Concentric circles of ability

There are things in this life you can control.

You know what they are.

You can control what you wear, what you do. What you choose to say to people or not.

You can (to some extent, less than you think) control the quality of your work.

But there is a LOT you can’t control. You just can’t. Sure, you can take classes and get better at things. Yes, you can be brave and try something out of your comfort zone and ace it. With focused effort, I think we can each do a lot of things we don’t think we are able to.

I’m not talking about personal power - that which we hold inside ourselves, and which is infinite. I’m talking about day-to-day abilities, especially within systems, whether they be relationships, families, or organizations.

A key to unlocking your personal freedom is in recognizing: what is the scope of your ability in this situation or relationship? What are the outcomes you have full control over?

Let me give you some examples.

Maybe you are fully responsible for a project or piece of work at your job. You want to create the outcome “project is a huge success.” But even within that designation, you still have limitations on what you can control: you have a certain ability or skill at writing, or coding, or whatever is the core skill of your work. You can try harder, and that will maybe make you 2% better, but basically your skill level today is the one available to you to complete this project. You may learn more next year, but the project is due this week. Okay then. Your scope of ability is “Produce the best work I can. Complete it on time. Submit it for review.”

Or maybe you are in a family, and there are a lot of various dramas you all are dealing with. You want to create the outcome: “My family is happy and gets along.” Okay, what part of that can you control? You can’t actually control what others do, or feel. You can’t even really control them wanting the same outcome. All you can control is the way you show up, how you take care of yourself, and expressing your needs, expectations, and what you will and won’t be with. Sounds kind of harsh, but it’s true. The outcome within your scope of responsibility probably sounds something like “I can make sure I meet my own needs. I can be clear with my expectations. I can love my family members where they are at.”

So those are examples of our scope of ability.

The next concentric circle is your scope of influence.

This includes the first circle, your scope of responsibility, and also expands to include those you have influence over. This is now the outer reaches of what YOU can do: that which you can actually do as well as what you can reasonably get others to do. Your influence could be that you’re a manager and you can influence your direct reports to change their behavior in some way. Or it could be that you’re in intern, and you can ask for help from more experienced colleagues to get over a hurdle. Either way, these are resources that you don’t have control over, but rather access to.

In the family example, it could be that by taking good care of yourself and your needs, you will set a good example for others to follow. By being respectful of your limits and articulating them well, by asking for help when needed, you’ll teach them how to do the same. Maybe. See? You can’t make them, but you might inspire them. That’s about the extent of your influence in this setting.

In any situation, there are things we can control and things we can’t. We often make the mistake of assuming we can control more than we can. And we pay for it in anxiety, stress, and disappointment. I don’t want anyone reading this to think, “Oh, Gillian says I can just tune out and give up, because I can’t control anything and shouldn’t try.” No! There is plenty you can control! See, even in writing this piece, I am only as good of a writer as I am on this day. You better believe I wish I had more epic writing skills. I wish it was in my control to write such a persuasive blog post that it would resonate with every person who reads it. But I can’t. I can control that I sit down at my computer. I can write to the best of my ability until it’s done. Then I can hit the ‘publish’ button. That’s what I got. The rest of it is outside my sphere.

Gillian BenAry