This essay was originally published by Forbes.com on July 2nd, 2019
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl, is a book that’s always struck me like a punch to the gut because the story is so dark yet so real and so recent in terms of the timeline of human history. In reading it again more recently, it lit up like a signal fire of meaning and context for life as I reflect on my own journey leading a creative company.
Austrian neurologist and psychotherapist Viktor Frankl viewed life through a different lens than most. On September 25th, 1942, Frankl and his family were taken prisoner by Nazi Germany and spent more than three years in concentration camps, including Auschwitz.
During this time, Frankl examined how he and other prisoners faced endless life-defining challenges every day, often every hour. It’s hard to imagine a more stressful, heart-wrenching daily experience. Despite these conditions, Frankl was relentless in his quest to determine why some survived and some didn’t -- why some persevered and some gave up hope. With curiosity, he explored why humans behave differently when up against challenges, or in this case, the most horrific conditions imaginable.
Somehow, Frankl was able to zoom out and reframe everything around one singular, critical question facing every human: What is the meaning of life itself? As Frankl frames the concept, life is a constant and continual prompt, through which having meaning is the most vital component. And if we choose to pay attention, we will find life is constantly knocking at our door, presenting choices, offering possibilities, seeking some kind of choice or decision. In nearly every moment of every day, life stands before us, seeking a response. If only we’re awake enough to see it.
More importantly, Frankl found that some responses actually produce better outcomes. He discovered that when one’s response is grounded in purpose and meaning -- with a positive, optimistic mindset -- it nearly always increases the odds for better results. He found this was the defining difference between those most likely to survive the death camps and those less likely to persevere. Frankl wrote, "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way."
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way." -Viktor Frankl
Let that sink in for a moment: A positive mindset can literally open up better possibilities and increase the odds of better results. This is Frankl’s case for defaulting to optimism. It’s about responding to whatever life may bring you with positivity. We’re talking about choosing your mindset, despite life’s circumstances. It’s the glass-half-full approach. Looking at the bright side. Seeing the best in people. Fighting away dark thoughts. Resisting negative self-talk. Not participating in gossiping and complaining. Always bringing your best self to any situation.
Frankl also wrote, "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom. In our response lies the opportunity for something better."
Make no mistake: In everything, we have a choice. Every human being possesses the power to choose how they'll respond to life. But isn’t it curious how frequently we don’t?
As humans today, it seems far too often we're going through life unconsciously -- cruising along on autopilot, unable to recognize the choice and power we possess. Even if we're awake enough to recognize our choices, we’re often blocked or frozen by dark forces like negative self-talk, worst-case-scenario thinking, complaining, succumbing to a victim mindset or getting caught up in the destructive nature of worry, gossip and perpetuating false narratives.
It's especially critical for leaders today to remain awake and positive, and to avoid the constant undertow of critical voices, stress and negativity. As Brené Brown has pointed out from a Theodore Roosevelt speech, our critics in the cheap seats don't matter much. It's only those who are brave enough to enter the arena with us, who are truly worthy of our attention. (Highly recommended: Watch Brown’s recent Netflix special here)
In my work as the leader of a creative company, I encounter all kinds of people, including those who default to worst-case-scenario thinking -- frozen inside their own minds, operating from a closed and defensive, second-guessing and complaining, fear-based mindset. Unfortunately, I’ve found many just can’t seem to help it. It’s as if they’re hardwired this way from birth. We all know people like this -- those unable to visualize the upside or imagine positive outcomes.
For a moment, consider Viktor Frankl and his experience in the death camps. Now, consider your own life and how you behave under stress and crisis. What mindset are you choosing to bring to your work, family and life?
Consider Frankl’s theory that when life is grounded in meaning, life has more upside, more possibilities. And when we bring our best self into challenging situations -- with an optimistic and positive mindset -- the likelihood of achieving better outcomes actually increases.
There are many impactful practices and resources available for mindset. For perspective, Man's Search for Meaning is a good place to start. In my journey, I've found choosing my mindset first thing in the morning to be transformational. My simple formula is this, which anyone can do: I read and contemplate my own personal purpose, core values, life goals and intentions first thing when I wake up. Then, I meditate, exercise and read something enriching. I also keep a mini-journal reflecting on my state of being, celebrating gratitude and stating my No. 1 objective for the day, No. 1 challenge for the day and any other reflections and affirmations worth noting. A homemade smoothie full of fruit, greens and goodness completes my morning routine.
A simple morning ritual provides a clear orientation -- priming the mindset for whatever life may bring your way, each and every day.
If you only remember one thing from this essay, please make it this: how you respond to any situation or experience in life is 100% up to you. No one can take that from you. Your response — your attitude is 100% your choice. Most importantly, a positive mindset can literally open up better possibilities and increase the odds of better results.
Mindset = Power.
This essay was originally published by Forbes.com on July 2nd, 2019.
--> This essay is part of a series published in collaboration with The Western Writers League. Take a few minutes to explore my peers’s work as well.