“People who want milk should not seat themselves in the middle of a field in hope that a cow will back up to them.” — Elbert Hubbard, 19th century American editor, lecturer, and essayist

A few years ago, a friend had Ned, a small independent contractor, do extensive renovations to his home. Being a very fussy craftsman and cabinet maker, Ned did an especially superb job on the extensive woodwork involved in the renovation. About a year after completing the renovations, Ned bumped into my friend at the local hardware store. “The recession finally caught up to me,” Ned told my friend. “I’ve had to lay off my crew and try to wait out this slow period.”

Yet other neighbors were in the midst of major renovations. They went with someone else because Ned had trouble getting back to them with a firm quote after he had been out to estimate the job. Their repeated phone calls often went unanswered. Many wanted to go with Ned because they really liked the high quality work he had done at my friend’s place. But Ned was very disorganized. When he was working on one job, it was all he could do to keep things together there. He became too preoccupied to do all the additional drafting and estimating work needed to firm up a bid on another job. Besides, when he had a big job, he didn’t feel much pressure to get more work. But once that job was finished, he had to scurry desperately to find another construction project.

It wasn’t the recession that got to Ned, it was his lack of follow-through. In fact, my friend had shown many neighbors through his house who were in the market for renovations. Many were very impressed. But he stopped recommending Ned because of Ned’s embarrassing disorganization and failure to follow up.

I’ve often reflected on the truth and paradoxes found in Reinhold Niebuhr’s popular “Serenity Prayer;” “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” There are many circumstances we can’t control (but we can control how we deal with the uncontrollable). However, we tend to easily become confused by what we can and can’t control.

Before the “courage to change the things I can” can be of any use, we need to learn how to recognize just what we can change. Like Ned, rarely do most people examine their own assumptions, beliefs, skills, behaviors, and learning levels to see how they created their own circumstances. Instead they develop a full-blown case of Victimitis — the poor-little-helpless-me syndrome.

Twenty years ago, I came across a story (I don’t know who wrote it) that impressed this very deeply on me. Whenever I caught myself pointing “out there” to explain my poor performance, I would pull out this story and read it again. I have since used it with many groups to make the same point.

The Man Who Sold Hot Dogs

There was a man who lived by the side of the road and sold hot dogs. He was hard of hearing, so he had no radio. He had trouble with his eyes, so he read no newspapers. But he sold good hot dogs. He put up signs on the highway telling people how good the hot dogs were. He stood by the side of the road and cried, “Buy a hot dog, mister?” And people bought.

He increased his meat and bun orders. He bought a bigger stove to take care of his trade. He finally got his son home from college to help him out.

But then something happened.

His son said, “Father, haven’t you been listening to the radio? Haven’t you been reading the newspapers? There’s a big recession. The European situation is terrible. The domestic situation is worse.”

Whereupon the father thought, “Well, my son’s been to college, he reads the newspapers and he listens to the radio. He ought to know.”

So the father cut down on his bun orders, took down his advertising signs and no longer bothered to stand out on the highway selling hot dogs. And his hot dog sales fell almost overnight.

“You’re right, son,” the old man said to his boy. “We’re certainly in the middle of a great recession.”

As CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch’s turnaround of that company has become a corporate legend. One of his books has one of my all-time favorite book titles. It sums up the self-determination concepts we’ve been talking about here and what has made Jack so successful. The book is called Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will. Exactly.