KUNG FU MASTERFrom the perspective of a slice of toast, control, when it is needed, is like butter: with it, you’ve got a winning formula; without it, you’re probably (only) toast.

OK. So control is generally, even if not always, a good thing. This means there are two challenges in controlling control:

  1. Knowing which kind of control to try to exert in any given situation.

  2. Knowing when to relinquish or otherwise do without it.

The iconic image of a self-controlled kung fu master in serene control of not only any assailant, but also of his inner environment, including his feelings, concentration, focus, weapons and skills, is very appealing. But, in appeal and merit it is countered by the equally iconic images of passionate Pablo Picasso, fiery out-of-control whooping Al Pacino and lovestruck/star-crossed Romeo and Juliet—ah, those Latins!

But wait! Out of what kind of control?

Assuming that in some situations control is a “good thing”, it remains to decide which kind of control to shoot for. Here’s a menu of forms of control it is useful to identify and important not to confuse with each other:

  1. Weatherman “effect control”: Being a meteorologist gives you a degree of what can be called “effect control”—control over the effects of things you are powerless to stop, e.g., a hurricane, tornado or blizzard, e.g., by evacuation, retreating to a storm shelter or by chopping extra logs for the fireplace.

    The heart of this kind of control is the power of prediction and having the resources to deal with the consequences when the prediction comes true. In an office environment, an example would be having duplicate copies of your project report that your absent-minded boss is notorious for misplacing and losing. This can also be described as a form of “partial control”.

  2. Engineer “cause control”: This kind of control amounts to three things—1. prevention; 2. staging; 3. execution, implementation and maintenance. Designing a bridge or a jet involves all three: designing structures and function that will prevent problems, framing the processes and structures to get the job done, and concretely carrying them out and maintaining or upgrading them.

    This most closely approximates the ideal of “total control”—and the kind of control that makes micro-managing types drool. From this perspective, designing a boss who is incapable of misplacing a report, or failing that, designing a fail-safe system of filing making compensatory backup files unnecessary would perfectly exemplify cause control.

    If you think of an engineer as being like God, or vice versa, this kind of cause control can be further analyzed like this:

    Pure Designer Control: “Deism” is the philosophical idea that once God designed the universe, He/She set it loose, free from any further direct control and allowed to unwind like a watch designed by a Master Watchmaker or a jet created by Boeing engineers. Translated into terms of HR departments, this means controlling your job flow by having a system design that incorporates preparations for any contingency, including the sudden disappearance of the new recruit on Day-1.

    Intervener Designer Control: Deism is in contrast to the idea of a much more interventionist Designer, who, in addition to or instead of designing the clockwork, will tinker with it from time to time, in order to bring about, through direct control, changes that seem suitable—usually in the form of fine-tuning or “miracles”. Engineering refits and accounting systems modifications fall into this category of cause control.

  3. Kung fu-master “contingency control”: The idealized control exerted by a wispy-bearded kung fu master is different from both the

    meteorologist’s and engineer’s control paradigms. A kung fu master, unlike a meteorologist, cannot and need not predict what will happen nor, like the engineer, engineer it in advance.

    Instead, with respect to the outer world, he exercises purely “contingency control”—being prepared for whatever happens, despite neither predicting nor creating it. It’s as though he is calmly and confidently making his way through a dark, menacing forest, totally ready for the unexpected. Parallel to this control is the Master’s unwavering self-control that makes this kind of comprehensive contingency control possible.

    In a business environment, kung fu-master control amounts to being ready to roll with and parry the “punches”, even when they are, in detail, utterly unforeseen and unpredictable. It means being mentally, logistically, operationally and otherwise ready for whatever happens and being confident and calm in virtue of being that ready.

    Like weatherman control, this is reactive; but like engineer cause-control it is proactive to the extent that “built into” the makeup and “design” of a kung fu master are capacities to deal with a very wide range of contingencies, including emergencies. The difference, however, is that the kung fu master, unlike the engineer and possibly under the influence of a Taoist or Buddhist doctrine of “non-action”, doesn’t try to cause anything, including forcing others do things—except obey the laws of physics and collapse when he pummels them, while nonetheless being ready for whatever they may throw at him.

    Caution about Passion

    What about “passion”? If construed as the “opposite” of self-control, when should it be held in check or reined in? One clue to an answer is whether it is seen as control that is relinquished, surrendered or waived, or, instead, lost.

    It can be argued that when control is voluntarily relinquished it is probably “safe” to do so. As examples of this kind of relinquished control, there’s allowing others to tickle you, agreeing to skinny dip or choosing to resign as CEO in order to spend more time with the family or golfing.

    On the other hand, when what is experienced feels like a loss of control and a complete surrender to the moment, things can get very tricky and muddy. For example, surrendering to heat of sensual passion can feel like loss of control, feel very good and turn out quite well for all concerned. Yet, when you read, “He lost control and … “ you are probably braced and rightly prepared to hear an unhappy story as the completion.

    This perspective may seem to be reinforced by the concept of “the Passion of Christ”, which somehow suggests a pawn’s passivity as a consequence or in the face of a loss of control over one’s fate, seized by one’s persecutors. However, a careful look at the etymology of “passion” suggests otherwise, and, at most, an emotional connection with what we (should) do, rather than an obstacle to it. In this connection, it has been suggested that

    The Latin word, ‘passionem‘, which means ‘to endure’, was tagged onto the word ‘pie‘ (which means suffering) [Note: as in Michelangelo’s “Pieta”] and later imbued with the sense of the Greek word ‘pathos‘ to create the meaning of ‘passion’, as the endurance of great suffering (as that of Jesus)” and that “the modern meaning, which may have derived from some poetic wordplay on the ‘sufferings of love’ was not used until the early 1600s, but has gradually become more commonly used than the original meaning.”

    Another complication is that passion and self-control are not always mutually exclusive: a passionate research scientist toiling to find a cure for the cancer that has afflicted his wife will nonetheless be utterly disciplined and self-controlled in his lab work. Such an easily comprehended scenario merely reflects the fact that we can be intensely passionate about our goals, yet in complete self-control and control of the elements constituting or related to the means.

Even the kung fu master is likely to passionately defend his values while calmly defending himself from physical attack or stoically tolerating it.

As for Al Pacino, the degree of self-control and discipline that underlies his passionate portrayals further illustrates not only how passionate ends can require self-controlled means, but also quite the opposite…

How passionate means, e.g., fiery dramatic performances, help achieve very disciplined, focused and cool-headed or equally passionately held goals, e.g., to become a master of one’s craft and of huge troves of wealth and fame.

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