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The Happiness Advantage Principle #5 – Zorro Circle Insights

This is part of a series of posts based upon the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. See this post for my summary book review or follow along with the entire series below. If you like what you read, then spread the love and share this with your friends and fans socially. Thanks!

Principle #1 – The Happiness Advantage

Principle #2 – The Fulcrum and the Lever

Principle #3 – The Tetris Effect

Principle #4 – Falling Up

Principle #5 – The Zorro Circle (this post)

Principle #6 – The 20 Second Rule

Principle #7 – Social Investment


I found this chapter and the concept behind Principle #5 The Zorro Circle pretty straightforward. The metaphor Achor uses about the Zorro Circle comes from the movie where as a student Zorro was guided by his teacher to work within a smaller circle during his training until he mastered what was right in front of him. The teacher drew a small circle around Zorro and told him to stay within it while he trained and learned to be a great swordsman. Eventually, Zorro mastered that area and then his teacher expanded the circle a little more and a little more until Zorro was a master swordsman second to none.

The Zorro Circle – Circle of Control

The idea Achor is conveying in this chapter is that when we can master or feel in control of the circle immediately around us, we feel confident and successful.

“One of the biggest drivers of success is the belief that our behavior matters; that we have control over our future. Yet, when our stresses and workloads seem to mount faster than our ability to keep up, feelings of control are often the first things to go, especially when we try to tackle too much at once. If, however, we first concentrate our efforts on small manageable goals, we regain the feelings of control so crucial to performance. By first limiting the scope of our efforts, then watching those efforts have the intended effect, we accumulate resources, knowledge, and confidence to expand the circle, gradually conquering a larger and larger area”.

When I read through this chapter it hit me how this relates to the coaching work I enjoy with clients. I refer to it as an empowered or disempowered state. When stress, overwhelm, and growing demands reduce our ability to feel we are in control we feel disempowered. We lose our connection to our higher thoughts, our conscious self and we become inactive, or worse, helpless.

With eating disorders (and addiction in general), it’s often about a momentum of disempowering thoughts that lead to helplessness in the face of life’s challenges. Some people say an addict’s inability to cope with life’s difficulties, emotions and upsets is because they have disordered thoughts. I challenge that and think it’s because we’ve allowed disempowering thoughts – be they internally initiated or externally influenced – to build momentum such that they dominate the airtime in our mind.  The majority of our thinking is focused on negative thoughts which create a negative or disempowered state.

I like how Achor’s book is focused on career and success because his concepts apply in these arenas very well.  They also apply very well in the world of behavior change, habits and addiction. He says, “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance….employees who feel they have high levels of control at the office are better at their jobs and report more job satisfaction”.

I can share in this idea as it relates to habit change or addiction recovery. People who feel in their power, or in control as Achor refers to it, are the ones who can guide the direction of the course of their life where they want to go. They can achieve the goals they set out to achieve – be they recovery, or business, or financial or relationship. All high achieving people I believe have a strong sense of their own power, they’re confident and feel in control of their destiny.
But how did they get this way? Ah, more on that in a minute.

Something crucial to report that Achor shares about the control factor in our lives is that, “…gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have. Remember how we experience the world is shaped largely by our mindset”. (more on this in Principle #1 – The Happiness Advantage)

The good news insight is that we have control because we can control our thoughts. We can control the amount of control we think we have. Boy, that sounds confusing or like a game we play with ourselves. Yup, it kind of is a game.

As a student of mental empowerment I propose we look at this as a good thing. We can choose to empower or disempower, feel in control or out of control, feel confident or not from the inside out. That’s good news! Unless you don’t want to take responsibility for how you feel or be at cause in your thoughts, which some people fall into.  I call it sloppy thinking.

I’d like to add one final concept that Achor talks about regarding the ability to feel in control of our lives at home and work. He reported a study in the workplace on health and specifically coronary heart disease, “…researchers concluded that feeling a lack of control over pressure at work is as great a risk factor for heart disease as even high blood pressure”. Our feelings can have that great of an impact on our physical health!

Wow. I wish everyone knew how important our thoughts and focus are to our well being.  Looking at this data it reinforces the idea that we can impact our health with our thoughts.

The Dueling Brain: “The Thinker” and “The Jerk”

A lot of the material in my training workshops and with coaching clients is designed to remind them they have one brain but two minds. In this book Achor refers to the two aspects of ourselves (our two minds) as The Thinker and The Jerk. I haven’t heard them referred to in this way before, but I think those titles work well.

The Thinker is the higher conscious portion of your brain in touch with your goals, the future and is responsive to situations, not knee-jerk reactive. The Jerk would be your animal instinct mind and is always in survival mode and reactive from a fight-or-flight perspective, is focused on the now and not connected to what you most want long-term but instead in this moment.

I enjoyed how Achor introduced these two minds in with this chapter because it demonstrates a lot about how one kicks in (The Jerk) and seems to push the other (The Thinker) out of the way. When working with people with eating disorders, or any addiction for that matter, it’s often the case where we feel like our thoughts are in control (instead of us)…we can’t stop the cravings or our behavior and we have to “give in.” The Jerk mind is very tricky and quickly finds ways to conquer The Thinker’s rational mindset and takes us down a slippery slope we often regret or feel ashamed about.

As it relates to daily performance, Achor says, “…most of our daily challenges are better served by The Thinker, but unfortunately, when we’re feeling stressed or out of control, The Jerk tends to take over. This isn’t something that happens consciously. Instead, it’s biological. When we’re under pressure, the body starts to build up too much cortisol, the toxic chemical associated with stress. Once the stress has reached a critical point, even the smallest setback can trigger an amygdala response, essentially hitting the brain’s panic button…The Jerk overpowers The Thinker’s defenses, spurring us into action without conscious thought.”

If you’ve ever had an overwhelming urge, you acted upon it and later regretted it, you fell prey to this response. You could say, “The Jerk made me do it”. We’ve all been there.

I want to take a moment to share a few concepts that Tony Robbins shares in his workshops that I think would be beneficial to this distinction about the mind and stress.

Tony presents the idea of “1, 2 3 too many” which has to do with the way our brain can take in one, two or maybe three things but after that it’s pure overwhelm and shuts down. If you’ve ever tried to remember a few things someone tells you about, after the second you start to feel anxious and by the third you’ve probably given up and resigned that you’ll never remember all this. I find when I’m traveling if I start to get ideas from someone about great restaurants in a city or things to do, if I don’t immediately start writing them down after #2 I’ve lost them forever. Same idea with a to-do list or our goals. We get overwhelmed and stressed when we try to look at all of the things we have to do. Instead, we need to break it down or write them down (especially if it’s midnight and we can’t sleep because we’re mulling over and over in our mind).

I also want to share a part of Tony Robbin’s teachings about The Triad; our focus, the meaning we give it and our physiology create our state. If we’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed it’s because of (a) what we’re focused on and (b) the meaning we’re giving to the situation is disempowering or negative. If we tell ourselves that this thing that we’re experiencing is harmful, negative us or is bad for us, we’re creating stress in our lives. In those moments we need to remember to refocus (on something else) or tell a more empowered story to ourselves about what this means.

Here’s how that could look in real life: A bill arrives in the mail and you react with a “Crap! I’ll never get out of debt if these bills keep coming. How am I supposed to ever get ahead when all I do is pay bills every day!?”

What happened is you checked the mail and a bill was there. The emotional reaction, the story and the resulting feeling of stress about it was all conceived in your mind and probably gave you an emotional and physical response. Instead, if you perhaps were prepared in advance because you know bills arrive in the mail you said to yourself as you opened the mailbox, “sometimes I get bills and I’ve always been able to meet my obligations. I’m on top of things, I have a budget and a plan and I am working it.” Or, you could grab the mail, not read each envelope (shift your focus) and put the mail on the counter for review another time when you’re not already having a tough or challenging day.

Change your focus, change your life” – Tony Robbins

Telling yourself an empowering story about what a bill means can shift your entire emotional and physiological response to the piece of mail. It’s up to you. Takes practice, but if you get out ahead of it you can do it.

Managing Stress, Self-Awareness and Moving to Empowerment

“So how do we reclaim control from The Jerk and put it back into the hands of The Thinker? The answer is the Zorro Circle.”

This is a clever concept and I think Achor is correct. The two things he points out that can help us turn the tides on The Jerk involves two steps. The first step is to raise our level of self-awareness. Achor shares that, “Experiments show that when people are primed to feel high levels of distress, the quickest to recover are those who can identify how they are feeling and put those feelings into words.”

Self-awareness is crucial in any aspect of personal growth.  I agree with Achor if you’re working to be a better manager of stress and be more empowered then you  need to be highly self-aware.

Noticing and being able to identify when you feel bad or are building negative energy inside is a good tool for life. Everything is energy and energy (and emotions) tends to increase in momentum due to our focus. If we find ourselves frequently upset or stressed or in a negative vibration, it’s often because we didn’t catch our thoughts and emotional state early on in order to adjust our focus and thoughts before they got out of control.

Being highly self-aware of our vibration and energetic state is key to control or intentional creation in our lives. Self-awareness or awareness of self – energy, emotion, thought and attitude are the way we become creators of our life and less reactors to situations.  

The second step that Achor talks about is the Zorro Circle. What he means by this is to, “identify which aspects of the situation you have control over and which you don’t.” If you feel helpless, blame others or play victim to what’s happening in your life you’re going to feel disempowered.

In order to keep in an empowered state, first be more self-aware so your negative thoughts don’t get too much momentum and then focus on what you can control. In some areas of our life our locus of control may be small, so we then want to focus on the thing we have the most control over and that’s our mind. Our focus and meaning creating mind is ours to guide. If we tell a better story about the situation, one that empowers us, the resulting feelings we’ll have will keep us in an empowered state. From that empowered state so much more is possible.

Achor also gives advice to focus on the small things we can control and have small wins or successes that build upon each other. When we have wins, even small ones, we feel more confident and empowered. Building small wins upon one another is a great way to increase your confidence and feel an empowered state more of the time.

I’ve found that sometimes my biggest locus of control and empowerment can come from my physical strength and trainings and often carries over into other areas of my life. If I’m feeling like a badass when I’ve crushed a workout, I have a lot more confidence to make a new client call or approach a new situation. Your small wins don’t always have to be in the same area as where you’re perhaps feeling less control or disempowered. Take the win and leverage it.

From the book, “And as their circles started to expand, so did their results….The point: Small successes can add up to major achievements. All it takes is drawing that first circle in the sand.”

Final Thoughts on Principle #5 Zorro Circle

To summarize a few great quotes from this chapter:

  1. “Feeling that we are in control, that we are masters of our own fate at work and at home, is one of the strongest drivers of both well-being and performance.”
  2. “…gains in productivity, happiness, and health have less to do with how much control we actually have and more with how much control we think we have.”
  3. “Most of our daily challenges are better served by The Thinker, but unfortunately, when we’re feeling stressed or out of control, the Jerk tends to take over.”
  4. “When small stresses pile up over time, as they so often do in the workplace, it only takes a minor annoyance or irritation to lose control; in other words, to let the Jerk into the driver’s seat.”
  5. “The first goal we need to conquer – or circle we need to draw – is self-awareness.”
  6. “Once you’ve mastered the self-awareness circle, your next goal should be to identify which aspects of the situation you have control over and which you don’t.”
  7. “…self-awareness was a swift antidote for emotional hijacking…”
  8. “Small successes can add up to major achievements.”

Continue reading with Principle #6 – 20 Second Rule

With love and light,


Happiness Advantage Book