The one about control


Welcome to Salmon Theory, a newsletter about philosophy, strategy and hope.

I am going back to weekly editions (vs twice weekly), ‘cos 𝓪𝓷𝔁𝓲𝓮𝓽𝔂.

I’m Rob. Thank you for your attention. Let’s do this.

🔍 Here’s the thing

For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought about control.

Sorry, let me start again.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve obsessed with control.

The fact I didn’t correct the original faux pas is, for me, progress.

Because it means, slowly, I am getting more comfortable with letting go.

Letting go of the minutiae of whether something feels accidental or not.

Or the fact that sometimes you will make a typo.

(I get a weird sense of pleasure when I overlook a typo here and kinda brush it off.)

But of course, some pursuits of control are more important than others.

I’ve spent my 20s obsessing with controlling the minutiae of things.

But I’m now in my 30s and worry more about controlling the dynamics of things.

I know, it’s not quite the same as reaching absolute nirvana in life.

But trust me, it sure beats the former habit, because now it’s not just about me.

By dynamics I mean things like motivating others, giving them space to do their work.

As you gradually shift to more managerial-type positions, that’s a sign of growth.

But at the same time, it changes your mindset about how you see the world.

You think more in terms of models, frameworks to help organise the world.

Here’s a framework I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

Segregation vs assimilation.

I know. Trigger words.

I learned this model through Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

(I’ve been going through his book on Audible.)

(Should I say “hearing” his book? Is this how you talk about Audible?)

(Does the definition of the thing impose the verb assigned to that thing?)


As you can imagine, Dr. Kendi talks about this in a different context.

And a far more important one than whatever nonsense I come up with here.

But it’s gotten me to think about human nature.

This is what we do.

We have an instinct to split concepts into groups, or to assimilate them into patterns.

And, by extension, that influences our relationships to people.

I was reading some Simone de Beauvoir the other day and the same thing happened.

She talks about how women are so often portrayed in relationship to men.

And how men, since the dawn of agriculture, have accelerated this need for control.

Over their immediate surroundings, but also over the people around them.

Look, I have a really mixed relationship with control.

Because on the one hand I get it – our brains need congruence.

But on the other hand, it can also create nasty results if taken too far.

As per, you know, all of history, if you bother to pay attention.

Of course, on the hope side, neuroplasticity is a thing.

We can change.

But this knee-jerk reaction to either split or assimilate is quite something.

I hope this comparison doesn’t get taken the wrong way.

But it’s a bit like our relationship with creativity.

We either seek to silo it in groups – you are creative, you are not.

Or we seek to assimilate it into pre-existing systems – i.e. creative scorecards.

I have so many problems with creative scorecards.

But that’s probably not really the point here.

The point is, what to do about this complex side of our nature.

Because if to split or assimilate is in our nature, the easy way out is to just shrug.

“People will be people.”

(I was trying to do a “boys will be boys” reference here. It probably failed.)

But easy ways out are rarely the effective ways out.

My belief is we need to be harsher on systems and kinder to people.

Because systems, when left unchecked, inevitably take things too far.

And they influence individual behaviour more than we like to think.

Our obsession with efficiency is a system that has gone too far.

(Just look at the state of global supply chains.)

Our obsession with rationality is a system that has gone too far.

(Just look at misguided corporate incentives.)

Our obsession with difference is a system that has gone too far.

(Just look at the nastier parts of politics.)

According to Dr. Kendi, the answer to segregation vs assimilation is simple.

It’s anti-racism.

As defined by identification of difference, but in order to accept it.

And by a lack of hierarchies between one set of differences and the other.

You and me have differences, but that’s what makes it special.

And that’s part of the fabric of culture, it’s what makes the whole thing tick.

There’s no “better”, there’s just “different”.

And there’s acceptance and celebration of said differences.

This is how truly sustainable progress works.

I like to think I’m getting wiser about my relationship with control.

Because now I think more about how to influence and affect systems.

Not how to control or affect minutiae, or people.

(Seriously, I used to be the guy who’d ask to sense check emails. Terrible.)

Of course, this only makes the thought process more complex.

But reading/hearing Dr. Kendi has taught me a lot already.

(I still got 7 hours of book to go, but it’s already up there.)

About race, of course – that was the original intention.

But also about the broad role of systems.

And, along the way, it’s been teaching me a thing or two about control.

In my 20s, I thought there was a clear demarcation of “me vs everyone else”.

In my 20s, I thought I could assimilate the world to be more like me.

In my 20s, I was a bit of a dick.

(Arguably still am. Don’t @ me. My male ego is fragile.)

Signs of past trauma, things unresolved, things I am still resolving.

I hope my 30s continue to open my mind to more of these shortcomings.

So that I can have a healthier relationship with control.

Control in itself is not a bad thing.

Like most things, it’s a tool.

Without control, there’d just be chaos.

What – and how – you choose to control is the real question.

As is what you choose to let go.

So, I’m curious.

How would you describe your relationship with control?

And what do you try to control less vs 3 years ago?

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Stay safe. Stay sane.

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