Letting It Happen Versus Making It Happen
Sometimes the best thing you can do is get out of your own way. I like to think about this as transitioning from making it happen to letting it happen—whatever the proverbial "it" may be
Making it happen, or pushing on something until it gives, has its place. It's often very effective. But it seems that regardless of the discipline—be it weightlifting, running, learning, teaching, coaching, romance, parenting, or business—the closer you get to crossing an important threshold the less making it happen works. If anything, in these situations trying to make it happen often backfires. You get injured, you get stuck, you become too pushy. These are the times when it's best to let things happen instead.
Letting things happen means stepping back a bit. It means having patience. It doesn't mean you stop working toward whatever it is you're doing altogether. But it does mean you lighten your touch. As the famous track and field coach Bud Winter once said, sometimes you just need to "relax and win."
Unfortunately, it's not that simple. A common trap is when you think you're letting it happen but what you're actually doing is trying to make letting it happen happen. This defeats the point. You can't force letting it happen. You've got to let it come to you. This isn't something tangible. It's a mindset shift. It's about going from being a doer to being an observer, from striving and excitement to curiosity and ease.
At first, letting it happen can be uncomfortable, especially if you think of yourself as a highly-motivated, driven, Type-A pusher. But once you get over the initial angst of not being in full control, letting it happen is one of the most beautiful and beneficial things there is.
"Stop trying to find her, whatever 'her' may be," writes the psychiatrist and meditation teacher Mark Epstein, in his book Advice Not Given. "Let her come to you." That, more than anything, is the essence of letting it happen.
Put This Into Practice
1) For various activities in your life, ask yourself if you are trying to make it happen or let it happen.
2) Reflect on if your effort matches the the current stage of the activity. Should you be trying to make it happen? Or should you be trying to let it happen?
3) If the answer is the latter, step back. Expect this to feel uncomfortable at first, because it will.
4) Practice being a curious observer. Let things unfold on their own time and in their own way. When you feel yourself tempted to jump back in the driver's seat, give it 24-48 hours before you do. See what happens.
Embrace, Don't Avoid, Discomfort
Apparently there is a push towards eliminating classroom presentations because it puts an unreasonable burden on kids who suffer from anxiety. Now, just about every one of us can remember the fear associated with standing up in front of the classroom and speaking.
My most vivid memory comes from junior year of high school when I had to stand in front of the class and make an argument for sweatshops. Yes, I said for sweatshops. Struck by the fact that I had to argue for something pretty atrocious, and the fact that I was an introvert faking his way through presenting, the situation was dire. I prepared, rehearsed, and still found myself an internal wreck. As I walked the hallways to the class, knowing I was about to stand up to a teacher and class and spout off for 15 minutes on the absurdity of needing sweatshops, a familiar friend emerged: anxiety. Sweaty palms, racing thoughts, a strong desire to run away and do just about anything else in the world.
As I plotted my escape, a quiet voice crept in. “It could be worse. You could throw up after the speech.” And that’s when it hit me, “You’re right! You’ve led races in front of thousands of people, all eyes on you. You’ve lined up at championships in which you put in six months of work for this one moment. This was normal. Speaking, racing, it didn’t matter. It was all the same.”
Did my epiphany make it any easier? Nope, it was still pure dread. But I knew I was going to get through it. Why? Because I’d been in worse situations and figured it out. Dealing with uncomfortable situations, whether in racing or speaking, prepared me to understand and cope with future stress. If I hadn’t had those moments to fall back on, to realize that I could get through this, then my default inclination when stressed would be to find some way out of it. Instead, it became to find some way through.
Now, what about those suffering from the most severe forms of anxiety? The answer is rarely to eliminate the task that triggers the anxiety. If we look at the most successful interventions for anxiety, they don’t involve avoidance. Exposure and response prevention therapy relies on gradually increasing interaction with your trigger. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy relies on cultivating awareness of inaccurate or irrational assessments of triggers and threats and changing our response to such events.
Perhaps a child suffering from true clinical anxiety isn’t ready for a presentation, but then the conversation shouldn’t surround eliminating presentations, but in providing the support (and challenge) necessary to help him make his way through it.
As parents, we are blinded by a desire to protect our children from any discomfort or adversity. We don’t want them to feel harmed or anxious. Yet it’s these very feelings that present our greatest opportunities to grow and learn. At a young age, if we can develop a wide range of skills to employ when we face adversity, then we are prepared for everything the real world throws at us.
Jumping in and saving our children from harm would have the same impact as a coach stopping a workout the moment an athlete felt any pain or fatigue. It’s in the fatigue that the athlete has the best opportunity to grow.
Avoidance of a stressor is rarely helpful. Figuring your way through it, learning different coping strategies, understanding your triggers—that's the way to develop resilient adults. Instead of having a conversation about why we should eliminate presentations, maybe the conversation should be how to challenge our kids in appropriate ways?
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