(Hint – It’s More Than You Think)
For most of us, the issue of control is a pretty big one. We like the idea of being in control at all times – of our diets, our schedules, our financial future, our children. There are times, of course, when we relinquish control and do wild and crazy things – but if we’re making a conscious decision to control when we’re not in control, aren’t we still sort of in control?
Conversely, we very much do not like being out of control. A car that’s out of control is inevitably going to crash; a behavior that’s out of control is ultimately going to end up causing some serious problems. That’s how we feel about it, at least. And as a result, one of our biggest frustrations is when we realize that we’re not in control of things we thought we were in control of.
This, of course, is one of the many catastrophes that the pandemic wrought – revealing that forces entirely beyond our control were capable of disrupting our lives, careers, routines, finances, and basically everything else. And once that realization sinks in, it can easily start to feel like we actually aren’t in control of anything. After all, you can’t force your kids to pay attention in school, or the stock market to go up, or your job to remain unchanged for the rest of your career.
Feeling like we’re completely in control of everything is a recipe for eventual disappointment when we realize that we aren’t, and feeling like we can’t control anything is a recipe for despair. And since I don’t feel like being frustrated or sad all the time, I’ve decided to focus instead on doing a better job of figuring out which things I actually can control.
That’s different from figuring out which things I want to control. I’d love for everyone in the world to do exactly what I want them to, for example – that would make parenthood, and marriage, a whole lot easier (among other things). But it isn’t possible. However, I’ve found a lot more success lately in my relationships with others by spending less time talking about what I want them to do and more time talking about how I’ll react to their actions. “Why don’t you just do things my way?” is great for starting or prolonging an argument, because whoever I’m talking to doesn’t like that I’m trying to control their behavior. But “You’re free to do whatever you want, but I want you to know how I’m going to react depending on what you choose to do” allows my conversation partner to retain control over their own actions while still asserting my control over my responses. In a weird way, everyone wins.
You’re probably familiar with the idea that the only control we really have is over ourselves, and so we shouldn’t try to control anything else. But that’s a rather limited view of our power. I may not be able to control how my children act, for example; they’re their own people, they can do whatever they want. But I can control what I expose them to, how I talk about things, what rewards and punishments I choose to offer, and a host of other things that collectively help me steer them in the direction I want them to go. Is it perfect? Of course not. But it offers me a lot more hope than just throwing up my hands and saying, “Well, I can’t control anything – hope it all works out!”
The same is true in every other area of life as well. We may not be able to control every element of our businesses – but we can control where we direct our advertising dollars, how we interact with our colleagues and customers, what ideals we espouse and which ones we reject, and all of that adds up to a considerable amount of influence.
And regarding the pandemic, one of the positives that came out of it (for most of us, I think) is that it forced us to really think about where we were, where we were going, what we wanted, and how to get it. It forced us to look at our finances, restructure our family dynamics, and analyze our careers in ways that we actually had always been free to do but that suddenly assumed a critical sense of urgency. In short, it forced us to focus on the things we can control and try our best to ignore the ones we can’t. And because of that, I’m beginning to hear more and more stories of people emerging from the pandemic with a renewed sense of optimism that the path they’re now on is one they actively want to be on, even if it doesn’t look much like the one they were on a year ago.
I’m not offering a perfect formula to follow here. The things we can and can’t control will change with our circumstances. I’m simply saying that the more we pay attention to what we can control, the more things we’ll realize we can influence, even if it’s not the everything we’d like it to be.