Remember when you were in school and you studied the lives of historical figures like Franklin D. Roosevelt? At some point, the teacher would usually tell you all about that famous person's philosophy. When I was just 12 years old, I decided I needed a philosophy of my own, so I had a conversation with myself to figure out what it might be.

I discovered that I did have a personal credo, though I hadn't yet articulated it. I can sum it up with one of my favorite sayings: The way you do anything is the way you do everything.

I observed that I was an all-or-nothing person. If I was lazy about just one thing, my attitude contaminated all that I touched. If I let myself get careless in school, everything else started to slide—I'd zone out at home or just wear whatever shirt I'd tossed on the floor the night before.

On the other hand, if I aimed to be my best in one area, that commitment raised my game across the board. For instance, my family had very little money, and I didn't have nice clothes or live in the right neighborhood—but I knew I had football skills. So I started practicing as hard as I could. I'd never been more focused. My schoolwork didn't suffer; in fact, my grades improved, thanks to my newly discovered powers of concentration.

Do you recognize the same all-or-nothing pattern in yourself? It's a question well worth asking. Often the qualities a person expresses in one part of her life—whether she's passive or controlling, stingy or generous—will show up elsewhere. If you're a selfish, grudge-holding friend, you might not be a loving, attentive partner. If you're a shiftless, buck-passing employee, you might not be a brilliantly engaged parent.

Since, for a lot of us, the way we do anything is the way we do everything, you might want to take a look at the areas in your life that could use some improvement. Is your credit score the pits because you don't pay your bills on time? Think about how that neglect could be showing up in your relationships. Are you just going through the motions at work? If so, chances are you're just going through the motions, period.

Here's the good news, though: I think the flip side is also true, so even the smallest change can help you turn things around. Maybe you want to be more loving toward your sister or daughter—100 percent doable. Start by saying something nice to your next-door neighbor. Suppose you chow down on junk food but want to take better care of your health. Start by taking better care of what's around you. Is your car a disaster? Clean it up. Has your window screen been torn for the last three years? Fix it. I'm willing to bet that once you pay attention to the things in your life that need tending, you'll make it a priority to tend to yourself. Striving for excellence—or even just for something better than what you've got—builds the momentum that will take you right through to the finish line.

The way to get started is to recognize what's really important to you. Who are you, and what is your strategy for living? You have a philosophy, even if you're not conscious of it; everybody does. So sit down and have a real talk with yourself, because you need to be able to clearly articulate your own guiding principle.

The next step is to live by it with every choice you make. After all, you don't become a champion by winning the Super Bowl; you become a champion by practicing. And remember: If you don't live your life as if everything matters, you'll never become everything you're meant to be.

Dr. Phillip C. McGraw's daily talk show is in its 13th season. He has written seven best-selling books; his latest is Life Code: The New Rules for Winning in the Real World (Bird Street).


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