One of my favorite cards in the Execudeck is about the relationship between the stories we tell about life and how much we own our own power to choose and act.
When describing challenging situations to others, is your story more about how you acted on the world or how the world acted on you?
“Blaming others, being defensive, or shirking our responsibility shrinks our domain of influence—it hands our power over to circumstance and eventually puts us in quarantine. Owning and understanding our role and accountability in every situation expands our domain of influence and positions us at the center of action.”
There are so many possible applications for this question: family dynamics, national politics, office hierarchies, denominational controversies.
In every sphere of life, we have the ability to frame and reframe our power with the stories we tell about ourselves, about others, and about the moment that we’re in.
When I went to the CCCC convention last year, I told some attendees about my experiences with graduating just in time for the federal budget sequester and government shutdown, the tail end of the economic crash and a period where it seemed no one was willing to sponsor a non-citizen and allow me to work.
I told the attendees that I was extraordinarily motivated to find a solution. Eventually, with a little help, a lot of money, and the support of two lawyers, I found a solution that worked for me.
But that outcome wasn’t what kept me steady that year. What kept me steady that year was not getting sucked down the drain of feeling powerless and unable to choose for myself, whatever my circumstances were.
In reality, there was a whole lot I really was powerless about. I had nothing to do with the macroeconomic situation of the United States. I could do nothing about my name or identities or natal nationality or other things that influence hiring. I couldn’t make others less insecure and more willing to risk. So anything that I couldn’t directly affect, I laid on a shelf, and I focused exclusively on things I could control.
I put old goals out of my mind for as long as the conditions around them were that intractable. I took a careers course and read lots and lots of materials on freelancing and micro-business development. I gutted my resume and created brand new marketing tools, reshaping them to match what I was learning about myself and the new audiences I wanted to reach. On off-time, I read things that made my brain light up and therefore made my eyes twinkle too. I put some energy into exercise too because I’m the kind of person who responds really well to physical challenges and it gave me something small to feel accomplished about.
Note: not one of these things changed the systems I was in: the economy was still screwy, the employment market was and is still rife with bias, and “it’s hard out here…” But everything I did do helped me change my sense of my options in those systems, and I’m sure that without that change of mind I wouldn’t have been able to perceive all the possibilities, generate enough energy to cut a path out, or become stable enough to support others cutting their own paths or transforming the system itself.
Bringing the center of action closer to home—focusing on the choices I can make, the value I can add, and the actions I can take with others to make change—is a useful way for me to manage my attention. And perhaps it can help you as well.
For more: Check out Peter Adeney’s explanation of the differences between our “circle of concern” and our “circle of control” as he learned them from Stephen Covey.