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You Control Your Financial Life

you can't change the past or outcomes, but you have control of your actions

❝Fault is past tense. Responsibility is present tense. Fault results from choices that have already been made. Responsibility results from choices you're currently making.❞ -Mark Manson

The cult classic movie Office Space tells the story of office workers working for a tech firm who have to navigate the bureaucratic life that is corporate America. One character, Michael Bolton, routinely gets asked if he is related to the singer Michael Bolton. Michael doesn't like Michael Bolton's music and thus is frustrated every time anybody asks him. When his coworker, Samir, suggests he simply go by Mike instead of Michael to eliminate the confusion, Michael replies, "No way! Why should I change? He's the one who sucks."

This is a silly example in a silly (yet hilarious) movie, but the truth is it feels like things that aren't our fault shouldn't be our problem. In other words, often it feels like the problems we experience in our financial lives aren't our fault and, therefore, we shouldn't have to do anything about them. However, regardless of how much control you had over what has happened, your financial life is still your responsibility.

just because it's not your fault doesn't mean it's not your responsibility


It's easy to confuse the difference between whose fault something is and who is responsibility something is. Author Mark Manson calls this the fault/responsibility fallacy. It is the belief that if something isn't our fault, we shouldn't be responsible for fixing it. Said another way, it's the belief that taking responsibility for our problems indicates that we are to blame for our problems, which makes us uncomfortable. Then we decide that it is not our responsibility to fix something that's not our fault, so we do nothing.

Manson distinguishes fault and responsibility by having you imagine you wake up tomorrow to find there is a baby on your doorstep. Now, it's not your fault that there's a baby on your doorstep, but it is now your responsibility to do something about it. What you do about it depends on the situation. Nothing about taking responsibility for your situation indicates any particular action. It just indicates that you are the one who decides what happens.

Another way to think about this is to recall that blame and fault lie in the past, and the past can't be changed. Responsibility is present-focused. Many times in life, things happen that aren't ideal and are outside of our control. Nonetheless, we are responsible for doing what needs to be done from now on.

It's uncomfortable to hear that it's your responsibility even when it's not your fault


Stoic philosophers talked a lot about the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control says that some things are in our control and some things aren't. We owe it to ourselves to be clear about this distinction. In Christianity, this became known as the serenity prayer. Getting clear about the things over which you have some control helps you determine where your attention should go. It also helps you understand the things that are outside your control and allow you to stop wasting time and energy on things you can't change.

Psychologists talk about our locus of control. People who feel like their lives are in their control and have that control over what happens in their lives are said to have an internal locus of control. People who feel like they are passive participants in life, that their actions have little control over what happens, are said to have an external locus of control. In other words, people with an internal locus of control view the things that are in their control as a more significant range. In contrast, people with an external locus of control view things in their control as a smaller range. Thus, people with an internal locus of control are more likely to use more adaptive coping strategies when adversity strikes.

focus on things you can control and match your behavior to that


When we focus on the things over which we have some control, it is important to focus on the process (or systems) instead of the outcomes (or goals). Author Scott Adams writes about the benefit of pursuing systems instead of goals because a goal represents a particular outcome at a single point in time, whereas a system is a process you do regularly. He proposes that systems will lead to better outcomes without (paradoxically) focusing on outcomes. Some examples are that losing 10 pounds is a goal but learning to eat right is a system; running a marathon in four hours is a goal, but running three times a week is a system; working hard to get your boss' job as a goal, but continuously improving your marketability is a system.

Another way to focus on what's in your control while detaching from a particular outcome is to think about sports. I play squash, and when I play a match, I have much control over how much I have practiced, how much rest I get the night before, how hydrated I am, and the strategy I choose to deploy during the games. I have no control, on the other hand, over how much my opponent practices or my opponent's strategy. Therefore, the outcome of the match is outside of my control, and I should not judge my performance based on the outcome of the match. I should instead judge my performance based on how well I performed compared to my potential.

focus on systems instead of goals


We have the freedom to choose our actions. In fact, we have the responsibility to choose our actions. Keeping this top of mind helps us remember that we can choose to focus on things that are in our control and let go of things that are outside our control. Once things happen outside our control, those are in the past and remain outside our control. We can only do what we can with what we have where we are. It also helps us choose an appropriate response based on the information we have available to us.

I encourage you to reframe "I have to..." to "I choose to...because..." Framing your decisions this way highlights the fact that it is your choice. Even if you have the world's worst boss and no autonomy at work, you can think about your decision to keep working there through this lens. You can change "I have to work here" to "I choose to work here because I don't want to look for another job."

take responsibility for your life

Remember that just because something isn't your fault doesn't mean it is not your responsibility to move on with your life. Taking responsibility for something that's not your fault does not mean that you agree with or are happy it happened. It simply means that you get to make a mindful choice about what happens next in your life. Sometimes that choice will be to take corrective action. Other times it's to forgive. In all cases, it's up to you to live your life on purpose.

You get one life; live intentionally.

If you know someone else who would benefit from reading this, please share it with them. Spread the word, if you think there's a word to spread.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Adams, Scott: Loserthink

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Fogg, B.J.: Tiny Habits

Hanson, Rick & Richard Mendius: Buddha’s Brain

Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Klontz, Brad & Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Krueger, David & John David Mann: The Secret Language of Money

Newcomb, Sarah: Loaded

Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor

Rosenberg, Marshall: Nonviolent Communication

Sofer, Oren Jay: Say What You Mean

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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