Staying Positive: Separating Actions from Outcomes

My best friend’s partner is a lifelong activist. Her activist work career is in the environmental field but she is also an activist for important matters like urban cycling and transit, and various manifestations of human rights, dignity & equality. She is an impressive human in her commitment to beliefs, in walking her talk, and in the energy she puts into it all actions. Honestly, it’s beyond me how she does all that she does.

And I don’t know how she stays positive through it all either because, no bones about it, there’s a lot of bad news everyday—especially now that environmental and climate issues seem to be taking a back seat to COVID, COVID, and COVID. I didn’t directly ask how she keeps her glass half-full rather than half-empty but I was complementing a recent Op-Ed piece and noting that she no doubt does a better job than me keeping a positive spin on things (and I’m not even in the thick of it day-in-day-out like she is!).

Her response was that, well, life is more fun with a positive attitude. And, as an activist (I was trying to come up with a definition of activist and wondered if it would be something like: someone who, through their actions, prompts/prods/provokes/incites/stimulates others to take action) she says she is more impactful if she’s positive. That all makes sense, sure, but how do you stay positive and not let it get you down??

“Don’t be attached to the results of your work,” she wrote, “you win some, you lose some. But whether or not you win, you’re moving the goal posts.”Ah! Simple but game-changing: separate your actions from their outcomes. Actions you have full control of. The outcomes you don’t. It reminds me of one of the lessons in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements that was “don’t take anything personally”, which I interpreted in part as to try to separate who you are from how people react to you.

Not getting attached to the results of your work, also seems like a variation of it’s about the journey more so than the destination. And, after all, we know that sometimes your journey takes you to a different destination that you might have imagined. Which is not always a bad thing.

She left me with this Talmud poem:


Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Walk humbly, now.

Do justly, now.

Love mercy, now.

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

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