10/02/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Keys to Life: Are You Choosing or Just Complaining?


Do you know anyone who seems to complain all the time about their job, or relationship, or just about anything? And, despite all the complaints, nothing ever seems to change?

Last week, we briefly touched on complaints as part of the accountability discussion. Today, we want to look deeper into what underlies most complaints.

My basic premise is that a complaint is "a sign of something preferred, but not being risked for." If you hear yourself or someone else complaining about something, start looking for two messages, one external, one internal.

The external message of a complaint goes something like: "I don't like the way this is; it should be like this." This is a rather indirect way for the complainer to express what he or she might prefer. The indirect, internal and often hidden message, hidden even from the one complaining, goes something like: "Even though I have some idea what I would prefer, I am not willing to risk going after it, so I would rather complain about what is and pretend that not only should it be different, but that I deserve better."

Let's imagine a scenario where a person turns up at work each day, goes through the day in a relatively OK space, even enjoys some of what goes on and what he or she contributes along the way. However, if you ask the person how the job is going, they wind up complaining about it, describing all the pieces that are wrong or would be "so much better if only" something or someone were different. And the complaints go on and on.

Most of the time, the person doing the complaining also holds an image or illusion that there is a perfect job out there, just waiting for them to show up. The only problem with this scenario is that the person doesn't do anything about finding that perfect job.

If you go in search of the perfect job, what might happen, what could go wrong? You might show up, and instead of embracing you as the long sought after perfect employee, they might instead show you the door and say "thanks but no thanks."

That might be pretty crushing. So, rather than risk the rejection and the shattering of the illusion, you might just stay where you are, complaining about what you have, but not risking what you prefer, all the while pretending that you deserve better!

Complaint and Choice - The Gravity Connection

There's another perspective we might want to explore in terms of complaint that could further illuminate the process.

I often ask people to think about something that physically oppresses people the world over, something over which no one has any choice. People often say something like "weather," "old age," and the like.

My favorite is gravity.

Think about gravity for a minute or two. Did you ever trip over something and fall? Of course you have. If you are like me, you have probably blamed the thing you tripped over, muttered to yourself about not paying attention, wondered who could build a sidewalk like that, or any of a hundred other "observations.?

But did you ever blame gravity? Unlikely! Yet, without gravity, could you have fallen? Have you noticed what else gravity does to people, especially over time?

How about your weight? If you are overweight or underweight, or even "normal" weight, how could you have a weight without gravity? Ever hear anyone blame gravity for their weight?

How about the aging process? As people age, they often tend to shrink just a little bit as joints compress. Some even become a bit stooped over. It takes more effort to walk and get up out of a chair. And on and on and on. Have you ever heard an aging person complain about gravity?

"I hate gravity! Gravity sucks!" Laughable, right? But why?

What choice do you have about gravity? Absolutely none! It's just there. About the only choice you have about gravity is whether or not you choose to play with it!

Play with it? Am I nuts? Well, play along some more. Perhaps you recognize the worldwide fascination with gravity in terms of sport and games. The world actually just came together for the Summer Gravity Games, and in another two years will convene for the Winter Gravity Games.

Oh, sure, you probably know these games better as the Olympics, but they are Gravity Games nonetheless. In these games, we have competitions to see who can throw something farther or more accurately; who can climb up something faster than the rest, or ski down it faster than the others. Or who can jump farther, or look prettier doing it. Or who can lift more, or whose horse can jump higher, etc.

All of these are just games to be played with gravity. People jump out of planes to see if they can land OK, or put elastic cords around their ankles and jump off bridges to see if they stop just short of the land or river below. And on and on and on.

And why? Because what choice do you have about gravity? It's just there, nothing to be done, except play with it or become "grave" about it. For most of us, we simply ignore it. Nobody complains about it. There really is no gravity-yes, gravity-no choice. If you are here on the planet, you get gravity. Period.

When we really have no choice about something, we tend to make the best of it. If you hear yourself complaining about something, there is a very good chance that you have a choice, that you prefer something else, that you are not willing to risk going after what you truly want.

So, remember when the road forks, it does make a difference which road you choose. Perhaps your complaints can give you insight into the fork that best suits what you truly want.

I'd love to hear from you. Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my book, Workarounds That Work. You'll be glad you did.

You can buy Workarounds That Work here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)