Choice Is All You Can Control in Life

I was talking with a distraught, young entrepreneur whose week had been rough. He had a much needed prospect go with a competitor and an existing investor reneg on a promise to fund the second tranche of his commitment. He was making himself miserable, thinking about a) the potential failure of his business, b) the injustice of the unethical investor and c) the implications of this on his reputation & what he would have to tell his employees. I asked him how much value he was getting from revisiting these topics after the first time or two (very little) and if his choice to focus on them was the optimal path forward (was not)? I asked him what he had control over & what would help solve the situation the company was in?

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” – Viktor Frankl

The entrepreneur was going down the well-tread path of mistakenly focusing on external factors which he had no control over instead of internal factors which he did. We all seek to control our lives, to achieve our goals and to be happy. However, we confuse that which we can control with that which we can’t all the time. Even worse, we then attach our happiness & contentment to the results of these external factors. Lastly, we then bath all of this in stories & narrative…usually with a negative or victim theme to them. The end result is anxiety, disappoint, poor sleep and missed goals. If I had one piece of advice for my entrepreneurs, my kids and myself, it would be that:

Our choices are all we have control over. Focus all our efforts on this sole freedom: the choices we make in the space between stimulus/events and response.

Despite our desires otherwise, we have little control over our health, others opinions, our environment, our children’s behavior, our management teams, our competitors’ actions or anything else outside our mind.  We do have complete control over how we respond, how we interpret, how we act and what stories we tell ourselves…inside our mind.  We have control over a tight set of choices:

  • Values: what values & virtues to set as True North
  • Beliefs: what stories or facts we believe to be true
  • Focus: what to focus our attention on
  • Action: what action to take next
  • People: which people to reach out to or be with
  • Place: where to physically be

Do we choose to continue on our path forward as we planned or do we choose to let events derail us? Are we conscious of what we are choosing to believe or what stories we are creating or why we decide to do A instead of B or why we are spending time with Fred versus Sally? Or, are we letting these all occur on auto-pilot subconsciously like algorithms?

So, when life, whether as an entrepreneur, a parent, a friend or in a relationship, goes in an unexpected direction, you can let go/put down what is no longer serving you or you can let it drag you into the spin cycle. Ego and pride will cast an array of Oscar worthy storylines. Ask the question: “What is my play now?” Focus on five steps:

  1. Acknowledge the setback or loss
  2. Assess what choices you have control over (see above)
  3. Let go of all that doesn’t serve you/don’t control
  4. Determine you next action (what is my play now?)
  5. Take decisive action (“action dispels anxiety”)

As the famous Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, said:

 “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, and the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.

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