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She greeted me with the same positive, glowing smile she always does but had an inquisitive look on her face today. “Hey Bob!!! What are you doing home during the week? Did your house get flooded with the hurricane? All ok?”, Elma asked as I walked into her dry cleaning store today to drop off my shirts. I explained that I’m home this week because I’m on vacation and was attempting to spend some quality time with the kids before school starts next week. “No, my house didn’t get flooded but we did lose power for about 24hrs but how about you? Everything ok with you?”, I responded.

Elma gave me an answer that led us to have a really interesting talk about the uncertainty and chaos that an uncontrollable event such as a hurricane can cause.

She said, “You know what Bob, we’re fine but we were scrambling because the power outage and the sump pump was about to overflow and the power restored just in time. But it makes me realize that we are all so spoiled. Having to rely on all the material things we have and then an unpredictable thing that is completely out of our control, makes us humble. We can’t last more than 24 hours without power for crying out loud!”

Curious about the interesting response she gave, I egged her on by asking her, “What do you think of life these days? Do you really think we’re spoiled?” She stepped out from behind the blue Formica counter to remove the physical barrier that stood between a customer and a business person and said, “I think we live in more faster times these days. It was simpler back then when we didn’t have any expectations. We just lived more simply by focusing on only a roof over our heads, whatever food we had and focusing on family. That was it. Now, we NEED more stuff. And all this stuff can be wiped out so easily. Our stocks, our business and our basement. You can work so hard at getting all of these things and you think you have some control. But in an instance, just like a snap of a finger – all of these things can be wiped out with an unpredictable, uncontrollable, completely random event.”

Wow – what a meaningful response! And all before 11am on a weekday standing at the Dry Cleaners!

Elma wasn’t done. She continued, “Good things don’t last forever. Our generation is a lot smarter now than we were in the past but all that smartness cannot solve our fundamental problem – that we continue to have no control of the future. We want to go to the moon and live a super star life and think because we know what’s going on via the internet, we know everything. We don’t. We just don’t know that we really don’t know. I think we need to live a simpler and more humble life.”

I was totally blown away by this deep but seemingly casual conversation with my dry cleaner and all within 20 minutes. It made me realize two important things about uncertainty, chaos, choice, life these days and the mindset we carry.

First, it seems we’re all feeling it! It’s not just me. A lot of us are feeling increasingly that life is moving too fast for us and we can’t keep up. We’re anxious, frustrated in our careers or about our fortunes or the lack of something. How will we find the $250,000 per child to put our kids through college? Why are we trying to sustain a lifestyle that we may not need but we’ve gotten accustomed to? And yes, we should be grateful for what we have. But something is eating away at us that makes us feel uncertain and insecure. Something is preventing us from living a stress free life. And that is: A feeling of loss of control.

And the second thing I realized during my conversation with Elma is that the only “way out” or “solution” is to not worry about the things you cannot control. We have to accept that we have no control of tomorrow given the uncertainty of events that could occur at random. We can only focus on the things we can control, which is a matter of CHOICE. The way we think, the way we act — are completely up to us. It is in our power to control our choice. And not worrying about tomorrow is our choice to make.

Elma left me with this as I proceeded to leave her dry cleaning store in my small town in New Jersey, “We can’t go back to simpler times. We’re too smart for that and the world is too fast. The only thing we can do to overcome uncertainty is not worry about trying to control everything around us. Just have to control ourselves. That’s it. Because in reality, that’s the only real control we do have – of our selves. And that is up to us to choose.”

Footnote: Elma’s Dry Cleaning business is located in Monroe Township, NJ just off of Texas Road and Spotswood-Englishtown Road. Good dry cleaning…even better conversation!

By Bob Miglani

Bob Miglani is the Author of the Washington Post Bestseller, Embrace the Chaos, which is about learning to move forward in times of change, uncertainty and disruption. He grew up running his family's Dairy Queen store, the subject of his first book, Treat Your Customers. He worked in corporate America for 23 years. Left to pursue a life of passion working in a startup, writing, motivational speaking and learning how to live a life of contribution.

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