Focusing on the Things That You Can Control – The Critical Lesson for Today’s Students

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Today I was contemplating the strange and depressing twist that has been happening on University campuses across Canada, the United States and Britain lately, where so-called progressive students have become more and more violent, thuggish and unreasonable in forcing illiberal and paternalistic policies back into schools.

Early examples include students at the University of Toronto, barring the way to events held by the Canadian Association for Equality when they held events that wanted to talk about Men’s issues with speakers like Dr. Warren Farrell and Dr. Janice Fiamengo – with protesters often showing up in masks, wielding clubs, assaulting police and the press, and pulling fire alarms.

Then came the emergent “No Platforming” trend against speakers (and stand-up comics) at Universities who want to talk about gender or race in a way that the students disagree with.  Students making demonstrably false claims of sexism, racism, rape apologia, and incitement of violence against speakers in order to whip crowds up into a frenzy.

It seems to become more extreme as we go, with students demanding Harvard, Yale, and Mizzou administrators be fired for failing to provide a sufficiently “safe space”, and not being apologetic enough.  In some cases, they have turned into Kafkaesque witch-hunts where the only thing the students will be satisfied with is the humiliating public self-flagellation of administrators over their “racism” and “white privilege.”

The Mizzou incidents, along with some events earlier this week at Guelph in particular scare me, because we see students – Black and White alike – demanding that they be racially segregated and receive separate and equal services.  Along with demands that press not cover these stories unless they swear an oath to report on it favourably… complete with threats of physical violence to people who don’t respect their “safe spaces.”

“Safe Space” has become a parody of the original idea – instead of providing people space where they aren’t afraid to speak their mind, and don’t feel like they have to perform a role, these student groups demand spaces where they are being coddled – complete with play-dough, colouring books, and videos of puppies and children’s’ movies… completely insulated from words that might upset them or ideas that might hurt their feelings.

And more terrifying still is the “yes means yes” laws fused with the recent abuses of Title IX laws that were meant to make sure women were treated fairly as they entered university en masse in the 1970s.  We are seeing incidents Universities are allowed to try rape and sexual assault cases using the lowest standards of evidence and definitions of sexual assault so vague that any sexual encounter can be assault – even ones where both people agreed and wanted sex. Often these cases occur without due process or even an assumption of innocence.

It chills me to the bone that progress now looks like voluntary Jim Crow environments where people get their feelings stroked, and everyone claps their ears over their head at the first sign of reason, logic, or meaningful dialogue.  Where due process, human rights, and rule of law are considered nasty obstacles to a “socially just” society.

As I was trying to make sense of this mayhem while talking with my wife about our son’s future education, I came to a conclusion.  That the students in these bizarre cases are missing a vital life lesson.  they are making the same mistake as so many other people, just in an extreme fashion.  they are trying to make the whole world think and act in a way that makes them feel safe.

Which means they are trying to control the uncontrollable.  They are focused on the things that make them feel afraid and helpless in life – not the things that will let them move forward.

One of the most important skills mentally healthy and emotionally resilient people learn to do is to focus on the things in life that they can change, and cut back on the attention and energy they send on the things that they cannot.  The more you spend your energy on the things that are within your control, the stronger and more successful a person you will be, for a number of reasons.  By the same token, people who focus and spend their energy on thing that they cannot control tend to be less successful, and over time become less emotionally stable as well.

This is not true just of individuals, either.  I have come to believe that societies that focus on what can be helped and controlled, rather than wasting energy on things that are beyond control and regulation tend to do better as well.  Nations that minimize their energy trying to control people have greater liberty, innovation, and relative stability compared to cultures that try to control aspects of human life beyond their control.

Some of the things that individuals can control include:

  • The choices they make from the range provided to them.
  • The way they think about situations once they have processed.
  • Whether or not they take the time to process when a problem arises.
  • How they communicate and carry themselves.
  • Whether they engage a situation or walk away.
  • What emotions they feed on a daily basis.
  • Their level of organization and discipline.
  • Their basic level of physical fitness.
  • The company that they keep.

Some things that a society can control:

  • How efficiently they use the common resources.
  • The system they create for their legislative and justice processes.
  • Simple infrastructure – roads, electricity, irrigation.
  • The most common type of currency used.
  • Whether or not they can protect their members from attacks from without.
  • Whether they can deter crimes of property and person (rape, robbery, assault, theft, vandalism, arson, and murder).
  • Standards of civility and acceptable behaviour.

Some things an individual cannot control:

  • What other people do.
  • What other people think.
  • His or Her initial knee-jerk emotional reaction.
  • The weather.
  • Market-scale economic forces.
  • Whether or not he or she gets sick.
  • What information another person communicates, and how.

Some things a society cannot control:

  • What people do with their private property.
  • You cannot control what people will do with their own bodies.
  • What people think.
  • How people feel.
  • Whether or not people will use weapons, drugs, or pornography.
  • How business is done on a global market.
  • What ideas and media are popular.
  • Whether or not individuals are hurt, offended, or ridiculed.

When individuals focus on the things that they can control, they become proactive.  Instead of wasting time trying to figure out how to cope with the things that stop them from reaching their goals, they ask themselves what they can still do to work towards them.  Sometimes they can do relatively little, because the problems that they are working on are so big, so complicated, or involve so many other people that the best the individual can do is focus on their little parts and hope that they have a cumulative effect over time, in doing so they are far more likely to reach their goal than if they do nothing in the face of overwhelming opposition.

The very act of choosing to focus on what you can change adjusts your attitude;  you see yourself as an agent capable of making changes.  You approach a problem as a problem – something to be solved, rather than as an affront or a catastrophe.  You treat setbacks as opportunities to adjust your approach and find something new that you can change.  This attitude makes you far more resistant to stress, frustration, or despair.

On the other hand, any energy that you expend worrying, complaining about something that you cannot change is energy wasted.  Over time, focus on things you cannot control is emotionally fatiguing; you will tend to feel helpless, passive, and frustrated.  Over time, people who expend energy on things they don’t control tend to miss opportunities they might have otherwise taken in moving towards their goals.  They can become depressed,and stop looking actively for opportunities.  Eventually they can come to see themselves as objects or victims, and give up on trying to solve problems and reach goals on their own at all.  Instead they start waiting for someone else to help them – and may even feel entitled to help; after all they have been focused on all the things others have done that have inconvenienced them and obstructed them from their goals – they may feel that somewhere other people are obliged to cut them a break.

Nice Guy Syndrome is a great example of this:  men can become obsessed with playing by the rules, because they think that if they play nice, other people are somehow obligated to playing nice, too.  in his case, that means helping him get the job, car, and quiet, peaceful life he feels playing nice is supposed to get him.  When other people just do what is in their own interests, and don’t take notice of how nice the Nice Guy plays, the Nice Guy gets angry and frustrated.  He was so wrapped up in playing by the rules he never worked on making the things he wants happens in any other way – and now he wants other people to fix it.

The same is true about societies (be they countries, clubs, cities, or small towns.)  What they can do best is to make sure people have the ability to get what they need from society and to give back as they see fit.  You can hold up standards, protect people from the serious harm that comes from brute force (to a degree), and you can set up accepted ways for people to solve their disputes and settle problems.  In effect, you can set people up to succeed on their own terms, and give them the safety to do so.

The more a culture focuses on setting up the individuals to succeed, the more they will tend to play by the rules, innovate, try new things, and do business with one another within the frame set up.   The results are generally a higher standard of living, greater material prosperity, and low rates of crime. (Granted, to a degree, these countries have low crime rates because at the time when they prosper the most they have fewer laws to break.) Great examples of this include 19th Century Great Britain and Switzerland, the early 20th century United States, and more recently Canada and Ireland.

On the other hand, if a society instead tries to make people succeed, or tries to control whether some things are said or done that involves the total cooperation of the members of that society, they are setting themselves up for failure.

The only tool a society has to enforce ideas like niceness, or telling people how they must work or spent their money is through rules, regulations, laws, or taxation.  If you want to ensure people vote, you can only do so by sanctioning them if they don’t.  If you don’t want people to use alcohol, then all you can do is prohibit it – which only means creating a market for dangerous bootleg hooch and a syndicate of criminals to provide it.  if you want to ban guns, you can pass a law against it, which only means that people who are willing to break the law will have guns.

Hate speech laws, no platforming, and censorship don’t keep people from thinking or saying anything – it just forces the ideas underground where they can’t be challenged in the marketplace of ideas.  Nor do they protect people in the first place – words cannot cause harm – because the person can choose not to feed feelings of offense or hurt.  All it really does is coddles the people the laws protect, taking away their opportunity to practice

emotional resilience – and to confront people who have hurtful ideas about them. (I recommend reading J. Ruach’s book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attack on Free Thought link)

The more you try to control how people act, the more you need to keep making rules and curtailing liberties.  And the more you have to be willing to erode due process, privacy, and the basic liberties of people.  (If you want to read a detailed discussion of this process, I recommend Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.)  This in turn also erodes trust, the willingness to take risks and innovate, and a decline of both the standard of living and the economic prosperity of a nation.

Consider the Soviet Union, East Germany, 20th century China, Libya, Saudi Arabia, or modern-day North Korea for examples of this process taken to its logical extreme.

The illiberal policies of these students are part of the same process.  They want to make the world safe from viewpoints that accept them or speech that makes them uncomfortable.  Rather than focusing on what they can control – their thoughts, their feelings, and their reactions – they are trying to control how large groups of people think, speak, and do business.  With public humiliation and veiled threats of violence as their weapons of choice.

For the individual students, this holds them back from learning about their own views – as well as the views of the people they no platform and protest.  It prevents them from having strongly reasoned viewpoints,  It keeps them as well from developing the thick skin and emotional choice that will let them function in our relatively Liberal and prosperous societies.

It keeps them feeling powerless save in the context of a large, angry mob.  And in the process will likely keep them from being the kind of adults who are happy and successful later in life.  And the kind of society they would need to create would need to be as regulated, restrictive and progressively violent to keep their sense of safety intact – with all the economic malaise that comes along with totalitarianism.

The difference between angrily demanding a safe space, and taking actions to make a place for yourself  in the world – and to make a better world – comes when we start asking ourselves “what is in my power to change here?” Starting with “How can I change myself?”

2 thoughts on “Focusing on the Things That You Can Control – The Critical Lesson for Today’s Students

  1. Brian, where do you stand on false choices? You said that people control the choices they make from the range provided to them. If you are offered a choice between a kick in the eye or a kick in the scrotum (or a similar metaphor), what’s the logical choice?

    The other part of this is that a great many of the things that the individual has no control over have an enormous impact on the individual – they can be literally matters of life and death.

    Some of the cultures you mentioned as promoting the success of the individual were pretty specific about which individuals’ success was promoted: being Irish in Victorian Britain was certainly not about promoting your success, unless you fancied a career shooting holes in the enemies of the Queen.

    1. This is why i focus so much on having critical thinking skills like the use of logic and Socratic questioning: when you are being forced to choose between two alternatives that are unappealing, or forced into a set of unpleasant options, there is usually an “Option C’ that people are trying not to present to you. For example, “You are with us, or you’re against us.” is a demand made by someone who desperately doesn’t want you to realize that “I don’t give a shit” is a valid choice. The logical thing to do is to look for the alternative that you are missing.

      There can be times where the things you have no control over are of critical importance, but if they are matters of life and death, then you are screwed, and your best option is still to look for alternatives. Refusing to focus energy on something doesn’t mean you aren’t aware of it, just that you don’t waste time ruminating on it or wasting energy trying to change it.

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