The Illusion of Control

I like to be in control. Of my goals, my career, and my life in general. I attribute this need for control in my life in part to my personality. I’ve always been a type-A kid that had pretty clear set marks for success given to me mostly by my parents and teachers. However, I don’t think that my personality is really what caused my desire for control. It’s more of a correlation with other things in my life including my personality, ambition, organization level, etc.

Regardless of what causes this need for control all I can say is that’s there. It’s a latent impulse to measure things, to establish well-defined markers for success that can be tracked and accounted for. This wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t feel so bad every time I failed to meet one of my goals (this happens frequently).

Apparently I am not the only one that feels this need to be in control. Studies even suggest that the need of being in control is required for survival:

“Converging evidence from animal research, clinical studies, and neuroimaging work suggest that the need for control is a biological imperative for survival..”

So if this need for control is something “biological” then what could I do to ameliorate this pain? Well as I mentioned previously my issue was not with the need to control things. My problem was with my expectations on the outcome of the what I wanted to control. This is an important distinction because maybe I can’t change my need to be in control but I can definitely change the way I think about them.

The Problem of Expectations

Expectations and “Need for control” have one thing in common and it is that they both reflect our deeply egotistical nature as humans. We have expectations and want control over things because we think that we can account for every single variable go into play in the events of our lives.

For example, when applying for a job we might think we that we will totally get the job because we have everything you could possible ask for a) great work experience, b) good grades, c) great soft skills, d) phenomenal coding skills, e) a recommendation from so and so, etc. However, we fill disappointed when we don’t even make it to the final round. Yet, we failed to consider and properly weigh the volume of equally qualified people that applied, the level of fit w/ the company’s culture, the interviewer’s level of hunger before your interview, etc, etc..

See this is not a human failure. It’s more of a feature because it allows to make decisions without having to consider every possible variable, which would take us forever. Nevertheless, there are all of these variables that we fail to account for and they can mess up with our expectations.

The Insight

The key here is to understand that there are certain things that are within your internal control and certain things that are external or outside of your control. Once I internalized this concept (pun obviously intended) I realized that I had little reason to feel bad about negative outcomes that were not dependent on me. Obviously not getting a job still sucks and in all situations you bare a responsibility for your actions. However, the lesson that I got out of this thought experiment is that if you can’t fully control the outcome of a situation you’re expending unnecessary energy thinking about how things should have been.

This is only the beginning of this journey but so far it’s working great for me and maybe it will for you too. Hence, why I am writing this post. If you feel that this might be useful to someone you know or to your network in general please be sure to share.

Also, if I can help with anything feel free to reach out –