“You always have a choice.”
I’ve spoken or written this central message of The Best Advice So Far literally thousands of times by now. And yet, I still feel and see the power in it as much as I ever have—the power to transform the way we view and live life.
In the first chapter of the book, I introduce you to Chad. You can read his full story there in the book (or HERE, right now and for FREE, if you like); but I trust you’ll get the gist from this snippet, even without the full context:
You see, even an ultra-optimist like Chad fell apart and was completely overwhelmed and despondent, because he’d forgotten a very important truth. He was immobilized, because he believed in that space of time that life was happening to him, and that he had no say in the matter. Yet, once he was reminded of this key truth, he not only rebounded but began to take the world by storm.
THE BEST ADVICE SO FAR: You always have a choice.
Chad did not need to be a doctor. There was no rule that said he must struggle through a schedule of classes he hated, or even that he needed to remain at that university. Chad had choices.
If you don’t accept this truth—that you always have a choice—if you don’t remember it and live it, then you are left to play the part of the victim in life. You begin (or continue) to live as if life is happening to you, that you are powerless, oppressed by your circumstances. But, if you truly change your mind set to believe and live out in practical ways that, in every circumstance, you have a choice—now, you open a door for change. Instead of living as if life is happening to you, you will begin to happen to life. You will begin to realize the difference that one person—you—can make, that you are an agent of change in your own life and in the lives of others.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that we get to choose everything that happens to us in life. We do not choose abuse, for instance, and we can at no time choose to undo those things which have happened to us in life.
We do not choose illness. We do not choose when or how the people we love will leave us. Or die.
We do, however, have the choice of how we will respond in every situation, even the hurtful ones. Instead, so often, we pour our frustration and anger into those things we cannot change, rather than investing that energy into the many choices that we can make from that point forward.
And yet, I realized recently that, much of the time, the stories I feature center on macro-level change:
- You are not “stuck” in that job. It’s within your power to choose to walk away from it and do something else (as impossible as that may seem in a moment).
- You don’t need to stay with that B.E.A.S.T., i.e., Big Energy-Absorbing Stupid Thing, that you’ve stuck with for so long, even though it’s sucking the life out of you. (For your own sake, if you haven’t already, please read that chapter in the book, or this post).
- Chad wasn’t doomed to misery throughout his college years for the sake of grinding through a major he hated, even if quitting diverted from plan or conflicted with the perceived expectations of others.
In essence, each of these is a way of saying, “You can stop doing that—right now—and make a whole new choice.”
And that is 100% true. You can.
But it isn’t the only option. Not by a long shot.
Today, I want to explore another possibility…
You see, staying is also a choice. Sometimes, it’s even the best choice—one that involves countless other choices that have the ability to breathe new life into a tired, difficult or even painful situation.
I’m in the process of writing my next book, entitled Tried and (Still) True, which seeks to revitalize some very old pieces of popular wisdom that have sadly gone out of use. Among them is this gem:
Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Rather than just read over that and move on, leaving it as no more than a vague notion, let’s do some visualization together.
I present to you Exhibit B (for “Baby”).
When most people hear the word “baby,” they envision a wide-eyed little wonder like the one on the Gerber label.
Awww. Babies are adorable (even when they aren’t really). Babies coo and giggle. Babies think everything we do is hilarious. We want to cuddle them and talk gibberish to them and smell their baby-head smell.
Thing is … babies also poop.
In fact, sometimes, babies poop a lot. It’s remarkable, really, how such a tiny body can even…
But, alas, I digress.
Let us imagine that such plentiful pooping has just occurred courtesy of our imaginary baby.
Back in the olden days, they didn’t have disposable diapers.
They didn’t have Johnson & Johnson.
They didn’t have wipes.
They had cloth diapers that needed to be washed afterward and reused, and not much else. (In fact, I recently learned that my own mother used cloth diapers even on me, and I’m not that old … or so I keep telling myself).
And so the quickest way to restore equilibrium when things got … messy … was to plunk the little tyke into the tub straightaway. For the sake of keeping our mental images consistent, let’s make it the small old-fashioned wooden variety.
Almost immediately, that water begins to work its cleansing magic on our baby. But the poop hasn’t really gone anywhere. It’s just been transferred to the water and diffused (mostly). Suffice it to say that when we’re done, no one is going to be arguing to keep that water and reuse it. No, the natural response is to throw it out.
But, at the end of that bath, the baby is still sitting right there in the middle of the ick.
What to do? What to do?
Oh, bother. It’s all such a nuisance. Let’s just throw the baby out with the bathwater and be done with it.
Original illustration from Narrenbeschwörung (Appeal to Fools) by Thomas Murner, 1512
I should think the problem here is evident.
And that problem … isn’t the baby.
Yet so often, isn’t this our first approach to life? Instead of doing the work to separating the good from the bad when things get … er … poopy, we just want to toss the whole kit and caboodle out the window and wash our hands of the whole darned thing (in another basin, of course).
But in doing so, we potentially risk missing out on the beauty of what exists right where we are, for the sake of imagining that pastures are greener anywhere but here.
Maybe it’s a job—or an entire career path—that feels like an albatross around our neck. There’s no joy anymore, no sense of purpose. It’s just a perpetual loop of SSDD. Again, there is always the choice to make a new choice, to leave it all behind and start over. And often, that’s exactly the right choice to make.
But what if there’s still a baby there in the murk?
I recently had a speaking engagement in Charleston, South Carolina. Before heading out, I was in the mood for a new pair of dress pants. Upon entering the store, I was greeted by a young guy (we’ll call him Dan) who started in with the expected, “Can I help you find anything?” Realizing that such positions are often based on commission, I assured Dan that I’d come find him once I was ready to check out.
As is typically the case, I couldn’t find a pair of pants I liked in my size. (Fine—if you must know, I have short stocky legs, a skinny waist and a big butt.) So I chose the closest match and went looking for the in-house tailor. As promised, I found Dan to help me out.
I stood in front of the three-way mirror on the carpeted riser with the hems of the new pants pooling around borrowed black slip-ons, as the tailor tucked and made his chalk marks. Before I knew it, I was back in my comfy jeans and the tailor had whisked the trousers off to the workroom with the promise that they’d be finished in ten minutes. But Dan stuck around to complete the purchase, and so I got to talking (I know, shocker, right?).
I asked Dan if this was his first job and if he liked it. He told me he’d previously worked for a fast-food sub place and then as a waiter at a chain restaurant before this job. He told me that he missed the freedom of wearing more casual clothing to work, but that he guessed this job was a step up for him. His face didn’t convince me, so I probed a little further.
Dan shifted his feet and smiled half-heartedly. “Well … there can be tension over who gets to work with customers, because of the commission thing. So you never really get to be friends with anyone. And I realize it’s kind of a dead-end job as far as money is concerned.”
OK, so quit, right? Find another job you like more. It’s not a bad option, and it certainly beats going to work every day and feeling stressed out, discouraged or lacking purpose.
But that’s not the option I posed to Dan. Though I’d heard mostly about the bathwater—what he didn’t like—I also sensed there was a baby there somewhere.
“Do you mind if I ask a few what-if questions, Dan?”
“No, go ahead,” Dan said. I could tell he was genuinely interested in the conversation and its possibilities.
“What if you chose to transfer care of one of your own rightful customers over to another salesperson every so often, and let them have the commissions if any? Would the loss on the commission tank you? And how do you think your co-workers would respond?”
The look on Dan’s face clearly showed that this was an idea he hadn’t even considered. “Um … I’m not sure how they’d react. They’d probably think I was up to something. But no, the commissions aren’t that great, especially if it was only once in a while.”
“What if you flat out told them, ‘Building good relationships is more important to me than the money, and this is my way of trying to help us all enjoy work more’?”
Dan smiled as the gears turned.
“And what could you learn here that you don’t already know,” I continued, “something that might open doors for you down the line?”
Here, Dan paused, looking quizzical. “I don’t really know. I mean, there’s not much to the job, really.”
“Well …” I thrust my chin in the direction the tailor had disappeared. “Do you know how to tailor a pair of pants? What do you think the tailor would say if you asked if you could observe him sometime, or even asked him to teach you how to do it?”
Again, a grin came across Dan’s face. “Hmmm. I guess that would be new, and kind of fun actually.” Then he added, as if I were magical, “How do you come up with this stuff?”
I just gave him a mysterious raise of eyebrow and said, “Practice.”
My pants were finished and Dan led me to the counter to check out. He thanked me a couple of times for the conversation and promised that he’d look around for things to learn and ways to get to know the other workers better, and with that, we said our goodbyes.
Maybe, like Dan, your bathwater is a job you’ve been slogging through each day for too long.
Maybe your bathwater is a once-romantic relationship where each of you has gotten a bit tired and lazy, clouding your feelings toward the person you fell in love with.
Maybe it’s a teenage son or daughter who seems a million miles away emotionally, or with whom every word seems to turn into a fight lately. And it just feels easier to give up.
Maybe it’s that book you started writing. Or that good cause you used to champion with passion. Or that dream you once chased, that slowly got pushed out by the daily grind.
How might you reclaim your baby while still ditching the dirty bathwater?