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the illusion of control

The Illusion of Control

‘The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.’
~Laozi

When you think you control something, you’re wrong.

It’s amazing how often we think we’re in control of something when really we aren’t.

Control is an illusion, as I’ve said many times before.

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

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 Obama would be president, that the stock markets would have crashed, that we’d be deep into a recession, that earthquakes and tsunamis would hit, that you’d be doing exactly what you’re doing today?

Of course not. We don’t know the future, much less control it. We like to think we do, but that never turns out to be true.

And yet 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:

  • Trying to control how our children turn out, as if we can shape them like blocks of clay, as if humans aren’t more complex than we can possibly understand.
  • Tracking every little thing, 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.
  • Trying to control employees — again, complex human beings with many motivations and whims and habits that we don’t understand.
  • Obsessively planning projects, trips, days, parties, as if the outcomes of events are things we can control with our powers of manipulation of the world.

If we can let go of this illusion, what are we left with? How can we live among this chaos?

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 a thing.

We are no better than that fish, yet our thinking creates the need for an illusion.

Let go of that thinking. Learn to be the fish.

When we are in the midst of chaos, let go of the need to control it. Be awash in it, experience it in that moment, try not to control the outcome but deal with the flow as it comes.

How do we live our lives like this? It’s a completely different way of living, once we let go of the illusion:

  • We stop setting goals, and instead do what excites us.
  • We stop planning, and just do.
  • We stop looking at the future, and live in the moment.
  • We stop trying to control others, and focus instead on being kind to them.
  • We learn that trusting our values is more important to taking action than desiring and striving for certain outcomes.
  • We take each step lightly, with balance, in the moment, guided by those values and what we’re passionate about … rather than trying to plan the next 1,000 steps and where we’ll end up.
  • We learn to accept the world as it is, rather than being annoyed with it, stressed by it, mad at it, despaired by it, or trying to change it into what we want it to be.
  • We are never disappointed with how things turn out, because we never expected anything — we just accept what comes.

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 isn’t the worst thing ever.

But if you can learn to live this way … it’s the most freeing thing in the world.

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About Leo Babauta

We are publishing some of the better blog posts from Leo Babauta. Leo has a very popular blog called Zen Habits, which is very worth visiting and reading if you get a chance. Leo has done an amazing thing which is to allow any of his posts to be used by anyone else. So we have chosen to share some of the ones that we really enjoyed. Please visit his blog to read more of his wonderful posts. Here is his brief bio from his own website. My name is Leo Babauta, I’m married with six kids, I live on Guam, I’m a writer and a runner and a vegetarian and I love writing Zen Habits. Zen Habits covers: achieving goals, productivity, being organized, GTD, motivation, eliminating debt, saving, getting a flat stomach, eating healthy, simplifying, living frugal, parenting, happiness, and successfully implementing good habits.

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One comment

  1. I wonder why the original author of this idea (including the allegory of a fish) was not given credit. Richard Bach wrote the book back in the 80s.

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