Does it surprise you how many political experts there are on Facebook? It’s never ceased to amaze me how willing people are to alienate their “friends”–as well as their real friends–through home-grown social punditry, often based on conspiracy theories rejected by snopes.com. Yes, you may have garnered nine “Likes” from your pals who subscribe to the same newsletter, but you offended your other 237 online acquaintances, among them the hiring manager for the job you just applied for.
There is, however, a positive side to this jayvee ranting: it shows that we have systems of values supported by worldviews that drive our hopes and dreams. That’s a good thing. Where we err is in supposing that external factors–like elections, housing bubbles, financial collapses, European crises and rising education costs–will play a primary role in shaping our personal lives in a fashion we deem optimal.
Now before you start writing that scathing comment telling me how stupid I am for implying these external factors have NO impact on our lives, please allow me to elaborate. External factors most certainly do have a material impact on our lives, especially in the short-term, but the primary determinant of our long-term success–even our happiness–is not whether the Occupy or Tea Party movement prevails, but whether or not we control the relatively few factors in life over which we actually have control.
This syndrome is a very common problem in the realm of financial planning. I’ve listened to intricate stories about external factors that have destroyed someone’s balance sheet, or how an investing newsletter was predicting the imminent end of U.S. currency and the imperative for owning physical gold in large quantities, only to ask the web-weaver the simple question, “So, do you budget?” “Uhh…no.” It’s kind of like regaling your dentist on the importance of switching from stainless steel to titanium dentistry tools when you don’t even brush your teeth.
Last week, I suggested that we shouldn’t lay claim to outcomes–positive or negative–over which we lack control. This week, I’m asking you (and reminding myself) to consider applying less of our finite mental, physical and social capital to external factors we can’t control and instead investing that extra effort in the only entity in this world we really have any control over–ourselves.