The illusion of control

One of the things that comes up again and again in my research is control. Before opting out there is a feeling of having little or no control over one’s life and career. People talk about how they are drawn between work and family, they never seem to be in any one place enough – never at work enough, never at home enough – and the hectic pace simply becomes hard to keep up with. There’s a feeling of being stuck – in a job or a lifestyle – with no idea of how to break free. Because the fact of the matter is, although you want to break free, seeing or imagining what you could do instead can be hard.

And then something happens and you do finally take the step. You opt out, you leave that lifestyle that that you haven’t been able to break free from, and you feel like you’ve managed to take control over your life. You have a sense that you can finally be you.

It’s no coincidence that so much seems to revolve around the idea of control. It’s so deeply embedded in contemporary culture, in how we talk and think. We want to control everything, and we develop technology to do so; to control nature, our bodies and our health (although ironically a consequence of this is a loss of control – just consider global warming for example), and this goes hand in hand with the concept of choice. The rhetoric of choice has become one of the corners stones on which Western culture stands. By being able to choose, we believe that we can control not only our lives but also our destinies.

It reminds me of a former colleague of mine who liked to talk about the ‘illusion of control’. Before meeting clients or kicking off a development project, he would check with the team, “So do we have the illusion of control?” he would ask, and if we did we were good to go. Because you can never really have control, you can only have a feeling or an illusion, and that’s how ready you will ever be. And that’s good enough when opting out and in as well.

In fact, that has been one of my main findings. After opting out and in, people recognize that they really can’t control their lives and their surroundings, no matter how hard they try. Before opting out many of those I interviewed reported being control freaks and pathologically organized. After opting out and gaining a sense of control, they felt less need of actual control. Many became forgetful and some became rather disorganized, but in a way that they recognized as healthy.

One of the most powerful stories of letting go came from a woman who was terrified of flying. After opting out she boarded a plane to Spain, only to be informed that there was something wrong with one of the engines, but that they were working on it and hoped to be able to take off shortly. This is scary for anyone, but for someone who is afraid of flying this is definitely not good news. But instead of having a panic attack, she surprised herself by just leaning back and thinking “Well these people are professionals, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.” The difference was dramatic.

So the concept of control is important, but it is rather the idea of control than actual control. When we feel like we have control, we don’t as acutely feel the need to control. Instead we can just let go. And letting go, it seems, adds to a sense of sanity and a sense of peace. It adds to our wellbeing. Maybe that’s what we should be doing more of – letting go.

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