Maxims of life advice distinctly seem to contradict each other. I keep trying to sort out which recommendations to follow.

  • Should I control my own destiny, or if it’s meant to be, it will happen?
  • Should I face my fears, or remember that fools rush in where angels fear to tread?
  • Should I reach for the stars, or be careful what I wish for?
  • I know I’m not getting any younger, but I also know patience is a virtue.
  • Is it really now or never, or do good things come to those who wait?
  • Is anything worth having worth fighting for, or maybe I should stop acting as if I’m trying too hard?
  • Does God help those who help themselves, or does he work in mysterious ways?

So, where does that leave us as we start thinking about the New Year and quaint concepts like setting goals and making resolutions? In my case, confused.

Deciphering the Signs

Many of us look for signs. If they don’t appear on their own, we contrive them, noticing a rainbow in the sky or a lucky penny on the ground signaling the timing is good to act on something we’ve been questioning.

When we don’t want to take action, often we fall back on that “If it’s meant to be….” quote. But when we’re successful at reaching a goal, we tend to attribute it to our diligent persistence and profess that our fate is in our own hands.

Making Your Own Path

I’m partial to believing that we have some control over outcomes. In my life, for example, after college, I turned down an acceptance to Northwestern University’s graduate journalism school, preferring instead to look for work as a writer.

This was shortly after Woodward and Bernstein got young people excited about investigative reporting, so journalism posts were highly competitive. After a short search, I accepted a job as a secretary.

The following year, I reapplied to Northwestern – and received a rejection. That really dampened my plans about becoming a writer and, to reference another cliché, I was not about to take that lying down.

I called the dean, who did not say anything I wanted to hear, such as the school had made a terrible error and of course I was welcome to enroll. But he handed me one lifeline. He suggested I send him a letter explaining why I should be admitted.

I labored on this assignment for days, writing and rewriting, and mailed out my three-page “appeal” detailing my year’s growth as a writer and enlightened human being.

It worked. By the following June I had my graduate degree, which not only opened all sorts of professional doors but also brought me to Chicago, where I married a local boy and have lived ever since.

My career, marriage and permanent location – in other words, my entire life – was shaped by that one effort. I could more easily have said, “If it were meant to be, I would have been accepted,” and left it at that.

Sometimes We Have No Control

But while other pivotal life moments, too, came to pass because of my actions and sheer will, I can count just as many major life-changers that seemed to come out of nowhere – as if, indeed, they were meant to be. The fact that my first child owes her birth to a failed IUD is only one of them.

For me, “Be careful what you wish for” is good advice, because a lot of seemingly unfavorable events turn out great. For instance, I “wished” to keep my very first editing job even though I wasn’t crazy about it, but I was fired rather quickly. I was crushed!

Yet being available to look for a new position led me to a trade magazine where I thrived. When the previously mentioned IUD failed and I started raising a family, the editor of that magazine offered to let me work at home on a freelance basis. Now, 40 years later, the magazine still provides freelance work for me.

The Best of Both Worlds

I suppose the best we can do is cover all our bases – set goals for the New Year and pursue them with robust intent, but not get so distracted that we miss something that simply pops up.

Perhaps the wisest quote in this category is: “Opportunity knocks just once.” Stay vigilant and jump on the potentially good things that cross our paths.

There’s still one more saying to consider. It aptly sorts through the confusion and is so popular that it’s frequently embroidered. My mother had it hanging in our dining room:

Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.

Happy Holidays to the Sixty and Me community!

Which clichés do you catch yourself to use the most? How do you handle them? Do you prefer to make your own path in the world, or do you wait for something grand to happen in your life? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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