To Be In Control or Not To Be… That’s the Real Question!
If you have been following me on Facebook, you might have noticed the Serenity Prayer that I posted a few weeks ago. It summarizes the need to distinguish between what we can control and what we cannot – trying to change what we cannot leads to frustration and stress, but failing to change what is within our power can breed fatalism and helplessness. To know the difference is a sign of wisdom.
The strategy of control sets up a struggle between you and your experience.
Whether the experience is of thoughts, people or events, trying to control them tangles you—your mind, your emotions, your experience—in a repetitive cycle of struggle. Just when you think you have subdued the mind; just when you think that you have attained stillness…
Don’t seek to control the controlling.
There is no need to adjust, improve, or change it. This pattern, like all patterns, can move freely through awareness just as clouds move through the open sky. Within this sky of open awareness, the pattern naturally releases, resolves, and returns to its primordial condition as loving awareness itself.
This is easy to say. And sometimes (not always) easy to hear. When you hear the teachings, not just with thought but with meditative awareness, you release identification with the control pattern. As you listen and feel the teachings more deeply, identification with all the patterns of personal history—with personality—release.
You see the patterns of personality for what they are—patterns.
They have their place in all of your life. But, they are not you. You are the sky, the open, boundary‐less, and undefended Wisdom Heart in which all patterns rise and dissolve away.
So, when the tendency to control arises, there is no need to get upset.
We as human beings like to be in control. This is probably grounded in our deep desire to be godlike. However, human situations (a human working with a computer, a person living in a house, …) are very complex and cannot be treated as rational. There is no universal law of human behavior. The validity claims that we make of human situations must imply the acceptance of any form of subjectivity. This conflicts with the rules of the natural sciences.
Earlier, I wrote about the Pygmalion Effect (Marshmallow Test) on how it sets us up to fail thru power and promise of expectations.
Power and Promise of Expectations – Pygmalion Effect – See more at: http://quantumphysicsofbeliefs.com/power-promise-expectations-pygmalion-effect/
Pygmalion Effect – Setup To Fail Syndrome – See more at:
In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer (self-control) for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes. It’s not difficult to see how self-control would be predictive of success in certain spheres. It means trading short-term gratification for long-term goals, skipping the temptation to go to the movies and working on your term-paper instead. But that’s a relatively simple example — one that makes the decision to exercise self-control, or not, easy to see.
In reality, we are faced with hundreds of these “tradeoff decisions” within the span of a single day. Very often when we talk about the skill of “productivity” what we are really talking about is “self-control” — the disciplined ability to choose to do one thing at the cost of not doing another (perhaps more tempting thing).
As the hierarchy of the traditional workplace breaks down, we are all gaining more freedom and flexibility. More and more, we can set our own long-term goals, we can determine our own work schedules, we can work at an office or at a coffee shop, we can make our own decisions about what we focus on today, and what we focus on tomorrow. But this “freedom” also brings responsibility — a responsibility that demands a vastly increased capacity for self-control.
In essence, Twitter (or Facebook, or whatsapp – pick your poison) is the new marshmallow. At any given moment, a host of such “treats” await us. Emails, social media messages, text messages — discrete little bits of information that activate our brain, titillating it and inciting the desire to search for more. Our ability to resist such temptations, and focus on the hard work of creative labor, is part and parcel of pushing great ideas forward.
And yet: Self-control isn’t the whole story.
Self-control is an excellent predictor of your ability to follow through on certain types of difficult tasks — staying on your diet, studying for a test, not checking your email — but it’s not the most important factor when it comes to predicting success at “extremely high-challenge achievement.”
What about qualities like talent and intelligence? Are they any reliable predictors for remarkable achievement? Studying Catherine Morris Cox, a psychologist’s published study (in 1920s) of 300 recognized geniuses, two qualities below seem to be a better predictor of outstanding achievement:
- The tendency not to abandon tasks from mere changeability. Not seeking something because of novelty. Not “looking for a change.”
- The tendency not to abandon tasks in the face of obstacles. Perseverance, tenacity, doggedness.
These two characteristics define the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal.
Back to the Real Question.
People often act as if they can control events when they cannot. People also have an imperfect understanding of how much control they can exert. When control is low, they tend to over-estimate, but when control is high they tend to under-estimate. As a result, people are urged to temper or rein in the belief that they can shape events. They are advised: You can control less than you think.
The distinction between what we can and cannot control may seem simple, but it is often not an easy one to make.
How should we think about control when it comes to leadership decisions?
The essence of leadership is to exercise control and influence people and events where there is no such control.
Do leaders have complete control over outcomes?
Yes, leaders intuitively have an ability to exert control and influence outcomes. But, they are more likely to under-estimate their ability to influence outcomes. They often can achieve more, influence more, and bring about more change than they think.
Of course we would all like to have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can control and what we cannot, but often we do not. Let me show you a diagram depicting the relationships between control, what we believe and what the reality is.
There are four possible combinations of belief and reality about control. If we believe we can control outcomes and we truly can, then we are aligned. If we believe we cannot control outcomes and in fact we cannot, we are also aligned. In both cases our beliefs are correct. But what about the other two scenarios? When we believe we have control when we really do not, we over-estimate our control. That is a Type O error (Over-estimate), or a false positive. We go ahead with some action when we should not. When we do not believe we can influence outcomes when in fact we can, we under-estimate our control. That is Type U error (Under-estimate), or a false negative. We fail to act when we should.
Of course we would like to minimize the chance of error, and often gather data to improve the accuracy of our beliefs. But even so, some uncertainty remains. That is why we still need to consider the consequences of mistakes we make. Is it better to act as if we have control and run the risk of a Type O error, or is it better to assume we do not have control and run the risk of Type U error? By thinking about the consequences of each, we can try to avoid the more serious of the two.
A first key to making good decisions calls for us to understand whether we can control outcomes. Are we making a choice among options we cannot change or a judgment about something we cannot improve? Or are we able to exert control and make improvements?
In the real world we often can influence outcomes, and positive thinking can improve performance. Believing we can achieve something, even holding a belief that is somewhat exaggerated can lead to better performance. Given that so much of our daily lives involves things that we can influence, the greater tendency is not to exaggerate control. We are more apt to under-estimate our ability to influence outcomes.
Beyond the wisdom to know what we can change and what we cannot, a second kind of wisdom speaks to the better way to make mistakes. So often the emphasis is on avoiding Type O errors and not thinking we can do more than we truly can. But if we can take action to influence outcomes, the more serious mistakes may be Type U errors. We should make every effort to influence what we can.