Is life simply the sum of your choices?

My family recently saw the new Mission Impossible movie. (Great movie, but it’s long – 165 minutes.) One of the actors threw out this phrase: “Your life is the sum of your choices.” Upon reflection, I don’t agree. Choices do have consequences, but there are other factors at play. I see three distinct elements that have made you who you are. 

1. DNA traits – Psychologists call this the “nature factor.” [conception through birth]

When in your mother’s womb, you were uniquely fashioned. The day you were born there was no on earth quite like you. Your one-of-a-kind gene pool created a distinct person. 

Many of the physical attributes that distinguish you from all other people are the same today as they were at your birth and they will remain so throughout your life. For instance, your fingerprint and iris print are unalterable. 

Likewise, you were born with unique, nonphysical attributes—such as your personality—and these, too, are stable. In many ways you were “hard-wired” at birth. Brian Little describes them as “things you brought into the delivery room at birth.” 

2. Environmental influences – Psychologists call this the “nurture factor” [birth through age 17]

In the early years of your life, human and environmental factors significantly shaped you. 

For instance, imagine how these contrasting variables would radically affect a young life.

      • Were you born in Finland or Bangladesh?
      • Did your family of origin embrace Christianity or Islam?
      • What type of family were you raised in? (stepfamily; single-parent; headed by two unmarried partners, either of the opposite sex or the same sex; adoptive; foster; or families where children are raised by their grandparents or other relatives)
      • Did you have siblings?
      • In what socio-economic level were you raised?
      • Did you suffer verbal, emotional, or physical abuse; or were you consistently and deeply loved?
      • Did you have good educational opportunities?

3. Your choices [age 18 through death]

Finally, we must consider the personal choices we make in life and how they impact us.

In his book, The 8th Habit, Steven Covey says, “Fundamentally, we are a product of choice, not nature (genes) or nurture (upbringing, environment). Certainly genes and culture exert strong influence, but they do not determine. Next to life itself, the power to choose is your greatest gift.”

I disagree with his overemphasis on choice because nature and nurture are powerful influencers, but let’s consider this: you and I had no control over the nature and nurture factors, but we do have the ability to make choices. Said a different way: Given the unalterable aspects of your life (nature, nurture), what choices will you now make to help optimize your life and enhance your well-being.

We are responsible for big choices (marriage, higher education, careers, friends, where we live) and a myriad of smaller, reoccurring choices (diet, exercise, health, discretionary time).

It is counterproductive to have a victim’s mentality throughout our adult lives. Understand and accept the good and the bad of the nature-nurture factors, and then chart a positive course to become the person you want to be. 

Covey shares three sentences that underscore the power and importance of choices. 

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In those choices lie our growth and happiness.

It’s difficult to sort out all these issues by yourself. That’s why I recommend that every human on earth spend time with a professional counselor or coach or several trusted friends to talk through these and other issues.

Back to the topic of this post: I think your life is the sum of your nature, nurture, and choices, and that the the older you become—for better or for worse—your choices are increasingly influential. 

[I’ve written a book on this topic – Signature Soulprint. Respond to this post or contact me at [email protected] for information about how to get a copy.]

In relationships, try to say “yes” more than you say “no”

When I’m with my grandson, Benjamin, I always try to say “yes” to his requests. “Papa, will you take me fishing? Will you play with me? Can we go swimming?” Unless it’s impossible or imprudent to do so, I usually say yes.

I do the same at work; when a colleague or direct report makes an appeal, I try to respond in a positive way. 

This approach has helped my marriage. For years, both Mary and I suffered from a “no-mentality.” She would ask me to do something and I would demur. I wouldn’t necessarily say “no” (I’m more cunning than that) but I would hesitate, postpone, ignore, or offer an alternative. In essence, I declined. Mary often did the same to me. Now we try to say “yes” to each other, or at least craft a positive response such as, “What an interesting idea; let’s talk about that tonight.” But if it’s a simple request (Would you clean your study?) I should simply comply.   

In your interpersonal relationships, which word do you tend to say the most: yes or no? What is your default response? I’m not suggesting that you be a “yes-person”—someone who agrees with everything that is said and endorses or supports without criticism, every opinion or proposal. I am encouraging us to have a positive, permissive outlook on life, particularly when responding to people’s requests. The alternative is to be oppositional, quick to resist or dissent.

Sir Richard Branson once said: “I have enjoyed life a lot more by saying yes than by saying no.” And I’m sure those around him have also enjoyed that persuasion. 

Here’s a good article from Fortune magazine titled “Five Reasons Why Saying “Yes” Is The Best Decision For Your Career.”

The Juilliard String Quartet taught me an important lesson about how to have a respectful and productive conversation


Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Cicero

Several years ago I heard the Juilliard String Quartet present a lecture/recital. Their playing was wonderful,  but my biggest take-away from the event had nothing to do with music but rather the quality of their conversation.  While I was intrigued by what they had to say, I was particularly fascinated by how they conversed. Through their example I learned how important it is to have times of silence throughout conversations.

Before the quartet played, they shared their thoughts about the musical piece they would play. They also conversed in-between movements. It was a relaxed and thoughtful conversational atmosphere in which each player had the opportunity to speak.

One at a time, a player would share his thoughts, and when he was finished there would be silence— sometimes lasting 10-15 seconds—before another member of the quartet would comment on what had just been shared. The group had such high respect for what each colleague was sharing that they allowed time for each statement to “sink in” before another thought was introduced into the conversation. Also, while one person shared, the others seemed to truly listen; they were not just using that time to craft what they would say when it was their turn.

For instance, one member might say, “The thing I enjoy most about the second movement of the Beethoven is that it borrows the theme from the first movement but develops it in a unique way.” Then there would be silence. And then another player might offer, “At first glance, the themes seem to compete with each other, but near the end of the movement one understands that they are actually complementary.” Then another pause…and so on.

The key element in this respectful and profitable conversation was the moments of silence.

When was the last time you conversed with a group of people and the conversation contained times of silence? It’s a rare occurrence. Normally, we try to anticipate the end of someone’s sentence and then compete with others for who speaks next. Sometimes we don’t even allow a person to finish his thought; the beginning of our new sentence overlaps the end of his.

This concept is so foreign to most people that the only way I’ve been able to incorporate it is to discuss it with a particular group and then practice. I did this with my family. I distributed this essay, we talked about it, and then staged a trial conversation. At first, it was difficult and awkward—it’s hard to change deeply-ingrained patterns—but eventually the conversation became well-paced, courteous, and profitable.

What are your thoughts?

Are you an optimist or pessimist?


Each of us carries a word in our heart. For some, the word is “yes.” Yes, we believe we can succeed. Yes, we can learn. Yes, we can make a difference. Others carry a “no,” with all the negative baggage that accompanies it. —Martin Seligman

Which of these two words best describes you? Are you inclined toward “yes” or “no”? What is your default setting? What is your first response to life’s stimuli? Asked another way, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Before you answer that last question, know that Dr. Seligman’s research indicates that 3/4 of Americans have a proclivity toward pessimism, so three out of four readers of this essay are in the “no” camp. Are you? Most of us have a hard time being honest with ourselves, so you might want to take a random survey among your friends and family.

Why would anyone choose to be a pessimist? (It is a choice one makes.)

      • Long term, people won’t enjoy being around you.
      • Your view of life will be sullied.
      • Your mental and physical health will suffer.

Choose to be an optimist:

      • People will be attracted to you.
      • Life will be more enjoyable.
      • You’ll enjoy better mental and physical health; optimists get sick less often and live longer.

Some people accuse optimists of being naive; after all, bad things do happen. Yes, we need to be realistic about the past and the present, but let’s be hopeful and optimistic about the future, and let’s not dwell on the negative.

I appreciate the balanced approach espoused by psychiatrist Leonard Zunin, who has identified four basic orientations:

      1. Those who see only the negative
      2. Those who see only the positive
      3. Those who see both and focus on the negative
      4. Those who see both and focus on the positive

It seems to me that number four is the preferred position.

When I think of an optimistic leader, former President Ronald Reagan comes to mind.

Immediately following an assassination attempt on him, while being wheeled into the operating room, he said to the physicians, “I hope you boys are Republicans.”

In 1982, at the depths of a depression, Richard Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster for six years, came into the Oval Office with his semimonthly report. He told Reagan the bad news, “Thirty-two percent approval rating—the worst ever for any sitting president in the second year in office.” Reagan reportedly smiled and said, “Dick, Dick…stop worrying. I’ll just go out and try to get shot again.”

The following poem describes a young optimist. When this lad enters the workforce, I’ll hire him.

I passed a sand lot yesterday,
Some kids were playing ball
I strolled along the third base line
Within the fielder’s call.
“Say, what’s the score?” I asked.
He yelled to beat the stuffing,
“There’s no one out, the bases full,
They’re winning forty-two to nothing!”
“You’re getting beat, aren’t you my friend?”
And then in no time flat
He answered, “No, sir, not as yet!
Our side hasn’t been up to bat!”