The Illusion of Control

As a music consultant, my responsibility is to encourage artists to chase their dreams. Hard work and creativity is something that cannot be ignored and it seems to be part of the process, but on the flip side, thinking we are the ones pulling the strings is a mistake that will only lead to disappointment.  It’s amazing how often we think we’re in control of something when we really aren’t.

We constantly make plans that never actually turn out the way we envisioned. ‘If you want to make God laugh, make a plan,’ the old adage says.

We have been trained to set goals, and then work on the actions that lead to those goals … and yet how often do those goals fail? How often are we trying to control a future that we cannot predict?

Did you know five years ago that the world would turn out as it has — that Trump would be president, that the stock markets would have crashed and then landed as high as they are today, that earthquakes and tsunamis would hit around the world, that there would be mass shootings in the most unexpected places, that you’d be doing exactly what you’re doing today?

We don’t know the future, much less control it. We may like to think we do, but that never turns out to be even close to reality. We continue to believe in the illusion of control. We face a chaotic and complex world and seek to control it however we can.

Our attempts to control the world can be seen through tracking every things, from spending to exercise to what we eat to what tasks we do to how many visitors are on our site to how many steps we’ve taken today and how many miles we’ve run. As if our selective tracking can possibly include the many, complex factors that influence outcomes.

If we can let go of this illusion, what are we left with?  Consider the fish. A fish swims in a chaotic sea that it cannot possibly control — much as we all do. The fish, unlike us, is under no illusion that it controls the sea, or other fish in the sea. The fish doesn’t even try to control where it ends up — it just swims, either going with the flow or dealing with the flow as it comes. It eats, and hides, and mates, but does not try to control the sea. We are a lot like that fish, yet our thinking creates the need for an illusion.

The predominant paradigm in research on unrealistic perceived control has been at the base of Ellen Langer’s theories. Langer showed that people often behave as if chance events are accessible to personal control.

One simple form of this fallacy is found in casinos: when rolling dice in craps, it has been shown that people tend to throw harder for high numbers and softer for low numbers.

Most people don’t realize that pedestrians in New York still press the button to get the lights to change, despite the fact they do nothing. Since the late 80s all the traffic signals have been controlled by computer, but the city won’t pay to have the buttons removed. It’s probably just as well: they help boost people’s illusion of control. We feel better when we can do something that feels like it might have an effect (even if it doesn’t).

I always loved Bob Dylan’s song, “Gonna change my way of thinking.”  If we can let go of the illusion of control maybe we can:

  • Stop setting goals, and instead do what inspires us.
  • Focus a little less on planning, and just start doing.
  • Stop looking at the future and live in the moment.
  • Stop trying to control others.
  • Learn that trusting our values is more important to taking action than desiring and striving for certain outcomes.
  • Accept the world as it is, rather than being annoyed with it or stressed by it.
  • Write songs from the heart and stop guessing what is going to be radio-friendly.

This might seem like a passive way of living to some, and it’s against our aggressive, productive, goal-oriented cultural nature. If you can’t accept this way of living, that’s OK — many people live their lives with the illusion of control, and not realizing what it is that makes them unhappy or frustrated.  But if you can learn to live this way … it’s the most freeing thing in the world.

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?” Mt.6:26-27

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