A friend of mine recently posted on facebook “we never remember the green lights.” She was talking about relationships and levels of unhappiness, but as I often do, I thought about how such a concept could be expanded to include other areas of life.
If you’re my friend, by now you know that I wear my heart on my sleeve. That’s one of my few behavioral facets that hasn’t changed in the past few decades. I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve. I go with my gut, decide quickly, and rarely change direction once I’m committed. That’s led to some massive mistakes in the past, which, compounded with disappointment and regret, often led to more mistakes. I can’t tell you exactly why I did some of the things that I did — although I remember being utterly convinced that they were the right decisions at the time, I can never seem to remember why — but almost every time, I ended up staring at another red light.
So how do you find the green lights? How do you get out of the maze of red lights and stop signs and find your way?
Well, everyone has their own path. But I did two very specific things. The first one is that I made a purposeful decision to change. That change manifested itself in two actions.
The first action was to choose to be a better person. I took a good long look at myself, and realized that the reasons I didn’t like myself were also the reasons why other people didn’t like me either. So fixing that was win/win. I had to think about how I reacted to people, and how those reactions looked from the outside. I had to change the way I spoke, the way I held myself. I even had to change how I volunteered for things. I worked to be worthy of the accolades I already had, and the accolades I aspire to.
The second action was to choose to make a career change. For over fifteen years, I toiled in the salt-mines of IT Technical Support, doing harder and more complicated work every day, without any additional recognition for it. The final straw for me was when, after working several sixty hour weeks in a row and then running a seventy-two hour deployment, I was told that I couldn’t take comp time because it was against company policy, and for the extra hundreds of hours I’d worked, I got a bonus that, calculated very generously, came out to half a week’s pay. Before tax. So I decided, right then, that I was going to change my career and change my life. I paid for it myself, and nine months later, I had my PMP. Less than nine months after that, I had a new job with a nice big raise and, more importantly, a wholly new corporate culture — one that, so far, values my contributions, cares about what I think, and compensates me reasonably for the work I do.
Guess what? I still saw a bunch of red lights. Things were better, but I still felt constrained. And I sat and thought about that for a very long time until I finally figured it out.
I can change myself. I can better myself. I can bend over backwards to do what I think people want me to do. But I cannot change other people. I cannot make them agree with me, and I cannot make them like me.
So perhaps that, then, was a third change; I changed myself to accept that I cannot change other people — and to forgive them for not being able to change.
Now, I don’t know if these changes or attempts to change will work for you. I can tell you that my wife and I have been through the crucible and come out on the other side mostly unscathed, in large part because I’ve been able to do these things.
And when that happened, suddenly… all these lights turned green.
Except that’s not really true. These green lights were there all along. I just started being able to see them. The lights didn’t change. I did.