Control the Controllables
Vol 12: Playing the hand your dealt
I spent the end of 2021 doing something I always wanted to try: I swam with sharks. Somehow, I convinced the rest of my family to join me too.
Swimming with Sharks
If you had to guess, how long do you think it’d take for sharks to show up after chum is thrown into the water?
My mother thought it would take 2 minutes, my father said 1 minute, my brothers said 45 seconds and 1.5 minutes, and I said 30 seconds. Turns out we were all wrong — they showed up in under 15 seconds.
That’s how good they are at what they do. They immediately smelled the fish, homed in on it. One of the most remarkable takeaways was how fast they were; they barely expended any energy, yet here they suddenly were. It reminded me of watching eagles soaring in the sky — effortless efficiency. The sharks weren’t swimming, they were gliding.
Aside from the water, there was nothing between us and the sharks. No cage. Just us floating on the surface as the sharks glided by below. It’s difficult to fully explain what goes through your mind in this situation. There’s a sense of astonishment, wonder, respect — deference even — that pervade your thoughts.
Perhaps surprisingly, there was no fear. Which is hard to comprehend when you explain that there were 8+ bull sharks, which not only can swim in salt and fresh water, but they’re also the most aggressive sharks, partly because they have the highest testosterone levels in the animal kingdom. When you jump off the boat and land in the water, you have to accept that you’re placing much of the control of your life into the hands of another animal.
It’s a voluntary choice to jump in, and that choice imbues a certain sense of acceptance about what situation you’re putting yourself into. Life is inherently filled with risks, but regardless of how much or what types, we always maintain some aspect of control.
That’s what swimming with sharks taught me. No matter where you find yourself, there’s always some aspect of control you maintain over your life. And the key is recognizing what is and isn’t in that locus, and acting accordingly. As my father always says: “control the controllables.”
In this case, that meant listening to the instructors, remaining calm, and respecting these apex animals.
Trials and Tribulations
In many ways, swimming with sharks is far easier than the rest of life, because you know exactly what to do. It’s not without risk, but you know what you’re getting yourself into when you jump into the water.
The rest of life doesn’t operate like that. Everyone is battling something, and oftentimes we don’t even know the full extent of the battle we’re facing. These battles teach us though, ensuring we become stronger.
Control the Controllables sounds simple, but it takes serious setbacks to learn how to actually live that way. It means channeling energy towards actions instead of emotions.1
That doesn’t mean that going through challenging situations and circumstances is suddenly enjoyable, they are still unpleasant. During these especially rough stretches, the key focus is just getting through them. Rarely have I dealt with major setbacks and immediately thought “this is great, this is a growth opportunity.”
Maybe you will be able to, but for me it’s easier to focus on the immediate task(s) at hand and only when it’s done do you look back and figure out what this taught you. You can’t figure out what this is teaching you if you still haven’t dealt with it or solved it. That’s where you’ll actually learn.2
We tend to look back on challenging periods of disorder in a much more productive and meaningful light than we experience them. In other words, sometimes growth doesn’t happen until you get to the other side, and that’s okay.
Use it or Lose it
Life is a use it or lose it proposition. It isn’t very long, and once these seemingly random series of events is over, we’re gone. We have no control over our starting point, yet we do have control over the dash that appears in between the day we were born and the day we ultimately depart.
If you’re excited about making most of the dash, then oftentimes there’s a positive inertia that emerges. Consider this story from Mythos (a compilation of Greek myths):
In Macedonia there lived a poor but ambitious peasant called Gordias. One day, as he labored in his barren stony fields, an eagle landed on the pole of his oxcart and fixed him with a fierce glare.
“I knew it!” Gordias said to himself, “I have always felt that I was marked for greatness. This eagle proves it. I have a destiny.”
Gordias is one of the few happy stories in Mythos, he became a king and lived a fulfilling life. There are different takeaways to this story: on one hand, unbridled confidence usually leads to misfortune, as many myths show us. On the other hand, Gordias shows us that belief in oneself is a power on par with that of Hercules. Belief begets actions which lead to outcomes.
Every elite athlete talks about this. You cannot achieve greatness without first believing you can be great. It’s a prerequisite step, hard work has to follow, but it’s the belief that carries you through the trials and tribulations we talked about above.
Who you are in your head, your thoughts, desires, motivations, emotions, biases, none of that really matters if it isn’t aligned with your behavior. It is natural for people to want to believe that something outside their own power is affecting their lives (a destiny perhaps?).
Most people live in a world others have created for them. But you can alter the spaces where you live, work, and play in create an environment that channels you towards what you want. In order to do that, you must take ownership.
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.
It’s a salient reminder that how you live each day really does matter. It changes the future. Just as it did for Gordias.
Life is a book, epic tome, or tragically short comic strip. We write our story. Then it ends.
It’s because we are taught to view the world—and ourselves—differently. My shorthand for it is “thinking like an astronaut.” But you don’t have to go to space to learn to do that. It’s mostly a matter of changing your perspective.
— An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
Playing the Hand You’re Dealt
What would your life look like if you lived 300 years ago?
It’s a fun question to reflect upon because there’s so much that would be different. One thing I often think about is how lucky I am that my ancestors got glasses. At some point, if they hadn’t, my lineage would’ve died out. It’s hard to hunt for antelope or bison when you can’t see.
Inversely, I also think about how I am uniquely suited for the world I live in today. What superpowers do we have that make us perfectly matched for the world we exist in?
Maybe this is solipsistic, but it’s quite powerful because it makes you identify your strengths while seeing where you can apply them.
Think about athletics: certain people are genetically predisposed to excel at specific sports. People with long limbs and short torso run efficiently. Individuals with the ACTN3 gene are more likely to be a power athlete.
At first this might appear self-defeating, but it’s actually inspiring, because while you may not be destined for the 100-meter dash or the NBA, there is something out there you’re uniquely suited for.
David Epstein discusses this in The Sports Gene and Range. If you spend time looking, you’ll eventually find the right fit. Importantly though, the search itself is useful, because it allows you to learn a collage of skills that you can take with you into other disciplines. Cross pollination is one of the best ways to make an impact in a field.
To bring this back to Control the Controllables: we don’t have any influence on who our parents are or what genes we’re born with, but we do have the choice to make the most of what we get.3
The chances of us individually existing is 10^2,685,000. To put that in context, the odds of winning the powerball are 10^8, and the total number of atoms in the universe are 10^80. 10^2,685,000 is an unknowingly large number, which means we probably shouldn’t exist. And yet here we are.
Today is an apt day to remind ourselves about this mindset. Our country was founded upon the notion that when something is unjust, you pen your name to your grievances, and then you act to rectify them. That happened with the Declaration, it happened with the Emancipation Proclamation, and it happened when a man marched along this nation’s capital and told the country about a dream. A dream that changed the world.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others before and after him, chose to act, and control what they could control. It’s a liberating notion — because when you step back, you realize it permits you to change the world you live in. That’s exactly what Dr. MLK Jr. did.
I like to say that everything around us was created by other people. It reminds us that hundreds of years from now, the world our offspring inherit will descend from our choices and actions. There are plenty of poor decisions people have made that we’re working against today, but there are also so many great ones. The fact you’re reading this now should illustrate that very fact.
So today stands as a monument to selfless acts, an urgency of action, and a reminder of what we can accomplish together. Everyone starts life with a different hand of cards. What matters is how you use them. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made it so that more people had a better starting hand, and it’s only fitting that we continue to do so ourselves.
“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
— Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Swimming with Sharks
In a way it’s doing what sharks do. Every action they do is in congruence with the goal of survival. They don’t waste any energy.
Part of growing up is also realizing when you’re in situations where you should act and when you should focus on other initiatives. If someone cuts you off in traffic it’s probably not worth doing anything about it physically, but maybe mentally you focus on something else entirely. Loss is another tough example. Maybe you pour yourself into a new activity, or you reconnect with other friends/family.
The Hand of Cards metaphor is multifaceted: if you have a stacked hand, then you should capitalize on it. If you don’t then you play with what you have, and over time you’ll get better cards.