When Life Feels Out of Control: Embrace Agency




It’s no secret that humans like to be in control. Particularly in Western culture, there’s much chatter around empowerment, personal freedom, and designing your ideal life and career. The problem is, we often don’t accurately evaluate what it is we have control over.

How many examples can you think of where your reality is not quite lining up with your expectations in a week? How about in a day? At Talentism, we call this confusion, and it’s all around us. As a human trying to achieve big goals in a complex, interdependent world, confusion is unavoidable. 

Before you arrive at the calm determination that your expectations are not being met and you’re in confusion, you probably feel stress, anger, frustration, or all of the above and more. There’s a strong desire to return to equilibrium when feeling unmoored, and the tendency is to try to regain control.

But when you break it down, what do you really have control over? Your attitude, behaviors, habits, the words you choose, perhaps your thoughts? Confronting the limits of individual control is stark. What we often do instead is move into certainty. In certainty, we assume we know exactly what’s going on and, oftentimes, who is to blame. We patch up our illusions of control. This might feel better, but it leaves us vulnerable.

In filling in the gap that cracked open between expectations and reality with untested assumptions and narratives, we close ourselves off from learning. We close ourselves off from the alternate perspectives that might allow us to take the actions that propel us toward our goals. 

What if, instead, we’re willing to acknowledge the limits of our direct control and that we might not have all the answers? What if we acknowledge that we don’t have the complete picture and open up to outside evidence? What if we intentionally start with ourselves and seek to recognize how we are creating our own reality? From that space, we can embrace agency.

Agency is our capacity for action. Agency says we can act independently and make free choices within the structure of our current context. Agency encompasses both what we can directly control and what we have influence over.

If you find yourself flowing haphazardly down a river in a raft, agency is your ability to pick up the paddle and steer. Will you get knocked over by the waves? Maybe, but with dedication, over time you might also develop an ability to successfully navigate bigger and more intense rapids.

  • When was the last time you felt out of control? What was happening that was different from your expectations?

  • When you’re under stress, what do you usually do to try to regain control?

  • The next time you’re staring down what feels like an intractable problem, make lists of all the things you have in your control, in your influence, and the things that are entirely outside your control.

  • Help your team dig into the messiness of their current reality and identify what is in their spheres of control, influence, and none of the above. Help them see more clearly where their agency lies.


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