Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters

Life Strategies: Doing What Works, Doing What Matters

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by Phillip C. McGraw

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If you are:

  • capable of more than you are accomplishing;
  • frustrated that you are not making more money;
  • stuck in a rut and not getting what you want;
  • bored with yourself;
  • silently enduring an emotionally barren life or marriage;
  • trudging, zombie-like, through an unchallenging career;
  • just "going through the motions" of
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If you are:

  • capable of more than you are accomplishing;
  • frustrated that you are not making more money;
  • stuck in a rut and not getting what you want;
  • bored with yourself;
  • silently enduring an emotionally barren life or marriage;
  • trudging, zombie-like, through an unchallenging career;
  • just "going through the motions" of your life;
  • living in a comfort zone that yields too little challenge;
  • living a lonely existence with little hope for change;
then hold on as Dr. Phillip McGraw takes you on a guided tour of your life to honestly label the problems and causes that control your destiny.

Life Strategies will give you the most honest explanation of your life and how you got where you are that has ever been published. Dr. McGraw is results-based and measures success in terms of changed lives, not rhetoric. This book is a plain-talk, entertaining way to learn to take control of your life, right now. Dr. Phil introduces you to the ten Laws of Life that every person needs to know. Learn them, use them, and improve virtually every aspect of your life, from work to home to spiritual to physical. Ignore them and you'll continue to pay the price.

With Life Strategies, Dr. McGraw tells you how to strategically control your life, rather than continue as a frustrated passenger.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
President of a litigation consulting firm, McGraw is also a member of Oprah Winfrey's "Change Your Life TV" team. He advised Oprah during her Amarillo beef trial and attributes the inspiration for this book to that episode. McGraw claims that people in dire situations have serious problems, including denial and choosing initial assumptions without testing them for accuracy. To create a life strategy that works, McGraw lays out his ten "Life Laws" along with checklists and 18 assignments. Each chapter begins with one of the life laws: e.g., get real; you create your own experience; people do what works; and life is managed, not cured. He concludes with a wrap-up of a seven-step strategy, working toward set goals. This is similar in content to Zig Ziglar's Success for Dummies. Oprah's name may increase demand; buy as needed for self-help collections.--Lisa S. Wise, Broome Cty. P.L., Binghamton, NY

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Chapter One:

Get Real

Ask yourself right now: Do you really have a strategy in your life, or are you just reactively going from day to day, taking what comes? If you are, you simply aren't competitive. There are "a lot of dogs after the bones" out there, and just stumbling along is no way to succeed. The winners in this life know the rules of the game and have a plan, so that their efficiency is comparatively exponential to that of people who don't. No big mystery, just fact.

You, too, need to know the rules of the game and have a plan and a map. You need to ask yourself: "Am I really headed where I want to go, or am I just out there wandering around?" "Is what I'm doing today really what I want to do, or am I doing it, not because I want to, but because it is what I was doing yesterday?" "Is what I have what I really want, or is it what I've settled for because it was easy, safe, or not as scary as what I really wanted?" Hard questions, I know, but don't you really already know the answers?

The Epidemic

Oprah's situation in Amarillo highlights lessons of widespread application that can show you where the rubber meets the road in your own life. What makes Oprah so appealing is the fact that she is so real, so human, and has the same frailties that we all do. Her initial reactions to the Amarillo attack, the tendencies that she at times demonstrated during that experience, are identical to those I see being applied by people from every walk of life in the face of day-to-day challenges. In fact, those very behaviors are present in epidemic proportions in America today, infecting the lives and goals and dreams of millions of people, young and old, sophisticated or not.

The difference may be that Oprah has developed her life-management skills to the point that it takes a huge crisis to throw her off track. For you, the breakdown may occur way short of a $100 million lawsuit, where the entire world watches as you are personally attacked. That's okay; I will meet you wherever you are. It doesn't matter whether you have a good life that you wish could be better, or a horrible life that you know you must change. This book is designed to give you the tools you need for purposeful, strategic living. Taking a long, hard look at the negative behaviors in your life, and at your current life strategy--if you've even got one--can be more than enlightening; it can be the beginning of a Life Strategy. This self-check of how you are living day to day is of tremendous importance, since you will be, and are, accountable for your own life.

Most people, and I'll bet you are no exception, cheat themselves by not asking themselves the hard questions, not facing their true personality and behavior, and therefore not addressing the nitty-gritty issues undermining their efforts to succeed. My position is this: Let the rest of the people live in a fog of self-deception. You take off the blinders and deal with the truth, and you'll leave them in the dust.

So what are the patterns that threatened Oprah in her challenge in Amarillo, and which are also so commonplace in America? What are the patterns that may be destroying your chance to change your life and have what you want?

The first common tendency is denial. Oprah resisted accepting that something so unjust could happen to her and her staff. And all the while it was, in fact, very much happening. Failing to acknowledge that actuality, one that would only grow more complicated with neglect, she fixated on why it shouldn't be happening, rather than dealing with the fact that it was. Her reaction was totally logical, because she knew the truth about what she had done, and she understood the real motives of her accusers. But the world is not always logical. Often you are forced to deal with what is, not just what should be. Oprah, for example, felt bad about even being involved in the matter in any form or fashion. She felt the process was nonproductive and a waste of everyone's time. She would never have chosen to be there. That was part of the "denial dialogue."

But you don't always have a choice. For example, having arrived at a nice restaurant, you most likely would not start a fistfight in the lobby. But suppose you just happen to be standing in that lobby when some jerk goes nuts and starts swinging at you--guess what? You're in a fistfight. What's more, you'd better deal with it or make plans to get your dentist out of bed, because it is happening. Denial can take the form of totally failing to see what is, or seeing it, but resisting it, because you don't like it. Either way, denial is dangerous. This common mistake can have uncommonly bad results.

The second pattern involves making initial assumptions, then failing to test them for truth or accuracy. If you adopt some position, opinion, or belief, and fail to test or verify it, subsequent thinking that is otherwise totally sound and logical can lead you to conclusions that are way wrong. Oprah assumed that, because the lawsuit against her was so obviously insincere and "unfair," it would ultimately be revealed as such, and then vanish in a puff of smoke. She assumed our justice system would ferret out and eliminate the frivolous. She assumed that someone in authority would intervene and tell these cattlemen they could not abuse the court system to try to get richer. She clung to these assumptions because she wanted them to be true. Had she tested those assumptions unemotionally, she might have awakened sooner to the fallacies of our justice system and her assumptions. But if you trust yourself and therefore have confidence in the rightness of what you believe to be true, it can be very easy to close your mind to additional possibilities.

The third problem is inertia: paralysis caused by fear and denial. Picture an airline pilot sitting motionless in the cockpit of his fully occupied but disabled jet as it rapidly loses altitude; imagine him saying, "Golly, I can't believe this is happening. There's bound to be some divine intervention in a minute"; or "It can't be all that bad--I've never crashed before. Something will happen to save us." If you deny things that seem too painful to accept, then let their impact, once realized, rob you of efficient, energetic acts of self-preservation, you will fail. Oprah Winfrey rose to a challenge, but she had to grasp it and its gravity first. So, too, must you grasp your true challenges before you can efficiently mobilize. Inertia takes your greatest resource out of the game.

Another pattern involves deceptive masking. Oprah, like so many of us, can wear a mask. Her persona can be so mesmerizing that people forget that she has needs, too. Sometimes we adopt a "stiff upper lip" because being in need, and admitting it, can seem to us to be a show of weakness. But by insisting on "toughing it out," you may close yourself off from forthcoming help, since others are taken in by your show of strength and fail to recognize your needs.

Many people also fail to grasp that, when you choose the behavior, you choose the consequences. By choosing to keep her focus on the "unfairness," Oprah could have continued to let precious time and energy slip away, time and energy that could have been focused on working the problem rather than resisting it. This behavior was a choice on her part. No matter what her rationale, she was choosing the behavior of denial, and in so doing, choosing the consequences of falling behind the power curve of defending herself. Fortunately, in a dramatic turnaround, she chose not to keep resisting, and to start coping. She made a choice to take action, and thereby chose the consequence of her eventual victory.

These are all interrelated and common mistakes that when mixed with a dangerous set of circumstances can spell disaster. Obviously, the bigger the problem, the bigger the downside if it is mismanaged. As you think back through your life--and surely there are key events that stand out in your memory--what results were created when you were living in denial, or basing your decisions on what turned out to be faulty initial assumptions? What was the effect when you were stuck in inertia and, by hiding behind your mask, you blocked others from helping? Perhaps most importantly: What choices have you made that set you up for an outcome you did not want or need? Have your problems been mundane, or have they been monumental?

You may have known people who seemed to have stepped blindly into a disaster, and your first thought was, "What in the world could they have been thinking?" I predict that before you are through with this book, you will very probably step back from your own life and wonder how in the world you could have been thinking what you were thinking, not seeing what you were not seeing, and choosing the behaviors you chose. Your challenge, at least in part, is to determine what these patterns have done to your life, your dreams, your needs. Are they alive and going strong, or are the epidemic behavioral patterns silently raging in your life, allowing your problems to fester, poisoning your dreams?

Even in everyday life, we see dramatic examples of dreams that die from that which we choose not to see. Perhaps it is parents deluding themselves that their son is not on drugs until his body is found after an overdose; a woman denying that there is a lump in her breast until it progresses beyond treatment; or the spouse who foolishly believes his or her mate is really an agent for the FBI, with only weekend-night assignments. In each of these cases, the result is the same. Problems and challenges almost never resolve themselves; they don't get better with inattention. The only thing worse than having a child on drugs, a serious disease, or a philandering spouse is having the problem but not recognizing it, or, worse yet, knowing it but pretending it isn't true.

Reading this book is not intended to be a passive experience. As you progress through it, you'll see that it is interactive: the key principles in later chapters rely on themes developed in the earlier ones, and all of it calls on you to play an active role.

Assignment #1: Your first assignment is to challenge your beliefs right now, by listing in order of significance the top five things in your life that you have simply failed to fully and completely admit or acknowledge to yourself. This requires some new thinking. You may think, "If I know it, I'm not denying it," or "If I'm denying it, how can I know it to write it down?" I said new thinking. Ask yourself some of those hard questions about what you would rather not think about. Write them down, because you'll be referring to them later. What is it that you know in your heart is a problem not acknowledged or at least so painful that you avoid it?

Be advised that you are going to be writing down a lot of things as we progress through the rest of the book. I recommend that you get some type of journal where you can do all of the "homework" that arises as we move forward. I recommend a spiral notebook, where the pages are attached and can therefore be kept together. This journal is highly confidential and should be for your eyes only. Treating it as such will allow you the freedom to be totally honest.

I would wager that whatever made your list is at least in part a product of your own behavior. I also suspect that the main difference between your problems and the more terribly tragic situations we hear or read about is the result, not the behaviors that led up to it. For aren't the patterns in your life, and those present in the more tragic stories, very likely the same? You've driven a little too fast down a neighborhood street; you've left the kids unattended while you ran next door "for a minute"; you've driven yourself home from happy hour, when discretion should have told you to hand over the keys; you've engaged in unprotected sex; you've fudged on your income tax. The "shocking stories" are often about people who have done the very same things. But only because of a tragically different outcome, they wound up in jail, or burying a child, or dealing with HIV.

Maybe your driving drunk or speeding through a neighborhood didn't leave anyone dead, unlike the person you see on television who did the same thing but ran over a child. You're not audited, whereas the next person is. Your kids are still safe when you get home. It's not that you behaved or chose any better; you just got by with it. But if you are habitually practicing poor life-management skills, you are playing with fire. You may not be getting away with as much as you think you are.

You don't live, choose, or manage your life in a vacuum. It happens in a context called the world. Given the current state of the world, naivete or a rose garden perception will likely land you in trouble you don't want. You don't live in Mayberry, because it doesn't exist. These days, when you hear people use the word coke in a conversation, the odds are that they are not talking about the soft drink. If you decide to take your honey for a midnight swim, you're likely to end up in jail for trespassing, or worse, glowing in the dark because you were bobbing around in a toxic dump or Superfund site you only thought was pristine. Take a twilight stroll down the lane or through the park, and you might not be sleeping at home tonight (don't you hate those hospital gowns?). Oh, and before you leave the house, you might also want to write your name on your arm--better yet, write it on your leg, since that's less likely to get smudged if you decide to fight back.

The world has changed; it is tough out there, of that there can be no doubt. I am sorry to sound like a cynic, but you know I'm right. This world we have conspired to create is drastically different from the one our parents and grandparents knew. If there ever was a Mayberry, there certainly is none now. As we hurtle headlong at breakneck speed toward the millennium, we are caught up in the fastest-paced, most rapidly changing society in the history of humankind. Our world is like an unguided missile, with more speed than control.

You've got a mess on your hands, for sure. You don't need a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences to know that in virtually every dimension of human functioning, America is, in varying degrees, failing. The divorce rate in the United States is estimated by some authorities to be as high as 57.7 percent, and the average length of new marriages is twenty-six months. Sixty-two percent of our society is obese. Reported emotional neglect of children has increased 330 percent in the last ten years. One in four women has been sexually molested. Suicide is increasing at an exponential rate. At least one out of every six of us will experience a serious, function-impairing depressive episode at some point in our lives; thus, antidepressants and anxiety-reducing agents are now a multibillion-dollar industry.

Violence is rampant, not just in the streets, but at home. Each year, our society witnesses nearly forty million crimes: 74 percent of us are victims of property crimes, while 25 percent of us fall prey to violent crimes. Our teenagers are headed in the wrong direction, as well. Teens between the ages of fourteen and seventeen commit approximately 4,000 murders a year. Each year, over 57 percent of public elementary and secondary school principals report at least one incident of crime to law enforcement authorities. Perhaps the saddest statistic of all: by the time they reach the eighth grade, 45 percent of American children have experimented with alcohol, and 25 percent with drugs.

As a society, we are losing it. When it comes to managing our own emotional lives, and training our children how to manage theirs, we're out of control but desperately pretending otherwise. We project an outward image of "I'm all right. I can take it. I'll be okay," because we fear judgment. Well, it's not okay, and we'd better start changing this world one life at a time, or God only knows what the millennium will hold. The life for you to start with is your own. If you want to be a winner instead of a statistic, you can do it, but lean forward, because it is not easy.

In every church I have ever attended, the people with real problems hid them rather than seeking support, and those who didn't hide them wished that they had, after the doses of guilt, judgment, or alienation they received. We hide our problems, and judge those who don't or can't hide theirs. It's not working, people--not even close. We have forgotten the basic laws of living in general, and living together in particular, and therefore violate them constantly.

I am convinced that the fundamental Life Laws that govern our world and dictate the results of our conduct have not changed. Certain characteristics of the game are different, sure, but it's the basic Life Laws that still dictate our results. Understandably, living in ignorance of or consciously ignoring these Life Laws has created huge problems and a society desperate for answers, one desperate for guidance and knowledge about human experience. Count on us, as a society, to try to quench that thirst with answers that are often harmful, silly, or both.

If you want to know why we as a society are spinning out of control, consider what sorts of "solutions" we're currently being offered. As for psychology as it is practiced today, I am not too much of a fan. In my view, it's too fuzzy, it's too intangible, it exists in a world of opinion and subjectivity. Maybe that's okay if you live in some ivory tower and can afford to pontificate about ambiguous and abstract elements of life. But I don't think that's what you want and I don't think that's what you need. You're living in the real world and dealing with real problems that need real change. You don't just need insight and understanding into your problems; you need them to change, right now.

Consider, too, the "self-empowerment" industry that dominates our culture. It really has very little to do with empowerment, and lots to do with somebody else's bottom line. It is largely unfocused, lazy, gimmicky, politically correct, and above all, marketable, often at the expense of truth. The gurus seem to have everything but verbs in their sentences. You're trying to pay the rent and get your kids to go to college instead of jail, and they want you to play with your inner this or your inner that, or yourself; perhaps a poor choice of words, but appropriate.

You are sold "self-improvement" the same way you're sold everything else: it's easy; five simple steps; you can't help succeeding, because you're so wonderful; your results will be fast, fast, fast. But we are paying dearly--in more ways than one--for this polluting flood of psychobabble. I say polluting, because, instead of stripping away our excuses and jacking us up to deal with our true lives, the psychobabble provides us with a whole new set of excuses. The result is more distraction and more problems.

To the extent that our current pop psych does identify legitimate disorders, those terms are now so overused as to obscure those cases that are genuine. A mom who despairs over the behavior of her spoiled-rotten brat is told that her child is "hyperactive" and is "engaging in negative attention-getting." Outrageous behavior in the classroom is routinely ascribed to "attention-deficit disorder." If you're shooting it up, snorting it, or drinking yourself to sleep with it, you're suffering from a "substance abuse problem." When a middle-aged woman, longing for something more in her life, certain that there's something missing, picks up a book that at last promises answers, it tells her that the answer to her yearnings lies somewhere in her exotic ancestry, several incarnations back. Tell them what they want to hear: it's not their fault; they are victims. What's astonishing is that we are actively participating in the game, gobbling up these illusions. You would think that if a ship just kept on sinking faster and faster or was getting farther and farther off course, somebody would finally stand up and say, "Hey, anybody notice this ain't working?"

Well, I'm saying it. I'm shouting it. You need a new strategy, badly. It may not be "nineties en vogue" or politically correct to say so, but I just don't too much care about providing you with vague philosophical pronouncements, rah-rah rhetoric, clever buzz words, or quick-fix solutions as to how life should be or why it should change. What I am interested in is your having a clear knowledge-based strategy for winning by overcoming your problems, patterns, and obstacles, and getting what you want in this life, for you and those you care about.

Whether "winning" for you means healing a relationship or a broken heart, having a new job, a better family life, a skinny butt, some inner peace and tranquillity, or some other meaningful goal, you need a strategy to get there, and some guidance on how to create one. Why should you listen to me? For one thing, I am not suggesting that you substitute my judgment for your own, not at all. Challenge every word I say, but first hear it. I've studied the Life Laws, gathered them into one place, and am going to explain them, I hope, clearly.

I have had the privilege, over the years, of designing winning strategies with and for thousands of clients, people from all walks of life, and in every imaginable predicament. I have addressed their problems the same way I want you to address yours: with a real-world focus on results, not intentions. There is a science to strategic living. Not to know it in this complex era is tantamount to being illiterate. I did not do it for them, I did it with them, and that is my plan with you.

So who am I? I'll bet with the exception of having chosen a different career and course of life study, my background may be a lot like yours. My parents grew up poor. Both my mother and father chopped cotton in the middle of Texas when they were growing up. They were raised by good-hearted but uneducated parents. When, after returning from World War II, my father announced he would go to college on the GI Bill, his family openly ridiculed him for wanting to "play student," wasting his life in a book instead of getting a real job. Nonetheless, ultimately and with great sacrifice to us all, he earned a Ph.D. in psychology, which he practiced for twenty-five years. In 1995, he collapsed and died one Sunday morning while teaching at his church. My mother, to whom he was married for fifty-three years, has a high school education and has worked on and off throughout my life. She raised me and my three sisters with love, affection, and sacrifice: a truly noble woman.

During my high school years, my father and I, separated from the rest of the family while he pursued his internship, lived in apartments that often had no utilities, because we couldn't afford them. Being pretty shallow and status conscious, I was embarrassed to be poor and didn't know enough yet to understand that it did not matter. Among my teenage friends, I was the one with no nice clothes, no car, no money, and no prospects. I had little or no supervision, and if it had not been for athletics, I would probably have never finished high school. Like many families, we lived paycheck to paycheck, got around in old rattletraps, and spent a lot of time doing without. But we loved one another, stuck together, and kept ourselves involved in life.

Had I not won a football scholarship, I probably would never have gone to college, and probably wouldn't be writing this now. I became a psychologist, but found I liked building strategies better than doing therapy, so I began creating and finding forums to instruct people on how to change their lives and attain their goals using the ten Life Laws. I didn't spend much time focusing on why people, businesses, or clients were doing what they were doing unless it directly affected how to change. I instead focused on helping them design a plan to move forward from where they were.

Quite predictably, that approach got us to dealing with solutions much more quickly. It placed the true problems at center stage. Too often, problems get pushed aside because it is painful to deal with them and it seems easier not to. I say "seems" because, while the pain of dealing with problems is an acute, easy-to-identify pain, the pain of avoiding them is also profound, even if more subtle. If you are part of the epidemic of lives not managed, you may find yourself in one of these categories of existence:...

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