The Biggest Mistake People Make

If you asked me what the biggest mistake people make is, I’d answer as follows: The biggest mistake people make is trying to control, or expecting to control, others.

Nobody expects to be able to control the weather. Nobody expects to control businesses, even though by “voting” with your dollars you have more control than you think. Nobody expects to control government or politicians, although by asserting yourself and learning to accept personal responsibility, you can cause the power of politicians to evaporate.

But people do expect to be able to control other people. First and foremost, they expect to control their spouses and/or children. Secondly, they expect to control family or friends. Third, they expect to control people in general — that is, “society.”

Rationally, many will say, “I know I can’t control others.” But they still expect to do so, just the same. I actually have heard people say things like, “I know I can’t control Johnny or Suzie. But I’d like to find out ways to make him behave differently.” Hello?! Finding out ways to make people behave differently is to control them. While it’s true that you can always change your own ideas and behaviors, and that this will sometimes influence others indirectly, you cannot make someone’s behavior change just because you want it to.

The simple truth is that you cannot change the behavior of others. You can potentially persuade them, using their minds and using reasoning. But it’s up to them to listen to and think about your reasoning before they’re persuaded. This is an active choice on the person’s part: To open up his or her mind, to focus and think. We use expressions like “get someone to think.” But it actually isn’t possible to “get” or “make” someone think. The raw material, or the willingness to think, is already there, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, no amount of even brilliant reasoning on your part will have any impact whatsoever.

Some people not only expect others to change. They feel entitled to it. “This isn’t the person I married. I’m entitled to have his/her behavior change.” Well, maybe so. Maybe you were misled, or maybe you were simply mistaken. But either way, nobody is going to change without their OWN consent. People say, “My daughter must change. I want her to act differently.” OK. But what if she thinks she’s perfectly fine the way she is? “But she’s objectively irrational and self-defeating.” OK, again. This may be true. You may be able to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that your daughter, wife, husband, son, spouse or friend should act differently — not just for your sake, but out of his own objective, rational self-interest. But what if he thinks he’s just fine as he is? Who’s going to change him then?

So much time, energy and money is wasted on this impossible quest to change other people. And let’s not forget the changes people try to force on society. The War on Drugs? Three decades into it, are drugs any less popular than before, for those who want to use or abuse them? Prohibition back in the 1920s? How well did that work out? The War on Poverty? Did poverty go away? Or do we still have poverty, along with lots of government-induced boom-bust cycles, inflation, currency manipulation, and budget deficits as far as the eye can see … with poverty not having gone anywhere?

Think of the religious fanatics who want to use coercion to get their way. How many were converted to Islam by the Islamic-inspired events of 9/11/01? And how many new enemies of Islam were made that day? How well did the Christian Crusades of the Middle Ages work in forcing everyone to become Christian? I look around today and while I see plenty of Christians, I see plenty of Jews, Muslims, atheists and agnostics too. And then there’s Hitler. How well did it work out for him to force people into racial and nationalistic boxes? Are we all Nazi today — or is Nazism a dirty word? And then there were the Communists. Communist dictators such as Stalin brutally murdered millions in order to force economic equality on a population that was poorer than ever 50 years later. How well did that work out?

Coercion is no answer to changing people’s minds. Coercion can intimidate or force bodies to do what minds will never accept, but aside from being morally wrong ‘ It never lasts.

The list is endless. Every evil in the world you can think of stems from the false belief that people can and/or should be changed — even if they don’t want to be.