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Winning at Working: What You Control

Nan Russell -- You may not be able to control how quickly you get a job, if your job gets cut, the amount of work you get, or the size raise you want. But what you can control can make all the difference when building your future.

During The Great Recession, thanks to frequent-flyer points and a vacation club exchange, we spent a week in Hawaii for the cost of a rental car and food. While a fun and relaxing vacation, it was strange to be at an ocean-front Maui resort during peak tourist season, without the tourists. Several restaurants on this forty-acre property were even closed.

The bellman who showed us around told us he'd been working at the resort for 11 years and hadn't seen anything like it. "I used to work full-time," he told us. "Now I'm on a rotation with 16 others and lucky to get one day a week. I'm not sure how I can make it, even with unemployment."

In comparison to that distressed bellman, on the last evening of vacation we chatted with a man who delivered our room service, commenting to him about the empty hotel. "Oh," he said. "It's kind of nice. I see this like a mini-vacation. I know it'll pick up, and if not, I have some other things in the works."

These were contrasting reactions to the same event. The bellman felt powerless and stressed-out while the room service staffer was calm and taking action. It reminded me of an experiment discussed in Time magazine about stress. In the experiment, two rats were locked in a cage. One was able to decide when he wanted to exercise and the other had to run his wheel whenever his counterpart did. The first rat grew new brain cells, the second one lost them.

If both were exercising, why did one rat lose brain cells while the other gained? The answer? Control. It's what many of us already know about our own work. According to the Time article, "Psychologists have known for years that one of the biggest factors in how we process stressful events is how much control we have over our lives. As a rule, if we feel we're in control, we cope. If we don't, we collapse."

Neither man at that Maui resort could control if the tourists came, the conventions were filled, or the weddings booked. Neither had power over how many room-nights were canceled because of challenging economic times. And neither could impact how many hours a week they were scheduled based on business needs.

So, we might think they were like that second rat in the stress experiment—forced to respond to their work-events without an ability to control them. And that's the reaction many people who are not winning at working have. They think what's happening to them "is out of their hands," they "can't do anything about it," or "there's no way out."

But people who are winning at working understand, like that room service staffer, some things they can control and some they can't. They focus on the ones they can.

People who are winning at working may not control if they're only working one day a week, but they do control whether that one day of work is exceptional. Exceptional service brings bigger tips. And in this case, there was no question which person at that resort was getting those.

You may not be able to control if your job gets cut, but you can control whether you're a high performer who your boss is fighting to keep. You may not be able to control how quickly you get another job, but you can control the number of daily contacts you make in your search and how you "show up," future-focused, at the interview. You may not be able to control the amount of work you get or if you get the size raise you want, but you do control whether you're responding as a victim or taking action toward developing your skills and building your future.

People who are winning at working ascribed to composer Irving Berlin's philosophy, "Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it," he said. It doesn't have to be a Great Recession or a challenging time be focusing on that ninety percent.

Courtesy of Nan Russell

Named a 100 Top Thought Leader in 2014 by Trust Across America, Nan Russell is a professional speaker, workplace consultant, and the author of four books including: Trust, Inc.: How to Create a Business Culture that Will Ignite Passion, Engagement, and Innovation and The Titleless Leader. Her work insights column, Winning at Working, appears in numerous publications and she’s a blogger for on the topic of workplace trust. Prior to moving to the Rocky Mountains to pursue a life-dream as a writer, her career took her from a minimum wage employee to Vice President of multibillion dollar QVC. She holds degrees from Stanford and the University of Michigan. For more information, visit, or contact Nan at

© 2017 Nan S. Russell

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