The Power of Understanding Yourself: The Key to Self-Discovery, Personal Development, and Being the Best You - Dave Mitchell 2019
Locus of Control: You Are the Winemaker
Wine makes a man more pleased with himself. I do not say it makes him more pleasing to others.
— Samuel Johnson
“Life is like stew.”
Admittedly, this was an odd way to begin a conversation with a colleague seeking counsel from me — their human resources executive — about a problem at work. Those who had heard the story before, and there were many, knew that this was how I responded to individuals complaining about the petty annoyances that are common in our lives. In fact, I told the story so often that it became known simply as the “Stew Story.” It usually followed an employee sharing a grievance about a coworker, a manager, or a customer. They were frustrated about an irritating behavior or an unexpected life circumstance that had complicated their day. Most of the time, our employee-relations manager, who was infinitely more patient with the process than me, handled these conversations. That was precisely why I had hired Dee Dee Bracewell — to protect the employees from me. I was a more directive counselor. Pity the poor employee who chose Dee Dee’s day off to air their grievance. After they shared their concern about their schedule, I would begin.
“Life is like stew.”
“Stew has broth and chunks of beef, carrots, celery, and potatoes. Life is the same. Most times you find yourself scooting through the broth … easy peazy. It’s smooth sailing, moving through that broth. Then, all of a sudden and with no warning, you run into a carrot. Smack dab, full stop carrot collision. Now, it’s not the carrot’s fault. Carrots are part of stew. Everyone knows that. So, it doesn’t make any sense to be surprised by the carrot. I mean, you were bound to run into one eventually since you know — everyone knows — there are carrots in stew. You can blame the carrot, but that’s kind of silly since you knew it was going to be there. The carrot is just doing its thing. So, the question is not, ’Why did the carrot do this to me?’ The carrot is part of the stew. And the question isn’t ’Why did I hit the carrot?’ No one gets through the stew without hitting a carrot, a potato, a piece of celery. No, the question is “What do I do now that I hit a carrot?’”
It was usually at this point in my story that the recipient would stand and say, “I think I’ll just talk to Dee Dee about this tomorrow.”
Delusions, Control, and Disappointment
The story makes a point about locus of control. Since you are reading this book, I am assuming you have a legitimate desire to understand yourself. If that assumption is true, then it follows that you are doing so to enhance your life in some way. Perhaps you want to be happier or find your true calling. Maybe you are seeking a better professional fit or trying to enhance your self-esteem. No matter the motivation, there is one cognitive schema that will provide the foundation for achieving your goal and it is related to your locus of control.
We are all delusional. I have written that in all three of my books. Some of the delusions we manifest contribute to our success and happiness; others provide barriers to the same. For my money, the single most important cognitive orientation for constructing our best delusion is our locus of control. Imagine your entire perception of the world was filtered through one lens and that lens determines if you believe the control of your life resides inside or outside of you. Let me be clear, all of this is a delusion since no one can control how their life will turn out and life cannot control absolutely your experience (unless you let it). It doesn’t matter how much you try to control life. In the famous words of Woody Allen, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” So, yes, believing that you can control life is a delusion.
But, orienting yourself to believe that you can impact life, despite what happens to you, is not a delusion. That is an internal locus of control. An individual who has an internal locus of control takes the actions necessary to direct life back to the desired path. They still hit carrots, but they don’t blame the carrot. They may say, “Damn, never saw that carrot coming,” but they take responsibility for the choices they make that lead up to the impact and for the strategy for returning them to the broth.
One of my favorite interview questions is, “Tell me about a time you disappointed your boss.” Without fail, the interviewee shifts in their seat, hems and haws for a few minutes and says, “Gosh, I can’t really think of anything.” Now, we both know that is a lie. When I ask for a show of hands from my seminar audiences of who has disappointed their boss, every single attendee’s hand goes up. We both know that the interviewee has disappointed his or her boss. To make it clear that evasiveness won’t suffice as an answer, I just sit there and look at the interviewee. The silence increases the pressure.
“I mean, everyone disappoints their boss at some point, right?” the interviewee offers gingerly. The interviewee is desperately hoping to be taken off the hot seat at this point, but I remain silent. Eventually, the interviewee will cop to a mistake that resulted in the requested example. What they don’t realize is that I have almost no interest in the actual situation (unless it involved a felony!). I care about how they frame the episode during our discussion. Do they blame the boss, a co-worker, a customer, the situation? Or, do they share what they learned from the mistake — and how they improved as a result? If it’s the latter, that tells me they have an internal locus of control. (Or they had previously attended one of my seminars.)
I’ve found that people can be taught most things if they have a legitimate interest and the requisite aptitude. Talent, experience, and knowledge are certainly important to success. But given the choice of working with someone who has all those things and an external locus of control versus someone who possesses an internal locus of control and less talent, experience, and knowledge, I will choose the latter every time.
Finding Your Locus of Control
You might wonder how to tell if you have an internal locus of control — which is a fair and important question. The truth is, like most things about ourselves, locus of control is not binary; that is, it’s not just one slide switch, it is more than one switch. A person can display an internal locus of control professionally, but an external locus of control in their personal relationships. We all know of people who are incredible performers at work, but who go home to horrible marriages. So, how do I gauge my own locus of control? I recommend two approaches.
In my first book, Live and Learn or Die Stupid, I coined the term Demon Committee Meetings. These generally occur in the middle of the night and consist of a sleepless obsession over something that is bothering you. It might be a mistake you recently made, a task that you must do, an argument you just had; the agenda for a Demon Committee Meeting can be long and varied. You toss and turn, displaying what blues performers have long called a worried mind. I used to hate these sleep- robbing, stress-filled events. Eventually, however, I realized the value of Demon Committee Meetings. They are your mind’s way of itemizing the life events that you are externalizing your locus of control.
When you find yourself obsessing over an issue — whether at 2:00 a.m., as is the case with me, or during the day — the first step is to write down a things-to-do action list. I keep a handwritten things-to-do list near me almost all the time. I’m old school, so the act of putting pen to paper provides me a physical outlet for the expulsion of the demons. But you can do this on your phone or other device, too. The key is to immediately convert the mind’s obsession to a plan of action. By doing so, you are converting your orientation to the challenge from external to internal locus of control. Meeting adjourned.
Let me give you a personal example. Because of the popularity of my seminars, I am offered book deals before I write the book. Generally, an author would complete a manuscript and then shop it to publishers. Since my situation works in reverse, I am writing my book under a contractual agreement that includes deadlines. It feels a little like attending college classes in that you have a large project, like a thesis, due on a specific date. As a result, it is not unusual for me to obsess — at 2:00 a.m. — about my progress on my current book. If I lay there and worry, this Demon Committee Meeting can last hours, perhaps the rest of the night. But, if I get up and add, “write 2,000 words” on my daily to-do list, I immediately feel better. I might go further and add, “map out mileposts for book progress.” Almost without fail, the Demon Committee Meeting will conclude and the demons disperse. By the way, even though you are reading the final version of this book, it is my current book as I am writing this, so, yes, I wrote this chapter after yet another Demon Committee Meeting. We are all a work in progress.
The simple act of taking responsibility for my stress triggers and generating even a simple plan of action reduced my duress. So — what is stressing you out? What life events, situations, or relationships have been included in your Demon Committee Meeting agendas’? List them. Write each one down and then commit to taking an action on each one of them. That action must be something that you control and will follow through on. Doing this shifts your orientation to an internal locus of control. It also cancels the Demon Committee Meeting for the foreseeable future.
Consider, also, how you think of your life. If you tend to compartmentalize your life, say, work versus home, you may want to have separate action lists for each segment of your life. If you view your life in a holistic way, one action plan will work. The key is that you have a plan of attack for your life and that it reflects the way you think about it.
The second approach is a little harder and is a call back to the “life is like stew” lecture. Unhappy people often talk about the life events that have resulted in their dissatisfaction. They blame relationships, bosses, money, parents, health, or any number of other variables in this complicated soup of life. This way of thinking reflects an external locus of control perspective. It reminds me of an exchange I had with my father over a pair of Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star tennis shoes.
It was my freshman year of high school, and basketball season practice had just begun. The coach recommended we purchase the Chuck Taylor All-Star shoes, which were conveniently offered at a special price through the school (nice marketing, Converse!) Anyway, all the cool kids were buying them. I went home to my father — the World War II veteran, Great Depression era survivor.
“Dad, can I get a pair of the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star tennis shoes?” I asked sheepishly.
“What’s wrong with the tennis shoes you already have?” Dad replied.
“The basketball coach told us we should get these.”
“Is he buying them?” Dad shot back. I knew this was a bad sign. Apparently, my father did not view the basketball coach as a critical product specifier to the same degree I did. So, I tried to appeal to the power of peer pressure.
“No. But, everyone else on the team is buying them.”
“You know, son, I used to worry about my shoes until I met someone with no legs.”
Sometimes I wish my dad had just said “No” instead of making everything into a damn learning opportunity. Anyway, given that I was 14 years old and feeling the dreadful dual influence of hormones and peer pressure, I was pissed. What didn’t occur to me at the time was that I had enough money to pay for the shoes myself. I had that money because my father had insisted that I work at his store each summer starting at the age of 12 to avoid spending my free time in less productive activities. Given how I chose to spend my free times in my late teens, this was yet another striking example of his good judgment but that is another story. This was an easy fix if I simply made the choice to act. Instead, I was angry that my father wouldn’t buy them for me. It is a small moment in a person’s life, but analogous for so many bigger ones. I am not sure if my father had purposely intended to teach me about the value of internal locus of control, but he had.
We all have our struggles. I have yet to meet the individual that has lived very long without a substantial heartbreak, tragedy, or burden. We don’t get to choose all that life will serve up to us. But we can choose how we respond to that offering. That is the important takeaway. Unfortunately, even those of us with the most well-developed internal locus of control can fall victim to some episodes of externalizing that control. As you read this, you may have been reminded of a few life events that have had a tremendous impact on you. Some of you may still harbor some resentment toward these events, people, or situations. You may believe that they forever altered your life.
You are right.
You are right because you continue to allow them that role. An external locus of control makes you a victim to life. An internal locus of control heals your life. If there are things in your past that you continue to allow to have power over you, you will never be able to extract your best self. So, spend some time taking inventory of the past. Are you the victim of past relationships or experiences? Have you forfeited your power by manifesting an external locus of control over some part of your life? If so, I urge you to develop a plan to correct these items. Take action. That action should be positive and loving both toward yourself and those that will be affected — but take action. You will never extract your best self otherwise. It is like making wine from diseased grapes. No amount of winemaking can overcome the flaws in the juice.
There will be exercises and assessments in the chapters that follow, all meant to be helpful tools to guide your extraction. My hope is that this book will aid your understanding of yourself. But, despite the very useful information that you will uncover in the work that follows, nothing will have a greater impact on your happiness than an internal locus of control.
In the back of the book is the Extracting Me Worksheet. As you progress through the extraction process, you will be encouraged to write your thoughts down so as to assemble all your work when done. In that worksheet is a section on internal locus of control. The purpose of this segment is to stimulate an immediate action to improve your internal locus of control skills. Here are the questions/statements from that section:
· Consider an example in your life that reflects your use of an external locus of control that contributed to stress. List it and ask yourself the following:
· Why have I chosen not to manifest an internal locus of control on this issue?
· If I were to commit to one action that might positively affect this situation, what would it be?
· Am I ready to do that? If not now, why?
· Upon taking an internal locus of control action, how did this situation change?
· Did this outcome reduce my stress? Improve the situation? Why or why not?
Stop reading and start thinking. It is time for some metacognition and reflection. Complete this part of the worksheet before moving on to the next chapter. This will require some action, too, so be sure to do what is necessary to complete this section before moving forward. Remember, an internal locus of control is an essential tool for self-exploration.
We make choices every day and these choices have impact. Ask yourself how your choices have led to the life that you have and what choices you will make to achieve the life you desire. If you are not prepared to take responsibility for both — your life now and the one you desire — then the rest of this book will have very little value.
The beautiful irony of an internal locus of control is that only you can develop it. It is your choice. Many studies have concluded that individuals with an internal locus of control are happier, healthier, more resilient, and generally perform better than individuals who have an external locus of control. It seems like an easy choice to me. Besides, the purchase of this book is nonrefundable.