How to Exert Control in Difficult Situations

Can You Exert Control In Situations That Seem Hopeless?

This is part six in my series on locus of control. Up to this point, we’ve learned what locus of control is, the biological basis of your need for control, the effect that your perceived locus of control can have on your physical and emotional health, how we respond to situations where control is taken from us, and why our need for choice is not always rational. In this installment, I’m going to cover how to exert control in situations that seem insurmountable.

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We’ve seen that your need for control has profound physical and psychological implications, but what can you do to instill a sense of control in your life? To illustrate this point, I want to discuss a story that many people are familiar with: the race for the south pole.

Setting the stage

In October 1911, two expeditions set out to be the first humans to reach the South Pole. A Norwegian team was led by Roald Amundsen and a British team was led by Robert Falcon Scott. The two parties arrived in the antarctic at approximately the same time, in January of 1911. They set up base camp in different locations because they had chosen to follow different routes to the pole. Scott had elected to follow the route of Ernest Shackleton, who held the then-current record of closest approach to the pole, coming within 112 miles on January 9th, 1909. Amundsen had made the decision to follow a previously-untested route, because it afforded his expedition a course that was 60 miles shorter. It was a calculated risk that involved forging a route across an uncharted glacier, and it was one of the key decisions that allowed him to exert control over the outcome.

Another strategic decision that Amundsen made was to decide in advance that his team would move forward 15-20 miles each day, regardless of the weather conditions. This story has been made famous by Jim Collins in his book, Great by Choice.

This excerpt from Scott’s diary illustrates just how treacherous the conditions were through which Amundsen’s team persevered.

"Tuesday, December 5 We awoke this morning to a raging, howling blizzard. After a minute or two in the open, one is covered from head to foot in fine powdery snow. The ponies are covered with ice and standing deep in snow, the sledges are almost covered, and there are huge drifts above the tents. We have had a thin breakfast, four biscuits with butter and some strong cocoa with sugar, and are now again in our sleeping bags. One cannot see the next tent, let alone the land. What on earth does such weather mean at this time of year? It is more than our share of ill-fortune, I think, and I doubt if any party could travel in such weather.” [emphasis added]

Robert F. Scott

Having the discipline to exert control

Although Scott questioned whether “any party” could make headway in the terrible conditions, that is exactly what Amundsen’s team did. It wasn’t always easy, though. Amundsen desperately wanted to reach the pole before Scott, but he had no way of knowing what progress Scott’s team was making. He was also faced with the reality that every additional day in the harsh arctic elements meant an increased risk of never making it home. Feeling this pressure, Amundsen’s team sometimes asked him to take advantage of favorable conditions and press on a little further, but he resisted.

It is interesting to note that Scott refers to the weather as “ill-fortune”. While I wouldn’t classify anyone who undertakes an expedition to the South Pole as having an external locus of control, this diary entry indicates that his confidence was shaken. And his word choice is a tell-tale sign that his locus of control, at least in the context of the expedition, was shifting, and that he was losing his belief that he could exert control over the outcome of his expedition.

To be sure, Amundsen’s success wasn’t all about his strategy to march 15-20 miles each day. There were other strategic differences, like the use of ponies vs. dogs, the locations of their resupply depots and the amount of provisions they carried with them. However, the plan to make progress every day, regardless what circumstances mother nature might throw at them, certainly had a positive effect on their morale and supported their belief that they could exert control over their circumstances and that their objective was within their reach.

The psychological benefits of exerting control

Amundsen’s strategy minimized the average physical and psychological toll his team had to pay every day. By doing so, Amundsen made sure that his team felt like they could exert control over their circumstances and that even the outcome itself was within their control, rather than subject to the whims of mother nature. Keep in mind, their journey lasted 99 days! The distance they traveled is equivalent to hiking from New York City to Chicago and back, through unimaginably difficult terrain, relentlessly frigid temperatures and unpredictable, dangerous weather. Over such a long and challenging journey, even the most mentally strong people eventually succumb to the grind. So if you can reduce the overall toll it takes on your body and your mind, you greatly increase your chance of success and, in their case, survival.

Scott’s team, on the other hand, paid a high mental price every day. On “good” weather days (if there is such a thing in the antarctic) they would push themselves to the brink of exhaustion, and on bad-weather days they would sit in their tents. Even though they were getting rest, it still took a psychological toll on Scott’s team. On those days, all they could do was sit and think about how cold they were and how much they missed their families. They also had to confront the fact that they weren't making any progress, which meant one more day exposed to life-threatening conditions, and one day later before they would get home. Indeed, this excerpt from Scott's diary clearly portrays what the team was feeling.

"Wednesday, December 6 Noon. Miserable, utterly miserable. The tempest continues to rage violently. The temperature is now above freezing and everything in the tent is soaking. People returning from the outside look exactly as though they had been in a heavy shower of rain. They drip pools on the floor of the tents. The snow is steadily climbing higher about walls, ponies, tents, and sledges. The ponies look utterly desolate. A hopeless feeling descends and is hard to fight off. What immense patience is needed for such occasions!”

Robert F. Scott

Compare that to the psychology of the Amundsen team, not only were they making progress every day, but they weren’t constantly bordering on physical exhaustion and mental breakdown. Hiking shorter distances on days when the conditions were favorable showed not only tremendous discipline, but a commitment to the long-term objective. By taking advantage of opportunities to rest and let their bodies recover from the grueling journey, Amundsen increased their chance of success.

Why is it important to exert control?

According to Jim Collins, the psychology of the 20-mile march works for three reasons:
1. It builds confidence in your ability to perform well in adverse circumstances
2. It reduces the likelihood of catastrophe when you're hit by turbulent disruption
3. It helps you exert control in an out-of-control environment

If you look closely at those three reasons, they are all related to an internal locus of control. They all reflect on your belief that you have the ability to exert control over the things that happen in your life, even when faced with challenging circumstances. The consistency of action embodied by the 20-mile march builds momentum and self confidence, but it also builds your sense of control over your life.

While most of us will never undertake anything as daunting or life-threatening as an expedition to the south pole, we can apply the lessons from their experience to our own lives. When faced with a situation that seems daunting, out of control or downright impossible, take a step back and identify the things that you can control that will help you succeed. This is not a trivial exercise, as you may need to do some deep thinking or talk to other people who can help you challenge your assumptions. But once you’ve identified what those things are, focus on them relentlessly. They are your leverage points that will help you move mountains.

Taking action in this way will make you more resilient because you will have a sense that, no matter what circumstances befall you, you have the ability to exert control over the situation. And when you believe that you can influence any outcome, it not only increases your chance of success, but it also helps you to learn and grow, so that you’re able to take on even greater challenges next time.

I hope you found this post informative and helpful. Let me know by leaving a comment below.

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