What do you control?

After finding your way, how do you start moving towards your vision for yourself? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, as people to whom I’m giving career advice say “I have this grand vision for myself, but I don’t know where to start.”

The first step is to figure out what is in your control, and what is not. I’m inspired by David Cain’s post on his reading of the Stoic philosophers, whose philosophy he summarizes as “don’t freak out about what you can’t control”. As he explains, “a thing doesn’t automatically become your concern just because it might affect you”. Paying attention to things you can’t control is a recipe for misery, as you will often be disappointed when events don’t go as you had planned or hoped.

When I examine my life, the only thing that I sometimes control is my own behavior (that post quotes the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”). So if I tie my happiness to somebody else’s decisions or behavior, I am putting my happiness in their control rather than my own. Or if I say I have to reach a goal to be happy, I am putting my happiness in the control of whoever decides when I accomplish that goal.

Let’s stop with the philosophy for a minute, and think about a practical application of these ideas, like a job search. Based on what I’ve discussed, in a job search, I would focus on the tasks under my control (doing research on companies, talking to people who have jobs that sound interesting to me or who work at companies I like, sending out cover letters and resumes, etc) rather than goals that are not (a certain number of job interviews or offers). If I only focus on the outcome goals, I’ll be continually disappointed by rejection, even if I did all that I could. However, if I focus on the tasks I control (applications, resumes, informational interviews), I can be making progress in my job search by continuing to improve how I perform on those tasks, even if I haven’t achieved a positive result like a job interview or offer yet.

Another advantage of focusing on what’s in my control is that it makes it radically simpler to figure out how to get started. If the problem is “how do I successfully make a career change?” (which is a goal), that seems overwhelming, as it involves many steps and the outcome will take weeks or months or years for me to reach. If the problem is “How do I learn more about possible next steps in my career?”, I can come up with several ideas that I can try this week, such as informational interviews, researching possible careers on the Internet, using LinkedIn to explore companies, etc. I often ask coaching clients what is the smallest possible task they could do to explore a next step in their career, and push them to shrink it until it’s something they could do in an hour. Then I challenge them to spend one hour this week on that task. It forces them to shift from thinking or dreaming about their lofty goal, to actually taking a small step towards that goal. And as I’ve written, those small steps can add up to a big change.

In a similar vein, I like this Farnam Street post on habits vs. goals (Shane Parrish is also a fan of the Stoics), where he observes that goals are dangerous for motivation, because goals end, and are not in your control. Once you reach them or you fail at reaching them because it’s out of your control, you give up and go back to your old way of being. Alternatively, if you focus on building habits, which are developing behaviors that are in your control, you are much more likely to succeed in achieving the original goal, because the effectiveness of habits increases over time. Building good habits is a meta-skill – once you have built one new habit, each successive habit gets easier to develop because you have the confidence from the previous ones. This is the principle behind BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits work.

If you are looking to make a change in your life, I suggest reflecting on what actions are in your control. I used the example of a job search in this post, but I could apply the same ideas to dating; my dating advice would be to not focus on finding a life partner (which is not in your control), but on improving yourself to be the kind of person who could attract the life partner you desire. I would also suggest improving your dating skills by going on lots of dates, which will also help clarify what you really want or need in a partner. Or if you want to learn to play an instrument, don’t set the goal of “I want to play a concert for an audience” (not in your control), but of “I will practice 30 minutes a day”. Quantity of practice leads to the best results in the end. And if you believe that practice is not enough to get you to your vision, I encourage you to reconsider.

What is the smallest action you can think of to figure out the next step towards your dream vision? Can you commit to spending one hour this week to perform that action? And then take what you learned from doing that action this week and improve your performance on that action the following week? I expect that if you can do that, you will create a continual improvement cycle of the things under your control, whether it’s developing skills, or building a community of practice, or re-designing your physical environment. If you make a habit of these small actions, that improvement cycle will compound, and you’ll soon be making more progress than you could have imagined while you were stuck.

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