The Proactivity Paradox

Self-help books tout the need to be proactive.

We should know what we want. Stay focused so we don’t drift. Choose, lest we end up with a life we don’t like.

That makes a ton of sense when you’re turned around about how life works. (And by the way, we’re all turned around about how life works at some point. Don’t take it personally.)

Needing to constantly plan, focus, and choose is the most logical thing in the world when you believe:

1) Happiness comes from having a life full of the “right” conditions


2) It’s up to us to create a life filled with the “right” conditions

Both of those are universally believed and as far as I can see—completely inaccurate.

What’s really true is that our moment-to-moment experience of life comes from our moment-to-moment thinking and our thinking does not come from circumstances or conditions. So while we might have preferences for certain outer conditions, those conditions don’t have any direct impact on how we experience life in an ongoing way.

What’s also true is that we are powered; guided through life. There is a current that moves us like wind in our sails. While we do have the ability to plan, focus, and choose, it’s far less a necessity than a bonus feature of our design.

So the “right” stuff isn’t necessary for our contentment in life. That stuff just adds flavor. It allows us to express our creativity and to play in life.

And our decisions, directions, and goals aren’t necessary for evolution, change, or growth—they are simply one way that we get play with the current of life. It’s not “set a direction or else you’ll flounder”. It’s more like “you can set a direction if you want, but you’ll move in a direction either way”.

Being proactive because you think you need to often goes a bit wonky.

You might be moving in a direction of your own choosing, but that choosing isn’t exactly guided by the current of life. It’s not necessarily a direction that feels deeply right in your heart. It’s often a direction you think you should follow so that you can feel a particular way.

And in pointing yourself in the direction you think is helpful and deciding to stay the course, you’re actually limiting yourself. You’re being proactive in service of a misunderstanding.

How about, instead of being proactive in a guided-by-my-own-ideas-about-what-will-make-me-happy sort of way, you were a little more reactive?

I know, reactive versus proactive flies in the face of every how-to you’ve ever read.

But what if you’re reactive to the current of life? You stay behind the current a bit, rather than out in front of it with your little mind calling the shots.

You’d be letting a deeper feeling stir up and move you forward; then you can pro-act all you want. There’s a world of difference between acting on all sorts of thoughts floating around in your head and waiting in silence, letting something that wants to happen pop up and nudge you along.

I had this very conversation with a client this afternoon. He is in transition, in-between in many ways.

He says he’s waiting for life to show him. His mind is jumping up, down, and all around, giving him suggestions that promise things like stability, certainty, satisfaction, knowing. Do this! Pick a side! Find a direction! His mind is yelling.

But he knows that grabbing one of those and running with it would be proactively unwise. It might feel good in the moment because his mind would quiet down, but it’s not coming from the deeper place from where he wants to live.

Trusting that the current is guiding you is much easier when you know that where the current guides you isn’t the point. The conditions of your life are just the flavor, not the essence.

And tapping into that deeper essence—the current that’s always moving through you—tends to be a little easier when you’re not so wrapped up in having the “right” outside conditions.

Being reactive to a deeper guidance, rather than proactively following thought, isn’t always easy but you do tend to find yourself in a much nicer place.

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