I usually maintain pretty good control of things. I understand my projects, I know my resources, I have my plans: I execute well. When I travel, I’m organized just enough to make the day work while leaving most of my time free for wandelen and lunchen. I try to keep myself under control; I try not to control others.
Yet things spun badly out of control in the past months, and I was surprised and sometimes overwhelmed by events that I thought I understood. So, is control an illusion?
What is ‘control’? To my mind, the power to change perceptions and events, perhaps also to prevent change from happening? Or, as a friend suggests, a matter of saying “I will” rather than “I can” when confronted by change?
A lot of things that matter to me are actually outside of my control. I can’t change facts: experimental data will be what it is, and arrive when it’s ready. Sadly, I can’t change people’s perceptions: they often persist in believing what they will for reasons entirely their own. My knowledge is piecemeal; my power to act is limited in both timing and intensity.
What I can control is how I think about things, what meaning and significance I give events and how I let other people constrain my actions. I am learning that exercising control is more about how I choose to yield it than about how I assert it.
I was invited to a friend’s for dinner the other night where we talked about someone who had lost a leg to illness. He had refused to let it stop him in life, adapting his physical abilities to overcome the limitations of his handicap (hopping up stairs without aid) and completing significant academic work at Cambridge. At the same time, he struggled in relationships, beset by need and over-reactive to his partner’s moods.
It’s a big difference, and the reasons seem almost solipsistic. His successes are driven by asserting positively over himself (I will), his failures by yielding negatively to another (I can’t).
People overcome adversity and assert control in many ways: enduring, waiting, witnessing, complaining, fighting. Often, though, and too often in my case, strategies are deployed against events and perceptions that won’t be changed. Knowing the difference between the illusion and the reality of control is probably key to reducing stress as well as increasing success.
What is control: power or perception? Or perhaps it still comes down to self-control: keeping my work and my relationships within limits and in balance.