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The Serenity Prayer is best known for it’s use by Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s one of the smartest pieces of text I’ve come across:

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change; The Circle Of Concern and Circle of Influence
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

The Serenity Prayer distinguishes between things one is concerned about but cannot change and things one can take action to change. This is the heart of Stephen Covey’s notion of the Circle Of Influence presented in his seminal book “The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People”. The concept is a part of “Habit 1 – Being Proactive” and is ingeniously simple though often difficult to follow. The span of all your concerns can be imagined to be contained in a circle. So, the first part is to notice all of your concerns, enumerate them, and distinguish what you are truly concerned about from things that do not seem to be that important to you. Though non-trivial, this is still the easy part. For the most part, we all have a well-developed gut feeling about what we care about and what we don’t. The tougher part is to now identify which concerns are concerns you can influence out of all of he concerns you have. Illustratively this is another, smaller circle, called “The circle of influence” which is contained within the larger “circle of concern”.

Sounds simplistic? Well, sometimes this simple concept is the single most important piece of advice that one can get. It’s the difference between complaining passively about things you can’t change (and becoming increasingly discouraged) and taking action to turn things for the better (and feeling empowered). Focusing on your circle on influence and working to extend it is what makes one feel they are a master of their own destiny. Focusing on the “ring” of concerns that you cannot influence (between the two circles) teaches you (falsely) to be helpless, and learned helplessness, a psychological condition tied to clinical depression (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness).

To take responsibility means first focusing only on your Circle Of Influence, and on actions you can take to alleviate your concerns and to move things to the better. When I come to a crossroads in a journey and observe myself starting to complain relentlessly, I make a list of the things I can do about it. It’s always surprising to discover that there is actually so much within my control, and how many new paths open when you focus on your Circle Of Influence.

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