Gac Filipaj left a war-torn Yugoslavia as a refugee for the United States in 1992. He fled after almost finishing law school in Belgrade, where he commuted for years by train from Montenegro.
He started working as a restaurant busboy while living with his Uncle in the Bronx. In his words: “I asked people, which are the best schools in New York?" Since Columbia topped his list, "I went there to see if I could get a job."
Gac worked full time as a custodian at Columbia University. He spent several years taking English proficiency classes (his mother tongue was Albanian), then enrolled in the School of General Studies in 2000. Mr. Filipaj took advantage of the University's policy that allows employees to enroll in college courses for free, provided that they are able to hold their own academically. For Mr. Filipaj, he would open his books after returning late at night to his Bronx apartment after working a 2:30 to 11:00 PM shift, cleaning the school's bathrooms and emptying the trash. He would pull “all-nighters” before exam time or to finish a paper, then go to class in the morning and then to work.
In May 2012, after 12 years of dedicated study, Gac Filipaj at the age of 52, donned a cap and gown to graduate with a bachelor's degree in classics - with honors, from what is arguably the fourth best university in the country - shortly after Harvard, Princeton and Yale.
The Model of Circle of Influence versus the Circle of Concern
Gac Filpaj is a wonderful example of Stephen Covey’s “Circle of Influence versus Circle of Concern”.
All of us have a wide range of concerns in our lives – the economy, friends and family, the environment, the Kardashians, etc. Within this whole universe of our concerns, there are some things we can influence and some things we can only stay concerned about. We have a choice about where we focus our attention and energy. We can choose to focus all our attention on: 1) what we can change ("Circle of Influence") or 2) the area that is outside our influence ("Circle of Concern").
Don't we all know whiners? They get annoyed about other people’s shortcomings, blame the government, global capitalism, the weather, a rotten childhood, bad luck, etc. Everything becomes ‘poor me’. Such people are living almost exclusively in the Circle of Concern. They become reactive and stuck.
Gac Fipaj chose to focus on things that he could change - his Circle of Influence. Influence does not mean just the more immediate or ‘trivial’ concerns. It also means focusing on aspects of larger problems that we can exert some influence over. Influence does not necessarily mean direct ‘control’; we can influence things in an indirect way, for example in our own personal, daily behavior.
So don’t play the “Blame Game”. Gac Fipaj didn't whine about having to move to a foreign country and not knowing the language. He recognized his Circle of Influence: he learned English, got a job at a good university which would pay for his studies, and took courses until he graduated with honors. (Fipaj continues to take courses to this day.)
By focusing attention and energy on our circle of influence, we become increasingly proactive. The energy we expend is enlarging; each little victory motivates us to find new ways of exerting influence. We don’t waste energy on things we can do nothing about, but direct it towards what we can change. With each step we feel stronger and more creative. And so our circle of influence expands.
Here’s another very common example: How many people feel limited by or hate their jobs? A whiner would complain and blame his or her manager, the economy, colleagues, etc. However, you cannot change your manager, the economy, your colleagues, or the past. This negative way of thinking, playing the “blame game” accompanied by inaction to change things, results in shrinking your circle of influence.
So what can you change? You can change your attitude, seek your manager’s honest advice and help, expand your horizons and skills from external learning, do a reassessment of your values & behaviors, participate in projects beyond your role, observe how successful people thrive, get a mentor/life coach, etc. These are things within your circle of influence – worthy things that you can focus attention and energy on. You become increasingly proactive and start to expand your circle of influence. You build up your credentials; people start recognizing your contributions, your teamwork, reach out for your thoughts, and you can move up or out.
What’s the lesson here?
1. Identify what is within your Circle of Influence and your Circle of Concern.
2. Continuously work and focus your energy on what you can change to expand your Circle of Influence, e.g. your relationships, your mission statement, purpose.
3. Slowly but surely, your Circle of Influence starts expanding to take up more of your Circle of Concern. This is because you can start making changes as your life role and capabilities expand.
4. Your Circle of Concern should always be larger than your Circle of Influence – otherwise you become self-centered.
5. Your Circle of Concern also grows as you widen your Circle of Influence - we care more and more about some of the very challenging things in our world as we learn we can influence them.
Spending your energy daily on things that you cannot influence is a waste of time with a negative compounding effect. You end up feeling like you are stuck with no control of anything (which leads to stress).
Focus your efforts on what you can control. You will create a positive compounding effect that brings the reality that you want.