The Myth of the 'Serenity Prayer'
You have the power to change far more than you realize about yourself, your life and your fortunes.
Life is a journey of discovery, hopefully a long and fruitful one. We journey inward to our deepest thoughts and feelings and travel outward to all corners of the world. Sometimes we go it alone, other times we’re accompanied by fellow travelers.
Along the way, we discover all sorts of things about ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors, our coworkers and our fellow humans. We discover how things work and don’t work. We discover what we love and hate.
One of the great discoveries of my journey is that I hate to see people deluded by ludicrous myths and popular fads that so often masquerade as common wisdom. I love to see the lightbulbs go on in their heads when they see the truth. It really makes my day.
Today, I want to talk about the common notion that people can’t change. We’ve all heard the old expressions: a leopard can’t change its spots, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and so on. While there is some wisdom in how those sayings relate to people, they’re far from absolutes.
First, let’s dispense with the obvious. I bet many, if not most of you, will experience a life-altering event at some point: a catastrophic or life-threatening experience, a terrible illness or debilitating injury, the loss of a great love or livelihood, the bottoming out from addiction, an inspirational moment that changes everything.
Any number of situations can cause a dramatic shift in perspective and have a powerful influence on our behavior. Let’s put that aside for a moment and talk about the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
There’s wisdom in the prayer but, in my experience, people all-too-often underestimate how much control they have in their lives. When I hear someone say “there’s nothing I can do about that” or the ever-popular “it is what it is,” most of the time, they’re wrong.
When it comes to change, there are obvious limitations. Like a leopard that can’t change its spots, humans can’t change physical things like their DNA, their height or their skin color. They can’t change the stars or the laws of physics. They usually can’t change the behavior of others. But beyond that, the sky’s the limit.
Let me give you a few examples of how people accept things they shouldn’t and become victims of their own inertia. How they use the serenity prayer or something like it as an excuse for taking the path of least resistance, rather than overturning the apple cart and breaking out of their own comfort zone or status quo.
I’m always hearing excuses from those who claim to be disadvantaged because they didn’t grow up with white male privilege. But of all the successful white male executives I’ve known, few if any grew up with any sort of privilege. The vast majority started with nothing, and that did not stop them from changing their lives and their fortunes. On the contrary, they found ways to thrive on adversity and use it to their advantage.
Likewise, from Virgin founder Richard Branson and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to Softbank’s Masayoshi Son and Alibaba chairman Jack Ma, I can name countless famous business leaders who started with zilch and found a way to rise above their humble beginnings, find the best in themselves and ultimately change the world around them.
Now let’s think smaller. A boss or coworker gives you grief? Quit. A nightmare neighbor or no jobs where you live? Move. Not qualified for good work? Get qualified. A disability or affliction? Find a way to use it to your advantage. Things keep going wrong for you? Take a long hard look in the mirror. If you have the courage to face what you see, take it to heart and change your behavior. Your luck will likely change as well.
Please, don’t tell me “that’s easy for you to say.” None of was easy for me to do. I lived every single one of those situations, and some more than once. I’ve quit, moved, changed fields, gotten new degrees and spent years working to improve myself. You know what? It all worked out because I never made excuses or let anything stand in my way.
Funny thing is, I don’t know many people who grew up with less or in a more dysfunctional environment than I did. Somewhere in Silicon Valley, there’s a shrink driving around in a luxury sports car I probably paid for to prove it. Take it from me: You can change far more about yourself, your life and your fortunes than you realize.My advice: Forget the serenity prayer. If something isn’t right, go ahead and change it. You have my blessing.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at stevetobak.com, where you can contact him and learn more.