We are constantly faced with challenges we can’t control. The coronavirus is the big one dominating our lives, but there are so many others: natural disasters, the loss of a loved one, other people’s personalities… How we handle these forces we can’t control affects how we feel about our lives.
It seems pretty clear that the shelter-in-place and lockdowns imposed around the world are starting to wear on many people. From the protests to open up to the people flocking to the beaches in California, there is a strong urge to “get back to normal.”
I don’t believe people are unhappy because they are stuck inside. We have an amazing ability to adapt to difficult circumstances, and most of us have probably created new routines and adjusted to our “new normal.”
People are restless because they can’t predict the immediate future. Happiness is often less about our current situation as it is what we project for our future. If you are in jail but about to get out, you probably feel better than someone who is out but about to go in.
The coronavirus is unique in that it has put much of the world in this state of mind at the same time. But there are lots of situations that can create the same feeling of insecurity and lack of control. How we deal with these forces can have a large effect on how positive we feel about our situation.
In our post on Get Started, we outlined the three forces that keep us from getting started and that slow down our momentum: inertia, friction, and opposing forces. What do we do when these opposing forces feel out of our control?
WHAT IF THIS WERE A VIDEO GAME?
I worked at Apple for many years. My first job was to support the planning team. The planning team was the brain of the Operations organization, and was responsible for both allocating supply and predicting demand. It was a department filled with brilliant analysts all trying to nail every last detail to keep our customers happy.
My job was to get them the data they needed to make their decisions. Requests came from everyone from planners to the CEO. The week had a full schedule of critical deliverables and meetings, but what made it difficult were the constant crises, the unexpected fires that had to be put out. You never knew when or what it would be, but you could reasonably expect that something would come soon (if it wasn’t in your inbox already).
On top of this, some of my managers had a tendency to micro-manage while others would, let’s say, “fluctuate emotionally” depending on the stress of the moment. I learned pretty quickly that this environment and these people’s personalities weren’t going to change. Navigating them was just part of the job.
The most frustrating part was feeling like I didn’t do a good enough job. A report could provide the necessary information but I didn’t provide enough updates on my progress. An email sat in my inbox for 5 minutes forcing someone to walk over to ask me about it. Small things, irrelevant in the big picture but important to someone in the moment, were often key to how I was evaluated.
I eventually adopted a simple mindset that helped me create some emotional detachment from the situation. I pretended I was in a video game, and each day the goal was to pass the level by getting everything done, keeping everyone happy, and making no major mistakes.
I imagined the people I was dealing with were simply programmed to be that way. They didn’t want to micromanage me or be an emotional rollercoaster. It’s just who they were. Some people could be changed, others couldn’t. Some people could be avoided, others couldn’t. Some people needed some extra TLC, other’s didn’t. Part of the challenge was figuring out how each person was programmed.
I learned to predict how different people would react and to anticipate it. I found small ways to proactively improve situations. If I got caught off guard by something, I noted it and tried to build it into my framework for “how the game is played.”
But most of all, this strategy allowed me to avoid getting emotionally caught up in all the aspects I couldn’t control. The things I didn’t like weren’t all my fault. I didn’t need to take it personally. It gave me a “healthy detachment” that helped me to maintain my sanity in the most insane situations.
And yes, I failed a lot of days. Those failures still stung. But with each failure I could learn a little more and try to use that knowledge to play better in the future.
WHERE THIS STRATEGY WORKS
There are a couple areas where this strategy of thinking of yourself in a video game works well. It is particularly effective when you are dealing with someone or something that you can’t immediately control.
1. CORONAVIRUS LOCKDOWN AND PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
None of us, as individuals, has a solution for this global pandemic. It is going to run its course. I do believe that we will overcome it faster than the majority of predictions, but that is a generic belief in the power of human ingenuity. I have no insight as to who or when this will happen, but I’m an optimist.
We are all feeling a lot of pain in our personal situations. We are losing friends and family, jobs, savings, and for those of us with little kids, a small chunk of our sanity. It’s easy to let this pain dictate our actions.
But if this were a video game, how would you play it? If what you know about the real world is what you knew about your video game, what would you do?
Would your strategy be to stay inside and follow the best practices outlined by medical professionals? Would you choose to change nothing about your life and assume everything will work out?
The thing is, if we are honest we don’t know what the right strategy is. We don’t actually know what’s going to happen. The best we can do is try to understand our options and pick the best one. That may be different for you and me.
Imagining our situation as a video game takes away the worry about our personal pain—at least for the moment—and forces us to ask questions about ideal strategy and how to best come out ahead. You may not like the decision you should make, but at least you can arrive at it with a clear head.
2. THE PERSON WHO DOESN’T GET IT
I used this approach in my work but this isn’t the only situation where people behave in ways we disagree with.
I have two daughters. They’re amazing kids. But they still have personality traits that can drive me crazy. One daughter gets immediately disgusted the moment she’s told to stop doing something she enjoys, no matter how much we prepare her for having to stop. The other shuts down when she’s upset and refuses to communicate, creating a “black hole” that sucks the joy out of the room until we slowly peel back her layers of defense and find out what’s wrong.
And I could add examples about my wife but…she might read this. Let’s just say we don’t always agree on everything.
These situations drive me crazy unless I can create some detachment. By stepping back and imagining what I would do if this were just a video game, I am forced to think not about how much I don’t like it, but on why it’s happening and what my best course of action is.
Sometimes that best course isn’t what I want to do. Sometimes what works for one person is the opposite of what works for others. Sometimes I frankly don’t know what to do so I just have to try something.
Often I find the best strategy involves accepting them for who they are and trying to make sure they feel understood. But this depends on accepting that the way they feel is what’s natural for them. That’s not always easy.
ONE LAST THING…YOU CAN CONTROL THE GAME
Pretending you are in a video game doesn’t make the solutions easier. It just makes it easier to separate how you feel about them from what you should do.
But there’s one other benefit that must be said. This strategy isn’t just about accepting your fate and making the most of it. Our lives are special in that our actions change the game itself. If you can identify a strategy that not just solves a problem but eliminates it entirely, you’ve just made the game easier.
We have a lot more control over our lives than we often believe. It may take time, but with a little “healthy detachment” and a lot of effort, we can literally change the game we are playing and turn it into the life we want to be living.
Bryan Green is the co-founder, Editor, and COO of Go Be More. He finds it natural to pretend he’s in a video game to create a state of “healthy detachment” but his wife thinks he’s weird. She’s not wrong. You can give him feedback at bryan◎gobemore.co or on our Facebook page.