Back in 1987, while wrapping up a stint as an English teacher in Japan, my college buddy Tim came out to Tokyo for a visit. An old-Japan hand from childhood when his father was a diplomat in the country, Tim (now a jazz musician in New York) knew a great deal, first hand, about the sometimes alienating aspects of living in Japan as an ex-patriot. I doubt if he was overly-surprised, then, to find the 24-year-old me in a negative state regarding the local culture and society.
Me: “Boy am I glad to be getting out of here soon! This place is crazy.”
Tim: “Well, yeah, the mindset here in Japan is certainly different.”
Me: “Are you kidding! I mean, why is it that whenever I go into a restaurant, they automatically bring me a knife and fork? Foreigners have opposable thumbs, too, don’t we? We can use chopsticks!
Tim: “Maybe the waiters are just trying to be helpful.”
Me: “Yeah, right. I think it’s insulting and condescending. And why is everyone so conservative? I don’t think I’ve seen one spontaneous act since I’ve been here.
Tim: “That’s just looking at things through a Western lens.”
Me: “Whatever. I’m blowing this popsicle stand next month. Hong Kong to Bali, then Malaysia to Thailand, and maybe even trekking in Nepal! Everything will be soooo much better for me when I’m on the road.”
Tim (with a heavy sigh): “Dave, don’t you realize that whether you’re sitting here with me in a café in Tokyo, or lying on the beach in Bali, or climbing a mountain in the Himalayas, it’s all the same experience. Your attitude goes with you. You are you wherever you go!”
You can imagine my reaction to Tim’s words. “Who are you to tell me how to live? What qualifies you to judge my life? You’re not so happy either, my friend!” etc. etc. Who likes hearing hard truth, especially when you’re expecting support and empathy? There’s a reason the phrase “shoot the messenger” goes back over 2,000 years to ancient Sparta.
Thankfully, I got over my defensiveness fairly quickly—mostly because back then (as now), I trusted Tim’s opinions and understood that he meant me no ill will. And as all parents will tell you, sometimes tough love is necessary towards the people you love. It certainly was for me.
Over the years, I’ve shared this story many times –both to my teambuilding groups as well as to my business coaching clients. How often do we tell ourselves that a change in our “external” life will make us happy? We move away somewhere, take a new job, find a new partner, only to discover that we are still unhappy!
The fact is, we only have so much power over our external circumstances. Allowing the world to dictate our happiness is a passive approach, a surrendering of control. The only thing we can control 100% – right now –is our own mindset, our own positive attitude.
I coach my clients to express gratitude for the things that are going well in their lives, whether it’s health, home, friends, family, hobbies or relationships. Sure, it’s no fun being stuck in a dead end job (if that’s where you are), or worrying about finances, or living somewhere you no longer want to live. But escapist fantasies won’t help things. Remember: You are you wherever you go. So try adopting a positive outlook — and not in some forced, Polyanna-ish, “life is perfect” sort of way. Eventually you may, indeed, have to make a change in a sub-optimal situation. For now, though, consider what opportunities exist for you in the here and now: opportunities to be of service, to practice current skills, to soak up new competencies, and to learn more about yourself. You’ll be surprised at how much this changes your present – without needing to climb Mountain Everest.