Taking the Initiative
Our basic nature is to act, and not be acted upon. As well as enabling us to choose our response to particular circumstances, this empowers us to create circumstances Taking initiative does not mean being pushy, obnoxious, or aggressive. It does mean recognizing our responsibility to make things happen. Over the years, I have frequently counseled people who wanted better jobs to show more initiative -- to take interest and aptitude tests, to study the industry, even the specific problems the organizations they are interested in are facing, and then to develop an effective presentation showing how their abilities can help solve the organization's problem. It's called "solution selling," and is a key paradigm in business success. The response is usually agreement -- most people can see how powerfully such an approach would affect their opportunities for employment or advancement. But many of them fail to take the necessary steps, the initiative, to make it happen. "I don't know where to go to take the interest and aptitude test." "How do I study industry and organizational problems? No one wants to help me." Many people wait for something to happen or someone to take care of them. But people who end up with the good jobs are the proactive ones who are solutions to problems, not problems themselves, who seize the initiative to do whatever is necessary, consistent with correct principles, to get the job done. Whenever someone in our family, even one of the younger children, takes an irresponsible position and waits for someone else to make things happen or provide a solution, we tell them, "Use your R and I!" (resourcefulness and initiative). In fact, often before we can say it, they answer their own complaints, "I know -- use my R and I!" Holding people to the responsible course is not demeaning; it is affirming. Proactivity is part of human nature, and although the proactive muscles may be dormant, they are there. By respecting the proactive nature of other people, we provide them with at least one clear, undistorted reflection from the social mirror. Of course, the maturity level of the individual has to be taken into account. We can't expect high creative cooperation from those who are deep into emotional dependence. But we can, at least, affirm their basic nature and create an atmosphere where people can seize opportunities and solve problems in an increasingly self-reliant way. Act or be Acted Upon The difference between people who exercise initiative and those who don't is literally the difference between night and day. I'm not talking about a 25 to 50 percent difference in effectiveness; I'm talking about a 5000-plus percent difference, particularly if they are smart, aware, and sensitive to others. It takes initiative to create the P/PC Balance of effectiveness in your life. It takes initiative to develop the Seven Habits. As you study the other six habits, you will see that each depends on the development of your proactive muscles. Each puts the responsibility on 41 you to act. If you wait to be acted upon, you will be acted upon. And growth and opportunity consequences attend either road. At one time I worked with a group of people in the home improvement industry, representatives from 20 different organizations who met quarterly to share their numbers and problems in an uninhibited way. This was during a time of heavy recession, and the negative impact on this particular industry was even heavier than on the economy in general. These people were fairly discouraged as we began. The first day, our discussion question was "What's happening to us? What's the stimulus?" Many things were happening. The environmental pressures were powerful. There was widespread unemployment, and many of these people were laying off friends just to maintain the viability of their enterprises. By the end of the day, everyone was even more discouraged. The second day, we addressed the question, "What's going to happen in the future?" We studied environmental trends with the underlying reactive assumption that those things would create their future. By the end of the second day, we were even more depressed. Things were going to get worse before they got better, and everyone knew it. So on the third day, we decided to focus on the proactive question, "What is our response? What are we going to do? How can we exercise initiative in this situation?" In the morning we talked about managing and reducing costs. In the afternoon we discussed increasing market share. We brainstormed both areas, then concentrated on several very practical, very doable things. A new spirit of excitement, hope, and proactive awareness concluded the meetings. At the every end of the third day, we summarized the results of the conference in a threepart answer to the question, "How's business?" Part one: What's happening to us is not good, and the trends suggest that it will get worse before it gets better Part two: But what we are causing to happen is very good, for we are better managing and reducing our costs and increasing our market share Part three: Therefore, business is better than ever Now what would a reactive mind say to that? "Oh, come on. Face facts. You can only carry this positive thinking and self-psych approach so far. Sooner or later you have to face reality." But that's the difference between positive thinking and proactivity. We did face reality. We faced the reality of the current circumstance and of future projections. But we also faced the reality that we had the power to choose a positive response to those circumstances and projections. Not facing reality would have been to accept the idea that what's happening in our environment had to determine us. Businesses, community groups, organizations of every kind -- including families -- can be proactive. They can combine the creativity and resourcefulness of proactive individuals to create a proactive culture within the organization. The organization does not have to 42 be at the mercy of the environment; it can take the initiative to accomplish the shared values and purposes of the individuals involved. Listening to our Language Because our attitudes and behaviors flow out of our paradigms, if we use our selfawareness to examine them, we can often see in them the nature of our underlying maps. Our language, for example, is a very real indicator of the degree to which we see ourselves as proactive people. The language of reactive people absolves them of responsibility. "That's me. That's just the way I am." I am determined. There's nothing I can do about it. "He makes me so mad!" I'm not responsible. My emotional life is governed by something outside my control. "I can't do that. I just don't have the time." Something outside me -- limited time -- is controlling me. "If only my wife were more patient." Someone else's behavior is limiting my effectiveness. "I have to do it." Circumstances or other people are forcing me to do what I do. I'm not free to choose my own actions. Reactive Language: There's nothing I can do. That's just the way I am. He makes me so mad. They won't allow that. I have to do that. I can't. I must. If only. Proactive Language: Let's look at our alternatives. I can choose a different approach. I control my own feelings. I can create an effective presentation. I will choose an appropriate response. choose. I prefer. I will. That language comes from a basic paradigm of determinism. And the whole spirit of it is the transfer of responsibility. I am not responsible, not able to choose my response. One time a student asked me, "Will you excuse me from class? I have to go on a tennis trip." "You have to go, or you choose to go?" I asked. "I really have to," he exclaimed. "What will happen if you don't?" "Why, they'll kick me off the team." "How would you like that consequence?" "I wouldn't." "In other words, you choose to go because you want the consequence of staying on the team. What will happen if you miss my class?" "I don't know." 43 "Think hard. What do you think would be the natural consequence of not coming to class?" "You wouldn't kick me out, would you?" "That would be a social consequence. That would be artificial. If you don't participate on the tennis team, you don't play. That's natural. But if you don't come to class, what would be the natural consequence?" "I guess I'll miss the learning." "That's right. So you have to weigh that consequence against the other consequence and make a choice. I know if it were me, I'd choose to go on the tennis trip. But never say you have to do anything." "I choose to go on the tennis trip," he meekly replied. "And miss my class?" I replied in mock disbelief. A serious problem with reactive language is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People become reinforced in the paradigm that they are determined, and they produce evidence to support the belief. They feel increasingly victimized and out of control, not in charge of their life or their destiny. They blame outside forces -- other people, circumstances, even the stars -- for their own situation. At one seminar where I was speaking on the concept of proactivity, a man came up and said, "Stephen, I like what you're saying. But every situation is so different. Look at my marriage. I'm really worried. My wife and I just don't have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I just don't love her anymore and she doesn't love me. What can I do?" "The feeling isn't there anymore?" I asked. "That's right," he reaffirmed. "And we have three children we're really concerned about. What do you suggest?" "Love her," I replied. "I told you, the feeling just isn't there anymore." "Love her." "You don't understand. The feeling of love just isn't there." "Then love her. If the feeling isn't there, that's a good reason to love her." "But how do you love when you don't love?" "My friend, love is a verb. Love -- the feeling -- is a fruit of love the verb. So love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Empathize. Appreciate. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?" In the great literature of all progressive societies, love is a verb. Reactive people make it a feeling. They're driven by feelings. Hollywood has generally scripted us to believe that 44 we are not responsible, that we are a product of our feelings. But the Hollywood script does not describe the reality. If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so. Proactive people make love a verb. Love is something you do: the sacrifices you make, the giving of self, like a mother bringing a newborn into the world. If you want to study love, study those who sacrifice for others, even for people who offend or do not love in return. If you are a parent, look at the love you have for the children you sacrificed for. Love is a value that is actualized through loving actions. Proactive people subordinate feelings to values. Love, the feeling, can be recaptured.