Can you distinguish between things you can control and things you can’t control? If so, do you have the ability to focus only on what you can control? Can you treat what you can’t control as simple environmental reality?
I’ve started noticing over the last week or so that there are different sorts of fear. Yes, there are a lot of specific fears, but I’ve suddenly become very aware of one basic differences between the types of fear.
Almost everybody who is aware of what’s going on in the world is afraid right now. We have just entered a dangerous time, so it’s rational to be afraid. But some people seem paralyzed by their fears and other people seem energized by their fears.
And these wildflowers in my back yard taught me the difference Friday afternoon.
Wildflowers can’t control where people build houses. They can’t control who wants a manicured lawn and puts out chemicals to kill them. They can’t control the weather or what soil is available to them or where someone might try to tear them out.
Wildflowers control only their own natural processes — and they completely ignore things they can’t control.
The people around me whose fears are paralyzing are focusing on things they can‘t control. They are furious at politicians for shutting down business around them — sometimes their own businesses or their own jobs — or they’re furious at other politicians for not doing enough to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.
They’re angry at stores that don’t have what they want to buy. They’re angry with other scared people who are buying up all the toilet paper or antiseptic wipes. They’re angry that the federal government is destroying the currency by printing phony money — or they’re angry that they’re not getting a big enough slice of the “stimulus” pie.
They’re angry. They’re scared. Most of all, they feel as though they have no control, so they feel powerless.
The people who are energized and determined aren’t arguing about what politicians ought to do or what should have been done in the economy 30 years ago or 75 years ago. They’re not worrying about whether an invisible new virus might invade their households.
They’re not oblivious to these things. They simply know they can’t control them. And their focus is on what their own reaction is going to be to an environment which they didn’t create and which they can’t control.
Knowing what you can control and what you can’t — and then focusing only on what you can control — is a key life skill, but it’s one that most people never learn. It’s taken me many years to understand this.
I used to waste my time arguing with other people — about politics or what should be done for the economy or whatever — even though I was well aware that those arguments made no difference. I rarely changed anybody’s mind, but even if I did, winning such an argument didn’t make my position in the world one bit better.
I used to waste a lot of time explaining to people what should have been done in the past, whether it was something personal or something political or even something in a business. I was sure I was right and I was driven to make sure others knew I was right.
I’ll still occasionally be sucked down the rabbit hole of explaining things to people who don’t see the world the way I do, but I generally pull out of those holes quickly. When I fall into such a trap, I become passive and I stop taking the initiative about how to fix something I can control.
I once read in a business book about all the personal fortunes which people started building during the Great Depression. That astounded me. I had grown up hearing from elderly relatives about how there were no opportunities and no jobs. Everything I had studied assured me that things were terrible for everyone except those rich people who hadn’t lost all of their inherited money.
But the truth is that some people had the initiative to try outlandish things and find ways to make them work. They were the ones who didn’t accept the “fact” that they were passive victims. They found ways to win — even though everybody told them there was no reason to try.
You can’t control whether the economy falls apart right now, but you can control your response to it.
You can’t control whether this coronavirus that causes COVID-19 makes it to your body, but you can control what you do until then — and you can control the plans you pursue after you (almost certainly) recover.
It’s that way with most things.
You can’t control another person’s actions, but you can control whether you allow that person to have control over your life.
You can’t control whether your spouse or partner is a terrible person, but you can control whether you remain with that person.
You can’t control whether people love your work or your product, but you can control whether you keep putting things in front of the world until someone is willing to pay for what you can make.
You can’t ensure that your life is successful. You can’t ensure that you’ll be happy or healthy or prosperous. But you can control your mindset.
A person who believes that other people control what happens to him is someone who is passively waiting for a tidal wave to hit him. That person has given up and has allowed other people to take control.
A person who believes that others control the environment around them — but that they control how they react to the environment — are like these wildflowers.
If you cut off one avenue I want to pursue, I will have another. If you tell me I can’t go to this place, I will go to that place. If you destroy something I have built, I will move to another spot and build something else.
I can’t control the environment. But I can control myself. I can control my attitude.
And like a wildflower, I will keep spreading my seeds and ideas and plans. I will keep coming back. And in the end, I will win, because I am not a victim. I will focus on what I can control.