The only two things we can really control in life are our attitude and our actions!
By Mo Gawdat, Chief Business Officer, Google X
Many people I know, all over the globe, were in the exact same situation back in 2008. They thought they had it all figured out—right up until the U.S. housing bubble burst, triggering the largest economic crisis the world has faced since the Great Depression. The market crash took away most of the equity in their houses; the companies they worked for went belly up; some failed to pay their debts, and some even saw their homes foreclosed on. Over the span of a few months many went from “All figured out!” to “What just happened!?” Some recovered, and some are still suffering, but everyone learned that things can, and frequently will, go wrong. Very wrong.
Our need for security and control is instinctive. In other species, survival is a matter of running when the tiger shows up, but we humans carry the burden of being a lot more sophisticated. We can forecast risk and plan our escape route long before that tiger is even born. We can scan the terrain and identify every possible threat, including those that are wildly hypothetical. We can take preventative measures, erect fences, and add surveillance cameras. Furthermore, we can extend our plans to include those we love because we care for them—and because their safety is part of our emotional safety. This very human set of survival skills is partly why we’re still here while so many other species are not. We’re able to take control—or at least believe that we’re in control—while the best other beings can do is to react appropriately when the trouble starts.
Since the beginning of the Industrial Age, humanity has taken that control to a whole new level. Laying a railway track, erecting a high- rise building, and mass-producing an iPhone require spectacularly intricate planning and control. Call centers where every word is scripted, delivery services with real-time tracking—the limit to how far we can go to eliminate uncertainty keeps getting pushed further and further out. Our ability to stay on point in the simulated and hypercontrolled environment called work makes us believe that we can meticulously control our personal lives as well. And I’m no exception.
Although life has given me more than I need and assured me a future of financial independence, I still plan meticulously. I’ve got my career mapped out to the tiniest detail five years ahead. I plan my investments, savings, and where I’ll live, plans that naturally extend to cover my family as well. I bought properties to ensure our prosper- ity, planned the kids’ education, and invested in insurance and savings plans so that my loved ones will have what they need even when I’m gone.
I had pages of comprehensive plans and then, well, you know what happened. Four days into our (well-planned) summer vacation, Ali was admitted to the “wrong” hospital, where an error measured in millimeters led to his departure. How about that for control?
This tragic, surprising event wasn’t part of any plan. We say we can’t plan for such a dramatic turn of events because they’re so unexpected, but is that really true? How often do those kinds of events happen? All the time!
I know you might not like hearing it, but in the United States alone, medical errors are the third leading cause of death, with various estimates of the loss of life to be somewhere between a quarter and half a million deaths per year. In countries where malpractice litigation isn’t as advanced, those numbers multiply to millions. Other human errors, such as driver error and violence, take the lives of millions more. Al- though unexpected death is all around us, we choose to think of it as exceedingly unlikely.
Similarly, we choose to ignore most other disruptive events that occur hundreds, thousands, and millions of times every day. Natural disasters, economic crises, victimization by fraud, bankruptcies—life-changing, plan-altering events take place everywhere all the time. I call these events left turns because they point us down a road we weren’t expecting to take. And our path through life seems to turn left way too often.
Swans and Butterﬂies
In his New York Times bestseller, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb demonstrates that rare and improbable events occur much more often than we dare to think. His examples include the outbreak of World War I, the 9/11 attacks, and the rise of the Internet. The repercussions of these unanticipated “black swans” touched every single life on the planet.
Consider for a moment how many similar events have happened in your lifetime and how many personal black swans have shaped your own life.
Taleb argues that our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly to large deviations, extends much further than our conscious awareness can even comprehend. This dovetails with what meteorologist Edward Lorenz called “the Butterfly Effect,” the ability of seemingly minor and unrelated events to cause major changes. Lorenz ran a series of weather models in which, after inputting the initial conditions, he added tiny changes in the wind speed. Even though these changes were almost imperceptible—he compared them to the turbulence created by a butterfly flapping its wings—the ultimate outcome changed significantly, leading to the speculation that the flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Brazil can cause a hurricane in Florida. Trillions of butterfly effects are buffeting us every minute. They alter our paths more than we can imagine.
To consider Ali’s life as an example, the black swan was the medical error, but many butterfly effects also led to the tragedy of losing him, including the proximity of our home to that specific hospital, the repetition of his easily treatable belly pains, and the germ that might have started the inflammation of his appendix. All these occurred months or years earlier. Could I have controlled or planned them all? No. Control is an illusion.
The Span of Your Control
Before we jump into deeper water, I should highlight that it’s not my intention here to depress you. As any successful businessman will tell you, success (which in our case is happiness) doesn’t come from ignoring unpleasant realities. It comes from realism and objectivity in understanding life with all of its imperfections. Happiness comes from our ability to navigate such reality based on facts, not illusions.
Acknowledging our limited control shouldn’t cause us to despair. Addressed head-on, it should lead us to a realistic path to happiness. It all starts with understanding the true nature of our control. We think we are in control of everything—our money, friends, and career. But, honestly, how much control do you really have over those things you’re hanging on to? Take any example, say, your money. Is your money really under your full control? “Sure,” you say, “it’s my hard-earned money. I can do anything I want with it. I can choose to spend it, give to charity, invest it, or save it.”
But can you really? What if your bank goes bankrupt? It’s happened before. What if taxes increase? Have you considered how inflation is taking away from your money, your purchasing power, while you can do nothing about it?
Neither is your career fully under your control. Your company could go out of business or might decide to lay off the workforce. Nor are your possessions, friends, or health. We all lose things and people we love, and we all get sick sometimes. Which has to leave you thinking: is there anything ever under our total control?
Yes, two things are: your actions and your attitude.
As an engineer, a senior executive, and a businessman, I’m the worst when it comes to control. For years I attempted to assert full control on every aspect of my life. At work, I wanted everyone, every system, and every data point in my organization to fully match my expectations. In my personal life, I tried to control my wife, the progress of my kids, and even the number of full loads of laundry that ensured the optimum use of water and electricity at home.
But no matter how hard I tried, events in the real world defied me.
So what did I do? I tried harder still. I was in a state of constant suffering, and it took me years of rejection, anger, and frustration to see the light and accept the truth: I wasn’t in control. When I realized that, I felt a ton of weight removed from my shoulders. My actions remained committed, but my attachment to outcomes completely vanished.
My first breakthrough came when a friend taught me about the Hindu concept of detachment, when you strive to achieve your goals knowing that the results are impossible to predict. When something unexpected happens, the detachment concept tells us to accept the new direction and try again. There is no sadness or regret, and no grief over the loss of control.
Initially I resisted this teaching. It was hard to surrender my fate to what seemed like pure chance. But then I found a wonderful story. To practice surrendering control, the early Muslims left their horses untied. But not until they learned to “tie the horse and then surrender” did they truly give up control. That’s when I learned what I came to call committed acceptance.
The beauty of committed acceptance is that it doesn’t take away from your chances of success. Quite the opposite: it’s not your expectation of success that drives results; it’s your diligent action that delivers them.
Here’s a little riddle that conveys the same lesson. My drive from home to work has no traffic lights. When I drive at the speed limit it takes exactly eleven minutes. On Monday, I expected to get to work in nine minutes; on Tuesday, I expected the drive to take fifteen; on Wednesday, I was in full control and on time for my first meeting; on Thursday, I was stressed, worried, and late; on Friday, I really enjoyed the drive. Each day I acted as I should and drove exactly at the speed limit. How long did it take me to get to work each day of last week?
If you take exactly the same steps, you will always reach exactly the same outcome regardless of your expectations, frustrations, pressures, or joy. The quality of your actions should not vary, and neither should your persistence in the face of challenges.
I made practicing committed acceptance my priority. I focused on doing the best I could every minute in every situation. I kept aiming high but remained emotionally detached from the results. If I missed a target, I looked back, learned, and tried again as if nothing was lost— because nothing really had been lost. At work I realized that I couldn’t control every one of my employees, especially the really, really smart ones. I couldn’t force a customer to buy my product, and I couldn’t get the engineers to build it to my specs, or finance to price it as I wished, or legal to offer easy terms. Everyone had a different objective, and I needed to bring them all along. I learned to do the best I could without exerting, or expecting, full control.
In my personal life I make it even simpler: I plan, but I don’t attempt control beyond the span of the present moment. Like Ali, I’ve learned to do the best I can in every situation and trust that all will work out fine.
While actions are the visible levers of achievement, attitude is the true game changer. Consider the story of Tim and Tom.
When it was time to wake up, Tim hit the snooze button twice, then realized he’d be late for his nine o’clock appointment. He jumped out of bed in a panic, only to realize that it was raining so heavily that he’d certainly be even more delayed. He skipped his coffee and jumped in the car, looking shabby and feeling grumpy. This is going to be a lousy day, he thought. Already tense, he let his stress get the best of him, and he started switching lanes, banging on the steering wheel, and shouting “Come on!” Then—BAM—the car behind him rear-ended his. It was nothing more than a fender bender, but he jumped out of his seat, charged toward the other car, and violently banged on the hood, screaming and swearing in anger. Tim’s behavior was so out of control that he ended up spending the night in a jail cell. I knew this was going to be a lousy day, he thought. And ignoring the impact of his own attitude, he went on to think, All because it rained.
Now let’s replay the same sequence of events—snooze button twice and rain—only this time it’s Tom realizing that he won’t make his nine o’clock. So he brewed a good cup of coffee, showered and shaved and dressed in his favorite shirt, then grabbed a CD of Tina Turner’s “I Can’t Stand the Rain” because he knew it was going to be a long, slow commute. I love the rain. I’m going to enjoy today, he thought. He called his appointment to apologize and found out that she too was stuck in traffic. He sipped his coffee while he inched along, tapping his fingers rhythmically to the music, feeling really great. Then—BAM—the car behind him tapped his rear bumper. Curious, he got out and realized it wasn’t a big deal. He smiled at the other driver and said, “Are you okay?” Relieved, she got out of her car, and she was stunning. “Hi, it’s good to meet you!” he blabbered. She laughed and said, “Good? But I just crashed your car!” “Oh, but it’s a good crash,” he replied. Then she laughed again and said, “I love the song you’re playing.” And so it went. It felt like a moment from a romantic comedy. The rain added to the romance, and before long they both knew it was going to be a memorable day—all because it rained.
What’s the rain got to do with anything?
Mo Gawdat is the author of Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy and Chief Business Officer at Google [X].