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What is Proactivity?

Posted by Fred Tracy February 8th, 2011 6 Comments




a child holding alternate worlds

Lately I’ve been reading Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The framework of the book rests upon building real values and integrity rather than using quick fix methods like positive thinking. I recently finished reading the first habit and was incredibly pleased. It basically constitutes the foundation of all personal development and growth.

It is simply this: be proactive.

How would one define proactivity? A simple definition is as follows: proactivity is the ability to consciously choose your emotions, thoughts, and general path in life, as opposed to having these things chosen for you by conditioning, society, or any other external force. To get a better feel for what this is, let’s examine how this applies to people and situations.

Proactivity Versus Reactivity

What qualities does a proactive person have? To illustrate this, let’s look at the opposite. What is a reactive person like? A person who is reactive doesn’t control their own reality. Their thoughts, feelings, and general sense of well being are all based on things outside of themselves. They’re perpetual victims of circumstances, other people, and life itself. You can usually spot a person like this by listening to them talk for a few minutes. Here are some examples of statements made by reactive people every day:

  • I’m angry because my partner won’t listen.
  • I can’t stand it when my coworkers are loud and obnoxious!
  • If only I was out of financial debt, I could be happy.
  • If only the people around me would treat me better, then I wouldn’t be so upset all the time.
  • I can’t take control of my life because of what’s going on around me.

If you’ll notice, all of these statements have a basic format. They can’t do, feel, or be some thing because of something outside of them. They need external events to shift before they can become internally happy.  These statements are symptoms of a person who has reactivity at the core of their belief system.

Overcoming this weakness is the first step in personal growth work. It’s the point at which you drink the metaphorical kool-aid. To achieve anything, one has to take the proactive oath of responsibility. Only then can you begin to rearrange things as you deem fit. That’s what being proactive is all about. Here’s what a more proactive person would say in the situations above:

  • Perhaps my partner feels that I am the one who won’t listen. I will try that. If they don’t improve I will find someone else who better meets my needs.
  • I will calmly ask my coworkers to keep it down. If they don’t, I’ll report them to their supervisor in an honest, non-vindictive way so I can get my work done.
  • I will make the choice to be happy, regardless of external circumstances. I understand that happiness comes from within and will actively practice creating it, rather than seeking it.
  • I’ll remove bad people from my life and make better connections – I deserve it.
  • I can take control by taking complete responsibility. I don’t have to change everything overnight but I realize I will get exactly what I think I deserve, so I’ll set the bar high and pursue growth each day.

Proactivity is all about courage and power. It’s the courage to take responsibility for your life, and the power to exercise that responsibility to get exactly what you want. A proactive person realizes that no one has the right to make them unhappy. No one can intimidate you or affect your self worth without your explicit permission. If you find that you get abuse from people who you allow to access your internal state, cut them off immediately. Not just from your emotions, but from your life. Even if they’re family. Just because someone shares your blood doesn’t mean they get to treat you badly. Decide how you deserve to be treated and accept nothing less. That is how you handle proactive relationships.

The Circle of Concern versus the Circle of Influence

Covey has a really interesting conceptual tool called the circle of concern. Your personal circle of concern simply involves anything you care about. It could be your relationship with a friend, the dishes piling up in the sink, the Iraq war, or even the economy. The circle of influence, on the other hand, is what you have direct or indirect control over. You have some say in your personal relationships and probably the state of the dishes as welll. On the other hand, unless you’re a leading military or political official , chances are you don’t have a whole lot of influence over these areas (excluding voting, of course).

Reactive people often have circles of concern that are drastically out of proportion with their circle of influence. They’re worried about a whole host of issues, ranging from the simple to the very complex. The absurdity is that they have absolutely no control over most of it. They spend the majority of their time dwelling on things they can’t change or influence in the slightest, wasting precious time they could be using to take action on things they do have influence over.

Becoming proactive means shrinking your circle of concern and growing your circle of influence. I’ve had philosophy professors who said they lost sleep over complex metaphysical arguments. Talk about an out of balance circle of concern! Take some time right now to identify some things that are in your circle of concern but not your circle of influence. Write them down. Realize that worrying about what you have no influence over is absolutely futile. You’re just hurting yourself, and probably others, for no reason whatsoever. Use this as an opportunity to let that bad habit go.

There’s a couple of things I’ll mention to help you in this process. First of all, realize the following: such is the nature of time that the past is never in your circle of influence. You can’t do a thing to change it. Resenting the past will do very little but build negativity. It’s better to use that time focusing on the present. Likewise, it’s almost always a bad idea to dread the future. I’m not suggesting you disregard the future entirely. Planning and goal setting is important. However, as a general rule, being stuck in time is far less enjoyable than being free of time. If you’re wondering what the heck I’m talking about, check out my article about how to stop worrying about time. It’s trippy, but it gets the job done. :)

Everything in Life is a Choice

Abraham Lincoln had some great words about proactivity: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” He knew that happiness comes from inside, not outside. Everyone’s circle of influence invariably includes their own internal world. How awesome do you want your experience in life to be? Are you happy with mediocrity? It reminds me of the story of Viktor Frankl, which I mentioned in my post about being in the google sandbox. (I got out very quickly, hooray!)

Frankl was a holocaust survivor who endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Nazis in their concentration camps. Being a psychologist, he had great insight into the human mind. He recognized how much of a role conscious choice plays in happiness. He chose to accept his situation and hope for a better future, rather than filling himself with hatred or contempt for his situation. Stephen Covey says something extremely powerful in the book that I’m going to quote:

“..he (Frankl) exercised his small, embryonic freedom until it grew larger and larger, until he had more freedom than his Nazi captors. They had more liberty, but he had more freedom, more internal power to exercise his options. He became an inspiration to those around him, even to some of the guards. He helped others find meaning in their suffering and dignity in their prison existence.”

Frankl became a beacon of hope in the desolate dread that was so pervasive at the death camps. He is a shining example of what proactivity can achieve, even in the worst of places.

Choose to Become Proactive

Proactivity is something that’s already inside all of us. The fact that we have a choice in the matter is evidence of this. It’s the first step in living a conscious, value-driven life where you aren’t swept away by every fleeting thought or emotion. Any person who consistently creates something of value is proactive. In fact, our productivity in life is often precisely proportional to our level of proactivity.

People who are proactive aren’t just a little more productive than reactive people. Covey states that they typically achieve, on average, 5000% or more quantifiable results in their lifetime. It’s an enormous difference. What if you didn’t have to wait for something to happen to take that next step? What if you didn’t have to feel love, but could choose to love? What if you didn’t have to get angry when people criticize you? What if you could choose how to live your life, and who to live it with?

Conscious growth starts when you realize you have the ability to be proactive. Make the choice to actually have a choice, and choose to be proactive now. :)

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6 Responses so far.

  1. Sean says:

    Great article man, couldn’t have said it better myself. You hit the points perfectly.

    Unfortunately, society is set up to condition people to be reactive.

    Watching the news for 5 seconds will confirm this.

    • Fred Tracy says:

      Totally true. TV in general plays out a lot of unnecessary drama. I don’t look down on it or anything – it can be fun to watch – but it isn’t a healthy representation of how to behave by any means!

  2. I feel like I take your articles too literally sometimes. But if happiness comes from within, why would “bad people” need to be removed from your life? They are just part of the surroundings – If happiness truly comes from within, then your surroundings truly do not matter – so why would you ever have to change anything?

    • Fred Tracy says:

      Great point as always. I would describe it like this:

      Happiness does come from within. However, your environment is probably going to have SOME impact on you unless you’re an enlightened yogi master. The key is to do the best you can, with the tools you’ve got. Develop that inner sense of happiness while at the same time making your outer life a good place to be.

      Some folks wouldn’t change anything. But I think that would be lazy. It’s really, really hard to make the shift to being completely 100% complacent and accepting about everything in your life, and even then, why not make it better? You could be happy being a hobo on a park bench – ask Eckhart Tolle – but that doesn’t mean you have to do it like that.

      I think this may be a case of taking it a little too literally (though what you said is conceivable). Words tend to be insufficient to express certain things, and this kind of material can definitely be taken too far.

  3. I say this because, in reading this, I realize me wanting to leave my job is reactive instead of proactive. I don’t like it here because my boss is constantly trying to hold me back (maybe not on purpose, but it seems so regardless), so I want to leave because I want to remove him from my life. But my leaving is completely reactive, right?

    • Fred Tracy says:

      That reminds me of going to the yoga meditation place on Saturday. The nun there spoke of contentment. She said we should accept what we don’t have, and appreciate what we do have. I agree that this is a powerful practice to start in your life, and will lead to a lot of gratitude and happiness.

      On the other hand, I think it’s important to set a time aside (probably each week, not day) and become NOT present and NOT content. This is the time where you evaluate your life and see where you want to go. You plan your activities, both long term and short, and make sure they’re congruent with your innermost ideals. Then you resume your week, being content, but knowing you’re on the right path. It’s a subtle path, and I write about it as soon as I really get a better handle on it.

      I think your leaving is completely proactive. Your negative emotions towards your boss/job may be reactive, but your decision to leave is based on your desire to help others with your specific talents. Totally proactive, and I applaud you miss Emery. :D


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