in: Behavior, Character, Featured

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Building Your Resiliency: Part III – Taking Control of Your Life

Captain steering the ship illustration.

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“We lost 13 pilots in six months. And in nearly every case, the worst pilots died by their own stupidity.” –Chuck Yeager

Among test pilots, Chuck Yeager’s attitude towards pilots who “augered in” was universal. In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe relates how test pilots loved to talk about flying at every chance, and how the discussion would inevitably turn to why the latest pilot to have perished in an accident had done himself in. It was always the pilot’s fault. Even if a piece of equipment had malfunctioned, the consensus was that the pilot should have double-checked it before taking off. Nearly every death was caused by pilot error, plain and simple.

To the average joe, this might seem like a callous attitude, but when you’re going to a funeral every other week, burying a guy who’s doing the same job as you, you have to believe that you’re in control of your life, 100%. Otherwise, you’re never going to get into that cockpit again.

These men had the “right stuff.” Their unshakable belief in their ability to control their destiny set them apart from other men. You may not be flying planes, but you too can stop being a victim, strap into the cockpit, and take control of your life.

Feeling in Control: The Foundation of Your Resiliency

In the last part of our series, we discussed an experiment in which dogs who had been given electric shocks and no recourse to stop the pain “learned helplessness.”

It was the experience of not being in control that left them depressed and defeated and sapped their resiliency.

The need to feel in control in our lives cannot be overstated. In Stumbling on Happiness, Dr. Daniel Gilbert argues:

“Being effective-changing things, influencing things, making things happen-is one of the fundamental needs with which the human brain seem to be naturally endowed, and much of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of this penchant for control…The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. And occasionally dead.”

The dead part refers to a pair of studies done to test the link between feelings of control and health.

In the first study, the elderly residents of a nursing home were each given a houseplant and divided into two groups-the high control group and the low control group. The high control group was told that the plant’s care was in their hands while the plants in the low control group were taken care of by a staff member. The results at the end of the study were startling-30% of the members of the low control group had died, compared to only 15% of the members of the high control group.

A follow-up study garnered similar results. College students were paired with residents at another nursing home. One group of the elderly residents (the low control group) could not control when the students would come; the student would set the appointment date. The high control group was able to dictate when the students would visit. “After two months, the residents in the high control group were happier, healthier, more active, and taking fewer medications than those in the low control group.”

If feeling in control of a houseplant can prolong your life, imagine the effect that feeling in control of even bigger things can have on your happiness, confidence, and resiliency.

Having an Internal vs. External Locus of Control

In the 1950’s, psychologist Julian Rotter theorized that much of human behavior can be explained by whether a person has an internal or external locus of control. Locus means “place” in Latin, so these categories denote whether a person is controlled by external or internal factors. Those with an external locus of control believe that their behavior is guided by fate, luck, and other external factors. Those with an internal locus of control believe that their behavior is guided by their own actions and decisions. People don’t fit into one extreme or the other, rather the two categories represent the opposite ends of a continuum.

Having an external or internal locus of control has a profound influence on behavior:

Those with an internal locus of control:

  • Are confident that they can be successful.
  • Tend to be leaders (leading those with an external locus of control).
  • Exhibit greater control over their behavior.
  • Seek to learn as much as they can.
  • Take personal responsibility for their actions.
  • Deal with challenge and stress better.
  • Use challenges to come out stronger than before.
  • Thrive in the midst of change.
  • Are less likely to submit to authority.

Those with an external locus of control:

  • Feel like they’re a victim.
  • Are quick to blame everyone but themselves.
  • Want to be led by others.
  • Avoid responsibility.
  • Are more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression

Those with an internal locus of control are achievement-oriented and more likely to find academic and professional success. Because they believe they’re in control of their destiny, they’re eager to tackle challenges, while those with an external locus of control are apt to say “Why bother? It doesn’t matter what I do anyway.”

Additionally, Dr. Siebert, author of the Resiliency Advantage, argues that “both sets of beliefs are self-validating and self-fulfilling. People who believe that their fate is under the control of outside forces act in ways that confirm their beliefs. People who know they can do things to make their life better act in ways to confirm their beliefs.”

There are online tests you can take (here) to get an idea of whether you have a more internal or external locus of control.

Stop Being a Victim and Take Control of Your Life

Men are more likely to have an internal locus of control than women, which perhaps explains why rhetoric about being the captains of our destiny has always deeply resonated with us. And I would personally argue that much of our current crisis in manhood can be traced to men shifting from that natural mode of behavior to handing control of their lives over to external forces. Everything today is not our fault but is rather the result of a disease, addiction, or chemical imbalance.

The good news is that while your upbringing shapes your locus of control, it is possible to change it and become more internal than external.

Rotter grounded his ideas about locus of control in something called “expectancy-value theory,” which says that a person’s likelihood of taking an action is dependent on how much the person values a particular outcome and how much the person believes that taking the action will produce that outcome.

To put it in simple terms, and I hope this will be seared in every man’s mind: We blame others and play the victim when we don’t believe that we can solve a problem ourselves.

Non-resilient men play the “if only” game. These are the guys who claim that they would be the men they want to be…. “If only I had more time to exercise.” If only my wife didn’t nag me so much.” “If only my boss would stop being such an a-hole.” Their happiness is put on hold as they wait for circumstances and people to change.

The truth is this: people aren’t going to change. And if your happiness is contingent on them doing so, you’ve just handed control of your life over to them. If you let your co-workers/friends/girlfriend “make” you feel a certain way, you’ve stopped being an active agent in your life, and become a victim.

The resilient man understands that the only thing he can control is himself. Only he can change his circumstances and only he can control how he reacts to adversity. Circumstances don’t dictate your life-you dictate your life. The resilient man waits for no one to solve his problems; he is always actively trying to solve them himself.

Taking Control of Your Life By Strengthening Your Problem-Solving Abilities

So the key to taking control of your life is to strengthen your problem solving skills. As you do so, you will gain the confidence and the belief that you can tackle whatever challenges come your way.

To do this, Dr. Siebert suggests using and strengthening 3 different problem solving methods.

Analytical Problem Solving

We as men should excel at this kind of problem solving. It involves using logic, analysis, and reason to come up with solutions. To apply these tools, Dr. Siebert recommends taking the following steps when faced with a problem:

  1. Get an accurate understanding of the problem. Ask questions, research, observe. Get as much info about what’s happening as you can.
  2. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” What is your desired outcome?
  3. Come up with two or more potential solutions to the problem. Weigh the pros and cons of each.
  4. Take action. Pick a solution and  throw yourself into carrying it out.
  5. Take stock of the effects of your action. What’s working? What isn’t?
  6. Learn from the feedback you get. Fine tune your approach to be more effective.
  7. Modify your efforts.

Analytical problem solving is good to employ with a problem like getting your finances under control. If you feel like you’re drowning,  sit down, figure out what debt reduction plan you want to use, crunch some numbers, come up with a budget, etc.

Practical Problem Solving

There are people who are book smart and people who are street smart. Ideally, you want to be both. Practical problem solvers don’t get emotional when faced with a challenge. They don’t get angry and focus on “Why me?” Research done on the survivors of extreme difficulties show that instead of fighting and arguing against the new reality, and trying to stop the change, they fully embraced what was happening. You can shout, “This shouldn’t be happening!” all you want. But it is happening. And you have to deal with it.

Practical problem solvers immediately get to work on positive solutions. They choose action over words and feelings. And they plan for future challenges, understanding that if they’re prepared, they have nothing to fear.

Creative Problem Solving

When it comes to resiliency, perhaps the most important problem-solving strength is the ability to be creative. Creative problem solvers can think outside the box, come up with solutions on the fly, and generate novel ideas that haven’t been tried before.

Creative problem-solving is so vital because so much of resiliency comes down to one’s ability to deal positively with change. And goodness know there are a lot of changes going on in the world. Resilient people plunge head first into new things, while non-resilient people have to be dragged kicking and screaming.

Non-resilient people base their happiness on stability-they set up a routine and never voluntarily leave their comfort zone. When they’re forced to deal with a new reality, their world falls apart, and they find it extremely difficult to bounce back. They try to wedge their old ways of doing things into a new situation. It’s like putting a round peg in a square hole, and yet still they miserably persist.

They can’t grasp the new reality because they don’t want to. They shut their eyes and it doesn’t matter what new information they’re presented with, they refuse to change their mind. “My kid is not taking drugs.” “My girlfriend is not cheating on me.” “My job is not going to be downsized.” These people are always the last to know. They refuse to believe the truth right in front of them, and when they’re finally faced with the indisputable facts, they absolutely go to pieces.

You look at companies today and there are those that have grasped what the changing technological landscape means for doing business, and there are those that keep trying to do business the way they did 30 years ago. They’re not going to survive. You can be like the people who 60 years ago said that TV wasn’t going to hurt radio, or you can be the person that grasps the new reality and uses their creativity to remain relevant.

How do you become a creative problem-solver? The first key is curiosity.

Creative people maintain the same curiosity they had as children. You remember being a boy…exploring creeks, asking a ton of questions, tearing through book after book. Adults who retain this child-like curiosity are still fascinated with how things work and are always taking in new information about the world. They read. They ask questions. “What’s going on?” “How are things shifting?” “How are other people feeling?” “What are they thinking about?”

Creative people are open-minded and constantly absorbing information. They let information flow into their brains and observe things without labeling and judging them as good or bad. They don’t think things like, “That’s a stupid idea.” “Those people are crazy.” “That’s not how you should do things.” “That culture is backwards.”

This doesn’t mean a creative person doesn’t have opinions and believe certain things are right or wrong. It just means that they want to know how things work just for the sake of knowing; that all knowledge is good whether you agree with it or not. They file everything away in the belief that you never know when a fact is going to come in handy and something is going to give you an amazing insight.

When you saturate your mind with information and experiences, and let this knowledge swirl around in your cranium, things will just pop out of your unconscious. You’ll be brushing your teeth and a new business idea will come to you.

Creative people understand that you never know where you’re going to find inspiration, ideas, and solutions to your problems. But they do know those things won’t be generated if you’re forever stuck in the same routine, and your mind isn’t being fed and nourished. You have to look at things in new ways-perhaps even stand on you desk:

Watch new movies, travel, listen to music, read all sorts of books, visit museums, get out in nature, meet new people. You’ll be looking at some strange piece of art and all of a sudden the reason you’ve been fighting with your girlfriend will suddenly become clear.

Applying These Principles to Your Life

Do you feel like you’re waiting for your ship to come in? Do you feel like you are a helpless cog in a machine? Are you waiting for other people to change so that you can be happy? Do you check your email 100 times a day hoping that an email will show up that will change your life?

Stop placing your fate in someone else’s hands.

It’s time to take control of your life. Instead of being the ship, be the captain that controls the ship.

Having a bunch of loose ends in your life is heavy psychological baggage. It’s like an orchestra where everyone’s playing a different piece. The music would be terrible. You have to step in as the conductor and get each instrument on the same page, all working together to create something beautiful.

Start by making a list of the things in your life that you’re not happy with. Pick one of the problems and come up with a concrete plan of action on how you’re going to tackle it. This simply means sitting down with a notebook and not getting back up again until you’ve figured out a solution, a few concrete steps you can take to solve the problem. And then you follow-through with your plan with absolutely no excuses. If there’s really nothing you can do to change the situation, come up with a way that you can change your reaction to what’s happening. Don’t let other people dictate how you feel. Controlling your emotions and deciding how to feel on your own terms is one of the manliest and most satisfying accomplishments in life.

Once you successfully tackle one problem, your confidence in your problem-solving abilities will increase, your sense of being in control of your life will increase, your resiliency will be continually strengthened, and your confidence will be further enhanced. And the cycle will continue.

Your life is not fixed. It is malleable and it can be whatever you want it to be.

I know this is the part where people hope for an easy fix, but there’s no solution outside of simply being proactive. Doing instead of waiting. So go and do my friends. Go and do.

“Invictus” by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.


Stumbling on Happiness by Dr. Daniel Gilbert

Resiliency Advantage by Dr. Al Siebert

What Is Locus of Control by James Neill
Building Your Resiliency: Part I – An Introduction
Building Your Resiliency: Part II – Avoiding Learned Helplessness and Changing Your Explanatory Style
Building Your Resiliency: Part III – Taking Control of Your Life
Building Your Resiliency: Part IV – Iceberg Ahead!
Building Your Resiliency: Part V – Recognizing and Utilizing Your Signature Strengths
Building Your Resiliency: Part VI – Quit Catastrophizing
Building Your Resiliency: Part VII – Building Your Children’s Resiliency

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