The Illusion of Control

Many of us live under the illusion that if we just work hard enough and do all the “right” things, we can largely control our own destinies.

If we save enough money, we will avoid financial ruin.

If we eat our fruits and vegetables, we will stay healthy.

If we practice hard enough, we will win.

If we make detailed plans and follow through on them, we will succeed.

The uncomfortable truth is that we often have far less control over the future than we’d like to believe.

Penny-pinching money mavens sometimes find their bank accounts obliterated by unexpected, Goliath-sized financial challenges.

Young, physically fit people sometimes get sick.

Elite athletes who spend their lives in training sometimes crash and burn in the home stretch.

Careful plans sometimes get sidetracked by unforeseen events (see: vacation itineraries in the time of COVID-19).

That’s because there are millions of variables in life that we can’t control. Like DNA, or medical emergencies, or foot-sized potholes in the road, or brand-new viruses that spread like wildfire.

To be clear, the possibility of an undesirable outcome doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take care of ourselves, manage our money wisely, establish goals for ourselves, put in the effort, or prepare for the future.

On the contrary: we should find opportunities to take responsibility for ourselves, use whatever resources, tools, and skills we have available to us to set ourselves (and others) up for success, and prepare for potential storms as best we can.

However, we also have to acknowledge and accept that our control is still limited. In many ways, life is a crapshoot.

When things go wrong, it’s not always a matter of fault. There’s not always a reason. It’s not always something we or anyone else could have avoided. It doesn’t mean we’ve failed.

It just means that no amount of forethought and planning can totally wall us off from difficult circumstances.

The trick is to find the balance between controlling and doing what we can, and accepting that sometimes life will tear itself out of our grip and let loose in ways that are both unpredictable and exceedingly unfair.

When (not if, but when) that happens – to yourself or to someone else – toss out your judgment. Resist the urge to analyze cause and effect. Ask for help. Provide help. Hang on. And exercise kindness, because when life is cruel and raging, kindness is a powerful balm.