Be An Actor, Not A Reactor

Have you ever had one of those mornings where nothing seems to go your way? You miss the train because some knucklehead has jammed the ticket machine with bubblegum. Someone cuts you off in traffic, causing you to miss your exit. The bus pulls away just as you reach the stop, the rear wheels splashing your brand new suit with a lovely stripe of dirty slush. I’ve personally been in all three circumstances, and in the moment, it’s hard not to feel angry.

Then the blame game begins: “If it weren’t for that tourist fumbling at the token booth, I could have caught the subway on time.” “Reckless drivers should be banned from the road. They ruin it for everyone!” You imagine giving that bus driver a piece of your mind, should you ever see him again. “I know he saw me,” you tell yourself. “And still he closed the door in my face. What a jerk!”

You haven’t even reached work yet, and already you’re exhausted. Emotional responses like these can become habitual – if we’re not careful. But here’s the thing: you cannot control the ticket vending machine, traffic, or who drives the bus – but you ARE in command of your emotional response to these situations as they arise. Do not give away your power to people or situations over which you have no control. Be an actor, not a reactor.

Dr. Srikumar Rao, author of Are YOU Ready to Succeed?, believes that our emotional responses do not have to be automatic. Last week, during one of his talks, he explained that because we possess self-awareness and the capability for higher intellectual processing, we can actively choose how we will handle our emotions in any situation.

Being an actor – not a reactor – to life’s circumstances is a powerful tool against the forces of physical drain. If you are not a helpless victim of your emotions, then you have greater freedom and control over your life. This leads to clearer thinking, increased optimism and renewed energy. Just like an actor on stage, being an “actor” in life requires flexibility, quick thinking and awareness of your surroundings. I’m not saying it’s easy, but with a little practice and commitment, we can all be the captains of our emotional ship. How do we do that? Here are 4 ways I find helpful:

Watch Your Automatic Response

Monitor your thoughts, speech and actions to identify the first moment when you start to become reactive. You may notice, for example, that your initial reaction to someone’s rudeness is to raise your own voice and become aggressive in return. Is this how you want to act? That tourist who made me late for work: was it his fault he couldn’t figure out the ticket machine, or did I become upset because I didn’t factor in time for the inevitable delays during my morning commute? Catch your automatic response, examine the faulty logic behind it, and then replace with a more constructive or realistic one.

Count to Ten

Take ten seconds from the moment you perceive a disturbing event until the time you respond to it. Use the time during this forced delay to “cool off” and determine a less reactive response. Give yourself space to mentally write your own script for what you will say and do next. Ask yourself, “Will this initial reaction serve me in any way?” “Do I feel better when I lash out at everyone in my path because another person offended me this morning?” “Is that fair?”

Think Loving Kindness

During his talk, Dr. Rao asked us to “Think back to a time when you were engaged in a fierce altercation with someone. What thoughts were you thinking about that person at that time? Was it thoughts of loving-kindness?” Probably the opposite. Most often we were thinking negatively about the individual. Because we were holding onto that emotional domain, we co-created the hostile experience. Dark motivation and dark emotions are intimate companions. Just as you cannot turn out the lights and expect to see in the dark, you cannot possess a negative perception of someone and then hope to have a positive experience with them.

Withhold All Judgment

Nobody likes being cut off in traffic or being honked at by an aggressive driver, but as Dr. Rao pointed out, there may be a reason for the behavior that you don’t know about. Perhaps the driver of that car was not a jerk, but rather a father in jeopardy as he was racing to the hospital to see his son. Before rushing to judgment on someone, set up mental flags that will be triggered whenever you encounter an unsettling experience. Ask, “What would my role model do in this situation?” Visualize a mature emotional response. Then act that way yourself.

For me, being an “actor” is the only sensible choice, especially living in New York. It’s means that regardless of what happens or how I am treated, I do not let anyone else decide how I am going to behave in the world. That choice is mine, and mine alone. So when I greet the bus driver with a cheery “Good morning!” and all get in return is a grunt, I simply smile and go on my way. I’m an actor, not a reactor.

Dr. Rao’s book, Are YOU Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life, was published by Hyperion. It has been translated into many languages and is an international bestseller. The Personal Mastery Program is a 6-CD package narrated by Dr. Rao and published by Sounds True. His new book Happiness at Work is being published by McGraw-Hill in March 2010. He has written dozens of articles for major business magazines and was a contributing editor for Forbes, Financial World and Success. For more information on his work, visit or contact Laura Garnett at