The first step to being in control of your life

13 May 2016

Letters cut out spelling 'yes I can'

Just suppose you could live your life 100% believing that you were responsible for every single thing that happens to you.

I don’t mean in a blame way. I don’t mean “oh, these bad things happen to me because I’m so stupid” or something like that.

I mean in a way that takes power from the fact that (a) mistakes are there to learn from so you can improve and get better and (b) you expect to have full control over how you are and what you do so that you can influence the outcomes that affect you.

Let me give you an easy example, and then we can move to the harder ones.

I play tennis. Over the last ten years, I’ve worked deliberately to improve my game. I’ve practiced developing all the basic shots, the groundstrokes, the volley, the serve. I’ve practiced the harder, rarer shots, like hitting at a full run knowing your opponent has come to the net and you need to pass them. I’ve practiced footwork, because it’s key to getting the shot right. In recent months, I’ve been working on improving my use of the ‘kinetic chain’ to get more routine power into my strokes and my serve.

Mistakes are a natural part of trying to do something well, rather than something that is a stain on your character

These are all things you can improve. Whenever you make a mistake in tennis, it was a mistake of footwork (most common at the recreational level), technique, timing or attitude (playing not to lose, rather than playing to win. Believe me, it’s a thing). 

When I play other people, if I make a mistake and miss a shot, half the time the opponent will say “unlucky”. It’s meant to be consoling. You didn’t play bad, you were unlucky. But every time someone says that, I reject it. I’m working on doing it quietly, but not with total success.

The error happened because I made a mistake, not because I was unlucky. Writing it off to bad luck is to pass responsibility on to something else, something out of my control. But the truth is, if I’m responsible for that error then I can think through why it happened. If it needs a correction in technique, I can practice that. That’s how you get better. You make mistakes. You learn from them. 

I think we are better able to accept that concept when it comes to sports because it’s the sort of thing we see the professionals talking about all the time. But it’s a principle that applies just as much in the rest of our lives.

The whole of our life is determined by our success or failure in techniques every bit as learnable as the physical skills of tennis. If you have obstacles in one area that are stopping you doing something, you can decide it’s all because everyone’s against you, or because the rules discriminate against you, or because the world favours younger and more beautiful people. Or you can take responsibility for finding out what it will take to get over those obstacles.

Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it’s the hardest thing you could ever do. But it’s still your thing and you might as well own it.

A couple of examples from the harsh learning environment that is life.

Example one. You walk into a room full of people you don’t know. Some sort of networking event, say. You can walk in with high energy, immediately go up to one of the most active-looking groups and engage them. People in that room intuitively pick up that you’re someone to take notice of. Alternatively, you can walk in tentatively, and hover on the outskirts looking for someone you know, and then becoming more and more withdrawn and unable to talk to anyone. In that case, you’re perceived as a bit of a loser, and people will actually avoid you thereby reinforcing your sense of isolation.

I have done both of these. Even after I learned how to command the room, I have had plenty of instances where I knowingly didn’t, and was able to feel the social proof draining away from me as a consequence. Sometimes I am fine with that, depending on my objective in being there. But it is always my responsibility. 

Example two. You’re making a pitch to a senior decision maker, in your own company or in a different one, it doesn’t matter. You aren’t successful. They don’t want what you’re promoting.

The easiest thing in the world is to decide that they’re a stuck-up arrogant idiot who doesn’t know a great thing when they see it. Or perhaps it’s the team back at your office, who didn’t give you what you needed. How annoying.

I would love this to be a theoretical example, but it plays into my most embarrassing and humiliating failure with a top CEO of a major company. I was going in to brief them on an event they were taking part in. I’d been handed a brief by the communications team, which had a few gaps in it. I gave him the brief and he asked a blindingly obvious question, for which I had no answer. There were a few highly predictable and entirely understandable negative consequences.

Initially, I was exasperated at the communications team for this brief that failed to cover the obvious. But of course, it was still my choice not to study the brief carefully, not to rehearse what would be the likely questions you would come up with, and so on. Because it wasn’t a sales pitch or anything like that, I’d not thought it was that big a deal. Huge mistake. But it was my mistake. My learning point. I never made the same mistake again. At least, not yet. 

And do you know what? If I’d been the person in the comms team that had produced that brief, I would have completely accepted it was my mistake, and learned the lesson from that. And both positions would be correct. Taking responsibility is such a different process to casting blame.

It doesn’t matter what is the point of failure, the rule applies. If they took against you the moment you walked in, then probably you didn’t successfully gain empathy with them before you moved onto business. That’s a learnable technique. Perhaps you should have spent more time learning about what they like and don’t like, so you could start off the conversation on an area of mutual interest. Or suppose they simply had no use for what you were selling. What advance research could you do next time to make sure you were going in with something appropriate?

That form of taking control is empowering. You have to have the attitude that mistakes are a natural part of trying to do something well, rather than something that is a stain on your character. If you’re prone to wallowing in guilt, that’s a hard thing to do.

And sometimes the business world in particular is less forgiving of mistakes generally. I always think systems that remove senior people from their post the first time they make an error are remarkably foolish. 

It would be like the tennis association cutting funding from up and coming professional players the first time they lost a match. And losing matches is exactly how all the very best players started. Every one. No exception. It would be a nonsense. 

Obviously, the creative mind can come up with examples to disprove the “you are always in control of your life” proposition. Yes, a meteorite may fall on your head. Yes, there could be an earthquake. Or a suicide bomber.

None of those things are made worse by you having the belief that you’re in control of your life, so there’s no downside to this. But I can safely say that in the ten years I’ve cultivated this attitude, I have come across zero instances where it didn’t apply. So even when life is about navigating your way through some fairly unpalatable choices, that situation is never made better by casting yourself the helpless victim of outrageous fortune.

Is this something you do in your own life? If not, is it something you could imagine yourself doing?