How do you catch a cold?

This was a question asked of potential jurors on the first episode of the TV show Bull. The intent behind the seemingly ambiguous question was simple: to discover whether the jurors felt they had autonomy over their lives. If they said they would catch a cold from someone at work, then it shows that they felt that things happened to them; but if they said they caught a cold because they didn’t put on a sweater before leaving home, then it shows that they feel that they have autonomy over their life.

Although that question isn’t necessarily a rock solid indication of someone’s views on autonomy, I find this concept endlessly fascinating—the idea that some people feel as though they would prefer to sit back and let life happen to them, while others believe they control what happens to them in life. Certainly, much of one’s individual philosophy on this relates to their religious beliefs, and thoughts about what is predestined and what we can control.

I was talking about this idea with a friend the other day; that I think in life, we are not the chess pieces, being moved by the hand of a player above us. Rather, we are the ones moving the chess pieces. Again, your stance on this may differ depending on your personal beliefs. But in any case, I think it’s crucial to realize that in life you can’t just wait for something to happen to you.

Other people are not mind readers; an editor likely isn’t going to contact you about a book contract without you having put in some work first; you’re not going to suddenly wake up one morning and learn that your dreams have come true, if you haven’t done anything to make them happen. Winning the lottery is perhaps an exception to this—but even then, you have to buy, find or otherwise be in possession of a ticket before you can have a chance of winning.

Accepting that you have autonomy over your life also has an interesting connection to acknowledging the role that you play in your own successes. A month before I graduated from high school, I found out that I had been selected as a recipient of one of the top scholarships at the university I would be attending in the fall.

I remember thinking that I had gotten so lucky; and I had. But I had also worked really hard in high school through my studying, involvement in clubs and community activities. It wasn’t a fluke that I won that scholarship, because I had put in the effort to at least be considered for it.

It’s nice to believe that everything that is “meant” to happen will happen, but this isn’t always the case. You have the potential to achieve your dreams, and in that sense they are entirely possible and perhaps even destined to happen. But if you don’t apply to the school, record the album or do whatever your dream requires, then how can you expect it to come true?

Things happen when we make them happen. Of course, this is not to say that if you work hard you will automatically be successful, because there are so many other factors at play. Still, working hard—and working smart, by leveraging connections and working hard at the right things—increases your chances of success. When you realize the role that you play in your own potential for success, you start to look at life differently—regardless of how you think you catch a cold.

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