Have you ever had one of those moments when you read or heard something, and all of a sudden everything made sense? Like the mystery of the universe, or at least your universe, finally revealed itself?
I had one of those moments recently when I was reading the book “Succeeding When You’re Supposed to Fail – The 6 Enduring Principles of High Achievement”, by Rom Brafman. The whole book is great and well worth reading, but when I came across one particular chapter, a light bulb went off. And this wasn’t any ordinary light bulb – this was one of those mega-mega-watt bulbs like they use in Texas football stadiums. This chapter was about something called the “limelight effect”, also known as “locus of control” in psychology circles.
When we look at any situation in our lives, there are two ways we can focus our attention: internally or externally. When we look at a situation with an external focus, we see it as happening TO us – elements outside of our control are directing our fate. We’re at the mercy of other people, luck, or chance. Our results are determined by our background and upbringing, workplace rules, office politics, etc…
In contrast, if we look at a situation with an internal focus, we see ourselves as the captains of our fate. We take the lion’s share of responsibility for creating our current experience through the choices we’ve made, and the actions we have or have not taken.
Neither direction of focus is intrinsically right or wrong. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee that for almost every situation in your adult life, whether positive or negative, there are outside forces that have helped to create that outcome, and you’ve made a contribution too. So it’s not a matter of whether an internal or external focus is more valid. Instead, the real question is: which approach is more empowering?
There’s been a lot of research to try to answer this question. And perhaps it will come as no surprise, but an internal focus has been shown to be associated with the ability to overcome adversity, psychological well-being, better health overall, and even a longer life.
Interestingly, when researchers studied individuals who succeeded despite having all the odds stacked against them, people who should have failed but didn’t, one of the key characteristics they all had in common was this specific way of viewing their world. Maintaining an internal focus allowed these unlikely achievers to maximize their personal power, tap into their resources, and transform or overcome their situation, even in the face of the formidable external forces working against them.
At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve all met people who remain stuck in victim mode as they rack up a growing string of disappointments and failures. Even though it’s obvious to everyone around them that their experience would change if they took different actions or shifted their thinking, they give up their power by focusing on the external causes of their woes. They repeat self-defeating patterns over and over again because they don’t believe there is anything they can do to change the situation.
Although there are certainly examples of people who epitomize one approach or the other, most of us actually switch back and forth between the two styles in different areas of our lives, or in different situations.
This is where I had my big light bulb moment.
I had always thought of myself as a person who viewed life primarily with an internal focus. And for the most part I do – to the point that I get scolded by friends and family for being too hard on myself. But I didn’t realize that I could have an internal focus in some areas of my life, and an external focus in others.
What was really interesting was that I realized the areas of my life where I felt like I had the most ability to influence my results, first in school and later at work, were also the areas where I’ve been most successful. It wasn’t always smooth sailing – there were lots of bumps and obstacles (and even some major roadblocks that sent me on long and winding detours), and it took a lot of hard work, but I always felt like I was making progress.
On the flip-side, there are some other areas of my life, like relationships or image, where I’ve felt like I was stuck, or at best slowly slogging my way through a knee-deep pit of cold molasses. And when I thought about it, I realized that I approached these areas with more of an external focus. I was stuck in a mental rut of thinking about the advantages that other people had and the breaks I didn’t get. I’d make some half-hearted efforts to change things, but I didn’t try too hard because deep down I didn’t believe my efforts would be successful.
The thing is, I’ve had to deal with some pretty bad breaks in my career – like a failed business, and 8 years worth of experiments that didn’t work in graduate school. And there are plenty of resources available that could help me change my image and become the fashionista I’ve always imagined I could be – beauty blogs and YouTube tutorials are just a Google search away.
The big difference between these areas was the direction of my focus. When my focus was internal, I was able to tap into all of my resources and creativity to find ways to get through or around obstacles. When my focus was external, I turned molehills into Everest-sized mountains, completely lost sight of the tools I did have, and wallowed in excuses. And then it hit me – what would happen if I adopted an internal focus in those areas where I was stuck?
Now, I want to emphasize this isn’t about finding fault or blame, or laying on a guilt trip. Instead, adopting an internal focus is about reclaiming our power. Recognizing and taking responsibility for the actions or mindsets that contributed to our current experience gives us the power to change it. The only thing in the world that we have complete control over is ourselves, but by changing ourselves, we can transform our experience.
Reclaiming Your Power
So what do we do if we’re stuck in the mode of a disempowering external focus? What can we do to turn our spotlight in a more empowering, internal direction?
The first step is awareness. If there’s an area of your life where you’re stuck and you’re not getting the results that you want, listen to the story you’re telling yourself. Is your focus on the external causes of the problem or the other people involved? Or are you focused on the aspects of the situation that are under your control?
Next, take back your power by asking empowering questions:
- What is your part in this situation? How did you contribute to this outcome?
Even if only a small proportion of the responsibility falls on your shoulders, own it. What could you have done differently, or how can you handle this situation differently if it comes up again in the future? Maybe you could react differently, or set stronger boundaries, or be better prepared, or learn some additional skills. While you can’t control other people or outside forces, you would be surprised by how even small changes can shift the dynamics of a relationship or a long-standing pattern in a positive direction.
- What resources do you have available?
Often, we get stuck in a negative loop of thinking about what we don’t have, and it blocks us from seeing what we do have and how we can use it to move forward. Maybe you don’t have large chunks of uninterrupted time to start working on that novel you’ve always wanted to write – but I’ll be you have some 5-10 minute slivers where you could jot some notes or a line or two of dialogue. Maybe you’d love to get an MBA to advance your career but you don’t have the time or money to go back to school – get started by reading every relevant business book at your library, and accessing free or low-cost classes on the internet.
Get creative – brainstorm a list of possible resources, along with your strengths and talents. You’ll be surprised by how much you have going for you.
- What else can you try?
Maybe you’ve hit a wall where you feel like you’ve tried everything, and it hasn’t worked. But there’s always another possible solution or way to move forward. Be willing to think outside the box. Try asking this question before you go to bed, and let your subconscious puzzle it out while you sleep. There’s a little bit of a mystical element in this process, and it may take a little while for the answer to come, but keep asking.
My challenge to you this week is to listen to the stories you tell yourself about the different situations in your life, and think about whether these stories empower or disempower you. And if you discover any areas where you’re focused externally, try asking yourself empowering questions to shift your focus and take back your power. Share what works for you in the comments section!
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To read more about the characteristics of high achievers who succeed despite the odds being stacked against them, check out: