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Growth is a choice

We can learn a lot about a person by watching how they handle misfortune.

I thought of this after re-reading one of my favorite motivational books – The Ways We Choose by Dave Carey. The author spent five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam, and after he left the Navy he made a living as a public speaker. In the book he writes about the strategies he and his fellow prisoners used to survive the years of confinement. One of the principles that really struck me was that they chose to grow through the experience. Imagine being disciplined enough to choose to use a horrible situation as a means of personal growth. Seems almost superhuman.

To me, this shows the power of our personal choices. I know we’ve probably all heard this before – that we can choose the kind of life we will have and not become victims of circumstances or bad luck. But this book really drives home the point that we have far more power over the quality of our lives that we imagine. Too often we wait for circumstances to change so that our lives will improve, rather than deliberately choosing to start doing things to improve our life. We keep telling ourselves, “I’ll be happy when… (fill in the blank.)”

As several authors have pointed out, hope is not a plan, even if it feels like one.

I learned this the hard way. Years ago when I applied to graduate school my application was rejected. I had spent my entire undergraduate career preparing for applying to this particular school, and I was devastated when I was turned away. Naturally I was in shock. I was angry. I was ready to give up.

But after the shock wore off I had a choice to make: should I wait and re-apply, or start another career?

I chose to wait a year, find something else to do, and re-apply the following year. So I spent the year training to be an auto mechanic, and re-applied to graduate school a year later. I was accepted.

I could have spent one full year of my life feeling depressed and waiting for another chance, killing time and feeling sorry for myself. Instead I went out and got training in an area that was way outside my comfort zone – training which over the years has paid for itself many times over in maintaining and repairing my own vehicles. I chose to grow through the experience of being turned away from graduate school.

This lesson has stayed with me and helped my through some very difficult times. Over and over I have been reminded that sometimes the only way to gain some value from setbacks and misfortune is to find a way to use it to grow personally.

So remember that your choices are powerful, and that the primary reason you don’t have the life you want may be that you didn’t choose to make the most of the experiences that came your way, even if they were not the experiences you would have preferred.


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