Two years ago, as I was giving birth to my son without any painkillers, I understood how powerful it can be to break out of a reactive pattern and take a proactive perspective.
What is Proactivity?
PROACTIVITY really means taking RESPONSIBILITY for our lives. Think about that word for a moment: RESPONSE-ABILITY. We have the ability to choose our response. Yes, there is our genes, family, culture, race, society, the government, the world… But in the end, we are here today because of the choices we have made in the past. And most importantly, the choices we make today will determine our tomorrow.
Even in the worst of circumstances, we can always at the very least choose how we are going to react to a situation. Viktor Frankl, a famous psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz, didn’t succumb to the despair that could have been expected from living in the horrors of a concentration camp during World War II. He instead found meaning in his suffering and realized that:
Between Stimulus and Response there is a space. In that space lays our growth and our freedom
We can’t do anything about the circumstances we find ourselves in, at least not anymore. And we can’t control either the outcomes of our actions once we have taken them. But right in the in between, of something happening to us and us reacting, is where we have the opportunity to be proactive humans, instead of reactive animals.
A Personal Story
It took me 8 hours of very painful labor to fully comprehend this. Right up until then, I had remained confident that I could give birth naturally, something I really wanted to do. But when it came time for pushing, I totally lost it. Even disregarding the pain, which had become intolerable! I could simply see no way I could push out a watermelon out of my vagina. I really can’t do this anymore. I get it. I totally get it now why everyone takes the epidural from the beginning. We live in the 21st century for G-d’s sake! What am I trying to prove? Epidural! Give it to me!! Now!! Push. Arggggggghhhhhhh.
And then, in the midst of my agony, I looked to the right above my shoulder and out the window. The pain and the voice of my doctor coaching me to breathe and stop swearing started to fade in the background as I noticed the sick view of Los Angeles through the panoramic windows of my room. It was a beautiful early morning filled with sunshine. I saw the mountains, the houses. The trees. The Hollywood sign. Immense gratitude and awe filled my heart as I observed myself in this very moment: a Venezuelan girl with Eastern European roots, giving birth to her son, one she created with her amazing Persian American husband in this beautiful city of Angels. All of our families waiting outside. In maybe half an hour the pain will be over, and in its place we will have our son! How incredibly grateful am I to be experiencing this moment and with such awareness.
I came back to my position with renewed strength, purpose and resilience. Some 45 minutes later, Noah was born 100% naturally.
Nothing had really changed at that pivotal moment of almost giving up, except for my perspective. Yet with it, everything changed.
Proactivity for Effectiveness
Stephen Covey, a famous educator and coach who studied successful people across all disciplines for 3 decades, found that Proactivity is the #1 habit of highly effective people. I loved his seminal book 7 habits of Highly Effective People, because its about timeless principles for building character. As Aristotle famously said,
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act but a habit
How can you cultivate the HABIT of PROACTIVITY?
Here are two easy, very practical ways, borrowed from Covey, to start developing this habit.
Pay attention to your language (both spoken and thought). Notice when you are being reactive and substitute with a more proactive alternative. Look at some examples below. Do you notice how empowering vs. disempowering they are?
2) CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE VS. CIRCLE OF CONCERN
Another way of thinking about this is paying attention to where you are focusing your time and energy.
We all have a Circle of Concern, where al our concerns lie (the project we have due next week, our kid not doing well in school, the government screwing up our country…). Within that big circle, is a smaller circle: our Circle of Influence. This includes all the things which we can actually do something about.
When we focus on our circle of influence, we expand our horizon of possibilities. Our circle of influence grows and we become more and more powerful.
Alternatively, when we focus on our circle of concern, we just make our concerns bigger. We empower them. And this circle really takes over, while our influence shrinks and shrinks.
Even though our concerns may be totally legitimate and we may be right about how much it sucks that our boss is insensitive or that we always get stuck behind the lousiest drivers, clearly, it is much more effective to focus on our circle of influence.
So do it! Start today. For the next few weeks, just pay attention to your language and to where you are focusing your energy and attention. Catch yourself when you are being reactive. Then find a more proactive alternative. At the beginning it may feel forced, awkward, even untrue. But I promise, if you practice it enough, it will become automatic—a habit! (Learn more about habits here).
Thankfully, I haven’t had to give natural birth again (and don’t know if I ever will!). I continue catching myself being reactive often and having to invite a more proactive language and focus. I don’t expect to ever be “perfectly proactive”. But I am certainly much more proactive today that I used to be years ago. And engaging in this process habitually, is what I find to be most valuable of all.