On Surviving the Election (And Other Things You Can’t Control)

Mike Sobol Personal Effectiveness 4 Comments

I don’t know about you, but the impending apocalypse election, is stressing me out, and it’s bothering a lot of other people, too. According to the American Psychological Association, 52% of Americans are suffering “election stress” this year. People are worried, angry, anxious, if not downright certain of doom. And there is little any of us as individuals feel we can do about it.

Presidential and national-level elections matter much less to our daily lives than local elections, and perhaps even less than our own decisions to work in and on our communities, businesses and organizations we belong to. Yet we grant them outsized, even overwhelming importance, sometimes at the expense of everything else.

And that’s the entire problem: feeling and acting like you’re helpless; being an impassioned (if unwilling) spectator to events that seem outside your control.

Do You Pay Attention to Your Circle of Control or Your Circle of Concern?

Ah, the Serenity Prayer. It sure is useful in times like these:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Whether you’d rather insert “self” for “God,” or restate the whole thing as “Stop worrying, dummy, and do something,” how you react to circumstances around you can have a huge impact on how you feel. In fact, people who focus on what they can control, tend to have more influence. Those who focus on what concerns them feel like they can (and do) have less influence. This is the difference between thinking about your circle of control as opposed to your circle of concern. For what it’s worth, I prefer “circle of influence” rather than “control,” because you can influence a lot more than you control– influence flows beyond control.

Think about it like this:

Your circle of concern is restrictive.
Your circle of influence is expansive.

Your circle of concern is outside you.
Your circle of influence is inside you.

Entrepreneurs know this almost instinctively, but we still get caught in the trap. When you think about all the things that concern you, they have a way of applying pressure and restricting your decision-making. You worry more and accomplish less. You cycle on decisions without taking action. You keep busy at the expense of being effective. You see fewer opportunities to effect change.

The more you focus on influence– taking action– the more opportunities you see to take action. Perhaps, even, the more opportunities you create in which you influence the outcome. Here’s a handy graphic courtesy of James Clear to illustrate what that means.

circle of control from James Clear

Maybe the election doesn’t bother you at all. That’s good. So what’s your excuse (or long list of excuses) for not focusing on your own best interests this today, this week? Probably a whole lot of stuff you can’t actually control. Maybe it’s macro economic trends, or competitors, or customers’ opinions of you that are making you stop, think twice, worry, fail to act. Whatever it is, if it isn’t a direct threat to you, it’s probably noise and you’re wasting valuable time and energy paying attention to it (or actively ignoring it because it scares you).

You are the Information You Eat

In the same way your diet determines the nutrients available to build and nourish your body, your attention determines the information that’s available to build and nourish your thoughts and actions. As James Clear explains in this article, Twitter, Facebook, cable news… it’s mostly junk food: super tasty, highly addictive, and seriously bad for you. Over time, there is nothing to gain by consuming it, other than fat, bad habits and baggage.

And taking the time to consume information, or opinions, or to wallow in worry, is time that you are not creating. Creating is what you are here for, after all. By focusing on consumption, rather than creation, you also put an emphasis on external information as opposed to your internal drive. Your actions tell a story that says your desires and drives and choices are not as impactful on your life as all the stuff around you. That’s an unhealthy loop, and you’ve got to get out if it.

Focus Your Locus

What can you control? What can you influence? Most reliably, you can choose your actions. That’s about it. If you believe and act like the primary cause of how things go in your life is located inside of you, then you stand a good chance of getting out of the doom loop of stress that events like the presidential election (or your next pitch event, or whatever) are causing you.

You don’t have control over outcomes. You only have control over inputs. Put in the work. Put the focus on the one factor you can influence better than any: your next action. Complaining about circumstances does not count as an action.

Handily, most tools we now consider standard operating procedure in the world of high-growth startups help you to keep your focus on things you can control, and stop worrying about the things you can’t. Agile project management, the lean startup build-measure-learn cycle, customer discovery techniques, net promoter score, traction testing… just about every startup tool is a way to take control of circumstances that contain more variables or change more quickly than you can possibly manage by conventional means.

Frankly, I think that’s kind of amazing, but it makes sense from a business-practice-as-Darwinian-experiment perspective. Smart startup practices are smart stress management practices: being overwhelmed stops innovation (and anything else you’re trying to do) in it’s tracks.

Have the courage to focus on the things you can do today, and accept the things you can’t.
Replace passive consumption with creative action. Therein lies sanity.

Comments 4

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    Prior to the election, sharing this post felt like a light-hearted way to offer practical advice on moving forward amidst the noise and distraction. Too much of what we consume every day is merely that: distraction. Yet we give it power by letting it consume us, instead of the other way around.

    Today, the feelings of confusion and powerlessness are acute and visceral for many of us. And this post matters more than I ever wished it would.

    All those things you’re cycling on in your head– the things you can’t and won’t figure out in the next week or month or year– those thoughts aren’t helping you.

    Have the courage to focus on the things you can do today, and accept the things you can’t.

    That doesn’t mean you need to be happy. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t valid. That means you need to be a wrecking ball for what can and must be done.

    1. Great post, Mike. How prescient of you to know we’d all need such sage wisdom, regardless of where you are on the political spectrum!

      The election is a prime example of disruption – an unexpected election outcome for most, resulting in a rethinking of core platforms and subsequent policy positions by both major parties in the U.S.

      Things will be in flux over the next few months as the new President builds his organization, and then in more flux as the President takes office and establishes relationships with the other branches of government, foreign countries, etc.

      You could wait for all the dust to settle out…but maybe the dust won’t settle. Maybe the best thing to do is focus on what we can control.

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  2. Pingback: What triggered me to turn it all back on again. | inevitable

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