[4 minute read] (ESL learners – click on the bolded words to see explanations and notes. Try the exercise at the bottom after! 🙂 )
One thing is particularly frustrating about life: it doesn’t always go the way you want.
We have all these painstakingly thought-out plans, we spend hours assessing and analyzing, and life so rudely disregards all our efforts.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it’s that accepting all the things we cannot control (and there is indeed a great number of them!) is essential for mental peace and wellbeing.
And some of the best insights I found came from a book that I thought would have nothing to do with this at all.
In fact, I picked it up because I thought I would learn about productivity and time management. But it turns out, it has some incredible wisdom when it comes to living life fully and happily.
So here are 3 amazing passages from Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks that will really help you let go and approach uncertainty in life with more calm.
1. You don’t always know what will make you happy.
We often want to control things in life because we have an idea of what will make us happy — and we think we know best.
And well, we are probably in a good position to know better than almost anyone else what we want and what will bring us happiness.
But think about all the random coincidences that happened to you and that resulted in something incredible. You could never have planned for these things yourself, or even come up with them.
If life stuck solely to what we think is best for us, our lives would probably look very similar from start to finish. We would not be exposed to anything outside our own plans, and therefore we would experience a much more narrow range of events.
As Oliver Burkeman points out:
“We go through our days fretting because we can’t control what the future holds; and yet most of us would probably concede that we got to wherever we are in our lives without exerting much control over it at all. Whatever you value most about your life can always be traced back to some jumble of chance occurrences you couldn’t possibly have planned for, and that you certainly can’t alter retrospectively now. You might never have been invited to the party where you met your future spouse. Your parents might never have moved to the neighborhood near the school with the inspiring teacher who perceived your undeveloped talents and helped you shine. And so on.”
-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
2. Negative experiences can still be cherished for being an experience.
Small frustrations are indeed frustrating — obviously. When things don’t go your way, it’s natural to feel upset.
But it’s easy to get so caught up in this that we forget what life is all about.
If the point of life was for everything to be perfect, it would literally be impossible for any mistakes to happen. Life would unfold as one fully perfect moment after another.
But obviously it doesn’t — and the purpose of life is not to have everything go exactly according to plan. Rather, it’s to experience things. Sometimes, those experiences may not be what you expect, but they still need to be cherished.
As Oliver Burkeman explains:
“When you turn your attention to the fact that you’re in a position to have an irritating experience in the first place, matters are likely to look very different indeed. All at once, it can seem amazing to be there at all, having an experience, in any way that’s overwhelmingly more important than the fact that the experience happens to be an annoying one. Geoff Lye, an environmental consultant, once told me that after the sudden and premature death of his friend and colleague David Watson, he would find himself stuck in traffic, not clenching his fists in agitation as per usual, but wondering, ‘What would David have given to be caught in this traffic jam?”
-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
3. You’ll be able to handle whatever comes along.
A feeling of control often stems from anxiety. “What if this happens? What if things don’t go the way I want? What will I do then?”
Thoughts like these can crowd our mind and fill us with a fear of uncertainty.
But think back to your life so far. Has there ever been a period of your life where everything went exactly as you planned? Where nothing ever went wrong?
And yet here you are. You’ve been able to handle everything that life threw your way so far — and you’ll definitely be able to continue doing so.
As Oliver Burkeman says:
“Despite our total lack of control over any of these occurrences, each of us made it through to this point in our lives — so it might at least be worth entertaining the possibility that when the uncontrollable future arrives, we’ll have what it takes to weather that as well. And you shouldn’t even necessarily want control, given how much of what you value in life only ever came to pass thanks to circumstances you never chose.”
-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks
If you struggle with letting go of control and accepting what life throws at you, these feelings probably come from very good intentions.
You want to make sure that life goes well for you, your loved ones, and others around you.
But unfortunately life rarely listens to our plans, and tends to throw all manner of things at us.
If we can learn to look at this in a more positive, or at least neutral way, we allow our lives to become much lighter and pleasant.
I hope that the tips and quotes in this post has helped you do that. If you have any more tips for how to let go of control, feel free to put them in the comments below so you can help others just like you.
ESL Notes (27 words / expressions)
Definitions written with reference to Cambridge Dictionary
Painstakingly: in a way that shows you have taken a lot of care or made a lot of effort. (Back to the text)
Thought-out: planned. (Back to the text)
Disregard: showing no care or respect for something; ignoring something. (Back to the text)
A great number of: many; a large number of. (Back to the text)
Pick up: in this case, “I picked it up” means “I started reading it”. (Back to the text)
It turns out: we use this expression when something has a surprising or unexpected result. For example, “I thought my boss wanted to talk to me in order to offer me a promotion. But it turns out, he wanted to fire me!” (Back to the text)
Come up with: think of an idea or solution. (Back to the text)
Solely: only. (Back to the text)
Fret: to be nervous or worried. (Back to the text)
Concede: admit, usually unwillingly. (Back to the text)
Exert control over something: have and use control over something. Exert can also be used with other words like “influence” or “pressure”. (Back to the text)
Trace: find or discover the origins of something. For example, the police can trace a call to figure out who called you. Or, you can trace your family history back to the 17th century. (Back to the text)
Jumble: an untidy or confused mix of different things. (Back to the text)
Occurrence: event; something that happens. (Back to the text)
Alter: change, usually in a small way. (Back to the text)
Shine: literally to send out light. For example, the sun shines. In this case, “to help you shine” means “to help you succeed”. (Back to the text)
Caught up in something: to be so involved in something that you don’t notice other things. For example, “I was so caught up in my book that I didn’t realize it was already midnight.” (Back to the text)
Unfold: happen; proceed; develop. (Back to the text)
Cherish: to appreciate and deeply value. (Back to the text)
Matters: things; the situation that is being discussed. (Back to the text)
Clench: to hold very tightly, usually in an angry way. (Back to the text)
Agitation: worry and anxiety. (Back to the text)
Stem from: originate from; come from. (Back to the text)
Crowd (verb): to fill a place. (Back to the text)
Entertain a possibility: consider or think about a possibility. (Back to the text)
Weather (verb): to deal with something successfully. (Back to the text)
All manner of: all kinds of. (Back to the text)
Want to start using these words and make sure you don’t forget them? Try this exercise! Think about these questions (discuss them with someone) or write down your answers, using the word or expression in your discussion or answer.
- What is something you have painstakingly done? (for example, you may have painstakingly researched for a new book, or renovated your new house, etc.)
- Were all of your major life decisions well thought-out?
- Do you know anyone who seems to disregard other people’s feelings and opinions? What do you think could be the reason for this?
- What myths or misconceptions do you know that a great number of people around you believe?
- What’s the last book that you picked up? Why did you pick it up?
- Think back to a recent time when you found out something unexpected or surprising. Describe what happened using “it turns out“.
- What ideas have you come up with to make your life easier and better over the last year?
- Do you think a business can succeed if the founder started it solely to make money?
- Do you feel like you waste a lot of time fretting over small, unimportant things?
- Have you ever heard a politician, business owner, or leader concede that they have made a mistake? Does it make you respect them more?
- Have you ever had managers that exerted pressure over you and your colleagues to work extra hours, or do more work than is manageable? How exactly did they exert this pressure?
- In what situations do you think parents should and shouldn’t exert influence over their children’s decisions?
- Have you ever tried to trace a commonly quoted finding or fact to its original study or discovery? How would you try to trace something like this?
- Is your house/room perfectly tidy, or is there any part of it where there is a jumble of papers, toys, or items?
- What occurrences stand out to you as the ones that have changed you most over the past year?
- How have you altered your lifestyle based on the radical events of the last few years?
- What is a skill or area that you shine at?
- Have you ever been so caught up in a goal or problem in your life that you didn’t realize something important that was going on with someone else?
- What is a situation or big world event that you’ve watched unfold on television?
- What kind of memories do you cherish?
- Describe a situation that you think about a lot these days, and describe how it is going using “matters“. For example, has something made matters better or worse?
- Do you ever realize that you’re clenching your fists without realizing it, because of stress or anger?
- What can help someone calm down when they’re in an agitated state?
- Do you think many problems stem from our childhood and the way we were raised?
- Is there a popular area in your city or town where there are always a lot of people? What time of year/day is it usually full? Describe it using the verb “crowd“. For example, tourists always crowd the main square during weekends.
- Have you ever entertained the possibility of moving to another continent, or changing careers?
- What are some setbacks and challenges you’ve weathered recently?
- What is there a great variety of where you live? Describe it using “all manner of“. For example, there are all manner of architectural styles in my city. And in the summer, you can do all manner of outdoor activities as we have lots of nature too.
Feel free to try writing some more sentences, or a text, of your own to practice some more.
Thank you for reading! These ESL notes, links and exercises each take several hours to make, so if you found this useful, the kindest thing you can do is to like the post, leave a comment, or share with anyone who needs it. Have questions about any other words? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to reply!