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Robin Silverman

Is It Urgent or Is It Valuable?
by Robin L. Silverman

The other day I opened my Email and saw the word "URGENT!" in the subject line of one of the messages. I looked at it curiously, because this individual, a business associate, knew from experience that I would respond quickly to any message she sent. I also knew that the challenge she and I were facing together was important, but not life-threatening. So I answered her question in the same polite and prompt manner as I had been, adding as a P.S. "It’s not necessary to write ‘URGENT’ in your subject line. You know I always respond to you."

Something Wonderful is About to Happen by Robin Silverman

The incident gave me flashbacks to a salesperson who also flagged every voicemail message she left me with "URGENT!" in spite of the fact that she, too, received timely and polite responses. I quickly learned that she and I had very different definitions of what "urgent" meant, which diminished all of her communications to me. When our business was concluded, I removed her name from my Rolodex.

However, both these women exhibited a trend that is causing tremendous stress both at home and in the workplace today. We think far too many things are "urgent." We feel like they bearing down on us, demanding answers. But are they really? Are we really trapped, in danger or overlooked so frequently that we must scream for help or response? Or are we in simply perceiving ourselves into a state of unrelenting stress?

Because I know how devastating stress can be to our mental, physical and spiritual health, I found myself asking, "What is ‘urgent’ anyway?"

I immediately flashed back to a wonderful dinner with our friends Kitty and Mike, who have three very active sons. As we were savoring our coffee, we suddenly heard a crash so loud that I immediately jumped up from the table to investigate.

Neither Kitty nor Mike looked up. "Where are you going?" she asked gently.

"Didn’t you hear that???" I gasped, anxiety dripping from every word as I imagined small children trapped beneath heavy furniture.

She shrugged. "Did you hear a scream? Do you see blood?" I had to admit that the answer to both questions was no. She called downstairs. "Boys?" There came a sheepish reply: "It’s okay, Mom." She smiled at me. "Sit down and enjoy your coffee."

After years of experience with her rambunctious progeny, she knew what was urgent and what wasn’t. Whatever had fallen, she would clean it up and/or fix it. But without an immediate threat to life or limb, it could wait until dinner was over.

Several years later, our region was devastated by one of the worst floods in modern American history. Peoples’ homes and businesses were wiped out, but miraculously, no one died or was seriously injured during the evacuation, even those in nursing homes, hospitals and jails. "Urgent" then was whatever saved life, not money or property.

What is "urgent" to you?

Because I frequently talk about the invisible forces within and around us, people eagerly share their stories of narrow escapes and life-transforming coincidences with me. As a result, I’ve learned that there are basically two types of people: those who think stress is part of life, and do everything in their power to fight it, and those who use stress as an opportunity to gain clarity and energy that empowers what they believe is right and good. For the former, words like "Urgent!" are part of their daily vocabulary. Everything is a problem that needs to be solved right now, usually by making persistent demands or raising their tone of voice. The latter has an easier, less stressful time of it, as they only use radical words when a building is on fire or someone’s life is at risk. They have traded "Urgent" for "absolute," the deep-seated belief that beneath the chaos lie the answers and contentment we all seek.

Replacing crisis with confidence

Just recently, I discovered a great way to replace "Urgent" with "absolute." Maria, my wonderful singing teacher, handed me a list printed on rose-patterned paper. "These are my artistic standards as your singing teacher," she said. There were ten of them. Each one was a value statement, clearly expressed and followed by a reason for its inclusion on the list. On it were things like,

"When preparing for a role or performance, all music must be worked with the Instructor before singing it in public. This ensures you are doing your best work in public as a professional."

"Students will call if they are going to miss a lesson before the lesson is missed. This shows respect for your Instructor’s time."

"All students will sing in foreign languages. This broadens your horizons and makes you a well-rounded singer."

She had not only clarified what she expected of us and why, but what we would be likely to gain as a result. She had taken her frustrations with our communal reluctance to be our best and transformed them from a source of stress to a foundation for her personal peace and ours.

And that wasn’t all. When I finished reading it, she pointed to another rose-patterned paper attached to a bulletin board over her desk. "I didn’t feel right just telling my students my values and expectations of them," she said. "I felt I had to do it for myself, so both you and I would know what you can reasonably expect of me."

I walked over and read them carefully. They included things like, "I show respect for my students by always being on time." She had been late for lessons before this, always for good reasons, so seeing it on the list was something of a surprise. She laughed. "Well, I tried it for the first time the other day. As I was enjoying a long, hot shower, I looked up, and there were my values on a piece of paper taped to the bathroom mirror. As much as I wanted to stay in the water, I said, "Gotta go!" I jumped out and got dressed right away."

After we’d gone through them all and talked them over, she smiled gently. "You can’t even begin to imagine how peaceful I felt after I did this," she said. "It makes things so much easier."

"Clarity will do that," I responded, "especially clarity about what you DO want, as opposed to what you DON’T."

I thought about the two women who were leaving URGENT messages. I wondered if either of them ever thought about the attitudes and beliefs that motivated their unnecessarily overly-dramatic action. Did they feel good leaving me messages like that? My guess is that they didn’t, and neither did I as their recipient. I had to force myself to deal with them, creating stress where none was necessary. I kept hoping that at some point, I would be able to see more of the good in them while staying true to what was right and good in myself. Frankly, it was a nearly impossible task.

How much better for them and me it would have been if they had done as Maria had, making a list of what they valued so they could ask themselves if their actions were reflective of the best within themselves. My guess is that in doing so, they would have chosen other beliefs, attitudes and words before acting, thus reducing their own stress rather than mindlessly spreading it to others.

The origins of stress

If you reflect, you will often see that the stress you feel is not because of what is actually happening to you, since few of us ever put ourselves or find ourselves in a place that is truly dangerous or life-threatening. Instead, much of our stress comes from what we think about what isn’t happening at the moment. We are worried about the future, or angry about the past. The women who left "urgent" messages for me were worried that I wouldn’t call them back and that they would be left without answers in the future. In spite of the fact that their experiences told them this would not be the case with me, their history with other people must have led them to believe otherwise. So they reacted to a fear rather than act with confidence and trust.

Coming home to ourselves

But how do you stop wandering off into the uncertain unknown? How can we come home to ourselves before we alienate others? A simple exercise starts the process. Simply jot down ten things that are bothering or worrying you right now. Because our attention is naturally drawn to try to eliminate what is annoying or hurting us, most people can do this in under two minutes.

When you’re through, keep your pencil or keyboard ready and try to list five specific things that make you feel happy or peaceful. Do not use generalities like "my family" or "a sunny day." Like your list of pain, go for details: "the smile on my three-year-old’s face when I walk in the door" or "hearing from my boss that my research was well-done."

When I introduce the pleasure part of this exercise at my workshops, the response is interesting. What should be enjoyable often brings groans and resistance. "This is really hard!" a woman exclaimed at one event. Others chimed in with "I can’t do it!" and "nothing’s making me happy right now." I had to call for a break to let them clear their minds and refocus.

Defining what’s value-able makes the difference

Knowing our values enables us to handle whatever stresses come our way. We become value-able. Just listing them isn’t enough—we need to see them in action in our imaginations, including the results they yield both for ourselves and others. In other words, we need to be aware of why we have chosen to live by these particular principles. I began to see the genius in Maria’s decision to write down the second sentence for each of her statements. For if she had simply said, "All students will learn music in foreign languages," she still would have had to force us to make the effort, creating stress for her and us. But because she gave us reasons why she made her choices, we could see that we weren’t being punished, but protected from our own smallness.

Another thing Maria did not do was make an action list. Defining values is not the same as setting goals or making a "to do" list of tasks. Maria could have said, "My goal is for every student to learn how to sing in a foreign language," but again, she would have faced the stress of having to pull us along every step of the way. If she had written, "Buy music in foreign languages. Pass out to students" few if any of us would have understood the passion and commitment that flowed through her decision. By painting a picture of values, she was inviting us into a more professional world, not holding a gun to our backs as we trudged towards it.

The Ten Gifts by Robin Silverman

Whose values are you living?

Most of us grow up with the values of other people, including our parents, teachers and friends. In addition, as we go out in the world, we’re bombarded with the ideas and actions of our co-workers, bosses and people we hear about in the news. As a result, most of our beliefs are a complex mix of values that may or may not be our own. Even if they make us restless, angry or unhappy, few of us will challenge or replace them. So we go along, feeling the tug of what we have been told is "urgent." Yet underneath, there is something just as demanding of our attention: our spirit, urgently trying to get us to come home to the individual divine good we were meant to express.

Even though I have done a great deal of self-development work, Maria’s papers made me realize that I had never written out my values, even in my personal mission statement. I was always focused on what I do for others, not what results or why I believe these actions are important. I never asked myself, "who am I if these things are true?"

Thanks to Maria, I began to see that in order to become value-able, I needed to do two things. First, I had to be more specific about the results my values would bring both me and those I served. Maria started at what she believed was a happy ending for all—singers who exuded confidence, creativity and top-notch vocal skills. Although she may have begun with a vague desire like, "I want to help my students be better singers," she relieved the stress of wondering "what does that mean?" by writing down ten very specific responses that she knew were true to her own experience and would likely work for others. If her students accepted and responded to her challenge, they would be the best they could be, which would make her the teacher she wanted to be.

After clarity, I knew I would need to consistently apply my beliefs to my words and deeds. This was no small task. As my mother would say, "talk is cheap." I continually resisted putting my money and time where my mouth was. For instance, for a long time I talked about how much I wanted to write a book filled with the stories people told me, because I knew they would inspire others. But when it came time to organize my day, everything else came before my writing or interviewing. The distractions weren’t planned, of course, but I still allowed them to be "urgent," taking precedence over my value-driven actions. What should have taken months took years, with the procrastination causing me stress every day. My "writer’s block" never happened because of a blank computer screen. Rather, it was because of my lack of personal clarity about what was valuable to me.

Although I have rarely used the word "urgent" in my life, I realized that I was much like the women who had left me those messages. I often walk through my day with an imaginary machete in my hands, flailing away at what is "urgent" because it relates to a fear or frustration. On those days when I prioritize according to a specific, higher belief, I’ve noticed that many of my stressors disappear unless I start responding to other peoples’ stress.

Now you might question, "How can you possibly avoid responding to other peoples’ demands or stress?" Although I’m still learning, I believe that the answer lies in one of two things: either letting people own their own problems, or helping them recognize what is valuable to you, whether or not they accept it for themselves.

For example, I now know, without any question, that Maria expects me to sing in a foreign language. If I refuse to do so or cannot, she will have to consider dropping me as a student. The same is true with people who insist that their emergency should be yours. If it is, act on it. If not, try a line I learned from a book on management: "You’re right! I can see that you’ve identified something that’s a real problem for you. Let me know how you handle it."

There’s another stress-reducing benefit in defining and expressing your values. It helps other people define theirs. It doesn’t matter if your friends, family, co-workers or neighbors agree with you. By announcing what is right or wrong for you, they get to react, showing both you and them where their own values lie.

How to discover what makes you value-able

To start clarifying your own values, use your gift of Intention. Most of us only state our intentions at our weddings, where we say things like, "I intend to love, honor and cherish you." To form a clear intention, think not of actions but of results you wish to experience. For example, "I intend to wake up peacefully beside you every day." Then give a reason why. "By looking at you with love and gratitude for your place in my life, I will be expressing what I know helps to build a good marriage." You might add, "When I start my day from a point of peace rather than mulling over a list of what I have to get done, I stay healthier and happier, which benefits me and everyone I love."

Do this for the areas of your life that are most critical to you—health, family, home, career, money, religion, politics—whatever lights your spark. Remember to stay away from making a list of actions, like, "Kiss spouse. Get out of bed singing. Have a good day." Those are not necessarily bad things, but you could easily go through a list of actions without ever having much feeling for what you are doing and why.

To test your choices, stay awake to what you are thinking, saying and doing as you go about your day. Play the game of observing yourself from time to time. Pretend that you are an invisible friend sitting in the corner, watching and taking notes on this character named you. Think of the character as an actor or actress that you can direct. When you "see" things going off course, stop the action mentally and ask yourself, "what would I have to believe or value to behave or think like this?" Change the focus and mood before continuing.

In the end, you are likely to find that calls for your "urgent" attention diminish as you attract more and more experiences that feel right and good to you. Act on these, and feel your stress start to disappear as you respond to your inner knowing, rather than your fears. Things that are "urgent" tend to disable us, trashing our carefully-planned schedules, confusing and upsetting us, forcing to react without forethought or care. On the other hand, "value-able" actions make us stronger, keep us on task, help us grow and allow us to connect meaningfully to others. Is it urgent or is it valuable? Let all that is good in you decide.

© Copyright 2002 Robin L. Silverman.  All Rights Reserved.

Robin L. Silverman
Robin L. Silverman helps individuals and businesses create the future they want by focusing the power of their inner brilliance on the results they desire. She is the author of "The Ten Gifts" and "Something Wonderful is About to Happen" (January, 2003). In addition, she speaks on topics like, "Get the Monkey Off Your Back" and "Decluttering Your Communications."



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