Time and again research like this study in the Journal of Applied Psychology shows that the people who most successfully overcome setbacks and plow through uncertainty are the people who feel the greatest sense of control over the outcomes in their life. On the other hand, it's plain to see that some events—economic dips, corporate layoffs, natural disasters, and bad hair days—truly are out of our control.
Are resilient people ignorant of reality? For the rest of us to become more resilient, must we choke down a sugary blend of naïveté and delusion?
Actually, no. The truth reveals a strange paradox. Resilient people retain their sense of control by acknowledging their lack of control.
It works like this: When an unexpected or unwanted change happens, it's as if resilient people draw a horizontal line. Above that line, they list uncontrollable issues. Below the line, they list controllable issues.
The economy could tank; my customers could buy less from me; my leaders could order a new round of layoffs; the cancer could come back; my partner could leave me.
How I choose to allocate my available budget dollars; how much effort I expend each day trying to serve my customer's needs; what I eat and how often I visit my doctor; how I choose to treat my partner.
Resilient people aren't oblivious of the uncontrollable issues. They simply treat them differently than the controllable issues.
They give controllable issues a "Fix-and-Focus" treatment. They create action plans to solve the problems they can fix, and they focus their goals exclusively on opportunities that are within their power to realize.
In contrast, they give uncontrollable issues a "Hope-and-Pray" treatment. In order to preserve their priceless sense of control, resilient people hand those uncontrollable hopes and fears over to statistical probability or to Mother Nature or to God or to whatever higher power holds dominion in their worldview.
They then get back to work fixing the problems, and focusing on the goals, within their control. That leads to noticeable progress. Which leads to increased confidence. Which leads to greater effort. Which leads to better outcomes. Which leads to a world that suddenly feels more controllable.