My school career was not the most illustrious. As far back as I can remember, I struggled with various aspects of being in the educational system, chief among them being navigation of a social order.
In spite of that, I’ve always loved to learn (er, at least about things that I’m interested in) and there were some moments in primary school which stand out for piquing my interest and informing a direction that my life would ultimately take.
Awareness of Current Events
One of those memories is of my fifth-grade class beginning to study current events. I got the distinct sense that this was going to be good – this section of class was going to be about something important.
We began to read articles from the newspapers and discuss what was going on in the world. Politics naturally showed up, and while I didn’t really think about it at the time, we began to see how values gleaned at from our sphere (parents in this case) came into play in our interpretation of the events and concepts we were learning about.
Political awareness was highly stressed in my school, as the teachers and administration worked at molding us into proper citizens. We staged a school-wide Presidential election, complete with campaign speeches and election judges. The idea may have been to educate us on the electoral process, yet the deeper message received was that awareness and engagement matters.
I took that message well into adulthood and indeed through a decade-long career in politics. I had internalized the notion that each of us has the power to make a difference in this world, and that it is incumbent upon us to do so, given the level of injustice that existed (and still exists) in our world.
I still believe this, fundamentally. Each and every one of us DOES have the power to make a difference in this world. And yet the manner in which I see us affecting this difference has changed.
You see, when I look all the way back to that current events class in the fifth grade, I realize that I got part of the message wrong. I thought that knowledge of current events was singularly important.
Awareness ≠ Influence
In my school, teachers spoke of families sitting around the dinner table, discussing current events. A picture was painted for us of the inherent value to being informed. An informed citizen was the best kind of citizen.
Some of us (myself included) may have even over-developed this notion into its ugly opposite, which is looking down on those poor saps who don’t know what’s happening in this world.
We saw this show up in the media as well, with talk-show hosts interviewing random people on the streets of major cities, asking various questions about geography, history, politics and current affairs. For those of us with an over-developed sense of our own knowledge, it was both funny and irritating to see a picture of a citizenry that was clueless.
(Not that I am asserting those random interviews to be representative of the American populace as a whole. For all I know they were entirely staged.)
The positive judgement of one who stays current with world affairs is easily apparent on most social media channels today. This is why people post news articles (typically highlighting something that’s wrong with our world) and offer up their thoughts, opinions, or perhaps outrage.
Not so long ago, I was completely bought-in to this. I watched the daily news, I read the paper, on Friday nights I watched a special local political news program on public television, and on Sunday I watched the political talk shows. I took great pride in being informed, and spent a fair amount of time wringing my hands over this matter, or that.
Then I learned a concept from Stephen Covey which changed everything.
Circle of Concern & Circle of Influence
Each of us has these two circles.
The Circle of Concern contains within it all the things that we are thinking about, caring about, worrying about.
The Circle of Influence contains all of things that we actually have some power to impact with our own actions, words and behaviors.
For me, when I was avidly following so many current events, my circle of concern was MUCH greater than my circle of influence, and was exerting inward pressure.
It looked like this:
The pressure from my circle of concern was pushing inward onto my circle of influence, and I found myself distressed at all the things that I wanted to have power over, yet didn’t. I wanted to change the world, and yet there were so many things to change! So much awful stuff going on, and yet so little time, power and resources! I became depressed and disgruntled. It felt easy to blame others in the world for the negative feelings I was experiencing. I blamed public officials, political parties, random jerks with influence, and what I perceived to be the vast and idiotic masses.
Between you and me, it wasn’t great.
After studying more about these circles and how our views of them impact our lives, I decided to experiment with switching the pressure gradient.
I turned off the news.
No more television, no more newspaper, and -critically- no more National Public Radio.
(NPR was a BIG challenge for me, because I had developed a strong value judgement around being a public radio listener – I thought it made me smart, informed, cultured and GOOD. I feared being looked upon as stupid by others who also identified with this value around public radio.)
And I worked at turning the arrows in my circles to the opposite direction – outward.
When the arrows turn outward, this means that we begin with our circle of influence. We ask ourselves:
What things can I fundamentally impact, MYSELF, to make my tiny little piece of the world better?
And we work at that, and we work at that, and we work at that some more.
It’s not easy, especially when this constitutes such a dramatic shift in thinking, as it did for me. The temptation to revert is enormous. It’s so much easier to wring our hands over the bad things we see other people doing in this world, and to lay blame.
Over time though, as we focus on our circle of influence, something magical happens:
It grows in size.
Increasing our Circle of Influence
As we grow from within and wrestle through the challenges of how WE impact our surroundings every day, we learn to positively affect our circle. And that causes it to get bigger. And when we keep at it, suddenly we look around and discover that we have much more influence than we used to, and we actually ARE changing things for the better.
Now I’m not saying that we’re all going to become President of the United States, or even U.S. Senators or Congresspeople (though some of us certainly will.)
What I’m saying is that ALL of us can have a profound impact on the world. We can do it through business, philanthropy, teaching, writing, organizing, you name it. We can do it through raising incredible children who will go on to affect the world in their own special ways.
And the key to all of this in staying focused within the circle of influence.
And this is why I don’t consume general news anymore.
My mission is to stay focused on what I can personally impact.
Everything else is a distraction.