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drawing of things that happen vs things you control

❝It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.❞ -Epictetus

Imagine preparing for a tennis match. You practice for weeks leading up to the match. You get enough sleep the night before. You drink plenty of water. You've gone over your strategy in your head multiple times. You may be fully prepared and still lose the match. Because even though you did all the things that you had control over, you have no control over your opponent's strategy, skill level, or practice routine. There's a lot outside your control.

Imagine two people driving down the road. Further, imagine a driver speed past both of them at 100 mph in an open fast lane. One person gets furious because the speedy driver is breaking the law. The second driver knows there is a fast driver but also notices that he isn't harmed by the driver. What they notice is in their control.

Imagine two people in a grocery store with long checkout lines. One person gets furious because they have too few workers tending the tills. The other person doesn't think anything of it. These two people have different interpretations of their circumstances, and these interpretations are in their control.

Imagine two people who are in trouble with their boss. One person is fed up, feels the situation is unfair, and calls his boss a jerk. The second person is fed up, feels the situation is unfair, and asks follow-up questions to understand the situation. The first person gets fired, while the second person rectifies the situation. Their choices are in their control.


The thing is, most things that happen are things that we don't have control over. This can be uncomfortable for some, but there's a great deal of luck (both good and bad) at play.

Quite simply, life happens.

Most of what happens that's outside our control goes unnoticed, mostly because they are inconsequential events. Yet even good things that happen to us can go by undetected because of our hardwired negativity bias.

The events that we label as bad don't slip past our awareness, though, and that's when it can feel like everything is going against us.

drawing of most things are outside your control

The first step is learning to accept the fact that, most of the time, things are what they are.

drawing of accepting that most things are out of your control

There's an idea in Eastern philosophy that the human condition is that things - including bad things - are going to happen to us, and we have no control over that. We should expect that.

These are like arrows (or darts). Life is full of arrows that will hit us.

Pain is inevitable.

drawing of first arrows are outside your control

The more interesting idea, though, is there many of us are struck by second arrows. The second arrow often hurts worse than the first arrow. And yet, whether we get hit by second arrows is fully within our control.

Whereas the first arrow represents the fact that bad things are going to happen, the second arrow represents our reaction to getting hit with a first arrow. If we expected that we shouldn't get hit by any arrows, we will ruminate about how it's not fair that we got struck by a first arrow and open ourselves up to getting hit by a second arrow.

Whether we get hit by a second arrow or not is in our control.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

drawing of second arrows are optional

Because many of the things that happen to us our outside our control, and because it's advantageous to put ourselves in positions to avoid as many second arrows as possible, it makes sense to direct our energy toward the things that we do have control over.

drawing of focus on what you can control

There are three main things you have control over - and they take the acronym ABC.

A - You have control over your attention.

B - You have control over your beliefs.

C - You have control over your choices.

drawing of ABCs of what you can control; attention, beliefs, and choices


The first thing you have control over is your attention. To think about attention, we have to first think about awareness.

Awareness is anything you can notice. This could be sights, sounds, smells, sensations, or even thoughts. Some schools of thought equate to awareness and consciousness itself.

drawing of awareness

Attention, on the other hand, is a subset of awareness. When you use your attention in one area, it's not available in another area. Thus, attention is finite. When you use your attention, they call it "paying attention."

drawing of attention vs. awareness

Think of attention like a flashlight within awareness. Training your attention is like training the hand that holds the flashlight of attention (say, with mindful meditation).

drawing of attention is like a spotlight

So why is it important to learn what attention is and that it's one of the few things you control?

It's because what you pay attention to becomes your reality. And this is tough because we are wired to see the negative around us.

Desirable and undesirable experiences are judgment calls, and how each of us judges our experience runs through our experiences. Yet, however we judge our experience, we are doing battle with the negativity bias.

Think about your brain.

drawing of the brain

Author Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, says that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences. That is, negative experiences will be more easily spotted, they will stick with us longer, and we will remember them more easily.

drawing of the brain is velcro for negative experiences

On the other hand, the brain is like Teflon for positive experiences. We don't notice the good around us. We take our lives for granted. We expect good things to happen and therefore don't notice when they do.

drawing of the brain is teflon for positive experiences

You are wired to pay attention to the negative, and yet what you pay attention to is still in your control.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back (or grow) from stress and adversity. The ability to maintain physical, mental, and emotional well-being in the face of setbacks. Learn more about how resilient you are.


The second thing in your control is your beliefs. This is the "B" in the ABC acronym. To understand beliefs, we can think of a second ABC falling out of the "B" in the first acronym; and ABC within an ABC!

drawing of ABC within an ABC

The ABCs of the beliefs acronym compose an activating event - a trigger, your belief, and an emotional or behavioral consequence.

You'll notice the "Cs" first. This is how you feel or what you do. If you leaned into your feelings and behaviors, you could ask yourself why you did or felt what you did. The "why" is the activating event. It's what triggered you.

The hard part is asking yourself why that particular trigger caused you to do or feel that way. That's your belief.

What's insightful about these is that we always behave in a way that is in response to our beliefs, but most of the time, this is subconscious. We don't know why we acted in a particular way or felt the way we did.

drawing of CBT and stoicism

Ancient Stoics have said for thousands of years that humans don't respond to what happens to us but rather to our interpretation of what happens to us. In other words, if we interpret a situation as negative, we'll react in a particular way. If we interpret a situation as neutral or positive, we'll react in a different way.

The insight is that we respond and react based on our interpretations of what we notice. We have control over how we interpret what happens to us.

drawing of we react to our interpretation of things rather than things themselves


The third thing we have control over is our actions - our choices. When we decide to partake in a particular behavior, it's based on our belief about the situation, but most of the time, we don't know what we think about a situation. Our subconscious (the elephant in the elephant and rider metaphor) represents our default patterns. It's autopilot.

The thing about autopilot, though, is that it's not always in our best interest. When we choose what to do with default patterns, we are reacting to whatever happens to us.

drawing of automatic reactions

If we can learn to slow down our decision-making, we can turn our reactions into intentional responses. Anything you can do to put a pause in between the things that happen and your choices, you break your default wiring and make a more intentional decision.

You have control over your choices and actions. It pays to do them on purpose.

drawing of mindful response

The Serenity Prayer asks us to know the difference between what we can't change and what we can change. Understanding that most things are outside of our control is tough, but it allows us to put more energy into focusing on the things that we do have control over. You can't control most things, but you have control over what you pay attention to, how you interpret what happens to you, and the choices you make.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Adams, Scott: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big Ben-Shahar, Tal: Choose the Life You Want Denborough, David: Retelling the Stories of Our Lives Irvine, William: Guide to the Good Life Irvine, William: A Slap in the Face Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge Manson, Mark: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

McAdams, Dan: The Stories We Live By Pigliucci, Massimo: How to Be a Stoic Pigliucci, Massimo, Skye Cleary & Daniel Kaufman: How to Live a Good Life Emotional Intelligence Masterclass Realizing Resilience Masterclass Reivich, Karen & Andrew Shatte: The Resilience Factor



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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