The Gift of Choice©

Whether you are a movie buff or not, most of you probably have seen the classic The Blues Brothers, starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In one memorable scene, John Belushi is tracked down by his ex-fiancé (played by Carrie Fisher) who is armed with a machine gun. When confronted, Belushi’s character begs for mercy:

Jake Blues:           Oh, please don’t kill us! Please don’t kill us! You know I love you baby. I wouldn’t leave ya. It wasn’t my fault!

Mystery Woman (Carrie Fisher): You miserable slug! You think you can talk your way out of this? You betrayed me.

Jake Blues:           No, I didn’t. Honest … I ran out of gas. I … I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood! Locusts! IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!

We all laughed, but Jake gives us a classic example (perhaps exaggerated) of how easily we can fall into the trap of blame and excuses.

Sadly, we live in a culture that has grown way too comfortable with pointing fingers, blaming circumstances and allowing outside events to determine our outcomes. In sharp contrast, courageous and conscious leaders embrace the personal empowerment that comes with the power of choice. They understand that choices are at the heart of change, innovation and consistent execution. They also know that choices define leaders and leadership.

Let’s get the objections out of the way right up front because they all can be simplified into a single whale of an objection: I do not have choices in my life because often there are things that happen to me and situations where I do not get to decide. Sound familiar? Ready to jump on board with that story? You certainly will have lots of company on that train (I call it the blame train), but in doing so – in accepting this perspective – you give up the most powerful tool you have in guiding and creating your life: the power of choice.

Each of you have gifts that you are meant to use and share in the world. Choosing to ignore them or not utilize them, especially without great consideration and reflection on the choices that you have, is one of the greatest tragedies – not only for the individual but for the world. Imagine being given a Ferrari to drive and then choosing to only drive it 35 miles an hour around the neighborhood. Likewise, imagine the waste of asking a thoroughbred horse to pull a plow. Even more relevant, imagine all that this world misses out on when someone chooses to settle, personally or professionally; to leave their greatest gifts in storage while they live the life that someone told them they are “supposed” to live.

I know. Here it comes: “But Jeff, you are not being realistic. Sometimes there are realities that prevent us from doing or being what we want to do or be.” Well, here comes my response: Bull … (well, you know what I mean). Yes, you heard and read me right. It may not be easy; it may not make sense and it may be risky, but no one is required to do anything in his or her life. You have been given the gift of choice, and where you go and what you do with your life is most directly impacted (sorry folks, no guarantees) by the choices that you make rather than by your circumstances. As Debbie Ford affirms, “Choice might just be our most precious gift” (The Right Questions: Ten Essential Questions to Guide You to An Extraordinary Life, Debbie Ford [Harper San Francisco 2003] at 2).

Yes, some of these choices are hard. Yes, some of these choices are risky and scary. And they are still choices because the fact that something is hard, risky or scary (which are all merely perceptions) does not cause something to cease to be a choice.

In early 2009, I was in a job that I did well but which did not utilize my gifts and did not feed my spirit. I was working for someone else when my spirit was straining at the bit to be set free and to go back to having my own business. But the choice to choose an entrepreneurial path again was very risky, especially financially. My own story at the time was that I “had to” work for someone else because I had financial obligations, a family to support and a prior business failure had left me financially devastated. Add the fact that I was separated and heading toward a divorce that was putting even greater financial strain on me and increasing my financial obligations, and it was definitely time to play it safe … or so I thought.

I wanted to fly on my own, but I felt the “need” for a secure job and income source. I was stuck, not because of circumstances but because of the life I was choosing to live. When my employer laid me off, though, I finally had my answer. It was time to fly. It has not been easy, and there have been many challenges and setbacks, personally, professionally and financially, but I always have kept going and living my choices to the fullest.

I distinctly remember attending a networking event for a job-seekers group where I had recently spoken. I was approached by Bob late in the evening. When he asked me how I was doing, I said, “I’m great.” Bob chided me a bit saying that my perspective was different because I had a job, to which I said, “I don’t have a job. I lost my job six weeks ago.” Now Bob was confused and intrigued. Bob asked me what I was doing, and when I told him that I had started a business to pursue my passions in speaking and coaching, he said “Are you crazy? Why would you start a business in the middle of the worst recession since the Depression?” The following is a short version of the brief conversation that followed:

Bob: “Well, you must have a book of clients that came with you.”

Jeff: “Actually, I don’t have any clients. I also don’t have any cash flow. I know what a sales pipeline is but I don’t have one yet and I’m working on it.”

Bob: “Well, you must have had a good financial foundation to start this business.”

Jeff: “Actually, I don’t have any financial foundation. With some prior financial issues and a pending divorce, there is no financial net. In fact, this is the worst time financially in my entire life for me to start this business. Every day I wake up and look over my shoulder and the bridge is burning. My feet aren’t on fire, but it’s not a forest fire in the distance, and I can feel the heat. I get up every day and start running.”

Bob: “Then with all of this, how are you great?”

Jeff: “I decided that when I got up this morning. It’s a choice.”

Bob: “I just can’t believe you chose to start a business now – in these economic times.”

Jeff: “The way I see it, it’s not a question of whether it’s the right time, but whether it’s the right thing. I believe that it’s always the right time for the right thing.”

Let me repeat those words: it’s always the right time for the right thing. I have been running (and often flying) ever since that day, soaring on the wings of my choices. One thing I have learned about taking risks and jumping off the cliff: the main difference between falling (imagine me flailing my arms and screaming) and soaring (imagine my arms outstretched like an eagle) is attitude.

Was my choice risky? Of course, but risk is relative not only to the risk taker but to how we perceive our other choices. Risk itself is a story. Thousands of people thought they had taken the low-risk path with a “safe and secure” job, only to find out that their job and income were neither safe nor secure. So much for that story about risk.

Was my choice easy? Who knows. It certainly was difficult at times and often challenging, but what is harder – pursuing my dreams, or living a life and working in a job that I believed that I “had to do”? It is amazing to find out what we are capable of when we are all in and fully committed to a pursuit that we are passionate about. The ancient Vikings knew something about being all in. When they invaded the enemy’s shores, the first thing they did was to burn their boats so that there was no means of escape. Talk about being motivated! While I did not burn the boats (I did not have a fleet to burn), I was all in with my choices.

Each of you has precisely the same kind of opportunities every day – opportunities to make choices about what you think, believe, say and, most importantly, do. What choices will you put into action today? What choices will you stand behind rather than hiding behind blame and excuses? What choices will you make to empower your life, career and business? As in all  things, the choice is yours.


  1. Steve Martinek says:

    True that, and/but…best choices are made with a generous heart inspired by the Holy Spirit, Wrong, bad, venal, or evil choices will define bad leaders and wrong paths…

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