Free to choose

The beauty of being a human being is that we have the freedom to choose what we make of ourselves and our life. Life is much more fulfilling and complete once we learn to choose consciously. Here's how.

Women stretching herself on the beach in the beach

One of the most important skills to develop in the area of personal growth is the ability to admit the whole truth to yourself, even if you don’t like what you see and even if you feel powerless to change it. Say to yourself: This situation is wrong for me, yet I lack the strength to change it right now.

Simply accept that this is how things are for now, but don’t deny the truth of the situation. Never pretend to enjoy a job you hate. Never pretend to be happy in an unfulfilling relationship. Never pretend that your finances are strong when they’re really weak. If you want your situation to improve, you must first come clean with yourself and admit the whole truth.

Accept your realities

When you fully accept reality, you’ll begin making better decisions because they’ll be based on truth instead of fiction. If you admit that your body is terribly out of shape, you’ll stop pretending that you’re in good health. You’ll stop subscribing to the delusion that your poor eating habits and lack of exercise are acceptable to you. You’ll begin to see that you’ve got to start making different decisions if you want your situation to change—it isn’t going to happen on its own. Once you fully surrender to what is, you can finally begin to create what you want.

Be self-aware

Become aware of your strengths, weaknesses, talents, knowledge, biases, attachments, desires, emotions, instincts, habits, and state of mind. As human beings, we’re often filled with conflicting desires. One part of us wants to be healthy, happy, and highly conscious. Another part wants nothing more than to eat, sleep, have sex, and be lazy. Without the presence of consciousness, we fall into reflexive patterns by default, living more like unconscious animals than fully sentient human beings.

Recognise that your level of awareness doesn’t remain constant. Sometimes pure logic dominates your thinking; other times you’re overwhelmed with emotional concerns. Sometimes you feel incredibly spiritual; other times you’re worried about your finances. Sometimes you eat for good health and energy; other times you satisfy yourself with all the processed junk you can devour.

When you make decisions from a certain state of mind and act upon them, you reinforce that same state, thereby increasing the likelihood that you’ll respond similarly in the future. For example, if you act out of anger, you’ll strengthen your mind’s anger response. If you act out of kindness, you’ll reinforce a kind response. Any given level of awareness has a tendency to perpetuate itself, so you’ll likely find yourself cycling through the same ones repeatedly.

A significant part of personal development involves working to release your attachment to the lower states as you draw yourself into higher consciousness on a more consistent basis. On a practical level, this means letting go of addictions, negative emotions, and fear-based behaviours and replacing them with consciously chosen, principle-centred actions. And in order to successfully change your behaviours, you must first develop an awareness of your thoughts.

Build your awareness

A good way to build your awareness is to make your important decisions from the most reasonable thinking you can muster. The best point to make new choices is when you feel alert, clearheaded, and intelligent. That’s the time to consider making big transformations in your life such as a career change, a relationship change, or moving to a new city. Learn to trust those higher states of consciousness. Put the decisions in writing and fully commit yourself to them.

When you inevitably sink back down to lower states and lose sight of that higher perspective, continue to act on those decisions even though you may no longer feel as committed to them. Over time, your external circumstances will change in ways that reinforce those higher states. Living consciously gets easier with practice.

Learn to trust your choice

One time when I was in a state of very high awareness, I made the decision to switch careers from computer-game development to personal development. That was a stretch for me, especially since my games business was doing well. However, I felt good about the decision, and I knew it was correct. A few weeks later, I was still bogged down working on the games business with no end in sight. As I slipped into a lower level of awareness, I began to second-guess my determination to switch careers. I had to remind myself that I’d made the choice from a high level of awareness; and it was a sound, intelligent decision. This helped me let go of my resistance and trust the original choice I’d made.

My decisions may not be perfect, but when I use this process, I can at least trust that I made them correctly and from a place of truth.

When you consistently make key decisions from a high level of awareness, they will become more congruent. You’ll avoid getting stuck in that state of ambivalence where you keep shifting back and forth between alternatives and can’t make up your mind.

Connect with what’s important to you

Every day you’re compelled to make connection decisions. By your actions you decide what to link up with and what to avoid. Will you talk to your spouse or connect with the television? Will you take your next vacation at a favourite spot or go someplace new this time? Will you bond with a pet or go to a party? Whenever you choose to make one connection, you simultaneously choose not to connect with all of the other possibilities.

If you want to grow consciously, you must deliberately decide which connections you’ll strengthen and which you’ll allow to weaken. Such choices ultimately determine the shape of your life. In the long run, your life becomes a reflection of what you choose to connect with most often.

Connect with yourself first

In order to learn and grow, you must have the freedom to connect with what you want and to disconnect from what you don’t want. No one can give you that freedom. It’s your birthright as a human being. You don’t need anyone’s permission to decide which connections are best for you. It’s up to you to take the initiative to connect with what you want and to disconnect from what you don’t want.

If you have trouble connecting with people on the outside, it may be because you aren’t communing with yourself on the inside. When you learn how to feel lovingly connected on the inside, you’ll find it much easier to forge a bond with others.

The good news is that when you understand that all relationships are internal, you can consciously change how you represent them to yourself and thereby change their outward manifestation as well. If you feel disconnected with your true self, you can expect your interpersonal relationships to suffer from disconnection as well. If you want your human relationships to be more loving and accepting, you must learn to love and accept more aspects of yourself.

Loving yourself unconditionally is the result of a conscious choice. You’re free to make this choice in every moment of the day. You don’t need to fulfil any conditions or satisfy any rules. But in order to make this choice consciously, you must get to know yourself. No matter what hidden qualities you discover, you’re still worthy of love.

Learn to take responsibility

Power is your ability to consciously and deliberately create the world around you. When your power is weak, you can’t effectively satisfy your needs and desires, and you become a victim of your environment. When your power is strong, you successfully cultivate a life of your own choosing, and your environment reflects it. It’s impossible to build your power until you accept total responsibility for your life. It’s certainly possible to give up control, but final accountability always rests with you.

You can’t duck or dodge that, no matter how hard you try. If your body is out of shape, you’re the one who’s out of breath after climbing the stairs. If your credit cards are maxed out, you’re the one who must deal with the debt. If you don’t like your job, you’re the one who must suffer through your work each day.

Your experience is unquestionably your own. I can discuss your life with you, I can empathise with your situation, and I can do my best to help you. But afterwards I can go home to my own life and leave yours behind. You never have that luxury.

If you try to deny or escape the burden of responsibility, it will only come back to haunt you later. You can let yourself go and slack off in your career, eat lots of junk food, and yell at your family, but the mess you create will be yours to experience. The sooner you recognise that total responsibility is inescapable, the better off you’ll be.

Wield power effectively

Self determination means that you’re completely free to decide what you want. You don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. Your choices are yours to make and can never be dictated by others. You need never justify what you want. You want what you want, and that is enough.

In order to wield power effectively, you must accept full responsibility for your life and be willing to make decisions under all circumstances. This includes ambiguous, challenging, and risky situations.

There’s no rule that says you have to be right. The only rule is that no matter what happens, you’re responsible. Since you can’t escape full responsibility, you might as well consciously participate in the decision-making process, so you can have at least some say in determining the outcome.

Make real choices

Man sitting on the chair and thinking
Avoid shifting back and forth between alternatives. Your choices are yours and can never be dictated by others

When you face important crossroads in life, exercise your power to decide consciously. Offer up a definitive yes or no. Don’t succumb to the blind default of silent approval. To align yourself with power, you must make real choices.

Life is constantly asking: What do you want? You have the freedom to answer that question however you wish. Aligning yourself with truth and love will help you evaluate the possibilities, but there are no compulsory right or wrong answers. There’s only your freedom to choose. Will you answer with silence, or will you exercise your power of conscious choice?

You must break through the haze of social conditioning that says your life must obey a set of rules dictated by others. You’re under no such obligation. Your only real constraints are your decisions and their consequences. You’re a free and independent being. How you decide to use that freedom is up to you.

Lead your self

There’s only one true authority in your life, and it’s you. You make the decisions. You take the actions. If you’re looking to some external authority figure, leader, or guru to tell you how to live your life, you’re looking in the wrong place. That leader is you. Whether you feel ready or not, you’re in command.

Despite what you may have been conditioned to believe, there’s no higher authority in this life than you—not your parents, your boss, or your favourite supreme being. If you think anyone else has authority over you, it’s only because you yield your authority by choice. Sometimes the consequences of not doing so are so severe that you may feel as if you have no choice, but in truth you always do. Even when threatened with suffering or death, you remain the commander of your own life. Some of your choices may be extremely limited, but they’re always yours to make.

True command doesn’t imply the unbridled exercise of power. An intelligent commander does not bark random orders and expect them to be blindly obeyed. Command must be rooted in truth and based on an accurate assessment of the situation. You’re the one who perceives your reality, and you must decide how to act [or not act] based on your perceptions. How you deal with that information is up to you, and life awaits your orders. You may feel well prepared, or you may feel unready, but the burden of command is yours no matter what.

Don’t be a blind follower

I was raised to believe that God—specifically, the Catholic version of God—was the ultimate authority in my life. My entire existence was a blessing bestowed by God, and my assigned role was to satisfy His expectations for how I should live. I was told I had free will; however, I’d eventually be rewarded by God if I exercised my will one way and punished if I exercised it a different way. At age 17, I finally recognised I was being coerced to participate instead of being offered a truly free choice, so I left. I concluded that it was best for me to make my own decisions instead of having them dictated by those who claimed to have a direct connection to the source of ultimate authority. I was willing to live with the consequences if I was incorrect.

Let me clarify that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with living in a way that you feel honours your Divine Creator, but this choice must be made freely and consciously. No honour is found in blind obedience. For better or worse, you’ve been granted free will, so you must always bear the burden of decision. If you fall prey to the belief that some authoritarian God might punish you for exercising your free will, recognise that such a belief cannot possibly serve you, and resolve to let it go. It makes no sense for someone to give you a gift and then punish you for opening it. Learn to make your own conscious choices, independent of what you think God or anyone else expects from you. If you weren’t ready for your own command, you would never have been granted free will.

Enjoy commanding your life

If you fail to claim authority over your own life, someone else will surely claim it for you. Many people allow their spouse, parents, or boss to practically run their lives. This practice drops you into a lower state of consciousness. You become increasingly helpless as you distance yourself from your true nature. You are meant to be free.
Look around you and notice the results you’re currently getting. Life is simply obeying your commands. If you want different results, you must issue different orders. You’re the only one qualified to make these decisions. No one else can fill the role of commander of your life but you.

Be proactive, choose a higher life

Do you think that anything that happens “out there” will determine how successful you’ll be in your endeavours? 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.

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.

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.

free-to-choose-2Some examples of reactive v/s proactive language:

  • Where is the industry going? v/s Where shall I go next, and how will I get there?
  • I don’t have time to exercise. v/s How shall I make time to exercise?
  • How much money can I expect to make if I do X? v/s How much money do I want to make, and what will I do to earn it?
  • I’ll try it and see what happens. v/s I’ll do it.
  • I’m too tired. v/s What can I do to increase my energy?
  • I’ve never been very good at math. v/s How can I improve my math skills and enjoy the process?
  • Nothing really inspires me. v/s What would I tackle if I knew I couldn’t fail?
  • What is the meaning of life? v/s What is the meaning I wish to give to my life?

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.

If you wish to live an extraordinary life, you often have to go against the flow that everyone else seems to be following. 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 fulfilment. You have to consciously choose these things and then follow up with committed action.

Excerpted with permission from Steve Pavlina’s ‘Be Proactive’ on

Excerpted with permission from Personal Development for Smart People: The Conscious Pursuit of Personal Growth by Steve Pavlina, Hay House, ISBN: 978-1-4019-2275-7.

A version of this was first published in the August 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Steve Pavlina
Steve Pavlina calls himself the most intensely growth-oriented individual you will ever meet.While sitting in a jail cell at age 19 Steve decided to dedicate his life to the pursuit of personal growth. Passionate about sharing what he learned with anyone who desires self-improvement. He has written more than 700 articles and has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today and Self Magazine. As a result of giving away all his best ideas for free.


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