“Be Proactive” is habit #1 from Steve Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Being proactive means taking conscious control over your life, setting goals and working to achieve them. Instead of reacting to events and waiting for opportunities, you go out and create your own events and opportunities.
Being proactive means that instead of merely reacting to events as they happen, you consciously engineer your own events.
Most people think reactively. And reacting to certain events is all well and good. But it becomes a problem when that’s all there is to a person’s life — nothing more than instinctively reacting to stimuli.
Steve Covey points out that there’s a gap between stimulus and response, and within that gap lies the potential for us to choose our response. Four special human endowments give us this power:
- Self-awareness – the understanding that you do have a choice between stimulus and response. If someone insults you, you can choose not to become angry. If you are offered a donut, you can choose not to eat it.
- Conscience – the ability to consult your inner compass to decide what is right for you. You can make decisions based on unchanging principles, regardless of what is socially favored at the moment.
- Creative Imagination – the ability to visualize alternative responses. By using your imagination, you can mentally generate and evaluate different options.
- Independent Will – You have the freedom to choose your own unique response. You aren’t forced to conform to what others expect from you.
A lack of proactivity can often be traced to a weakness in one of these four human endowments. Maybe you’re spending too much time in a state of low consciousness and never reaching the level of awareness necessary to make proactive life decisions. Perhaps your conscience has become muddled by societal conditioning, so you aren’t even sure what you want from life; when something doesn’t feel right to you, you look to others to decide how you should feel about it. Maybe you aren’t taking the time to visualize alternatives. Or perhaps your independent will is being restricted by the pressure to conform to others’ expectations.
It can be argued that on some level, we’re always reacting to events, either external or internal. The difference between proactivity and reactivity can then be viewed in terms of what degree of “mental processing” occurs during the gap between stimulus and response. A proactive person will apply the four human endowments to choose a response (or to choose no response at all). But even more than that, a proactive person will invest the time to make conscious life choices and follow through on them.
Reactive people tend to be out of touch with their core values. Instead of running their lives based on unchanging core principles, they pick up temporary values from others around them. If no special opportunities come their way, they’ll stay at the same job year after year as long as it’s semi-satisfying. If most of their friends exercise, they probably will too; otherwise, they probably won’t. They go with the flow of the people and circumstances that surround them, but they don’t direct the flow. Their lives are largely out of their direct conscious control; they tend to only exert their human endowments when they absolutely must, such as if they get laid off unexpectedly (and even then it’s often to a minimal degree). But when things are pretty good, life is mostly on autopilot.
Proactive people, on the other hand, are aware of their core values. They consciously make key decisions based on those values. They create their own opportunities and direct the flow of their own lives. Even when things are pretty good, they’re still making conscious choices. Sometimes that means maintaining the status quo, while other times it means changing directions. Sometimes their values will align well with what’s socially popular; other times they won’t. Proactive people will take actions that often seem mysterious to reactive people. They may suddenly quit their job to start a new business, even though everything seemed to be going well for them. They’ll often start new projects or activities “out of the blue” when it seems like there’s no externally motivated reason to do so. A proactive person will still pay attention to external events, but they’ll pilot themselves to their desired destination regardless of those events.
If a reactive person were to captain a ship, the ship would flow with the currents. This person would be preoccupied with studying the currents, trying to predict where the ship will end up as a function of the currents. If the currents are good, this person is happy. If the currents are poor, this person feels stressed. On occasion this person might attempt to set a destination, and if the currents are good, the ship will arrive. But if the currents are poor, this person will bemoan them and give up the destination for an easier one.
If a proactive person were to captain a ship, however, the ship would go wherever the captain wanted it to go. This captain would still note the currents, but they’d merely be used for navigational purposes. Sometimes the ship would flow with the currents; other times it would steam against them. It matters little whether the currents are good or not; this captain will reach the intended destination regardless of the currents. The currents can only control the time of arrival and the exact path from starting point to final destination. But the currents have no power to dictate the final destination; that is entirely the captain’s choice.
Some examples of reactive [proactive] language:
- Where is the industry going? [Where shall I go next, and how will I get there?]
- I don’t have time to exercise. [How shall I make time to exercise?]
- How much money can I expect to make if I do X? [How much money do I want to make, and what will I do to earn it?]
- I’ll try it and see what happens. [I'll do it.]
- I’m too tired. [What can I do to increase my energy?]
- I’ve never been very good at math. [How can I improve my math skills and enjoy the process?]
- Nothing really inspires me. [What would I tackle if I knew I couldn't fail?]
- What is the meaning of life? [What is the meaning I wish to give to my life?]
Taking the pulse of others is a big concern for reactive people. They usually want to work at a “stable” job in a “good” industry, and they see themselves at the mercy of market conditions. If they manage to start a new business, it’s because they know lots of others who are already doing so, and they want to join the pack. They want to know what products and services seem to be doing well, so they can do something similar. If they fail, it’s because the industry isn’t doing well, or there’s too much competition, or because of some oft-cited external luck factor.
Do you think that anything that happens “out there” will determine how successful you’ll be in your endeavors? Not if you’re proactive. If you’re proactive, external events can only affect your time of arrival and the exact path you take to your goal. But they cannot dictate your goal for you. Proactive people still get knocked around by the currents at times, but they’ll just keep readjusting their course to retarget their goals, goals which are ultimately attainable by their own efforts.
Of course everyone has a mixture of both proactivity and reactivity. Pure examples of the two extremes are rare. You may find that you’re extremely proactive in one area, while letting other parts of your life slip into unconscious autopilot. So take the time to use your human endowments of self-awareness, conscience, creative imagination, and independent will to shine a light on those neglected areas of your life and consciously choose to get things moving. If you don’t like where the currents are taking you, then change course. Don’t wait for an opportunity to arrive; engineer your own. The reactive people in your life will often throw a fit when you do this, so let them, and exercise your independent will anyway. Even when everyone around you seems to be reactive, you can still be proactive. Initially that will probably feel like swimming against the currents, but if the currents of your life are leading in the wrong direction anyway, that’s a good thing.
Although “going with the flow” is often considered a wise admonition, the level of wisdom in this advice depends on where that flow is going. For example: in the USA going with the flow of our current state of health means becoming overweight or obese, living a sedentary exercise-free lifestyle, and then dying of either heart disease or cancer. Going with the flow financially means gradually sinking into debt and then dying broke. Going with the flow of our marriages means getting divorced (67% of Americans who were married in 1990 can ultimately expect to divorce, sources = Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence and John Gottman’s What Predicts Divorce). Going with the flow of our educational practices means never reading another nonfiction book after high school. Going with the flow of our environmental practices means … believe me, you don’t even want to go there.
If you wish to live an extraordinary life, you often have to go against the flow that everyone else seems to be following. You can choose not to be one of the “XXX billions served.” In a way you’re switching over to being guiding by the flow of your own self-awareness and consciousness. You tune into your inner flow instead of being dragged along by the flow of external stimuli. Sure you may win the lottery or receive a big inheritance, but most likely you won’t just flow into wealth… or health… or fulfillment. You have to consciously choose these things and then follow up with committed action.
Where is the flow of your life taking you? If you continue flowing along with the currents of your life as they are now, where will you end up? And what will you never experience because those currents just don’t stop at certain destinations? How can you exercise your proactivity and your human endowments to direct the course of your life (regardless of the currents), so that you intentionally create the kind of life you want instead of just drifting along?
Proactivity has many names. Tony Robbins refers to it as using your Personal Power. Brian Tracy states, “Those who don’t set goals for themselves are forever doomed to work to achieve the goals of others.” Denis Waitley juxtaposes winners make it happen vs. losers let it happen. Dr. Wayne Dyer refers to the proactive as no-limit people. Roger Dawson calls them achievers. Barbara Marx Hubbard labels them cocreators. David Allen uses the terms ready for anything and having a mind like water. The exact terms aren’t important. What matters is making the decision to start consciously directing your own life instead of being pushed along by external currents.