Think Tank: Relinquishing Control

In the last two days, I have had several moments where I realized what my biggest self-loathed quality is.

I hate relinquishing control of my future.

Let me backtrack for a second. I’ve gotten to the point in my academic career where I am starting to make decisions about post-graduation life. I’ve applied to graduate school and several internships, and in every experience, the thing I hate the most is having to try and put my entire self onto paper, and then give it to a complete stranger and effectively say, “Decide my fate.”

I know that I’m being incredibly hard on myself and that I am actually pretty good at what I do, but it’s really hard to shake this feeling. I was trying to think of what other things I had read that shared the same sentiment, and what conclusions they had come to.

To Google I go.

I found a lot of posts on relinquishing control to God, which didn’t really comfort me as I am not religious.  I also found several motivational speaker websites and self-help tutorials, which I am highly skeptical of after taking a class in general psychology that warns against both avenues.

However, I did find a really great quotation by Elizabeth Gilbert. (I didn’t think Eat, Pray, Love the movie was very good, but I won’t hold that against the validity of this quotation.)

Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship – a play between divine grace
and willful self-effort. Half of it you have no control over; half of
it is absolutely in  your hands, and your actions will show
measurable consequence. Man is neither entirely a puppet of the Gods, nor is he entirely the captain of his own destiny; he’s a little of
both. We gallop through life like circus performers balancing on two
speeding side by side horses – one foot is on the horse called fate,
the other on the horse called free will. And the question you have to
ask every day is – which horse is which? Which horse do I need to
stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I
need to steer with concentrated effort?

I realized after reading this that Gilbert has said some pretty incredible things in just a few words. Life is a balance between the conscious choices we make and the cosmic intervention that helps us along the way. I’ve made mostly right decisions for myself all along, and I need to trust in myself that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to. I’ve made and will continue to make the conscious decisions to further my education and career, and I just need to let the universe sort it out.

While I love a poem like “Invictus,” I also now understand that we can’t be entirely independent from life itself. And the horses metaphor she makes is really incredible, because it’s an entirely accurate way to describe how I’ve felt for the past six months. I need to figure out which horse to focus on in both my daily situations and longterm goals, and I think that’s something everyone can work on for the rest of their lives. And plus, life is too short to be worrying about things beyond my control. 

No comment necessary.


How do you feel about Gilbert’s quotation, and have you ever felt this way about your life? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Think Tank: Relinquishing Control

  1. Well, that’s certainly a quote worthy bookmarking. Nice find. After taking so many sociology courses the concept of agency and determinism are forever resting on the fore of mind, and recognizing and (more importantly) accepting the limits of what we do and don’t have control over can be…trying to say the least (especially whenever you’re trying to make people do something voluntarily). I sympathize with your frustration, and find Gilbert’s quote to be most agreeable, indeed.

    The element of time has always been particularly significant to me as well, so I tend to view the idea behind Gilbert’s quote through an alternative lens: the relationship between Choice and Constraints.

    When we are born, we are each saddled (badum tish*) with an inflexible set of constraints; our family members, place of birth, time period, etc. As we develop, more constraints are imposed on us that we are mostly powerless over and have to deal with as they come along.

    At the same time, however, due to the ephemerality of life, every choice we make (or attempt to make) also places a constraint on us: a piece of time, money, history, or experience that we can’t undo or reclaim. The sum of said choices in addition to the constraints we’ve been dealt by fate, the universe, God or whatever thus gradually shrinks the amount of choices available to us in the future. I’m sure that people much smarter than me have already theorized, codified, and named this idea, but I’m just going to call it the “Entropic Decay of Agency Principle™.”

    In this instance, waiting for others to accept you into their institution/organization will inevitability be followed by you joining one of their organizations. And I’m not just saying that because I have the utmost confidence in you and your qualifications, but because you’ve already made about as many choices as you could to achieve your desired goal. Even if by some sick miracle you didn’t reach it now, you would certainly do so in the near future.

    Now, aside from potentially inflating one’s ego, the cool part about all of this is that you personally chose which places to apply to based on your own interests and background contexts which you at least partially shaped. Even though the situation isn’t unique your circumstances are; it’s proof that, to borrow the phrasing of one of my old English professors: each individual life is both more and less than the concept itself. Which is awesomely affirming for freedom, individuality and all that jazz.

    I forgot what point I was leading to (d’oh well), however I also can’t help but notice that this specific facet of life is foundational to a new and increasingly popular genre of video games. But, that discussion is best saved for another time, as this response is obscenely long as it is. Cool post. ‘Twas very nutritious and delicious brain-food.

    1. Wow, Michael. You’ve left me with a lot to think about. Now I’m curious of how you feel about the concept of arbitrariness, and whether or not you think those constraints you mentioned are in any way arbitrary.

  2. I’m glad to have given your brain a wrinkle. As for arbitrariness, I think it’s an idea every person should reflect on if they’d like to feel genuinely content with their identity. Though we often like to use arbitrary as a synonym for “meaningless,” its actual definition is (courtesy of the OED) “dependent upon will or pleasure,” or more simply: “not necessary.” Of course, defining what is “necessary” is also going to determine one’s perception of what is arbitrary. I interpret it as the bottom layer of Mazlowe’s Hierarchy of Needs (though I’m still uncertain about whether sex is actually necessary), so that’s the framework I’ll be using going forward.

    Using that metric, most if not all of the constraints we place on ourselves are “not necessary.” I don’t have to read science-fiction, or play video games, or do yoga every day, or be an English major, or go to college. And just so, you didn’t need to write your capstone project on Kanye West, or go to Cal Poly, or write on this blog, or respond to my comments. All of it is arbitrary. However, that doesn’t make them any less important. Our arbitrary constraints are what individuates us as people; what makes us who we are, and what makes our lives meaningful to ourselves.

    The value of recognizing this arbitrariness, however, is that we might distinguish what is and isn’t necessary to our own content-ness(?), so that if we’d like to change something about ourselves, we can do so with a complete consideration for the gravity of that decision. (There’s also a whole ‘nother can of worms about “preference” skirting around these three paragraphs, but it just makes everything more complicated and dilutes the basic message. Though it is neat to think about, as well.)

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