Genius Catalyst: Control vs. Influence

By Michael Neill

Looking at what you can and can’t control helps avoid wasting energy on useless effort.
by Michael Neill "Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle-some things are within

your control and some things are not."

-Epictetus (circa 100 AD)

My wife and I were having an interesting conversation last night about control vs. influence-that is, what things are within our control and what are outside our control; what is within our sphere of influence and what is outside of it.

While we didn't agree on every point, here are the highlights of what we came up with:

I control…

*what I do or don't do

*what I say or don't say

*what I focus on

*what I make important

*what I welcome and what I              reject

I don't control…

*how I feel

*what thoughts pass               through my mind

*what happens to me

*what other people think,           do or say

*what happens in the world

I can influence…

*how I feel

*other people

*the environment

*the economy 

I cannot influence…

*the past

What we found so interesting in exploring these distinctions was how little we directly control (essentially our attitude, words, choices and actions) and how much we can influence, from our inner environment to the global economy.

For example, a recently published study showed that Britney Spears makes a contribution of over $100 million annually to the U.S. economy when you take into account her personal spending, album sales, and the amount of media coverage built around her life. While most of us don't leave quite that obvious a footprint, every spending decision we make will impact the economy and every consumption decision we make impacts the environment.

In my book "Feel Happy Now!" I share the following story:

While interviewing Olympic rowers at the 1996 Olympics, sports broadcaster Charlie Jones spoke with a number of the competing athletes. Any time he asked them a question about something which was outside their control (like the weather, the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents or what might go wrong during a race), the Olympians would respond with the phrase "That's outside my boat."

By refusing to focus on anything beyond their control, these athletic champions were able to bring all their resources to bear on what was within their control-everything from their physiology, mental maps and story to the actions that they took preparing for and competing in the actual event.

In my own life, I've found that focusing exclusively on what's "in my boat" not only increases my effectiveness, but reduces my levels of stress dramatically.

As the baseball player Mickey Rivers once said: "I'm not going to worry about the things I can't control, because if I can't control them there's no point in worrying about them; and I'm not going to worry about the things I can control, because if I can control them there's no point in worrying about them."


1. Explore the question of control and influence for yourself and/or with a friend. What do you actually control, to the extent that you can make it happen or not happen every time?

What don't you control? What are you able to influence, either directly or indirectly? What don't you have any capacity to influence?

2. Play the "Don't control/Do Control" game. For every item you come up with that you don't control, write down what you do control that will positively influence the result you would like to achieve.

For example:

*I don't control my weight, but I do control what I put in my body and how much I exercise.

*I don't control my kids' behavior, but I do control what I say to them about it, when I say it, and what I do in response.

*I don't control my clients' results, but I do control the environment I create for them during our sessions and the tasks I set for them between sessions. 

3. Take on a 30-day "control" challenge: For 30 days, focus exclusively on what is within your control and notice what happens. If you find yourself spending time "outside your boat," just climb back in and carry on down the river.

Have fun, learn heaps, and choose wisely! u

Michael Neill is a life coach and author. Hear him Thursdays at 11am on HayHouse Radio or visit his website, (c) 2008.

This article was originally published on February 1, 2008.