You are the boss of you: How to find success with life and money

“What do you think is the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people?” an interviewer asked me earlier this week.

“Well, I don’t like to make generalizations,” I said, “but I’ve thought about this question a lot. While there are certainly exceptions, I’d say that successful people believe they control their destiny and unsuccessful people do not.”

“What do you mean?” asked the interviewer. And from there, we delved into a deep discussion about fate, responsibility, and locus of control.

Locus of Control

The term “locus of control” sounds complicated but the concept is actually easy to understand. Locus of control refers to how you ascribe responsibility for the things that happen to you.

  • If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
  • If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your environment, by luck, by fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

This isn’t an either-or proposition, obviously. Locus of control exists on a continuum. But many people tend to favor one side of the continuum over the other.

For years, my locus of control was primarily external. I was overweight, in debt, and unhappy. On some level, I knew that my state was a result of my choices, but most of my time was spent rationalizing reasons I couldn’t change: I didn’t have time to exercise, my car broke down, I didn’t get the job I wanted. Nothing good ever happened to me. (Notice that phrase: “happened to me.”) I thought most things were outside of my control.

It wasn’t until my locus of control became more internal that my life began to improve. Once I realized that nobody cares more about my money than I do, I was able to get out of debt, start a business, and save for retirement. Once I realized that the only way to get fit was to, well, get fit, I began to do the hard work of eating right and exercising every day.

And that’s the thing: Accepting that you’re in control of your own life is hard work. It takes time, and it takes effort. Most of all, it takes owning your decisions and admitting your mistakes. Ultimately, however, the rewards are worth it.

Bad Examples

In my interview last week, I made a generalization: “Successful people believe they’re in control of their destiny and unsuccessful people do not.” Let me give you some specific examples. (Since I’ll be discussing friends and family, I’m changing details in the anecdotes that follow.)

  • One of my friends owns three vehicles. Last Monday, he had an appointment. He couldn’t go. One car was out of gas, another had a flat tire, and his mother had borrowed the third. So, he missed the appointment. To hear him talk, this was outside his control — as if he couldn’t have walked to the nearest gas station or installed a spare tire. (A few months ago, the same friend considered renting a car to drive to the beach because his car’s tires were worn and he couldn’t afford new ones.)
  • Another friend has no health insurance. One of his clients works at a clinic and offered to provide some free medical care to his family. He accepted. But then he and his family didn’t make the appointment because “something came up.” Now, one of the kids is sick with a condition that could have been caught and treated several months ago. This friend too blames forces beyond his control.
  • I also know a woman who owns a nearby business. The business is always on the brink of collapse. She believes her store struggles because of onerous city codes and an unresponsive landlord. Yet, other businesses around her thrive despite similar circumstances. She doesn’t see that the problem could be with the way she runs the place: the store’s odd hours, its poor condition, the way she treats her customers.

This list could go on and on. Since I’ve become aware of this distinction — between folks who believe they’re in control of their lives and those who don’t — it’s been like waking from the Matrix. I can’t help but see the patterns everywhere I go. (And can’t help but see the same pattern in my past life.)

I hate to admit it, but it’s often tough to talk with folks who have an external locus of control. Nobody wants to lecture (or be lectured by) their friends, yet sometimes it’s hard to watch friends repeatedly make poor choices. On the other hand, it’s refreshing to spend time with people who don’t let life get them down.

My girlfriend, Kim, is a great example. She never lets anyone or anything hold her back. If something goes wrong, she finds another way to achieve her goals. She had several thousand dollars saved to buy a new car, for instance. But then her health insurance didn’t cover all of her shoulder surgery, she received an unexpected tax bill, and her boyfriend (a.k.a. me) decided to take her on a three-week trip to Europe. Her savings vanished.

Rather than complain about the situation, she got to work. She picked up extra hours at the office. She offered to help me sell my comic books (in exchange for a cut of the proceeds). And she’s in the middle of starting her own business. Already, she’s recovered a good chunk of the money she lost. Kim has a strong internal locus of control.

Turning Anger Into Possibility

On Monday, Mr. Money Mustache responded to some complaints about an earlier article on his site. “You can spare us both the outrage,” he wrote. He continued:

It’s almost a law of the Internet these days: if somebody comes up with an idea or does something, there will be an immediate nationwide chorus of whining and rattling keyboards as a large number of people hasten to complain and express outrage about what they’ve just read.


Instead of boiling up a pot of anger based on your perceived inability to do something, why not throw it on the other burner — the one that gets you fired up about new possibilities about which you knew nothing before?

I dashed off an email praising the article, and I mentioned the notion of locus of control. In his reply, Pete pointed out that he first heard of this concept nearly 20 years ago in the classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Long ago, when the world was young, I also read Seven Habits, but I remember almost nothing of it. Based on Pete’s comment, I picked up a copy from the public library. Sure enough. The very first habit is “be proactive. Essentially, to take control of your own life, to be the be your own boss:

BE PROACTIVE. Between stimulus and response in human beings lies the power to choose. Productivity, then, means that we are solely responsible for what happens in our lives. No fair blaming anyone or anything else.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You are responsible for your own health. You are responsible for your own wealth. You are responsible for your own happiness. You are responsible for all of it, big and small.

Note: For those unaware, Mr. Money Mustache and I will be two of four presenters at a retreat in Ecuador next month. (Okay, officially this is a “chautauqua” and not a “retreat.” Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.) There’ve been a few last-minute cancellations. If you’d like to come hang out with us for a week, go here. I’ve already had fun getting to know some of the other 20 attendees.

Obviously, shit happens. But you know what? Shit happens to everyone. Ultimately, who we are and what we become is determined not by what sort of shit happens to us, but by how we respond to that shit. End of story.

This idea isn’t original to me, obviously. (Nor to Stephen Covey.) It’s been around for centuries. It was eloquently expressed by Victor Frankl in the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived the Nazi death camps. The experience served as a crucible for his theory of personal development, which he called logotherapy. Frankl’s philosophy, in a nutshell, is that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

This may seem like a lot of highfalutin’ talk for a financial blog. Some of you might not see how any of this is related to saving and investing. But it is. In fact, I’d say this concept — the idea of agency, of personal responsibility — is the root of financial success.

Yes, bad things happen. Be ready for them (have an emergency fund, take out adequate insurance, save for retirement), and when bad things happen look for ways to overcome them instead of letting circumstances overcome you. Remember Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous “serenity prayer“:

God 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.

Simple — but powerful too.

You Are the Boss of You

Here’s the bottom line: You are the boss of you. You don’t need anybody’s permission to get out of debt or to buy a house or to ask for a raise. And nobody’s going to come to you out of the blue to explain investing or health insurance or your credit card contract. Instead, you need to take charge of that stuff yourself.

I spent yesterday morning with my friend Andrew, whom I’ve known since first grade. For an hour, he and I sat in the park watching his 3-year-old son swing and slide.

“Isaiah’s not afraid to take charge,” I said.

“Yeah,” agreed Andrew. “He’s strong-willed. As a parent, that can be frustrating. But his pediatrician pointed out that it’s a good quality for a kid to have, especially in the long run. Independent kids aren’t afraid to try new things, and they don’t let things bring them down. ‘I wouldn’t have made it through medical school if I’d let all the crap get me down,’ he told us.”

To achieve financial success, you can’t let the crap get you down. You must be independent, must develop an internal locus of control.

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There are 72 comments to "You are the boss of you: How to find success with life and money".

  1. Bernard Berry says 01 August 2013 at 04:34

    True that! Depending only on my skills and hard work I got myself a nice Volkswagen Phaeton! So cheer up and try until you succeed!

    • David Hunter says 01 August 2013 at 11:39

      Rock on, Bernard! If at first you don’t succeed, try-try again.

      And, welcome back J.D.!

      “Live like no one else, so later you can live like no one else!” -Dave Ramsey

      • Bernard Berry says 16 August 2013 at 05:12

        Thanks David! I truly believe in that!

  2. Elizabeth says 01 August 2013 at 04:35

    +1! Love this post!

    I used to see this all the time when I was teaching. It’s not necessarily the smartest kids who succeed: it’s the ones who take responsibility for their learning. If they don’t understand a concept, they get extra help. When they lose marks on an assignment or test, they ask for correction rather than blaming the teacher. When given an assignment, they find a way to overcome obstacles and work around constraints. They don’t complain about a class being a waste of their time — instead, they find ways to apply the material to their interests.

    I’ve noticed the same traits among successful people in the workplace and in entrepreneurs. I do think we have to be mindful of things we can’t control, but we can either make excuses or make an effort.

    • Toodeleedoo says 01 August 2013 at 11:01

      I LOVE this.

      Funny though…I have been in a new position for 6 months. It is a 13 month secondment from another job which I will have to return to. I asked my current supervisor what it was that I needed to do to succeed at this position as I wanted to do as well as possible and I wanted to learn as much as I could in such a short time frame (13 months is not long). This sort of freaked her out because it isn’t what she was used to: someone taking responsibility for their career and showing some creativity. In fact I think that in some environments it could make others very uncomfortable, which is unfortunate.

      • Dick says 02 August 2013 at 05:13

        Sounds so familiar ! It can land you in all sorts of “trouble” .
        I was once in a new job and , in all innocence, and started working but it turns out I did the work of two people and had the , again in all innocence again, nervee to ask for more ’cause it was all done.

        My boss had some explaining to do to the Management.And that wasn’t the last time either I pulled off that ‘trick’ .

  3. backyard farmer in Ohio says 01 August 2013 at 04:40

    Good insight, but like every good sermon, we need to see how it applies to ourselves, not the other guy.

    As Michael Jackson would say, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror.”

  4. abby says 01 August 2013 at 05:04

    i’ve heard this before but for some reason its really sinking in today. thanks

  5. Ryan Bonaparte says 01 August 2013 at 05:05

    This is great. I am a firm believer in “Locus of Control,” though I didn’t know it had an actual name. So many people don’t take responsibility for their situation, and more importantly, don’t take responsibility for getting out it. I often kick myself for making stupid decisions that make my situation worse, but I’m always aware that it’s my choices and not the will of the universe.
    I do know one or two people that luck really does seem to run out for them often (despite doing everything right and then some, their situation just keeps getting worse) but the vast majority of people don’t have this experience.

  6. FI Pilgrim says 01 August 2013 at 05:21

    Great article JD, I think your generalization is spot on. I’ve been realizing some of this over the last year or two myself, and have almost used the “waking up from the Matrix” analogy several times recently… that’s really what it feels like!

  7. Louisa says 01 August 2013 at 05:43

    I do take responsibility for my life and try to catch myself when I don’t. Luckily my husband and I serve as each others’ BS detectors and call each other on it when either of us starts to feel “at effect” of others.
    But from having lived in other cultures and explored cross-cultural values, I’ve also learned that the idea of self-responsibility is very cultural, and that Americans hold it as a higher value than anywhere else in the world. Muslims believe in inshallah (if God wills it); people in much of the Latin, African and Asian worlds also believe that destiny, God or other spiritual or natural forces ultimately determine their lives. They do not believe they are the “boss” of themselves.
    There is a powerful tendency in all cultures to believe the values of their own culture are the “right” values, and I think you are demonstrating this somewhat in your post.
    I don’t think we can say because we believe in taking personal responsibility (and I do), that people who believe that to a lesser degree (who include people all over the world) are therefore not going to succeed or will be held back. It’s more nuanced than that.

    • phoenix1920 says 01 August 2013 at 07:20

      I see what you are saying, but I don’t think this post conflicts with other’s belief in God’s will. Even in the US, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard (and said), “The Good Lord willing . . .”, which recognizes that the best laid plans don’t always go according to OUR plan. As you mention, other cultures also have this phrase/expression in which they believe (Insha’Allah in Arabic; Deus vult in Latin America; Dieu le veut in France)

      There are degrees of ultimate destiny, and a significant number of people in the US believe in that. (“It was just his time to go” etc) However, destiny generally refers to things that people have little to no control over–whether the weather will support the harvest, whether your health will be good this year, whether calamities will befall you or your family, etc. Few, if any, people in any country believe that destiny controls everything–if it did, you don’t need to work because either food and money will come to you or it won’t. Why look for a spouse at all if destiny will simply give you that spouse, etc.

      While I understand your perspective that the US has very strong sense of self-responsibility, I don’t believe that this concept involves the power of God’s will/fate over our lives. Instead, I believe that people in the US have a very strong value for self-reliance and this concept is more directed about whether we are responsible for just ourselves or whether we are also responsible for others and others should be responsible in helping us.

  8. Jane says 01 August 2013 at 05:47

    I would tend to agree that complaining has become a national sport, and that people would benefit from entertaining new ideas, even if their initial internal response is to balk at them.

    Having said that, the problem I see with Mr. Money Mustache’s blog is that he doesn’t seem to see or at least acknowledge the difference between valid criticisms and the whiny “woe is me” stuff. At least if he does, I don’t notice a difference between how he responds publicly to the two groups. Unfortunately this leads to a stagnancy and a cult-like feel to his comment section. I’ve said this before on GRS, and I honestly think it has gotten worse since his blog has gained some external notoriety. Now it’s not just him summarily dismissing the increasing number of people who push him on his ideas but his whole cadre of loyal supporters.

    In my opinion, one sign that your ideas are worth their salt is if you are able to respond productively to criticisms. I think the article “You Can Spare Us Both the Outrage” was a step in the right direction, but this is counteracted by his and his followers’ rather rude responses to people in the comments. Polite dissent can only improve your blog – that is, unless you prefer to be stuck in an echo chamber.

    I read the blog despite these things, mainly because I like to be challenged out of my financial routines. But that doesn’t change the fact that I find him and his core audience to be arrogant.

    • Anne says 01 August 2013 at 07:56

      Sing it, sister!

    • Betty says 01 August 2013 at 08:20


      While critism can be constructive, it can also lead us to make excuses for ourselves.

      I do believe this is why MMM, shuns it. Too, he wants valuable content in the comments. If he entertained critisms it would hijack the
      content. His blog is unique because you can learn something in the comments.

      Also, his attitude reminds me of my time in military basic training. Their motto “No excuses”….if you truly want to succeed you will overcome or, die trying. That is MMM’s message, a soldier’s attitude, and, what J.D. has written here today.

      • BrentABQ says 01 August 2013 at 10:56

        This sort of “overcome or die trying” mentality really bugs me, like there are no valid reasons for letting go of a desire. For me its simple, the cost might become too high for it to be worth it anymore. Time, Health, mental energy, all these we need to conserve. I’m not going to sacrifice an hour of sleep just so I can put in an unpaid hour at the office to advance my career. But if I say I have a goal of getting a promotion and claim I’m unwilling to sleep less this “overcome or die trying” philosophy won’t accept that. Some people get on this kick especially looking at other people and every explanation, reason or complaint that runs contrary becomes an unexceptionable excuse. People must prioritize their lives and actions. I think JD keeps this balanced, but there are plenty that aren’t.

        • Betty says 01 August 2013 at 11:54


          Choices will have to be made regardless. All,
          the “no excuses” is saying……your choices and, the crap that happens to you are not an excuse to complain or, whine. Own your choices and, the crap that comes along.

          Just as J.D.’s girlfriend owned her choices and, the crap in this post. I didn’t read once that she bemoaned her fate. Nope, she made her choices and, regrouped to accomplish her goal.

          Wallowing in excuses and, self-pity only causes us more loss and, pain. Too, have you ever spent time with someone who does
          this? So not fun.

          Some are more natural at this than others.
          But, we all have to work on our attitudes.(me)
          That is what makes MMM’s blog great. His
          positive attitude.

    • Tim says 01 August 2013 at 08:53


      I completely agree with you. I found the cult of MMM most notable in his post on bicycling being the “safest” form of transportation. MMM’s argument was that the health benefits of biking outweighed the increased risk of dying in an accident (compared to driving a car), and although I had issues with his methodology, it’s certainly a reasonable argument. His followers, however, took it literally, and were trying to argue that bicycling is actually safer (as in, fewer injuries and deaths per mile traveled) than driving, even though MMM’s own statistics proved them wrong.

      I lost a lot of respect for the most vocal of MMM’s followers from that exchange. If they don’t respond to actual facts, then it really is cult-like.

    • Jacq says 01 August 2013 at 12:02

      For a *great* example of how to respond to criticism, have a look at Joshua Kennon’s responses to critical comments on this (somewhat uncharacteristically toned) post:

      I have to admit it’s become an occasional guilty pleasure to skip the MMM articles (info not really needed) and go straight to the comments. Reading them has helped me become a lot less judgmental and more empathetic. Sort of like how I spontaneously start exercising during the Biggest Loser or declutter while watching Hoarders.

  9. katherine says 01 August 2013 at 06:17

    You know, I first learned this lesson from the movie “Clerks”. I had just graduated college and considered myself a Dante type. But then Randall had his rant toward the end of the movie and WHAM: I got it. Far less glamorous than reading Covey but terribly effective to a 22 year old. I have never considered myself a victim of my circumstances since. And that was 20 years ago. I still make poor choices but I own every single one of them.

  10. EC says 01 August 2013 at 06:23

    J.D., thank you so much for this article. It reminded me tremendously of how I acted before I started to develop a plan to get my life and finances in place.

    Several years ago, in my head I would rationalize that “my parents were bad with money, so it’s okay if I’m bad with money” or “I should just finance this TV becuase everyone else is”. That type of thinking got me into some consumer debt that I’m still kicking myself over, but at the same time moving on from it.

    The decisions we make are OURS to make and we need to accept that. This article helped reinforce that attitude, especially in a day and age where it feels like alot of folks in our society blame others for how their life is turning out.

    Thanks again for this article!


  11. LeRainDrop says 01 August 2013 at 06:29

    Awesome article, JD! It’s so great to have you back at GRS! Your comments really resonated with me and remind me not to slip into the lazier side of blaming outside forces. I’m going to have to pull out my copy of Seven Habits and read it again, too — it’s been too many years to remember 🙂

  12. Juli says 01 August 2013 at 06:55

    I think we all know people who are controlled by their circumstances. I have a co-worker who is constantly complaining about money, but he goes out for lunch every single day, and his wife doesn’t like to cook so they eat out for dinner almost every night. I had to laugh when he recently was talking about how when you have money it is easier to save money — and his example was how when you are rich you can buy a year’s worth of toilet paper at Sams Club. Seriously? I just want to yell at him to start taking control of his own finances — but since we work together I try to find nicer ways of saying it.

  13. Susan says 01 August 2013 at 07:12

    My mother-in-law (MIL) is going through a tough time now. She’s suffering from shingles and my father-in-law (FIL) has a broken femur and is in rehabilitation after two weeks in hospital. He tried to test out a mountain bike at a thrift shop after not having ridden one for decades and lost his balance but that’s another story. Neither are handling the situation very well. He’s 72 and she’s 68 and they are both retired.

    My MIL is afraid for the future and envisions only hardship going forward. Every day she gets up early and walks to the rehab center and stays the entire day until late evening. She’s there to support him but says he is too stubborn to help himself. She says she sometimes has to yell at him to push him to help himself. She’s exhausted and ill herself but tries her best. She says my FIL is being stubborn and lazy. My FIL’s recovery is going very slowly because he often refuses to participate in trying to regain his walking strength.

    My husband and I live in another country but he has two siblings that live nearby. They visit and give their support between jobs and children. My husband and I feel a bit guilty for not being there but we realize the situation is out of our control and we offer our support through phone calls and emails.

    Ultimately my FIL must decide to help himself. He made the unfortunate decision to try out the bicycle in a thrift shop so now he must make the decision to be strong (or at least fake trying to be strong) and do what the rehab people ask him to do so that he can recover and walk again. It may sound harsh but only he can control how quickly he recovers. I think the serenity prayer is appropriate for all involved here. Thank you JD for helping me to feel a bit better about the whole situation.

  14. Simon says 01 August 2013 at 07:12

    Timely post! With all the whining in the country about the economy, bad governance etc…I think you bring it out crystal clear that we control how we react to our circumstances and if we take charge we can come out of most of our predicaments.
    My take from the post: Stop whining and do something about it!

  15. Ramblin' Ma'am says 01 August 2013 at 07:27

    I have seen this a lot in recent years because of the financial crisis and the general state of the economy. People cite external, geopolitical factors as the reason why they can’t get ahead.

    And of course, those things influence our lives. But to me, that makes it even MORE important to control my own personal circumstances and choices as much as I can.

    • Edward says 02 August 2013 at 09:26

      Agree with that! But we all know, even if geopolitical factors were Fairlyland 100% Utopian and a perfect society of shiny people, many folks would easily find some other “reason” why they can’t get ahead. And they really dig deep to find excuses sometimes.

      Like: “Once I found out all the food was free, I ate until I almost exploded. Now I have a weight problem and diabetes and I’m in the hospital! They need to have a law to protect us. And by the way, even though this hospital is also free, I have to pee in a bed pan because the toilet is too far away. Is that any way to live?! The toilets need to be closer. Speaking of that, even if I could make it to the toilet I have to push the flush lever myself (which is a lot of work) and it probably has germs on it because nobody’s wiped it in 4 hours!! 4 hours, I tell you! What sort of crap is this? …I blame society.”

  16. phoenix1920 says 01 August 2013 at 07:27

    Great article!! Good to see you

  17. SavvyFinancialLatina says 01 August 2013 at 07:31

    I think the majority of people don’t believe they have control of their life/destiny. So they just let life happen. I try to be proactive and grab the bull by the horns!

  18. Susan says 01 August 2013 at 07:44

    Yes, YES, a thousand yesses to this article! It was only when I stopped blaming everyone and everything else and started focusing on what I could do to help my debt situation that I got out of debt and reached financial stability. Now that is spreading to other areas of my life. It wasn’t easy and represents a major change in thinking and acting, but it works. It works.

  19. Anne says 01 August 2013 at 07:59

    This post totally encompasses all that needs to be said about life. Period.

    Finance is just a subset of life.

  20. Sumitha says 01 August 2013 at 08:13

    Great to see you back here, JD! And such a wonderful article to get started with too.

    I am consciously working on this right now, just hadn’t realized that it had a fancy name (“locus of control”)… And coincidentally it was having to deal with a strong willed child (like your friend Andrew) that made me start down this path first. I totally agree with you that this is the root of any kind of success — financial, career, parenting, relationships etc.

    Look forward to more insightful articles from you here in the future.

  21. says 01 August 2013 at 08:29

    Great article! Very motivational – you really are the master of your own universe. As long as you’re willing to never give up and keep working towards your goals you can accomplish anything!

  22. Tina says 01 August 2013 at 08:41

    Great article. I think it speaks volumes about how it relates to a spender(external) and a saver(internal). I am the saver and he is the spender. I don’t complain too much about money, job choices, etc but he does. He complains and blames life for having to take what job he could get and all the bad stuff that has happened to him and has no faith that things will get better. I look at it as I am thankful I have a job, every bill that we eliminate brings us closer to freedom and believe our misfortune is due to our mistakes. As you can see, we have totally different outlooks in life.

    I tell him life is all about choices and they can harm or help even effect others. A drunk driver causes an accident, kills someone. It was the driver’s choice to drive and now all effected have to live with the consequences. If more people would choose like they had something to lose(money,job,freedom,family, etc), I believe they would be wiser with their choices.

    Unfortunately, we live in an self entitlement society and I see it more and more that people blame others for their misfortune.

  23. Ely says 01 August 2013 at 08:50

    Welcome back, JD, and thanks for this post. This kind of article is what brought me to GRS in the first place, and it’s nice to see it again.

    I’ve noticed this in my relationship, where I tend to blame myself for things, my husband blames others. Neither is particularly useful; however, ultimately I know that I – and only I – can do something about it, whereas I don’t think he does. He blames ‘the IRS’ or ‘work’ or ‘the way the world is’ and he rarely seems to get off the stick and do anything. And of course it’s nearly impossible to talk to him about it, because of course everything he experiences is ‘true.’

    Sigh. I do what I can, and of course one thing I can do is listen, and accept him the way he is. 🙂

  24. MonicaOnMoney says 01 August 2013 at 08:53

    It’s easy to fall into being a victim and you’re right we all have examples of it. Great article on focusing on taking charge of our lives.

  25. Lesley says 01 August 2013 at 09:00

    Nailed it JD!

    Somehow, you’ve managed to capture and define the many disparate thoughts I’ve had over the years that have led me to look askance at those who blame “the universe” and anything else for their troubles, rather than taking personal responsibility for them.

    A great follow up would be some advice on how to speak to our friends or family who do have that external locus of control about how to subtly shift it to an internal locus.

  26. Carla says 01 August 2013 at 09:05

    Welcome back, JD! This is the GRS I know and love.

    For all of my misfortunes I rarely (if ever) blame anyone else. EVERYTHING is completely my fault. Everything, no matter what it is. I almost got t-boned a few months ago because the other driver ran a red light and was speeding, but I still managed to blame myself. “I should have gone the other way; should have stayed home, etc.”

    Instead of giving myself credit for being a great driver, completely avoiding what could have been a horrible accident, I managed to blame myself. I do this in all other areas of my life: Its my fault (somehow) I have MS and Lyme disease, got laid off, etc.

    I think for me that is probably just as destructive and unproductive as blaming someone else or forces outside my control. I definitely have to learn how to balance this a little better.

    • Jacq says 01 August 2013 at 09:52

      Carla, this attribution tendency to take responsibility “too far” (blame yourself) is commonly seen when people are depressed.

      A couple of books that are helpful with this are Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism and David Burns Feeling Good Handbook. Or any reading related to learned helplessness: Carol Dweck, Albert Bandura’s work on self efficacy… I hope this helps.

      It’s tremendously difficult to push yourself to try to change when someone has health stressors like you have. Kudos to you for having the grit to keep on trying.

      • Carla says 01 August 2013 at 10:58

        Thanks for the link of references, Jacq! I will definitely look for those books at my local library. I can related to the article you linked and I only just read part of it (Ill read more later).

  27. Brooklyn Money says 01 August 2013 at 09:21

    I havent’ spent this much timing reading a GRS since, hum, I guess since you last contributed, JD! Welcome back.

  28. artvarck says 01 August 2013 at 09:47

    I tend to believe and live according to the internal locus of control (as I suspect most readers GRS do, just by the nature of the message), but one thing I have a hard time with is the race equality issue that it brings to light. I’m a white male, so compared to many I’ve lived a life of privilege. There others who would look at this internal v. external message, written by another white male, and claim that it’s easier to adhere to such a philosophy when you’re not the victim of racial inequities. These inequities create a completely different set of life circumstances, throwing the balance in favor of a real, not perceived, external locus of control. I live in Hawaii where native Hawaiians suffer from much higher rates of poverty, incarceration, health problems, etc. Many native Hawaiian rights’ advocates point to the “illegal overthrow” of Hawaii and resulting domination of Europeans’ financial gains as an external locus of control pattern that can never be overcome individually, no matter how responsible the individual. Only with sovereignty or race-based autonomy will native Hawaiians come to realize their full potential, they say.
    It’s a complicated issue, and I am not sure how to respond to the internal v. external locus of control questions that arise in this and similar situations.

  29. Brenton says 01 August 2013 at 09:47

    Great article. Hopefully the message gets through to everyone reading it. I wonder if this is something that cannot be taught, something that comes only through self-realization. I always knew the basic concept, but it never resonated until I found myself in a bad position in life and had to claw my way out. It certainly is life-altering when you finally do understand.

  30. krantcents says 01 August 2013 at 09:50

    I think we as individuals are responsible for ourselves. You have to be proactive to have a good life. It is as simple as that!

  31. BrentABQ says 01 August 2013 at 11:10

    This plays highly into the idea of learned helplessness. Sometimes when we try something and fail we believe that it lies outside of our ability and give up. We have to tackle it again, but set small certainly achievable goals to get back that feeling that its with our ability again. That’s why the snowball method works so well for so many. Setup the smallest card first, see that it can be done and its getting better. In my opinion there is far too much of this “reach for the stars and no excuses” going around instead of “what is the smallest most achievable improvement that you can do in your situation.” Take a walk? Bike to work? Pack lunches? downgrade cable?

    • Susan says 01 August 2013 at 17:53

      Kazen method…

  32. Matt @ Your Living Body says 01 August 2013 at 11:30

    “Successful people do the things that unsuccessful people don’t want to do.”

  33. Cody says 01 August 2013 at 11:46

    Well, I have two black eyes and some teeth missing now…but I’m smiling through it!

    Thanks J.D.

    It’s an odd concept: that one can wholeheartedly believe in a concept and then consistently violate it. Rand discusses this internal conflict in her Romantic Manifesto. I guess I better go re-read it.

  34. Desertscrooge says 01 August 2013 at 12:07

    This article is really timely. I’ve been having work related issues for a few months and been trying to figure out what’s best for me. I am in control and it’s up to me to make the changes and choices that will work for me overall.

  35. Pete (not mmm) says 01 August 2013 at 13:14

    What a great article. Here’s a related article I discovered this week from MMM: “The practical benefits of outrageous optimism”:
    I’ve bookmarked these both just to read when I’m not fired up.

  36. Katie says 01 August 2013 at 13:17

    If you’re advising an individual about their life – or planning your own life as an individual – I think this is exactly right. The problem with the MMM post, which is so often the problem with personal finance blog posts, is that part of it (the part about the McDonald’s budget) took systemic commentary and treated it as if it was about an individual.

    And it wasn’t. People weren’t angry about the McDonald’s budget because they can’t take the individual life of a given McDonald’s worker and figure out a way that that particular person could make their life easier by taking a certain set of steps. They can. They were angry about the McDonald’s budget because – on a systemic level – it was an example of how a group of people who is systematically disadvantaged compared to other groups of people was having those disadvantages glossed over by its very architects. In other words, it was patronizing drivel.

    So yes, if you’re talking to a single mother of 3 kids trying to make it on two fast foods jobs at 70 hours a week, by all means, encourage her to focus on what she can control about her situation; it’s all you can do. If, on the other hand, you’re looking at society as a whole – it’s abhorrent not to acknowledge that the statistical likelihood is that that same mother has been dealing with a variety of things since birth that have made it more difficult for her to succeed than for you to succeed, and will continually to do so.

    It’s not true in every case; it will never be true in every case. But abdicating our responsibility towards bettering people’s opportunities in society damn well means looking at external focuses that hold people down as much as it does encouraging them to look at internal ones. And no smug blog posts about how they just need to exhibit more “badassity” is going to change that.

  37. Withu says 01 August 2013 at 16:09

    Probably one of the best posts on finance and doing life well that I’ve read in a long while. I had to read it twice – and have sent it to some friends whom I know will also appreciate it. Thank you!

  38. Patrick says 01 August 2013 at 17:10

    I once knew a couple of people that had extreme external locus of control.

    One guy strongly believed in FATE – to the point that he rarely made long-term plans. He used to tell me that “if it’s my fate, then it will happen”. Of course, if you truly believe this, than anything bad that happens in your life isn’t really your fault since it was FATE.

    I also knew a guy that believed something similar in that everything was God’s Will. I remember overhearing him have a conversation with another person that was wanting to meet him for dinner. The guy kept saying “if it’s God’s will, then we will meet”. I personally found that guy to be kind of scary. That was 30 years ago and I have no idea where these guys landed in life. It would be interesting to know.

  39. Jay says 01 August 2013 at 17:22

    “Another friend has no health insurance. One of his clients works at a clinic and offered to provide some free medical care to his family. He accepted. But then he and his family didn’t make the appointment because “something came up.” Now, one of the kids is sick with a condition that could have been caught and treated several months ago. This friend too blames forces beyond his control.”

    This one sounds fishy. What, did the child have tuberculosis? The ‘several months ago’ has me suspicious that this was simply input to make the headline fit the anecdote. Just my 2cents.

  40. Louisa says 01 August 2013 at 19:11

    Artvarck, I appreciate your point. Individual responsibility is critical, but even with individual responsibility, systems and structures can interfere.

    • Stephen Kratcoski says 02 August 2013 at 06:27

      Rules, guidelines and red tape can throw a monkey wrench into everyone’s financial goals. I have learned that adapting to change and changing your financial, investment or retirement goals are necessary to move past all obstacles in your path.

  41. Maria @ Pocket of Money says 01 August 2013 at 19:57

    Great article. Makes me wonder, what are the determinants of having an internal vs. external locus of control. How big of a role does culture and upbringing play? Thanks for the food for thought.

  42. bemoneyaware says 01 August 2013 at 20:47

    Awesome..Just awesome.
    Welcome back Roth
    Well said
    Shit happens to everyone. Ultimately, who we are and what we become is determined not by what sort of shit happens to us, but by how we respond to that shit. End of story.

  43. Dear Debt says 01 August 2013 at 22:38

    Great post. For a long time, I had a strong external locus of control. Finally, I realized that some things were getting better in my life, some were not, but I could choose how I reacted and how I moved forward. A lot of painful truths come out of those moments of transition of thought. It’s easy to put the blame on other things. Taking responsibility can be overwhelming. When I think, me and me alone has 50k in student loans to pay back, I get scared and overwhelmed. If I blame the government, the student loan bubble, or say ‘there are so many others like me’I am not really changing my situation, I am just deflecting it. Facing issues head on is hard, and takes a lot of inter-personal strength. Glad you found that and I am on the way to getting there.

  44. Amber says 01 August 2013 at 22:49

    A few months ago, I finally figured out what I want to be when I grow up (at the ripe old age of 34). My plan was to pay off the house in the next 4 years by adding $1200-1400 to our monthly mortgage so that I can attend technical school with our teenage son. I even received an unexpected and very significant raise at work, as did my husband. SO EXCITED!

    Then my husband’s medical problems, which we’d thought were in remission, resurged. He’s on his 2nd hospitalization in a month, and we just got the bill for the first one: $17,000. Ack.

    We have insurance. We have an emergency fund. It’s not going to be enough. I’m a control freak who has no control of the situation. I have to take a deep breath and just chant the serenity prayer, even though I’m agnostic.

    IN SHORT: Thank you, I really needed this post today.

  45. GamingYourFinances says 02 August 2013 at 03:49

    Fantastic! I have never been a fatalist, I’ve always believed I could do absolutly anything with enough effort and dedication. It’s a very humbling way to think because any success or failure is your personal responsibility and cannot be attributed to “luck”. The term locus of control is new to me, thanks for sharing!

  46. Chicken says 02 August 2013 at 04:17

    Well, that’s a good philosophy. I wish I could reduce my sleeping hours and get more discipline though.

    Been trying to find a way. I’m willing to pay 2000 bucks for someone to teach me a way of getting by with 3 – 4 hours of daily sleep, for the rest of my life.

    And discipline too. Have some, but it’s not enough.

  47. druk ulotek says 02 August 2013 at 04:40

    I have never heared about locus of control term before but its realy interesting point of view. Everything depend on ourselves. I dont belive in destiny. Our activities has a huge impact on our lives. Great article!

  48. Stephen Kratcoski says 02 August 2013 at 06:18

    Consumers or business professional who manage their money are able to meet everyday challenges much better than people that externalize everything. Even money experts are not always perfect. Being the boss of your money will help you prepare for unexpected emergencies that happen to most people.

  49. Edward says 02 August 2013 at 09:37

    I know far too many people who’ve read the book “The Secret” and have boiled it down to: If I sit on my couch, and wish really REALLY hard, and picture it vividly in my mind, I don’t have to do any work at all to achieve my goals and it will all come to me magically through the universe. I’m not joking here–they seriously believe that!! They think that they can win the lottery by concentrating on it, that they don’t have to save money for a trip to Europe because the tickets will arrive by themselves somehow through the mail. They call me “lucky” when I travel (a few times a year) or do something exciting with my life. Hell no–I’ve worked to save money and took time to make extensive plans (on paper!) and made bookings to realize my life goals. It’s really insulting when you’ve busted your butt to achieve something and others tell you it’s “luck”.

  50. Michael Campbell says 02 August 2013 at 12:19

    Well said, it took me a long time to learn the simple truth that you are responsible for your own destiny. I had made a frustrated comment in a rehabilitative environment to one of my co workers about people singling me out and harassing me… he said a very simple, yet profound statement and was the fuel needed for me to turn my life around. After listening to my ranting and raving, he simply said, “What is the common denominator?”

    I immediately answered to myself, “I am”, my sudden silence told him that I got the message. Here I was spending all this energy throwing the worlds greatest pity party, instead of focusing that energy on changing what I wanted to change about myself. Now, I know that everyone may not like me, but the important thing is that I like me and that I am now less concerned with spending energy focusing on what others think and more enrgy focusing on my successes and on the changes that I need to make in order to live the life I want to live…as far as others are concerned, if they want to be a part of my life, that’s great; if they don’t, that is fine too. Either way, life will go on, and I will live my life the best way I can. I got a little winded there, but I get excited when I hear people spreading the truth about life, so much negativity, it is good to see other positive minded people, sharing that, “With freedom comes great responsibility,” Clichè, I know, but true. Ok, thanks for listening.

    Thanks, Michael

  51. James Brown says 03 August 2013 at 11:13

    It is really a different post. I like such kind of discussion. The point that i like most is “Locus Of Control”. I read that point many times and tried to found what kind of locus i have. I have a question- Sometimes other are completely responsible for your bad condition and suppose you are person with internal locus of control, then what should we interpret ?”
    It was really a nice read. I appreciate your views. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  52. LEE says 03 August 2013 at 16:11

    These are the type of conversations that gets white people in trouble. Dennis, I believe you mean well but the road to hell is paved with great intentions as they say. Take it from a blackman who’s personally conflicted by the word. In our world, some blacks don’t like it used at all. Some use the word amongst themselves just like other ethnic groups use certains slurs. To avoid further confusion, don’t tell people what they should or shouldn’t be offended by. That never ends well.

    • Carla says 05 August 2013 at 13:10

      @Lee, who are you talking to?

  53. Connie Blaylock says 04 August 2013 at 17:04

    Good words to live your life by so thanks for reminding us “we are responsible for how we live each day.

  54. maria says 04 August 2013 at 19:29

    Isnt this what our grandparents used to call ‘integrity’?

  55. sahariaremon says 20 January 2015 at 04:31

    I say ,” industrious is the mother of good luck”.Locus of Control
    The term “locus of control” sounds complicated but the concept is actually easy to understand. Locus of control refers to how you ascribe responsibility for the things that happen to you.

    If you have an internal locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your own choices and actions. You believe that you are responsible for who you are and what you are.
    If you have an external locus of control, you believe that the quality of your life is largely determined by your environment, by luck, by fate. You believe that others are responsible for who you are and what you are.

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