Let’s imagine a person whose life is in a mess. We’ll call him Chuck. Everyone around Chuck can see how bad his lifestyle is. It’s making him miserable. Here’s the problem: Chuck can’t see it himself. He goes on feeling wretched, but is completely unconscious of the cause—the mess in his life.

Of course, so long as Chuck remains unconscious of the cause of the problem, he’ll be unable to help himself. No one else can help him either, since pointing to the way his life is means pointing to something he cannot see. He rejects such advice and say there’s nothing wrong with the way he lives. His problem is something else; something outside his control, like his bad family background and upbringing, his poverty, and the prejudice against people like him who weren’t born in the right place or with the right color of skin. Because Chuck also spends many hours watching TV (he’s frequently out of work or feeling sick), he’s now become a connoisseur of medical terminology. He’s sure he’s suffering from ADHD, Restless Legs Syndrome, and probably undiagnosed emotional problems. But he’s too poor to get treatment, so he’s condemned to lifetime illness, as well as poverty and unhappiness. How could changing his actions do any good against such overwhelming problems?

This sad fellow has a sister, Martha. She’s also miserable and her life is as much of a mess as his is. But Martha can see the problem. She knows her way of life is making her wretched. She sees the causes of her unhappiness clearly enough, but does nothing about them. Why? Martha is convinced she has to “get herself straightened out inside” before she can tackle the mess and muddle of her life. So she avidly consults self-help books and magazines . She’s always analyzing her emotions, reviewing her past mistakes, and delving into her family history—which is, of course, as dysfunctional as Chuck’s. She too blames the external world for much of her misery, noting all the neuroses and traumas it’s left her with: problems that prevent her from moving forward until she can finally discover how to make them go away. Chuck tells her about his medical problems, and she agrees she shares most of them. Once she can get herself sorted out mentally and get some money, she plans to go to a suitable specialist. In the meantime, she takes vitamins and herbal remedies, since they’re all she can afford.

Chuck and Martha are becoming Mr. and Ms. Normal in our world today. They’re unhappy and they know it, but they either blame it all on problems outside their control (like Chuck); or have become convinced they must first sort out their emotions and thoughts (like Martha) before they can do anything about the mess they’ve made of their lives.

Let’s look as Lois instead. Lois’s life is just as much of a mess and she’s at least as miserable as Chuck and Martha. She can list a string of handicaps, from poverty, through an abusive parent, to boyfriends who beat her and the last one who made her pregnant, then disappeared. One morning, just after the birth of her daughter, Amy, Lois wakes up and decides—seemingly for no reason—she has to stop her life being such a disaster area. She’s miserable, she’s poor, she has no confidence in herself and her emotions are a nightmare. She’s certain she won’t be able to cope with anything complicated, so she looks at her life and seizes on the simplest, most obvious thing to do—and she does it.

That’s how it goes on. Each day, Lois does the next most obvious thing she can see to improve her life. She has no plan; no long-term objective or vision of a better future. If you ask her what she’s doing, she’ll tell you she has no idea and it’ll probably be a mistake anyway. But, rain or shine, feeling good or feeling wretched, Lois plods on, doing whatever she can and whatever is most obvious to her.

Months pass. Lois still feels bad much of the time. She’s still poor. When she has time to consider her emotions, she can see they’re just as volatile as they always were. Still, her baby is well fed, properly clothed and healthy. They live in a small apartment. It’s not a wonderful neighborhood, but the place is clean, the rent is paid and they have food, warmth and basic security.

After a year, Lois can look back and notice how far she’s come. It makes her feel good. After two years, she has a job she likes, enough money to ensure Amy has a comfortable childhood, and she’s attending the local college to better her education. That makes her feel even better.

Five years pass. One morning, Lois wakes up with a jolt. Her mind is in turmoil. She doesn’t know what to do. It’s just dawned on her that she’s happy. What’s more, her life is no longer a mess. She has a happy, healthy daughter. She has a great job. She even has a boyfriend who cherishes her and Amy and has never offered either of them anything but love and respect.

At work that day, Lois confesses her confusion to her closest friend, Juanita. Juanita is fascinated and wants to know Lois’ secret for real lifestyle improvement.

“I don’t have one,” Lois tells her. “I never did. I’m as puzzled as you are. I just kept doing things. Most were really small, dumb actions. The kind of things anyone with half a brain would have seen needed to be done. I’m not clever enough to come up with proper plans. I guess they worked out.”

Too many of us swallow the prevailing myths of our society: that our problems all lie outside ourselves; and we have to spend time getting our minds and emotions in order—or motivating ourselves—before we can tackle the problems in our lives. Believe either of them and you’ll never advance much beyond where you are today. Actions alone make a difference. Not necessarily big, dramatic ones either.

You don’t need a life plan. You don’t need motivation, self-confidence, peer support or even luck. All you need is the willingness to take the next most obvious step—then repeat the process again and again, regardless of how you feel. Try it. Happiness comes from seeing the results of your efforts. You don’t need it before you start.

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Adrian Savage is an Englishman and a retired business executive who lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for anyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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