The most powerful weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought or action over another. Train yourself to see and be the good in this day.
A couple thousand years ago in ancient Greece, the great philosopher Socrates was strolling contemplatively around a community garden when a neighbor walked up to him and said, “You’re never in a million years going to believe what I just heard about our mutual friend…”
“Wait,” Socrates interrupted, putting his hand up in the air. “Before you continue with this story, your words must pass the triple filter test?”
“The triple filter test,” Socrates said.
The neighbor just stared at him with a blank expression.
Socrates continued, “The first filter is Truth. Are you absolutely sure the story you are about to tell me is true?”
“Well, no,” the neighbor said, “I literally just heard it from someone else I know.”
“Ah-ha…” Socrates quickly replied, “then let’s move on to the second filter. Is what you are about to share Good in any way, shape or form?”
“No… no,” the neighbor said, “This story is actually quite…”
Before he could finish his sentence, Socrates interrupted him again, “Ahh, so it may not be true and it is definitely not good.”
“That’s right,” the neighbor assured him.
“Well, you may still be able to save yourself,” Socrates said. “Is anything about the story you want to share Useful?”
The neighbor stared blankly again for a moment and then said, “No, I suppose it’s not really…”
“So, you want to tell me something that may not be true, is definitely not good, and is not useful to know?” Socrates asked. The neighbor looked down at the ground and nodded. “Well, you have no good reason to tell me this story, and you have no good reason to believe it yourself,” Socrates added, as the neighbor dolefully walked away.
Simple Questions We Regret Not Asking
In many ways, not too much has changed since ancient Greece, especially when it comes to the stories we tell ourselves and each other. Every single day we invest valuable time into drama, hearsay, and empty worries. Many of us plug into social media first thing in the morning for reasons that have zero to do with what is true for us, good for us, and useful for those around us. Instead, we do it mostly just to distract ourselves… from ourselves and the good work in front of us.
In an expansive universe in which there are abundant opportunities to discover what’s true, what’s good, and what’s useful, when we do the opposite we know it. And while making that compromise is tolerable for a little while, eventually it isn’t anymore. Our negligence catches up to us, and we begin to feel off-center and regretful of the choices we’ve made. Don’t fall into this trap going forward. Instead take Socrates’ advice: simply focus on what is true, good, and useful. It worked well for Socrates a couple thousand years ago, and I assure you it continues to work well for many people today.
So when the going gets a little tough, ask…
1. Is the story you’re telling yourself right now absolutely TRUE?
In a very real sense, the stories we tell ourselves change what we see in front of us. When we enter an experience with a story about how life is, that tends to be what we see, even when there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I was reminded of this recently by an attendee at our Think Better, Live Better conference’s digital ticket holders…
She compared her present marital problems and stress to an old parable in which a group of blind men touch an elephant for the very first time to learn what it’s like. Each one of them feels a different part of the elephant, but only that one part, such as the leg, trunk, side, or tusk. Then the men compare notes and learn that they are in complete disagreement about what an elephant looks like — lots of tension and drama quickly arises between them.
Something similar happens through our wide-ranging, different past experiences. Some of us have been deeply heartbroken. Some of us have lost our parents, siblings, or someone we love to accidents and illnesses. Some of us have dealt with infidelity. Some of us have been fired from jobs we relied on. Some of us have been discriminated against because of our gender or race. And, when we enter a new experience that arouses prominent memories of our own painful story from the past, it shifts our perspective in the present — it drastically narrows it.
When a negative past experience narrows our present perspective, it’s mostly just a defense mechanism. Every day of our lives we are presented with some level of uncertainty, and our innate human defense mechanisms don’t like this one bit. So our minds try to compensate by filling in the gaps of information by clinging to the stories we already feel comfortable with. We end up subconsciously trying to make better sense of everything in the present by using old stories as filler. And while this approach works sometimes, other times our stories are completely irrelevant to the present moment, so they end up hurting us and those we love far more than they help.
Thus, my challenge for you is this:
Whenever you feel a bit off-center, try to bring more awareness to the story you’re telling yourself, and then practice detaching from it. Go deeper into reality. Don’t just look at the surface. Investigate. Observe without presupposing… Can you be absolutely certain the story is true? Think about how you feel and behave when you tell yourself the story. Then consider what else you might see (or experience) in the present moment if you removed the story from your mind. For example, what’s the opposite of the story and is there any truth in the opposite, too? Do your best to think better — to give yourself some healthy perspective — so you can ultimately live better despite the challenges you face.
2. What’s something GOOD you could focus on right now, if you really wanted to?
“A 10-year-old patient of mine will be undergoing her 14th surgery in three years’ time to combat a rare and aggressive type of cancer. Even after all the medical procedures and surgeries, I’ve never seen her frown — I’ve never seen her skip a beat. Although the odds continue to work against her, I’m certain her attitude, acceptance and presence are the principal reasons she has lived so well to this point. She’s still positively engaged in living her life to the fullest. She laughs and plays with her friends and family. She has realistic, intelligent goals for the upcoming year that she’s already working on. A kid like her who can go through everything she’s been through and wake up every day with enthusiasm for the life she’s living, is the reason I’m doing my best to focus on the good and better my perspective on life.”
That’s the opening paragraph of an email I received recently from a new course student and reader named Michelle. It caught my attention for obvious reasons. (Note: I’m sharing this with permission of course.)
Michelle went on to say, “My conversations with this incredible little girl have opened my awareness to all the self-destructive delusions I have in my head. I honestly have it so good — I am incredibly fortunate to be alive and healthy, for example — and yet I sit at home most nights thinking the opposite. I don’t necessarily do this consciously or intensely, but I do it. I think about how my life ‘should’ be different than it is — how everything should be better, easier, more enjoyable, and so forth. And these delusions are slowly spoiling my attitude and my ability to make progress on things that are important to me.”
Wow! Talk about a great reminder for all of us to get out of our own heads. And the truth is, most of us come to similar realizations at some point. The older we grow, and the more real-world tragedies and challenges we witness, the more we realize how incredibly blessed we are, and how frequently the delusions in our heads hold us back from our blessings.
So today, I challenge you to move through this day and practice seeing and accepting life as it truly is, without any delusions. Do what you have to do without worry and fearing the worst, lamenting about what might happen, or obsessing over how difficult your life is. Be present, take it one step at a time, and do the best you can.
If you don’t know where to start, simply look around and focus on a few things that are good right now…
- You are alive.
- You are able to see the sunrise and the sunset.
- You are able to hear birds sing and waves crash.
- You can walk outside and feel the breeze through your hair and the sun’s warmth on your skin.
- You didn’t go to sleep hungry last night.
- You awoke this morning with a roof over your head.
- You had a choice of what clothes to wear.
- You have overcome some considerable obstacles, and you have learned and grown.
- You often worry about what you’re going to do with your life — your career, your family, the next step, etc. — which means you have ambition, passion, drive, and the freedom to make your own decisions.
- You are reasonably strong and healthy – if you got sick today, you could recover.
- You have a friend or relative who misses you and looks forward to your next visit.
- You have someone with whom to reminisce about ‘the good old days.’
- You have access to clean drinking water.
- You have access to the internet.
- You can read…
The truth is you’re doing better than a lot of people in this world. And while you may not have ALL of the aforementioned right now, you get the idea. So remember to be grateful for the things you DO have. Because in the end, the secret to being grateful is no secret. You choose to be grateful for the little things, again and again. (Read “1,000 Little Tings Happy, Successful People Do Differently“.)
3. What can you actually do right now that’s USEFUL?
To attract better outcomes, you have to become better on both the inside and outside. Your actions matter! You can’t do the same things expect positive change. You can’t blame someone else either. Take full responsibility for the next step. Start transforming your mindset, then start upgrading your habits. Your life is 90% your choice! Think about it…
Have you ever told yourself that you’re going to do something useful or make something happen and then nothing happened? All details aside, it’s because you didn’t have the right habits in place — the little things you do every day that build up to something bigger. Your habits truly make or break you. Because in all walks of life you become what you habitually do. You will never make progress or change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret to your success is always found in your daily habits and routines.
In other words, regardless of your unique life situation or how you personally define success, you can’t become an overnight success. You become successful over time from all the little things you do one day at a time.
Failure occurs in the same way. All your little daily failures (that you don’t learn and grow from) come together and cause you to fail…
- You fail to check the books.
- You fail to make the calls.
- You fail to listen to your customers.
- You fail to innovate.
- You fail to do what must be done.
And then one day you wake up and your business has failed. It was all the little things you did or didn’t do along the way — your daily habits — not just one big catastrophic event.
Let this be your wake-up call.
Your life is your business!
Your habits are your business!
If you feel a like you’ve wasted too much time doing things that are NOT useful, this quick actionable exercise is for YOU. Choose any area in your life that you want to improve, and then:
- Write down the specific details about your current circumstances. (What’s bothering you? Where are you stuck? What do you want to change?)
- Write down your answer to this question: What are the daily habits that have contributed to your current circumstances? (Be honest with yourself. What are you doing regularly that actually contributes to the situation you’re in?)
- Write down a few specific details about the “better circumstances” you’d like to create for yourself. (What would make you happy? What does an improved situation look like for you?)
- Write down your answer to this question: What are the daily habits that will get you from where you are to where you want to be? (Think about it. What small, daily steps will help you gradually move forward from point A to point B?)
(Note: If you appreciated the questions and exercise above, “The Good Morning Journal: Powerful Prompts and Reflections to Start Every Day” is a great tool for bringing more daily self-inquiry and self-reflection into your routine.)
Now, it’s your turn…
Yes, it’s your turn to not fall back into your old patterns of living simply because they’re more comfortable and easier to access. It’s your turn to remember that you’re leaving certain habits and situations behind for a reason: to improve yourself — because you can’t move forward if you keep going back. And, it’s undoubtedly your turn to ask the questions above, again and again, so you can bring more of what’s TRUE, GOOD, and USEFUL into your life.
But before you go, please leave Marc and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
Which one of the questions or points above resonated the most today?
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