March 2020: I am preparing a long article of my observations and experiences with the corona virus pandemic. Locally, it seems that we have passed the crest of infections and everything is slowly returning to normal routines – mostly the old normal, sometimes to a new normal. But the rest of the world is only beginning to experience what China has seen for many weeks now. The new blog post is to tell people in other countries what we have lived through. It should be ready for publishing next week, on March 24. For this week, I am republishing one of the most popular blog posts from the past. It was originally published on August 26, 2019, but that seems long, long ago, in an era that is probably lost forever. Now, many of us in China are staying at home and have more free time from work and school because of the corona virus pandemic. With the freedom (within the prevailing conditions) to choose how we spend our days, it seems more appropriate than ever to ask… what is your excuse for not doing the most important things?
It was a dark and stormy night. (All proper thrillers must begin on a dark and stormy night.) Lightning outlined a grim, dismal prison set in a lonely place, far from any comforts and benefits of civilization. This was a place where hardened criminals were sent to spend the years of their punishment. It is here that our story begins.
Five prisoners huddled in a dark corner of the prison dining room where they could talk without being overheard. Secrecy was paramount for one of the five had discovered an incomplete escape tunnel which had been dug by other prisoners many years earlier but had never been used. In time, it had been covered over and forgotten. Now, a little exploration had shown that a few nights of work would complete the tunnel. Then, they could escape from this terrible prison and, with the help of some trusted accomplices, they could hurriedly cross the border into a new country where they would start new lives.
This night, the five prisoners were secretly meeting to choose the day for their final effort. Their leader, Prisoner 273556 said, “It’s all set. Our friends are waiting in a small village just a short distance from the prison. As soon as we arrive at the village, they will immediately provide us with new identity papers and smuggle us across the border. We can reach the village in only a few hours after we break out. All we have to do is finish the tunnel and get out of here. Our new lives are very close. Nothing can go wrong.”
“But,” Prisoner 979864 whispered, “we cannot break out this week. I can’t leave now. I am taking an online course and must prepare for a big exam next Friday. I have no time for digging. We will have to stage our escape for after that day.”
“Also,” added Prisoner 550986 in a whisper. “I feel like I am getting a cold. I don’t want to escape until I feel well.”
Prisoner 117894 glanced over his shoulder to be sure no one was listening. He added, “My grandmother is coming on the next visitor’s day and I don’t want to miss her. We should escape after that.”
Then Prisoner 337785 added, “Plus, it is so rainy this time of year. We will have to wait until the weather is better before making preparations to break out.”
To all these reasons, the leader, Prisoner 273556, replied, “Well, I am certainly eager to get out of here but I would hate to miss the special dinner we will be served to celebrate the upcoming holiday. Maybe we should wait until after the holiday before we escape.”
So, the secret meeting concluded with a decision to delay the breakout until everyone agreed that the conditions were satisfactory.
Wait a minute! What kind of story is this? Do I really expect readers to believe that hardened criminals would not break out of their prison when it was so simple… because of these flimsy excuses? This story is beyond weak and silly. It is unbelievable; this would be unacceptable to readers. Who would write such a stupid story? And who would believe it was about realistic behaviors by real people?
Yet, dear readers, look around you. Don’t you see many such stories every day? And they are stories about real people – maybe about yourself. Don’t you see many people leading lives they dislike or even hate? Aren’t they in their own prisons? If you listen to them, they will tell you that they know what would make them happy, would bring them to a healthier, more fulfilling life. They know how to break out of their present-life prison. Often, they even have an escape plan – but, like the prisoners of this short story, they never take action.
Why not? Speaking from vast experience, I can offer several reasons why people remain in their own prisons of discontent. (Remember my next book will be entitled DAHIK: Don’t Ask How I Know.)
As the Eagles sang many years ago,
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key. — Eagles “Already Gone”
Yes, we have the key. Indeed, people often know exactly what their ideal life would be. They even know the key to get there. It might be a new job, a new house in a different neighborhood, maybe even moving to a new city. Sometimes, that might mean giving up friends and relationships which are toxic and dragging them down when they try to make progress. Maybe it is some kind of personal behavior or addiction that provides temporary, minor comfort because it is familiar. But, there is always a reason “why” they cannot break out of their prison today – and people always offer them most sincerely. (Maybe part of the reason the excuses sound so plausible and reasonable is that the person has had much practice in honing and perfecting their excuses.)
Usually, if you clearly know what you want, the path to achieving it is also clear and simple. (Note that I did not say the path would be easy. Most of the time, it is not easy and it may require a long period of sacrifice and effort; but the path itself is clear and simple.) One other reason for hesitation about breaking out is that these plans do not come with a guarantee. Indeed, there may be much uncertainty in many of the steps required of you. And, even if you achieve your objective, no one can promise that achieving your goal will make you happy.
For many people, education remains the traditional vehicle for success. In today’s society, there is a greater opportunity and a more “level playing field” than ever before in history for any person who sincerely desires an education. Self-education is available for any person with access to a computer and the internet. Accompanying the education is the acquiring of the documentation – diplomas, awards for completing courses, certifications, etc. Often, those documents are required to open certain doors of opportunity. Yet, people offer a bewildering range of excuses why they cannot get the education they need to escape into a new life, the life they wish for. They are choosing not to break out of their own prison – and they are renewing that choice every day.
Breaking out of your old life and into a new and chosen lifestyle is not without effort and sacrifice. As the Lovin Spoonful sang, “It’s not often easy and it’s not often kind.” But it is attainable. Hint: When you feel discouraged, just remind yourself that, if other people have done it, you can do it also. The fact that others have done something proves that it is possible.
So, what can you do if you are ready to begin the breakout from your own prison? Let me suggest several steps which would be a good beginning.
1) Take time to clearly identify what you want. It often helps to focus our thinking by writing rather than speaking. Finding discrete words to write requires us to move from vague generalities to specific details. Hint: Don’t set your goals “away from”; always make your goals “moving to”.
2) Remember the saying by Jim Rohn, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Choose your closest companions carefully. (Fortunately, this pool of candidates includes the billions of people available online.)
3) Decide what you will give up as a price for moving up to a higher level. Remember that a lifestyle is a package of many elements. Often, we must leave behind many good, comfortable, and familiar things when we give up the wasteful, ineffective, and negative aspects of our old life.
4) If necessary, do some research. Go online and find answers to the question, “What did other people in this situation do to achieve what I want?” If you follow the same steps, you should expect to get the same results. Hint: You must be prepared to do everything exactly as they did. Leaving out any difficult, uncomfortable parts will not get the same results. Indeed, it can be said that successful people do the things that other people are not willing to do.
5) Take action! All of the planning and organizing, researching and visualizing will mean absolutely nothing if you never take action. A journey must be planned and organized, but it doesn’t begin until you take the first action step. Hemingway said to never confuse activity with motion. Preparing is a necessary activity but it is not forward motion. Planning your prison break means nothing if you never take the first action step.
So, dear readers, what excuses are you offering for staying in your own self-limiting prisons? If you are not happy, if you want more than you currently have, if you genuinely wish for a different life, listen to the Eagles again,
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains
And we never even know we have the key.
You have the key. You know what you want and you know what you should be doing to achieve it. Why aren’t you? What excuses are you making for not breaking out of your own prison?
And what about those prisoners from the story? It’s always a dark and stormy night for them. They’re still in their prison, still plotting to escape – and still making weak excuses why the breakout must be postponed until later before they take action.