The power of focusing on what you can control

A few years ago, my boyfriend lost his awful job. It shouldn't have happened. He worked hard, came in early, left late, powered through sick days and rarely took lunch. This workaholic, counterproductive behavior was highly encouraged by his Lumberg-esque boss. Like I said, it was an awful job.

It wasn't a good time for Brian. He was in debt, he lived in a 400 square foot studio apartment, and he rode around town on a $400 Craigslist scooter that broke down so often it could barely be considered a mode of transportation. And now, he didn't even have a crap job. He had no job, as no one was hiring in his industry.

But not long after he lost the job, I witnessed what would become one of my favorite of Brian's traits: his resourcefulness. He made do with the scooter, riding around town to talk to various businesses in his field. While none were actively hiring, he convinced one of them to give him a job. It turned out to be the best job he's ever had, and, years later, he's been promoted (to a position he suggested), his finances are in order, and the weight lifted from his shoulders is palpable.

I do think there's a certain amount of good luck in success. But there's also a certain amount of bad luck. Resourcefulness has always been a trait I've admired, respected and tried to cultivate. And it seems that resourceful people learn to capitalize on the good and don't bother focusing on the bad. They focus on what they can control.

Finding Control

There's a system, right? And it's supposed to work, right? Of course. But nothing is perfect. Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes, you do all the right things — everything you're supposed to — and nothing works out the way it should.

When you complained about this injustice as a child, your parents likely said, “Life's not fair.”

This phrase always annoyed me as a kid, and it continues to irritate me as an adult. While true, it implies defeat. It's important to understand that, yes, sometimes the proverbial system is broken. But I've always felt an urge for that phrase to end with “…so do something about it.”

If you work your ass off more than anyone else at a job, take your boss's bull on a daily basis and avoid taking lunch because you don't want to seem lazy, you shouldn't be laid off. But it happens. And, rather than throw up our hands and say, “Well, I did my best,” it is probably more useful to focus on what we can control in picking ourselves up from that situation.

A while back, I wrote about women and the confidence gap/gender-pay gap. A couple of readers commented that, yes, it exists, but I should get over it and stop dwelling on it. I don't think that's a very productive answer. Accepting that reality and turning a blind eye to it is something I have done most of my life, and it hasn't served me well. As I've learned more about the issue and how it may actually affect me, I've also learned to speak up for myself more. I've forced myself to stop being afraid to ask for raises. I've stopped being intimidated by investing. Addressing the issue has been much more productive, and lucrative, than simply accepting it.

It's easy to say,”Life's not fair, there's nothing I can do about it.” It takes a great deal more effort to say, “Life's not fair, but what can I do about it?” You might not be able to control a huge social issue; but you can control how you respond to it. You might not be able to control employer layoffs, but you& can control how you search for a new job.

It's not about dwelling on the fact that life is sometimes unfair. It's about focusing on what you can control to make it a little more fair for yourself.

The Power of Resourcefulness

Everyone knows that nothing gets handed to you — anything that is worthwhile usually takes discipline and hard work to achieve. Still, I'm always surprised to find just how true this is. In most of the success stories I learn about, accomplishments aren't made strictly by any textbook process. In most cases, the successful person did what worked for him or her, manipulating the plan based on the resources he or she had on hand.

For example, I recently interviewed an author who, with her very first manuscript, was published by Simon and Schuster. Yes, she went through the textbook process of writing her fingers to the bone and pitching her story. But she also used what she learned in her past career as a publicist to help land an agent.

It's easy to say, “I wasn't a publicist; I can't do that.” But that's missing the point. The point is that she wanted to be a published author, and she used her resources to make it happen. Maybe you don't have a PR background. But maybe you have connections. Or maybe you've been writing your entire life, and you have an especially solid manuscript. Maybe you have an agent who says she might be interested in the future. It's a small resource, but I bet a resourceful person would do what they could with that “might.”

As I see it, successful people don't seem to focus on what they don't have; they focus on what they do have and how they can use it to their advantage. It may sound obvious, but I often don't realize how true it is in my everyday life. I often overlook things that I can actually do something about. I often squander resources that others may see as opportunities. I'm slowly learning just how much power there is in being resourceful and focusing on what you can control.

More about...Psychology

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Mrs. Frugalwoods
Mrs. Frugalwoods
5 years ago

Well said. I think about my finances and my life in this same way–there are things I can control and things I cannot. By focusing my efforts on the discretionary aspects of both my life and my money, I’m able to effect the changes I want to see. I’m also a huge proponent of what I call ‘just start and do it now.’ As you said, you have to throw yourself out there, like your boyfriend did. One day my husband and I decided to work towards financial independence and a homestead in the woods and we started on our… Read more »

Emma
Emma
5 years ago

You keep saying “shouldn’t”. I think there’s a lingering myth that your job is guaranteed if you work hard enough, you’re resourceful enough and you make yourself indispensable. (As if downsizing, budget cuts, bankruptcies and recessions never happen.) It think the stigma around losing your job makes it harder to get back on your feet.

I like how this post focuses on being resourceful. If we accept that a job loss can happen through no fault of our own, we can accept them more easily. Maybe 😉

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Emma

I agree. This was a refreshing realization when I was laid off, actually. I wasn’t perfect, but I do think I blamed myself too much, especially considering the layoffs were pretty massive. I realized that I’m not so special that I’m impervious to bad fortune. And this realization made me really appreciate what I have. I also think you’re right about the stigma. I was so embarrassed and down on myself at first. That really got in the way of a productive job search.

SJ
SJ
5 years ago

Absolutely fantastic article. Just the reminder and kick in the rear that I needed as we start a new year.

Rebecca@TheFamilyFinder
5 years ago

My hubs has the same quality as your BF. He can make something out of nothing and will persevere to fix anything. He has more staying power than everyone I have ever met. And he never settles.

Laura
Laura
5 years ago

What a great post to start the new year with! Thanks, Kristin, for something to add to my 2015 toolkit (and my bulletin board!). Happy New Year.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
5 years ago
Reply to  Laura

Thank you! I’m honored to make it onto your board 🙂 Happy New Year!

Christine
Christine
5 years ago

I agree with Laura. This post reminds us that we can control our reaction to our circumstances, not only financially but in all other realms we deal with. Thank you for the reminder!

Greg
Greg
5 years ago

What did the former PR rep use from her PR experience that helped her land the publishing deal?

LeRainDrop
LeRainDrop
5 years ago

Fantastic article, Kristin! I think taking this proactive and optimistic perspective helps to clarify the person’s strengths/resources and then nudge them towards success. This reminds me of the “locus of control” concept that I’ve seen discussed in several places, including here at GRS by J.D. Roth: https://www.getrichslowly.org/you-are-the-boss-of-you-how-to-find-success-with-life-and-money/

Mary Grace
Mary Grace
5 years ago

I agree with what the author stated in this article. The secret to become successful in life is to know what we really want. The article is applying the law of attraction.

Erica W.
Erica W.
5 years ago

One of my favorite sayings is “you don’t have to like your situation, you just have to like yourself in it.”

AMW
AMW
5 years ago

Excellent article Kristin!

I also find that the best partner for resourcefullness is resilience!

My husband had a job similar to Kristin’s boyfriend…they demoted him. Rather than quit, he accepted a job in a different department, learned a new job, and then was lured away by another company for a vice president’s position. The new company had a much friendlier corporate culture and the worst day at the new company doesn’t come close to the best day at the old company. I love how he took a crappy situation and turned it in to a valuable asset for himself.

Kayla @ Femme Frugality
Kayla @ Femme Frugality
5 years ago

This is a great way to look at everything in life. We are all blessed with certain talents and we all have resources. We should be using these things to our advtange to affect the things we can change and control rather than wasting energy on the things we can’t control at all. Easier said than done sometimes though.

Elissa @ 20s Finances
Elissa @ 20s Finances
5 years ago

Yes, good points! I definitely agree about the pay gap – just dealing with it is not a good answer.

Great article!

Sherry
Sherry
5 years ago

I had my first book published this past Spring (one of 2014’s accomplishments after a boatload of fear-based procrastination) and in it, I did my best to show how often it’s so much more comfortable to ascribe everything from heredity to bad breaks than take control of the things we can actually control IF we’re willing to break down paradigms. That “outside locus of control” described in JD’s article can be far more damaging than the short-term risk of failure. Stephen Covey said the Highly Effective people happen TO things – they don’t sit back and wait/hope/complain about things that… Read more »

Kasia
Kasia
5 years ago

What a great article. I have to agree. I also try to look at the things I can control in my life and it certainly reduces the stress level. I think if we all concerned ourselves with the things within our control then we’d be better off in general.

JS
JS
5 years ago

Good post. I am applying this principle in the new year in a different way. I am one who finds the current irresponsibility and overreaching of the government very troubling, but reading about it constantly on my various favored news sites is stressing me out. What can I control? I show up and vote for my representatives. I can have a reasonable understanding of the various issues. The rest? I probably shouldn’t be reading about it constantly. So in the new year, I am going on a media diet. I am not cutting it out entirely (I need to be… Read more »

Mihai Pintilie
Mihai Pintilie
5 years ago

I also lived a situation pretty much the same your boyfriend experienced. Up to the firing. I managed to get a job after a few months but I already started thinking going my way, my business. So, after another few years, just decided to quit the job and go my way. And it’s fine now.

Adam
Adam
5 years ago

I’m not sure I quite understand the pay gap issue. You’d think there would be a company out there that would go “Wait, I can get the same skills and training from female workers and pay them less then a male worker? Sold!” And then snatch them all up. You’d think having a cheaper labor force around would drive down the pay of males? Or am I just thinking to analytically?

Bankonome
Bankonome
5 years ago

I agree completely that we need to focus on the things that we can control but another aspect is that we should attempt to set up our lives in such a way that we are in control of as many situations as we can be. I don’t mean to say that we do this by controlling others, I do mean to say we do this by controlling ourselves and our surroundings. For example if we have set up a budget and prepared for loosing our job at any time by having a savings set aside for such an occasion, well… Read more »

Liette Seguin
Liette Seguin
5 years ago

Thank you for sharing the article. Hope to hear more from you.

Edward
Edward
5 years ago

Wasn’t there an old saying, “Take away a millionaire’s money and he’ll make it back. Give it all to a broke man and he’ll end up broke”? Sounds a bit harsh in today’s terms but modern mentality assumes we’re all living on an even intellectual, emotional, and ambition-level playing field. Which we are definitely not. Some people are better with employment, money, etc., like some people are better at guitar, carpentry, etc. We’re not all equal at all things and that’s what makes humans so diverse and great. “It’s not fair.” No, it’s not, but the universe and genetics happily… Read more »

Jennifer
Jennifer
5 years ago

This story makes me think of two ways of thinking that are part of me. I think its important to not let “making excuses” be a part of your life story. If you really think about it, choices you made brought you to the point of your supposed failure and there is no need to blame yourself or others or get into excessively feeling sorry for yourself. No Excuses! Make adjustments, regroup, be grateful for what you learned what you have and then let it go, move forward. You have to have failure to recognize and appreciate success. Having less… Read more »

Reece
Reece
5 years ago

This is so nice to read. The way I interpreted what you’ve said is ‘to take responsibility for your own life’. We all have the choice to be a victim, but it doesn’t get us anywhere.
Thanks for this 🙂

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