Taking Control Over Your Life (Part 2)
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In the previous article we started taking a look at the foundation for personal development. We remembered the first - and perhaps the most powerful - lesson you’ve ever learned: You have an influence on the world. We’ve seen why it can be easy to forget that and get lost on the sea of life; things seem to just ‘work this way’ - this, then that, then that. And that can lead to lacking happiness and fulfillment, if ‘the way things work’ doesn’t work for you.
In this second part, we’re going to continue on this wave of personal development. We will take a look at the mechanism behind knowing (or not-knowing) that you have influence and how you can develop it, to take control over your life.
The Locus of Control
The locus of control, in short, is a belief about where influence lies. The external locus of control has been mentioned last week. If you have an internal locus of control, you believe influence (and thus the power to change things) lies within you.
Your locus of control influences your expectations about the results of your actions. As a result, the beliefs influence whether or not you take action. Thus, these beliefs have a big impact on you and your life .
Low grades? Maybe you’re just not talented for this subject.
Struggles in your relationship? Guess the love’s gone away. It happens to many.
Unhappy in your job? That’s just how life works. Put your nose to the grind (and don’t look up before you’ve bored through your face and into your soul).
It’s not about whether there’s truth in this - it’s about whether you let it determine your behavior. Maybe you don’t have it easy understanding a specific class. Do you like it and want to learn more about it, though? Do you just want a sufficient mark? You don’t have to give up on it; you can still put in effort.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the best-selling personal development books of all time (for a good reason), Stephen Covey explores the idea of ‘Proactivity’. He summarizes is like this: “Between stimulus and response, man has the power to choose”.
Act, or be acted upon.
Covey outlines a few forms of determinism through which people may believe themselves and their lives to be stuck. Genetic determinism means you believe your life is the way it is because your genes cause you to act a certain way. Psychic determinism means you believe your life is as it is because of your past and how you were raised. Environmental determinism means you believe your direct surroundings in the moment cause you to act as you do, shaping your life.
Covey explains that, through the power of self-awareness, you can (mostly) still choose your actions. You don’t have to blindly follow the this - then that - then that current. You can pause, and think: ‘now what? What do I want? What do I value?’ and base your actions on that. We choose the things that controls us - by (either consciously or unconsciously) accepting them. Or we choose not to accept them and make our own decision.
Being reactive means you let the environment and the this-that-that pattern control you and determine how you act. Being proactive means you decide to take that pause, rejecting that something controls you, and then you respond. Covey calls that ‘being responsible’. If you choose to respond, rather than react, you’ll find you have a lot of power to achieve.
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Does that mean you’re unlimited in your ability to do anything? Sadly, no. Even the man in the picture above, though he probably outruns more than 99% of people on the planet, won’t be able to win races in the Olympics (at least, until scientists develop prostheses that equal or outperform biological legs). And even the fastest man that has ever lived won’t be able to outrun a cheetah. And even a cheetah can’t cook an egg.
As a limited being, there will always be things you cannot do, or things you don’t have control over. As Covey calls it, these things fall outside of your ‘Circle of Influence’. You’ll have to accept what you truly cannot change. Worrying about it won’t help. However, there are many things in life that you can have an influence on - maybe more than you’d think.
Alfred Bandura, a psychologist known for his Social Learning Theory, spoke of ‘Reciproque Determinism’. Though our environment or situation has a definite influence on us, he explains, we also have influence over it. We can influence reality. You have influence on the world. Thus you have influence over your life. A changed life may just be a turn of the wheel away.
That is what it means to be proactive. That is an internal locus of control. This is the foundation of personal development - it is why Proactivity is Habit #1 out of 7 in Covey’s book.
Effects of your locus of control
There are predictable benefits to having an internal locus of control, compared to an external one. Julian Rotter, a cognitive psychologist, showed in 1990 a strong correlation between one’s locus of control, and one’s emotions and actions .
People with an internal locus of control tend to be healthier and living more conscientiously. These people tend to have more confidence, and can more easily allow others to come close to them . Since they see themselves as able to influence their results, they usually also get better grades.
People with an external locus of control tend to smoke more, and more often partake in the lottery. They procrastinate more  and they are more often depressed than people with an internal locus of control. Simply put: they are at the mercy of the sea of life.
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Let’s take the concept of ‘success’ as another example. People with an internal locus of control would believe something like ‘hard work leads to success’. They see something they want and turn the wheel. They set to work for it. That alone makes them more likely to succeed. If challenges pop up, they set out to overcome those. Proactive people themselves are the solution to their problems.
People with an external locus of control would believe something like ‘luck leads to success’. That’s why they’ll more often play the lottery—why put in effort if it won’t lead to anything? To them, life is a sea you cannot really steer. To them, the port they’ll drop anchor is up to the waves.
To make that even more relevant, think about the concept of an ‘extraordinary life’. Can you see how the orientation of your locus would influence that? For one, since it differs per person, we cannot tell you what it means. How would someone with an external locus of control handle that (if at all)? How might someone with an internal locus of control proactively go about handling that?
Developing a more internal locus of control
There’s a lot of patterns in life. A lot of ‘this, then that, then that’. It a pattern is helpful for you and your life, that’s great. If it’s not, it can be changed. You have an influence on the world - by being proactive you can break the pattern. Then you can choose how to act based on what you want and value.
If you already have an internal locus of control, this article serves to further strengthens that belief in yourself. If you tend to have a more external locus of control, you can see this article as an external source, and you can allow it to set you thinking and taking action.
Here are some things you could do to internalize your locus of control. Start with just one:
Take it step-by-step. Work on increasing your self-awareness. We incorporate different self-awareness exercises in our workshops for these purposes. You can take Rotter’s forced choice test to learn more about your locus of control.
Reflect. Think about problems or challenges in your life, and how you’ve been handling them. Think back to how you’ve handled problems in the past. Do you have specific tendencies for handling problems? Do you or others behave in a way you don’t like? How do you usually respond to that?
Become aware of your behaviour and language. Perhaps set some time apart every day to think about this. You could reflect on your day during the evening. Try to spot your reactive behaviour. See when you use reactive language (e.g. in a relationship: ‘she makes me so angry’, ‘we just don’t have chemistry’ or in business: ‘my boss doesn’t listen to me’ or ‘I just can’t work with this client’ and so on).
Think about how you could change your language from reactive to proactive (e.g. ‘how can I respond to her?’ or ‘if my boss is busy, how could I reach her and quickly show why this is important?’).
Act. Do small things you usually might not, and allow it to show you that you do have influence over the way your life goes. For instance, take a walk today, see how it makes you feel. Realize you did so by your own choice, and that you could do it every day if you wanted. If walking is healthy, you can also realize that better health is thus within your power to achieve. You’ve already taken a step
In short: realize that there is something in your life you would like to change. Find out what it is you do want. Become aware of when your thoughts and actions (or your environment) don’t support what you want. Your locus of control is a belief, and if you have a strong enough reason or desire, you can change your beliefs. Wanting to find and chase your passion might be a reason like that.
So, whether the sea is calm or rough, the steering wheel is in your hands. You are the captain, and life is a giant ocean. ‘Tis only through the twists of thy will, that thine very own extraordinary destination may be found.
—to the Extraordinary, you
 Psychology: Core Concepts, Zimbardo, Weber & Johnson
 Internal versus external control of reinforcement: A case history of a variable, Rotter, 1990
 Palet van de Psychologie, Jakop Rigter, p.293
 The Effects of Locus of Control and Task Difficulty on Procrastination, Janssen & Carton, 1999