My commute home from work is always rough. On a good day, it takes about an hour. On a bad day, it can take considerably longer. Unfortunately for me, today was a bad day. It seemed like every time I looked there was a car cutting me off, an individual barely driving the speed limit in the passing lane, a slowdown of traffic for no reason, or a driver fiddling with their cell phone when attention should have been on the road. Like any normal person, I experienced some frustration, yelled a few things, and forgot about it a few seconds later.
Before I returned home, I had to make a stop at my local PetSmart. See, we have two dogs, an 85 pound Rottweiler-Labrador mix and a 65 pound red nose Pit bull. Big dogs mean big appetites, which means I find myself at this store once every few weeks. When you are a frequent flyer as we are, you see a lot of the same people working and it's natural to recognize each other. Today was no different and the young woman who rang me up was someone who I have seen often. Our interactions are typically very similar, but today she said something that stopped me in my tracks.
Before she started scanning my items, she began to ask me for my phone number for their PetPerks program. As she was asking this, I greeted her and asked her how she was doing today. As we were talking at the same time, she stopped and looked up at me. She saw me smiling at her, she smiled back and asked me, "Are you always happy?" I looked at her for a second, caught completely off-guard, and responded with a simple yes. I explained that life is too short to not be happy and that even when things stink, we can make them better with how we approach and view the situation. She agreed with me and we chatted a little more about the topic while I paid for my items.
Luckily for her, she didn't see me less than an hour before sitting in traffic dealing with people who I repeatedly questioned aloud if they knew how to drive, were trying to kill someone, or if they wanted driving lessons. I'm human, I get frustrated in traffic like most people. There are plenty of things in this world that annoy and irritate me. If you knew me a few years ago, you would be surprised at how I would have handled those situations. I can guarantee you that nobody would ask me if I were always happy. I probably would have carried that irritation from the drive throughout my commute and into the store with me. So what changed?
Perspective. Maybe it has to do with getting older. Maybe it's because of the birth of my son and the upcoming birth of my second son. Maybe it's the on the job training I received with social-emotional learning, crisis management, and working with children with behavioral and emotional problems at my last school. Maybe it is the various books I have read, conferences I have attended, educational Twitter chats I participate in, and the connections in my professional learning network that I have made. I don't think I can pinpoint one particular cause because I believe that it is a combination of all the above.
I recently read The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday and this book helped give some much-needed perspective in my life. In fact, his methodologies for working through obstacles and trusting the process literally saved my life during my last Spartan Race. One of my favorite quotes from this book reads, “There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” Powerful, right? That line has changed the way I view life completely.
It has taken me 31 years to recognize that my perceptions control my reality. If I get mad about a situation, then I have made that subconscious (or very conscious) choice to act in that way. If I choose to let something go and not bother me, then it won't. Holiday explains in his book that events and circumstances have zero meaning. The only meaning that they have is what we assign to it and how we respond to them. Basically, your perception IS your reality. We can choose to find the positive in negative events and flourish. Or we can wallow in the negatives and be bogged down. It's okay to feel mad, upset, disappointed, annoyed, frustrated, or downright pissed, but if we cling to those feelings, then that negativity will cling to us. Feel it, recognize that we assign the feelings, and then move past them.
Look, I know what you're thinking now. This seems so basic and so simple that it is just common sense, but how many of us practice this in our daily lives? I know I had not until recently. I challenge you to give it a try! The next time something negative happens in your life, experience those initial feelings and then remember that you assign those feelings. Remember that the event has no meaning whatsoever, besides what you assign to it. Don't let some traffic, people driving like maniacs, a bad break-up, getting fired, or anything else dictate how you feel. Look at every obstacle for what it is, an opportunity to move forward on a new path.
Oh and one more thing. Remember to smile and enjoy life! They really are contagious!