Many people grapple with the idea of being in control of their life. Sometimes, whatever one does life seems to be in shambles. When this happens there is a temptation to attribute everything to their inadequacy. It doesn’t help when people say things like "take responsibility for what happens in your life" and "no one but you is responsible for your current situation". Our minds also tend to compare our lives with those of others and we see only what others have. A combination of all these factors leaves one feeling frustrated and an extended period of feeling like this can manifest in self-destructive emotions like anger and depression. As we grow in age as human beings, there is added burden of increasing responsibilities and this burden is growing heavier in this current, fast paced societal set up. In the past, there was competition for food and shelter, and failing to obtain them meant certain death. The capacity to maintain mental balance was never called into question. Control was seized and maintained with physical strength. Our society has now grown. Most of the world has access to enough food and shelter to survive. We now seek wealth, power, popularity and material goods. Welcome to the world of mental strength. One can keep in control of oneself only through mental toughness. This brings us back to the primary question, I asked at the start. How do you get control of your life? How is this related to mental toughness? Is it something that we are born with and can it be learnt? Are some people so smart that they know exactly what to do next? I have gone through this emotion of feeling helpless and I have asked these questions to myself.
My experiences in life have thought me the following answers. Without being too preachy, I will try to explain what I learnt. It can be summed up in a cliché - "I learnt to live in the moment". If I was going through this blog post, about 5 years back, I would read this sentence and be really frustrated. How can living in the moment be the answer to these questions? When I analyze all the circumstances in my past, when I did feel in control, they were mainly situations when I had a goal and I knew exactly what needed to be done to achieve it. That is why, I have felt in control when I played video games. I knew from the start of the game, that I need to collect points and kill the monsters to progress in the game. That is how I knew I would achieve the goal of finishing the game. When I do computer programming, I feel in control. That is because I know the end state that I want to achieve and I know what code to write that will take me there. But, life is not as easy as playing a video game or writing a computer program. It is more complex due to the fact that many of the outcomes, which I try to achieve are dependent on a whole lot of things that I do not have any control over. I tried really hard for a few things that I wanted in my life, but I failed miserably. These failures frustrated me. I blamed myself and felt that I must have done something wrong. So, I tried harder. Yet to no avail. These failures are quite draining and they can leave one feeling helpless. And then, I asked myself the question which is the topic of this write-up. The answer to this question was hard to find when I asked for it. Then, I failed in a few of my goals again. I compared myself to other people and felt that I was inadequate. This is another self-destructive thought. Then I began to analyze my past. If I looked at my life dispassionately from without, I could see successes that I never had recognized before. While trying to strive for my goals, I had achieved other things which were not my goals, but were definitely indicators of success. Then, I felt that I am not inadequate. Maybe, I don't just see the good things in life but am always fixated on what is going wrong. Further 'wisdom' dawned that it was just myself, who viewed me as a failure, but on the outside, people are seeing my successes. Then came a turning point in my thinking. The fact that I failed in a few things is not an indicator of my incapacity as a human being to execute and achieve, but it is an indicator to the truth that my effort was not the only determinant of success and that there are other things not in my control which could change the outcome.
So, again - if things are not in my control, how do I feel in control of my life? For me, the answer to this question started with acceptance of the fact that in reality, things are out of control. For starters, this passive acceptance helped me stop putting pressure on myself to perform. When this inner tension, driven by an irrational desire for an outcome started to melt away, I could feel a kind of clarity emerging. I stopped beating myself up for things that I failed at. The wise men have argued since time immemorial that the root cause of unhappiness is expectation and desire. I believe that when one is unhappy, it is a result of things not going as per expectation and life's outcomes not being as desired. This unhappiness manifests as a feeling of lack of control. Once I recognized this, I knew what I had to give up. I had to give up expectation and desire. Wait a moment, I have heard this spiritual mumbo-jumbo before. I did not know what that meant, but now I have come to this conclusion myself. This gave me a little bit of confidence. The fact that I came to the same conclusion as the so-called wise men of the past must mean I am thinking in the right direction. This action of giving up trying to influence any outcome was the beginning of taking control of my mind. This gives rise to so many downstream questions – So, do I mean to say I stopped doing things in life? Did I just give up? What is the driving force in life when you give up your desire for output? How is giving up even remotely related to being in control? Isn’t happiness a mental phenomenon that occurs when you get something that you covet?
These are all valid questions. I do believe that I have received my answers to a few of these questions through introspection and experimentation. No, I did not stop doing things in life. I only try to do those things that give me happiness. This was a big change in my outlook. I try to not do things which are governed by the desire to achieve a particular outcome. Instead, I do things which I like and great outcomes can come out of it. I did not stop setting goals for myself. I set lofty goals for myself in the fields that I like. I try to hit those goals dispassionately, without attachment to them. Therefore, I am not sad if I don’t attain them. I am happy about the fact that I will continue to do the thing that I love, irrespective of whether I hit my goals or not. When I don’t hit my goals, I look back at what I have done and try to create hypotheses about the causes for failure. I then create life experiments to test my hypotheses and I learn from these experiments and try to incorporate this learning into my future actions. When things get overwhelming, I will draw a blank. I will just focus on the present and resist any thoughts. The human mind is a beautiful machine. The neural networks in the brain are designed in such a way that one doesn’t need to force the brain to learn. It happens automatically. I just believe that its mechanism is a black box. It takes in data from the senses and from the store of past experiences stored in memory. I try to keep it less occupied in emotions like desire, expectation, greed, anger and fear and use the bandwidth of its neural networks in processing experience data (from memory) and ‘the present’ data (from the senses) in helping me make life decisions. This outlook has enabled me to feel in control of my life.
If the 5 year back version of myself came back to me and asked me this question, I would advise him to read this document, but not take everything as truth. This kind of advice is available to everyone, but in order to really grasp its true meaning and power, one has to experience the feelings of helplessness and lack of direction. Therefore, I would ask the younger me to keep this document as a reference for the future and try to follow the broad framework outlined above during times of crisis. If I have to put it succinctly, it’s a four point approach
- Stay in the present moment
- Do what you love doing. Set Goals.
- Learn by dispassionately analyzing and mining your past experiences
- Make hypotheses about things you are unsure of and design life experiments to validate them
When things become overwhelming, just let everything go and draw your mind into the present moment.
I would like to conclude by saying that I am not an expert in this topic and I am still learning. I am ready to accept that whatever I have written may be the wrong approach. But this seems to work for me currently. I will continue to do this, until a point of time in my life, when I believe that it is proved wrong. This is a very personal document containing a lot of introspection that I have done. In case, you do chance upon this piece of writing, please feel free to leave feedback in the comments section.