I smoked cigarettes until I was in my mid-forties. I smoked pretty heavily–more than two packs a day–and had done so pretty much forever (despite running the Montreal Marathon back in 1982, when I quit for several days).
It wasn’t that I didn’t know how stupid smoking was. I could feel it myself. But as David Maister wrote in Strategy and the Fat Smoker, the problem is not knowledge; the problem is implementation.
Here’s what happened to me. I can’t say it’ll help you; but it does say something about how people change.
Why I Smoked
I don’t know why I smoked. But I know one reason I kept smoking. Because everyone kept telling me to quit.
I’m not proud of that, but it’s the truth. Quitting itself isn’t all that hard (as Mark Twain said, I’d done it many times). But my life has been in many ways a struggle to get over being stubborn. I just Don’t. Like. Being. Told. What. To. Do.
I had recently remarried. My wife was a reformed smoker herself, and never made an issue of it with me, for which I was grateful.
One day the subject came up; I think I raised it. Here’s what she said:
Dear, I want you to know that smoking is 100% your decision. I don’t want you to die early–but much, much more than that, I want you to be you. I love you for who you are, and only you decide who that is.
You can smoke in the kitchen; you can smoke in the living room; you can smoke in the bedroom—it’s all OK. I will never nag you or hound you about smoking.
I will re-route plane trips to accommodate your need to get out for a smoke. I will put ashtrays wherever you want. Smoking will never be an issue for you and me.
Because I love you, and you are who you choose to be.
Two weeks later, I quit for good.
Why I Quit Smoking
In retrospect, it’s clear why I quit. It’s because I’m an idiot, a fool who somehow needed someone else’s permission to smoke–just to have at least one person on my side to counter-balance all those who told me not to. And when I finally got that one person, I could declare victory and retreat.
Had I been a better person, I would have figured out on my own, years earlier, that I didn’t need anyone’s permission—not to smoke, not to quit, not to do, or not do, anything. As my wife put it, “you’re a free humanoid on the planet.”
But the me who smoked couldn’t have had that thought. The me who smoked could only quit the way I did.
The Bigger Gift I Got from Quitting Smoking
The gift my wife gave me was extraordinary. Quitting smoking was the least of it. All that did was protect my health. What she gave me was much bigger.
She taught me, first of all, what it means to accept another human being. (To be fair, she gave me an object example; I’m still working on learning it).
She also taught me what was within my power, and what wasn’t. I had always under-estimated the power I had–and over-estimated the power other people had over me. No matter what happens, I have the power to control my reactions to other people. And no matter what happens, if I’m upset by something, there’s something wrong with me.
Those are huge lessons. How funny that the “price” I paid to learn them was to give up something that was bad for me in the first place.