We Have the Power to Choose, But not the Power to Escape the Consequences of Our Choices

The American Lawyer and Politician William Jennings Bryan wrote, “Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” By “destiny” he meant our future. In other words, our future doesn’t come about by chance and isn’t something that happens to us.

It doesn’t happen to us because we create it. We do so with the choices we make. Each choice leads to a consequence. And each consequence is one strand in the fabric of our life. Since I am the weaver of the fabric that makes up my life, I cannot blame others or events for what ‘happens’ to me. Some find it difficult to grasp the idea that we are responsible for what ‘happens’ to us.

“Look,” Barbara says, “I didn’t choose to be poor.” “And I didn’t choose to be sick,” adds Christopher. “Neither did I choose to be lonely,” chimes in Neil. Yes, I’m sure Barbara didn’t want to be poor, but she chose to spend more than she earns; she chose not to set aside some money for emergencies; she also chose to waste money on frivolities.

True, Christopher didn’t want to be sick, but he chose to eat junk food; he chose to avoid exercise, and he chose to spend time with friends until the wee hours of the morning instead of getting a good night’s sleep. And what about Neil? No, he didn’t want to be lonely, but he chose to criticize others, become argumentative, and spread gossip. Is it any wonder he has no friends?

Admittedly, it may be difficult to recognize that we create what happens to us by the choices we make, but if we wish to make the most of life, we must understand this truth. Once we accept it, we become empowered. We wake up each day with the realization that what happens during the day is the result of the choices we make. It is empowering to know that at any moment we can continue doing things as we always have, resulting in more of the same, or we can choose to act differently. We can choose to be grateful instead of resentful, kind instead of nasty, and helpful instead of rude. As we change our ways for the better, our lives will improve immensely.

Another fact many find difficult to accept is that happiness, too, is a choice. Yes, no one chooses to be unhappy, but they do choose to do what makes them unhappy. For example, no one chooses to become obese, but many choose to eat too much fatty food. Since it is impossible to escape the consequences of our actions, choosing the means to an end is the same as choosing the end itself.

Happiness is a state of well-being in which we are free from fear, resentment, anger, hostility, or any form of suffering. So, if we refuse to live courageously and choose to live in fear, we are also choosing to be unhappy. Likewise, if we insist on being angry, we are also insisting on being unhappy. When we choose to suffer, we are rejecting happiness.

Does it seem strange to say we choose to suffer? Well, suffering is nonexistent in the material world. It is not part of objective reality. It is purely subjective. That is, it exists only in our mind. It is a choice we make. When I speak about suffering, I’m not speaking about pain. Pain and suffering are different. Pain is the result of something that occurred. For example if my house is swept away by a typhoon, I will be in pain.

On the other hand, suffering is a reaction, a response to something that occurred. So, if two neighbors had their homes swept away by a storm, one of them may choose the path of self-pity: “Woe is me! Everything that I have worked hard to accumulate was lost. All my precious belongings are gone!” Yet, his neighbor may see things differently: “How lucky I am! The lives of my wife and children have been spared!”

One of the neighbors chose to look at the bright side; the other chose to focus on the negative. One choose to be happy, the other, to be miserable. “Wait a minute! That’s not fair to blame the man who is suffering,” someone may be tempted to say. “After all, perhaps he is a pessimist by nature. That isn’t his fault, is it?”

Well, please understand that our nature is to be what we repeatedly think, do, and believe. So, if that man repeatedly thought and acted as a pessimist would, he would then become a pessimist. However, he is the one who chose to have negative thoughts, so he is responsible for what he becomes. When pessimists react to a challenge, such as job loss, they may have an automatic negative reaction. They may act without thinking. However, their automatic reactions are based on past choices, so they remain responsible.

Besides, those who are unhappy, always have the option of asking themselves, “What am I going to do about it?” Those who choose to look for a way to solve their difficulty will find a solution. Those who refuse to ask themselves that question have also made a choice. By deciding not to act, they choose to live in denial and choose to believe they are powerless to help themselves.

If we choose to live in awareness, we will realize that no matter how great our burden may be, there is always someone else with a far heavier load to carry. Therefore, we will always have a reason to be cheerful. All we have to do is be grateful for what we have.

Yet, if you try to explain this to a friend that is whining about their personal problems, his or her response will probably be something like, “Oh, that’s easy for you to say. You don’t know what it feels like to be in my shoes.” Yes, it’s true, you don’t know what it’s like for your friend, but neither does your friend know what it is like for someone with a far greater burden. That is the problem. Your friend can feel his or her pain, but cannot feel the pain of another.

Suppose you had a magical device and said to your friend, “I am going to rotate this dial, and as I do so, your pain will increase to the level of a man who is living in circumstances 10X worse than yours. Although he lives with his pain all day, I will force you to endue his pain for only five minutes.” How do you think your friend would feel five minutes later, after lowering his pain to its previous level? Wouldn’t he or she finally feel thankful that things are not worse than they already are?

I haven’t written this story for you to share with your friend. Actually, I wrote it to share with you. It’s just a reminder that if you ever find yourself tempted to feel sorry for yourself, look for someone with a burden far greater than yours. Carefully note what you see and take in as much detail as possible. Then, when you have a quiet moment alone, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes, and picture what it would be to live as that other person. Think of everything you do during the day and imagine how much more difficult it would be for you as the other person. Place yourself in their body. Try to feel their pain. Finally, after doing so, open your eyes and be thankful for what you have.


What distinguishes us from animals is free will. We have the power of choice. And choice is just that, power. It is a catalyst for change. It can elevate us to heroic heights or hurl us to desperate levels of despair. A glimpse at the life of William Jefferson Clinton, former President of the United States, reveals the potent power of choice. When still a teenager, he met John F. Kennedy, a meeting that moved him deeply. As a result, he decided one day he, too, would become president of the most powerful country on earth. That choice – the decision to become a politician instead of a jazz musician – brought him much honor and glory. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the choice he made to engage in sexual activity in The White House with Monica Lewinsky. That regretful decision led to shame and disgrace.

Such is the power of choice. It can bring us closer to or further from our dreams. A good part of our waking day is spent in making choices. It begins as soon as the alarm goes off. Do we get out of bed immediately or push the snooze button? Do we prepare for work or call in sick? At the job, do we work hard or goof off? All during the day we continue making choices as we decide what to do next. Do I tackle the most important task or make a personal telephone call? Do I answer my business messages or chat with coworkers over coffee? Each decision I make points me to the road of success or the path of mediocrity.

Many of us act as if we’re in rudderless boats drifting in the sea of life. Our destination? Who knows? We arrive wherever the currents and tides take us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You see, the boat we’re in has a rudder! It can steer us to the shore of success. That rudder is choice. If we use it, we can become the captain of our destiny.

We didn’t decide to be born. And after entering the world, no one handed us a book of instructions on how to succeed in life. So, it’s not surprising that most of us make mistakes along the way. Some of the instructions we didn’t receive are the following five steps. Following them can help us to maximize the potential positive power of choice.

1. Be aware of your choices. When we act out of habit rather than conscious choice, the path we’re traveling on is a rut, perhaps even a slippery slope. If we don’t want to end up at the wrong place, we have to be awake. We have to be aware and make our choices consciously. This is not as easy as you think. Why? Because most of the time our mind is on autopilot. Instead of deciding whether to rise at the sound of the alarm or hit the snooze button, for example, we act automatically. We act by force of habit. If it’s a good habit, that’s great, as there is one less decision to make. But if it is a bad habit, we move away from success and head for disappointment. To avoid such danger, force yourself to become aware of your choices.

The best way to do this is to develop the habit of always looking for opportunities. Scout Cloud Lee also writes about conscious choice: “When we acknowledge that all of life is sacred and that each act is an act of choice and therefore sacred, then life is a sacred dance lived consciously each moment. When we live at this level, we participate in the creation of a better world.”

2. Analyze your choices. Once you become aware of making a decision, ask yourself, “Will this choice help me to succeed or hold me back?”

3. Make your choice. After realizing whether the choice is helpful or harmful, make a decision for the best.

4. Act on your choice. Decisions without action are worthless, for they are mere pipe dreams, not plans. As Arnold H. Glasow wrote, “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.”

5. Multiply your choices. One choice is no choice and two choices may pose a dilemma. However, three or more alternatives offer flexibility and provide you with the option of making the best possible choice.

How to make the right choices

Each day, we make countless choices. How can we be sure we are making the right decisions? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Be aware of where the road leads

Choose intelligence. Not every decision we make is a moral choice. Sometimes it’s just a matter of choosing between foolishness and intelligence. For example, if you are a young nonsmoker and your friend offers you a cigarette, don’t take it. That would be foolish. If you’re looking for the path to happiness, it is easy to find. Just avoid the paths with signs that say FOOLISH and follow those that say SMART. Easy enough to do, but you have to remember to check the signs before you start down a path. As Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote, “He who chooses the beginning of a road chooses the place it leads to.”

Whenever we are at a fork in the road, we will find that one of the paths is easier to take, but that may be the only thing good about it. So, look carefully. You may find that one path tempts you and the other ennobles you. Choice the one that ennobles you. Learn how to withdraw from temptation. For as it is says in the Bhagavad Gita, “Even as a tortoise draws in its limbs, the wise can draw in their senses at will.”

Besides the paths of SMART and FOOLISH or GOOD and BAD, there is yet another road, and it leads nowhere. It is the road of non-action. It is the path of no-choice. Whenever we face choices and refuse to decide, that refusal is our decision. By refusing, we turn over control to the tides of fate, and instead of shaping our lives, we decide to drift wherever the tides and currents will take us.

2. Do what you can

Decide what you can do, not what you want to do. Our wants are insatiable. We want to do everything. But how can we become anything if we want to become everything? Choose worthwhile goals that you have time for. Set priorities and focus on the important issues. If you run out of time before getting to the minor tasks, at least you would have done the important ones.

You probably can relate to these words of author Sondra Anice Barnes: “It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.” The lesson here is use empowering language. Don’t use words like have to, must, should, ought to, or have got to because they create resistance. No one wants to do what they have to, but everyone is willing to do what they want to. So, don’t say “I have to study.” Instead say, “I want to study because the material will be helpful for my career and is interesting.” In a word, choose to use empowering language. Choose to learn how to want to do those tasks that you should be doing. For in the end, you will do only what you want to do. Similarly, when you can’t have what you want, choose to want what you have.

3. Look for the good

Some of us may be undergoing great hardships. But no life is so difficult that it cannot be made better by improving our attitude. No matter how dire the circumstances, if you look for some good, you will find it. But how can we find anything good if we occupy our time complaining? The rule to remember is that we are certain to find what we look for. If we search for good, we will find it. If we search for something to complain about, we will surely find it. Choose to search for good. And choose to believe something good can and will happen. Choose to live with hope, rather than despair. Don’t be a dope. Learn to cope. Live with hope.

4. If you can’t change the circumstances, change yourself

We cannot choose what will happen to us, but we can choose what happens in us. That is, we can choose to have the right attitude, one in which we view challenges as opportunities instead of problems. Choose to be positive. For example, although he became confined to a wheelchair after his accident, W. Mitchell (author, TV host, and businessman) said, “Before I was paralyzed there were 10,000 things I could do; now there are 9,000. I can either dwell on the 1,000 I’ve lost or focus on the 9,000 I have left.”

Additional Tips

1. Make conscious choices throughout the day to develop your power of choice. Resist the habit of acting automatically, without thought. You are the captain of your destiny, don’t fall asleep at the wheel!

2. Monitor your actions. Each choice you make leads you closer to or further from your goals, dreams, and desires. If you’re not making the right choices, now is the time to make corrections.

3. Remember, we become what we repeatedly do. If we repeatedly procrastinate, we become a procrastinator. If we repeatedly work hard, we become a hard worker. Since the outcome of procrastination and hard work are completely different (failure or success), we have to carefully choose what we do.

4. Here is more good advice, “Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.” (Tryon Edwards).

5. Sometimes, even if you use empowering language, you still won’t feel like doing something. If so, welcome it because if you really want to be successful you will need to develop self-discipline. Doing things you don’t feel like doing should be part of your daily routine. Remember, self-discipline is nothing less than the power to be, do, or have anything you want in life. We need discipline not only to do what needs to be done, but also to avoid doing what mustn’t be none, such as procrastination. In this regard, here is a teaching of the Chinese philosopher Mencius (Mengzi Meng-tse): “Only when someone refuses to do certain things will he be capable of doing great things.”

6. Ponder these words of Brian Tracy: “It is not what you say or hope, wish or intend, but only what you do that counts. Your choices tell you unerringly who you really are.”

7. Don’t limit your choices to what only seems reasonable and possible. Stretch yourself. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Ask again, “What do I really want?” Choose to follow your dream.

Here’s a poem by Edgar A. Guest that neatly summarizes the point of this article:

You are the person who has to decide.
Whether you’ll do it or toss it aside.
You are the person who makes up your mind.
Whether you’ll lead or will linger behind.
Whether you’ll try for the goal that’s afar.
Or just be contented to stay where you are.

And, finally: 5 Life-Changing Mindsets We Can Choose to Have

  • From this day forward, I choose to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
  • To those who share their fears, I choose to share my courage.
  • I choose to stop robbing my future by being irresponsible.
  • I will never be ashamed to admit that I was wrong. For to do so means that I am wiser today than I was yesterday.
  • I will always remember that the true measure of individuals is the height of their ideals, the breadth of their compassion, the depth of their convictions, and the length of their patience.
  • I always choose to do what is right, in the right way, when it is right.