The Illusion Of Control

Posted By on Aug 12, 2009

No one can deny that I was a handful as a kid, and summertime brought my level of frenzy to new heights. My older brother and I battled constantly, I was perpetually in a state of near hospitalization, and I ran around the neighborhood like a barely tamed wolf child. But despite all the craziness, I felt completely in control of my time, my activities and my joy. I was creative, I was uninhibited and I learned so much about the good and bad of life in a very short period of time. It was wonderful.

Looking back as an adult, I now realize that much of that sense of control was an illusion. I was just a little kid. I was accountable to my parents and I paid the piper dearly when one of my “great ideas” went terribly awry (which was more often than not, believe me). And as we get older, I think many of us start to long for the same sense of freedom, wonderment and dominion over our work lives that we thought we had as children.

HeadacheFast forward to a meeting you might have had today. You’re sitting with a coworker listening to his worries about the big presentation – “Do the font size and colors match the corporate standards? Should we do double sided copies or single?” – and your mind begins to wander. His voice turns hazy as you contemplate throwing yourself quickly out the window… or maybe banging your head repeatedly against the conference room table… or perhaps just a little scream, one that builds slowly from your dying heart and ends at the top of your lungs. The temptation to start laughing (or crying) suddenly seems overwhelming and your inner voice ponders, “What in the f— am I doing here? When did everything go so terribly wrong?!?”

And then it really hits you. You feel you are this little cog connected to a little wheel which in turn connects to thousands of other wheels turning millions of other cogs. Well I have a little secret to share.

It’s true.

You are at work. Work. I’m not a big fan of quoting dictionary definitions, but this caught my attention:

Work: A specific task, duty, function, or assignment often being a part or phase of some larger activity”. ~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary

TrappedYep, that’s work alright. And although there are people who are living their dreams and find fulfillment and happiness in their jobs, most people do not. Some of the saddest people I know are C-level executives at the “top of their game”. They have seniority. They have wealth. They are respected in their industries and successful by every external measure. However, if you build close enough relationships to gain their trust, they will all eventually share a little secret.

They feel trapped.

And one thing they wish they would have learned years earlier is that you are always beholden to someone. Investors. Partners. Suppliers. Customers. Employees. Yourself.

Accept that work is largely out of your control and you will remove a major source of frustration in your life. Focus instead on those things you can control. Win some little personal victories and perhaps the temptation to window-jump, table-head-bang or bloodcurdle-scream will be a thing of the past.

And if you’re a kid trapped in an adult’s body, find one thing this summer that revives your sense of freedom and wonderment. Do something just for you and revel in it. And when you’re done with that, come back, share your thoughts and we’ll keep the conversation going.


  1. You hit it right on Mark.It can feel like my life is on hold from 7:30 – 5:00 – a big chunk of my day. When I am there, I am doing for others and everyone wants a piece of me. It all comes immediatley back into perspective when I take the time to do things for myself – it could be as simple as asking the husband to take the kid out for a few hours – without me. Not exactly freedom reviving (!) but it is recharging :)

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  2. A truly refreshing post. When I went solo in 1987, a big part of the motivation was the desire to have more control over my professional life. For me, that sense of control, illusion though it may be, comes in part from being able to “do the right thing” for my clients with only myself at risk. Another big element of that control is being able to ration my billable time (and the 2-3 hours of non-billable time needed to deliver each billable hour to my personal standards) so that I’ve been able to travel extensively. While my work time may be 12/7 most of the time, those blocks of personal travel time, and the experiences/friendships enjoyed during those blocks of time, have balanced my years. My heart goes out to those without the luxury — and it is a luxury — of the solo professional life. My years spent in corporate life, even at terrific firms, never gave me the same level of satisfaction in a job well-done and a life well-lived, but those early experiences were absolutely critical to my current work life.

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  3. That’s a little sad actually. But I have to admit that I have a high internal sense of control so sometimes I need to be reminded how much of an illusion that really is. Great post!

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  4. I think one of the most interesting development of the next few years will be the continued blurring of the lines between work and ‘non-work’. Think of the folks that are using social networking as part of their ‘work’, be it for research, finding expertise, or prospecting. They interact and socialize with these friends and family on these very same networks, shifting seamlessly and fairly regularly from ‘work’ to ‘not work’. Add in the expected rise in telework, and other Alternate Work Strategies and I do believe over time the ‘work/life’ balance discussions are going to simply become ‘life’ discussions for many folks. Nicely done, Mark.

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  5. An excellent post, Mark. Really. The ‘beginner’s mind’ often takes the window-jump in a marathon chase to serve so many others. You suggest right, maybe it’s time for me to take my bike and go for a spin!

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  6. @Lisa Rosendahl – Sometimes that little bit of recharging can make all the difference. Especially if it’s on your birthday (happy belated by the way)!

    @Naomi Bloom – I think you absolutely nailed what we’re all attempting to attain with your statement, “a job well-done and a life well-lived”.

    @HR Minion – You bring up a really interesting perspective here Shauna as that “high internal sense of control” can help shield you from the onslaught. Great point.

    @Steve Boese – I was having this same conversation this morning Steve, and I certainly hope your prediction of “life discussions” comes to fruition.

    @The HR Store – Enjoy the wind and ride! Thanks for the comment.

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  7. Very true and a little sad. You have perfect timing. I have been thinking I need to do something new and exciting for me (haven’t thought about what yet).

    I have 2 small children and like most people who work with kids have little time for themselves: 7-8:30 (kids); 8:30-5 (work); 5-9 (kids); 9-bedtime (house, husband, some more work, etc). The greatest thing I do for myself is a 5:30 boot camp 3 days a week. I love it and it is worth every penny and early morning wake ups. It is my only ‘me’ time of the day. It also helps with every day stress. I will take your advice and do something fulfilling this summer/early fall that I have not done and report back.

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  8. funny, sad, fine post. reminds me of a quote i once saw on a poster (believe it or not!) that spoke to me: the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness. thanks, mark. f

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  9. You know, Mark. I gotta say, I love what I do. Yeah I don’t have control all the time and yes, the time that work takes me away from my family frustrates me but I’ve been fortunate enough to land in a place where I can be passionate and creative and that, to me, is more important than just control. Some consider me a terrible geek because I’m so excited about achieving something others might consider trivial, but that’s what keeps me doing this. If I didn’t love my work, I don’t think I’d do it. And that, my friends, can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If it’s drudgery, isn’t that a clear reason to try something else? Thanks, Mark for the dialog- Kris

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  10. Great post,
    Not only is the false perception we are in control a common occurrence it is reinforced throughout the Bible we are not truly in control.
    Couple the false perception we must be in control, with we that are supposed to know everything it is no wonder so many CEO’s die of heart attacks. The key is to know what you know, as well as know what you do not know but need to know. I talk about this in my blog post at .
    Mark Allen Roberts

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  11. @C-level mgr – I love that you have found something that you enjoy and look forward to your report back!

    @fran melmed – Love that quote…”the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness”. Thanks Fran.

    @klundin – So glad to get another perspective here Kris. I wish more people were so optimistic and positive about their work. And although many are so terribly unhappy, I think we tend to get complacent despite the “drudgery”. Thanks for your thoughts.

    @mark allen roberts – You’re touching on an interesting issue many CEOs struggle with. I appreciate your comment.

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  12. I work for a start-up company and consistently feel out of control with how the company has been progressing over the past 10 months. It is easy for me to get worked up over something that you do eight hours a day, five days per week (minimum) but the only person that suffers from that behavior is me.

    As noted in the post, there is no sense in getting all worked up over a job when we are just a small part of the machine. I can make suggestions on how to improve our business to the upper management but if they disagree with me then I can take comfort knowing that I did my part. A wise man once told me that “The boss is not always right but he is always the boss.”

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  13. These kind of feelings come from defining ones self by a career only later to find out that the things given up for a career are of far greater importance and value. Ever notice how quickly you can be replaced? Besides a fleeting mention at a company lunch, does anyone really remember you after you retire? When you are on a vacation, does the company still function? Then why would you put your heart and soul into that? Deadlines? Unless you are in the medical field or are trying to get your client a reprieve from the governor for a midnight execution, deadlines are better defined as guidelines with ego’s. Remind me again why my client needs this by 4PM on Friday? Sure he is going to read it over the weekend?
    Do your job; Do it well; but don’t sacrifice your life for it.

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  14. I think the central issue isn’t control at all, but integrity, wholeness. What you had as a child wasn’t control, but wholeness. And I’d wager that’s what many people are missing as working adults. If your work is aligned with your core values or with something you think is inherently important, it will make you feel whole. If it goes against yourself or some part of you, it will make you feel split, divided, self-contradictory. Does your work make you feel whole or does it conflict with your values in some small insidious way or several ways? Does it serve a purpose that you care about and that engages you and inspires you, or is it just for money? Ah, there’s the rub… the money. That’s presumably why we work — to get paid. But it’s also why we make all those soul-sucking compromises, why we split our allegiances, why we go slightly (or blatantly) against what we feel is right or important. But maybe you don’t actually need as much money as you might think. Maybe you don’t need to keep up with the Joneses or live 40 miles from your work and drive a big expensive car. Maybe you can actually survive fairly lavishly just by doing the things you’ve always wanted to but were afraid to do. Maybe you’re worth more to yourself and your family than a paycheck. What have you sold for that money?

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  15. words ring true – reminds me of a quote by Charles Swindoll (1990)
    “the longer I live the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me is more important than the facts. It is more important than appearnace, giftedness, or skill. It will make or break a company – a church – a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice very day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. we cannot change our past – we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. We are in charge of our attitudes.”
    It’s gotten me to move forward in my career development and in accepting what exists around me to promote quality time both at work and at play. be well y’all!

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  16. Great post, Mark. I’ve found over the years that I’m happiest when my job is just a part of my life not the end all be all of it. And, trust me when I say, that I’ve been unbalanced on what has been important at many times over the course of my career. It’s a constant struggle for me, but I keep up the fight. : )

    To Miriam’s comment, I also like that quote and must have found it during my college days. As I wrote it down, the last sentence is as follows.

    “I am convinced that a life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” – Charles Swindoll

    And Mark, I love this line in your post, “And if you’re a kid trapped in an adult’s body, find one thing this summer that revives your sense of freedom and wonderment. Do something just for you and revel in it.” Thankfully, my day job with Cool Works provides those types of opportunities to folks all the time, if they’re willing to make the jump.

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