FOCUS: Obstacles vs. Opportunities

On any given day, but a LOT on most Monday mornings, you can look in your social media feeds and see quite the variety of posts about motivation. I’m guilty. I supply some of them. I also look through them and this morning I happened to notice just how many of them focus on outlook. When something that wasn’t part of your original plan happens, do you view it as an obstacle? Or an opportunity?

There seems to be the general belief (and I adhere to this outlook) that pessimists… negative minded folks tend to view every setback, every unexpected change of plan, every “failure” as an obstacle. They view it as something that is stopping them from reaching their ultimate goal. Interestingly, sometimes they are still going to reach their goal and it’s obvious that they will, but it’s not going to be within their originally projected time limit so they view the delay as failure. You know, if you’re in a race with someone and you reach the finish line behind them, then you failed to win that particular race, but you didn’t fail in completing it. You still finished the race; someone else just finished it faster. That’s a specific competition and you can’t really view life from the same perspective.

Optimists, on the other hand, those positive minded folks, tend to view almost everything as a challenge; an opportunity; a learning experience. When they don’t accomplish a specific goal within a desired time frame, they look for the lesson that could be learned on how to improve performance and make their goal within the time limit on their next attempt. For sure and certain, they don’t give up and believe that they are failures and always will be at that particular endeavor.

There are only several million ways this difference in outlook can be observed and applied as we pass through this thing we call life. When we are little and just learning how to walk, we aren’t even developed enough in our thinking to understand failure, so the 300th time we fall and land on our butt, we don’t think, “Maybe this walking thing just isn’t for me. I’ll crawl for the rest of my life.” We, without thinking, although sometimes after crying if we hurt ourselves in the fall, get back up and toddle on a few more steps until we finally develop enough balance and strength to continually walk; a skill we improve at as we grow. Then we learn how to run and climb and… well, you get my point.

As children on playgrounds we learn competition and, usually thanks to the other children who are our “friends,” we learn that not winning – LOSING – can inspire others to make fun of you; to insult you. None of us likes that and it’s a shame that it happens but you know what? Being the target of insults and mocking can help us learn quite a few valuable lessons about life. Losing sucks. That’s one lesson. But it’s a very narrow minded approach to the WHOLE lesson. Losing sucks but you don’t’ play the game to win or lose. You play the game because playing the game is fun and if you win it’s just icing on the cake. If you’re playing the game with two or three or more friends and one of your friends wins, then the proper outlook is to have enjoyed playing the game and to be happy for your friend who won.

Another lesson that can be learned is the whole “sticks and stones” thing. What other people say shouldn’t hurt you. In fact, unless it’s someone about whose opinion you care about, it shouldn’t matter at all. Usually, those are the folks who care about you so they are fairly easy to identify. Sometimes you make a mistake in identifying who cares and who’s faking it, but those mistakes become glaringly obvious in short order and you can correct your outlook / thinking.

When we’re in school we find out that tests are challenges… or obstacles. How well we do on them can help us feel good about ourselves or not. The reality we have to remember is that tests are simple measurements of how well the teacher is doing combined with how well you can answer back the “correct” information as it was taught. Yes, that was very carefully written because “correct” is, all too often now in schools, a matter of opinion. One of my son’s teachers taught him that man never landed on the moon and on a history test he answer was marked wrong when he identified Neil Armstrong as the first man to walk on the moon instead of selecting the answer, “No human has yet.” Getting a low or failing grade on a test can certainly be a huge challenge and big hit to our emotions when we’re in high school and college. Grades start to matter more long term rather than just whether mom and dad are going to be unhappy or happy with you when you bring home your report card. You start to have to worry about things like transcripts, job seeking and interviews wherein you explain why something was a particular way in your sophomore year or how come college was five years instead of four.

The thing to remember is that everything happens for a reason. Now, true, sometimes the reason is because we focus more on socializing than studying, or we’re so busy helping others that we neglect ourselves. The more important thing to remember is that life isn’t over just because a test is failed, or a class isn’t passed or your GPA is lower than what you want/need it to be for whatever given reason. All it really means is stepping back, examining your options, selecting the best one to fit your goals, making your plan and then moving forward to pursue successful completion of it. Yes, it may mean not finishing college in four years. It might mean having to take some summer classes to help your GPA. It might mean “burning” a few credits to take simple elective classes to get your GPA up knowing full well those classes don’t count toward your degree.  It’s all perspective.

Then you find yourself “in the real world,” where you have to work every day, answer to a boss, and his boss, and her boss… and up the chain. What you consider to be excellent work, someone else might not understand or might consider not so great. Sometimes this is a matter of petty and small minded thinking. When your boss doesn’t like the report you generated because it’s not formatted how they like it, that’s just being picky. When they don’t like it because it’s not long enough, even though it contains all of the pertinent information, that’s just small minded. When they don’t like it because it’s better than they could do so they have to tear it apart to make themselves look and feel better… that’s an obstacle to view as a challenge that you can overcome.

Relationships, children, spouses, in-laws, friends, work mates, social groups… all of these things have the chance to present you with challenges. The only thing you can control is how you react to the challenges. Are they obstacles that stop you? That defeat you? Or are the opportunities for you to learn, grow, and perform better? It’s entirely up to you.

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