Dear fellow controllers,
Control is a funny thing. The more of it we seem to have, the deader things become.
Although I am not always free of trying to control things, a few things I’ve learned lately have started to change my perspective on control.
Last year, my then-girlfriend and I took a road trip to Monterey.
We had three days. The first two days, we had lots and lots of plans — I wanted to do certain things, she wanted to do certain things, and we (OK, mostly me) stressed about fitting everything in and “optimizing” (such a robotic word) the trip.
Ironically, the things we did those two days — although they had the makings of cool, novel experiences — didn’t feel enjoyable. Our (OK, mostly my) state of mind wasn’t light, happy, or fun. It was tense.
The third day of the trip was set aside for making our way north along the coast. We had no plans or structure to it, other than needing to be home by the end of the night.
It was by far the best day of the trip. Since we didn’t have preconceived ideas about what we should be doing, we were free to follow any imaginative idea that came to us. We were like Jim Carrey in “Yes Man.” We stopped in Santa Cruz and rode the rollercoaster on the boardwalk. We played arcade games.
We kept driving north and stopped for lunch in a tiny, no-name town that would never be a destination. Population 400. We wandered down to the beach and sat in a cave for a while. Then we noticed a stream flowing out of some rocks and into the ocean. We looked upstream and saw a long tunnel stretching for hundreds of feet under the road and to a forest on the other side.
We waded through the stream and sang in the tunnel because it made beautiful reverberations and echoes.
When we got home that night we were both filled with that exciting, refreshing feeling that comes with discovery and adventure.
My memories of the last day are much clearer and more distinct than the other days, and I think it’s because I felt so alive. And I felt so alive because that day felt like I was in the flow of life. I surrendered my plans and let something else guide me.
Is control real?
In this story, the instances in which I felt most alive were the times when I wasn’t in control. I relinquished the idea that “I” was the one directing the show. And miraculously, things still happened. Decisions kept being made. I kept moving forward. I got everywhere I needed to be. And yet, “I” wasn’t making those things happen by my own choice and agency, per se.
In other words, when I let go of the steering wheel, something kept steering.
And not only was it easier, but I felt happier, more alive, and more connected to the loved ones around me.
I began to wonder: is control is real, or is it just a habitual thought pattern I use to feel safer? When I let go of control, the world didn’t fall apart — in fact, it became a nicer place.
After reflecting on this possibility, I started paying more attention to this mysterious current that carries us even when we stop swimming. And I got curious: I wonder what will happen if I give up control in other areas of my life, too? How will it impact my job, my coaching, my athletic performance, my relationships?
I’ve been experimenting with this a bit. And let me tell you — I’m liking the results so far.
When I coach people and I believe “I” have to make an impact, say something wise, or direct the conversation, man do I get up in my head. And that’s not good for connecting or listening. And when I’m not in my head — when I show up and get out of the way — it feels so much easier. And to boot, because there is real listening and connection occurring, the conversations are naturally more impactful.
The same results occur everywhere I play with letting go of control.
Doing so connects us with the essence of Life, so that it can come through and power us. To think we’re separate of that process might make us feel sheltered from the ongoing change that is life, but it also cuts us off from the simple joy of being alive.
Control and creating results
Control (or the lack thereof) is an important aspect of living a peaceful and enjoyable existence. But how does it apply to our goals and dreams, where we’re trying to bring things about in the world?
This is an area where we can get in our own way precisely because our goals mean so much to us.
Those of us prone to exercising control may think that in order to achieve we need to become perfectionistic, stress about little details, and attach to a particular outcome. But when I look back, those tendencies were rarely necessary to the process or beneficial to the outcome. I may have succeeded in spite of them rather than because of them.
Although it may feel like a leap of faith, we can actually rely on the animating force behind life to move us toward our goals — because that’s what’s been animating us the whole time.
Michael Neill’s “ultimate strategy for success” (and this is a man who has been a success/transformative coach for almost three decades) goes like this:
“Show up and aim yourself in a direction, then respond to what shows up along the way.”
If this sounds too simple, good. We’ve been over-complicating it for quite a while.
And if you think about your life, I bet you could come up with a few examples that fit his description.
Consider an accomplishment you’re proud of, or a major life decision you made. Did you decide to undertake these things knowing exactly what would happen, where you would be, and what you would do in each stage of the journey? Or did you just pick where you wanted to go, aim yourself that way, and work with whatever life delivered?
Much of the meandering series of events that constitutes our lives occurs in a way that is just right, without our planning or interference. We take steps forward, opportunities arise, new ideas come to us, we follow the threads. Sooner or later you have a college degree, or you’ve picked a new city to move to, or you land a new job, or you meet your partner.
When we simply show up with the willingness to move and respond, life provides the wind for our sails. The wind is doing the real work. And if that’s the case, then we waste a whole lot of energy trying to make big changes happen out of our control or willpower.
When we see how the system works, we can harness the forces at play to create great things. In fact, it would be better to say they harness us. Tuning into the system brings a new level of ease, freedom, and fun to our lives.
It’s as if we were playing music off the sheet our whole lives, but then find out we can improvise in any key or style we want.
Putting it all together
The things that make Life Life — flow, change, and spontaneity — are opposed to control. When we try to control our lives, we feel cut off from the source of life. The source of life is a wiser, more capable agent of change than our intellect, and it reliably delivers power through us when we don’t try to control. And if control isn’t real anyway, then we can never truly be cut off from the source of life, we can just think we are — and that’s great news.
I hope, my fellow controllers, that we all learn to not be the driver, but the vehicle, and leave the details to the forces behind the curtain. I invite you to test this out for yourself and reply back to tell me how it goes.
Your ex-control addict