I recently found myself observing a little girl as she attempted to build a sandcastle. Before long, her Dad came by to give her a hand.
Then, slowly but surely, one by one, additional guys strolled by and joined him. The little girl was cast aside as they focused on the critical mission of granular construction that now laid before them.
Sorry for the gender-based observation here fellas, but I've seen this happen dozens of times. Groups of guys tap into their inner civil engineers, scratching their chins as they determine how to dig the perfect tunnel so that seawater will fill their perfect castle moat.
They do everything they can to control nature's elements. And, at first, things start to look impressive.
And then, what always happens, and what they never stick around to admit to, is this:
Why? Because they can't control nature's elements.
Actually, they can't control anything. Or anyone. None of us can.
And yet we try so hard, don't we?
- We are determined to control every aspect of our presentation so that it will knock our boss' socks off
- We meticulously control each logistic of the surprise party we're throwing for our best friend so she'll have the night of her life
- We patiently and relentlessly control our child's every move so that he won't bite his new baby sister
And then what happens? The slide projector refuses to power up and our presentation goes bust. Our best friend gets food poisoning and stays in for the night. Our child... bites. And we get soooo frustrated.
It makes sense that we want to control things. Control helps us feel like we've made sense of our lives, like we've contained it somehow. We begin to rely on it, certain that if we control things perfectly then we can manifest a particular future... and help others do the same.
And when that particular future doesn't happen, it can feel like we've failed. Like we didn't try hard enough to control our lives.
But that's not the problem at all.
The problem is that we bought into the misconception that we can ever truly control a situation or a person in the first place. We cannot. (Unless you're talking about physically holding someone down and forcing them to do something, which is clearly not my point. Let's focus here.)
What we can do is influence.
The difference? It comes down to inputs vs. outcomes.
Control is the belief that -- if we just input correctly -- if we try hard enough, impart enough advice, prepare enough details -- we can guarantee a certain outcome.
Influence is the belief that -- if we input correctly -- we have increased the odds of a certain outcome. It is also the knowledge that no outcome is ever really guaranteed. Life doesn't work that way.
Influence is real. Control is not. Even when we're someone's boss or parent or teacher, we cannot guarantee that they will do what we want. In the end, what they do is up to them.
And, really, that's their right.
For those of us who really like the concept of control, this can be a harsh reality at first. But once we accept it -- no, embrace it -- things can get easier. We can let go of the expectation that we can make things happen exactly the way we want. We can let go of the guilt and shame we feel when they don't.
Of course, there is something we can control, and that's ourselves... and our inputs.
We can control the values with which we choose to live our lives, the goals we choose to pursue, the effort we put into things. And even then, life will surprise us by taking the control right out of our hands. (I recently had an allergic reaction that caused my eyes to puff up to the size of golf balls right before a big presentation in Jersey. Jersey. Not a place to put yourself in a vulnerable situation.)
So this post comes with an attempt to influence you.
Don't lament your loss of control. You never really had it in the first place. Instead, embrace influence.
Know that you can only do so much when it comes to others -- and life. Focus on your inputs, on the things you can control about yourself... the things that will make you happiest.
Know that, when things go awry, it's okay. You haven't failed. All you can keep doing is your best.
And know that there will be times when things will go exactly according to plan.
For a little while, anyway.