The Fallacy of Control

Early in my career, I was under the mistaken notion that I had significant control of my life, including my work life. I subscribed to the idea that I could set my mind to anything at work and ascend the career ladder. First, you wrote down your aspirations – I’m going to be a director by age 30, a VP by age 35, a senior vice president by 40, and then you put in long hours and title and salary results. But what has become evident on this career journey is that what I can control is my effort, but my outcomes are entirely out of my control.

Total control of your life is a fallacy. But the good news is that you have control over many aspects of your life where you will focus. 

What you do have control over your thoughts and actions; what you have no control over is how people feel about you and other people’s actions. While it can be challenging not to worry about the areas where you have no control, once you accept there is no such thing as controlling all aspects of your life, it will bring peace of mind.

The image below is the most concise version of this paradigm since it beautifully describes what you can address in your life instead of external influences that many fret about. 

One classic example of where you have no control is college admissions – a student can put forth all the energy possible in all aspects of their education and extracurricular activities. Still, ultimately a committee decides if you are accepted. 

High school students are taking all AP classes, achieving a 4.7 GPA, excellent SATs, being captain of their volleyball team, making our society better, and they are still not getting into their preferred schools. They have worked for years on noteworthy accomplishments and feel crushed not to be able to control the college admissions process. 

Setbacks can be challenging, but how we handle them can be some of the most defining moments in our lives. When faced with obstacles, we can view them in a few ways. Are they roadblocks or opportunities to take another path and try again? Doubling down and saying I can control my destiny will leave you frustrated and disappointed. It will be like you are pushing that rock up the hill and having it continue to fall back down on you. Having the courage to bring your best to every situation is a mindset and approach that is in your control. 

Similarly, there are many areas of work over which we lack complete control. I also think about the sales process. What do sales reps have control over – their preparation for meetings, understanding of the buyer’s needs and budget, and a deep understanding of the company and person they are selling today? A rep has zero control over a buyer signing a PO. Good sales reps have remarkable resilience. They bring to the table what they can, and if that opportunity does not work out, there will be another at-bat in the future.   

One of the most challenging areas I want to control is what others think of me. I believe much of this desire returns to my Enneagram being a 9/peacemaker. I like harmony and getting along with people, not strife and sparing personally or professionally. 

But with each passing year, I learn lessons about caring less about what others think of me since it is out of my control. In the work world, it can be hard when you need to team with people on projects; colleagues and bosses impact compensation and career trajectory. But centering yourself on your goals, your ikigai, your self-talk, and ultimately where you spend your mental and physical efforts are essential.

It is hard to talk about control without mentioning the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

courage to change the things I can,

and wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer has served as the basis for people worldwide as their North Star in approaching situations in their lives, alcoholism, cancer, a pandemic, and beyond, that seem untenable. 

We have all needed to learn during the COVID pandemic to accept the things we cannot change. Something as mundane as going to the grocery store, expecting your child to attend school, and having friends over for dinner were all interrupted. As much as we tried to control our actions during the pandemic with masks, social distancing, and other safety measures, the outcome, being sick with COVID, was mainly out of control. While we did not like to accept the reality of COVID, more nights at home and fewer in restaurants or planes were our reality.  

A fulfilled life does not mean having a life you control 100% and are always happy; that is unrealistic. While certain situations in life are painful, unpleasant, and frustrating, bringing the right mindset and ultimately choosing what to accept will significantly affect your happiness and fulfillment. 

Letting go of what is out of your control will help you bring peace, calmness, and less frustration. What will you choose to accept today, this week, or this month that will free you from the burdens of the uncontrollable? 

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One response to “The Fallacy of Control”

  1. “I was under the mistaken notion that I had significant control of my life” I can’t explain how much I am feeling you on this one. I like your content, and I believe that personal stories are so important to share because then people like me can see that we aren’t alone out there feeling just the same. It becomes easier to talk about. You also got me at the “feel crushed not to be able to control” and this is way too common in our society today. Why do we want to control everything in our lives so badly? Anyways, great post! 🙂


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