Episode 298: Control What You Can Control

Episode Summary

Today, we learn about controlling what we can control, the habit that brings greater success, productivity, happiness, peace, and focus. We dive into two great examples of how putting this habit into practice can help us get positive outcomes from unfortunate events: the fire that destroyed Thomas Edison’s plant in 1914 and a series of challenges I recently faced myself during a trip to the mountains. We also explore the 7 things we can start doing now to get immediate and future results. 

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to the Becoming Your Best podcast show wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host – and we honor you and are grateful that you are part of this show today. The fact is that you are taking the time to listen in, and it says so much about you. You are a learner. You want to improve. You believe in the wonderful quote: “Good, Better, Best; Never Let it Rest, Til the Good gets Better and the Better gets Best!” And also, I think, means that you are humble and hungry to be the best that you can be. And for that reason, we and I are deeply grateful to be together with you on this podcast show today. 

The subject we will discuss today is one of great importance and has an enormous impact on the success and happiness of every single person. It is the habit that will bring you greater success, productivity, happiness, peace, and focus. And the habit is ‘control what you can control’. What is the definition of success anyhow? Well, here is one definition for your consideration: happiness; joy; strong, meaningful relationships; professionally being among the best at what you do; making enough to meet your needs of shelter, food, education, and the needs of life and business to make enough so that there is a surplus leftover at the end of the day for long-term sustainability and an adequate return on investment for sustainability. So, what’s the opposite of success? Well, maybe, constant stress, anxiety, upset, cross or cranky feelings, worn out, not fulfilled, broken or unsure relationships, professionally dissatisfied, hopelessly in debt, and revenue stalled and losing money. Well, those are tough. They do represent learning experiences but that’s not what we’d really call success, right? So, what a difference in both feelings and results between these two!  

So, what to do? What is the answer to getting and staying on the right track? Well, one thing that you can do, right now, immediately, that will have a huge impact on your success and happiness, both in the short term and long term is to focus on the habit to control what you can control. So, let’s just think together: What are things that you cannot control? Well, you cannot control others – what they say, what they think, or what they do. You might try, but that usually backfires with time. You cannot control the weather, the traffic, or other drivers, other’s emotions, other’s decisions, competitors, natural disasters, injuries, health – you can control what you do to try to have good health, but sometimes it goes south – or the success or failure of others, diseases, death, and taxes. Now, think about what it feels like when you spend your time worrying or thinking about the things that you cannot control. You might feel frustration, worry, anxiety, upset, stress, fear, blame, anger, dismay, rage, helplessness, and even sadness. 

Now, on the other hand, think about the things that you can control. You can control your thoughts, your actions, your choices, and as a result, ultimately, your feelings. And what are some examples of this? If someone gets in your face, for example, or cuts you off on the road – you can choose to be kind, calm, and at peace. You are free to choose. The formula for this is: E + R = O. In other words, E represents the event, R represents your response, and O represents the outcome that you get. More than not, you cannot control the event. However, if you want a good outcome, it requires a good response. How many times out of a hundred? Well, every time. The habit then is to focus on a response that is within your control, and that is good! This does take discipline. And discipline leads to confidence that you will get the right outcomes. It has been said, to develop a new habit, that it takes 62-65 times of doing something over and over until you get it right. Each time creates a new neuro pathway in your brain that ultimately becomes the way that you do things. And it will take determination, perseverance, and discipline over and over again, and it is definitely worth it.  

E (the event) and good responses = good outcomes. For example, if there is a fire and your business or home is burned to the ground, you can choose your response. The following article was shared by Richard Feloni in 2014: “At about 5:30 in the evening on Dec. 10, 1914, a massive explosion erupted in West Orange, New Jersey. Ten buildings in legendary inventor Thomas Edison’s plant, which made up more than half of the site, were engulfed in flames. Between six and eight fire departments rushed to the scene, but the chemical-fueled inferno was too powerful to put out quickly.” According to a 1961 Reader’s Digest article by Edison’s son Charles, Edison calmly walked over to him as he watched the fire destroy his dad’s work. In a childlike voice, Edison told his 24-year-old son, “Go get your mother and all of your friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” When Charles objected, Edison said, “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.” Later, at the scene of the blaze, Edison was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.” He told the reporter that he was exhausted from remaining at the scene until the chaos was under control, but he stuck to his word and immediately began rebuilding the next morning without firing any of his employees. Was there any other viable response? Well, in this new book, “The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph,” author Ryan Holiday says, “There wasn’t.” Sure, Edison could have wept, yelled in anger, or locked himself in his house in a state of depression. But instead, he put on a smile and told his son to enjoy the spectacle. 

“To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks,” Holiday writes. ”We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.” After thoroughly surveying the damage, Edison determined that he’d lost $919,788 (about $23 million in today’s dollars – maybe more), according to Matthew Josephson’s biography. And the flames had consumed years of priceless records and prototypes, and his plant’s insurance covered only about a third of the damage. But after just three weeks, with a sizable loan from his friend, Henry Ford, Edison got part of the plant up and running again. His employees worked double shifts and set to work, producing more than ever. Edison and his team went on to make almost $10 million in revenues the following year. 

Edison’s story is a powerful example of Stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy that Holiday explores in his book. Holiday explains that the Stoics were not emotionless men devoid of feelings, but rather men who practiced total control over their emotions in a way that acknowledged forces far beyond their control. Holiday uses philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s definition to describe a Stoic: someone who “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” It’s fine to initially respond to loss or failure with sadness or anger, says Holiday, but only if it’s fleeting. When tragedy strikes, you must accept that it has happened and that you cannot change the past. Finding the opportunity to overcome a challenge, ultimately, makes you stronger. Edison not only mastered his emotions but also instilled this mindset in his employees. As A.H. Wilson, his vice president and general manager, told The Times after the flames had died down: “There’s only one thing to do, and that is to jump right in and rebuild.” This is an inspiring example of E (the event) + a good response or a great response produces a good or a great outcome. That is the whole heart of Good, Better, Best. And we’re after yielding great outcomes.  

Another less, maybe, important example than Edison’s is: This last week, I attended an event with the Young President’s Organization in the mountains east of Salt Lake City in the beautiful stunning mountains. My dear friend and date joined me. We met at a park n ride since she was coming down from about a half-hour north and I was coming up about 40 minutes from the south of Salt Lake City, at the base of the mountain, where we left her electric car. We took my electric car up the mountain about 5 miles up in the forest, the beauty, the solace of that wonderful place. So amazing. We had a reception with about 60 people, had dinner, and then entertainment. At about 9:30 p.m, all of the sudden, at the end of the dance troupe that we were watching after we’ve had dinner, my companion, Vicki, had a panic moment and she said, “Oh my… I left my FOB (which is the car key) in my car. And in the car is my purse, credit cards, everything! And the car is unlocked.” I responded, “Well, let’s get back down the mountain and be sure everything is okay, I’m sure it is.” That’s a good response. And when we got to my car – in the dark, I might add – which I had been opening and starting through my phone since I had misplaced my FOB the week before – when we got to my car, there was no response from my phone or my car. It then hit me there was no internet that high up in the mountain. The event was there and it wasn’t pretty. Rather than complain, blame, or criticize, we decided to solve the problem the best we could. Vicki was so supportive and positive. That really helped.  

After trying to solve the problem with many different options, looking for internet connection and remote internet connection, whatever it was, we decided to send Vicki back down the hill with George and Mimi Murdock, who’d stayed around to help out and to be sure that she was okay. She went down and, sure enough, her car was there. No problem. She was able to head home where she could be safe. That was all good and it had a good outcome. Well, all other guests had now gone home and the YPO chapter administrator and her husband, Heidi and Jordan, were so generous to hang out with me. I mean, we were the only ones left up in the mountain. It was getting late and cold outside. Well, by 11 p.m, the tow truck we had called an hour earlier had not arrived. We called back and the tow truck service said, “Sorry, we couldn’t find a driver.” There’s another event. Well, we just pleasantly continued to try to arrange for a tow truck that could get us down the mountain, just 5 miles, to get back to internet service and I would be on my way.  

Well, by midnight, we decided it was important to get Heidi and Jordan home to their children, who were being watched by Heidi’s sister. They still had a 45-minute drive ahead of them. So, we drove the 5 miles down back into East SLC on the bench of the mountains, where I realized that my wonderful cousins Randy and Hope Quarles lived just four minutes from where I was at that moment. So, at 12:15 a.m, I called Hope’s cell and she groggily answered, “Hello.” I explained the situation and Hope – which is an appropriate name for this situation – invited me over to stay overnight or whatever I needed. I called an Uber, and Heidi and Jordan headed home and I headed to the Quarles’ home.   

I was now in a warm, safe, place and could work out the tow truck situation in warmth and security. Finally, at 3:00 a.m, I received a call from the towing service that they could have a tow truck there by 9 a.m. I explained that I had a seminar scheduled at 9:30 a.m of the next morning and that that would not work and I canceled the request. I just went to sleep and had a new plan (the response) in mind. Got a good rest. Got up at 7:00 a.m and took an Uber home, which is 40 miles south, and got ready for the seminar that I was delivering. That all worked. That was a good plan. And on the way home, in the Uber, I called the Tesla Roadside service and they arranged to pick up the car – they were pleasant and wonderful – take it to the service center close by, make two new FOBs, which would have opened the car up in the mountain because it was Bluetooth and not internet. And they said, “No problem.” I picked up my car at the end of the day and all was good. 

The moral of the story is all because of the lost FOB. I’d had the feeling that I should replace it earlier and I was working on it but not quick enough. Well, this experience actually had a positive outcome: We solved the problem; we learned a ton; all was well with Vicki and this gave us something to laugh about. I’ve heard that crisis plus time can often lead to humor. Well, that is certainly the case here. It was a chance to become much better acquainted with Heidi and Jordan; the chance to be together with my awesome cousins Randy and Hope, and gratitude for George and Mimi. So many were willing to help. It was a great outcome. We focused on what we could control in a positive way, which produced an amazing outcome. It could have turned ugly for a lot of reasons; we could have blamed and criticized for the poor service that seemed to be apparent. But it was positive and how it came out and we will laugh about it for years to come. So, I’m so grateful for that. And that is a really good example of controlling what you can control. 

So, what are some of the most important things that you can do that develop this habit of controlling what you can control? Well, here is a little checklist of a few things that you can do. Number one: Maintain a positive frame of mind – positive thoughts always. Watch your thoughts and words. Be determined, only positive, upbeat, healthy thoughts will be what exists in your mind and in your set of emotions. That’s number one. Number two is, create a meaningful and inspiring personal vision statement. This will help define in advance your response and helps you to consistently respond with good or great responses to “things that happen” or to the “event”. Number three is to have a clearly written SMART set of annual goals done by your roles in life. So, personal – it’s taking care of yourself in the different dimensions – as a partner, spouse, significant other. Another role might be parent or grandparent. Another role, certainly, work or professional. Maybe another is civic, family and friends. So, identifying your key six or seven roles and then, “What are my goals this year by those roles?” What this does is this places in your mind, between your vision, which is the direction in life, and your goals of what you’re going to do this year, which by the way, are your good responses in advance before the event ever comes up which allows you to have a good or great outcome, really, in advance. Right?  

So, number one, positive frame of reference – always have positive thoughts. Number two, a really meaningful and inspiring personal vision. Number three, clearly written SMART annual goals by your roles. And now, number four is, do pre-week planning. Take a few minutes during the weekend to actually plan out your week through the lens of your roles – those 5, 6, 7 roles – and what are the key actions you can take this week to make it a great week. And then you set up your week according to your calendar, commitments that you have, and sketch it out. And now, before you ever start the week, you’re already in a positive frame of reference, a positive mindset. And as things happen, now you can move things around and take care of the things that matter most. If you want some tips or pointers on how to write a meaningful positive personal vision, or how to set really clearly written goals, or how to do pre-week planning, that’s why we wrote our new book, Do What Matters Most. It’s really built on research and science on how to consistently hit the bull’s eye of the things that matter most in life. And so, for those that are interested, it’ll be a great resource to you to help with these things that we’ve just talked about. Because after all, leaders are readers, and you are rarely the same after reading a good book. 

So, these are all ways to program your mind so that you can help to control what you can control and have a polite place to go in the moment of crisis. Here are just a few other things that you can do. Number five is to be a reader and a learner: books, podcasts, Ted talks, seminars. I mean, you’re listening to this podcast today. There’s a transcript of it so you can read it. All of these things reinforce excellence: seminars, audiobooks. Tirelessly looking for good positive resources. Number six: Be around good people – people that build, inspire, encourage, lift, and love you; these all help you to respond in the right way. And the last one, number seven: launch each day with a good “Becoming Your Best” type morning routine that produces a greater capacity and internal reserve to provide positive responses, which in turn helps you provide positive outcomes. The type of things you just do in a morning routine is when you get up, you make your bed, you drink water, you take a moment to ponder, reflect, meditate and pray, exercise, and now get focused on having a great day. Just those few things every day, that routine really helps. 

So, I love this quote by Joseph B. Wirthlin, who once shared an entire talk on Come What May, and Love It. This is a prime example of controlling what you can control – making the lemonade out of the lemons. So, today, we’d like to extend to you a 21-Day Challenge. For 21 days, provide only positive good responses to the events that come up in your life, regardless of what they are. Use only positive words (no negative words. No criticism, blaming, or condemning) for 21 days and watch what happens, because during that time you will most likely have the 62-65 repetitions of being positive and developing the habit of positive responses and outcomes. 

I love the comment by Edward Everett Hale: “I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” And that something is a positive response on focusing on the things that you can control, that make all the difference in the world. It has been a delight to be with you today. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for being who you are. We wish you all the best today. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best
CEO, executive, corporate trainer, and community leader.
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