Focusing on things you can control

Jul 25, 2015

A friend recently asked me about the most important thing I’ve learned since moving to Silicon Valley. While I’m not sure if this is the¬†most¬†significant, it’s definitely one that I’ve come back to time and time again. It comes from the Stoic school of thought: to only focus on things that are within your control.

Only focus on things that are within your control

Put differently:

Focusing on things out of your control is a waste of time

At the surface, this seems like a nice aphorism that serves as a convenient excuse to give up and not dedicate your complete focus to something. From my experience, highly motivated people tend to eschew this advice, because it sounds synonymous with not holding yourself accountable to your goals. I certainly believed that the first few times I heard it. But here’s why it means something a lot more profound.

Your Locus of Control

Before going further, I’ll attempt to define a locus of control. We can classify things in our life under one of three groups:

  1. Things completely within our control.
  2. Things partially in our control.
  3. Things completely out of our control.

Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that most things we want tend to span across these three groups. For example, let’s analyze the desire to winning a tennis match.

Winning a Tennis Match

  1. Things completely within my control:
    • How many hours I practice each day
    • The type of tennis racket I use
    • Whether or not I hire an instructor
    • How much time I spend watching tennis videos and learning from others
    • My diet
  2. Things partially within my control:
    • The weather on match day (if I play best when it’s sunny, I can enter a competition in the summer, when it’s less likely to rain)
    • My opponent’s difficulty (if I can choose which league I’d like to enter)
  3. Things completely out of my control:
    • Whether or not I win.

There’s nothing you can to guarantee that you will win the tournament. That said, there are a lot of things you can do to improve the probability. Like practicing properly, and deliberately getting better and not practicing the exact same move every day.

So What?

To this point, everything may still sound like a very subtle distinction, but the difference is clear when you decide what to focus on. Instead of getting anxious and feeling powerless and controlled by your desire to win, focus on working with the best instructor you can afford, relentlessly watching YouTube videos of tennis pros, and setting a regimented practice schedule and sticking to it.

Spend more time focused on practicing and getting better, and less time thinking about whether or not you win. The sooner you realize that winning is a consequence of being the best (and not how badly you want to win), you’ll focus on the things that actually make you better.

Applied to Business and Entrepreneurship

Want to be a successful entrepreneur? You don’t do it by spending your time wanting to be a successful entrepreneur - that’s a consequence of creating value and sharing it with others. Those long nights spent at the office won’t make a difference if you spend them playing StarCraft. Fortunately, the market is shrewd but generally predictable - make stuff people want and the rest becomes a lot simpler.