By Alan Weiss, co-author of Lifestorming: Creating Meaning and Achievement in Your Career and Life.
One of the greatest expenses for organizations is, of course, people. And one of the greatest people expenses is absenteeism. And, in my 30 years of consulting, I’ve found that one of the greatest causes of absenteeism is stress. And one of the greatest causes of stress is the incorrect belief that we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and that we have little influence over it.
We have far greater control over our lives and destinies, personally and professionally, than we care to admit. The problem, in fact, isn’t lack of control but surrendering control. We tend to look at a world in polarization about belonging or not belonging, immigration or closed borders, militancy or rapport, climate influence or lack of influence, and believe we are lost in the maw of huge issues that are not reconcilable.
The reciprocity of control
But on a daily basis, we control most of our lives. Admitting that, and using that knowledge assertively, constitutes what my co-author Marshall Goldsmith and I have termed “Lifestorming” and is the title of our latest book. The dynamic looks like this:
People who feel totally without control, either internal or external, are simply taking a random walk each day. They are plankton, without independent motive force, and don’t even realize the effect of the winds and currents on them. You’ll find people in your organizations like this, simply drifting without apparent reason or direction. They may react, but they have no initiative.
In the lower right, we have a Calvinistic sort of fatalistic pre-destination, which asserts that the individual has zero control, and that one’s fate is directed totally by external and inflexible sources. These are the people who follow even unreasonable (and/or unethical) orders and simply shrug their shoulders as if to say, “What am I to do in the face of the overwhelming?” That’s why Volkswagen and Well Fargo continued so long in their subterfuge and inappropriate tactics.
In the upper left we have the belief that the individual is in total control. That’s the home of the motivational speaker, a book such as The Secret, and the entire “human potential movement.” And it’s simply silly. We can’t just control our lives and the surroundings by thinking we can.
In the upper right we have healthy people and healthy organizational performers. There are external forces that we can’t control—the weather, the tax laws, our company’s strategy, the rules of the road. Yet there are many more things we do control, such as our judgment, decisions, behavior, resilience, and so forth. It is the reciprocity between external and internal control, and the understanding of that dynamic that creates and sustains personal power.
Churchill famously said, “We build our houses and then they build us,” referring to Parliament. The same principle applies here. We can influence elected representatives, have a “Plan B” if the weather is poor, provide feedback to our management, and so forth.
Life is not “either/or,” but rather about synergy.
Permission is required, but whose?
That means that we have to have “permission” to exert and receive that reciprocal influence. Yet we often deny ourselves that ability, waiting for others to grant it.
Have you even been on an airplane shortly after takeoff where, despite smooth flying, the “seat belt” sign remains on, and you need to use the lavatory? You become more uncomfortable, and hope for the sign to change, but you keep your seat, concerned about the reprimand by the flight attendants.
But then, someone gets up and simply uses the lavatory without any consequences. After that, you (and others) eagerly follow suit. You refused to grant yourself permission, but happily accepted the implicit permission granted by someone else (unknowingly).
Those on the extreme left (eight o’clock) never have permission. They will stand at the “don’t walk” sign not moving even if they can see there is no traffic in either direction for over a mile and it’s beginning to pour. Those at the eleven o’clock position wait for others to indicate or tell them it’s okay to act, as on the airplane. At one o’clock, we justify our actions to ourselves—”It’s unhealthy sitting here with my need to visit the rest room in perfectly smooth air”— before we act. And at four o’clock, we simply act.
There are people who raise their hand to speak in meetings and often go unacknowledged for a long time (and/or the subject changes) and those who merely speak out when they have something to say.
The proper balance is probably somewhere between those last two positions, say three o’clock, depending on the situation and the urgency. Blanket permission wouldn’t include cutting the line at a theater or train station, for example. But speaking out in a meeting is often important.
If you want to take life “by storm” you need to recognize what you can influence and control and provide yourself with the permission to do so. That realization alone hugely decreases stress and the illnesses that accompany it.
Evolution through exploration
We’ve all seen crabs, rabbits, spiders—all sorts of creatures—that retreat into a burrow or nook when scared. People create these burrows, too, and sometimes rarely emerge because any venturing outside is considered too risky.
Yet our journey demands explorations. The road that others used may not be our road. It’s not a question of the road more travelled or less travelled, but perhaps of building our own road where none had existed. That demands some prudent poking about, looking around the next corner, shining lights in the darkness, and feeling our way.
To explore, you can’t merely “think outside the box.” You have to be outside the box. Some examples:
- A woman in the marketing business also happened to be a superb classical pianist. She had never thought the two talents were combined, but the advice to use her music in her work led to metaphors about harmony and innovation, as well as her own music accompanying some of her promotional material and collateral. She achieved a powerful, highly rewarding synergy between avocation and occupation.
- For many years I’ve heard from Canadian consultants that it’s too hard to work in the U.S.—too much paperwork and hassle crossing the border (yet I’ve worked in Canada as a consultant for 30 years). A woman from Ottawa, who’s become the thought leader in sales strategies, figured out how to easily live for six months in Canada and six months in Florida, and developed a thriving seven-figure practice in doing what is a “hassle” to other.
We have to think differently and think bigger. Instead of extrapolating from where we are today and looking at arithmetic growth, we must paint a picture of the future and decide how to achieve it through geometric growth. Our journey is a moving target. We create our future (internal control) and intelligently manage the world around us (external control) as we progress. What we can’t do is allow external control to determine the future.
Exploration requires that we abandon notions of what we can and cannot do (get rid of old baggage).We’re all pleasantly surprised when someone introduces us to something we’re sure we’ll be poor at (or dislike—often because we’re sure we’ll be poor at it) and our performance is pretty good! That applies to skills, talents, tastes, and all kinds of experiences. It’s fine to say you don’t like a certain food’s taste, but not if you’ve never tasted it.
How many of these areas have you actively denied yourself the experience of trying or attempting:
- Playing a musical instrument
- Ballroom dancing
- Participative sports
- Foreign travel
- Water and/or snow individual sports
- Live theater
- Volunteering at holidays
- Painting or photography
One of the dissuading issues is that many people involved in these pursuits are quite serious and become experts of one sort or another. They intimidate us.
None of that removes our ability to simply enjoy ourselves as we explore new outlets for our talents, and that opportunity is the key: Exploration is about allowing our talents to blossom, to be recognized, to be further developed, to be shared with others.
 One of my favorite stories is about her stopping to play on one of the ubiquitous pianos in a Ritz-Carlton hotel. A security guy came over and told her that she can’t play that piano. “Apparently, I can,” she replied, continuing her music.
The rest of this editorial will be published in full at a later date.