Influence vs. Control

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I often wish I could snap my fingers and make people do what I want.  I wish I could speed up the pace at which I achieve my goals and slow down the pace at which pleasant things fade.  I wish I could write blog posts and books that everyone loves, that I could have solitude and company whenever I want and not when they’re thrust upon me, and that when I’m in a bad mood I could simply decide not to be.  What I wish for, in short, is absolute control over my life.

Of course, when I say “my life” what I really mean isn’t just that I want to have control over my own life but also over the lives of everyone who enters into my life.  Not so much so I can determine the course of their lives but rather the course of my own.  I wish, for example, I could control my son’s (thankfully rare) tantrums, or my wife’s (also thankfully rare) bad moods (I wish also I could control my impulse to fix them, and further, my irrational anger when I fail, as I almost always do).  Control, research shows, is a basic desire we all share, but as a moment’s reflection reveals, one that none of us actually has.

At least in the sense of the kind of control we really want:  an absolute ability  to determine the exact results we want in all—or even any—circumstances.  In fact, according to that definition, we mostly don’t even have control over ourselves.  How often, for example, do we eat dessert when we try not to?  Or procrastinate when we want to work?  Or even feel something—anger, jealousy, guilt—when we’d rather feel the opposite?

What we have instead of control is the power to influence.  Not the ability to move every variable in the exact direction we want, but the ability to move some of them.  I can, for instance, write a thoughtful blog post that increases the likelihood that readers will like it.  But I can’t control my readers’ moods, how their day goes before they read it, or their dispositions in general.  What I can do is more easily influence people and events that are physically and personally close to me than those which are farther away.  I can chant, meditate, or attend anger management classes to reduce the likelihood of my acting out of anger when control is denied me, but I can’t guarantee I won’t still feel it.

I draw this distinction not to split hairs but because I’ve found it personally useful to recognize that the complete control I often desire can never be mine.  When I recall this truth, my frustration at not having it diminishes.  Further, when I think about exerting influence over myself (the thing I want to control the most) rather than control—recognizing the greatest of my mass lies beneath the surface of conscious awareness—I paradoxically feel more in control.  When I aim at influence rather than control, I often find many surprising ways to exert it, ways that paradoxically bring me closer to having control than if I’d aimed directly at it.

To seek influence is to succeed simply by speaking or even thinking.  To seek control, on the other hand, is to continually feel anxious about failing at it.

In our search to gain more control over ourselves and our lives we frequently and foolishly seek to control other people.  But to attempt to control others, while perhaps making life more convenient, is also to attempt to curtail their autonomy; and what genuine pleasure could we take from our interactions with others who live as nothing more than our pawns?  The price of having satisfying relationships, then, lies in the fact that others will often not do as we want, frustrating us, yes, but also challenging us to become our better selves.  And if we succeed in becoming those, we may, through the power of influence, help them to become theirs.

Next WeekWhat If Our Brains Aren’t Enough?

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  • I like this: “What we have instead of control is the power to influence.”

    It is often suggested that we abdicate the idea of having any control upon another, but as you suggest, we may influence. That suggests a more gentle way of being counted.

    How much influence do you suppose we have over ourselves? What are the ways in which you feel are able to influence yourself? Are you also able to assess the effectiveness of your suggestions? Thanks.

    Lisa: I think I’m able to influence myself at least to the same degree that others are able to influence me. To offer just three minor examples: I can build good habits by repetition, I can encourage myself to keep going when I’m feeling defeated, and I can help myself become more productive by turning off distractions like automatic e-mail notifications.


  • Wow—thank you, Alex. This blog posting so eloquently summarized where I always have to do my hardest work. Your insights and the brilliant way you write about them continue to inspire.

    Kara: Many thanks. Glad you liked it.


  • Very timely article. I own and operate my own business and am experiencing difficult with my staff. Your article helped me think of things differently.

    Thanks so much.

    Nancy Reyes

  • I’m a little bit surprised anyone would even desire such complete “control.”

    I think a thought experiment of just what it would take to micromanage everyone’s interactions with us would let one quickly conclude that would be an even greater headache.

    I stumbled upon an anonymous quote a while ago that I think sums up this sentiment:

    “For peace of mind, resign as general manager of the universe.” —Anonymous

    As for influence, I would agree with what you say. Every act we make is an act of influence (at least on ourselves, and possibly on others).

    Here’s to positive influence in the New Year! Thanks for all of your posts and insights Alex,


  • This is a good topic because the more control we as human beings try to take of others in our lives the more I see that the impact I have on myself. I can be the change I want in this world as long as I have an alternative focus than on how I want to be perceived. So letting the chips fall where they may is a path I have to follow myself. If I am to lead the trail my expectation of others wouldn’t effect my ego.

  • As a recovering codependent, dealing with my urge to control is a daily meditation. I am trying to help the small child that stills live in me, who thought being ever watchful and controlling could prevent bad things from happening, to let go (what a relief) of this impossible and exhausting mind set. As an artist, I love that the process so often takes me in very different directions that my preset notion of the outcome. Influence seems more like process. I can influence my paintbrush and paint, but how lovely that it is not completely in my control. If it was, I would learn so little and miss so many wonderful journeys. Here’s to a new year of discovery!

  • What you call influence, and the way you describe how it usually helps you better than control, makes me think of some issues raised by the book Switch. They talk about the pleasure achieved when your intellectual self (that they call the rider) “fools” or finds away around your emotional self (what they call the elephant). And this is always achieved through indirect means (what you call influence) as a rider is always weaker than an elephant and the elephant will never be controlled.

  • […] Influence vs. Control « Happiness in this World. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  • I wonder if even influence is a desired quality to foster in ourselves. Is it not just a toned down version of control? I am a caregiver—working with the elderly and disabled. Over the years I have witnessed myself attempting to direct the lives of the people in my care. Sometimes it is a safety issue—many times it is around eating or exercise—but most always it usurps their autonomy and takes away their power. It is a constant dance and growing edge for me—how to relate with the people in my life—how to add spark and an increase in personal power instead of a diminishment.

  • […] Children follow their own schedule.  They find dust fascinating and want to play with it while you’re trying to get them to school.  They don’t want to sleep or eat (you’d think evolution would have thought to program that differently).  They want to read the same book, listen to the same song, and watch the same movie over and over and over again.  Having a child is like having one of your limbs suddenly develop a mind of its own with desires and interests that are different from yours.  You’re quite attached to it, however, so can’t—and don’t want to—get rid of it.  Yet living with it suddenly becomes an unexpected challenge—not so much because you must now work to manage something that previously obeyed your every whim (you can forgive that because, being a part of yourself, you love it), but because its new independence of mind becomes a constant reminder that any control we think we have in life is an illusion. […]

  • […] Now, certainly, we can’t completely control what selves we pull out of others.  We can behave one way toward two different people and get two entirely different reactions.  But what we can exert over other people is good influence. […]