Two weekends ago, I woke up on Saturday morning feeling really bad. I had a headache, chills, and a fever. I cancelled my plans for the day and went back to bed. When I got up hours later, I felt even worse.
My gut told me I had the flu. I dug out a thermometer from the back of a drawer and took my temperature. My temperature was normal. I decided I must have done something wrong and tried again. Still a normal temperature. After three tries, I decided that the thermometer was broken. I ran hot water over it for several seconds and checked. Temperature of 101 degrees. No matter what else was going on, I finally concluded I had no fever.
I also didn’t have the flu. I had some three-day virus that was making the rounds in Tennessee. By Monday afternoon, I was feeling much better, and, by Tuesday, I was back at work.
Years ago, on Seinfeld, George was trying to make a decision. When Kramer asked him what the little man inside him was saying, George responded, “My little man’s an idiot.”
There is nothing wrong with listening to our gut as long as we make sure that we don’t ignore the facts along the way. Our society puts a lot of stock in our feelings and how we should trust them. But, in general, I’ve never found my feelings about anything to be a reliable guide. Often, my feelings tell me to be scared, never try something new, stay with the familiar, and never attend functions that require wearing anything other than leggings and long sweatshirts. And my feelings have lead me into some pretty questionable romantic situations when the facts were screaming for me to run the other way. (Spoiler alert: I should have run.)
So when it comes down to it, yes, trust your gut, but only if your gut has been hanging out with your brain. And only if your brain has been hanging out with some facts.
There is a movement called “Because I Said I Would.” It’s not an outlandish movement; it’s the thing we all learned in kindergarten. (Well, I suppose so. I didn’t go to kindergarten.) The movement asks us to consider our promises and to make a decision that when we say we’re going to do something, we do it.
Now, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem like such a major thing. After all, we all know not to make promises that we don’t intend to keep. But it seems that, unfortunately, we have let the word “intend” be the key word. And that’s the problem. We’ve all been there:
- We say “I’ll call you” and fully intend to, but then we get busy, and suddenly months go by and we’ll never get around to it.
- We promise to be a better citizen of the earth and stop using plastic bags. But it’s just so much trouble to remember to have reusable bags in the car all the time, and we don’t have time to run back in the house to get one. And suddenly, it’s the fifth week in a row that we’re guiltily stuffing our groceries in the plastic bag.
- We promise to start a diet, get up early, or go to the gym tomorrow (or next week). But the day passes by, and we haven’t done a single thing.
For many of us, the list is endless. And we may not think this is a problem because our intentions are good. But when we don’t do what we say, we start a pattern that can hurt our relationships with our families, friends, and colleagues. The recipients of our words know that intentions don’t make up for actions.
But we hurt ourselves as well. When we don’t keep promises to ourselves, we begin to lose drive and motivation. When we can’t believe ourselves, we’re in trouble.
The answer here is not to feel guilty about what a bad family member, friend or colleague we are. (Or at least not in this essay.) The answer is to monitor our language. How often do we know that we are too busy to do anything but the essentials right now, but still say to people, “We’ll do lunch” or “Let’s see a movie.”?
The message of the movement is simple: If you can’t do it, don’t say you will. And if you say you will, then do it.
A town developed a ‘positive ticket’ program. Officers not only gave out tickets to offenders, but also to those who were doing good things: obeying the law, helping others, etc. People could trade in the tickets for food at a local restaurant, a movie pass, or games arcade. One day, a teenager saved a kid from getting hurt, and an officer ‘ticketed’ him, saying that he was going to make something out of himself one day.
The teenage boy took the ticket home and pinned it up on his bedroom wall. A few weeks later, his foster mom noticed the ticket was still there.
“When are you going to use it?” she asked.
“Never,” he answered. It was the first time anyone in authority had told him that he could make something out of his life and he wanted to keep that reminder forever.
Now when I heard this on my drive to work, I got a little teary-eyed, which is not the best state to be in while driving. But it was just what I needed.
I work at a college where every day I talk to students of all ages who need some encouragement. Some are struggling academically, others financially. Some are trying to get a degree despite lack of encouragement from loved ones. Others are first-generation college students whose families want to support them but aren’t sure how. Some are trying to find a direction in life. Some are coming to terms with the fact that the goal they always wanted is simply not going to be achieved. Some are discovering for the first time that they are pretty smart and are realizing they have more options than they ever imagined. And they all need encouragement that they can make it.
The thing is there is no way to know what is going on in the life of the person standing in front of us. And you know, we don’t have to. We can just decide to be the encourager. The person may not even notice it. But there is a chance it may be the only encouraging words the person has heard today, or this month, or this year, or ever. And it will make a difference.
Greg McKeown, in the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, tells the story of an important meeting that was crucial for him to attend. The only problem was that his wife went into labor the day before, and as the time of meeting approached, he was sitting in the hospital room with his wife and new baby. It should have been obvious what he was going to do, right?
He got up and went to the meeting.
He tells this story to point out the dangers of not being clear about our priorities and goals. And before we judge him too harshly, take a minute to think through the example. Yes, he was a brand-new father. And he had the goal to be a great husband and dad. But he was also running a business and probably thinking being financially secure would help him be a good husband and father. (And it was very likely he was making this decision on very little sleep.) By the way, he is also clear that he made the wrong choice and would not do so again. And, no, his wife did not divorce him.
McKeown recommends that we take time to define the absolute essentials in our lives. And once we define them, we use them as yardsticks by which to measure the requests that are made of us. He reminds us that most of the time we are not being asked to choose between bad and good things. We are most often being asked to choose between two good and worthy things. And if we aren’t clear what essential values and goals are, we are likely to take on too much or get distracted by something that sounds promising in the moment.
I am certainly not recommending that anyone refuse to take on new challenges or opportunities. We should never stagnate. But we should think about our priorities and not just add things because we’ve been asked and afraid that the asker might not like us or refuse to provide us with another opportunity. We should only say yes to those that help us get to where we want to go and/or excite us.