A definition of ‘Control’:
“the power to influence or direct people’s behavior or the course of events.”
I really value being in control. Or at least the feeling of having control over outcomes.
I admit that with a little bit of embarrassment. I had hoped that by now (in my 50s) I would be more evolved. After all, personal growth often requires letting go of control and accepting the world the way it is.
Yet, I want to sculpt outcomes for myself and for others, especially the people I care about deeply. Every week as I sit down to write the newsletter, I desperately want to write 500 words that are interesting and relevant to all the readers.
The Paradox of Control
We are most content in life when we can hold two opposing thoughts about control.
First, that we can control the outcomes in our lives. Second, that we must accept the limits of our power and learn to let go.
If we over index towards not believing in personal agency, it can lead to learned helplessness and feelings of powerlessness. Those two feelings are really negative for mental health.
If we expect to be able to control most outcomes, it can lead to a lot of frustration when things go awry, which they often do. Vacations, which are exciting because they provide novelty and change to the daily routine, are replete with situations which will not go according to plan.
We control very little. Most outcomes that we want are influenced by a variety of factors, many of which are beyond our direct control, influenced by the actions of others or exogenous factors (such as the weather).
Many of the success stories we hear (whether personal or professional) are told with the benefit of hindsight which includes survivorship bias. The lesson often implied (mistakenly in my opinion) is that there was direct control (actions by the heroine in the story) over outcomes. And that smart people know what levers to pull to drive desired outcomes.
We do actually control three things:
- Our Commitments: What we agree to take on, the deadlines we commit to, etc.
- Our Effort: Once a commitment has been made, we can show up consistently and do the ‘work’.
- Our Outward Reaction: Emotions (often negative) will arise from moment to moment and should not be suppressed. However, we can take a breath before reacting outwardly whether in our workplace or personal life.
What Can We Do To Improve Wellbeing?
We can improve our wellbeing, and those of others around us, by leaning into the things we can control. Here are some suggestions on practices within our control.
- Acknowledge Negative Feelings and the Pressure to Be in Control. Take a few deep breaths. Identify your negative feelings — where they reside in the body and how they feel physically within the body. And then tell yourself it is perfectly normal to feel this way and understandable given all the stresses and responsibilities in your life.
- Stop and Smell the Roses. Slow down. Engage all your senses. What do you see, hear, feel, taste in the world around you right now? Take it in. And savor it for a moment.
- Recognize the ‘effort’ when you do the ‘work’. Give yourself and others recognition for putting in the work. Recognition of effort provides motivation to keep going, especially when things don’t immediately work out. If we put in the effort, the outcomes we desire are likely to follow (though never guaranteed.) As Ryan Holiday wrote in a blog post (my paraphrase here), “Success is a lagging indicator of whether or not you did the work.”
- Offer Small Pieces of Positive Feedback. Small positive interactions can have a huge positive impact on others. When someone else contributes to your sense of wellbeing, even if they are just doing their job, tell them how they are having a positive impact. Both people will feel better.
- Practice Gratitude on a Daily Basis. Write down the things that have gone well in your day or your week. List out 1 to 3 positive things, and why they were good (the feeling associated with the actual thing that happened.)
- Give People Grace. Other people will make mistakes, or not live up to all their commitments. Assume good intentions that somehow went awry. Decide if things are a little or a big deal – with the caveat that only a very few are ‘really big deals.’ And then, just all the little things go. By putting out forgiveness and grace into the world, you are increasing the chances that others treat you the same when in the future.
My recent vacation experience reminded me how much I like to feel in control. I wanted things to be perfect, for everyone to really enjoy everything. Reality didn’t match up to my expectations, which in retrospect, were unrealistic. I was at a rental home I didn’t know, where things didn’t work exactly as I had hoped. The weather didn’t always cooperate for a beach vacation—at times chilly or windy, and at others rainy. Some of the restaurants were uninspiring and overpriced.
On the other hand, some things turned out way better than I had expected. We saw many humpbacks close up on a whale watch. The four of us who had never been on holiday together got along surprisingly well.
As I reflected on the experience on the drive home and over the next few days, what came to me was the following. Do your best (within reason) to prepare, and then let go of how things actually turn out. That approach makes any experience a lot more enjoyable.