The ancient Stoics, more than two thousand years ago, knew that path to happiness and satisfaction with life leads through knowing what to focus on. It is the realization that there are things in life that are not under your control and subsequent acceptance that there is no point in worrying about them that brings more tranquility to your life.
Understand what you can control
There are essentially only two aspects of our life that are fully under our control. It is what goals you set for yourself and how you decide to react and feel about external circumstances. All the rest is either only partially under your control or utterly impossible for you to influence.
Let’s say it’s Monday morning and it rains. That is something you can’t control. You need to get to work. That is something you have partial control of. It is you who chose to work, and it is you who can decide not to go to work today. However, in reality, external circumstances are forcing you to have a job and to show up every day. You don’t have it entirely under your control. You will get wet. There is just one thing you genuinely have under your control. How you feel about it being Monday, about the rain, and about getting wet. You can decide to be miserable that you have to get to work again, and what’s worse, you get wet. Or you can decide to feel good about the outlook of getting to work again and enjoy the fact that it is raining. Nature really needs the water to bloom. And what is a bit of rain for you? You get to the office and will have double the enjoyment of a hot cup of coffee.
Don’t stress out about what you can’t control
Worrying about things that are not under your control is the surest path to unhappiness. Accepting that which you don’t control and you can’t change will lead to tranquility. You stressing out about rain and cursing the weather won’t change it. It will still rain. However, complaining about rain is going to change how you interact with others. Not only it is raining, but you are spewing negativity all around you. It is not the rain. It is you who are making yourself and others miserable.
Just stop doing it. If you can’t control something, you have a couple of options. You can ignore it, you can accept it, and you can leave it. There is no point in complaining about it.
Some things can be just ignored. If they don’t have any actual impact on you and on things you care about, if they are truly not your business, why to stress out about them?
Some things are best for you to accept. Like the rain. It is nature. It is going to rain throughout your life many times, and the best you can do is to accept it as a fact and possibly even learn to enjoy it.
Some things are impossible for you to accept and would destroy your tranquility and happiness if you are exposed to them long-term. Like a toxic boss. If your boss shouts at you every day, and even after raising this concern, he or she is still doing it, then just leave. You don’t control them. You obviously can’t accept or ignore this. Leaving is the best strategy.
Have internal goals rather than external ones
Desire the right things and learn to be happy with what you’ve got. Let’s say you want to play a game of chess. You can set a goal to win, which seems rather common wisdom and purpose of playing any game. This is an external goal. If you win, you will be happy and satisfied with your performance. If you lose, you will be unhappy, maybe angry, or at least disappointed. The problem is, whether you win or not is only partially under your control. You can prepare, you can do your best, and you can still lose if your opponent is better.
The alternative is not to aim to win, but to play to the best of your abilities. This is an internal goal. It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose as long as you give it your best. Then you can be happy that you accomplished your goal. You can enjoy the game even if you lose. You won’t be disappointed.
What’s more, you won’t be tempted to cheat to win. The great thing is that focus on doing your best won’t in any way diminish your chances of winning. You will still give it everything you’ve got. You will prepare and play to the best of your abilities. You will fight. The only change is how you feel in case you won’t win. In your mind, you didn’t lose. Your goal was to give it your best, and you did. You were your only opponent. You will have a feeling of success even though you lost the game. You will have things completely under your control.
To those who are focused on winning, I need to reiterate one more time. Setting up an internal goal, “I will play to the best of my abilities,” in no way diminishes your chances of a win. It can even work to your advantage as it will force you to prepare better and make you more resilient.
Having internal goals has a couple of significant advantages
You are setting achievable expectations that you have under your control. You can’t blame anyone else if you don’t achieve them. It is all on you.
You are content with whatever external outcome. When you set internal goals, you are more comfortable when things don’t end up as expected. It won’t destroy your self-esteem, your enthusiasm, and your self-confidence.
You are less inclined to act unethically. When you are not trying to impress anyone, or beat someone, and the only opinion you care about is your own, then chances are you will be less pressed to act unethically. You will get things done the way you believe is right. You won’t cut corners as that would mean “not giving it your best.”
This is how I set my goals throughout my career, and it works. The only times I feel bad about the outcome, or even stressed out, is when I know deep down that I didn’t do my best. If the project fails, but I did my best, I feel just fine, I learn from my mistakes and do better next time. If the project fails, but I feel I didn’t prepare well, or I didn’t communicate as I could, or I didn’t give it the effort I knew it needs, that is when I feel bad and stressed out. That is when I consider it my failure.
The winning obsessed culture leads to anxieties and stress
Way too many winning obsessed cultures burn out their people. If all that matters is whether you reach a specific external metrics, like how much money you bring in, it inevitably leads to you being anxious and stressed out. If you are not doing as planned, it may lead to you cutting corners or getting the urge to act unethically. All that matters is the number and not necessarily how you got there.
The goal is to motivate you, so you do your best. The belief is that you need to be pushed hard, dangling the carrot before your eyes and having a stick ready to beat you, otherwise you would slack and wouldn’t work. I guess it may work for those who don’t have the internal drive and who don’t care. However, this approach won’t start the internal drive and very rarely leads to sustainable success.
If you are doing well, if the customers are buying, you are on fire. You are the king of the world. You feel great. You bask in the spotlight of success. But then something changes something not under your control. The economy tanks or you just run out of luck with good customers. You are not meeting expectations. You start to panic. You get stressed. Your performance suffers even more. You feel miserable, and you bring that home. Your whole life takes a wrong turn. Your happiness is linked to the number of sales you make. And you don’t have direct control over that.
The effort focused culture leads to mastery and tranquility
If you reframe the goals and focus on continuous improvement, working to the best of your abilities, making it a goal to be a bit better every day, things will be different. You can still have the number of sales as the signpost, but it is not what you care about day in, day out. All you care about is whether you did your best and whether you improved. It leads to focus. It leads to great work habits. And it doesn’t lead to paralyzing stress.
You work hard to become better and better at what you do. Not because of the number of sales, but because you want to. You want to be better than you were yesterday. And you have it all under your control. Even if you have a bad day in terms of actual sales, you don’t need to panic. You did your best, and you have done it the right way. No cutting corners or cheating.
Focus on making the best effort and on continuous improvement will lead to mastery. Over time you will become better, you will sell more, you will enjoy it more. You will be less stressed and less anxious. You will achieve tranquility and happiness. And all of that is under your control.
Do I claim that when you do your best and still fail, it is a success? Of course not. To the external world, it is still a failure. You played a game of chess, and you lost. From an external perspective, you failed. You need to do better next time. However, if your internal goal was to give it your best, and you did, then there is no need to feel bad about the failure. Just learn from it and try again.
And what if you do your best and you keep failing at the task? Is it your fault? Well, it sort of is, but it also sort of isn’t. It depends on who set the goal. Obviously, the goal is outside of your current ability to achieve. If you set the goal, then get real.
If it is your boss who sets the goal, then it is his or her fault that you failed. He or she should have realized what is realistic for you to achieve, given your skill set and experience. If they gave you a task that is outside of what you can be reasonably expected to achieve it is their fault you failed. They set you up for failure. If the task you’ve got was within the realm of your competency and you still failed, then look at yourself for blame.
Be fatalistic about the past but optimistic about the future. You can’t change the past, and therefore, there is no point in worrying about it. You have lost the game. No point in crying about it. You can’t change the fact you lost. What you can do is to learn from your mistakes and do better next time.
You can’t change even the present as it is just happening. So again, no point in stressing out about it. Any action you take won’t change what is happening this second, it can only change the future.
This means you should be content with the past and the present. All you can influence is the future. Make sure you set the right goals for the future. Goals that you have a hundred percent under your control. Internal goals. Even if the environment, or your boss, imposes an external goal, like “you have to sell a million dollars worth of product,” you can still reframe it to the internal goal that you will care about. You will do your best every single day. You will do a bit better today than you did yesterday. With this mindset, you can’t fail. And even if you won’t reach the goal imposed by your boss and he or she gets angry. That is their problem, not yours. You can still feel good about what you did. Focus your efforts and attention on working towards what you can influence. You can control how well you will do and what you will feel in the future.
What are your thoughts on the topic? In a modern world, is the focus on winning a road to success? Or do you think that success is more a question of tranquility and satisfaction with our own actions rather than winning over others?
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