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Your First Step: Developing an Internal Locus of Control

Harry Truman, who became the 33rd President of the U.S. when Franklin Roosevelt died during the end days of World War II, was someone who really understood hard times and adversity. Indeed, every bit as much as we are as we live through this pandemic. As Truman came to power, he inherited nothing but problems.

In his final days, Franklin Roosevelt had little time to brief his successor on such matters as the atomic bomb, looming issues with post war Russia, a European economy in ruins and an almost overwhelming range of other problems. One could hardly have blamed him if things had gone badly in his term as president and yet this once southern farmer managed to pull Europe out of the ashes, rebuild the  European economy through the Marshall Plan and left his mark as one of America’s most prolific contributing presidents.

What was the secret of his success?  One could point to many factors but among all of these, one simple quote from Truman himself cuts to the heart of it all.   “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties out of opportunities,” he famously said, “while an optimist is one who makes opportunities out of difficulties.” (Harry S. Truman, WM Morrow, By Margaret Truman, 1973)  Simply put, Harry Truman approached life and his career with what psychologist Julien Rotter defined in the 1950’s as an Internal Locus of Control; a belief that we as individuals have control over our responses to the challenges and opportunities that life serves up.

Developing an Internal Locus of Control is our first and best step towards managing our career and life in making it as positive, satisfying, and meaningful as it can be. A current embodiment of this defining belief is Oprah Winfrey. Some years ago when interviewed by a journalist who was curious as to how an overweight, single, black, working woman had accomplished such unimaginable success she replied: “I believe that by doing the very best you can in the moment and situation you are in right now, you are doing the very best you can for all the moments in your life that will follow.” Simple but profound.

Dr. Julien Rotter developed the concept of an Internal versus External Locus of Control which included a self-assessment of how internally or externally focused each of us is (Social Learning and Clinical Psychology, Prentice Hall, Julien Rotter, 1954).  We all recognize people who have an extreme External Locus of Control.  These are the people who blame everyone and everything else for everything and anything bad that happens in their job, their marriage, with their kids, finances, and on and on and on.  They feel that they have no control, so they seldom take any personal responsibility for their careers or life.

Research shows that, not surprisingly, such people suffer considerably more from stress, anxiety and depression.  None of us want to be that kind of person but often the problems that life throws our way can lead us to lose perspective and confidence in ourselves. We find ourselves on a very slippery slope towards our life goals and dreams.

So, the question is “how do we re-gain control and an upper-hand in life and work?”

The answer lies in developing and strengthening our own Center of Control.  All Career- Life Planning flows from this. While there are no simple or magical answers as to how we achieve this, there are things that you can and should start to do right now. To avoid overload (and this becoming simply another useless article) here are four ideas you can start with. In future articles we will expand on these ideas and add others:



Pick up and read Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman (Random House, 1990)

This best-selling book will show you how to develop the attitudes and behaviors of optimism. It includes an on-line self-assessment of how optimistic or pessimistic you currently are coupled with compelling research on how optimists enjoy better health, make more money (they are more effective at selling anything), have less stress, enjoy longer more satisfying relationships, etc.

Since you are likely sitting at home glued to CNN or CBC reporting on COVID right now, I strongly recommend you order a copy, read it, and assess yourself.  The added advantage of completing the assessment is that 80% of good Career-Life Planning is about Self-Assessment. This first assessment is the all-important first step in increasing your self-awareness.  Reflect on the things you can/should do at work and home to be more optimistic.


Sit down and make a list of all the things that are going well for you right now at work. Then, have a conversation with your supervisor, partner or colleague about these points.

Listen carefully to their feedback, recognition and gracefully acknowledge improvements or other ideas they suggest. Use this discipline to connect with people you work with. It will provide you with greater control over your work, raise awareness of what you do and deliver an early “heads up” on any changes, fresh opportunities etc.  It also conveys to others that you are showing initiative and are serious about your work. It engages others and spreads a good practice.


Read up on Mindfulness (the practice of maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of everything you are engaged in) and begin to practice it daily or even hourly (eg, go for a walk alone, leave your phone at home, etc.)

Focus on everything your senses are taking in and, on the enjoyment, and relaxation of the walk itself. When you have a family dinner, make a rule to turn off cell phones for a half hour, also TV and other distractions. Stick to positive and simple topics only and enjoy every bite of food. Now experiment with mindfulness at work (or work at home) and try to block out unhelpful distractions to focus on achieving whatever you are doing.


Make a short “To-Do” list of three or four things you can and will accomplish today (do this daily).

These might be part of a much larger or more complex task or might be small things that you have procrastinated on (eg, all those annoying little things we always mean to get around to and never do).

Find a place/way to save this list of completed tasks so that you can keep a running scorecard.  Not only will this simple practice make you feel and be more productive, it will increase your appetite for achievement as you begin to see and experience the results of what you have accomplished.


I recommend that one of the “To Do” items you set out daily be something for your own personal wellness such as a run, walk etc.  Keep your list short so that you set yourself up for success in completing everything on it.

These are just starter ideas or “low hanging fruit” (other, more complex ideas will follow in future blogs). Hopefully, the examples above will provide enough for you to begin to think about where you are on a scale of 1-10 in achieving more of an Internal or External Locus (center) of Control.

In the next article I will share our research on the 7 most important competencies for Career- Life success. In the meantime, please share your reactions, thoughts and ideas below.

Now, to conclude on President Truman’s Internal Locus of Control, here is a final short example to leave you with. As anyone can imagine the task of rebuilding the devastated economy of post-war Europe was daunting.  Truman was more than a little overwhelmed.  He sought the advice of one economist after another on how best to proceed.

In each case the Economist would (in typical advice-giving fashion) say “Mr. President, on one hand there are all these factors to consider, then on the other hand there are these other factors”. Truman grew increasingly frustrated with their equivocation, obfuscation and general unwillingness to take control. Not one to mince words he famously quipped “Will someone PLEASE find me a one-handed economist?” The end result was the Marshall Plan.

The rest is history.

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