Taking Charge of Your Life: The 10 Essential Principles

by Burke Hedges

One of the key differences between American and Japanese students is our respective culture's attitude toward achievement. In America, it's thought more impressive when a student doesn't study for a test, but still aces it. Students who possess natural-born abilities are thought superior to students who must work hard for the grade. In Japan, it's quite the opposite. Hard work and perseverance are not only celebrated, they are demanded.

Slowly, America's attitude is changing, particularly with the spotlight focused on what's called "emotional maturity." At long last, our culture has recognized that a person's emotional intelligence is a far better indicator of success than "true" intelligence.

Luckily, emotional maturity is not fixed; we can change our lives by mastering our emotions and changing our attitudes. I should know. My youth was filled with setbacks. There was a time in my life that I earned $5.60 an hour building boats in Sarasota, Fla. Now I own and operate several thriving businesses in Tampa, Fla., and have authored three books: the international best-seller Who Stole the American Dream? (more than one million copies sold), You Can't Steal Second With Your Foot on First!, and You, Inc. In my third book, I take the concept of emotional maturity and boil it down to 10 essential principles.

Principle 1. Take responsibility

Everyone has heard President Harry Truman's statement: THE BUCK STOPS HERE! He was referring, of course, to the congenital tendency of politicians to always blame someone else or to excuse their behavior with the words, "Everyone else does it." In fact, that was the most frequent response recently when politicians were asked to account for sleazy fund-raising methods.

Sadly, many people resort to the blame game. Are you one of them? Do you consistently blame your boss, your spouse, or even "society" for your problems? Do you tell yourself that the reason you don't exercise is that your children need you too much? That you'd get a better job if it weren't for your husband? It's easier to make yourself a victim of circumstances than to take action.

The point is this. Taking responsibility for your life will change it immediately. It feels good. It means taking charge. The famous American novelist Mary McCarthy once said that "Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."

Principle 2. Dare to Dream

Dr. James Dobson once interviewed a marriage counselor who had studied 100 successful marriages in order to discover what happily married couples have in common. One of the key ingredients was a shared vision. Most young married couples start out with the same dreams, usually about having a family and owning their own home. But a few years down the road, they run out of dreams!

Visions or mental dreams not only keep us on course, they keep us excited about life. The three key steps to achieving your dreams are to:

Think up your dreams and write all of them down.
Visualize your dreams.
Plan your dreams.

The third step is a little more complicated than the first two. You'll need to categorize your dreams into short-term, intermediate, and long-term. Now focus on the dreams that demand your top priority. Each day, write a "To Do" list that will force you into taking the key steps that will transform your dreams into a whole new reality. This really works!

Principle 3: The Power of Belief

At Fred Astaire's first screen test, the testing director at MGM Studio wrote a short memo to the studio head indicating that Astaire didn't have what it took to succeed in motion pictures. He wrote: "Can't act. Can't sing. Can dance a little."

Margaret Mitchell believed so strongly in her book that she kept sending it out to publishers, even though it was turned down 32 times. Finally, the 33rd publisher accepted it and published Gone with the Wind.

Believing in yourself and believing in a cause is life- changing. It gives you enduring strength through the hardest times and the most disparaging comments you'll hear about yourself. Believing in other people also gives them strength. It's popular to dismiss "positive thinking" as a fad, but if you don't believe it, look at the scientific data. A recent review of 15 years of medical articles indicates that up to 70 percent of patients in some studies said they had received significant relief from placebos!

Principle 4: The Courage to Take Action

I consider procrastination as the natural assassin of opportunity. The beauty of taking action today is that small actions over time get big results!

For example, imagine that a 4-year-old's goal is to write his name legibly. He starts practicing one letter at a time. In a week, he'd achieve his goal!

Imagine that your goal is to retire with an income of $50,000 a year. If you were to begin saving just $100 a month in

your early 20s--just $25 a week--and invested the money in a mutual fund earning an average of 13.5 percent a year, you would have saved more than half a million dollars by age 65. And that's enough to pay interest dividends of $50,000 to $60,000 each year.

If you were to take a brisk walk of 30 minutes a day and substitute an apple for your daily candy bar, you could lose 10 to 20 pounds in a year's time!

Persistence isn't glamorous, but it gets the job done.

Principle 5: Attitude is Everything

Attitude is simply a matter of asking, "What's good about my life?" instead of "What's wrong with my life?" Besides making up your mind that you'll get better instead of bitter, there are some very concrete things you can do.

Parents normally worry about the friends their child has made. They need to also worry about the friends they've chosen! If you hang out with people who have lousy attitudes, guess what-you're going to have a lousy attitude. If you hang out with people who are creative, energetic, well-read, and hard-working, you'll be inspired to ask the most of yourself, too. Your friends will stretch your vision or choke your dreams.

Decide whether you're going to get better . . . or bitter. There are many things you can't control in life. Your height, the weather, flat tires, a broken leg. When there's not a darn thing you can do about it, accept it gracefully and focus on what you can fix.

Put things in perspective. When the road is particularly tough, look at others to gain a healthier picture of your own life. You might have to pinch pennies at the grocery store, but you aren't on the brink of starvation.

Principle 6: Develop Productive Habits

Bad habits are easy to identify. Biting your nails, smoking cigarettes, leaving wet towels on the floor.

But learning how to develop productive habits is just as important, if not more so. What do I mean? Before becoming a full-time writer, John Grisham was a lawyer, often logging 60 to 70 hours a week. He dreamed of writing a novel, but never could find the time given his job and family obligations. He finally started writing his first book, A Time to Kill, by making one simple change in his life. He got up at 5 a.m. to work on his novel. Less than a year later, he'd written his book.

Productive people choose productive habits. Instead of talking on the phone, they do homework or practice an instrument. Instead of turning on music on the drive home, they listen to a foreign language tape. Instead of watching TV every night, they work in the yard or play with their kids.

Principle 7: Manage Your Emotions

Our newspapers are loaded with evidence that too many people have made a major decision based more on emotion than reason. Take a look at these examples:

The myriad reports of teens and adults getting killed as a result of drunk driving.

A report that nearly one third of the births in this country today occur outside of marriage.

A story of two brothers who killed their parents for greed.

I am not saying that you should hold your emotions inside. What I am saying is that you need to identify your emotions and learn how to make them work for you. Here are the three most powerful:

Fear--You can't control fear by putting on a face of bravado and pretending it doesn't exist. Nor can you control it by "playing it safe" and taking no risks in life. The key to managing fear is to face it head on and allow it to motivate you.

Worry--If you're worried about something, it's a good sign that you need to become proactive. If you're worried about losing your job, then prepare yourself for a different career or explore what other jobs are available.

Enthusiasm--If you're going to give in to an emotion, give in to passion. Don't let yourself get so bogged down in details and routine, that you lose the spark of pursuing the things you really love.

Principle 8: Prepare for Success:

Success is not an accident. The reason why more Americans are not successful is not because they don't want to be, but because they don't put in the sweat that's required. Rick Pitino, coach of the University of Kentucky basketball team that won the 1996 NCAA championship, said it best:

"I'm not one of those guys who believes that the key to winning is the will to win. Don't kid yourself. The will to win is important. But the will to win isn't worth a nickel unless you also have THE WILL TO PREPARE!"

Here are some suggestions:

Homework never ends. Even the most well-educated spend their evenings reading professional journals and preparing for the next day. Successful people begin with a strong foundation in the three Rs--readin', writin', and 'rithmetic. Specialized knowledge is the key to dramatically increasing your "fair market value." Learn how to gain the knowledge you don't have: pick people's brains, read books, attend seminars, watch videotapes, listen to audiotapes, and find a mentor.

Principle 9: Balance your life

Statistics show that more and more Americans are suffering a bad case of imbalance--bankruptcies are up, incomes are down, one out of three Americans are overweight, half of marriages end in divorce, prisons are overcrowded, children are out of control, and church attendance is plummeting.

The key to balancing your life is to give equal amounts of attention the five Fs:

Faith: Making God the center of our lives provides enormous balance to our lives. A wise man once said, "A man who does not pray can know a lot about God. But only a man who prays can KNOW God."

Family: Never take your family for granted. Call your parents weekly and remember their special days with gifts and cards. And never ignore your children or spouse, the single greatest form of abuse in the world today.

Fitness: I'm not talking about running marathons, but simple fitness basics. Walking hills at lunch every day, pushing away your plate when you're full. And not abusing your body with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol.

Friends: The importance of good friends cannot be underestimated. Choose wisely. My mother once told me, "Tell me who you hang out with, and I'll tell you who you are."

Finances: Money is freedom. Freedom from hunger, from dead-end jobs, from tedious chores, from the anxiety of having to send your children to lousy schools. You can't have balance if your financial house is falling down around you.

Principle 10: Change or Be Changed

We can't stop technology--we can't even slow it down. Unfortunately, it closes as many doors as it opens. So you need to be ready. You've got to face the facts of today's reality and take advantage of them.

Not only do you have to make adjustments externally to your life, you also have to make internal changes. As management guru Tom Peters once put it: "Change is disruptive . . . But it doesn't make any difference. You gotta do it anyway. We're in an era where, literally, to learn to love change is the only survival course."

If you want to improve your fair market value, you've got to look at the market and what you're offering. Does the "product" need some updating? Go for it!

One of the most powerful statements I've ever heard is: "Life is not a dress rehearsal." I don't know about you, but I can't think of any fate worse than getting old and sitting in a rocking chair regretting the fact that I hadn't lived life to its fullest. That there was a chance I could have done more, been more. This is it my friend. It's show time, and you're on stage.