Back in the day (does that phrase alone date me?) there was a popular song called “Hold on Loosely” by 38 Special. The lyrics went, “Hold on loosely but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control.” I'm sure you've heard it at one point or another. It probably still makes its rounds on classic rock stations.
The song is most likely about dating or relationships, but it also succinctly illustrates our obsession with control and our overestimation of how much control we have in life.
Some people know precisely what they want to accomplish (and if you don't yet, that's fine, read this post here). We might have dreams and, if we've done the work, we're confident about our path to achieving them.
We set dates and goals.
But oftentimes, in this state of passion and confidence, we focus on the way we feel as the most important facet of the work. Our emotional equilibrium is more important than actually getting things done. And by viewing life as something that should work for us all the time and in every feasible way, we close ourselves off to other experiences. This emphasis on control over confidence is dream poison.
We take our personal thermostats with us to every situation, mitigating discomfort in any way we can — even if it means avoiding the most effective path to our goal.
This inevitably leads to the most common phenomenon I've experienced in my coaching career:
When something throws a wrench in our process (our 'how') we tend to get bent out of shape. We become disillusioned. Sometimes this loss of energy manifests as a future promise: "I'll go for it when I'm more prepared." Sometimes there's a false epiphany: "I never wanted it in the first place!"
(We're amazing storytellers when it comes to ourselves — because we know exactly what we want to hear.)
Whats worse is the kind of predictive stagnation many of us go through at one point or another. We're apparently psychics, knowing exactly how miserable we could be if we did the thing we know we ought to.
People avoid the "risk" of possible discomfort in pursuit of greater control and end up totally marooned on their island of comfort. They look out on that vast sea of possibilities and can't see a wave-free section of water.
Sometimes there's NO painless path. Sometimes, you have to surrender control and accept the yuckiness of circumstance to grow and achieve.
That's where confidence comes in. We tend to be finicky with control because we think our 'process' is what really matters. Controlling all aspects of our process gives us the comfort of knowledge. You don't have to worry about being warm if you have an A/C.
So we try and make everything perfect for our strengths. We avoid people and situations that make us uncomfortable. And many times, that ends up being what kills our momentum. Eventually, life will find a way to meet us in the middle with something we really don't want to do.
So what trumps control?
Confidence is your ability to go through the unknown and make it known. It's a personal strength that has more to do with your spiritual identity than your social one.
Confidence allows you to change for the situation. It allows you to see discomfort and know that you can work your way around it. It's not concerned with making everything apply to you. It's all about applying yourself to everything despite what you can't control.
Confidence helps you deal with the naysayers, the obstacles, and the inevitable moments where your goal seems out of sight. It's kind of like landing a plane with your thumb and forefinger.
When I was learning to fly, I could land the plane (thank God) but they sure as heck weren't what I'd call "smooth landings." These were the bumpy, rumbling affairs that make people never want to fly again.
One day during training I was practicing touch-and-go landings. It's pretty much what it sounds like — you come in for a landing, get your gears on the runway, and pull up again to continue flying.
On that day, my instructor was making me pretty damn nervous. Instead of looking out at the runway, I could see him staring at my side of the cabin from my peripheral vision. That got me anxious. I must have been doing something wrong. And when people think they're doing something wrong -- they try to get more control.
I went in for the landing but my instructor told me to "take it back up." So I did. I took the plane back around to reset the circuit.
When I got back around to a good heading for another landing, my instructor said, "This time, I want you to hold the yoke with only your index finger and thumb — that's it."
Sure. That's not scary. Easy.
He assured me I should trust him, so I did. He was the one teaching me, after all.
I held the yoke with what I would have considered nearly no control. I angled in for the runway and came down for the smoothest landing I'd ever done.
I didn't get it. Hands on 10 and 2. Think before you speak. Control yourself. These standbys were life-savers. Everything in life is about constriction — taking as much control as possible to prevent disaster or discomfort.
So why now, in a metal bird with wheeled legs coming in for a landing on a strip of concrete, was I holding my yoke like I'd hold a needle and thread? My instructor turned to me, explaning that I wanted so much control of the yoke that I white-knuckled it. I was so mortified of making mistakes that I became more rigid, less adaptable, which made it more difficult to fine-tune my steering.
Holding on loosely actually gave me more control of my landing because I could find small adjustments to make.
That was a risk. Risks and uncomfortable situations take confidence. Like holding a yoke with your thumb and forefinger, confidence is about giving life room to work around you. It's allowing things to take a natural course and moving with it. Sometimes the tough path is the path of least resistance.
Flying can be scary. Just like our lives, we might see one sign of danger and white-knuckle our situation to try and change it. This ends up making things tougher. In our desperation to have control, we're staring at the runway instead of rearranging our grip.
Focus on your steering, not the circumstances. The things you actually do are true. They're inalienable and factual. The future isn't here yet and the past can be mended. So don't worry about the runway. Worry about working with the wind, fine-tuning your direction, and preparing for a successful landing.
Alanis Morrissette said, "The moment I let go of it, was the moment I got more than I could handle."
Let go and see how much you get in return.