Of all the advice out there about what qualities make you successful at work and in relationships and good at life in general, it really doesn't come down to extroversion versus introversion, type A versus type B, left brain versus right brain or any of the rest of it. Instead, what it comes down to is how proactive you are. A teacher friend of mine used the phrase "learned helplessness" to describe the tendency people have to throw up their hands if someone isn't there to guide them through a task step by step. It's a protective mechanism, a way to put the blame on others for your own lack of initiative and a convenient victimhood for the consequences that come from not putting forth the first effort. We may not end up where we want in life, we may find ourselves dissatisfied at work and in our relationships and with our housekeeping and politicians, but we tell ourselves that at least we're absolved of responsibility.
We are enormously lucky to live in a time of unprecedented access to free information. Want to build a dining room table? There are free plans online that will show you how to do something you might have once needed an apprenticeship for. Want to learn how to do your makeup like the professionals? There are whole YouTube channels dedicated to this. Want to find out if the news you are reading on a certain site is accurate? Go to Snopes.com. Need an obscure ingredient for a dish that you found out about on Pinterest? Google will tell you where the Middle Eastern market is and offer up their phone number. At no other time in human history have we been so capable of informing ourselves, and yet, we still struggle so hard to be more proactive.
Surely I'm not the only one who finds herself struggling sometimes to be more proactive in life and to take better advantage of the wealth of resources available that I can use to empower myself. I find myself making excuses and saying, "Sorry, I didn't know" when there is really no reason why I shouldn't be able to find out anything I could possibly need to learn about. I research things all day long at work—from where the best places in Birmingham for shopping are if you are 50-75 years old to how a Venturi burner system works to dental procedures performed on children. At home I Googled how to make my own kombucha, if I could use baking soda to clean my stove, how to make dry shampoo and how to winter a fig tree sapling. As a teenager, I educated myself online about the finer points of sex ed, about which colleges I wanted to apply to and how to get protein as a vegan. So why is it so hard to pick up the phone to double-check something with a client or to make it to the polls to vote or to remember to send a letter to a friend?
If you have a case of learned helplessness (as most of us do at some point about something), it can be a little confounding how to get over it. But there's no reason you have to, or even should, spend your whole life waiting on the type A personalities to run the show for you. Some of my favorite examples of people who didn't wait for a green light to do something great are the men at Charles Bass Correctional Facility, whom a friend of mine teaches and whose letters I've shared before in my columns. One taught himself how to read using Stephen King's "The Stand" after dropping out of high school, in part because of illiteracy. One isn't getting the help he needs for a psychiatric condition that drove him to commit the crimes for which he is incarcerated, so he's writing letters to a number of state officials, encouraging them to have better resources for people like him who need help. Another is petitioning to get a black history program started.
These are men who, more than the average person, don't have much reason to think that taking initiative will have a big effect. They're used to being ignored or discredited or told to move along. You don't get to use Google and Facebook and online resources in prison the way we take for granted. Yet they are taking the time and effort to figure out a way to meet their goals. That makes me think I can do a lot more with the resources I have. I can learn how to do something at work outside my job description. I can eat better food if I look up the recipe and try new ingredients. I can lose that last 5 pounds if I make myself go out for a jog or put down that extra buffalo wing. I can make a difference in my community by dropping by the polls or writing a letter to my councilman.
It's a simple fact that no matter your background or personality, those who have taught themselves to be proactive are more likely to get ahead at the office or get a date with that cute girl or create big changes in the community. Proactive people are the ones who run for election, start their own businesses, work through their marital problems, finish that marathon, save up enough money for that bucket list dream trip. When I catch myself in a rut where I'm not taking as much initiative as I should, that's when I find myself screwing up at work or sitting home alone watching romantic comedies instead of actually going out to meet people or feeling down on myself for not bothering to get up and vacuum the floor. It's so easy to sit and wish you or someone else were doing X, Y or Z, but it would only take a tiny bit of effort and make you feel so much better to just go ahead and (in the Southern parlance) git 'er done. Next time I feel bored or stuck or find myself slipping, I'm going to remember that silly little monster truck maxim emblazoned on many a bumper sticker: "git 'er done," and maybe you can get ahead.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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