Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think


I signed up to Netflix recently. I thought it would be empowering to decide when to invite Don Draper into my living room. After all, how better to embrace the modern trend of Taking Control of Your Life, than by streaming on demand?

Or so I thought. As it turns out, being in control isn’t as much fun as you think.

You’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The idea that being in control is something worth aspiring to is shockingly widespread. In fact, many people seem quite obsessed with it.

Earlier this year, Forbes magazine published an article titled Six Ways to Take Control of Your Life. That was one-upped by success.com, which managed to come up with 7 Ways to Control your Life Today. The Huffington Post went even further with its now sadly out-of-date 12 Ways to Take Control of Your Life in 2014.

Apart from the confusion about the exact number of steps required to take control of your life, it’s far from clear whether it’s worth the effort at all.

When I was a teenager living in Ireland, the state broadcaster RTE showed Ally McBeal every Monday night at 9.30 pm. My sister and I would race to the television at the appointed time, curling up beside the fire with a Cadbury’s flake bar to discover the latest shenanigans taking place at Cage and Fish.

It was a ritual made possible by our helplessness. Monday at 9.30 pm was the only time to catch up with Ally. Miss it and miss out. We were prepared to wait a whole week for her. Not like nowadays, when Ally just paces around, ready to appear on demand as soon as I tire of Don.

People tend to forget that being in control means missing out on some of life’s most primal delights. Like the excitement and unexpected pleasure of hearing your favourite song on the radio, for example. Come on, we’ve all been there: you’re washing up, scrubbing a stubborn layer of grease off a saucepan with the radio on in the background, only to shriek in delight, rip off your rubber gloves and have a 3-minute boogie -break to Uptown Girl.

You could have just played it on your phone, couldn’t you? But it wouldn’t have been the same, would it?

Being in control all the time prevents you from committing what psychologists call a “fundamental attribution error.”

It sounds like a bad thing, but fundamental attribution errors (in laymen’s terms, blaming anybody and anything but yourself) let you get away with murder.

Back in the day, you could get away with saying things like: “Sorry I can’t make your boring cocktail reception on Monday; I have to stay at home to watch Ally McBeal.” Now, you have to say something like: “Of all the possible times available to me, I’m choosing to stream Ally specifically to coincide with your event.”

It’s hard to argue with the first. Asking someone to sacrifice their weekly ritual is a pretty big deal. Refusing to adjust your streaming habits just makes you sound like a jerk. So much for empowerment.

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10 thoughts on “Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think

  1. Allegedly…Peter Cook (the comedian) was contacted by Sarah Ferguson’s secretary inviting him to her birthday party. He said he’d consult his diary and returned a few moments later explaining that he couldn’t make it as he was watching television on that particular night and hung up!

    • Just checked online and it was David Frost who was inviting him to a party he was throwing for the newly married Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. I’ve jokingly used that reply myself sometimes and received some odd looks!

      A couple of years ago I was living abroad in an out of the way place with awful television. I brought out DVDs of every episode of an 80s series Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. We didn’t watch the 3 series in one binge viewing but rationed it out to an episode every week! So we had something to look forward to. It really worked.

      With access to everything all the time we have also lost the aspect of ritual in our lives which I think every human and society needs.

      Great post!

      • Wow, good for you! I think anything said with the right amount of confidence can be easily excused! I’m impressed you had the discipline to ration your DVD viewing! Also, the title sounds very promising, would you recommend it? Wonder if it’s on German Netflix? 🙂 Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! Have a schönes Wochenende! x

  2. Hi Kate,
    This subject resonates with me, as I have long thought we have lost important rituals in our lives with the onslaught of unlimited viewing choices today. A treasured memory was the annual airing of “The Wizard of Oz”, in the US, a huge event. Now the movie sits on everybody’s shelf, never watched. The over-saturation of entertainment choices, and having complete control over the viewing, somehow devalues the experience. And sadly, these lost rituals are not easily replaced.

    • Hi Robert,
      Nice to hear from you! I agree with what you say about rituals. I read about a study recently which found that observing any kind of ritual at all (something as mundane as a morning coffee even!) contributes to a sense of well-being. As someone with a completely irregular work schedule and few routines otherwise, I often find myself yearning some of my childhood rituals, like family dinners, music lessons and the bus to school. It’s interesting what you say about The Wizard of Oz! Do you find that you end up watching it on TV as a tradition over Christmas? I find that with certain films I have on DVD which I never watch but get excited about if I happen to see on TV!

      Thanks for stopping by 🙂

      • I actually resisted joining Netflix for a few years, thinking it would be like a kid getting the keys to the candy store. But it has actually been a rewarding experience. Although I watch few tv episodes, the world of films it has opened up, previously unavailable, is phenomenal! Especially the foreign films. Try “Tracks”, lovely Australian film about the power of a determined woman. By the way, I loved Ally McBeal, also, and had the thrill of meeting Callista at a Christmas party in Hollywood years ago. Loved her in “Birdcage”.

  3. I recall my roommate having 100 or so channels and my mom having antenna TV with 6 or 8 channels. At my own house, the TV on meant hours of non-stop surfing, agitating the brain with the jittery materialism of false choices; at Mom’s, I could always find something I liked and watch it through. Mom wins. But I’m a dinosaur who remembers the days before any home video, when we would wait in expectation all year for the once-per-year spring telecast of The Wizard of Oz.

    • I don’t think our brains are well equipped to deal with so many choices! At least, mine isn’t. One book I’ve been meaning to read for a while is “Digital Dementia” which apparently looks at how this kind of swift flitting from one task and decision to another is damaging our minds. I have an ancient television which was made in the former East Germany. Choice on it is limited too.I watch only only one channel: BBC World for the news. That is quite enough to keep me going! Nice that the excitement of waiting for the annual Wizard of Oz has stayed with you!

      • Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” You might rephrase: “Being in control isn’t as much fun as you think; it doesn’t even put you in control.” The more we try to control our lives and surroundings with a proliferation of jittery electronics, the less in control we actually are. As you suggest, all the “swift flitting” of our electronic age proves to be quite the opposite of control.

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