Do you like to control things? Do you consider yourself planned, prepared and organized? Me too. I’m sorry. I’ve got some bad news for you.
A simple class on blogging taught me something I didn’t expect about control. I didn’t want to hear it, but it is true. We, the virtuous, the controlled, the super-organized, well-planned and over-prepared are afraid.
Last week I had the opportunity to take a class with author, blogger, and career coach Penelope Trunk. You might know her from Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success or from her blog penelopetrunk.com. She has been featured in CNN, ABC News, Time, 20/20, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times.
Let me just say up front, that Penelope Trunk is everything I am not.
When I teach a course, I outline. I carefully plan a syllabus. I create handouts, graphics, power-point slides and videos. I begin lessons by writing the agenda on the board, including learning objectives for the day. I show up on time, well prepared and groomed to the best of my ability. I interact with students, lead discussion and offer an activity that leads to learning. It seems to have worked for me, and I have a wall full of teaching awards to show for it.
Penelope shows up to our live streaming video class late. She tells us her hair is unwashed. She shares that she is wearing sweatpants because she is bloated. She wears one pair of glasses, and sports another pair on top of her head because she says it makes her look cool.
She starts talking… off the cuff. She is interrupted by a someone at a restaurant who is kicking her out of the room she is filming in. She drops the feed, and the screen goes dark. She is interrupted by her son. She yells at him. She swears. A lot.
I can’t imagine appearing in a class like that. I am appalled by her lack of professionalism- this, the woman who was crowned “The world’s most influential guidance counselor” by Inc Magazine. I am morally outraged; I should stop watching but I can’t. I am fascinated by her. And secretly, I wish I could be a little more like her.
Penelope Trunk is outspoken, candid, and controversial. She was proclaimed “the most hated person on the internet” by The Cut. I don’t read her read her blog for shock value; I pay attention to what she says because most of the time, she is right. And in true Penelope fashion, she would be the first one to tell you that.
I put up with the parts of Penelope Trunk that drive me crazy so that I can read the parts that make me think God, I wish I had written that. In 600-800 words, she manages to tell a story, add some knowledge from research and deliver insight. Read The Pursuit of Happiness Makes Life Shallow and you will see why I have more than a little blogger’s envy.
She makes me think, and challenges my world view, and that is a good thing.
As part of the class, Penelope gave each of us a personal blog critique. I submitted The Well Planned Life: Is Overpreparation Hurting Us? It was an average post, not my best or worse, but one that I thought had potential.
After telling us that we should all drink alcohol before we begin, and that all of our posts sucked, I was prepared for brutally honest feedback. I waited my turn as one-by-one she ripped the posts. Then she got to mine.
She liked the first four paragraphs. She noted that I have a list and needed to add a third thing because lists have to have three things. She was right. And then, offhandedly she commented, “well you know, over-preparation is about fear and being vulnerable. You should talk about that. That should be the end. Why are you afraid?”
In 30 seconds she managed to get insight into who I am and what holds me back. “Over-preparation is about fear.” Of course it is. I never thought of it that way before. And now, a week later, I can’t stop thinking about it.
Over-preparation gives us the appearance of control. It gives us the illusion that we can prevent something bad from happening. Over-preparation also prevents us from being vulnerable. You don’t open yourself up to critique if you are over-prepared. The person who remembers the sunscreen, organizes food and drinks for an event, and always knows where the keys to the car are seems beyond reproach.
As I originally wrote, over-preparation can be a prison of your own making. Control freaks are stressed. We lose the fun and spontaneity of life. We stop trusting our own intuition and wisdom and research everything to death. Perhaps worst of all, we live in the future, rather than enjoying the present
What would happen if I gave up control? What would happen if I stopped stressing about every little detail? What would happen if I worried less, slept more and had more fun? What would happen if I became spontaneous and I laughed more freely? What would happen if I didn’t try to achieve so much?
I am never going to be as brazen as Penelope Trunk. I understand why I am drawn to her; she is my opposite. In addition to being successful, brilliant and insightful, she shows me that there is more than one way to do things, more than the “right” way, more than my way.
Letting go of control is scary. My inner perfectionist is screaming. Planning and preparing makes us believe that we can control the future, and in small ways, maybe we can. I want to believe that I can prevent every possible bad thing from happening, but I know it isn’t possible. And that, Penelope, is what I am afraid of.
What are you afraid of?