Losing Control, Gaining Gratitude

A Super Bowl champion will be crowned today, and football fans and announcers will talk about how the winning team controlled the line of scrimmage, emotions, and the game. Perhaps the ultimate misnomer will be thrown out: Controlled their own destiny.

I’ve played and coached football, and lived life with what I like to consider a keen eye for observation for 43 years, and the term control should rarely, if ever, be applied to either. Sure, football and life both have elements of command, composure, and overpowering, but control is never complete. It is always limited. It is always conditional. And even when it seems like it is complete, it’s only because we aren’t considering at least a dozen factors we don’t control but are going in our favor at the moment. We have complete control over  nothing in life, and what we believe we control is only by definition, not reality.

What do we completely control? Emotions? Good luck controlling them. We don’t control our emotions any more than we control the weather. If we truly had complete control over our emotions, most of us would exert our control in order never to feel lonely, anxious, sad, or irritated, and yet we do. Emotions come and go. Sometimes they match what we want, sometimes they don’t. We don’t control our emotions, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do we completely control? Our thoughts? I don’t know about you, but I have doubts, fears, and distracted thoughts all the time. If I controlled my thoughts I would always choose to be focused and confident. If I completely controlled my thoughts, I would control them into inventing a helpful product everyone in the world desired and would purchase for a nice profit, and I’d sit back, cash checks, and write witty blog posts all day. But I don’t control my thoughts, so I go off to work 6 or 7 days a week trying to point in the right direction and influence what I can. We don’t completely control our thoughts, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do we completely control? Our actions? I will grant this, if it seems like we control anything in life, it’s simple actions that don’t involve interacting with too many other people. We might control little actions like getting dressed and selecting music on an ipod, little things like that, but if you’ve ever been injured or sick, or had a coach or someone else who influenced when, where, and how you conducted your actions, your illusion of control over your physical actions was probably challenged.

I used to take for granted the control I had over walking and standing when and where I wanted, but nerve damage from a back injury destroyed my illusion of control. All of sudden, the control I had over something as simple as standing and coaching on the sideline didn’t seem to be within my control at all. The control I might have been able to claim was only temporary. The weakness in my left leg made me feel quite out of control of my own simple actions, like walking and standing. I came to realize the simple control I used to enjoy was temporary. At best, when our actions match our intentions, I like to think we have perfect influence over actions, but it’s only because other uncontrolled factors are going in our favor. Even when it seems like control, it’s control only by definition, a misleading definition at that. We truly only have influence over our actions, and yet, it’s not a problem.

What do you control in a game or life? No interaction is completely controlled. The world is full of interacting forces/influences every second of every day. If an action or outcome of a play results in what you intended, it doesn’t mean you controlled it. The outcome simply matched your intention. That’s not control, it’s icing on the cake. It’s a bonus. We don’t always get what we want, but it’s great when we do. We don’t control any interaction, and yet it’s not a problem. Our influence is so often enough.

Do not fear this lack of control, indeed, a lack of control is one of the very reasons we compete and take on challenges. There is a reason we don’t compete in activities that have no challenge. For any activity we might be able to control (if control truly existed), there is simply nothing to measure against an opponent to make it fun, challenging, and exciting. Think of some simple actions you are tempted to believe you control. Do you engage in those activities? No. There is a reason we don’t run football plays against air for guaranteed touchdowns every time. The opponent has a purpose. The opponent creates a challenge that we do not control. Competing against an opponent creates an unknown outcome, and that is fun, challenging, and exciting.

It is precisely our lack of control that makes competition and challenge delicious. We don’t compete to control. That would be boring. We compete to influence! We want to feel powerful, and real power doesn’t come from control, it comes from successfully exerting influence over that which we cannot control.

In discovering our true power, influence, we are no longer confused or frustrated about trying to control the uncontrollable. This confusion and frustration that accompanies the illusion of control often leads to the blame game, and we begin to blame anything and everything, including ourselves, for controlling something in a direction we don’t desire.

Influence is incredibly empowering. When it works favorably, it feels like control, because the process matches our intentions, but unlike the illusion of control, it never promises what it can’t deliver. Like a boat in the water, we have some command of the boat, but so does the water. Sometimes it is exerting minimal influence, and sometimes it is exerting its influence with a raging storm. Sometimes our best influence is knowing when battle the storm and when to seek safe harbor.

I jettisoned belief control from my life about a year and half ago, and the difference I feel is impressive. With a clearer understanding of how the world works, I have an emotional freedom that I never expected but always desired. I still screw up and act as if control exists sometimes, but my recovery to clarity is much quicker now.

I think the biggest benefit of influence over control is the gratitude I feel for simple pleasures that I influence but do not control. For example, in the past year, I’ve known two gentlemen under 45 years of age who went to bed believing they were perfectly healthy but died in their sleep.Understanding my lack of control in this process has led to feeling more gratitude for waking up each day and getting another crack at this great life I have been given.

Two months ago, a wheel basically fell off my wife’s car when a strut broke and a cascade of suspension problems occurred. She thought she was in control of that car when it did her bidding, but as it turns out, the car is always under a whole set of influences few of us ever consider. He actual control of the car was the same before and after the wheel fell off, but her sense of control was vastly different, her illusion of control smashed to smithereens after the car crumbled beneath her. Thank goodness the forces of the universe came together to break the car in a parking lot instead of at 75 miles per hour on I75.

So these days, when the forces of the universe don’t converge in my favor, I try to remember that I never had control, and I try to move on by influencing what I can with as little frustration as possible. But when the forces of the forces of the universe converge in the moment to give me what I want, I can’t help but consider it…..miraculous. I’m not really a miracle kind of guy, but I can’t think of a better term to described what I sense. With that miracle in hand, I feel fortunate and experience gratitude for simple pleasures like waking up and arriving at my destination safely.

To me, this gratitude for the influence I have is the most accurate, powerful way to conduct my life. I hope you find the same and enjoy your Super Bowl Sunday. Get after making plays in your world with the influence you have at your command.

The Ego Climber

I found this quote almost 21 years ago when I was 23 years old. It was written well before that , but it so accurately described my sense of urgency at the expense of living in the moment that I almost thought Robert Pirsig wrote it for me. I think it is a beautiful description of a tension we all experience at times, and for me it is a reminder that my goal is internal and within reach.

I’ve had different favorite parts at different stages in my life. Currently, I think my favorite part is that I realize what I want is all around me.

Thanks for reading and sharing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

To the untrained eye ego-climbing and selfless climbing may appear identical. Both kinds of climbers place one foot in front of the other. Both breathe in and out at the same rate. Both stop when tired. Both go forward when rested. But what a difference! The ego-climber is like an instrument that’s out of adjustment. He puts his foot down an instant too soon or too late. He’s likely to miss a beautiful passage of sunlight through the trees. He goes on when the sloppiness of his step shows he’s tired. He rests at odd times. He looks up the trail trying to see what’s ahead even when he knows what’s ahead because he just looked a second before. He goes too fast or too slow for the conditions and when he talks his talk is forever about somewhere else, something else. He’s here but he’s not here. He rejects the here, he’s unhappy with it, wants to be farther up the trail but when he gets there will be just as unhappy because then it will be here. What he’s looking for, what he wants, is all around him, but he doesn’t want that because it is all around him. Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.

By Robert M. Pirsig, from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

You Are Where You Should Be

Do you believe there is something from your past holding you back in some way (e.g., holding you back from greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., )? Or do you believe that some situation that exists now (or even worse, multiple situations that exist now) is holding you back?

The more you can say yes to these questions, and the more situations you can list that are holding you back, the more you are giving into the illusion of external control. Giving into the illusion too often or too tightly can sap inspiration, and it runs counter to the understanding that you can rise above the conditions of life because you actually live above the conditions of life.

Pursuing greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., is only a thought away, and this is no trivial matter because it is the only place greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., reside. Thoughts or feelings arise and reside internally, and they are free to vary from external control. The external world is a simply where we project them.

So if we pursue greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., we will project them onto the outside world no matter where we live, and we will experience greatness, happiness, contentment, awe, etc., no matter where we live and no matter the external circumstances. This is essence of understanding, “You are where you should be.”

Of course, none of us are perfect, and each of us is unique. So we attach ourselves to people, things, and situations, and sometimes we find it difficult to get past what we perceive as problems, tragedies, etc. This is completely understandable, and the way it works for the vast majority of us. But the more we understand that even tragedies do not define us or hold us (even though it appears that way, sometimes for quite awhile), the more grit, determination, motivation, tenacity, and effort we will manifest toward overcoming those perceived problems. Furthermore, the more we understand that the idea of problems is just a projection of a personal mindset, the more easily the effort will flow.

Don’t wish time, place, and circumstance away. You are where you should be.

Open Expectations

In yesterday’s post about grit, I mentioned that a way to increase grit is to be aware that the conditions/situations of the world have no control over you. One great way to do this is to remind yourself that outcomes have no control over you. This is true whether outcomes are positive or negative. To point yourself in this direction, see if you can have open expectations.

Open expectations are neither high goals nor low goals. In a way, they are a sort of anti-goal that should help create a mindset for all types of possibilities.

Open expectations set no ceiling nor floor for what can happen. It’s an expectation that, “Anything can happen, and I can handle it all.”

With open expectations, I have found in myself and my clients the following:

  • No fear or anxiety when high performance occurs. There is no glass ceiling. Performance can soar without the restriction of high expectations. In essence, performance can surpass one’s wildest dreams.
  • An opponent playing well doesn’t phase us because we know it has no bearing on our own mindset and emotions. Their playing well was within our expectations all along.
  • The unexpected does not phase us. We were completely open to anything and everything happening. However, the more possibility we can imagine, the more we can prepare for, and the smaller the unexpected world becomes.
  • We are filled with supreme confidence that comes from an understanding that we are not our outcomes nor our performances. These are temporary and fleeting, and we are greater than that. We always have an opportunity to make new plays. We can handle anything that comes our way.

When I start explaining this idea, some people jump to the conclusion that I am suggesting abandoning high expectations or goals of any type. This is not the case.

If you want to set goals or have expectations, do it. After all, I’m a proponent that we don’t control our thinking (though I do believe we influence it, thinking is sort of like paddling a canoe in a river, we have some influence, but so does the river, which limits and influences us to some extent), so how could I suggest you abandon a goal that has occurred to you. It may not be possible for you to unsee the goal once it is clear in your mind. I might just suggest that you not become so attached to the goal that you ascribe it some magical power to make you happy. The world doesn’t work this way, so I like to point in the direction of clarity.

Also, understand that having high expectations does not mean you will reach them, just as having doubts doesn’t mean you won’t reach them. Having doubts and high expectations are states of mind, not objective indicators about what is possible. Understand that your thoughts create your experience of the world and all the possibilities it entails. If you want to have high expectations and find it possible to imagine, by all means, do it. I would simply point out two other things: 1) It might also help to have open expectations about what could be possible in both a negative and positive direction. 2) Both doubts and confidence are normal and temporary. If you like confidence, try to steer in that direction when you can.

I hope you give open expectations a try. I hope you find, as I have, that it is a tremendous mindset for allowing our inner fire to burn brightly.

Grit: A Different Label for Rising and Shining

Grit seems to be all the rage these days. It’s a popular word, and it is – and always has been – an important concept. Call it grit, perseverance, tenacity, stick-to-it-iveness, whatever you want, it’s good to have. So let’s think about it more.

Some folks think grit is a characteristic some people have and others don’t. I don’t think that’s accurate. To be sure, some of us show grit more often than others, but that doesn’t mean there is a population of people who have no grit. More than likely, we all fluctuate in our own understanding of our personal grit, and some people simply think in ways that keep their natural grit hidden or covered up.

If you think about it, grit may be an aptly named but misleading term. Grit is a term we apply to people who excel through all of life’s dirt and grime. So on one hand, it certainly appears aptly named, at least for onlookers gazing at gritty individuals.

To the individual, grit often appears very different. Someone who is gritty has become aware of illusions of control and resists them (see Be Aware for more on illusions of control). They have begun to see that the outside world of circumstances has no power over them, and they understand they are free to think and feel as they can, as they feel they must. In essence, they are shining with their inner brilliance and fire despite the appearance of what we call the dirt and grime and life. When we realize the dirt and grime is just a filter, a label if you will, created by one’s own belief system, we are free to rise and shine.

The gritty individual appears to rise above the circumstances of her life. The truth is, we all live above the circumstances of our lives. Only some of us realize it.

There is one sure way to have more grit, persistence, and mental toughness in your life: Be aware that the conditions/situations of the world have no control over you.

To put it another way, nothing outside of us can make us think or feel any certain way. We think and feel certain ways about things. We project our mindsets (and the thoughts churning within them) onto the world in front of us, and this creates our experience of the world. The more we realize this process is free from external control, the more freedom we gain. The more freedom we gain, the possibility opens up to us.

I want you to imagine for a moment that the dirt and grime of the world is not controlling you. Sure, you can feel badly about it. There’s no blame to be cast your direction for feeling down, sad, anger, or fearful, but never lose sight of the fact that you are free to evolve when you are ready. When you realize you are free to do so, when you realize you live above those situations, you will naturally rise and live a life of greater possibility (see Be Awake for more on possibility). You may also see that despite negative feelings and thoughts, you need not act in a negative way, and indeed you may realize you are quite capable of greatness even when not feeling your best.

So my question to you is: What will you do when you awaken to your freedom and possibility? What plays will you make with your newfound sense of grit, or as I like to call it: tenacity, perseverance, mental toughness, shining, brilliance?

As you make plays today, please share with me if you like. Use #madetheplay as your hashtag.

As always, thanks for reading, and I greatly appreciate all your shares and spreading the message.

Feeding Your Self(-Talk)

As I more often understood and remembered that my thoughts or feelings are free from external control, it occurred to me that I wanted to change my vocabulary. Or perhaps more to the point, I realized that what I said to myself and others contradicted my messages when I used certain phrases that I have used for the majority of my lifetime.

One of those changes is that I try to remember not to say anything like…

  • that makes me happy,
  • that drives me crazy,
  • this makes me angry.

The word makes implies external control, and that doesn’t exist.

Instead, I try to use phrases like, I am happy about that or I’m upset about that. The word about is the key for my mind (you may have others that seem to work better for you).

This recognizes that the thought/feeling is mine and free from external control. Nothing makes me feel a certain way, but I am free to feel any way about anything.

After that, I try to remember that I don’t truly control my reactions either, so there is no need to cast self-blame and fuel further frustration over a reaction I don’t control. For example, I find many people are not only upset about a situation, they are further upset about being upset. Having too many thoughts and feelings about feelings seems to be quite exhausting, particularly when the thoughts and feelings are negative***.

My reactions are what they are based on a number of factors, some of which I am aware of, some of which I am not. No matter what my reaction, I try to find my influence, which is my can do thought or action that makes the most sense to me.

I like to think of finding my influence as feeding (or fueling) my self-communication, and I try to be as nutritious as possible (with a cheat day thrown in once in a while because, hey, I’m human and imperfect).

If I like my thoughts and feelings, cool. I usually find that I can keep feeding that state with more positive thoughts.

If I don’t like my thoughts or feelings, I try to starve them by replacing them with the understanding that a feeling can’t hurt me or control me (mentally, emotionally, or physically), and I try to keep my composure. Composure and emotional control aren’t the same thing, although I do suspect many people think of them and use them interchangeably (and that’s fine, although I would contend not optimal). True emotional control doesn’t exist as far as I can tell. Composure is keeping a calm, cool demeanor even though you are boiling emotionally. Put yet another way, composure is knowing you have influence and believing you can even when your emotions or the circumstances seem to be pointing to can’t.

The more I trust I am allright and free to change my mind, the quicker the unpleasant thoughts and feelings seem to leave. After remembering that I am free from all types of control, internal and external, I then try to awaken to my own influence. What can I do about this? What thoughts come to mind? If I don’t like this thought or feeling, fine…..can I change my experience in this moment by having a certain thought occur to me?

If a positive thought occurs to me, I try to feed it and see where the feelings go from there. Sometimes the thoughts are familiar to me, and sometimes they are true insights, new and unique ways of seeing the world. In any case, I try to see if I can feed the positive and starve the negative.

Of course, I make mistakes and buy into illusions of control at times, sleep on possibilities, and screw up plays on a daily basis. When I catch myself doing so, I try to starve the negative and feed my self-communication nutritiously again with as much positivity as occurs to me. This cycle repeats as I try to live a life aware, awake, and alive to making plays.

I happen to believe that our self-communication is one way of feeding our thoughts and emotions, so it seems important to feed it nutritiously. Pay attention to your vocabulary and the implications your words point to. I think you will find that your vocabulary points either toward or away from illusions of control, awareness of possibilities, and influence to make plays. Here’s to hoping you frequently find self-talk that feeds a sense of freedom, mental clarity, and personal power.

***Truth be told, I am not a fan of the terms positive and negative. I am using them here because other people are fans of them, and frankly, I can’t come up with anything better at the moment. Please realize that positive and negative are vague terms open to personal interpretation.

The Way We Point Matters

As I noted yesterday in Leaving It Blank, one problem with communication is that we point in too many directions, or the words we use to point are unclear. Another problem is that we don’t always understand that we often point with various methods. In other words, what we point to matters, and the way we point matters.

For example, when we speak to someone, we point with our words, and we also point with our tone of voice, facial expressions, body posture, and other forms of messages. To be clear, none of what we point to or the way we point makes anyone interpret a message in a certain way, but people are pretty reliable. Communication is possible because certain messages tend to be interpreted in consistent, reliable ways.

A verbal message said in the wrong tone of voice often points in a different direction than the one we intended. If you want to be effective in your communication, it helps to understand the mindset of your audience (seek first to understand), and point in a certain direction as clearly and consistently as possible. This entails considering what your audience can see, hear, feel, smell, taste. You certainly might not use all of these senses, but you might. Consider as many senses as you need to, and communicate accordingly.

Keep in mind that people are often very good at picking up on subtleties in voice, eyes, and body posture/movements. What they think about your complete communication package will create their experience of you, and one of the best ways to make sure you communicate consistently in all possible ways is to communicate from your love, passion, compassion, light, etc. The more you know your basic self, and the simpler your intention, the greater the match between what you point to and the way you point to it.

Leaving It Blank

As you have been reading in my posts (such as Be Aware and It’s a Great Day to be Alive), we can never force another person to think or feel any certain way. Therefore, it is extremely important to be clear with communication that points in a direction others understand for themselves, and because we aren’t always clear in our communication, sometimes what is not communicated is as important as what is communicated.

My friend and colleague Dr. Rob Bell has a great way of communicating this idea. As he explains it, in printing manuscripts, pages are often intentionally left blank for various reasons, including that information may be added at a later time. This is a great concept for human interactions. Sometimes we should leave communication intentionally blank. (You can read his excellent article here http://drrobbell.com/why-coaching-should-be-intentionally-left-blank/. Thanks to Rob for letting me link to it.)

For example, in my coaching, whether as a mental game coach, football coach, or basketball coach, I have learned that I am always best off waiting to speak until I can communicate my ideas clearly. As I progress in my coaching and make certain points over and over, I am constantly trying to refine my words and examples into clearer, more concise versions. I strive to be parsimonious in my communications.

Of course, I am not perfect. I make mistakes, but I reflect on those mistakes and consider how to do it better. This often leads to planning for my next round of coaching, and this leads to personal improvement.

Sometimes, if I know I need to communicate something but am not sure what I need to communicate, I do what I recommended in Pointing in the Right Direction: I ask questions to clarify what my athletes already think/believe/understand. This often helps promote thinking about two things: a) what they know, and b) how they know it. Thus, it’s both review and an opportunity to pause and let insight occur. This helps me leave blank what does not need to be communicated, and when something does need to be communicated, it typically leads to me pointing in a direction with a clearer, shorter, more easily understood message.

As messengers, when we try to point in a certain direction but do so with a lack of clarity, it is highly likely that receivers will be confused about the message. Obviously, confusion isn’t the goal, so please remember to consider that the art of good communication involves two pathways for the messenger: What is communicated and what is left blank.