The Illusion of Control

The Illusion of ControlWhen things don’t go as planned, you have a choice – look outside or look inside. Looking outside is about control and looking inside is about lack of control.

When you look outside, what you’re saying is the universe didn’t behave per the plan, and you’re going to teach it a lesson. You’re going to tighten the screws until it does what you want; you’re going to add personal energy (probably all your energy) to lock things down; you’re going to control what must be controlled so the universe follows your plan.

The look outside approach can work, for a while. You can put your fingers and toes in all the holes; you can make sure everyone does their job; and you can be the master scheduler for the universe, but only for a while because the universe has limitless energy and you don’t. And while your control-the-world strategy looks like it’s working, it’s not – not even in the short term. The universe is playing you – it’s sucking your energy while you tread water. The universe isn’t stupid – it knows you can’t last. But at its core, the universe likes to teach; and when you fight it head-to-head, it wants to teach you about opportunity cost. While you spend all your energy wresting it to a draw, it prevents you from moving forward. It wants you to learn you have finite energy and to be thoughtful about how you spend it.

When you look inside, what you’re saying is the universe didn’t behave per the plan, and didn’t think it would. You’re going to learn from the universe and work with it; you’re going to surf the wave of the universe’s energy and carve a cross product with its momentum; you’re going to adjust your plan because you have a lack of control over the universe and most other things.

The look inside approach is effective in the long term because it works with the natural trade winds of the universe. Sailing downwind takes far less energy than tacking into the teeth of the cosmic winds, and it’s faster. This is the lesson the universe wants you to learn. But it’s not that easy. The universe constantly tests you. It changes wind direction without our consent and watches. Will you look outside or inside? Will you tack into the wind or change course and throw a huge bow wave as you go?

The toughest part isn’t the wind; it’s the other sailors. They’ve been trained over the years to tack quickly and tack often, to sail directly toward the destination regardless of the wind, even if they must grab the oars and break their backs into the wind. For those sailors, a course change is a sign of weakness – real sailors battle the wind; real sailors stay the course even if the great circle route is faster.

Thing is, plans never happen as planned, and yours is no different. Yes, control things that can be controlled, but remember – the uncontrollable can’t be controlled just because you want them to be. The universe has been around a long time and knows the ropes. It knows you don’t have control over it; it knows you only have control over how you respond to it.

When you work hand-in-hand with the universe, it rewards you, though it does so obliquely. So if your winds suddenly change and you have to sail away from your grand destination, don’t despair – that’s the universe rewarding good behavior. Double the watch and scan the horizon for the uncharted island with far more treasure than you thought possible. The universe calls that karma.

image courtesy of YachtPals.com

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Mike ShipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior.  He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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