement, notice what happens along the way, and continue to take those steps. Sure, obstacles will appear, and unforeseen difficulties are likely to occur. So, what should you do when these show up?

None of this works perfectly nor does it work the same for each person. However, one thing I can guarantee: none of this will work if you don't try!

There's more to come on this theme. Please let me know your thoughts, questions, concerns or suggestions, either by leaving a comment below, or by sending me an email. I will be away for two weeks, but you can follow me on Twitter at:

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

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 my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)