How to Be Successful: Circle of Control

Last year, I taught a course and some students struggled with my style.  I am a clinician, so I approach problems and teaching as a clinician.  I’m not very interested in students memorizing details and regurgitating them on a test; I want them to USE information to make decisions.  This is a different way of thinking and studying for a lot of students, so they struggle.  Inevitably, some students do poorly on an exam.  Then they worry about it.  I never understood why students worry about an exam that already took place, even when I was in vet school.  It’s in the past, what can you possibly do about it?

There are a lot of problems in the world today, and I know people who get stressed about them.  I used to be one of them.  But then I stopped and considered: What can *I* control?  I can control how I vote, how I donate money, and how I engage with other people.  But I can’t change other people’s minds, I can’t make something happen outside of my control.  I have a circle of control.

The circle of control principle I like the most comes from the philosophical approach of Stoicism.  The word stoic has come to mean “someone who doesn’t react” in our language, but that isn’t what Stoicism is about.  Stoicism is about living a good life, a meaningful life, having emotions and feelings, and focusing on what you can control in life.  If you can’t affect it, why worry about it?  

This parallels my advice on medical error.  When something bad happens, reflect on it, learn from it, be sad for a while, and then move on.  You can’t change the past.  You can’t resurrect that patient that died.  You can’t change the grade on your last exam.  You probably can’t change how I write and grade exams.  You can’t change what a letter of recommendation says.  So focus on what you can do.  You can make a different decision for the next patient you see like the one that died.  You can study differently to improve your future grades.  You can realize I am asking you to think differently and not just regurgitate information and try to adjust your thinking.  You can work hard and take advice from the How to Be Successful series so that someone WILL write you a good letter of recommendation.

I see this _all the time_ on the APVMA Facebook group and it makes me sad every time.  I’ve seen probably a hundred or more posts that are something like, “I got a C in Someclass, I’m worried I won’t get into vet school!” or “I only have 300 hours with horses, I’m worried it’s not enough!”  I understand these people are seeking assurance, and that’s fine.  But I wish they would focus on what they can control.  OK, you got a C.  It is what it is.  Can you retake the class?  Can you take a different class and do well to bump your GPA?  Can you study hard for the GRE to bump that part of your application?  Can you work incredibly hard to get good letters of recommendation?  Can you read this blog to improve your application and interview skills?  Yes, you can do all those things and more.  But you can’t change the past.

Focus on your circle of control.  I guarantee you that doing so will make you a more peaceful, contented human being.

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