Saturday, 13 April 2013

Embracing Happiness, Part I: Understanding my power

This is the first post in a 7-part series that I'm calling Embracing Happiness. It's meant to document some things that I've learned over the past year and a half that have completely changed my life and led me to where I am now, to being a happier and more complete person than I have ever been before. Each piece will speak to a major skill or lesson I've learned and how that's contributed, directly and indirectly, to greater beauty and joy in my life.

Feeling powerless is one of the quickest ways to feel frustrated. I mean, when you look around you, often you see all sorts of things that you'd like to change, and if you feel like you can't, it's enough to make you crazy (or make you stop caring altogether).

The main shift that happened in my life that helped me to understand my power was the realization that influence is not the same as control. While influence necessarily happens all the time and is part of our day-to-day lives, control is a totally different animal. The situations we have complete control over are few and far between, and so understanding that helped me to let go of things I can't control. But at the same time, I don't feel like it's productive to just throw your hat in the ring every time you can't control a situation. That's where influence comes in. It's more subtle than control, but also much more powerful.


I want to make sure that I'm not just throwing around words that we don't have a common understanding of, so let me outline what I mean when I use the words control and influence in this context.

Control is when you are in a position to make a choice that will more or less single-handedly change the situation, whether or not anyone else is involved in that choice. So a good example of that out of my own life is how I eat. I have complete control over that, in that I make the decision what to put in my body. Now, there are some times when, given the circumstances, I'm less in control of it than others, but I am always in control of it to some (usually a very extensive) degree. If I don't eat it, it doesn't enter my body. Period.

Influence, on the other hand, is a little more complex. It can be something as simple as a factor to be considered in a decision-making process, or it can be something much more elaborate and unpleasant like blackmail. In perhaps its most relevant form, influence often looks like advice, either from someone you know and/or trust or from someone who has power over you. So if we return to our example of what I put into my body, there are many things that might influence the decisions I make. It could be anything from what my friends are telling me ("Don't eat that; it made me sick yesterday") to how much time I have that day. If I'm running out the door in a hurry, I'm a lot less likely to eat well and I know it. It influences my choice, because I usually can't be bothered packing something if I don't have much time, and I know that means I've chosen to eat at some (probably not especially nutritious) restaurant on campus or at work or wherever I am that day.

Now, control and influence are both important, but not at all the same. If I eat poorly, I may have been influenced by a number of things (time, who I'm with, how much money I have, etc.), but in the end, I made a choice and that is within my control. Nobody forced me to order that greasy burrito or those french fries, even if a friend suggested it; I did that. And sometimes this is a tough pill to swallow, because it makes us choke back on our pride and realize that our misfortunes are our own doing, and that can be a very unpleasant thought indeed. But the thing is, once we can do that, we can also make choices that will lead to greater happiness in our lives (and, in this case, our bodies). This is one of the things that has led to a lot more peace for me. No longer do I choose to do things that make me unhappy for the sake of someone else's happiness. I'm able to own my decisions and learn from bad ones.

At the same time, I think it's important to understand that influence is not the same as manipulation to me. Manipulation is a negative influence, based on the selfish flexing of power to get what you want, while positive influence (which I would say is true influence) is much more complicated and also much more powerful. I recently realized that I've developed positive influence in various areas of my personal and professional life, and I had no idea until I started seeing it in action. It happened not because I was trying to manipulate people, but because (apparently) who I was and the way I lived began to inspire some people. I had earned the respect of the people around me because they realized that they could trust me, that I do things because I feel they're right (not because they'll "get me ahead" in life) and that I make a point to know what the hell I'm talking about. When I speak, people listen. Whether or not they agree with me is another thing, but at least they're listening, and there is the potential for influence there. As soon as you stop building relationships with people and cease to care for their own interests and well-being, you also cease to have positive influence in their lives. In fact, they often can't wait to get away from you.

This basic web shows the "rings" of influence.
I've developed a framework to better understand my influence, and in case there are people reading this who function better with pictures (like I do), I wanted to share my Web of Influence. It's a way to organize the players (people and other entities like businesses and government) in my life and see how the system can (and cannot) be influenced positively in situations where I don't have complete control, but I would still love to see some change happening.

Here I've put an outline of the web, and we'll look at how we might influence someone in the outermost ring (let's say the Prime Minister, as an example). In the Web of Influence, there are a number of rings that grow outwards from the center. At the center is the person whose influence is currently in question (in this case, me). The lighter the ring, the more influence you have. You'll notice that the "me" ring is almost white, while the outer ring (where the PM is) is totally black. The further away from the center you move, the less influence you're likely to have.

Step 1 is looking at where you are now.
Step 1 consists of looking at what we're dealing with. So, for instance, you'd add the person who you're trying to influence, which is the PM in our example, because we're going to assume that I'm not happy with some policy he just put in place. So your ring now has you and a distanced stranger.

In the next step, you'll look at what kind of network you've got. So imagine that my best friend is chummy with someone who works in an MP's office. Let's say, just for the sake of argument, that I'm extra lucky and this MP is John Baird, a member of the Conservative Party (which is also the PM's party). So I've just created three steps that have to be gone through before any kind of influence might be had. I've mapped that one out for you in the third graphic, below.

Step 2 is looking at your network and possible leverage points.
Imagining that I'm actually that lucky, then my direct influence on the PM is still really minimal and indirect. I mean, I could call up my best friend, get her to introduce me to her friend, and then use her friend as a mole to feed ideas to. Then, from there, I'd have to hope that she can convince her boss to listen to her, and that her boss can convince the PM to listen to him (which, by the way, if you know where Canadian politics is at right now, is especially unlikely). So in a nut shell, this system is pretty far-fetched, and unless you're really, really passionate about specifically influencing the PM, it's probably not worth your time.

So then why do I bother doing this? Precisely because it's not worth my time to go specifically after the PM. There are big fish to fry, and then there are things you simply can't reasonably do and it makes no sense to get frustrated about it. Looking at it this way lets me see that whether I worry about it or not, my control of the situation is very limited and I need to focus on things that are more reasonable within my web of influence. (Someone once told me, "If you can fix it, then fix it and don't worry about it. If you can't fix it, then don't fix it and don't worry about it." Good words indeed.)

So what would I actually do in a situation like this? I'd focus on the light grey rings first. I'd make sure that I've built my positive influence in my core group first, making sure that I've been someone who my friends and family feel they can put their trust in. Then maybe, just maybe, when I tell them that the PM did something that really upset me, they'll ask why and the process of informing (and potentially influencing) a larger number of people will begin. My single vote doesn't really count that much, but when thousands and thousands of people start threatening to vote against the PM, he starts listening. If we stick the voting population in the center of the web and look at who's in the first ring of influence, the PM is among them.

If I work on light grey rings, things like this can happen.
Alternatively, if I focus on making sure that the way I interact with people is positive so that my power of influence is not hurt, I may end up befriending someone who has connections that are helpful. Maybe I meet someone who works for the 6:00 news and they're impressed by how informed I am and want to interview me for the whole country to see. That means I have just built a thread through my web that runs straight from me to the PM and through everyone else in between. But that wouldn't have been possible if I hadn't made sure I had my own things in order, so I could build a strong and trust-based relationship with that media contact in the first place.

One of the greatest sources of peace for me is realizing that there are things I can always, always influence. I can influence how the people I interact with see me. I can influence the people I spend time with, to some degree. And I can always, always build new and stronger relationships and encourage people to understand their own influence and how it works (and how it doesn't). That's how I've chosen to focus my power of influence, and by extension, multiply it. So when I say that control is important but influence is more powerful, that's exactly what I mean.

Not having control and being controlled by others often causes fear. Influence gives positive energy and hope instead of fear, and if there is one thing stronger than fear, it's hope.

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