One Of Life’s Most Critical Skills: Learning What You Can and Can’t Control
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.- Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr
There are many times when our lives can seem like they are out of control. There may be days that you’re dreading going into work, or you’re thinking about that time crunch you’re going to have later in the day to finish that project. With there being nothing you can do, that loss of control makes you feel helpless.
Those anxieties that we have rarely led to anything productive. In fact, they’re counterproductive most of the time.
I’ve had days, weeks, even years of my life where I’ve wanted to have a new workout training schedule, eat a healthy diet and start writing daily.
Two days into it, I would fall into my old habits. After further reflection, I realized that I fell into those old habits because I was giving my mental bandwidth to all the things in my life that were out of my control. There would be days when I felt like I was defaulting back to autopilot. I would have the big end of year project on the back of my mind when I wasn’t into the office.
When I was in the office, I would be thinking about all the things I didn’t do when I was home. It became this vicious cycle that feels almost impossible to break out of.
How did I begin to break out of it? I started to understand what I can and can’t control in my life.
You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. —Maya Angelou
What Does It Look Like When You Try To Control Everything
I think we all have fallen into this trap of feeling like we can control a situation that is ultimately out of our control. I know there have been situations where I was in a job interview where I thought if I presented a certain version of myself that I would get the job. Or I thought that if I did this one thing differently, everything would be different.
This ultimately leads to regrets and anxieties. While it’s important to learn from past mistakes, it’s not productive to draw shapes in clouds to find past mistakes. Our experiences are subjective, no matter how objective you may think you are. Occasionally there are situations where there is nothing that you could have done.
My father passed away from lung cancer when I was 18 years old. There used to be parts of me that if I pushed him harder to quit smoking and supported him more, that he would be here until now. The truth is, he always knew he should quit, he never did. There was nothing that my actions could have done.
Why You Should Change This Mindset
There’s a cliché of some people in relationships that try to be the fixer. They date someone not for who they are in the present, but for whom they could be. This almost always leads to a life of messy relationships. Whatever relationship you are in, you should always be in it for who they are in the present moment. If they work towards improving themselves and do it on their own, that’s great! Be supportive of their goals and what they want to do.
Never go into a relationship with the expectation that someone will fix whatever baggage they may have in their lives. Accept them for who they are and leave it at that.
You Will Be Willing To Take More Risks
When you live a life where you try to control everything, eventually you become risk-adverse. When you let go all of a sudden, new opportunities will open up. As I’m writing this post right now, I can’t control how many people read it. All I can control is that I am writing it and I get it posted to the correct platforms to allow people to find and share it.
You can control what you do, but you cannot control how others will receive it. I have a goal some day to run a sub-3 hour marathon. I don’t know if I even have the genetic potential to run that. That is completely out of my control. The only thing I can control is how I train appropriately and if I have a great run on race day. Either way, I am taking a risk to put so much time and effort into something that I don’t know will happen.
There’s a lot of people who give up on their goals because they tell themselves, “what’s the point? I don’t know if I will ever get there anyway.
When you drop the mentality of needing to have control over everything in your life, it opens up an entire new world.
Less Stress and More Success
When you free yourself from needing to have control over everything in your life, ultimately, this will lead to less stress. Why stress over something if there’s nothing you are going to do about it?
Less stress will lead to more success because stress often paralyzes us in most situations. Have you ever experienced ‘paralysis by analysis?” Paralysis by analysis is when you overthink something so much that you don’t end up doing anything at all. It’s the people who won’t work out until they have the perfect workout plan, or won’t eat healthy until the diet plan is dialed in as much as you can see.
I work the best when I actually start doing something and learn from the minor mistakes and correct them. I can only imagine many others function in this same way.
Focusing On What You Can Control Builds Presence
Have you ever gone parked somewhere you shouldn’t and walked back out to find a parking ticket on your car? This is not a great feeling, and perhaps you regret taking the risk to park there. There is nothing that you can do about it right now, the only thing you can do is to move forward.
Frustrations and angers won’t help you in the present situation. All you can do is learn from it and move on. There’s a reason why the old saying, “The straw that broke the camel's back” is such a common culture idiom. Imagine a parking ticket being the thing that ends up sending you over the edge? It happens to people all the time when something that seems insignificant breaks them, but that is from all the pent-up anxiety that has built up in their lives. I’m not saying that learning this skill will eliminate all anxieties in your life forever, but it certainly will help.
The difference between being angry at something for 10 seconds vs. 10 minutes vs. 10 days is massive. The quicker you can learn to diffuse your angers and frustrations, the more presence you will build and the more clarity that will come from the situation.
How Do You Change This Mindset?
Become System Oriented Instead Of Outcome Oriented
One of the biggest mindset shifts that I had when learning to give up control was that I started to become more system oriented than outcome oriented.
I always thought that I could control the outcome of any situation if I put this massive, Herculean effort into it. Occasionally, I would pull it off, which ended up reinforcing a bad mindset.
Instead, I learned to build systems for myself and not focus on the result as much. An example of this is I want to run a 100-mile ultra marathon. That’s the goal. The system I have in place for it is my training schedule. I’m going to follow the system that I have created to put myself in the best place for success. When race day comes around, I’m not entirely sure that I will finish the race. What I can do is, put a system in place for myself will make sure that I will have the best results that I can possibly have.
I can’t control what the circumstances are. I could get injured, I could get sick the day of the race, there would be something more important that comes up. My life isn’t tied to that goal.
Amor Fati- To Love Your Fate
"My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it." - On the Genealogy of Morals Friedrich Nietzsche
Once I went to a concert, and at that time I was dealing with a considerable amount of anxiety. My anxiety was to the point where my life felt out of control. During that concert, I got lost in the moment and I remember for that brief moment I realized that my anxiety was gone. I was so lucky to be here with my girlfriend and in this moment. In reflection of that time, I remember Nietzsche’s writings on Amor fati.
Amor fati means “to love ones fate.” During that concert, I realized that all my regrets, faults, or decisions all led to this moment. It was the collection of everything that has happened for all eternity to get here. Even the smallest actions throughout all of time mattered to getting to this moment. Whether they were in my control or out of my control, it didn’t matter.
Some of the greatest moments in my life came out of great challenges. Instead of being anxious over the challenges, I have worked on learning to embrace them.
"For nothing is self-sufficient, neither in us ourselves nor in things; and if our soul has trembled with happiness and sounded like a harp string just once, all eternity was needed to produce this one event—and in this single moment of affirmation all eternity was called good, redeemed, justified, and affirmed.”- Friedrich Nietzsche
In my life, I have developed this nuanced perspective over free will. We are free to choose how we react to something in the moment but ultimately, our free will is limited. We are usually left with only a handful of choices to decide from.
Life is full of nuances. We either feel like we can control everything or can’t control anything. Neither of those are true. Learning to identify those places in our life in the present moment will make almost everything in your life better.
When you attempt to change this mindset, it won’t be perfect. I’ve certainly fallen into traps of situations where I thought I could control the outcome when I couldn’t.
The key is to keep striving to it and to remind yourself of the direction that you are trying to go in. Eventually, the thought process will become more like second nature in your growth of wisdom. Wisdom is something that doesn’t come from age, but from striving to break old patterns and continuously grow.