Control is What You Want
Q. Being a control freak is to be avoided at all costs; people should lighten up and go with the flow. Isn’t this culture’s incessant search for control the root of the problem?
I could have titled this Chapter, “Systems Mindset Fundamental Number One.”
Some people cripple themselves because of a certain brand of political correctness, and it revolves around the obsessive misinterpretation of the word “control.” This is a near tragedy because of the dire effect this posture has on their individual lives and to society as a whole. “Seeking control is a bad thing” is a theoretical banality that is stifling a lot of lives. To so many, it just sounds good to declare that seeking control is a callous thing, that rather, it’s oh-so-sensitive to go with the flow; to not strive so hard to be in the driver’s seat. And yet just a modicum of quiet observation reveals that, for any of us, getting through the day is an epic quest to gain more control than we have.
To make things better for ourselves we constantly assume a third-party personal management stance, relentlessly analyzing what we think, say, eat, and comport ourselves; how hard we work, how we spend our free time, how we relate to the people around us, how much we are willing to give (and take, and understand, etc.), and how we want to be perceived, all while expecting serenity to just happen.
For each of us, this control seeking is constant and never ending. It started with our first breath, and it won’t end until our last.
Am I suggesting that control-seeking is a bad thing? Not at all. Simply consider the alternative: The opposite of being in control is to be out of control, and it’s the out of control parts of our lives that cause pain. Is being out of control ever a good thing?
No one is immune to the control-quest. So why do we condemn it? Doesn’t it make better sense to improve the process?
And in this effort to get more personal control I’m not talking about victimizing others or plundering the environment. It’s too bad so many people equate seeking personal control with causing harm.
It’s ironic, but a rejection of control-seeking is, in itself, an assertion of control.
Q. OK, I’ll consider that. So where do I start?
First, find a way to control you. So for starters, accept that having more control is a good thing and then thoughtfully seek it, but only within your circle of influence. (“Circle of influence” is a great term, don’t you think? It’s Stephen Covey’s gem.)
To illustrate: within your circle, you can manage the development of a particular skill and then, in practicing it, the skill will become more honed, more complex, more controlled. How about making more money, finding new friends, or getting fit? It’s the same thing, as you act within your circle: Get good at what you do. As you improve your expertise in a particular area, pay attention to feedback, tweak incessantly, become more efficient at creating value for others, and getting ahead will happen almost spontaneously. Becoming adept at anything has everything to do with gaining more control.
The consequence? Getting efficient inside your circle of influence is how the circle gets larger.
Q. Isn’t the quest for money and domination a huge problem?
That’s a general misconception. Money is an inanimate tool. That’s it. I used to think the pursuit of money turned people bad, but I was wrong. The selfish/greed element is always out there, but even that is not about money or the lack of it. It’s about control, and problems ensue when you either demand too much of it or tolerate having too little. So your best bet is to stay within your circle and take the necessary steps to manage yourself, to get your own self under control. Sometimes it’s cleaning the house. Sometimes it’s breaking off a relationship or doing what is necessary to begin a new one. Other times it’s executing a business deal, and all the time it includes routine inside-the-circle mechanical control work: eating right, exercising, finding enough sleep, fulfilling responsibilities, and treating other people with respect.
Think about this over the next couple of days as you go about your regular business: Analyze a particular problem you have, one that is especially bothersome. Does it seem to be rooted in money or relationships or health? Go one layer deeper and see that it’s really about control.
As an example, let’s talk about control within a family. This is what works: the parent and the child are not pals. The parent is the parent, and the child is the child. The parent acts like a parent and exerts respectful control over the child. The mechanical reality is that the parent must ultimately direct things if family life is to stay orderly and constructive, and so the child can develop a spine and learn to respect others.
The posture assumes the child will be a parent one day, too, in-control and responsible for preparing yet another child to be an adult.
Q. If I look at things in this way, it seems my marriage is a battle for control. What can I do?
Here’s a concept that’s central to the Systems Mindset vision. Get “outside and slightly elevated” of the particular situation. Together, both of you take a position where you look down on this thing called the marriage relationship. Never mind the individual personalities and consider the relationship as a separate closed system: two people in a pact with certain needs, expectations, and goals. This is the external perspective in which the linear, mechanical dynamics of a system can be analyzed without a power struggle ensuing. Ask, what are the unemotional, mechanical rules of this marriage? Get specific about the details. For instance, when exactly is my time mine, and your time yours? How, precisely, is the money to be spent? Who earns the money? Who manages it? What are our promises to each other— clearly defined promises that have to be kept to preserve trust and the marriage itself?
Eckhart Tolle talks about this “outside” concept in the first part of his book The Power of Now. In his dark days, there came a moment when he said to himself, “I can’t live with myself anymore!” In that observation in which he was involuntarily thrust outside of his own self and was able to look down on his existence, he discovered “there are two of me, the watcher and the watched.” How profound, as he realized for the first time that there were two of him, and that through his new outside positioning he could choose which one would be in control! He then acted upon this simple insight by assertively managing himself, and then he built a life of contribution.
So with your partner, see the marriage as the independent mechanism that it is. To negotiate a relationship in this way is refreshing and exciting.
Q. How is a health problem related to control?
In any instance of illness or injury there is some degree of anxiety caused by the decrease in normal functionality. A virulent strain of cancer is perhaps the most vivid illustration of this, whereby the ultimate loss of control, death, is a real possibility.
Q. What about work? I’m a manager and can’t get control of my staff. I can’t convince them to do things the way I want them to be done.
Your business department is your responsibility so it’s within your circle. It’s your machine, your primary system. (And this primary system is made up of subsystems. And yes, you can consider your staff—and your own self—as subsystems within this primary system that is your department.) You want to be outside-and-slightly-elevated as you see them and yourself functioning down there. Within a business, a vital step in applying the Systems Mindset effectively is to ask staff to list, in black and white, the precise sequential steps of the execution of their various work processes. Then, ask them what they think and how they would go about performing their duties. If their recommendations are sensible, you implement them. Then, turn your people loose, giving them support, the tools they need, and rewards when they achieve what you want them to achieve. Do this, and the cooperation you seek will enter through the side door, with enthusiastic employees willing to give 110% because they are part of the decision-making process and are being properly compensated for their good work.
For now, at this early stage of the book, especially focus on this Systems Mindset premise: Personal control is a good thing, and you want as much of it as you can get.