You don’t control anything

Image by Daniel Kirsch from Pixabay

One realization that I had recently (only to show that I’m not too bright) is how much energy we all spend on controlling our environment and trying to keep everything the same. The trigger was a car trip from Gothenburg to Stockholm during one of the warmest days in Sweden this summer. Unfortunately, the air conditioning in the car had broken down right before the trip and the inability to keep the temperature in the car within a narrow band led to a significant amount of complaining during the ride.

We’re always looking to control our environment, including the temperature inside our homes, the safety of the area we live in and the selection in the supermarket we shop in. Even the climate change activists who constantly lament about the climate changing seem to forget that the climate has been changing continuously for eons. Companies plan and budget for the coming quarters and years and managers get rewarded for their accuracy in predicting the future. In the same way our bodies use homeostasis to create a stable system, we’re constantly looking to address the deviations from an anchoring point we consider ideal.

In many ways, our desire to control our environment is a great asset. As George Bernard Shaw so eloquently said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” And over the last century or so, humankind has seen more progress than during its entire history combined. Based on all metrics that we use to measure quality of life for everyone on the planet, life has never been better. And it’s driven by our constant desire to control our environment and avoid bad outcomes.

The concern I’m trying to raise here is that our success over the last century has lulled us into believing that we’re in control. That, because we know how to treat certain diseases, have found ways to avoid world wars, globalized our economies to achieve new levels of efficiency, and so on, we can stop worrying about these things and assume the horrors of the past will never come back. And this is of course a complete fallacy as the Covid-19 crisis clearly shows. The shifting power balance in the world increases the risks of new wars. And the anti-globalization sentiment that we see in many countries pours oil on the fires of disagreement and conflict.

Similar to these developments on the macro level, we tend to confuse effort and outcome on the personal level as well. We can exercise and eat healthy, hoping for a long, productive life. We can work hard and hope for recognition and promotion at work. We can invest in relationships and hope for a rich social life. However, the risk is that we feel entitled to these outcomes because we put in the effort. As the Stoics so beautifully identify, confusing what we can control and what we cannot is one of the biggest sources of suffering. We can control how we behave and where we spend our time and energy, but we can’t control the outcomes of our efforts. Despite our best efforts, things can go to hell in a handbasket.

“Change is the only constant” is a phrase often used but seldomly actually lived by. Most of us are trying as hard as possible to keep things as they were before. This is one of the reasons that driving improvements and change such as digitalization is so hard: deep down, we want things to stay as they are. The fact of the matter is, though, that nothing ever stays the same. So, we either move forward or we’re left behind. Unless we embrace change proactively, it will be forced upon us. And I, for one, prefer to at least pretend that I’m in control of my own destiny, rather than a victim of circumstances.

My main message is that we don’t control anything, or at least very, very little. Everything that we feel we’ve accomplished can be ripped out of our hands at any point. Nevertheless, we need to relentlessly work to make things better. Right now, in industry, that means digitalizing your business and letting go of the belief that everything was better before. Because it wasn’t, and even if it was, we can’t go back there anyway. So, get to work, focus your energy on what you can control and don’t bother about the outcomes that aren’t under your control. You’ll be busy enough as it is.

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