Accepting the limits of control over our lives

Photo by Casey Gomez

With the beginning of the semester upon us, let’s talk about control.

I won’t cite a dictionary definition, because that would be a pretty cliché way to start this editorial (then again, talking about my editorial within the editorial itself is pretty cliché, isn’t it?), but control is essentially having the ability to exert absolute influence over something.

I can control my television. I cannot control the weather.

These are admittedly truisms. But sometimes the line isn’t so clear. Take my grades, for example. Do I control them? There are certainly factors I control that ultimately affect the scores I receive on exams and projects. I control how much I study. I control how many classes I attend. I control the degree of effort I put into my work.

In a way, I am luckier than many. After all, I do not experience the roadblocks that inhibit the control of some classmates. My family is not in financial peril, so I don’t have to read my textbooks in between work shifts. I will never be forced to skip class because the alternative is going hungry. Most of us can say the same.

Yet we have all probably experienced that feeling of hopelessness when despite our best efforts, a test or quiz or presentation (or course) doesn’t quite work out the way we would like it to. Maybe it’s a professor or a teammate or just a bad day — factors over which we exercise virtually zero control.

We feel this hopelessness because we are reminded that we are not a particularly relevant variable in every situation we encounter. Applying for an internship where there are 15 spots for 1,000 applicants? You can certainly increase or decrease your chances through your resume and interview skills, but the ultimate decision is out of your hands.

Want to be president despite no previous political experience, incomplete financials and a penchant for saying intentionally outrageous things on camera? Your odds might be slightly better, but no number of campaign stops or impromptu speeches will make that choice yours.

Truth be told, there is nothing wrong with this realization. Ultimately, it is much healthier to live a life sobered by your understanding of how steep the odds are than deluded by visions of grandeur. I write not to discourage you from pursuing lofty goals, even those you realize are at the very fringes of your reach, because dreams can and do come true.

More accurately, I write this editorial — in this paper, for this student body (or whatever subset is reading the campus paper) — because it is at Georgia Tech that I first began to internalize this lesson — that there were factors I could control and outcomes I could not. Sure, I knew during the college admissions process that there was no way to guarantee my acceptance to any particular school.

But at Tech, surrounded by bright, inquisitive, ambitious men and women, many of whom are aiming for the same opportunities, it all began to come together.

In a world of qualified, talented individuals, there will be have-nots (or, probably more accurately, not-have-everythings). As students, we sometimes impose pressure upon ourselves to excel among our peers.

However, not everyone will work for the next hot startup or earn admission to their childhood dream graduate school. But with control exercised over the right factors, we can all achieve at least once conception of success — a meaningful, stable life.

I cannot say that it has been easy to turn this realization into something productive. You can bet that I still keep a watchful eye on my grades, and I have a pretty clear idea of what I want next in my career. But knowing that the fact that the odds are against me should not stop me, that there is no advantage to trying less hard, is always reassuring.

So as you head into another semester, let the outcomes you cannot control motivate you to excel in the factors you can. And the rest will follow suit.