The illusion of control

“Every once in a while, you’ll succeed. Most of the time you’ll fail, and most of the time the circumstances will be well beyond your control.” – Aaron Sorkin

It makes sense that we aim for the important things, things like what we know or think we know will make us happy. Things that sustain us. Things we are invested in. Our future….

If a certain amount of our lives is up to us, then it makes sense to do with it the best we can. Its like we are driving in a car, and the front windshield tells us where we are heading. We are in the driver’s seat and we get to drive. And mostly it is a headlong rush, and we barely notice the scenery until its already in our rear view mirror….. We can follow the road we are on, or we can sometimes change lanes or take off ramps and detours. We can park the car and stop the world from rushing by us at this enormous pace. Not that life doesn’t still go on, just that we sometimes choose to look at the same horizon, our lives with the parking brakes on. And when it gets dark outside we can light our high beams or slow down to a cautious crawl…..

The way forward is just step after step, not always a leap into darkness. But the interesting thing is that while we focus on the moment, or on looking where we are going, it all seems pretty straightforward (pun intended!). However, sometimes if we look back at where we’ve been we have no idea how we got here from there. Sure, I’m sitting in this chair right now, and I was in the kitchen but a moment ago, but why? And how the hell did that happen? And possibly more interestingly, was it important? I can remember getting in the car and driving. I just got out at my destination. But how did I get here? Why did I get here? How much of our lives is really like that?

You see, where we are at any given moment is not always by design, not always our intention, and not always something we are particularly aware of. Sometimes our feet just carry us. Sometimes its with a destination in mind and sometimes its without an overarching plan all mapped out. We get where we get, and sometimes its a mystery. And so, how much control do we really have? Is the sense of our mastery behind the wheel a bit deceiving?

With our eyes peeled on the horizon we have this inevitable sense that we get to steer the ship. “Look! I can see where I’m heading. I get to change course by turning this wheel and pulling that lever!” It seems for this one brilliant moment that by paying attention our fate is entirely up to us. And the better we pay attention, therefor, the more control we have.

But is there ever an absolute symmetry between aiming and arriving? Can we have our lives exactly as we want? Do we ever? The small islands in a sea of surging chaos? How permanent are those craggy rocks really anyway? By the time we get from one to another the one we are now on is likely different from what we first saw, and the one we just left was different from when we first landed there…. Is our aim always spoiled by a shifting and poorly seen target? And does this tell us something important? That even our islands are flux? That stability may in fact itself be only temporary? A resting place at best? Shelter from the storm…?

We often don’t need to try to do new things necessarily, they just happen on their own. We end up in unexpected places whether we want to or not. Just by living. The world acts on us perhaps even more than we act on it in the best most lucid of times….

So, just maybe while its a good thing not to take too many leaps off the cliff, maybe also its not as vital that we know firmly where the next secure step is planted, or where we are going always and at all times. Does our confidence rest only on the appearance of stability and control? A shifting bed of sand? A delusion of ultimate agency? Are we coddled only by illusion…? Are we simply more secure with an illusion of control than the idea that our small dingy is tossed mercilessly about on the seas…? Or can we also find new confidence in the unknown and even the unknowable? The confidence of explorers? Is the evolutionary price of our conscious awareness that self reflection always leads to a fabulation of our control?

The conscious course of our lives is usually a battle between staying the course and following our nose. But interestingly also, sometimes even that doesn’t matter, and we are simply caught up in events and circumstances beyond our managed or operative control. The reasons we have for jumping are not always the reasons we have for landing….. We often get lucky. Taking the step seems easy. Predicting where it will land is often quite something else…. We need to step, and we often get the chance to choose where and when to do so. Seeing what happens if we take the turn at this corner rather than the next one often leads us to an unexpected and serendipitous place. Sometimes the success of our lives is simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. And this usually seems to happen quite despite or regardless of our manipulation and designs…..

But we think about our lives almost always as if our control were the most important thing to us. As if it were our steady hand on a thrashing beast of entropy that keeps us safe. As if these tiny reins were all that prevented our buggy from sailing over the cliff…..

So much of our lives seem determined by our expectations, and so often those expectations are focused on preserving the status quo or on the pursuit of particular dreams. We are not always as interested in the motivation of just seeing what happens. Taking a walk in the woods without aim or conscious design. Its not always a leap off a cliff, but its a sense of adventure. Not knowing. Not being too invested in particular outcomes….. We simply like to know. Our hands are rigid and bloodless with the force we are exerting to clamp down on the wheel….. And where exactly does all our controlling anxiety actually get us…..?


If we look back at our lives I wonder just how much of it was a victory of persistence, a victory of desire, and how much simply happened despite our agency or without our foreknowledge and expectation?

So, next time you are faced with a decision to try something new and are begging off for the sake of that comforting security of the known, ask yourself just what is at stake…. Sometimes its not the way forward that should be so disconcerting but the way from which we came. And if we look in our rear view mirror the illusion of our control is exposed for the nightmare of accidents it actually is….

Something to think about at least….

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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7 Responses to The illusion of control

  1. Containment‘ by Jack Troy

    I have picked up, moved, shaped,
    and lightened myself of many tons of clay,
    and those tons lifted, moved, and shaped me,
    delivering me to this living-space
    I wake and move about in,
    space perhaps equal to that I have opened and enclosed
    in plate, cup, bowl, jug, jar.
    I am thankful no one ever
    led me to the pit I’d help to make in Earth,
    or showed me all the clay at once.
    I’m grateful no one ever said, There.
    That heap’s about a hundred fifty tons.
    Go make yourself a life.
    And oh, yes, here’s a drum of ink.
    See what you can do with that.
    I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

  2. gazooza says:

    This reminds me of what Anne Lamott wrote: water bugs, trout below.

    Also, seems like there’s a third option between the confidence of control and the confidence of the explorers: giving up on confidence as a attainable goal. Which sounds terrible and defeatist at first glance, but I wonder, would it really be so bad to live without it?

    • I’m not really sure what that would mean. The role that confidence plays is often only the willingness to take that step, and without it we’d be paralyzed. Whether its a step into the darkness or a step we are already familiar with, we only get to take it when we are not intimidated by the risk involved.

      Watching students confronted with unfamiliar situations is a lesson in confidence that I get to see quite often. There are the adventurers who jump in head first, the ones who ignore the opportunity and replay the same tune they’ve already mastered, and then also the ones who grind to a halt. Their hands simply don’t know what to do, but rather than finding out they balk at ANY step forward. They simply don’t have the confidence to fling themselves at destiny or even to take a step backwards. Its as if they forget what they were doing. Its something like a form of insanity where all the rules have suddenly changed…. Imagine an episode of the twilight zone. Something has changed, no longer makes sense in the way we were used to, and we need to figure it out. Learning a new confidence is the only step that takes us beyond the inadequacy of our old confidence…..

      So, I guess I’d say that the way we ultimately get to navigate the world and our lives is only through a confidence to confront situations and take steps in one or another direction. Without it we’d hardly be human. Perhaps more like inert vegetables.

      If you think about the ultimate beginners, infants, then you will see that we are born with confidence. We simply don’t know any better. But as the world gets more complicated about us, as our knowledge of it grows, we are then faced with more complicated decisions. We learn how and when to make choices. We even learn WHY to make choices. And because we also learn to care about certain things we get reasons for taking steps.

      I can relate to situations of lost confidence. Back when I had my falling out with academic Philosophy I faced a crisis where I lost my confidence in how language is used. I could see how it was misused by philosophers, and I was forced to doubt my own uses. I lost the feeling of being at home in the use of language. We take it for granted as something that is second nature in our daily lives, but I faced this situation where I would look at the words of others and fail to make the proper sense. Thankfully I eventually worked my way out of that tortured state. I regained my confidence…..

      Another loss of confidence is something that athletes sometimes experience. Once again, while things are going normally, an athlete knows what to do with their hands and feet to get certain results. Its a primitive and intuitive understanding we refer to as body knowledge. We see the ball coming at us and we make the leap just so and swing our arm just this way that strikes the ball and sends it to the corner of the box on our opponents’ side. Losing the confidence to do that naturally means we second guess ourselves, and mis-hit more often than not. I think its called ‘the yips’ in sports. We let a lack of confidence get to us, get in our heads. Its a sort of existential doubt.

      So its not just that lacking confidence we doubt as in merely not knowing an answer to a specific question, but that we don’t actually know how to proceed….. The question itself doesn’t make sense. Not knowing an answer doesn’t mean we lack the confidence to find one. It doesn’t mean that we don’t know what it would take to get it. Its not a practical obstruction where we simply don’t have the means, and if only we did we could solve it. Its that the question itself balks us and we can’t figure out what to do with it…….

      Great question Scott! Glad I got the opportunity to wrestle with it! See how my confidence is willing to take these outrageous stabs at it? Heh, heh…..

      Oops! Almost didn’t answer this side of your question, but discomfort doesn’t always equate with a lack of confidence. Being tentative is not opposed to being confident in a practical sense but only in a psychological sense of mental disposition. Being tentative is a kind of confidence. And you can see that working tentatively is not as far from confidence as complete bewilderment and anxiety and existential doubt. Being tentative is as far from paralysis as motion is from stasis. Being tentative implies some bit of momentum at least. And so I’d say that for many things in our lives we may be tentative, and lack COMPLETE confidence, but not completely lack confidence. We can be tentative and yet still have the confidence to proceed with caution…..

      So maybe I’d rephrase your question as that we might give up on the ambition of complete comfort and that sense of mastery, and that we may need to learn to live with the discomfort of only being tentative in certain areas….. How’s that sound?

    • Here’s what Scott wrote on his blog post on January 24th in 2010:

      “Which in turn reminds me of this quote from the book bird by bird, by Anne Lamott:

      “It helps to resign as the controller of your fate. All that energy we expend to keep things running right is not what’s keeping things running right. We’re bugs struggling in the river, brightly visible to the trout below.”

      I like that a lot. Perhaps because I lean towards the control freak/perfectionist end of the spectrum, it really resonates with me. And hard as it might be to accept that lack of control, I believe it’s true.

      I paraphrased that on my studio chalkboard, around this time last year: “water bugs, trout below”. It’s shorthand for the lyricism and depth of Lamott’s idea, and seeing it there at odd intervals reminds me to appreciate all the times that I get lucky; the trout strike elsewhere. And also that wasting energy on “keeping things running right” is a sucker’s bet. Yes, some control is essential, illusionary or otherwise. But striving for complete control is foolish and risky.”

  3. Here’s an interesting take that turns what I said in this post on its head but comes to the same conclusion:

    “Coming back is the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one decision leads you to another, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which aided by several detours — long hallways and unforeseen stairwells — eventually puts you in the place you are now. Every choice lays down a trail of bread crumbs, so that when you look behind you there appears to be a very clear path that points straight to the place where you now stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a bread crumb in sight — there are just a few shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to right and find no indication of which way you’re supposed to go. And so you stand there, sniffing at the wind, looking for directional clues in the growth patterns of moss, and you think, What now?” – from writer Ann Patchett in her 2006 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College

  4. Pingback: Unstuck | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  5. Pingback: What was I thinking… in 2013? | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

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