From Bartlett’s Health June 13, 2011

By Mark B. Saunders

After 50, you notice things that were not so apparent when you were younger. Looking back over my first half-century, I see my life as a non-stop lesson about the value of making smart choices. As the saying goes, “If you don’t like the consequences of your life, make different choices.”

Easier said than done.

Having been through divorce, cancer, jobs that provided a paycheck but little else, and way too many relationships in which I ignored the yellow caution tape strung across the front door—one word comes to mind: Listen.

Listen to your body, listen to your intuition, listen to your family, listen to your friends, listen to your co-workers, listen to the fools you can’t stand: The bottom line is listen.

If you’re tired of shouldering Sisyphus’s rock while your passions pass you by, or you’re resentful about being chained to your (desk, position, dead-end relationship…fill in the blank) while the modern equivalent of villagers with torches and pitchforks derail your dreams, then listening is no longer an option —it’s a survival skill.

For a brief primer on the disastrous consequences of governments not listening, go to You Tube and type the following words into the search engine: “Arab Spring,” “Greece,” or the name of any country in economic or political free fall.

The tough part about listening is that it involves paying attention to information you do NOT want to hear. Call it the “right side of your brain, your “intuition,” your “heart,” or your “gut,” spirit, angles; they are all names for the little voice inside that says, “I don’t think this is such a good idea.” If you’re anything like me, you’ve trained yourself to tune out these flashes of genius like a little kid putting his hands over his ears and singing “la-la-la-la-la-la” in hopes that whatever you don’t want to deal with will just go away.

Sound familiar?

A couple of years ago, however, I got whopped upside the head twice by the same cosmic 2 x 4 in a relationship that involved my partner’s infidelity followed a spurious sexual harassment allegation (repeat one thousand times: I will never get involved with anyone at work. I will never get involved with anyone at work…). After that, I woke up — and started listening.

Listen to Your Body

A friend of mine recently went to work for a high-end department store to help with her cash flow as she launches a nonprofit organization to empower women. She says there are days when her face doesn’t feel like smiling, her feet have a temper tantrum when slipping into her high heels, and her eyes rebel against the florescent lighting. All of which are reliable indications that retail is not her final employment destination. My friend’s situation works for her because she knows she won’t be spending the rest of her life in the land of disposable income. But what about the people who wake up every morning with a gnawing pain in their stomachs; or have to drink copious quantities of caffeine just to get through the day; or suffer chronic pain in their neck, back, shoulders, wrists, hips, or knees because of their jobs? I realize we’re in a recession and that good jobs are hard to find, but if your body is screaming at you, I recommend listening to what it’s saying.

Listen to Your Intuition

I can invent logical reasons to justify even my most counterproductive behaviors. I suspect you can too. We humans are masters at sustaining ourselves on stories that our egos tell us to make ourselves feel better about how badly we are behaving. Take a look at any of the world’s great religious books (Bible, Torah, Quran, Bhagavad Gita, Tipitaka, and so on); their pages are overflowing with stories. We tell stories to instruct, relate, understand, and give meaning to our lives. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we invent stories to make sense of our behaviors. Problems show up when radical flashes of insight interrupt these stories we tell ourselves to maintain the status quo of our lives.

Fifteen years ago, a small design studio in Denver hired me as a copywriter. After two weeks on the job, I knew I was in the wrong place. Two weeks later, another agency I had interviewed with offered me a similar job. Hallelujah! Prayers answered. Problem solved. I was doing my inner Snoopy dance. But after several phone conversations, lots of soul searching, and a couple of long walks, I concocted a story that I wasn’t a quitter who shied away from challenges. I turned down the new job offer—even though my intuition was hitting me over the head with a shoe to take the job. A month later, I was fired, and by then, the other agency had filled their position. Lesson learned the hard way.

Listen to Your Family

I have a difficult family. Difficult or not,  sometimes they’re right — usually when I least want them to be.

Ever have the experience of taking the person you’re dating to meet your family, and the reception is less than enthusiastic? Then, for the very reasons that prompted the frosty response from your family, you and Ms./Mr. Right Now break up? Coincidence? Probably not. Your family can see through your hopes and infatuations, even if you can’t.

Listen to Your Friends

Good friends will tell you the truth—sometimes before you ask. So ask. Friends are like extended family; they see things you don’t. Does that mean they’re always right? No. But it does make them great sounding boards.

Listen for the Good Ideas out of the Mouths of Fools

One of my biggest shortcomings is that I do not suffer fools gladly. It’s an ego thing. If I think you’re an idiot, I immediately write off whatever comes out of your mouth. There have been times, however, when my predilection tuning out the advice from people who I wouldn’t take directions from at a gas station has caused me to miss important opportunities. I once tried to revise a program at work over the objections of one particular individual who regularly resisted any changes I proposed. Instead of listening to this person’s concerns, I plowed right over them, only to have to circle back and embrace some of my antagonistic colleague’s ideas. If I had had more of an open mind and listened, I would have saved myself a couple of months’ worth of work.

Learning Things the Smart Way

The chief benefit of listening to yourself and others is that you are no longer limited to learning things the hard way. Instead, you can choose to slow down for a second and take in the information that’s already there. Think of it this way: Regardless of how talented any of us are, we each have a limited set of strengths from which to draw. By listening (both inside and out), we multiply these strengths and expand our available resources. As the actor Alan Alda put it, “You have to leave the city of your comfort and go into the wilderness of your intuition. What you’ll discover will be wonderful. What you’ll discover is yourself.”

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