A few weeks into dating James, he gave me a surprise gift wrapped in brown paper. Inside was the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. To most, this may not have seemed that romantic. But, I am a book nerd and inside the cover James wrote me a message that said:
“Somewhere in these pages is the man that I desire to be.”
He had me hooked from the start. I read the book and quickly learned how much I loved it. Stephen Covey, the author, had a way of defining principles through his own research and life in a way that was both humble and illuminating.
He would share his own experiences in growing and learning – along with his triumphs and stumbles. Although he explores a number of principles in different ways, the core concept of the book is that our choices matter.
We are not necessarily shaped by our environment or even our circumstances – but in the decisions we have made in reaction to them. The biggest and most impactful takeaway I took from that book was that there was a space between stimulus and response, and within that space lies our ability to choose.
Our future and our responses are not prewritten. They are in many ways chosen.
Or, as Stephen shared:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies your freedom and power to choose your response. In those responses lie your growth and your happiness.”
I had a lively discussion with a group of friends over zoom the other day about the power of habit. Habits by definition is a behavior pattern we do regularly without thinking. It is often kickstarted by a cue, which is followed by a response and then a reward.
Stephen would argue that there is one more step in that cycle that we can learn to become aware of and that is the decision after the cue to respond a certain way. When we have bad habits we often forget that space exits. When we are trying to cultivate good ones, we have to actively teach ourselves to be mindful of it.
The basis of the discussion we were having was a quote by Aristotle that goes like this: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Our conversation at the time centered around our habits and how they can drive us toward excellence. The funny thing is that I learned later that this particular quote was never really spoken by Aristotle – it came from a philosopher named Will Durant who was explaining the meaning of Aristotle’s original quote.
This was the original quote from Aristotle:
“As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.”
It's intriguing that his original quote had very little to do with excellence and everything to do with feeling blessed and happy.
I have a sneaking suspicion that our culture is obsessed with excellence because it seems easier to achieve than happiness. We put people on pedestals and create our own miniature Mount Olympus’ that we are supposed to climb. If you make it to the top, we think we’ll find what we were so anxiously seeking.
We hope that excellence and happiness are a package deal – that if we are outstanding than we will also be happy.
Excellence, like most things, is not an outcome but a habit and one that does not necessarily breed happiness. Joy is its own kind of habit and it’s the product of a thousand different choices we make on a daily basis.
Happiness is intensely personal and yet universal. We all want love, belonging, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation. And yet there are a million different bad habits each of us needs to break to pursue the good ones that will cultivate true happiness in our lives. And, it all begins with recognizing the space that exists between stimulus and response.
It begins with seeing our lives as the product not only of our environment, but also our choices.
When we deny that space, we are choosing to let life happen to us. When we acknowledge that space, we are able to transform our lives from the inside out. For the first time, we are able to be active participants and co-creators with the God who made us in creating something that is uniquely ours.