Editor’s note: This is a guest post from author Michael Michalko. 

Michael is one of the most highly acclaimed creativity experts in the world.

He is the author of the best sellers Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition), Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius.

Without further ado, here’s Michael Michalko on choice and how our choices shape our destiny.

You may not know Richard Cohen.

He is the author of Blindsided: Lifting a Life Above Illness: A Reluctant Memoir.

He lives a life defined by illness.

He has M.S., is legally blind, has almost no voice, and suffers chronic pain which makes sleeping difficult leaving him constantly exhausted. Two bouts of colon cancer in the past five years have left his intestines in disarray.

A Life of Constant Discomfort

And though he is currently cancer-free, he still lives with constant discomfort.

Cohen worked as a producer for CBS until he was physically unable. Being precluded from many activities because of his chronic illness and physical disability initially left him feeling worthless. Friends and relatives encouraged him to seek professional help from psychologists, but he refused. He felt psychologists always focus on what’s wrong with you and explain why you feel worthless.

You and You Alone Control Your Destiny

Cohen realized the inevitable consequences of his illness, but he also realized that he and he alone controlled his destiny. Cohen says, “The one thing that’s always in my control is what is going on in my head.

The first thing I did was to think about who I am and how I could prevail.”

By choosing my feelings on a conscious level, I am able to control my mood swings and feel good about myself most of the time. He cultivated a positive attitude toward life by interpreting all of his experiences in a positive way.

Get Up and Move Forward with a Smile

He said his life is like standing on a rolling ship. You’re going to slip. You’re going to grab onto things. You’re going to fall.

And it’s a constant challenge to get up and push and push yourself to keep going.

But in the end, he said, the most exhilarating feeling in the world is getting up and moving forward with a smile.

Ought To Be Something More

When you meet people like Richard Cohen you get this vague feeling inside you that you “ought to be” something more. You already know this feeling. We get this feeling when we recognize the thing in others that we long to be. This feeling seems so trivial, so fundamental that we ought to be like that, that we dare not admit it to others. We long to become more alive and creative in our personal and business lives. The feeling for it is the most primitive feeling which a person can have. The feeling for it is as primitive as the feeling for your own well being. The most important lesson that I have learned about life is that we can choose how we live our lives.

Within the Realm of Choicelessness, We Make Our Choices

We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing.

We do not, most of us, choose to die; nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death.

But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live: with purpose or adrift, with joy or with joylessness, with hope or with despair, with humor or with sadness, with a positive outlook or a negative outlook, with pride or with shame, with inspiration or with defeat and with honor or with dishonor.

Our Choices Shape Our Destinies

We decide that what makes us significant or insignificant.

We decide to be creative or to be indifferent. No matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make.

We decide. We choose.

In the end, the meaning of our life is decided by what we choose to do or what we refuse to do. And as we decide and choose, so are our destinies formed

– Michael Michalko

Additional Resources

Creative Thinking (Michael’s Web site)

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques (2nd Edition)

Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck

Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius

Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read.


  1. Wow! This was an absolutely incredible and inspiring post. I truly feel so much better for reading. I’ve been in a bit of a slump recently, and I think I’ve gained my perspective back. I certainly need to make more of an effort, and remember to just keep going during the rough times.

  2. Thanks Michael,

    This message comes at a particularly good time, I am turning 40, it is a new year – and as I contemplate my life; I find that I am not feeling as good about it as maybe I could choose to. 🙂

    The thing that most struck a cord is that Cohen chooses to interpret all of his experiences in a positive way. And to realize that if Cohen can overcome such seemingly enormous obsticles – just via a ‘positive -mental attitude’; then I have a lot of inner house keeping to do.

    It makes me think that I should actually read ‘learned optimism’ a book given to me by a friend I had back in the states who is a cognitive reframing specialist. Right about now I could use a good reframing.

    Thank you again for sharing.

    Dennis Groves

  3. Thank you Michael for this excellent post. An important point which you have raised is “he alone controlled his destiny”. So true. Yet often forgotten. It is my life and I need to make the right choice as to how do I wish to live.

  4. Michael, thanks for sharing — what an inspiring story! For a budding entrepreneur like myself trying to navigate rough waters, these kinds of stories keep me pushing forward. Your story reminds me of something I read a while ago: “There’s no such thing as a bad day. Just bad attitudes, you have the power to choose” (I forget the source though).

    Thanks again,


  5. Great post and a wonderful reminder to us all for the new year that we all control our own destiny. In the Art of Happiness, Howard Cutler discusses manhy stories that also highlight that we all have choices and are the result of thoe choices.

    Thanks for a great post on a great blog site!

  6. I have several personal heroes in my life. I have pictures of them in my office and at home to look up to and set a higher standard for us to aspire to. They constantly remind us not to give up and have faith/hope/courage through tough times.

    Taking charge of your life (for example Richard Cohen or Randy Pausch), requires a level of critical thinking to make yourself self aware, reflect and improve. It is particularly hard during tough times.

    It helps, to evaluate what stage of Critical Thinking you are currently at and work on improving it. I wrote a post about Stages of development of Critical Thinking –!D78E306503989572!280.entry

    This post also reminds me of another wonderful book that I recommend reading – “The Anatomy of Hope: How People Pervail in the Face of Illness” by Jerome Groopman. Jerome talks about how few people sustain through difficult times and what we can learn from them.

    Thx Michael for introducing Richard Cohen, one more hero to keep us all inspired and going in these challenging economic conditions.

    Thx – Srinath

  7. I often focus on the fact that we don’t have too many choices. That we are essentially powerless and any sense of power is an illusion. But this was a powerful reminder that we DO have choices. Very well said.

  8. This is an eyeopener of a post, we always feel helpless in many situtations thinking that the situation has been forced upon us without any choices. But this article definetly opens your thinking and does make you realize that you do have choices.

    Thanks Michael Michalko for such an inspirational post, good way to start a new year I guess!!


  9. This is a great post, thanks for the inspiration!

    I’ve been reflecting on the nature of belief lately. Belief in a God, or not. Belief in a caring Universe, or not. Belief in personal power to do good, or not. Belief in free will and the ability to change outcomes, or not.

    It strikes me that many of these questions are unanswered and unanswerable. Nobody can prove to me that free will exists. Nobody can prove to me that there is a power in the universe that cares about my well being. Nobody can prove to me that consciousness is more than a set of electrical impulses in the mechanical system of my brain. Philosophy is the study of that which cannot be proven, we are unable to know truth in some areas, we have to cast about to find that which we believe in. Belief is a choice, is it not? And what you believe is the bedrock on which you form your attitudes and outlooks upon life. So if you have a choice, choose that which gives you the most happiness and allows you to be most effective in your life. Unexamined belief can lead to foolishness. Purposeful belief that improves effectiveness by shaping your lens on life can be very powerful. What do you want to accomplish and what beliefs would help you get there?

    I saw a study in which people were given the choice to cheat or not in a simple game. The reward for cheating was a few extra dollars at the end of the game. The price of cheating depended on their personal belief system, on whether they could feel good about the choices they made. Before the game began, half of the people were given information that refuted the possibility of free will, the other half were not. Once they started playing, the people who had been told free will did not exist were much more likely to cheat. If they could not be responsible for their actions then why not make a little extra cash? This doesn’t prove anything about free will, and if you think about it you’ll understand why, but it makes an interesting statement about how our beliefs and preconceptions influence our actions.

    I choose to live in a universe in which i have free will, my actions matter, there is a loving force that cares about my well being and rewards that which is good (perhaps it just my wife :)). I believe I can make a lasting impact if I have the passion for it.

    Its worth asking yourself, what kind of a universe do you choose to live in?

  10. Incredibily inspiring and so true. We are all dealt with a set of cards when we are born, and it’s we play those cards that makes the difference.

    Excellent reading — thank you Michael!


  11. I particularly resonate with the concept of feeling like I “ought to be something more” and it feels good to know this is a normal feeling. There is so much to do in life, so many experiences to have; I don’t want to waste it with negative thoughts or feelings of unworthiness. I like the image of us all on ships, rolling, grabbing on to keep up right, falling down and getting back up. That’s life. And we all go through it. Being reminded we aren’t alone in this journey, and that we control how we face it, what thoughts consume us – this is what I most appreciated about this post. It’s a good time as a new year begins for me to decide how I will face the world. Will it be with a smile, or a frown? I decide to not live in fear and doubt, but to embrace what may come with a smile. Thanks again for the inspirational post!

  12. Fantastic insights!

    “Positivism brings more positivism”…
    “You may not choose your circumstances, but you choose how to react to them”…

    Cohen chose how to react to his circumstances in life… and his positivism made him the example we now discuss in this post. His inspiring choice brightens up our lives… Instead of imploding in a negative spiral (as, sadly, usually happens on these cases), his choice improves the world by potentially unleashing an inspirational chain reaction through, like us, people following his exemplar attitude…

    Thank you J.D. and Michael for this post!


  13. Plus, make those choices now – not tomorrow. Tomorrow you’ll look back on the choices you failed to make and wish that you had made them.

  14. Living with my mate who has kidney disease and is on dialysis for the past 4 years, I can attest first hand to the value of framing physical discomfort in this manner. I can see how her attitude towards the disease and how she deals with it has made all the difference in her survival and continual improvement and healing. As her attitude has gotten better, the disease and life are easier to deal with. When she’s in dispair about it, the pain is magnified.

    I’ve had my own experience in the past with anxiety attacks and how the mind and attitude can create physical aliments so I can certainly see how the two are connected.

    The Buddists say “resistance causes pain”. If our ship is going to roll and that’s the nature of our life, we do much better to live with that reality and make the best of it. It doesn’t mean we don’t try to change our circumstances if we desire. It’s just that we accept them as they are right now and work with them, noting how certain thoughts and framing make us feel.

    I’ve become a better man because of having to deal with my mates kidney disease and I’m far happier with her than any woman I’ve been with previously.

  15. Wow, this post was so timely and very inspirational. As I look into the new year, I think about the changes I want to make without making a new year’s resolution.

    We do have a choice in our perception of our world.

    I loved the statement, “He cultivated a positive attitude toward life by interpreting all of his experiences in a positive way.”

    I have forwarded this link to many of my friends. It’s a great reminder that no matter what our current health and position in life, we do have a choice to make the most of this moment.

    May you make the most of the 525,600 minutes of your 2009 and even brighten the lives of those around you.

  16. JD, thanks for bringing Michael’s eloquence to light.

    I have been reflecting on the metaphor of life as sailing (seems like I have been jibing a lot more than tacking), so Cohen’s words hit home. Although I, too, have a chronic medical condition (mine hit at 33), it doesn’t limit me as much as my mental attitude does!

    This entry makes me consider the impact of the words I choose to use to express my resolve. If I say “I refuse to be a victim”, I now think that I am using a negative framing. If I simply change that to “I choose the role I play” I can move to a more positive framing.
    It was the language Michael used that has prompted this reflection …

    Much to consider!

    Thanks again ….

  17. Michael and JD, thanks for sharing this. In a strange way, it made me appreciate all the little great choices others around us make, and what is our responsibility in being compassionate supporters of making those possible.

    We all make our own choices, yet we are in a collective system and by small nudges we can open up the degrees of freedom that many don’t have and others won’t see. We are all students and teachers, on an equal level.

    This year I have spent a lot of time seeing up close the power of small choices and their rippling effect to global proportions. And the process of evolving our own path starts by reminding ourselves that yes, there is a choice most of the time. I like little exercises – for example, try saying ‘I choose to’ instead of ‘I have to’. And take a little perspective if you can. Wishing you all a 2009 full of what you choose to make of it!

  18. Great Article! Thanks!
    When health changes all things become more clear.
    They have to and that which you must do happens.
    Thanks for the inspiration! I too love the part on
    it makes you want to do more with the life you have.

  19. Thanks for your comments Michael as this is a good read. As you go through life I always struggle when I see someone that is not pushing forward. At the same time realizing that all of us are at different points in our life and we might just not realize that we are not pushing forward. However, there are some examples where people just dont clearly move forward and they have some much to look forward to. I found myself in a similar situation years ago where I had gained a lot of weight and was not doing anything about it except adding to it. When it finally was a big enough problem I change my physical life and lost all the weight and was in better shape at 34 then when I was 18. On the other hand we may struggle spirtually or mentally. In any case we can always move forward and it is stories like we read in this guest post that encourage us all to move forward.

  20. Nice post about the upd and down of the life and if you stand stiff nothing can shake you up…This sought of post are really like a fresh energy..

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