Throughout life we are faced with many tasks in which we either experience failure or success. Some of these tasks are profession-oriented such as completing our education or building a stable career. Others are more personal in nature, like finding a compatible romantic companion or achieving health and fitness goals.

How you define success in these areas has a lot to do with what your beliefs are about what determines your success.

Consider this scenario: You and another colleague are being considered for a promotion. Your educational background is very similar. Your performance at work is comparable. In many ways, you stand on equal footing for this evaluation. But for some reason, you are awarded the job.

Congratulations! To what do you attribute this success? Was it your extra effort and hard work? Or was it just good timing that made you the lucky candidate, standing out above the competition?

When it comes to determining what controls our success, we typically fall into one of two types:

  • If you believe in phenomenon such as fate or luck, or attribute much of your well-being to your circumstances and surroundings, you might fall into the category of having an external locus of control.
  • If you believe that your success is driven from what you alone can achieve and that ultimately you are the one responsible for those achievements, you might have an internal locus of control.

The word locus, in this case, means a particular point, place, or position from which your perception of control is derived. There can be advantages and disadvantages to having either an internal or external locus of control. For those with an external locus of control, it can sometimes feel like very little is within your control, you are at the mercy of what happens to you, or others around you. But having an internal locus of control can sometimes make us too hard on ourselves, taking responsibility for events we perceive as a personal failure, when the reality may be it’s just out of our control entirely.

Your locus of control can also affect motivation. If I believe that some external factor determines my success, I may not be as motivated to put into action something I care about. On the other hand, if I believe I am solely responsible for my work, I may be more creative and determined in my efforts. As with anything, balancing the two ends of the spectrum is ideal. Considering where I fall in the realm of each has helped me move the scale to a realistic place, resisting extremes of blaming myself or feeling out of control, into a more neutral zone, acknowledging that both play a role in my overall success.

Where does the locus of control originate? Research suggests there may be some amount of genetics involved in shaping this source of motivation, but there is also a strong connection to the experiences of early childhood development. What you may have been exposed to in how your parents viewed their own limitations and power in controlling life likely influenced your development of your own sense of what you are capable of and what determines your success or failure. Cultural exposure can also play a role. If mythology and spirituality is a focus of your culture and upbringing, it is understandable you may be more inclined to give weight to external points of control.

It used to be a running joke between my sister and I that when one negative circumstance after another seemed to be snowballing around us, as those things sometimes do, we would laugh and remind ourselves of this encouragement, “Good thing I have an internal locus of control!” Meaning, we are capable of moving forward despite external factors. It was a funny way to lighten the tension, but the sentiment rings true.

It can be empowering to take control of your own life and take action toward goals you want to materialize and acknowledge that you do not have to be a victim of your circumstances, you are not at the mercy of the cards you are dealt. The first step is knowing where you fall on this spectrum between internal and external control and moving toward a balanced view of both.

In his 1946 book Man’s Search For Meaning Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I think he would know something about the importance of an internal locus of control. That even in the worst of circumstances, with all the odds against us, we still hold the inherent power of interpreting the meaning of our lives and how we choose to move forward.