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The Learning Curve

4 steps to take control of your own destiny at work

No fate but what we make.
A set of train tracks running through a rural area.
Credit: Dragan Boskovic / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • It can often feel as though our work lives stand outside of our control.
  • While no one has complete control over their lives, we can focus on the areas where our influence can make a difference.
  • Taking control of your career “destiny” is about finding meaningful ways to exercise your self-efficacy and shifting your locus of control inward.

Some people just seem to have this work thing figured out, don’t they? They go to a job that they love and love doing. It allows them to express themselves, be creative, or do something that they are good at doing. It’s like they were destined to do this job, and they enjoy the privilege of doing it.

Others, not so much. They go to work but have little say over what, how, and when they do their jobs. The work doesn’t align with who they feel they are or their values, and the path forward doesn’t build to anything that excites them. They feel like an imposter waiting for their destiny to arrive so they can finally do what they were always meant to. 

Of course, there’s no such thing as destiny — no predetermined journey of departures, ordeals, and rewards for us to follow. We all have to craft our lives as best we can. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote: “For as wood is the material of the carpenter, bronze that of the statuary, just so each person’s own life is the subject matter of the art of living.”

The people who seem to have complete control over their work destinies, generally speaking*, have no more control over the vagaries of life than anyone else. The difference is where they locate their sense of volition and how they exercise it.

A man working on a machine in a shop.
Sometimes work doesn’t feel like taking control of your destiny so much as going through the motions. (Credit: Waqas Saeed / Unsplash)

Locate your locus of control

In psychology, a locus of control is a construct — that is, a model inferred from data to explain a phenomenon. In this case, the model explains how people perceive their agency and how that understanding motivates their behavior and life outcomes. And it’s found that people consider their locus of control to be either external or internal.

Someone with an external locus of control perceives their circumstances as arising from things outside of their control. They didn’t get that promotion because their boss never allowed them to shine. They drink too much because their work stresses them out. Then there’s run-of-the-mill bad luck.

On the other hand, someone with an internal locus of control perceives their circumstances as arising from things they can influence. They didn’t get the promotion, but they’ll speak with their supervisor to see where they can improve. They drink too much because they are stressed out, so they’ll figure out ways to manage that stress better. And while bad luck happens, they can always adapt or pivot to account for it.

As you can imagine, these two loci motivate behavior in various ways, and research has shown that an internal locus of control is far and away the more beneficial. 

People with an external locus of control tend to feel powerless in meeting their goals or overcoming difficult situations. They tend to blame others and not take responsibility for their mistakes. And even when success does come their way, they have difficulty internalizing the achievement. Luck simply broke their way for a change.

Conversely, an internal locus of control is associated with a bounty of positive life outcomes. Among adolescents, an internal locus correlates positively with academic achievement. Among adults, it correlates with improved well-being, job motivation, and social experiences. People who report having a strong internal locus perceive themselves to be happier, physically healthier, and more confident in the face of challenges.

Of course, it’s not always that neat and tidy. For starters, it’s an open question in psychology as to what exactly a locus of control is and how to best measure it. For example, is it an independent construct or a component of a larger mental toolkit — say, one’s personality? Researchers aren’t sure how fixed or flexible it can be either. A person’s locus of control is likely formed by their genetics, environment, and childhood development, but research also shows people can foster a stronger internal locus, especially as they get older.

Second, we shouldn’t let the division of external and internal make it seem as though it is a binary characteristic. Your locus of control exists on an external-internal continuum, and according to Kendra Cherry, author of Everything Psychology Book, most people lie somewhere between those two extremes. 

Despite the aforementioned benefits, this is a good thing as there are times when it’s best to have an external locus. When things are truly outside of your control — such as when a flight is canceled or a coworker’s attitude is less than stellar — learning to let things be can be far less stressful than feeling personally responsible.

A date with efficacy

The locus of control is related to another construct in psychology, self-efficacy. This is your perception of whether you have the skills or abilities to perform a task or reach a goal. Like your locus of control, a lot about self-efficacy seems innate — some people seem to naturally believe in themselves while others struggle to — but are capable of being cultivated in the right environment.

While related, self-efficacy is also distinct from your locus of control. For example, you may feel you can influence whether you get a promotion or not, but not perceive yourself as capable of balancing the new responsibilities with your other commitments and family life. That internal locus of control mixed with low self-efficacy may lead you to seek out a new career path where you can grow in a different direction. 

Like an external locus of control, low self-efficacy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It simply needs to be paired with a realistic assessment and an understanding of your values.

Becoming the master of your own work destiny

Given this, taking control of your destiny at work doesn’t mean you have to be in charge. Nor does it mean that everything goes according to your plan. Instead, it’s about finding ways to exercise your self-efficacy and internal locus of control — and also knowing when it may be best to let things go.

Aaron Ross, executive sales advisor and author of Impossible to Inevitable, knows a thing or two about both. Working in sales, he had to learn how to balance what he had control over, what he could accomplish, and also how to let go of the forces and decisions that stood outside his control.

In an interview with Big Think+, he shared four steps to help others take control of their “destiny.” They are:

1) Make a list of your interests and talents

Ross recommends starting with a list of interests and talents. These can be areas that you already have knowledge in or things you are interested in learning or developing. Talents can also be wide-ranging, from well-honed technical skills to soft interpersonal ones. The reason for this is that you’re more likely to be drawn to and engage with things you love doing. If you’re talented in a specific area, you’ll feel a greater sense of self-efficacy and self-determination in it, even when setbacks and mistakes occur.

When making your list, be sure not to limit your thinking. In his interview, Ross provided an example of a sales executive who is interested in stand-up comedy and has a talent for humor. While that job and talent don’t seem like a natural pairing, they can actually be blended together effectively.

As Ross noted:

“There are a lot of sales influencers who use comedy, whether they’re creating content, whether they’re communicating with customers, maybe they’re writing emails, creating videos. So anything you do that you have an interest or talent in, whether it makes sense or not in the moment to a job, could be relevant actually to you in some way.”

2) Make a list of people you’d like to talk to

Talking with other people can help reveal ideas and information that often escaped our notice. For example, someone with an external locus of control may be blind to the opportunities for assertion and self-determination that are perfectly evident to their close friend. Similarly, a person with an internal locus of control may benefit by having a trusted confidant help them find the true boundaries of their influence so they can invest their attention and emotions elsewhere.

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“Just talking to people can give you some more clarity on what you want to do. How do you want to contribute? Where do you have a talent you may not even recognize? Sometimes you’ve got a unique genius that you’re so good at; you don’t see it because it’s so natural. It’s like breathing,” Ross said.

3) Try to identify a problem in need of a solution

Sometimes, life and work can come at us in a rush. There are so many things happening outside our control that we feel powerless. However, by identifying a specific problem and working toward a solution, we shift the continuum toward our internal locus and tasks that align with our interests and talent. Granted, those things outside our control don’t go away or suddenly bend to our will. But that perception shift can help us redirect our efforts and self-efficacy on what is important and within our influence.

Ross points out that this doesn’t have to be a work-related problem either. Plenty of people take control of their destinies by finding areas outside of work to focus on. It could be a side hustle, volunteering, or a hobby. These people work to live their destiny — rather than live to find their work destiny.

4) Don’t get stuck. Create a forcing function.

Of course, it’s very hard to get stuck in the momentum of life and feel our control and self-efficacy slip away in the hustle and bustle. That’s why Ross’s final suggestion is to create what he calls “forcing functions” — that is, something in your life that forces you to keep going. 

For example, Ross tends to tell people when he plans to complete a task or solve the problem he’s focused his mind on. That sense of public accountability drives him to perform because he doesn’t want to feel like he’s let anybody down. Other forcing functions may include time-boxed scheduling, collaborating with others, or taking task-specific sabbaticals.

“Anything you can do to feel like you’ve got more power and influence that feels more aligned with who you are,” Ross concluded. “If you keep doing that enough, you’ll see you will make progress towards how you can shape your career, your job — whatever you’re doing — towards where you want to go.”

Learn more on Big Think+

With a diverse library of lessons from the world’s biggest thinkers, Big Think+ helps businesses get smarter, faster. To access Aaron Ross’s full class for your organization, request a demo.

*Note: A complex array of everything from genetics to socioeconomic considerations play a role in how much opportunity is available to someone and how they can exercise it, as well. As important as those considerations are, for the sake of simplicity and focus, we’ll set those aside in this article.


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