The anxiety of trying to control everything | Brian Klaas (2024)

Human brains evolved in a prehistoric world of day-to-day unpredictability and long-term stability. Today these same brains are thrust into an inverted world of day-to-day hyper-control and longer-term global volatility. We control room temperatures to the nearest degree and use Google Maps to route-plan to the nearest metre, yet face uncontrolled global warming and the looming shadow of Great Power warfare. The result is anxiety and a craving for yet more control. But, argues Brian Klaas, learning to relinquish some day-to-day control will help us to both recover the delights of serendipity and build societies less vulnerable to collapse.

In 2024, our worries have taken on a dystopian, existential tint. Democracies are dying. Nuclear powers are engaged in a bloody proxy war in Ukraine. Our life-sustaining climatic ecosystem is collapsing as wildfires rage and oceans feel like bath water. Not long ago, a mutant virus shut down the world, forever altering the lives of billions.

Yet as the world around us teeters on a cataclysmic precipice, some realms remain immune from doubt. No matter what happens in the US and Indian elections, or the war in Ukraine, or the looming climate catastrophe, we feel pretty certain that Amazon packages will continue to arrive as planned—and that, come October, Pumpkin Spice Lattes will return to the menu at our local temperature-controlled Starbucks.

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This inversion lies at the root of much unhappiness in the modern world: we suffocate in day-to-day hyper-control while feeling increasingly anxious about out-of-control longer-term change.

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This juxtaposition yields a disorienting realization: modern humans have invented a social world that inverts how our ancestors lived. We have engineered societies where the uncertainties of life lurk in exactly the wrong place. Our day-to-day lives have never been more predictable, while the superstructure of our societies is now catastrophically unpredictable. This inversion lies at the root of much unhappiness in the modern world: we suffocate in day-to-day hyper-control while feeling increasingly anxious about out-of-control longer-term change.

Prehistoric life: daily volatility, long-term predictability

Consider this: we, hom*o sapiens, have graced the planet for just over 250,000 years. Because the average human generation lasts 26.9 years, that means there have been about 9,500 generations of modern humans. And if you cram that vast stretch of time into one 24-hour day, the modern world is but a sliver of seconds. The hunter-gatherer period of humanity would comprise about 23 hours and 3 minutes, with an additional 55 minutes and 32 seconds for the Agrarian Age (defined by the rise of farming and the spread of sedentary civilization). That leaves just a minute and 17 seconds for the Industrial Era. Today’s societies, which exist in the computer-driven Information Age, are a mere blink: 11 seconds and counting.

Those 11 seconds are profoundly unusual. But that’s not just because of the usual suspects: the internet, globalization, inequality. Rather, it’s because we have inverted the locus of uncertainty and upheaval in our lives, flipping it from the local to the global.

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In the long stretch of our hunter-gatherer past, humans lived, generation after generation, in more or less the same kind of world. For every generation, childbirth meant rolling the dice with the mother’s life. Predators might turn a hunter-gatherer into a snack. And the return of potential starvation, not pumpkin spice lattes, was a feature of every late autumn. Daily life was dangerously uncontrollable, but the nature of such existential threats—and the world around them—remained relatively unchanging.

Similarly, technology shifted little. If a hunter-gatherer learned how to hunt or how to gather berries, those lessons would remain useful and largely free from significant innovation, for literally tens of thousands of years. Parents taught children, who then passed the same lessons down to their own offspring, on and on through the prehistoric mists of time.

The Google Maps lifestyle: daily predictability, long-term volatility

By contrast, we, for the first time in history, have reversed that pattern. Children teach their parents how to use technology, who will then grow up to be taught by their own children. Adults learn constantly changing lessons for how to live in this ever-updating world. Despite this constant big-picture flux, our daily lives are sturdy, familiar, seductively predictable and controllable. It’s a Google Maps kind of lifestyle, in which we feel we know, with great precision, where we’re going and how long it will take to get there. But then, inevitably, that false sense of security is repeatedly obliterated—by a war, a pandemic, a financial crisis, a Black Swan that wallops us from nowhere.

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Daily serendipity combined with global stability offers an attractive path toward a vibrant, joyful life. Too many of us live the inverse.

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As I explain in my book, Fluke, we have created an upside-down world, in which Starbucks never changes, but rivers dry up and democracies collapse. This is a world of local stability, but global instability, the opposite dynamic to what most hom*o sapiens experienced for the last 250,000 or so years. And it’s the worst of both worlds. Daily serendipity combined with global stability offers an attractive path toward a vibrant, joyful life. Too many of us live the inverse.

How modern life leads to anxiety

This state of affairs is unsettling for our evolved minds, which were shaped by a radically different kind of world. Our brains are pattern-detection machines that crave order, forged in a past in which patterns of cause and effect were far more stable than they are today. Now computerization and artificial intelligence mean that the entire nature of work, the way we conduct interpersonal relationships, and even the features of cognition that used to be unique markers of humans, can change rapidly, morphing into something wholly unrecognizable over just a few years. Such drastic social upheaval would have been unthinkable to most of our hom*o predecessors and is utterly alien to the brains we’ve inherited from them.

To restore more balance—and navigate an unsettled world more effectively—we need to adjust our strategies.

From optimization to resilience

First, at the social level, we need to jettison our fixation on hyper-efficient optimization and replace it with an obsession for resilience. Policymakers too often operate as though any inefficiency or slack in social systems are monsters to be slayed, the last drops of inefficiency bled from supply chains and budgets. On the altar of efficiency, we’ve conjured up brittle fragility, wherein a single boat twisted sideways in the Suez Canal can devastate international trade in an instant. Social slack is where resilience lies, as wiggle room can create a more robust system. And yet, politicians and business leaders face incentives that reward reckless optimization to the limit, squeezed by the relentless pressure of elections and quarterly growth charts to avoid strategies that could better stabilize our world. We need to demand long-term, global stability—not the sugar high of quick but destabilizing results, dressed up as reassuring “metrics.” The best advice for modern society echoes the words of wisdom that my grandfather gave me for how to live a successful life: “Avoid catastrophe.”

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If we grew wiser, we would recognize the limits of our control. That epiphany should prompt us to gravitate away from optimization and toward experimentation.

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The limits of control and making room for serendipity

Second, we need to accept the limitations of our control over an increasingly uncontrollable world. The exquisite control we exert over our day-to-day lives—from pumpkin spice lattes to Fitbit step-counts and office temperature regulation—has bestowed upon us a cognitive bias that I call an illusion of control. We imagine that we can tame the whole world, bending it to our whims. And yet, in many ways, the world is less controllable than ever, as our smartest thinkers are increasingly baffled by the unpredictable dynamics of complex systems—including a globalized economy of eight billion intertwined people. The illusory sense of control produces dangerous hubris, in which we wrongly imagine that we can intervene in such systems and produce straightforward outcomes. The 21st century has thrown up an array of disasters that should have cured us of that hubris, but alas we are stubborn.

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Many of us follow a Google Maps strategy to life, racing to every destination, choosing the route that saves us one minute, even if it means less wonder, exploration, or beauty.

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If we grew wiser, we would recognize the limits of our control. That epiphany should prompt us to gravitate away from optimization and toward experimentation. The more that you understand and can control a system, the more it makes sense to engage in direct, top-down interventions. But if you don’t fully understand a complex system—or you recognize that you can no longer easily control it—then experimenting through trial-and-error is most valuable. In mathematics and in nature, there are clear trade-offs between strategies of explore and exploit. Explore strategies help you better understand what’s going on, whereas exploit strategies are aimed at extracting the best possible results from a system that’s already well understood. We continue to foolishly behave as though we’re always in an exploit situation, which is why the world so often blows up in our faces. Politicians and business leaders should adjust their strategies and learn to experiment, sometimes even using randomized control trials to test experimental solutions for what might work better in a rapidly changing system.

These lessons apply as much to us as to our social leaders. The trade-off between optimization and experimentation defines how we toil for a seemingly better life—and optimization has clearly won the modern battle. Checklists and “life hacks” proliferate. Self-help books preach the mantra of seizing ever-greater control. Many of us follow a Google Maps strategy to life, racing to every destination, choosing the route that saves us one minute, even if it means less wonder, exploration, or beauty. It’s an over-planned, drive-thru existence, where King Efficiency rules us and unplanned serendipity seems quaint. We have become disciples to our diaries. For some of us, our goals have drifted away from fulfilment and toward hitting that most dystopian Holy Grail of the modern illusion of control: “Inbox Zero.”

But we are not powerless. We may not be able to individually stem the tides of war, or climate change, or democratic collapse. But we can demand of our leaders a renewed focus on resilience, all while making experimentation, serendipity, and exploration more central features of our own lives. Only then can we right our upside-down world, forging a better system in which we only have to worry that Starbucks and its pumpkin spice lattes might disappear, while being certain that, no matter what happens, our democracies, our climate, and our societies will survive. Once we achieve that, we will once again recognize that the greatest joys humanity can experience lie not in taming everything in our world, but in embracing the wonder, the awe, and the uncertain possibilities that lie before us, all while avoiding existential catastrophes.

The anxiety of trying to control everything | Brian Klaas (2024)

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