The Locus of Control

Let’s start off by talking about exactly what a “locus of control” actually is. From Wikipedia:

In personality psychology, locus of control refers to the extent to which individuals believe they can control events affecting them.

Perhaps even more importantly:

A person’s “locus” (Latin for “place” or “location”) is conceptualized as either internal (the person believes they can control their life) or external (meaning they believe their decisions and life are controlled by environmental factors which they cannot influence, or by chance or fate).

So, let’s summarize this in simpler terms.

A person who thinks that they mostly control their own life has an “internal locus of control.” People who think this way place the power of what happens in their life in their own hands. Their life is mostly shaped through the decisions that they make each day, for better or worse.

A person who thinks that they have little control over their own life and that other things they don’t control, whether it’s family or friends or society or the government or big corporations or their faith or anything else, actually have all of the power in their life has an “external locus of control.” People who think this way tend to attribute both the good and the bad events in their life to forces outside of themselves. They view their lives as being shaped almost solely by powerful forces that they can’t control.

A great example of the difference between the two comes from the Wikipedia article and from our school days: exams. Let’s say that a person goes to class, takes an exam, and then sees the results from that exam.

A person with an internal locus of control will look at the results from that exam and attribute those results to themselves, for better or worse. They will look at factors like their own study habits, their own note-taking, their own time spent asking questions, and so on.

A person with an external locus of control will look at the results from that exam and attribute those results to things besides themselves, for better or worse. They will look at things like the difficulty of the exam, the difficulty of the teacher, the testing environment, and so on.

I believe that an internal locus of control is absolutely necessary to achieve significant financial and professional success in life. Failures and missteps are simply a part of life, and an external locus of control allows a person to always provide external reasons for failure or success, allowing that person to avoid having to take personally challenging steps to overcome those failures.

A person with an internal locus of control will look at career challenges and ask themselves what they can do to put their career on firmer ground. A person with an external locus of control will blame coworkers and bosses and overly challenging work for their difficulties and lack of progress.

A person with an internal locus of control will look at financial challenges and ask themselves what they can do to improve their financial state through better investing and spending choices. A person with an external locus of control will point to society for not paying an adequate wage, businesses for charging prices that are just too high, and so on.

A person with an internal locus of control will always look for ways to make challenging situations better in the future as a result of their own actions. A person with an external locus of control will instead look at others and conclude that those factors cannot be changed or helped.

Now, before we go any further, it is worth noting that an internal and an external locus of control aren’t two separate states. They’re more like a spectrum. A person doesn’t just flip a switch and move from having an external locus of control to having an internal one. Instead, it’s much more like a light dimmer or a thermostat, where people have some internal locus of control and some external locus of control.

In my opinion, every step a person can take toward an internal locus of control will have great outcomes for their life. An internal locus of control fuels things like self-improvement, saving for the future, taking control of your professional and personal life, and so on. Without those things going on in your life, you’re going to keep repeating the same actions and getting the same results that you probably won’t like.

So, how can a person develop an internal locus of control? How can you move that dial – one that’s set somewhere in the middle between “internal” and “external” – a little bit closer to that internal end?

I’ve found that some of the things I naturally think about in my own life achieve that shift wonderfully. Here are six things I often think about during the day that slowly push me toward an internal locus of control. Let these things run through your mind as your day progresses – and in every day going forward.

Remember that you always have the ability to change your situation. There is no situation that you are in that you can’t improve through your own personal action. Sure, it might seem hopeless at the moment, but there are better roads forward from here, no matter what the situation. You choose how much effort you put into recovering and improving your situation. You choose how much support and patience you give to others in your life that are struggling. You choose how much of your money you’re going to save or how much effort you’re going to put in at work. Those are choices you have control over.

Make a list of possible actions you can take in response to a difficult situation. Everyone faces serious challenges at some point in their life. Rather than looking at that challenge as an impenetrable wall, instead look for things you can to to handle this difficult situation. Can you reduce the impact of this situation? Can you find a path to recover more quickly from this situation? What are the things you can do to turn things in a more positive direction, even just a little?

Stop talking about yourself in a negative light, and when you catch yourself doing it, look instead at the things you’ve done well as well as the ways you can improve those negatives. Self-criticism can be a valuable thing, don’t get me wrong. It can help you find flaws in yourself. However, self-criticism that isn’t followed by steps to clear up those criticisms or to accentuate other positives instead isn’t helpful in any way. When you find yourself being critical of your attributes, stop and ask yourself whether you can take steps to improve those attributes or, if not, if there are ways that you can accentuate other attributes of yourself that are better.

Stop focusing on things that you cannot control about a situation, and when you catch yourself doing it, think instead about the aspects of the situation that you can control. There are factors in every situation that you can’t control. You can’t control the personalities and responses of others. You can’t control natural events or physical accidents. So stop worrying about those things, because you can’t do much about them. Instead, look at what you can control – your responses to those situations, how you handle your emotions, and the daily choices you make. The better your responses and choices, the less impact those negative things you can’t control will have.

Whenever you have a thought that begins with “I can’t…” replace that with “I choose not to…” There are very few things in life that you truly cannot do, especially in the short term. Most of the things that you tell yourself that you “can’t” do usually come down to things that you choose not to do, and by re-framing those things in that light, you can begin to see the excuses that you’re making. By saying you choose not to do these things, you have to honestly face your excuses and put the power of the choice back onto you.

Talk with your friends about possible actions to take to fix things, rather than complaining about the unfairness of it all. What are your conversations with your friends like? Do you rail about the unfairness of life and how overwhelming forces are out to crush you and how your workplace is unfair? Or do you look at steps that you could take to make the situation better, no matter what the situation is? One of those two things is going to result in a better outcome for you.

The key to all of this is simple: whenever a challenge comes up in your life, whether it’s saving for retirement or handling a financial emergency or something else, look first at what you can do to improve the situation. Don’t waste your time looking at or blaming things you can’t control. Look at what you can control and take action in those areas.