How to Choose a Winning Environment

A few years ago I heard a saying that’s stuck with me: The environment always wins so choose a winning environment.

What does this mean? First, there’s your physical environment. Like Maslow’s pyramid, this is the base on which all else is built. If you don’t have a roof over your head, the last thing you’re going to worry about is how to organize your stuff! Only when your physical environment is safe can you go on to look at the other “environments” you surround yourself with such as work and friendships.

Sadly, many people have a really tough environment right from the start. From an excellent article in the Boston Review:

“The families in America’s worst neighborhoods, where violence is common, schools are failing, economic opportunities are limited, and public resources are sparse, have been exposed to the same disadvantaged neighborhoods continuously since the 1970s, over two generations .To put it differently: the ghetto appears to be inherited.”

I think Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car” sums up the difficulties faced in this kind of environment. For the record, I can’t listen to this song as it’s just too sad. This and Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.”

Maybe I felt trapped, too, when the song came out. Anyone feeling stuck in a situation can relate to this song.

Choices, Decisions, and Fate…Oh, My

Moving yourself to a better environment all at once can seem impossible. Hardly anyone can realistically do this. In my own experience, it looks like the universe tossed me out on my keester because I refused to act. A friend reminded me that years before my divorce, I used to fantasize about having an apartment “in the sky” all to myself. Is it strange that I ended up a few short years later living alone in a place on the top floor?

They say we make an average of 35,000 choices every day. Most of these are unconsciously done, like the manifestation of my apartment, but what if you consciously decided to choose differently? Think of how powerful this could be! What if our results are really just different choices or decisions we make culminating in the fulfillment of subconscious desires we have?  You could slowly pull yourself out onto another path, a couple different decisions at a time.

Motivating the Masses

The stories of people who pulled themselves out a terrible environment are rare but truly inspiring. One of my favourites is the story of Lisa Nichols, who I first listened to as part of The Secret. When I heard how she was a single Mom, living in an apartment in a horrible area and how she got out of it, I was blown away. She says that in Southcentral LA, with a single Mother and a Father in jail, her son had a 66% chance of ending up in jail himself. “Not on my watch,” she said. For anyone that wants to see how a miracle unfolds:

It isn’t just the physical environment that Tracy Chapman sings about escaping from – the emotional things keeping us stuck can be just as strong.

Emotional Rescue

“I still love the people I’ve loved, even if I cross the street to avoid them.”

Uma Thurman

I have trouble letting go. No, I need to rephrase that: I used to have trouble letting go. Now I can do it when I see that my environment is not working for me anymore. The trick I use is to tell myself that if I change my mind, I can always go back. Now, this isn’t entirely true but it’s a lie that helps me move toward something else.

Focusing on what you do want, rather than what you don’t want is the best way to do this. It’s more fun and kind of exciting.

I know that if I’m in the right environment, I will feel like I am seen and heard. My dream environment is one where I am accepted (even loved!) for who I am. A place where my “talents” are useful and my contributions respected.

But in order to have something even close, some close people had to go. I cannot even begin to tell you how painful that has been. (If you’ve read any of my writing, I suspect you kind of get it.)

Small Town – No Escape

Living in a small town of about 2,000 people is a close-up lesson in how the environment always wins. Besides all the stereotypes that actually turned out to be true, I began to see something else going on. One of my oldest friends had grown up in that place and left right after she graduated. When I told her we were moving there she literally shuddered, she hated it that much.

When I asked her about it, she couldn’t really express why she felt this way. It took me 10 years of living there myself to understand her reaction.

Science says that it takes about seven seconds for you to make a good first impression. In a small town, you get half that and because everyone then “knows” you for being that person, you never – EVER – get a chance to be any different. You’ve been placed in the box by the entire population and there you will stay. I saw this happen to kids who’d grown up there like my friend, (wrote about it in Hurting From the Truth & Being Free & What Should I Do Now? ), and to new people who arrived like me.

Every time you try to change by going to a different place, dressing up (or down), or making a new friend, you are “put in your place”. Sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly. It can really hurt, these slights and slings because all of us have such a need to belong. Well, I used to, when I was a young Mom, anyway.

Toxic Town

Here’s an example. I had a great friend in that town who was really interesting to hang out with. The trouble was, she was busy with her large extended family and didn’t have too much time to spend with me. She always spoke about this cool friend she knew and who she thought I’d get along great with. When she offered to introduce us, I was excited to meet her.

And then nothing happened. The meeting never took place and after a few months I asked my friend about it. “Oh,” she said, “she didn’t want to meet you. Said she had too many other friends already.” She was perfectly happy with her circle of friends she’d grown up with and didn’t need anyone with strange opinions hanging around. OK, fair enough. I eventually made my own group of friends and tellingly, all of them were either “recent” arrivals or those outcast by the “in” crowd.

I watched as the place became an emotionally toxic environment for my kids because only the kids of the privileged “lifers” in that town got to be included on the one baseball team, or made the captain of the hockey team, or invited to the best parties, and on and on. My son especially was old enough to feel the exclusion and I was worried that it would affect his self-esteem if he began to feel there was something “wrong” with him.

On Being Shunned

In a small town like that, there is only one hockey team for each age group so they played together from four years old all the way through midget level (16 or so). After several years, the team went on a hockey trip to a nearby town of a similar size.

I knew my son was not included because most parents did not approve of our homeschooling. What I hadn’t realized was how that had caused him to subdue his personality in the dressing room and whenever he was around this group of kids. (I could see it on the ice, however, in their reluctance to pass the puck to him, etc.)

A strange thing happened the first night of the tournament. My son came across one of the kids from a rival team and they began hanging out. Next thing I knew, there he was, surrounded by this group of kids from another town, laughing and showing off as only a nine year old boy can. He hung out with them all weekend and had a great time. They didn’t care that he homeschooled. The contrast was so great, even the other parents saw it. I’d like to say they were embarrassed but I don’t think they were that aware. It was only then I saw how much his own team shunned him.

Get Out While You Still Can

The worry over what this kind of exclusion would do to my kids became constant for me. Projecting forward, I could see that the good jobs at the civic centre or government would all go to these kids and mine would leave that place as soon as they could drive. We’d be forced to drive back and forth on a dangerous road in winter if we wanted to visit. We needed to move.

This was one time I insisted on something. In my defense, I had initially agreed to go for a “couple” years so I did my time! It took us over a year to sell our house as only three or four sold in a year at that time. (My beloved house! Oh! Letting that house go was so hard.) My ex had to sell his company and all he’d worked for in order to start again. We did this to give our kids a better life. To put them in a better environment.

The Outsiders

Interestingly, my son also refused to be vaccinated and ended up losing many friends during the past couple of years. He told me that because of his upbringing, being outside of the mainstream, it was easier for him to make a decision that went against what everyone else was doing.

This is a good reminder for anyone that might be worried about going against society’s dictates – an unusual environment can foster an independent or creative spirit. Think Swiss Family Robinson…or Pippi Longstocking!

Environmental Landscaping

The right environment supports our mental and emotional health as well as physical health. So the basics for me are an environment where I can be safe, get the sleep I need, and head out the door for a walk every day.

Imagine if we could all find this kind of environment? I may not be able to do much about what’s going on in the world right now but working on finding good, supportive environments for myself is something I can do. Once I have this, then I can go about finding my place in the world by contributing something and helping others.

Atomic Habits

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear points out that “people who struggle to succeed could be fighting an uphill battle against their environment. What often looks like a lack of willpower is actually the result of a poor environment.”

When I think of all the people who struggle just to survive out there, I feel very lucky. I’ve been able to create a home for myself that is fairly well organized, mostly because I got into the housing market in 1984 before I was 20. This used to be possible for people. I’m not so sure it is anymore.

Still, we didn’t have a high maintenance lifestyle. We drove older vehicles, had hand-me-down furniture and an old TV for over twenty years. Houses were cheaper but I was happy when I got a full time job making $4 an hour. I rarely felt deprived of anything because all my friends were in the same boat.

The Home

If I was renting today, I’d still work hard to find a place that was in a safe neighbourhood that allowed me to walk to a grocery store that wasn’t too far from work. If I couldn’t afford to live in the area I wanted to, I’d find someone to move in with or sublet a room so that I could be in that location. I’ve lived all over this city and I know that a fancy, new place in the wrong location is a bad deal – no matter how cheap the rent is.

Be careful with living out of town. What seems like an easy 30 minute drive in the summer becomes a nightmare mid-winter when you have an emergency at 3AM. Not to mention the increased vehicle gas and maintenance costs from driving back and forth every day. If you have someone to live with that is handy and has a truck, I think it could be fun and cozy. Alone, not so much.

Happy, Loving Couples

I really started to understand how where you live can affect your life after my divorce. When I finally decided to buy an apartment after renting for a few years, my realtor took me to an apartment complex that was considered a very good one. The apartment, on paper, looked perfect: two bedrooms, close to work and amenities, free parking, newly painted, etc.

It was a typical apartment – nothing special – but then I went over to the window to have a look at the view. To my horror, there were at least a dozen couples walking down the street – most holding hands!

“Ug!” I cried, “this place is HELL!”

Apparently there was some kind of cowboy convention at one of the hotels down the street. Happy couples were the last thing I wanted to see at that time in my life.

Next he showed me a rundown apartment downtown where I could see homeless people hanging out and panhandling across the street. Nothing makes you feel better about your own life than seeing one of these poor bastards trying to push an overflowing cart over a curb. I bought that place and was very happy there for two and a half years.

Becoming an Old Lady

They say the only constant in life is change. My apartment began to feel “wrong”. Everyone getting on and off the elevator was an old lady. Some had walkers or were in electric chairs. Most complained about everything and anything. Lucky for me, my apartment was on the top floor and my neighbours below liked me so I only had a couple noise complaints. (Note: if you ARE in an apartment, make sure to invite your neighbours whenever you have a party.)

I started to take the stairs more often but I still ran into grouchy old ladies at the mailboxes or at the recycling, where one or another would ask me to help them do theirs because they couldn’t manage the few steps up to the bins. I’d get an earful about that as I recycled their fast food containers. Sigh.

It occurred to me that I was about 20 years too young to live in that place. If I stayed in that environment, would I, too, become a cranky old lady, dissatisfied with my lot in life?

This had become a depressing environment. I woke up one morning and decided to leave. (I write about that in Buying a Fixer-Upper: Back to 1975, Baby! )

Home Sweet Home

My 70s house is a wonderful, peaceful environment most of the time. I carried out my plan and was able to put in a rental suite before I was fired from my job for refusing to be vaccinated: Vaccination: The 24/7 Helmet You Can Never Remove. If I hadn’t done that, I probably would have been forced to sell.  

I set up my place the way I like it: surrounded by books, cool furniture finds, and thrift store artwork. I feel lucky to have a home. Nearly everything I have has a story to it and I enjoy looking around at my “stuff”.

Find motivation and great ideas from blogs like “The Inspired Room”:

One day you’ll find that you’ve created an environment that’s easy for you to maintain and that you love to be in.

The Work

Working in the health food store is a great environment as I believe in organic and non-GMO (genetically modified organisms) food so this is a good fit for my values. I am enjoying getting to know the people I work with. They have such different backgrounds and experiences that there is always something to learn. Having crappy things come down from the upper management level really bonds us, too. Most customers are interesting. OK, some are entitled and annoying but again, the rude ones help bond the staff.

It’s also only part time because when I really thought about what I wanted to do after being canned, it wasn’t going back to the 9 to 5 grind in an ugly office every day for ungrateful people! All my life I’ve wanted to write.

And here I am. (I can feel my soul say, “Ahhhhh” at this…yeehaw!)

Circle? What Circle?

Finding a supportive and open-minded friend group is one of my next priorities, although being alone is growing on me. Writing is a solitary pursuit but, to paraphrase Austen, “Social life has claims on us all.”

How many friends do you need? According to Mindbodygreen:

“There’s no one set number of friends that every person needs to have. What’s important is that you feel like you have enough people in your community and social circle to rely on and share life with.”

These are some of my ideas for a winning environment. What does your “winning” environment look like?


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