Ughh, not another self-improvement article.
There are an overwhelming amount of self-improvement articles online, especially on Medium. I would know, because I have spent an unhealthy amount of time in the last year reading countless articles that promised to change my life. To be fair, a lot of them did. Soon, I discovered similar themes weaving through different articles, using different words to describe, fundamentally, the same ideas.
I don’t want you to waste your time sifting through hundreds of articles to find the diamond in the rough, which I why I want to share the most valuable piece of self-improvement/productivity insight that I have found throughout my year-long research.
Let’s not beat around the bush, here’s the advice:
Focus on what you can control. Ignore what you can’t.
I know this sounds way too simple and obvious to be meaningfully insightful. But like anything worthwhile in life, the key is in its simplicity.
What Does This Mean?
Allow me to briefly examine the abstract logic behind this statement, before fleshing it out with some real-life examples.
The logic is simple. Given any situation, there are many factors that influence its outcome. These factors can be broadly categorized into 2 sets: controllable and uncontrollable. Given that time and human energy is finite, we cannot pour our energy into every single action that influences every single factor. So the question is: which factors should you focus on influencing?
If you choose the set of controllable factors, you can influence tangible change. After all, these factors are controllable, so you can influence them by definition. Over time, these changes lead to progress in the direction that you desire, which empowers and motivates you to take more action to influence more progress. The important element here is the idea that the energy invested in your decision-making and action-taking results in tangible outcomes.
If you choose the set of uncontrollable factors, you can spend all the time and energy you want to make something happen, but it never will. Instead, the invested energy disappears into thin air, defying the First Law of Thermodynamics. The lack of progress, despite your tireless efforts, results in frustration and insecurity, inevitably making you less motivated to take action. By taking less action, you reduce your rate of progress even further, trapping you in an endless cycle of anxiety and sorrow. The truly sad part is that even genuinely hardworking people can get trapped here, simply because they chose the wrong factors to focus on. As they say, work smart not hard (I would personally amend this to work smart and hard).
You can see that the logic behind this statement isn’t anything groundbreaking. The best way to witness the power of this advice is to delve into some real-life stories.
The last year of high school is a stressful time for most students, at least until they’ve finished the college application process. Those who have been through it will empathize with the struggle of churning out essay after revision after essay to concisely and effectively explain your life story and identity and communities and dreams and so on in under 300 words. Combine this intense workload with the high stakes of your future college, and you get a perfect recipe for stress and pressure.
Let’s first set decide on our objective. Given this situation, it seems clear that the objective is to go to your favorite college. For me, this was Stanford University. Now let’s consider what factors are at play here. Here’s a list of things I could control at the time (excluding the long-term investments that I could have made throughout middle and high school to make me a better candidate for college admissions):
- Amount of time spent writing essays
- Amount of time spent editing/revising essays
- Amount of time spent getting third-party feedback about essays
- Amount of time spent researching prospective colleges to find out as much as I can about facilities, faculty, opportunities, etc. unique to each college
- Finding and talking to people who actually attend my prospective colleges
The list goes on. Now here’s a list of things I could not control at the time:
- Which colleges I am accepted to
In short, here’s a statement that is generally true in any situation:
The process is controllable. The result is not.
Let me be clear, of course the result is influenced by the process, so one could argue that the result is indirectly controllable through the process. This is true. But for the purposes of this advice, let’s consider “controllable” as actions that you can definitely and directly do. For example, I cannot control how good my essay is, but I can control how much time I spend writing and revising it.
Having this clear framework to think with is crucial, as it guides you on what to focus on and what to ignore. In this case, there’s only one thing to ignore yet every high school student will know the feeling of anxiety that haunts you throughout the application process, worries of whether you will be accepted or rejected. Not only will this anxiety drain your energy and make you less productive as a result, but it is simply irrational and unnecessary. Some people argue that the anxiety that arises here is a respectable sign of how much you care about your college and future, but this is a dangerous myth.
I don’t mean to say to avoid pain at all costs; in fact, most things that are worth doing are going to be difficult and painful. I simply mean to avoid unnecessary pain, such as the anxiety and stress resulting from worrying about which university accepts you. In my case, I tried to show an exterior non-nonchalance, but deep down I was worrying and building up my expectations, expectations founded on uncontrollable factors. Eventually, when I was rejected by Stanford (and Harvard and Yale among others), I was heartbroken. But this was another unnecessary pain and distraction, which led me down a path of negativity and self-destructiveness instead of opening an opportunity to learn and improve.
From the beginning, if I had just remained committed and focused on investing my time and energy on the process, the result would not have stung so much. Moreover, the result would have probably been better without the suffocating emotional stress and distractions. The deeper lesson, though, is that the result shouldn’t matter this much to you. Allowing results to define you leads to a mindset of fear and avoidance of failure at all costs, which is a terrible attitude for learning. Rather, results should be viewed as an ever-changing benchmark that helps you track and improve your process, which is your real goal.
Surely, though, results are important. Results are what give tangible consequences to our lives. Results defined whether I went to Stanford or the University of Michigan, which defined the opportunities available to me and so on. I think the way to get around this is to have a mindset of connecting the dots, as articulated by Steve Jobs:
“ You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.” — Steve Jobs
As I mentioned, I was devastated to find out that I was rejected by most of the colleges that I dreamed of attending. Fortunately, the dots did connect for me. Having finished my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I can gladly report that there is no shortage of intellect, passion, curiosity, fascinating courses, entrepreneurial drive, interesting people, and all the things that I wanted out of college. With three years remaining, I am more enthusiastic than ever to return to college to meet some of my best friends and continue my studies.
Even if the results hurt at the time, believe that the dots will connect.
Enlisting In The Army
Upon completing my freshman year of college, I was enlisted in the South Korean army due to conscription. I am currently serving, and will continue to serve until spring of 2021.
Do I want to be in the army? Nope. But this is something that every South Korean male must experience; it’s the backbone of our culture and society. Of course, there are a variety of legal consequences for not enlisting in the army, so there was never a doubt about whether I will enlist. From a young age, I always knew that enlisting in the army would be a 19 month experience that I cannot avoid.
My father always told me that there will always be things in life that you don’t want to do but have to do. He believes that successful people will do these things with a positive attitude and learn as much as they can, while unsuccessful people will constantly complain and do the bare minimum. In the months leading up to my military enlistment, this idea resonated strongly with me. How can I make the most of my 19 months? How can I ensure I come out as a better person instead of wasting my time?
I had no control over whether or not I would enlist; this was decided for me. However, I did have control over my attitude going in. I refused to feel sorry for myself or complain about how tough and lonely it is. Instead, I have tried my best to stay positive and invest my time into forming good habits. In his book Principles, Ray Dalio claims that it takes about 18 months to properly form a habit. Coincidentally, my service is 19 months, ensuring enough time to form good habits given enough effort on my part. By the time I’m discharged, I hope to have cemented habits of reading, writing, and gratitude, as well as significantly improved my professional Korean.
Through this example, I hope to have illustrated the ability to find opportunity in darkness. As my father says, we will all face moments in life where we must do something we really don’t want to do. While our lack of agency in these situations can feel frustrating, we have full control over how we decide to face them. We can choose what mindset we enter with. We can choose how much we learn. We can choose the person we become.
Let’s focus on the parts we can control.
Focus on what you can control.
Ignore what you can’t.
If you just remember these two sentences, I succeeded in my goal of imparting the most valuable piece of advice I have come across in the last year. It is my genuine hope that applying this in your life can not only lead to better results, but fundamentally shift your focus from results to the process. With this mentality, you will no longer be bound by stress, anxiety, and the variability of the world.
You own the process because you control it.
If you found this story helpful, I encourage you to read my thoughts on living a meaningful life. It is an exploratory piece that begins with introspection and ends with creation.
For the sake of closure, I shall end with an inspiring imperative:
Take ownership of your life, responsibility for your decisions, and control over your actions.
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