Control Your Controllables

February 8, 2009 | By | Reply More

One of my favorite economist reads, Paul Kedrosky, directed me to this image, which is from another excellent financial analysis blog done by Susan Woodward and Robert Hall. This is a comparison of labor numbers from now and 1981 rescaled to the size of today’s labor force. Stunning.

Emplyoyment Numbers 1981 and Now

Employment Numbers 1981 and Now

For those of you who, like me, were still in high school in 1981 – it was the biggest recession we have had in the US since the Great Depression. Not pretty.  The graph shows us a partial image of how painful events are right now. Many people have lost homes, many are without work, and I have a feeling it is going to get worse before it gets better. There is a lot of suffering out there. I get a lot of calls from desperate people who are trying to put on a brave face. Sometimes I feel like I am barely hanging on to my life raft and folks are pulling on my legs to clamber on.

In the midst of all this turmoil, with so much personal pain around me, how do I keep steady?  If I allow myself to dwell on the amount of pain and fear out there I would be paralyzed. If I allow myself to be drawn into the temptation to rage at the seemingly oblivious greed, ego, and shortsightedness running rampant (still) in Washington and throughout our business sector, I would be incapable of any forward motion in my life.

This past year I have had the opportunity to work with some extremely successful folks who are very good at what they do, and who are also wonderful human beings (That is another benefit of running my own company, I get to work with people who inspire me every day.)  One of my favorite things to do, especially when I am having a rough day, is to ask these top performers what they think differentiates exceptional performers from average.

One night I was entertaining a candidate and his wife at dinner prior to his interview the following Monday. The truth was, I was a little intimidated. Both these folks were exceptionally bright, had extremely impressive professional backgrounds and were just super cool. They were so engaging and down to earth that I got over my self-consciousness, we fell into easy conversation and had a great meal.  I especially enjoyed their conscious blending of business and life success. They made career choices that reflected personal values and strove for the same congruency that I seek. We had a great time.  During our conversation they gave me one of the best answers to my differentiating question. In order to have significant impact in life and/or business you must learn to “control your controllables”.  Simple statement, lots of power.

That candidate didn’t take my position though it was offered to him.  He and his wife are the only people who ever sent me flowers to graciously thank me for all my work when they took a different position.  It still brings brings a smile to my face despite the fee I didn’t get.  The best gift they gave me was that phrase.  I have probably heard it a million times, but I hear it differently now.

“Control Your Controllables”

I can’t stop the madness of our economic tailspin. I can’t make our leaders do the right things, whatever they may be.  I can’t get everyone I speak with a job, I can’t feed the hungry families, or give them all shelter, and I can’t make it better for all the stray animals that lose tails in the freezing cold.  I can only control my controllables, and the first step is separating the things I can control from the majority of that which I can not. Choosing to control some things means you can’t control everything. IThat choice requires a pause and demands analysis. It prevents simple reaction, and keeps me from turning into Chicken Little, whose announcement of “The sky is falling!!” did nothing positive and promoted all kinds of negative.

When I give myself permission to acknowledge what I don’t have power over, my life seems a little bit more manageable. When I look further and see I only have to actively deal with right now, this moment, it is even simpler. My right now can include planning for my work day tomorrow, or making smart decisions regarding my financial future, or deciding to help a stranger.  I can decide it will not include fear and worry.  If  I look at those employment numbers and allow myself to be consumed with fear and worry, I won’t have any energy left to work to improve the numbers.

I am not advocating retreating from the world at large. It is important to be informed. But we sometimes bludgeon ourselves with an abundance of information and wallow in all the terrible news that has nothing to do with us and that we can’t do a thing about. When I do that I want to pull the covers over my head and never get out of my bed. Not helpful.

I am learning instead, to focus on what I can do to make my corner of the world better. I am tending my garden, I’m treating people around me with kindness and compassion and striving to live and act mindfully. In the midst of that practice the chart, though a concern, doesn’t scare me. It helps me see the world more clearly. I see the turmoil, pause, and choose my plan of action. I control what I can control.

The biggest surprise is how much more I get done when I am focused on my tiny pieces, and how much more optimistic I feel in the face of difficulties.


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Category: American Culture, Culture, Current Events, Economy, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Lisa lives and works in the city of St. Louis, and is striving to develop the right mix of both while asking herself what it means to live a good life.

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