Have you ever taught a cat to bark?
It’s a very involved process.
You will spend weeks, months, and years diligently repeating your instructions to the cat, “I need you to bark.” You may even demonstrate to your feline companion the exact sound you desire them to produce.
Morning, noon, and night you will drill the cat, using various intonations for more significant impact but always returning to the primary request, “Bark.”
After years of consistent, creative, and laborious effort, you feel you’ve reached the apex of training. Confident in your actions and believing wholeheartedly in the abilities of your fur-baby, you issue your penultimate command, “Bark.”
With a flip of their tail, your student gazes up and delivers an utterly perfect “meow” before lilting out of the room.
In life, there is little we control.
I tell myself stories, all day long, about the power I have to bend people to my will, to influence the weather, to shape the outcome of news stories, and redirect the cells of the human body in favor of health, youth, and slender beauty for myself and those I love.
But after dozens of years of experience, and despite my protestations, the cat meows every time.
As business owners, we’re used to being in control. We make the decisions, call the shots, and have the final say on everything in your company.
But have you ever stopped to consider the limitations of your control? Are there areas where you’re overestimating your influence or underestimating the role of chance and uncertainty?
That’s the question at the heart of Steven Wiese’s book, “The Illusion of Control.” Drawing on great personal anecdotes, psychological research, and philosophical musings, Wiese explores how our perception of control shapes our decisions, behaviors, and overall sense of well-being.
It’s this last element that caught most of my attention. It turns out I undermine my well-being all the time. More on that later.
At its core, the illusion of control is the tendency to overestimate our ability to influence the outcomes of events and circumstances. We see this bias in all sorts of areas, from the gambler who believes they can beat the odds to the entrepreneur who thinks that success is entirely a matter of hard work and determination.
But as Wiese points out, this illusion can be both a source of comfort and a cause of distress. On the one hand, believing that we’re in control can give us a sense of agency and empowerment. We feel we’re making a difference and that our efforts are meaningful.
On the other hand, the illusion of control can lead us astray. We may become too attached to specific outcomes, too resistant to change, or too unwilling to accept responsibility for our mistakes.
We start to see ourselves as infallible or invincible, blind to the role that chance and circumstance play in our lives.
You’re probably too familiar with these dynamics as a business owner/human. Success depends on hard work, dedication, and intelligent decision-making. But you also know that factors outside your control can make or break your business: changes in the market, shifts in consumer behavior, unexpected crises, or disasters.
So what can you do to avoid the pitfalls of the illusion of control? Wiese offers some insights that are relevant for everyone:
Be aware of your biases: Recognize that you may tend to overestimate your control, and this can lead you to make poor decisions or miss meaningful opportunities. Develop the skill of stepping back and assessing the situation objectively, considering both the factors within your control and those outside of it.
Embrace uncertainty: Rather than seeing uncertainty as a threat, view it as an opportunity. Uncertainty can be a source of creativity, innovation, and adaptability. By embracing the unknown, you may discover new avenues for growth and success.
Focus on what you can control: While it’s important to acknowledge the limits of your influence, that doesn’t mean you should give up entirely. Focus on the areas where you can make a difference, whether in your products, services, or relationships with customers, clients, friends, and family.
Cultivate resilience: Finally, recognize that setbacks and failures are inevitable, no matter how much control you have. Keep your focus on the long-term goals of your business, and don’t let short-term setbacks derail your progress. But by building resilience and learning from your mistakes, you can bounce back more vital than ever.
While the cat will never bark, we can develop better skills around our expectations. By shaping those with wisdom and empathy, we can build a business and life where we can celebrate the cat’s meow, our companies can prosper, and our relationships flourish.