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What Can You Control?

worrying about something that is outside of your control won't help you
❝Control what you can control. Don't lose sleep worrying about things that you don't have control over because, at the end of the day, you still won't have any control over them..❞ -Cam Newton

It's hot and humid as I rest my bike on the side of the house. It's 1993, and I just got back from riding my bike around the college campus that's across the street from my grandparents' place. As I go inside, my grandpa and grandma offer me some Kool-Aid while I sit at the kitchen table and talk to them.

As I sip my Kool-Aid, which arguably needs more sugar, I stare up at the door that leads to the basement. There's a heart-shaped sign hanging on the door that I haven't really paid much attention to before. But as I read the words, I'm struck by how simple and profound the message is.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference

Dichotomy of Control

I now know this as the Serenity Prayer, which seems to have its roots in Stoicism. Stoic philosopher Epictetus is famous for saying, "Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us."

This so-called dichotomy of control simply states that some things are under control and some things aren't. We can further say that worrying about things over which we have no control is a waste of time and energy that we can't get back. If we don't have any control, then worrying about it won't help.

In the world of investing, an easy example is how well the stock market performs. We have no control over what the stock market does, neither in the short run or the long run. Thus, it makes little sense to worry about what the stock market is or is not doing.

But Derek, you might say, it's incredibly important what happens with the stock market. I would have to agree with you. But just because something is important doesn't mean it's in your control.

One might wonder what the point of investing is if we can't control the returns, and Derek is telling me not to worry about it.

My response would be to consider all the things you can control. For starters, you can control how much of your money you expose to the stock market. You have control over how much financial news you watch. You have control over how much stock market history you're familiar with, and you have control over your attitude about stock market returns.

some things are in your control and other things are not - know the difference

Things Outside Your Control

Other than stock market returns, there are many things over which you have no control. For example, you can't control your past. Whatever has happened before right now can't be changed.

You can't control which setbacks or problems arise. You know there will be setbacks and problems in your life, but you can't control when they will happen, how severe they will be, or how long they last.

You can't control other people's opinions of you or what other people think. One line of thought says that another people's opinion of you is none of your business. What they do or don't think of you, including how much or how little they know about your situation, is outside your control.

You can't control the outcomes you receive. This is why I am so opposed to goal-setting. An example might be helpful here. Suppose I go into a squash match with the goal of winning the match. That seems reasonable at first glance, but that outcome is outside my control. I can't control my opponent's fitness level, preparation, or shot selection. What I can control is my level of practice, my strategy, and my shot selection. Therefore, I should strive to play the best match that I possibly can. Many times I will win as an outcome, and that can be celebrated. But it doesn't make sense to get upset over an outcome that goes against me.

Another example is interviewing for a job. Many things are within my control, such as how much time I spend preparing, how knowledgeable I am of the company, and how much rest I get the night before. However, I don't have control over the interviewer's mood, or who else is applying for this job. Therefore, instead of setting a goal of getting the job, I should aim for interviewing as best I can.

understand that some things are outside of your control - you can't do anything about those things

Things You Can Control

You might be asking what is in our control. We have control over how much time and effort we put into our activities. We have control over the choices that we make and the mindset that we adopt. Most importantly, we have control over our attitude about what happens to us.

keep your focus on things that are in your control

Understanding What You Can and Can't Control

This is worth spending some time on. Getting clear about what aspect of your life falls in your control and only using your time and attention on those things will pay dividends over time. When something bad happens or something goes against us, it is tempting to get upset about it. In fact, that's how we're wired. We are wired with a negativity bias; we notice the negative aspects of our lives far easier than the positive aspects of our lives. But with training, we can learn to let go of things that are outside of our control.

Some of you might be saying that it's foolish to not care about bad things even if we couldn't control them. You might think that I'm suggesting the life philosophy of fatalism, where we simply let bad things happen to us. But that's not the case. One crucial thing that's in your control is the ability to plan for the future. We can't control what happens to us, but we can prepare ourselves for how we will react if adverse outcomes happen to us.

don't waste your time on things that are outside your control

Focus on What You Can Control

When considering what you can control, it's worth asking yourself if setting goals is worthwhile. You can set a goal of losing 10 lbs, but a lot of that outcome is outside your control. How many people do you know set a goal to lose weight at the beginning of 2020? How many actually did? We simply couldn't control the fact that a global pandemic would cause many of us to lead more sedentary lives.

You can set a goal of running a marathon in four hours or less. But what happens if you injure yourself one week before the race? What happens if bad weather cancels the event? Now you failed to meet your goal through no fault of your own.

If instead of setting goals, what if we focused on systems. With a system, you are happy with any outcome as long as you are consistent with your system.

Trying to lose 10 pounds is a goal, but learning to eat right is a system. Attempting to run a marathon in four hours or less is a goal, but becoming a runner is a system. Going after your boss's job is a goal, but consistently adding to your talent stack and becoming more marketable is a system.

Goals are fleeting, limit you, and depend on outcomes that are outside of your control.

Systems or in your control. Systems are something you habitually and routinely do regularly.

goals depend on an outcome that's outside your control - systems are in your control

The Serenity Prayer is quite profound, so learning to take it seriously is worth your while. Get clear about the difference between what is in your control and what is not in your control. Focus your time, money, energy, and attention on things that are in your control, and learn to let go of things that are outside of your control.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Adams, Scott: Loserthink

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Clear, James: Goal Setting

Clear, James: Habits vs. Goals

Fogg, BJ: Tiny Habits

Hanson, Rick, & Forrest Hanson: Resilient

Harris, Sam: Waking Up

Irvine, William: A Guide to the Good Life

Irvine, William: The Stoic Challenge

Pigliucci, Massimo: How to Be a Stoic

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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