Mark Blasini


Understanding control


A common sentiment I'm hearing now in the self-help world is the idea of focusing on what you can control and ignoring what you can't control. This is a fundamental tenet of Stoic philosophy, which has gained incredible popularity in recent years.

While I agree that a focus on what you can control (or feel you can control) is the foundation for strategic living, it's also important to note something peculiar about control: there is no such thing as true control.

There is no clear split between what is within our control and what is outside, between the internal (our actions, our words, our thoughts, our opinions) and the external (other people's thoughts, actions, opinions; outside events).

If we are to listen to neuroscientists and psychologists, the vast majority of our activities are unconscious. We are not aware of certain opinions, biases, habits that lurk beneath and influence our behaviors and thoughts and words.

Likewise, according to psychologists, as social animals, we are constantly influencing each other, even if in subtle, unconscious ways. We don't realize that our behaviors, our words, our attitudes, our emotions actually influence the people around us.

In other words, we have less control over ourselves than we think we do, and more control (or influence) over others than we think we do. And what we "think" we have control over or not often is just an unconscious bias we've inherited - from our parents, from our peers, from our experiences, from religion, or from "philosophy."

Control, then, is not something that is categorical, as the Stoics think of it. It's not a matter of making a separation between what's inside and what's outside. Control, rather, is a matter of degree, and largely a matter of perception.

When we feel in greater control over our lives, when we feel as if we can control our relationships, our finances, our future - we feel happier. Our mood improves. Our attitude improves. As a result, our relationships improve, and the opportunities for improving our future (seem to) increase.

On the other hand, when we do not feel in control of our lives; when we feel powerless to improve our relationships, to get our ideas heard, to govern to some extent our circumstances in life - when we feel this way, we feel frustrated, angry, depressed, anxious. As bestselling author Robert Greene writes in The 48 Laws of Power, "The feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us - when we feel helpless, we feel miserable."

Strategic living, therefore, is not about having a maniacal focus on what's "within" our control, ignoring categorically what is "outside" of our control. Control makes no real sense unless it relates to the realm of life - the realm of people and work and accidents and problems - and not simply our own thoughts or behaviors.

Rather, strategic living is about increasing our sense of control, our feeling of power or influence over others or events. And maximizing this control so that we can feel in control of our happiness and our future.

It's when we recognize that we all want a feeling of greater control, and thus, all want to feel happier, that the game of life becomes a little clearer, a little more understandable, and a little more hopeful.