People deny control of things they do; and assume control of things they don't. Here's how to think about it.

Don't ever speak of good or bad of anything that is not your responsibility


Learned Helplessness

Learned helplessness - A state where the person believes that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try - even when opportunities for change become available.

The thing with learned helplessness is that it's invisible. People assume that huge swaths of their lives are in some way fixed - that is, exogenously determined, such that they have no influence over them; and therefore are to be accepted as a given. They are to be accepted and worked around. They are the immovable stone in our path. And by definition, we do not realise this attitude is learned. We do not know that the stone is real, but the immovability is man-made - in our own mind, and nowhere else.

If we take a step back, there will be quite a few things we can find that fall under this category. Some of them are small things - like we can't do much about the neighbour's tree that blocks the sun to our garden; or we can't change how much time we have to read. Some may be bigger - like we aren't somebody who earns big money; we're not someone who can live their life creatively; or our marriage is just something to be tolerated.

And there is the clue to how to spot these things. They will usually be statements that begin with "I can't"; or "I'm not". They will be statements that implicitly set some boundary on what you can and cannot do - your locus of control. These are collectively called limiting beliefs.

Locus of control - The degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives.

Limiting belief - A state of mind, conviction or belief that you think to be true that limits you in some way.

Limiting beliefs lead directly to learned helplessness. The result is a debilitating acceptance, where we go through lives with huge pockets of dissatisfaction, never even attempting to change them. It is like breaking an arm, strapping it up and accepting that forevermore, "this is my bum arm" and cannot be used; when all we needed is a plaster cast, 6 weeks and a bit of physio.

These are blind spots - in some cases huge ones - and in extreme cases (which are extremely common) they can completely alter a person's life trajectory versus what it might have been.

Finding these blindspots and eliminating them is akin to being freed from a lifelong prison sentence.

There's A Lot You Can Do

Now, the truth is, many of the things we think we think we're helpless with, we're actually not. The trick is to ferret out those implicit assumptions, which bring us to a state of helplessness. These are devilish to find, rooted as they are deep in our subconscious.

The first step is to write a list. List all of the things you're unhappy with in your life. List all of the things that, if you had a magic wand, you'd wave it and they'd change. Wave, big house. Wave, new job. Wave, living somewhere hot. Etc. Make it holistic, go wild, write down crazy things if you like. Wave, move to Mars. Wave, buy Tesla.

Now, the reason you throw spaghetti at the wall this way is because limiting beliefs are hidden. This is a way to get a view of all the places you might want to look for them. Some will be hiding one. Some will not.

Second, go through your list, and ask yourself, for each item - why not? Go through the mental exercise, of imagining what it would take for that to happen; and what in that chain of events is the block? Is it that you aren't skilled enough to get a well-paying job to allow you to buy the big house? Is it that you need to stay close to ageing parents, which stops you moving to California? Is it that there are no good schools on Mars?

Possibly, already at this stage, you have realised that actually, some things on your list can be changed. Maybe you realise that you can speak to your neighbour about trimming his tree. Or that you can listen to audiobooks, and therefore consume more literature while you go train 3 hours a week.

Where you haven't - everywhere you've identified a block - you've hit upon a limiting belief. Now, some of these limiting beliefs may be true. There are no schools on Mars. We'll deal with those in a minute.

The third step is to ask yourself the following three questions:

  1. What have these beliefs cost you? - What impact have they had on your life, day by day? Think of the money you might be making. Think of the health benefits you might be gaining in a sunny climate. Think of the personal fulfilment of being an artist. What implicit price have you been paying, day after day, for holding on to this belief? Further, what will they cost you in the future? Too busy to spend time with the kids? What price do you pay for that?

  2. What itch are you really scratching? - That is to say, what can you achieve that gives you what you thought you couldn't have? For example, you may not be able to live on Mars; but is it really solitude you're after? Is it really to get away from people and life deficits where you are? Would moving to another state do it? Becoming a farmer? Often, there is an achievable alternative to the unachievable.

  3. What belief can you replace them with? - Where you thought you are too busy, can you replace the belief with "I am time abundant"? How do you do that? I don't have time to read/I have plenty of time to listen. I have no useful skills/I am a learning animal and can learn anything. I don't have enough money/I can save and earn enough in 5 years to do whatever I like. Etc. Very often, a limiting belief can simply be switched into something far more useful.

Doing this will lead you to shift your thinking, from what you cannot do, to how you can. You may never send your kids to school on Mars; but by going through this process, you will find many doors, previously bolted, now unlock and open before you, as you glide on through. It really is that simple - it is an exercise of the mind, which gives you control of things you had never before even dreamt about changing.

And we can go further. The lesson here is that we should seek to take ownership of as many things as we can in our lives. The more things we realise we can affect, the more empowered we will feel. The more control we will have over our lives, and the more we will be able to determine our own destiny. Never cede control of your life variables to fate, circumstance or heavenly intervention unless you absolutely have no choice. The more you take ownership of, the freer you will be. The magic is that many things are in your grasp; your powers are far, far greater than you think.

Worry Worry Worry

Us crazy humans wouldn't be us if we didn't also overshoot in the other direction. What this means is that often, we spend our precious resources - time, mental and emotional energy - solving problems that haven't occurred yet.

I have had many troubles in my life, most of which never happened

Mark Twain

If you pause to think, you will realise that we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy thinking about two things:

- Things that may or may not happen - that we worry will happen


- Things that are happening/have happened, but are really not within our sphere of control.

The first category will include things like what if I fail my exams; what if he/she breaks up with me; what if I lose my job; what if my first book sucks; etc. In these cases, it is useful to remember the following quote:

Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.

Marcus Aurelius

What the great MA is trying to say is that there are certain events that, if and when they do occur, you will be able to deal with them, with the resources you already possess. Therefore, don't waste time and energy now worrying, as the outcome may not occur, and you will have wasted your fears. It's like sending a cheque to the government for a parking ticket you never received. Wait until it's on your windscreen; then pay it.

The second category is those things which may be happening, but are really not within your powers to control. Maybe your greatest enemy has been promoted, and is now your boss. Maybe a huge 2-year roadworks has increased traffic on your commute. Maybe house prices are rocketing, and buying your own place is becoming an ever more distant dream. These are all variables we are unable to affect, and so thinking about them; worrying about them; hating them; is a truly pointless and wasteful exercise. Now, can you react to them? sure. Can you plan around them? Of course - you must. But focus on solutions, not on unchangeable problems.

Be Careful Where You Aim

This argument is essentially one of efficient resource management. Your mind is a powerful weapon, and is capable of tremendous achievements. But you must point your weapon in the right direction. Be very smart, thoughtful and mindful about where your locus of control begins, and where it ends. Point your brain gun within the locus; do not waste energy firing it outside.

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