Gaining a Realistic Sense of Control over our Lives

A simple model tells me what we have control over. For me, it proves relevant because I often encounter questions about what is worth trying to control. It can be for others too, especially when they play the blame game—that of blaming their lives entirely on other people or things. For this game, we need an answer to what we have control over, as well as what others have control over. Then, we can say who could have been responsible for what, and accordingly assign blame or not. The model is a psychological one of decision-making: We are a product of our genetics, our environments, and our own free wills.

The simplicity is what makes it elegant, and it is quickly applicable. When you tell yourself you were born with your personality faults (genetics) and are therefore forced to accept them, remind yourself that you are also a product of your environment and your conscious decisions; you have the ability to adapt. If you fall into the habit of blaming other things and people (environment) entirely for your troubles, remind yourself that it is also your own construction and decision-making which control your life. And if you are in the habit of blaming yourself (free will) for everything, remind yourself that there are things out of your control.

A quote I love is this: We cannot control what happens to us, but we can control what we do with what happens to us. It is a way of connecting the pieces of the model to assign oneself responsibility. You cannot control how you were born, and you cannot control whether a storm will strike next month, but you can self-improve, and you can prepare for the storm. It is a simple and pragmatic way to understand the sometimes seemingly precarious nature of the world, while not resigning responsibility.

There is also a related thought I love. If we regard the uncertain nature of the world as ‘luck,’ then this idea comes in handy: Fortune favors the bold. Or, alternatively, we make our own luck. This latter idea was introduced to me by a guest speaker in one of my business lectures. Her name was Dianne Flynn, and she spoke about how she became connected to important people throughout her career who helped her progress. As she said, she couldn’t have expected to run into them; that was luck. Yet, she only had the opportunity of that luck striking her because she already had been networking and putting her professional persona out there. In this way, she created her own luck.

Flynn’s point is keen. If the first quote gives the impression that we should put up a shield to deflect what randomly flies at us, Flynn reminds us that what flies at us isn’t random. We get a chance to influence it, so that as we put some effort into life, we can expect much more out of it. There is no point for one to resign himself to his room and say the world is uncontrollable; opportunities only arise when he steps out and does something.

In the end, you can take whatever idea works best for you—that which makes the model work for you. Just allow yourself enough space to accept a sense of control, while also understanding that some things are precarious and unpredictable. Because in the end, the view that everything is out of your control, and the view that everything is in your control, are each problematic as well as inaccurate.