“It Is What It Is” Means Beyond Our Control

“It Is What It Is” Means Beyond Our Control

I recently read an article on CNBC.com where an associate professor at Columbia University recommended never using this common phrase in personal or professional conversations – “it is what it is.”

John McWhorter, who is also an author and linguist, says, “People say it when, really, what they mean is, I don’t care.”

Speaking to Bill Gates on his popular podcast “Unconfuse Me,” McWhorter went on to say, “The first time someone said that to me was when something unpleasant had happened to me, and he didn’t care. And he said, ‘Well, it is what it is,'” McWhorter said. “And I parsed it and I thought, ‘What a gorgeously chilly way of saying: Your problems don’t matter to me.'”

While I certainly can understand why McWhorter believes that saying “it is what it is” simply means someone doesn’t care about your issues and struggles, I have to disagree and am a little surprised his view of this statement is so narrow.

I rarely find myself utilizing those five little words in my day-to-day conversations until recently. Some challenging and unexpected circumstances have created a kind of ah-ha moment for me as I realized so much of life is simply out of our control.

Let me explain.

Have you ever found yourself in a relationship where you provide 110% of your time and energy but only receive 65% in return? You try to make plans regularly, while texts and phone calls go unanswered for days. When you do eventually connect, you have a joyous and engaging conversation. But you quickly realize the other person has priorities elsewhere (familial responsibilities, caring for elderly parents, working a second job), and their available time for you is limited. 

If you’ve ever found yourself unemployed, you know the stress of searching for a new job. Beyond the lengthy interview process, of late, many organizations are asking for performance evaluations and comprehensive business plans to determine your knowledge of a particular skill set. Inevitably, you spend days gathering the information together, then formatting and editing the document until it best represents the assignment and your experience. In the end, however, the organization chooses another candidate.

Over the last few years, you’ve been doing what you can to improve your overall health. You exercise consistently, have added a variety of beneficial fruits, vegetables, and grains to your diet, drink your daily allotment of water, stay away from processed foods, and go meatless whenever possible. Yet when your yearly lab results come back, your cholesterol has ticked considerably, and your doctor starts you on a prescription to help manage your levels.

In each of the circumstances above, I found myself saying, “it is what it is,” not because I don’t care, as McWhorter suggests, but because regardless of my efforts and actions, so much of life is simply out of our control.

My examples are a small sampling, and I’m sure you could provide others that would further reinforce how saying “it is what it is” doesn’t mean you don’t care but that a situation is beyond your control.

It’s taken me a long time to learn that you can exhaust yourself trying to do the right thing, the best thing, and everything in between. But often, we have no control over the outcomes, regardless of our contributions. 

We look back on the personal and professional occasions that become another part of our history and feel regret, anger, and sadness for what could and should have been when, in reality, it was never meant to be in the first place.

I’m not sure how much I believe in a higher power and our pre-determined destinies, but I do think things happen for a reason, though those reasons are only sometimes clear. 

If you want to believe that saying “it is what it is” means you simply don’t care about the feelings of others, then you might want to check out other readings from John McWhorter.

But for me and countless others, saying “it is what it is” best represents our inability to control so much of what happens in our lives. A lesson we’re continuously taught as we journey about our ordinary days, hoping and wishing for an outcome we have no influence over.

Our time here is not infinite; therefore, it’s essential not to waste too much of that time dwelling on the circumstances and situations we have little to no control. Be impactful in the areas of your life where you can truly make a measurable difference, and you’ll find yourself rarely having to use those five little words.


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