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What Will Define Your Future — External or Internal Forces?

By Samuel Kim

In my research, I’ve found that people facing difficulties like the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic usually react in one of two distinctive ways. The first group of people act only when something has already happened to them. They react to external stimuli, thinking that the locus of control is outside their reach. Only when they are hit or triggered do they move—only then do they feel that they must, unavoidably, do something about the situation around them, such as when competitors exceed their own profits or when they see a hike in the turnover rate, or when undesirable disasters take place such as the mass outbreak of Covid-19. Once these external stimuli trigger such people, they begin to plan and act, often at a reckless speed because they have delayed until that point. But this reactive, fundamentally passive mindset often gives rise to decisions and performances that are limiting, ineffective, or based on erroneous ideas. 

The second, more high-performing group of people find motivation not from external stimuli but from an internal drive—a proactive and adaptive spirit. Regardless of what happens around them—whether challenges have presented themselves or not—the inner self of each person in this second group is constantly prompting new action, in order to prepare for the future. People in this group ask questions like “What are we doing well, and what are we lacking now? What do we need to learn, unlearn, and relearn? How can we become better equipped? What will enable us to keep going, overcome hurdles, and bounce back?” Whether the people in this group are able to foresee the storms ahead or not, they will be prepared to face the future and turn it to their advantage. 

Recently, I read two Harvard Business Review articles that cogently convey this approach. One article argued, “There is nothing like a crisis to ignite innovation,” referring to the explosion on the space shuttle Apollo 13 in April 1970 that led to the discovery of a new way of bringing astronauts home from space. The other article declared that the Covid-19 pandemic provides us with an “unprecedented opportunity” to identify and support the best talent around the world. Rather than succumbing to shock and waiting for external circumstances to take their course, people driven by an internal stimulus see external crises as windows for novel opportunities, and they act quickly to make sure these new possibilities transpire. 

I believe that this proactive attitude is critical to human survival and growth. We all have been witnessing the outbreak and spread of Covid-19, and observing how differently the nations and communities across the globe responded to this challenge. As this crisis prolongs, it is critical that we ask, think and act based on these questions: Will we be victims, overwhelmed and disconsolate, limiting ourselves with inaction? Or can we shift quickly, reorganizing ourselves in order to rebound and take charge of our own futures, before external stimuli define our next move?

If we feel triggered to engage in unflinching analyses of our present and future, spurred to engage in real action and do what is indispensably necessary at this moment, then we will be able to expect a more promising future. 

This short article was written by CAL Founding President Samuel Kim (Harvard MPP) based on our Center’s latest publication Rethinking Asia 7 “The Future of Work: How to Prepare for It” available at