When we are born, we show up as a new character in the middle of a movie. What happens next—and the success we achieve before we die—is determined by 1) the circumstances we find ourselves in and 2) what we do about them.
Most of us are driven by certain desires and dreams for our lives. As our lives progress, we pursue success. We want to do more than survive; we want to thrive and excel. We want to be exceptional, to “make a difference,” as everyone says.
In order for that to happen, we need to pass the tests we are faced with, learn lessons we can apply going forward, and then, finally, learn self-mastery, which makes life amazingly wonderful. It’s not easy. But it can be done, with just one change in your thinking. Let’s look at tests, lessons, and self-mastery.
Passing each test
As we attempt to meet our goals, we run into challenges. These are our tests. No one is immune. Rich or poor, healthy or not, intelligent or struggling. Everyone is tested.
Our first test is how we react to our challenges. We can freak out or we can focus on dealing with them. Freaking out is counterproductive; it always creates more problems than it solves. It also makes us feel inadequate. And, it makes life more difficult for those who love us.
To pass this test, we must decide we will never freak out, and then we must stick to it. It’s a character muscle, and we keep exercising it until it becomes strong and dependable.
The second test is figuring out how we are going to meet the challenge in a constructive way. My husband’s first thought (and mine, too, now) is, “What’s the next right thing?” This question gets us moving quickly in the right direction.
In all situations, we just keep doing the next right thing—including and especially trying a new way to approach the tough problems—until we pass that test, and can move on to the next one.
Learning new lessons
As we pass each test, we learn lessons. “Ah. So that’s what the problem was. And that solution worked. OK. When this happens again, I know what I need to do.”
The more we learn, the more successful we are. In this age of “ask Google anything,” we tend to forget this.
People are hired because of what they have learned. They are promoted because they have learned more than others in their work environment. Some will go on to open and run a successful business because they have learned even more.
The lessons we learn are things we can’t learn just by Googling. What might work for one person—or even a lot of people—may not work in your own situation. There are nuances that matter. Wisdom and professional value comes from experience.
The power of self-mastery
And now we come to the final frontier: self-mastery. Yes, you can pass the tests. Yes, you can learn the lessons.
But if you don’t apply what you have learned, you will have to keep repeating those tests and learning those lessons. You will be stuck in an endless life loop of “knowing better but doing the opposite.”
I think this is the most difficult aspect of life. There are all sorts of reasons why we “do the opposite,” usually having to do with our appetites.
It is a hunger; a hunger that feels like the most important thing to do at that moment.
We hunger to eat good-tasting things, even after we have had enough to eat. We hunger to be entertained, when we could probably be doing something more beneficial (including getting some work done, helping someone, learning something new, or even sleeping). We hunger to be oblivious, to escape from our troubles and worries, so we turn to drink or drugs. We hunger for affection, to be accepted, and that hunger makes us anxious and filled with self doubt.
This is where thankfulness comes in. Thankfulness is one of the most powerful character-building tools available to us. Angry at someone? Start being thankful of the smallest things. For example, after a run-in with a jerk on the freeway, start look at the good things around you and appreciate them. “Thanks for this car, which is allowing me to run this errand quickly. Thanks for that parking space. Thanks that it isn’t raining right now, when I walk to the store from my car. Thanks that I can walk into a store and choose from thousands of items.” You get the idea.
Even the most mundane, everyday tasks are filled with opportunities to be thankful. It’s another one of those character muscles; the more you exercise it, the better you will get at it.
When it comes to a hunger, the thankfulness can be specific to that hunger.
“Thank you for a great dinner. Thank you that I had enough to eat, and I don’t need to have another piece of chocolate. Thank you for the fact that because I didn’t eat that piece, I’m going to reach my weight goal.”
Self-mastery—stopping yourself from doing one thing and starting to do something else—is very difficult to do when you just try to stop yourself from doing it. As I talk about in an article in my other blog, self-denial creates a vacuum, which often isn’t enough to stave off that hunger.
Instead, it’s better to replace one thought with another. Thankfulness is a very powerful thought replacement tool. It really comes in handy, too, in our relationships; working on being thankful for the many little things you like about a person can literally save a relationship.
And, frankly, it can change your entire outlook on life, giving you more energy, more happiness, and, yes, more success.