My worst habit: surrendering control

We all strive to live independent lives in which we make decisions freely and avoid being controlled by other people, circumstances and objects, right?

Nope. That’s completely wrong. My experience is that we spend our lives surrendering our freedom to just about anyone or anything at just about any time. At least I seem to.

Some examples for illustration:

1. I work in a job that requires me to be at work between 8am and 5pm. Why? I can’t think of a single reason why that’s a good idea. And yet I do it.

I’d much rather work shorter hours at flexible times with the ability to work remotely, even if it cost me a portion of my earnings. And yet I seem wiling to surrender control of the most useful time of every weekday of my life to someone else, simply because they pay me a salary.

2. I have lots of stuff. Possessions have to be stored, maintained, insured and used. In that way, any material possessions I have that I don’t really need are simply black holes that take away my time, money and space. In being reluctant to reduce the amount of stuff I have, I am allowing my possessions to control me.

3. I complain about circumstances that I can change, but I don’t change them. Do I think I have the perfect job for me? No. Do I manage my money well? No. Do I live where I want to? No. Do I manage my time well enough to do the things I want to do? No.

I do complain about those circumstances though, and that’s ridiculous. I am the only person in the world who has the power to change them. Yet I instead surrender control of my own life to the circumstances I find myself in.

Looking at the above, which is just a small sample of the ways in which I surrender control in my life, I am able to draw some conclusions. I allow other people, circumstances and objects to control my time, space, attention, emotions, money and location. More or less my entire life.

Consequently, I’m depressed. In context, that’s really not surprising at all.

I want to live an independent life in which I make decisions freely and avoid being controlled by other people, circumstances and objects. My choices don’t reflect that desire, however, and that’s a source of significant daily internal conflict.

Perhaps it’s time to take control of my life. Even if I do it wrong (whatever that means); even if I fail; even if it’s scary as hell.

Note-taking has changed my life

“Great idea. I must remember that.”

I’ve thought those words more times in my life than I could possibly count. Almost inevitably, I forget the bright idea and am left wondering what on earth it could have been. There are exceptions, but they don’t occur very often, and they aren’t necessarily the best of my ideas anway.

I’ve kept notebooks before, and used them almost obsessively for very short periods of time before more or less forgetting about them. The trouble is I have to have access to a notebook at any time, which is not all that practical for me. I don’t like to carry much around with me, and a notebook and pen therefore become an irritation more than anything else.

During 2014 I bought a tablet, and it’s proven to be one of the most useful possessions I have. I use it for, among other things, reading, web browsing, watching streaming video, reading and annotating sheet music, and, of course, note-taking.

I started to use the built-in note-taking software almost immediately, but didn’t really warm to it much. It was only when I installed Evernote that I started to experience the power of note-taking.

I mentioned that carrying a notebook and pen around is a bit of a problem for me. The same problem exists with the tablet. I carry it with me sometimes, like when I go to work, but a lot of the time it sits at home.

The beauty of an app like Evernote (I’m aware that this is not a unique feature – many other apps do this too) is that I can use it on any device. I can access my notes on my laptop, tablet and smartphone. If I feel like it, I can use someone else’s computer too. My notes are accessible anywhere, anytime, without restriction.

That really makes note-taking useful. If I have an idea for a book while I’m having lunch, I just pull out my phone and make a note of it. If I think up a theme for a piece of music I want to write, I’ll sing it to my phone or my tablet. If I see something that inspires me in some way, I just take a photo of it and it’s there in my notes to look at later.

While taking notes is useful when it happens, there’s another benefit that I didn’t quite appreciate in advance. When I look through my notes, occasionally I come across an idea I’d completely forgotten.

More unusually, I look at a note I don’t remember creating. That’s where I see the true value of taking notes in the first place. I can’t possibly remember all of my ideas. Yet there is value in those ideas that I would have forgotten if I hadn’t made a note of them.

Note-taking is now a habit. I’ve done it for long enough that I almost reflexively reach for my phone or tablet when I have an idea worth noting.

Yoda got it right: There really is no try

I have a difficult relationship with failure. The source of the difficulty is fear. I am afraid to fail. As a result, I hold back, which makes failure virtually certain in many situations.

I’ve known about my fear of failure for some time. It’s something I’d like to change, and I’ve given it a fair amount of thought without yet coming up with a solution.

This morning, completely out of the blue, I had a breakthrough in understanding the implications of my fear of failure. The breakthrough realization was this:

I am afraid to fail, so instead I reserve the right to fail in an acceptable way.

Instead of committing to whatever it is I am doing, I instead make a half-effort; I “try”. And at some point, I assess whether or not I think my “trying” can succeed. At that point, if I don’t think success is possible, I allow myself to change course and head towards easy, excusable, comfortable failure.

It’s much easier to accept that I “can’t” succeed in advance than to put myself on the line and fail despite my best efforts. In that regard, failure in any given situation in my life is not a lack of success. It is more likely to be a lack of willingness to show up; to put myself on the line; to commit, holding nothing back.

 

One example of this tendency to avoid failure in my life is found on the race track. A few years ago, I raced a 125 superkart in the club championship at my local race track. The general impression I got from my brief attempt at motor racing was that I was naturally quite fast, but I was never quite sure how fast I could be.

Failure in racing is quite scary. It involves finding the limits of machine and driver and then going over those limits. The result of failure on a race track is spinning and crashing.

In 5 race meetings – that’s 5 practice sessions, 5 qualifying sessions and 15 “heats” – I didn’t spin a single time. I was never once out of control of my kart. Not once.

Why not? Because I was afraid. I didn’t want to hurt myself. And so I held back. I drove at a speed that I deemed “good enough”, rather than going all out to be as fast as possible.

I failed in a way that was acceptable to me, rather than failing in the attempt to succeed fully.

The result of that “acceptable failure” was that I don’t actually know how fast I can be on the race track. I live permanently in a world of vague potential, rather than actual achievement.

In other areas of my life, things are the same. I “try” rather than “do”. I reserve the right to fail on my own terms to save myself pain, disappointment, embarrassment or humiliation. In so doing, I don’t really achieve anything. I’m always operating within what I know to be possible, rather than pushing the boundaries of my own perception to discover what really is possible.

I can see the negative effects of “trying” rather than “doing” in my work, music, writing, personal finances, personal relationships, etc. Pretty much everywhere.

In all aspects of my life, I am held back by a fear of failure. It’s universal. That’s not to say that I don’t ever experience success. I am able to commit fully sometimes, and when that happens success is truly exhilarating. But those experiences are few and far between for me.

I’m starting to see the wisdom of Yoda’s words in The Empire Strikes Back: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

As long as I am “trying”, I will get nowhere. It’s time to quit trying, and start doing.

Necessary selfishness

I’ve come to a realization during the course of this evening: I am in a necessarily selfish phase of my life. I’m ok with that. And here’s why:

I’m starting to understand that in order to participate meaningfully in the world around me, I must first have a sense of who I am. Right now, my sense of who I am is vague at best.

For a while, I’ve been on a mission to find out who I am; to work out what I want; to learn to be comfortable with the person I am. If it sounds difficult, the reality is much more so.

And yet, I realize it is crucial that I carry on. Firstly, I must carry on for my own sake – I wish to live a fulfilled life of meaning on my own terms. And secondly, I must carry on for the sake of the people in my life – if I am to enrich their lives using my life experience (as I’m sure they would enrich my life using theirs), then I must first understand myself, the one who has had, and been formed by, that experience.

Right now, I’m in the thick of the selfish phase. And I don’t mean selfish in a negative sense. I’m not advocating self-serving behaviour that hurts other people. By selfish, I mean inward-focused.

At any given time, my attention is divided between myself (inward-focused) and those around me (outward-focused). When I say this is a selfish phase of my life, I mean that the inward-focused portion of my attention is larger than the outward-focused portion. And I’m happy with that at this point.

I can see that the selfish phase is temporary. There will come a time when I have a sufficiently strong sense of self that I can move my focus outward without fear of neglecting myself. I look forward to that day.

But for now, I’m focusing on me.