There is a fundamental disposition that will affect if you win or lose, and the level of success you would reach. It is how you think about control.
Your level of happiness is directly linked to how much autonomy, control or choice you have in your life. Generally speaking, the more autonomy you have, the higher your level of wellbeing. It is a key driver in job satisfaction, one that Cal Newport highlights in his book ‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’. To feel fulfilled in your career, you have to have a say in what you do and how you do it.
That is why entrepreneurship is attractive to some of us. We are control freaks. As tough as the journey is, the thrill is in going for your dream and charting your course. For better or worse, I have always thought the safest hands for my destiny are still mine. Because I can control where I am going and what I am going to do.
So, control is necessary for a better life, and is something we all crave. The pursuit of self-development or any kind of education or growth is a pursuit of control, over self, over our circumstances, over our results. We do things to get other things. Sure, you can’t control everything, and you shouldn’t try to. But you should exercise control over the few things you can.
In psychology, there is the concept of locus of control, which is the extent to which a person feels they have control over the events in their lives. It is split into two.
Those with an external locus of control believe that things are outside their control. The deciding factor on the things that happen to them lie in things external to them – their environment, some authority figure, some circumstance. They are victims. They spend time complaining, hapless and helpless to change, waiting for someone else to come and fix it.
The flip side of that coin is the internal locus of control. These people feel like the things that happen to them are within their control. If not what happens, then at the very least, their interpretation or response to it. They are in control. If they don’t like something, they can change it. If they hate their job, they can leave. If they don’t like the city they live in, they can move. If they don’t like the results they have been getting, they can change their actions.
Sure, there are a lot of things that are not in our control. At least not directly. But there is a lot that is. If we are to reach our potential, to push and strive to be more, to be more capable, more successful, we have to take more control.
And the truth is, you have more control than you think.
You have problems, you have obstacles, but there is always a way, always something that can be done. No matter how small. Once you make the decision that you have some control, the mind starts to work and churn out solutions. It is the mindset of the successful person. To take charge, and know that no matter what comes, good or bad, there is always a way to deal with it. If you are stuck in a seemingly impossible situation, you start from anywhere. You simply solve the first problem you can, and then the next, and then the next, and eventually you are on the other side.
In failure, the choice on how to react is in your control. Let the sting hit you, feel the pain, and when it has run its course, pick yourself up and continue. Even the huge things in our lives that seem out of our control – the leaders we have, the government we live under, the economy, things can change if enough of us band together to exercise our locus of control.
You have to take a hard look at the things in your life and decide, is this thing really an obstacle, or am I using it as an excuse? Dealing with it might be difficult, but it is probably not impossible. You don’t have money, okay, learn to make some. Learn a skill and freelance, look for a job, sell something you don’t use any more. Do something about it. Anything. Just take control.
You want to be fit but can’t go to the gym? Exercise at home. You want your business to grow? Set up better processes and go knock door to door selling your products and services. You want to do well in school? Study better. You have more control than you think. The beginning of your solution is a google search away.
You can’t take on a heavy load, without taking on more control. When you take responsibility, you are saying that it is on you. The things you want, the heights you want to climb, the things you want to accomplish. It is all on you. You truly have to accept that and do what is necessary.
You can max out your potential. But it starts with taking control.
So, we’ve been exploring ‘How to Maximize your Potential’ over the past couple of posts. And every week, I try to share an idea or principle that could help us in the quest to maximize our potential.
So far, we have looked at things that hinder us from reaching our potential – belief, laziness, comparison. We have also looked at the ego, and how it blocks us from seeing clearly. We also explored the need for change – the necessity of doing new things to get new results.
Now we examine the concept of the ‘heavy load’. If you want to grow, evolve, and reach your potential, you have to take on a heavy load – carry your cross so to speak. The heavy load is responsibility. It is also a mark of maturity and the keen difference between a child and an adult – the level of responsibility you are willing to accept. It has nothing to do with age, everything to do with disposition and mentality.
Most people want a life of ease. A life where everything they want comes to them effortlessly. But life works in paradoxes. If you want ease, if you want freedom, you have to pay for it in blood and sweat. You cannot become great if you do not meet great resistance.
Without a heavy load, without a more-than-usual demand on our time, energy, and creativity, our talents and abilities are left untapped. In the same way our muscles atrophy from a lack of use, our potential wastes away when it is not confronted by demand. You don’t reach your potential by shrinking away from discomfort, you reach it by leaning into and embracing it. By letting it work on you, to make you a stronger, wiser, more empathetic and more capable human being.
Many people experience this heavy load in the form of family – a new spouse, or the birth of their kids. The onloading of a new unit, of new children needing to be clothed and fed has the power to spark off a powerful response. Now you have a deeply rooted why. A why that doesn’t care about your tiredness, or sadness, or stress. They need to be taken care of no matter what. For most people, this new load sparks a level of action and thinking that produces massive results. For others, they buckle under the weight of responsibility and expectation and run away. Or they begrudgingly take on the load and grow sour, more resigned to their fate every day.
The heavy load doesn’t have to be a new baby or a new family. There are many ways to take on a heavy load. It simply means taking on more responsibility, tackling a much bigger goal than you are comfortable with, or holding yourself to a much higher standard. Look at what you want to stretch yourself in, whatever area of life you want to expand, to do so, you have to take up much more.
Be careful though. The weight of the load has to be balanced against the level of ability you have now. Things do overwhelm people, and you don’t want to crush and break yourself right at the start of your journey. Assess where you are now, and then take on a load that forces you to operate at the edges of your ability.
Like I mentioned in my book “How to Live Intentionally”, you have to set a ginormous goal. A massive goal forces you to think differently, creatively and act boldly in the hope of getting close to achieving it. You can probably figure out getting to the next step from where you are, but to 10X, 20X, 100X your results and your life, you have to break open your thinking. The heavy load of a ginormous goal forces breakthroughs in your thinking.
Hold yourself to a higher standard. Even if you don’t take on a bigger goal, you can apply this principle in your routines and daily life. You can continue doing the same things but at higher frequency or intensity. You force a heavy load on to yourself until you adapt and grow.
It’s like going to the gym. You get in there for the first time scrawny or out of shape, wheezing after a few steps on the treadmill or reps on the bench press. But you take on a load. It might not be so heavy at first, but it is enough to cause you to strain, and you wrestle with that. A few weeks after, you take on a heavier load, because you are stronger, more conditioned, more adapted to the old level of load. On and on it goes, progressing to higher levels of strength until you are maxing out your potential, experiencing what you are truly capable of.
Same in learning, same in learning. To go past your plateaus, to new heights of excellent performance, you have to be willing to do more and take on more. Train more, work harder, practice more deliberately.
It’s obviously not a nice or easy thing to do. But you don’t win if you don’t learn how to suffer. Taking on a heavy load is a willing acceptance of suffering for a higher purpose. Knowing that in suffering, in strain and heavy demand, we are forged and made stronger and more capable of attaining greater heights.
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It is a strange thing. Most people want to win – move forward to the next level and do more with their lives, reach their potential. But they want to do it while keeping everything in their lives exactly the way it is now.
As humans, we naturally resist change. Even with compelling evidence and impending doom, inertia keeps us stuck. We would rather maintain the status quo, we would rather hope that things stay stable and the sand doesn’t shift beneath our feet. We see this trait every time our favorite social platform or app changes its design, or every time a known brand changes its logo. Half the time there is outrage and hot takes from people who absolutely know they would have done better.
But, if you desire and expect different results, you cannot keep doing the same things. That is the definition of insanity. If you want to reach your potential, whatever that is, it means you have acknowledged that you can be and do more than you are doing right now. Which means that you would like your results and experience to change. But things do not magically change. There will be no outside force, move of God, magical unicorn rainbow that will come and do it for you…at least not in the way that you will like. If you want change, YOU have to change.
Change precedes change.
And that is the hard work. Changing on the inside first. Changing our minds, the way we think, the way we perceive and interpret the things that happen around and to us, the way we react, the way we act.
Our present results are a consequence of our past choices. To get new results in the future, we need to make new choices now. You don’t have money because you choose the pleasure of watching movies and playing video games over the pain of hard work and hustle. You are not fulfilled because you choose that cushy comfortable job over the uncertainty of incorporating purpose and meaning into your life and career. You don’t have the body you want because you choose to eat haphazardly and never exercise.
Sure, you have valid excuses. You are too busy, you have too many people dependent on you. You don’t believe in yourself. Your friends don’t support you. Your family doesn’t understand. All valid excuses, but you have still made the choice to let those excuses stop you instead of using them to fuel you.
The person who grows the fastest and goes the furthest is the person that embraces change the most. Even the act of walking forward is an exercise in change. Every step takes you to a position you were not in before. You literally change position.
And even if you don’t want to change. Even if you resist it all and try to keep everything the same, that is a fool’s errand. Because life itself is change. You can’t resist time. Things WILL change, you WILL change. You will grow older, your body will change, the people around you will change, the world around you will change, technology will change. A lot of things will stay the same sure, eternal principles and all that, but most of it will change.
Change is not a thing to be resisted. It is a thing to be considered and embraced because it is inevitable.
To embrace change and harness it towards reaching your potential, you have to have a fluid sense of self. You have to have a growth mindset. You have to be able to update your identity. It is an understanding that you don’t have to be what you have always been, and that it is never too late to be who you might have been.
That means you don’t have to be lazy anymore. You don’t have to be anxious. You don’t have to repeat your self-destructive patterns. You don’t have to be unhealthy. You don’t have to be a novice. You can learn. You can grow. You can adapt and change.
Once you embrace that fact, truly embrace it. The doors begin to open for you.
It is funny, remember how much outrage is spewed when the platform changes its UI, or when that brand changes its logo. All that dissipates within a week. People get mad, and then get over it and months down the line, they don’t even remember the previous design.
Same with you. There is the initial noise of change. You do new things. You try new things. You fail. But you learn. You stumble, but you persist. Until one day, the things that were hard are now easy. You have shed your old skin and grown a new one. You hardly even remember the person you used to be.
And what’s more, you have new results. Your account is fatter, your experiences are doper, your relationships are stronger, your body is snatched, you are more fulfilled and productive than ever. Your life has changed because you embraced the pain, because YOU changed.
Potential is…dormant ability…reserved power…untapped strength…unused success…hidden talents…capped capability.
Inherent in the idea of reaching your potential – ‘doing more with yourself and your life’ is the fact that where you are right now isn’t enough, that there is more. It is the admission that you are capable of more.
But to get where we need to go, we have to examine where we are now. How have we lived so far? What are the results we enjoy or endure? What the present scorecard of our life experience? How ever we want to judge it.
Life is a 1 + 1 = 2 equation. Asides from circumstances and forces outside our control, where you are right now is as a result of your past choices – your thinking, your mindset, your reactions to events and your actions or non-action towards your goals.
To get different results, to move forward and tap into more of your power and potential, you have to think and do different things. You need to manipulate the variables of your life equation. You need an evolved disposition and a way of being. But you can’t do that if you think you already know everything.
There is an enemy that is so close to us. He is more than close, he is actually within. His favorite trick is to blind us. He makes us feel good but keeps us oblivious to opportunities for growth, for success, and to our blind spots. He promises to trip us up at every point and turn. That enemy is our ego.
There are various layers and levels at which to engage with the concept of Ego.
First, there is the concept of self, and these are esoteric waters, so bear with me if you are unfamiliar. We all experience the ‘self’. We believe we are something, that we are someone. This bundle of thoughts and emotions, this state of consciousness that resides where? Our heads? Our heart? Our gut? All over our body?
Who are we? Where’s our soul? The illusion of self is so persistent that we cling to it very strongly. We are us – a separate entity from them. The rabbit hole here goes much deeper, but my point is we usually think the sense of self is a constant real thing that almost never changes. We say things like, that is just how I am, I can’t help my temper, my procrastination, whatever traits and habits we choose to hold on to. But the self is far more malleable than we think. What we anchor as ourselves, our personality, is nothing more than a bundle of habits and patterns we have picked up. They can be unraveled. They can be changed.
The rigid sense of self especially when it is unconsciously chosen and engineered becomes a stumbling block to our progress. If we must reach our potential, if we must take up new habits, new patterns of thinking, then we must see the self as malleable, and everything as learnable. Which means that we cannot hold on too tightly to our present notions of self, we must be flexible enough to evolve, to grow and change.
Ego as we usually know and refer to it, is having an unnecessarily inflated sense of self. It is pride. It is the scared child within that seeks to protect itself, that needs to be right at all cost. It is the spoilt petulant self that wants to be the center of everything, to be acknowledged, to be validated.
It is also this ego that we must confront and bring into submission. It is the thing that flares up when we are confronted with evidence or ideas that go against everything we believe and stand for. It is that flash of anger and self-defense that spontaneously arises when we are called out or corrected. It is the response that comes to a seeming attack on our character, on our person.
To grow, you have to be able to manage this side of you. Otherwise, you will never move forward. Your ego is the sum total of the ideas and beliefs you have set up around yourself – who you are, and what you are capable of. It is ego that clings to excuses…because it is not really your fault, someone else failed you, harmed you, made you who you are. It is ego that refuses to take responsibility, that chooses the easy way out, that chooses to indulge yourself instead of doing the hard work you need to do to move forward and change your situation.
It is the ego that judges others. It looks at other people enjoying things you would like, things such as material goods, notoriety, fame, accomplishment, and lashes out saying ”…they were lucky, that person thinks they are all that, they had rich parents, they suck up to the boss, I bet if I had what they had…”. It is ego that projects and makes everyone else the enemy.
It is the ego that gets offended. How could that person say that about me? How could that person say that at all? Who are you to refer to me as this kind of person, and yourself as that? How dare you think you are special?
It is ego that must protect the self at all cost. Because the ego really believes in scarcity. Attention is scarce, resources are scarce, success is scarce. The more that person has, the less I do. It is the reason bad leaders hog all the credit and treat their followers like crap. It is ego that must inflate the self and preserve its perch above all others. It is the ego that prioritizes personal short-term gain over the long-term good of the collective.
If you must move forward, if you must live up to your potential, you must go to war against the ego every day. You have to humble yourself and build your confidence not on who you think you are, but on how you actually behave and what you accomplish. Let your sense of pride be earned and forged in the bitter trials of change, of trial and error, of actual learning and education.
Be open to receive correction. You don’t know everything. You don’t even know what you don’t know. The way you have done things has brought you this far for better or worse. But there is so much more to be and to do. To grow, you have to allow yourself to learn new things. Don’t shut down ideas just because they offend you, be willing to entertain, to calm down, to think through rationally and make a decision. It doesn’t mean listen and agree with whatever one says, it just means don’t be so quick to dismiss, at least check yourself. Be continually open to the idea that you might be wrong.
At the core of his ‘Principles’ Ray Dalio has the idea of truth as the ultimate benchmark. He is always trying to find out what is true about a situation or about life. Not what he would like to be true, not trying to confirm his assumptions or beliefs, just what is actually true, regardless of how it tastes. It is humility in the face of reality. To try, to fail, to clearly analyze failure, take instruction, make corrections and try again. It is understanding that as diverse as we are in personality, physicality and inclinations, we are also diverse in perspectives and strengths. Each of us has something to teach the other. If we will move forward and reach our potential, we have to be willing to lean on the expertise of others in search of the truth that will take us where we need to go.
To break through to your highest potential, you have to be willing to do some different, you have to be willing to be someone different. Regulate the ego, stay humble, stay open, don’t judge, don’t be offended, just keep your eyes on the prize, keep learning, keep evolving and keep moving forward.
I had just posted my last piece on the 7 reasons you don’t reach your potential when my friend George hit me up asking if I had ever written about anxiety. Personally, I like to write about what I know best and stick to my comfort zone which is the personal development stuff. But there is the saying that if you can design one thing, you can design anything. So, I’m going to see if that also applies to writing.
I approach matters of mental health with great care. As someone who has had his own fair share to deal with, I understand that it is a triggering and fragile thing to discuss. It is great that lately as a collective, we are recognizing mental health issues as valid conditions and not just sweeping it under the rug or being oblivious like previous generations. At the same time, it is not an exact science, it is a very subjective experience, so these are murky waters.
It is only recently, like 4 months ago, that I started to realize that perhaps I actually am a lot more anxious than I realize. I have always had a low level of anxiety going on. I just never called it that. I just bookmarked it as fear, but this low-level feeling of tension always exists. It rears up its head when I have to do something new, when I sit in the car with a mentor or someone that I look up to. It rises when I have to go out into the world and interact with people. It rises when I get phone calls. It builds when I need to do something important. It flares up when I have to go out to an event or a party. It is my faithful companion. Sure you could call it nervous excitement, but sometimes it never really leaves, there is easy to constantly worry about anything and everything.
But life and growth require that you move forward. They require that you try new things, that you stretch yourself out of your comfort zone. Because otherwise, you would remain stuck. So, I’ve always viewed this anxiety as fear, and fear as something to be embraced and overcome. One of my favorite quotes is the Latin phrase ‘nihil timendum est’. It means ‘nothing is frightening’. Recently, I’ve come to meditate on fear as a specter, a ghost. There is even the acronym F.E.A.R. meaning ‘False Evidence Appearing Real’. Fear is just a projection of our subconscious mind unto the screen of life. If it is a matter of projection, perception and interpretation, then perhaps it can be influenced or even controlled.
When my friend asked me about anxiety, he framed it in a specific way. As young men (and everyone really) trying to come up in the world, it is difficult and we are prone to anxiety, whether we talk about it or not. In the prevailing social narrative, as men, we are supposed to have our shit together. It is said the only time a black man is truly loved is for his money. Which means if you don’t have money or means, then you are useless. Now that isn’t completely accurate, because there are a lot of broke men who are loved and supported by their women, but there is still a truth to it. Life is real, and you have to be able to shoulder the burdens.
So, the anxiety mounts, coming into your own as an adult. Figuring out your career, figuring out relationships, paying bills, getting married, raising children. All very real, very weighty things. At the same time, the whole world around us looks and feels like it is going to hell in a handbasket. In Africa, we face hundreds of years of exploitation from outside forces and broken promises and dashed hopes from our own leaders. There is conflict worldwide at every turn, even the empires and structures we used to look towards for stability or a sense of aspiration are all crumbling. Everything is falling apart, the ground beneath our feet seeming to give way. With so much going on, the mounting anxiety is understandable.
I read a copy of the New Internationalist the other night, and it was back to back full of bad news. Printed across its pages was one crisis or the other, from the underdevelopment and exploitation of Africa, to the piling plastic and electronic waste from our consumerist capitalist society, even to the damage of the inner psyche of the average person, we are faced with the most pressing challenges of our species and we are woefully unequipped to deal with them. It gets so overwhelming, it is easy to look out for the check-out button, both literally and metaphorically.
How do we cope?
If you are religious, you hold on to the hope of a life beyond this one, sure that this will pass away and a utopia will ensure. Otherwise you can cope with various philosophical or political responses – nihilism – eat, drink and be merry today because tomorrow we die, resistance – we can change this, we just need to change our prevailing systems, radicalism – let’s just burn everything down, anarchy – let’s descend into chaos and let everyone be responsible for themselves.
I don’t have the answers fam, I’m just as overwhelmed as you. But I’ll share how I think and approach it. It might not work for everyone, but it works for me.
Mindfulness helps. Which is really just the practice of being aware. If you are aware that you are being anxious, then you can resolve it. But it starts with recognizing that it is happening. When I realized how anxious I got around people I looked up to, I started consciously breathing deeper and deliberately relaxing into the present, into their presence and bringing forth my true self – as a human being, with personality, and ideas and a point of view. Basically, acknowledging that I am valid, and I don’t need to pander to be accepted by anyone.
Meditation helps too, and it ties in well with mindfulness. Taking the time out to reconnect with yourself, to deepen your inner reserves, to increase awareness give you more control in your day to day life. You can lengthen the time between occurrence and reaction and fill the space in between with impartial observation. Once you master the discipline of perception you can react or act accordingly.
In stoic philosophy, we are encouraged to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be. That also means a radical acceptance of what is. Amor Fati – love what it, as if you wanted what happened to happen. Even if it is failure, even if it is destruction. Once you can accept it, then you can deal with it. Too much psychic energy is spent resisting what is and wishing for something else, instead of dealing with what is and transforming that to what you want, if possible. So sure, things are hard, I am anxious, accept the fact, embrace and then decide what to do.
We are also encouraged to focus on what is within our locus of control. You can’t control everything, not the decisions of other people, not the things happening halfway across the world. You can’t even control what will happen to you in the next 5 minutes. But you can control the meaning you give to it, and you can control your reaction and your action to it.
Cultivate an inner citadel. In a world of chaos, it is imperative to have a space within that you can retreat to, a place to drop anchor. It is a place cultivated in meditation, in prayer and in contemplation of the transcendent. It helps you understand that everything physical will pass away, but that you, your consciousness, your soul is more than just what you see. And you can root yourself in that awareness and draw strength, even in the most-dire of straights.
All these tactics help to deepen our resolve, our reserves and manage anxiety. To be calm when needed and to arouse passion when needed, so that we are not overrun and overwhelmed but with emotional discipline, we have what it takes to meet our challenges.