The Illusion of Control

When you start a business, you work on every aspect of it yourself, from creating value to marketing/sales to delivering value. As your business grows and you have some consistent inbound cashflow, you may hire people to do parts of your work so you can focus on things only you can do.

The thing is, it can be difficult to lose control of things. It can be hard for us to let others do the things we were previously doing ourselves. We may feel their efforts won’t match our own high standards, even though we know they’re perfectly capable.

We feel this need to control every aspect of our work by micromanaging our people, thereby making ourselves the bottleneck. We turn ourselves into dependencies, in that we allow only ourselves to make decisions in our business. We create a false sense of control by holding onto information that might help others do their jobs, when in fact we should be sharing that information and empowering them with the authority to make decisions themselves.

The reason we don’t delegate responsibilities is because we don’t fully trust these people to do their jobs—but it’s about us, not them. And if we can’t trust them, why hire them in the first place?!

Here’s what I wrote earlier:

Leadership is about giving control to others, not taking control from them. Give the control to your employees. Trust them to do the right thing. Trust begins with those who lead, not those who follow.

When I visit my parents, my mother likes to feed me more food than I can eat in a given meal. It’s the difference between eating enough (80%) and eating till I am full (100%). Sure, I could comfortably eat that extra 20%, but I’d rather not. She does it because it’s one of the ways she loves me.

In the past, I would complain about the extra food. Inevitably, this would create some friction in our relationship. It didn’t have to be so.

While I might still occasionally complain about it now, for the most part I don’t. I eat however much I want and leave the rest. This way I am neither trying to control the outcome nor stressing about it. In the past, she would be calm and I would complain. Now, I am calm and she complains, because she believes I’m not eating enough. The way I see it, my health precedes my mother’s love for me.

I wasn’t trying to change her, nor was I trying to control the outcome in this situation. I kept my emotions in check and focused on my actions without making it my problem (because it wasn’t).

I mentioned in an earlier draft how I found it challenging to set up a business entity abroad. When I was unable to set it up even after many months of trying, I tried to get my money back. While I remained patient and centered for the most part in my responses with the organization in question, there were times when I would find myself worked up from their responses.

You see, we can only be upset by the choices we make. And so, later on, I became proactive in my responses. This meant sharing my thoughts in a non-threatening (but assertive) way without blaming them or putting them down, yet still standing up for what I believed. My proactive response was not dependent on their reactive response.

While I stopped trying to control the outcome, I started focusing on the process itself, which is all we can do in any situation.

We can see from these examples that when we try to control things in our lives, we become unhappy and emotionally stressed. As someone who thrives on structure, it’s natural for me to control things in my life, and when they don’t turn out as expected, I feel less than great about it. But, the more we try to control things, the more we lose control.

We don’t know the future, much less how to control it. These examples show how it’s natural for us to try to control the situations in our lives—often to our detriment—which can backfire if left unchecked.

We experience minor setbacks in life all the time, but most of us go through life wanting total control over things. We want things to be predictable, safe, and stable. We will make great sacrifices to have this feeling of comfort and certainty. We fear the uncertain, so we try to hedge ourselves against it.

We might plan out our days and weeks in advance, and we want them to go exactly as planned, but things often happen that derail our schedule and we end up frustrated.

How often does it happen when you want your day to go a certain direction by doing things you had planned, but instead things went the other way? Maybe you were planning on exercising in the evening followed by dinner and reading, but instead you watched a couple of movie clips from YouTube, and before you know it, you’ve rented the movie to watch it instantly, whilst ignoring your plans.

We are not even in control of our bodies. About the only thing we can control is our mind. For instance, we might have established all the right habits with our health and fitness, but despite our best efforts, we may still get sick. This doesn’t mean we stop doing the right things; it means we do the best we can, given with what we have, and let things unfold on their own. Bad things can happen to us despite our best efforts and that’s okay, because if you did your best, there was nothing else you could do.

We don’t fret about our eventual death every single day. At the same time, we don’t let it prevent us from living our life, even though we don’t control it. If we can’t control death, what else is there to control? The point is, if we don’t think about that inevitability on a daily basis, why do we worry about other things that pale in comparison?

We may go through life experiencing setback after setback only to feel despair and give up. When things don’t go as planned (which they often don’t), we feel less than great about it. We tie our emotional state to the outcomes we seek in life.

It’s ironic how we go through life expecting no troubles whatsoever. But is it wise to be dependent on anything outside of our control? We forget we can only control our actions, while the consequences of those actions are not in our hands.

We may try to influence people within our networks, but to expect them to change (let alone change overnight) is unrealistic. We have no control over the situational realities of our everyday lives and certainly not over people outside our networks, but we act as if we do. We stress ourselves out thinking about things we can do nothing about.

This is not to say we shouldn’t have useful discussions about those things to understand them better—such as talking about our country, economy, how things are unfolding in the world, etc.—but taking all of those things on ourselves and feeling anxious won’t help our cause.

Here are some ideas for learning to stop holding onto things in our lives.

We come back to a fundamental truth, which is: It’s not the events in our lives that matter so much as our responses to them.

Life is full of uncertainties. Things will rarely go as planned, and that’s okay—freeing, in fact. The most we can do is strive to be our best at any moment. We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf.

Let’s stop trying to control things in our lives, and instead focus on our actions, because that is all we can do. We control inputs, not outputs.

Here’s what I wrote earlier:

Stoics were known to make the best of any given situation. For them, nothing outside themselves could cause any trouble. Nothing else was able to disturb their peace of mind except for the choices they made. They would treat the two impostors—external success and failures—the same. They would never let success get to their head or take failures to heart.

The only thing we have control over is our actions. Positive actions lead to good karma, while negative actions lead to losing (eternal) karmic points. When we are engulfed with negative emotions, it’s best to remain with ourselves for a while before we distance from it.

We can always change our perspectives on things. We can stop focusing on our “haves” and start focusing on our “bes”. For instance, instead of saying, “If only I had a more patient partner”, or “I’ll be happy when xyz…”, we can focus on things we can do such as, “I can be more empathic” or “I choose to be happy now”. We can stop relying on others for our happiness and well-being.

I wrote in the previous draft:

Control is an illusion, albeit a persistent one. Let’s stop being dependent on outcomes we seek and focus on being our best in any moment. Let the process of doing things determine the outcome. In any case, that’s all we can do.

We can enjoy the present experience without feeling the need to control it. It’s okay to be where we are and with what we have. We can learn to embrace our current reality. Unless we do so, we have no way of influencing it. The only thing we can expect is the unexpected.

Contrary to popular belief, trying to control things is a sign of poor leadership. At work, we stop trying to hold onto things and start trusting others to do the things we hired them to do. One of the ways we do that is give people the authority to act on the information and let them make decisions on our behalf, without our presence. That is true leadership.

The same goes for parenting as well. We need to stop trying to control our kids, but rather encourage them to think for themselves, make good choices, and do the right things. We can’t prepare the route for the kids, but we can prepare them for the journey they are about to embark on.

Let’s stop controlling others, let them be, and let’s focus on doing the best we can. When others don’t do things as per our high standard or expectation, we can influence (not control) those in our inner circle, but that’s about it. We accept others the way they are, or we move on. In the latter case, we cast away old relationships because they are inadvertently holding us back from being our best self. Nothing wrong with that.

We have no control over our situational realities, so our only choice there is to accept it and move on. Why bother wasting our precious time and attention thinking about it?

Life is more peaceful when we stop trying to control things and situations. It’s incredibly freeing to stop holding onto things and just be.

We are no longer anxious or stressed about things outside our purview. We have this newfound freedom that we can use to not only survive, but thrive.

We accept things we can’t change. We stop trying to control others and focus on our actions. We stop living in the future and we start living in the moment. We don’t let the externals empower us, but rather we influence them.

We stop being goal-oriented and instead focus on doing the work. We trust that the process will determine the outcome. Regardless, we never feel entitled to the outcome, only to our work. We believe there is nothing to achieve in life. We take it one day at a time, and even within those days, we live each moment by being here and now. Because we are always expecting the unexpected, we are never disappointed. We know the only thing that is permanent in this life is change, so we make our peace with it.

The more we try to control things, the more we lose control. Wanting to control things in our lives is the antithesis of effective leadership. It’s only when we stop trying to control things that we can truly be in control of ourselves. It’s not the situations in our lives that matter, but our responses to them. We can only be upset by the choices we make. If that’s the case, why feel the need to control things?!

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