4 Simple Steps To Take Control Of Your Life

“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it, and you wouldn’t have an opportunity.” — Bob Parsons

Photo by Avin CP on Unsplash

Taking control of your life is simple.

Don’t believe me? Read on.

I used the word “simple” instead of “easy” in the title for a reason. Simple and easy are not the same thing. If you’re in decent shape, running is easy. And running a marathon is simple. We evolved to run. We didn’t evolve to run 26.2 miles at a time. To accomplish the latter, you just need to repeat the former.

Likewise, taking control of your life is simple but not easy. If it was easy, you wouldn’t be reading pieces like this.

So, without further ado, here are four simple steps to taking control of your life.

#1: Pick solvable problems to suffer for.

Many people delude themselves into believing they can find eternal bliss. They often tie that to attaining an extrinsic marker like a magic level of net worth, a fancy job title, or a house of a certain minimum size. “If only I could be worth a million dollars or have a million followers, I’ll always be happy. I’ll never have a bad day.”

Nobody in the history of the world has ever avoided bad days. We all suffer. Find me someone who hasn’t and I’ll gift you a new planet all to yourself.

Life bombards you with crap. Get used to it. That’s life. You can’t control the stream of crap flying at you. All the money and fame in the world can never buy your way out of suffering.

You can control how you react to the stream. You can find meaning in working on some of the crap life throws your way. In essence, you can find solvable problems to suffer for. Instead of grasping for bliss and expecting the impossible out of life, you can find the right things to suffer for.

These solvable problems must be entirely in your control. They should bring you joy, but they must not be purely positive. Those things are called pleasures. If you want that, go to Vegas and blow your money on blow and getting blown. And stop reading this article because you won’t digest any of it.

I’m passionate about climate change. No one individual can solve it and save the polar bears. Don’t believe me? The pope has the largest megaphone of any human being to ever exist. While he might be the sharpest moral voice demanding action on climate change, few of his adherents listen to him. If the pope can’t fix the climate, I certainly can’t.

But I can shift my perspective and create a solvable problem. I can’t save the planet, but I can influence the thoughts and behaviors that contribute to big problems like climate change. That’s why I write pieces like this. If I feel inadequate about the degree to which I’m fighting for the Earth, I have no one to blame but myself.

This is a good problem for me to suffer for. I can fully control my process but I have zero control over the results. I like that. I can do this as long as I live and never run out of kindling or motivation.

Maybe your passion is animals. Or clean water. Or writing and helping other writers. Or all of the above. Pick a handful of solvable problems that keep you up at night but bring you nonstop fulfillment. Stick with them through thick and thin.

Marcus Aurelius pushed himself out of bed every day by reminding himself he had to go to work as a human being. Find solvable problems to suffer for and you’ll never struggle to go to work as a human being.

#2: Set attainable parameters to define success on your terms.

Attainable parameters are often unquantifiable. They’re values-driven. If you’re struggling in the romance department, you could commit to only dating partners who value and accept you for who you are. Maybe I’m mistaken, but there’s no way to fully quantify whether or not a partner values and accepts you for who you are. But you know when the parameter is attained, and you definitely know when it’s not. Your brain does a fine job slapping a green conditional formatting tag when things are going well and a red tag when they’re not.

If you’re trying to help other writers write or be civically engaged, you’ll know if you’re putting in the work. You don’t need to make a KPI board or cue whatever fancy self-improvement app you use.

Why should you avoid quantifiable parameters? Because they create unrealistic and distracting expectations that shift your focus from the process to the result. Expectations can kill even your brightest hopes and dreams. If you pick a problem you love suffering for, you won’t need to measure your progress and benchmark it relative to expectations placed by you or someone else. Your choice to suffer for something will be intrinsically motivated.

And if you picked a good problem, your process should be iterative. You should be able to grow in perpetuity. You should be able to doubt whether you’re doing the work. If you can’t, either the problem isn’t worth suffering for or it was never a problem in the first place.

Always search for doubt. Never strive for certainty.

#3: Remember the joy lies in the climb, not the summit.

I once wrote about the concept of non-success in the context of mountain climbing. Ed Viesturs is one of the most prolific climbers ever, but like everyone else in that rarified world, Viesturs has had his fair share of setbacks. Instead of viewing them as failures, he considers them “non-successes.” Viesturs gets tremendous joy out of climbing mountains, not summiting them. He detaches himself from the results of his climbs, knowing that much of his success is out of his control and that sometimes things just don’t go his way. Failing to reach a summit does not mean the climb failed.

You know how miserable a mountain climber would be if they tied their self-worth to always reaching the summits of 25,000-plus foot mountains? Really fucking miserable.

You know how amazing a mountain climber like Ed Viesturs feels knowing they’re engaged in the ultimate infinite game, something that constantly provides challenges and setbacks and in so doing creates a deep oasis of fulfillment that never runs dry? Really fucking great.

Find your own Everest to climb. And remember the journey is the destination.

#4: Don’t worry about everything else.

This one’s the most important step to me. There’s an entire ancient philosophy devoted to this premise alone: Stoicism. It requires fighting just about every instinct instilled in you by evolution to win nature’s infinite game: natural selection.

A quick digression (relevant, I promise) on natural selection: Mutations occur randomly, all the time, throughout every single species — unicellular prokaryotes, arrogant humans, and everything in between. Mutations make some individuals within a species different from the others. Some mutations are beneficial. They improve an individual’s fitness and help it survive and reproduce. Over time, individuals with good mutations win out over the sore losers who didn’t luck out.

Mutations are fine and dandy. They’re vital. But mutations are worthless unless an organism wants to survive and reproduce. Herein lies the rub: in humans, the desires to survive and reproduce lead to an obsession with unhealthy things that lie outside your control and are ultimately fait accompli. The urge to survive and procreate begets a compete and conquer mentality. Being average doesn’t do you much good in the harsh, relentless world beyond iPhones and Instagram. You feel the need to be the best at everything you touch. You have to make more money, look better, and have more followers than everyone else.

You and your instincts are in an eternal cage fight. Evolution compels you to eat sweets, watch TV, buy crap, chase riches, and bang models. Evolution compels you to chase simple pleasures and extrinsic markers of success.

If you want to take control of your life, you should aim to do none of those things.

I used the word aim for a reason. You can be fulfilled eating sweets while you watch TV and bang a model (i.e. the Platonic ideal of George Costanza). But if you spend your life pursuing those things above all else, you’ll likely end up like George Costanza: neurotic and aggrieved, constantly falling flat on your face and playing the victim card. Or, as Costanza himself put it, you’ll be disturbed, depressed, and inadequate.

Speaking from plenty of personal experience, I don’t want you to be disturbed, depressed, or inadequate.

So what’s the secret here? Detach from your desires and expectations. Remember what evolution pushes you to seek. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. A good life is made so by the struggles you fight, not the pleasures you desire.

We all worry about things outside of our control because it helped us survive and reproduce on the plains of Africa. You don’t share those same troubles. Focus on your locus of control and you’ll have a much easier time navigating the modern world.

Likewise, don’t create a rigid identity. Doing so imposes strict benchmarks you’ll never meet. If you tie how to see yourself to things outside of your control, you will never be content or fulfilled. Accept your potential to change and grow, to become a totally different person from the one you’ve gotten used to.

This is key because above all else, our brain works overtime to affirm our identities. If you feel like you’re a great writer but someone gives you negative feedback on your writing, you’ll dismiss the feedback because it’s too painful to entertain the notion that your identity, the way you see yourself, is wrong.

When you loosen your identity, you make it easier to detach from desires and expectations. You enhance the process of shedding your unhelpful instincts and allow yourself to withdraw from the comparison games that cause undue suffering.

Final Thoughts

These things are all simple. But they’re not easy.

Eating healthy is quite simple. If your plate is naturally colorful, you’re probably on the right track. If your plate looks less like an artist’s palette and more like drab hotel carpeting, think twice before you dig in.

But if keeping a healthy diet was easy, everyone would do it. We are poorly equipped to eat well in the modern world. Otherwise, Dr. Oz and other celebrity health gurus wouldn’t make millions hawking advice you can find and implement for free. They make money because it’s not easy.

Taking control of your life is simple. But it’s really fucking hard. That’s what makes it worthwhile and fulfilling. It’s worth suffering to go to work as a human being, as Aurelius once said.

If you can follow these four steps, you’ll be well on your way to taking control of your life.

#1: Pick solvable problems to suffer for.

#2: Set attainable parameters to define success on your terms.

#3: Remember the joy is in the climb, not the summit.

#4: Don’t worry about everything else.

Writer, editor, explorer, lifelong learner. Social distancing expert since 1994, big fan of semicolons and Oxford commas. Think green.

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