In the past few years, the ideas of systems and the impact they have on individual lives have entered prominently into public awareness. For the first time, many people started to recognize these massive structures of power, police forces, government, massive corporations with billion dollar ad budgets and began to ask questions about what effect these institutions are having on them as individuals. Subsequently, there has been a notable increase in skepticism and mistrust of institutions of all kinds that can be seen in almost every sphere of public discourse.
The ref sucks, and other lies you’ve been told
Of course, this has been a thread in politics for a very long time, but this distrust of the systems of governance spreads not just to politicians and political parties but to private entities as well. In spite of the fact that objectively referees have never been as accurate as they are now due to technological advancements (The Replay Center utilized by the NBA to fact-check ref performances in games was a nearly a thirty-million-dollar investment that can check ref calls in real time no matter where in the country a game is being played) refs are analyzed and mistrusted constantly.
Genius writer Michael Lewis is producing a podcast about this phenomenon called Against the Rules that tackle this phenomenon in depth, showing how in all walks of life we are becoming less and less trusting (or even tolerant) of those who are meant to be fair and impartial. From politics to sports arenas to the highest court in the land, the chorus is “the ref sucks!”
This is a fascinating issue that merits lots of studies, but this can also be viewed as a symptom of a deeper problem. In the NBA episode, Michael Lewis talks about how the teams and players that get in trouble for arguing or screaming at the refs during games are the famous ones, the celebrities with household names and crazy amounts of money on their contracts. They buck up against the system that is, now more than ever, judging their actions on the court as fairly as possible because they believe that the system is rigged against them.
Sound familiar? Both sides of the political aisle are likely to talk about things being rigged, from the justice system’s treatment of black people in police brutality cases to Democrats creating a conspiracy about Russian collusion in order to try and take down President Trump, it seems everyone is talking about how “The Man” is out to get them.
And here’s the thing, there is a decent amount of evidence that would suggest that systems and environmental factors do in fact have a large impact on one’s ability to move forward in life. The degree to which that is true, just how much impact that has on a person’s life is up for debate and is readily argued on both sides of every polarized position today.
What is fascinating about this is that, no matter how much or how little one’s environment or the systems one encounters impact, knowing that systems and environment are affecting you doesn’t make you any better at moving past them. Steve Roux, a drug and alcohol counselor I interviewed for this piece has worked with drug offending inmates for seventeen years in the American federal prison system. Inmates opt into his program in order to receive a reduced sentence, which the only get if they complete the program. He’s well aware of how things like poverty, childhood trauma, economic situations in inner-city environments, rates of crime, etc., all factor into whether or not someone is going to be caught and convicted of a drug offense.
But the problem is, says Roux, is that taking responsibility for one’s actions is far more beneficial in terms of getting sober and developing a mindset that can continue to help after one leaves prison. It is absolutely true that plenty of things are out of our hands, how much money we have grown up, how much education we had as children, but it is also true that we can only truly improve ourselves by first taking responsibility for our own choices. When we do this we develop the tools and inner strength needed to truly change our circumstances, and that is tremendous power.
Systems aren’t everything—choices can change things
At this point it is a stereotype in film and television: born into rough circumstances, a scrappy young upstart invests immense time and energy into X important thing, succeeding in spite of the odds and in spite of naysayers all along the way. This is true in movies, (Rocky, 8 Mile, Good Will Hunting) in books, (Jane Eyre, Life of Pi, Oliver Twist) and in just about any other medium you can think of. But it exists for a reason.
Reading the early chapters of most of the world’s most brilliant people’s lives sounds like a tragedy: Albert Einstein was a terrible student and worked as a patent clerk (can you imagine a more boring gig?), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was born a black man in Georgia when segregation was the recognized law of the land, I’m sure you can think of a few more figures like this.
These people weren’t satisfied with their conditions, with life as it was, and they decided to start making the choices that would lead them to a better life. Now those people took drastically different steps to get to where they are, but the common theme among all of these rags to riches narratives is this: the underdog is the person who is willing to make the choices they need to make to lead them to success.
Locus of Control
You may not be familiar with this psychological term, but locus of control refers to the beliefs a person has that dictate how they view the world in relation to their choices. Someone with an internal locus of control views their actions as inherently consequential, that their choices cause their success or failure. Someone with an external locus of control views their success or failure as a result of outside forces acting on them, things like luck or the will of the universe.
We aren’t going to set up a binary here and say that an internal locus is good and the external is bad, but studies have shown that people with an internal locus of control will tend to perform better in areas of achievement.
Richard B. Joelson wrote an article about this term and how he used it in a sort of impromptu study he did of would-be therapists taking a class from him:
“For several years, I taught a course for mental health professionals who were interested in developing a private practice in psychotherapy. Some, who already had a practice, took the course because they were not doing well and wanted to learn how to be more successful. During the introductory remarks by each student, I was able to mentally divide the class into those having an internal or external locus of control and, therefore, learn a great deal about the class composition. The “internals” said things like, “I know it’s up to me,” “I have to learn how to become more successful,” “I am responsible for what happens in my practice,” etc. (Notice the word beginning each statement). The “externals” were heard to say things like, “it’s too hard to succeed these days,” or “the competition in our field is killing me,” etc. The internals clearly believed that it was, essentially, up to them to succeed. The externals believed that luck, fate, or circumstance would more likely determine whether or not they would or would not become successful, more than the strength and quality of their own efforts.”
People who frame their problems in terms of needing to act in order to change them (believing that it was themselves that held the answer to their issue) are more likely to take active steps to try and change them, whereas someone who believes it is an outside force like the job market or something similar are less likely to pursue solutions themselves.
Internal locus of control
“Researchers found that of more than 7,500 British adults followed since birth, those who had shown an internal locus of control at the age of ten were less likely to be overweight at age thirty, less likely to describe their health as poor, or show high levels of psychological stress. The major explanation for these findings was that children with a more internal locus of control behave more healthily as adults because they have greater confidence in their ability to influence outcomes through their own actions. They may also have higher self-esteem.”
The study doesn’t tell us the circumstances of life for each of the adults followed in the study, only that those who developed an internal locus of control as children had healthier lives as adults. Whether or not one person was worse off in the beginning than another, the power of their minds to drive them to make better choices was more dramatically changed by the fact that they believed they had the power to meaningfully change them than having a more privileged start would.
We need to recognize that, even if there are plenty of reasons for us to be held back due to our life circumstances, that taking responsibility for how we respond now means that we are far more likely to have a better life than by hoping the system will change to suit us.
On controlling your response to life, not reacting to it
I’m careful to frame this in terms of our response to life, rather than our reaction. The difference is that reactions are nearly automatic, subconscious and immediate responses to stimuli in our environment. A response, by contrast, is usually predicated by enough time for one to reflect and decide on a course of action in the face of certain stimuli. By learning to think of ourselves as people who can choose how we respond to what happens to us, rather than always doing what comes immediately to our minds, we can take more control over our lives.
Say you’re in traffic, the kind of traffic where there are lots of cars but everyone is still going moderately fast. Things can get hairy very quickly, so you’re paying good attention to the road to ensure you don’t get into an accident. Someone in a nicer car than yours swerves into your lane without a blinker, and you have to brake suddenly in order to not hit them. Your body floods with adrenaline and your senses are sharpened, you were nearly just in an accident and it would have been their fault completely. At this point there are two responses you can take:
You scream, swear, or make a particular hand gesture at the other driver and fume at their stupidity. Your body remains clenched up and you breathe hard and fast, feeling the anger in your bones. At this moment, you are statistically far more likely to get into a car accident.
The other option is that you recognize your emotional response is due to your amygdala firing in response to apparent danger. The danger has now passed, and you know that driving angry makes you a worse driver (because it makes everyone a worse driver) and you recognize that you cut someone off a few weeks ago. You take long, slow and deep breaths to calm your body down and try to focus on the road once more.
In one scenario you are reacting, in the other you are carefully choosing how to respond. Sometimes, like if you were actually in a car accident, that initial amygdala response can be incredibly helpful. But most of the time we’re far better off if we take the time to think critically about our decisions and actions before we make them.
Because every choice has a consequence
The other problem with reacting is that it completely lacks foresight. Reactions are automatic, immediate, at the moment. You cannot consider what you’re doing when you’re reacting to something, which makes giving into that part of your brain a dangerous habit.
Every choice has a consequence, even choices made in difficult or extreme circumstances. Learning to frame our decisions always in terms of their consequences, rather than reacting to what feels good in a moment, is a sure fire way to have a far healthier experience as a person.
“If I do action A, what will the result be? Does that result move me closer or farther away from what I want in life?” Asking yourself questions like this is vitally important to own your choices.
Yes, there are things outside of our control, yes those things affect us. But if we can take control of our actions, if we can learn to respond instead of reacting, if we can recognize that it is our choices that change our situation and take inspiration from all the people before us who have fought against their circumstances and made choices that led to success, we can be healthier, happier people.
I don’t know how to take control of my life, it feels like all these things are happening to me and I have nothing to do with them. Where do I start?
This is going to change depending on your situation, but a great catch-all rule is this: start small. Find something that you know you can handle, maybe it is eating one good meal a day instead of scrambling for fast food all the time. Recognize when you’ve gone a week doing that, celebrate it for yourself, and then pick the next thing and do that.
This is far easier to do with accountability and mentorship, so seek out people (especially people in your field who are farther along!) and ask them to help you build yourself up and start owning your choices.
What resources should I use to find more information like this?
Well aside from this blog (heh heh), which has plenty of wonderful content on it, Dr. Phil started a podcast recently that centers around these ideas in a roundabout way. I know what you’re thinking, Dr. Phil, the TV guy? Yes. He’s one of the more successful television hosts ever, so we can certainly learn a thing or two from him. Not only that but he’s interviewing the top athletes in the world and asking about what drives them to success. Over and over again, the choice to buckle down and take ownership of your success comes up. Really inspiring stuff.
It’s called Phil in the Blanks, which might be the greatest podcast title of all time.
What do you think?