Concern vs. Influence, Why Focus is an Egg & More Control Over Your Experience
Understanding this has changed my life. Not even kidding.
CIRCLES & EGGS
We all care about a lot of things: Our careers, our relationships, our partner’s happiness, our mother’s health, the weather, nuclear war, rising rents or traffic.
The Circle Of Concern
Whatever we care about and whatever we think plays some role in our life falls in what Stephen Covey calls the “Circle of Concern” (must-read book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
Some things in that circle we have control over and some things we don’t.
Our careers? Lots of control.
Our relationships? Absolutely.
Our partner’s happiness? Definitely some, but not a whole lot.
Nuclear war? Unlikely.
The weather? Nada.
Traffic? Only if you’re Elon Musk digging tunnels.
The Circle Of Influence
What you do have control over sits within your “Circle of Influence” — which is always just a fraction of your Circle of Concern. This seems obvious — and it somehow is. Yet, the implication of that fact is deeply profound:
You can’t do something about everything you care about.
So just because you care about something doesn’t mean you should put energy into it.
Understanding this has changed how I live my life. Not even kidding.
The things you have no control over, that is the problems outside of your Circle of Influence, can drain you of focus, time and energy. And, eventually, happiness.
Focusing on other people’s weaknesses, problems in your environment and on all of the circumstances you have no command over will lead to reactive attitudes, blaming, worry and feelings of victimisation.
And, again, it doesn’t matter if you care about these things or not. It doesn’t even matter if these things impact your life. The universe is simply not bowing to your needs and desires — life will not provide what you wish for, simply because you wish for it.
“The world does not respond to need. It responds to seed.”
— Jim Rohn
I have this quote framed, hanging from my wall. As I am writing this, I am looking right at it. It describes the power of focusing on the Circle of Influence.
The less mental energy you spend with things outside your control, the more you have available for the things you actually can do something about.
Focusing your efforts on putting in those seeds makes the world respond — not worrying about, crying about or blaming things outside of your control (although it’s human to do it and we all do it sometimes, me included).
Pro tip: Now, of course, there are things you could influence, but don’t or at least shouldn’t care about. Hence, we can go one step further beyond Covey’s circles. Introducing:
The Egg Of Focus
The more you concentrate on your Circle of Influence, the better you will become in finding out how big it actually is, which kinds of control you have (making changes yourself or inspiring others to initiate change) and where the Circle ends.
And the better you additionally pay attention to which of these things within the Circle of Influence actually are of concern for your life (Egg of Focus) the more you can focus your energy on what will actually make your life better.
None of this is easy — of course not.
I personally believe that finding out where your own influential power ends and where the land of “it is what it is” begins is an art — a life-long challenge.
It will keep you busy as it requires experience and wisdom that we can only gather by living our lives and paying attention to how we are living it. Reflecting from time to time along the way, questioning our own behavior and attitudes, and making adjustments.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
— Reinhold Niehbur
(Pretty solid — I would personally just ignore the God part.)
THE PROBLEM IS NOT THE PROBLEM BUT YOUR ATTITUDE ABOUT THE PROBLEM
Captain Jack Sparrow said that.
It’s a play on Leo Tolstoy’s insight:
“Happiness does not depend on outward things but on the way we see them.”
There are many different angles from which to look at this and I don’t want to claim I know the best or right one — maybe there isn’t even one.
Yet, I believe there is a take on this that is particularly helpful and applicable to one’s own life. The distinction between outer and inner world and how we can control them both.
Through our actions we can influence the outer world. That’s the environment around us, including all of its people (family, friends, co-workers, supermarket cashiers, etc.) and dynamics (careers, relationships, the stuff we have, vacations with Pina Coladas, etc.). That’s the idea of the Circle of Influence from above, with everything that really matters being inside the Egg of Focus.
But we can also influence our inner world which consists of our thoughts, attitudes, emotions, values and all of the other rather fuzzy terminology that tries to describe what is constantly going on inside us.
There is an obvious connection between the two. They are intertwined and act upon each other. Your thoughts and feelings impact what you do — which changes the environment you live in. Changes in your environment, for example how other people talk to you or how well your career is going, in turn impact your thoughts and feelings again.
The Mind Is Your Filter
How exactly that impact looks like can be changed.
You can not only influence the world around you, but you can also influence your subjective perception of it. That’s because you have a filter through which everything that happens has to pass, without exception.
That filter is your mind.
And you can train it. Even if there are a million things in your outer world you have no control over, you remain with the power to change your own experience of them.
To bring this home, here’s a riddle:
What do the following seven people have in common?
A 19th century Russian author.
An American atheist and neuroscientist.
An American Buddhist nun and head of a Tibetan-buddhist monastery.
An ancient Roman emperor.
A Jamaican reggae icon.
A 16th century English dramatist.
A drunk Disney pirate.
The Russian author says:
“Happiness does not depend on outward things but on the way we see them.” — Leo Tolstoy
The atheist says:
“Your life doesn’t get any better than your mind is.” — Sam Harris
The Buddhist nun says:
“The mind is the source of all suffering, and it is also the source of all happiness.” — Pema Chodron
The Roman emperor goes:
“The happiness of life depends on the quality of your thoughts.” — Marcus Aurelius
The reggae guy says:
“Just because you are happy, it does not mean that the day is perfect, but that you have looked beyond its imperfections.” — Bob Marley
The English poet says:
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — William Shakespeare
And the drunk pirate goes:
“The problem is not the problem, but your attitude about the problem.” — Captain Jack Sparrow
They all understand the power of the mind as the filter of outer sensations and the ultimate creator of our subjective experience.
Why Cucumber Wins Over Banana
Why does one person go bananas when they’re stuck in traffic while another one in the car next to them remains calm as a cucumber? The traffic is the exact same for both after all.
What’s different is the meaning they attach to it.
The banana guy probably feels that the universe has conspired against him and is now sending out all of these incapable drivers just to hold him back from getting home earlier and being happy for once.
The cucumber gal, on the other hand, might just see this inconvenience as a normal part of a workday everyone around her has to endure — and she uses it to listen to an audiobook while patiently waiting to get home.
The exact same outer world situation, namely being stuck in traffic while driving back home after work, goes through two different filters. Two different minds that assign different meanings to that situation and give rise to different subjective experiences.
As a result, the subjective perception of the same traffic both are stuck in is different between them. Their minds are constructing a different inner world narrative around the same outer world situation — which leads to a fundamentally different life experience in that moment.
Similarly, people respond differently to job losses, breakups and illnesses. Or rain.
We all know how it is like to change our perspective on things over time or how we handle the same situations completely differently after a while.
For example, when I was in my late teens and early 20’s, I would often become highly aggressive towards other guys in nightclubs or at parties, simply when they looked at me funny or said something I didn’t like. I was always ready to fight someone (or at least I thought so).
Today, though, I am one of the calmest and most relaxed people you will meet. I never look for trouble although I am much bigger and stronger than I was back then. People in clubs or at parties still sometimes look at me in a way I don’t appreciate or even say stupid shit when they’re drunk — but I just don’t care anymore.
That’s not because these things have changed, but my mind has. The filter these things go through and the machine that generates my subjective experience is different now.
I don’t expect everyone to be kind to me, I value peace and serenity much more and I certainly don’t draw self-esteem from making others feel small anymore. As a result, I hardly get annoyed by strangers and even if I do, I am much better at letting it go quickly.
The Space In Between
The point is that what happens around or “to” you does not by default lead to one type of experience. It’s your mind that decides how you respond to the world with your thoughts and feelings (and, based on that, your actions).
As Austrian psychologist, founder of logotherapy and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl (“Man’s Search for Meaning”) said:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Our minds occupy that space.
Our values and priorities, our attitudes and opinions as well as our expectations of how the world should behave — all of these make up the filter through which we perceive the world. As well as the system that creates our felt experience.
And all of these can be changed through training.
Mindfulness practices help you to become a better observer of your inner world, which in itself is a meta skill that helps you to more intentionally use the space between stimulus and response.
Critical reflection of your own goals, desires and behaviours helps you recalibrate your values and priorities.
Cultivating curiosity and open-mindedness about differences can lead to your expectations become less narrow and more adaptable to change.
Focusing on appreciating the positive things in your life instead of lamenting over what’s missing will make you more resilient towards the inevitable shit that’s coming your way. And so on.
So even if you can only influence a part of all the things that matter to you out there in the world around you, you always remain with a tremendous power over your perceptions, interpretations and experiences of the things you cannot change themselves.
This means that the better you become at doing that, the more self-determined you will walk through life.
All of that said, it’s very human to struggle with these things.
It isn’t easy to learn when to create change in the outer world through action (Circle of Influence) and when to focus on one’s inner world and the subjective experience arising from it.
Training one’s mind to become a better observer and navigator of that inner world isn’t any easier.
However, understanding the distinction between the Circle of Concern and the Circle of Influence in the outer world, the reality of the outer world and the inner world, as well as how your mind acts as the ultimate creator of your subjective experience makes a huge difference.
If you enjoyed reading this, please leave a comment and let me know. Oh, and tap that clap button please :)