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WORK THE SYSTEM
The Simple Mechanics of Making More and Working Less
By SAM CARPENTER
Greenleaf Book Group Press
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
Chapter One Control Is a Good Thing
There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other. -Douglas Everett
For many, hearing any version of the statement "To get what you want, you must have more control" evokes the response that seeking control is a bad thing. They counter that one should relax and go with the flow, stay loose, and not worry so much about details, and that seeking more and more control can only mean one is devolving into a nervous control freak. There is an almost cosmological sense-a carryover from the '60s, perhaps-that "we're all one," and the problems in our lives and the world around us are due to people who don't share our brand of let-it-be spirituality. If my boss, my spouse, my parents, my children, my neighbor, and my government would just lighten up and be sensible-like me-then everyone could be happy!
Confident in the truth of it, we are eager to proclaim that the states of our lives-and of the world-are not good. We exhort that people are too uptight, too concerned with tiny details.
Allow me to retort.
Notwithstanding the possible metaphysical truth of the "we're all one" mantra, it's my contention that being in command of the details of our lives is mandatory if we are to find personal peace and success-if we are to find happiness. Conversely, while we're focusing on those things that are in our control, we must "lighten up" about those things that are not in our control. If we attempt to control events we can't influence, we are in for disappointment.
Is it difficult to determine what we can and cannot control? No, it's not.
My generation emphasized a great and useful truth: "What's happening now" is the most important thing. But I also know that the satisfaction I feel in any particular moment has much to do with the details I've managed in days past. Yes, I try hard to "be here now," but I spend some of that "here" time focusing on actions that will ensure future moments will be serene and efficient.
With my younger brother as an ally, I was brought up in my grandparents' house in a small town in upstate New York. It was a chaotic, unsettled household.
At seventeen, I was on the streets of the Haight district in San Francisco. It was 1967, the Summer of Love, when I discovered an intriguing escape from the not-so-perfect family situation back home. For two years, I traveled around the country, wallowing in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. (Well, maybe not that much sex.)
In the summer of '69 I ended up at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, the famous gathering of 500,000 in rural upstate New York. Far out, I thought. Afterward, I continued to fruitlessly seek a better state of mind, and two more years wafted by in a blur of pot and whatever other substance was handy. I was the poster child for the freewheeling '60s.
In my self-imposed stupor there was little I didn't complain about. I tried college but dropped out my second year, distraught in my loneliness and with my vision of a world gone mad. In 1970, during a Washington, D.C., political demonstration, I was teargassed. Literally, as the mist of gas rained down on our heads, I met the woman who was to be my wife and the mother of my two children. Within weeks, with my new love in tow, I revisited the now dangerous street life of San Francisco. We lived on those streets for two months and then returned to upstate New York.
Through it all, I balked at everything that didn't align itself with my idea of rightness, chafing at the unfairness of it all. I ranted that too many selfish people were controlling things, selfish people who were conspiring to ruin my life. Of course, I was a beacon of equanimity.
In truth, I was a pain to everyone around me while my life was a series of dead-end jobs and fleeting relationships with unhappy people not unlike myself. Profoundly unhappy, I was a narcissistic complainer, haunted by self-imposed psychic hooligans.
In the middle of all this, I married my tear-gas love. Not surprisingly, my bride was equally frustrated with the unfairness of life. We were two peas in a pod, loud and bold, convinced of our rightness and everyone else's wrongness.
Then, after six years of wallowing in this fog-existence, the chains suddenly fell off one August morning in 1973. Hung over and depressed yet again, I sat at the kitchen table in the dumpy apartment I shared with my wife. I was earning minimum wage as a seasonal worker at a recreational campsite, collecting garbage and cleaning public restrooms. I was late for work that morning, but nevertheless I sat there immobile, looking inward. I declared to myself, essentially, I'm not living like this anymore. Until now, my point of view has been wrong. No longer will I try to change the world by whining about it and fighting it. There is very little outside myself I can control, so I will stop agonizing over those things. I will arrange to go back to school this fall to learn something that can be used to create a future. From now on there will be no more complaining, no more blaming. Rather than rejecting the world as it's presented to me, I will get inside it-as it is-and see what I can do with the parts of it that are in my control.
Little did I know that my desperate acquiescence of "the system" in my midtwenties would be the first step toward writing a book thirty-five years later that would point out the beauty of systems and the freedoms they can provide. But unlike my preoccupations back then, what I write about here has nothing to do with politics, esoteric theory, or right or wrong. It's about simple mechanics.
I enrolled at the New York State Ranger School in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York to study forestry and land surveying. I put my head down, worked hard through the winter, and graduated the next summer with a technical degree. Continuing to pay attention to the details, my wife and I (and our five-month-old son) headed to Oregon with $400 in our pockets and everything we owned packed into a homemade trailer attached to the back of our Plymouth. I had made a stand. I was improving my life-and the lives of the two people who were depending on me-by expending my energy only on details that I could control. The fog in my head had lifted due to an absurdly simple adjustment in my thinking process.
But despite those first positive steps at dealing with the real world by focusing on what was truly in my control, I had not yet recognized the next necessary "systems-perspective" step that would lead to actually getting the peace and prosperity I wanted. In this ignorance, I would carry some very heavy baggage for another twenty-five years.
The best illustration of the baggage I carried is a photo taken at Woodstock. It's one you may have seen. It's of a lovely, slender, long-haired girl who is maybe eighteen years old. She's beautiful, and she's dancing in a meadow in a long, sheer dress. There is a flower wreath in her hair and she's laughing as she whirls with her arms stretched above her head in a casual way. Her thin, handsome, ponytailed boyfriend is dancing, too. They share a blissful peace-joy ecstasy, and anyone who sees that photo would, at least for a moment, want to be one of those two young people.
The image is a declaration of pure bliss with the clear message that unrestrained freedom and happiness are attainable, and the path to that place requires no more than a carefree and unrestrained comportment, hip music, and an unlimited supply of drugs. With a broad metaphorical brushstroke, the message of that photo is that happiness is available as soon as we drop our uptight preoccupations and "dance in the meadow." Let it all hang out. Stay loose. Go with the flow.
Back to the real world. The photo is an enticement for a state of mind that exists only for brief moments. Its message is a sham. One can't just "lighten up" and then expect ongoing happiness. Life isn't that way. But many of us who evolved from that era think it should be that way, and so we live from day to day in perpetual disappointment, within a world that won't conform to our expectations. Forty years after the '60s, that silly perspective has carried over to our children and beyond. We share a culture of chronic disappointment, and it's no surprise that many of us are crass, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. We bask in wealth the world has never known but wonder why our lives are chaotic and why we are unsatisfied.
We obsess about our yearning states of mind as we grope for personal peace. (Don't get me wrong as I make my points here. I don't like focusing on negatives, and this is a bit painful for me as I discuss the unhappy contortions of my generation. But it's a necessary discussion for understanding the Work the System premise, so I have to start here-in the negative- in order to set the stage for the rest of the book, which I promise you will find uplifting.)
In the Western world, 10 percent of adults are alcoholics, 70 percent drink copious amounts of caffeine, 25 percent are addicted to tobacco, and more than 10 percent rely on antidepressants. Throw in the other legal and illegal mood-altering drugs and it is safe to say that each day, 98 percent of us ingest at least one mood-altering substance in our endless search for better states of mind. Of course, many of us are multi-substance users, for instance, consuming caffeine in the morning and alcohol at night. One substance counters the negative effects of the other in the classic, endless loop of Western chemical mood adjustment.
The price to be paid
Abusing personal systems too often means introducing medications into the miraculous near-perfect system that is the body. Perceiving themselves to be unhappy, people complicate their already flawed thinking process by contaminating themselves. The ice-cold reality? One plus one always equals two, and with the same utter reliability, a drunken night out on the town equals days of subpar physical and mental performance as the human body works overtime to repair itself from the chemical assault. Too often, we make things worse in the long term by violating systems in the short term, as we ignore the simple truth that disruption of an efficient system always has its price. One could say that substance abuse is a criminal attack against one's self.
So we finger-point and complain and wonder at our dissatisfaction. It's too bad we do that because it's not just a waste of time, it's a diversion from what needs to happen in order to find life satisfaction. Personal excuses, generalizations about the alleged dire state of the world, and under-the-radar as well as overt attempts to change the people around us are ineffectual to the point of paralysis. These preoccupations are distractions from the personal actions we could take that would produce what we want in our individual lives: peace, prosperity, and control of our destinies. And pursuing personal peace, prosperity, and control are noble goals because the sure way to realize them is to contribute to the people around us.
What about the generally accepted notion that someone who seeks firm control is an unpleasant personality, someone who needs to loosen up? With some rare exceptions, I submit that this ubiquitous assumption is wrong.
But let's be clear: Happiness is not found in the control we have over others. It's found in the control we have over the moment-to-moment trajectory of our own lives, and more exactly-here we get to the root of things-the control of the personal systems that are ours to adjust and maintain.
The solution to getting what we want and making a contribution is not in complaining about the world condition or ingesting the perfect drug. And it's not about acquiring more things or being popular or famous. The solution is rooted in adopting a different perspective-a different way of seeing, thinking, and processing things-and it's about facing the world cold-turkey, courageously questioning the sacred status quo as it relates to our own selves. It's about sorting out what's going on within our individual areas of direct influence.
The thinking process is a linear system, and my contention, as illustrated in the dancing girl photo, is that many of us make a fundamental error in executing that process. Albeit tongue in cheek, I like to call this chronic thinking error the "Dancing-in-the-Meadow Syndrome."
Your Circle of Influence
A metaphorical concept made popular by Stephen Covey, the circle of influence describes one's ability to have an impact in life. In years past, I was hardly able to influence and control my own comings and goings due to whatever psychological funk was swallowing me up in the moment. My circle of influence felt like it was maybe two feet in diameter. Now, my circle feels as if it's miles in diameter as my days effortlessly sail by and I am able to accomplish nearly all that I set out to accomplish. This impact gives me enormous satisfaction as the wheels of progress keep turning due to my previous input, not because of my immediate presence.
Take a moment to use your imagination and describe your own circle. How large is it? Is it just six inches in diameter? If it is, when you look down, is the six-inch circle hidden underneath your feet? If the tiny circle was even twelve inches in diamerter, you could barely balance on it. Do you spend all your available energy and attention just trying not to fall off? If that is your situation, your tenuous balancing effort doesn't leave much time for anything but complaining.
Wherever you are, whatever the size of your circle of influence, focus on making changes inside of it, not outside. Don't spend precious time and energy analyzing and dissecting big-picture issues you cannot affect. Instead, spend that time and energy on the things you can affect, things within your circle. Do that, and your circle will expand.
LIFE IS A STREAMING VIDEO, NOT A SNAPSHOT
Outside of brief moments within that encapsulated era, the unbridled approach of the '60s was just another great idea that didn't work. It was a theory that didn't consider how we are but how we thought we should be. If the Woodstock meadow-dancing photo had instead been a documentary movie, the hours and days surrounding that dance would tell a different story.
The truth of Woodstock? The nonstop music was good, but few bands played their best due to the confusion and pervasive drug ingestion. Yes, it was peaceful, but after that first glorious day, it was cold and wet, and we sat in the mud shivering, drenched, hungry, and thirsty. In the rain, a half million of us worked hard to relax, insistent in our success at being together outside "the system" for nothing more than music and love. "It's all we need!" we told ourselves over and over again. We had jumped outside the everyday world, but in our T-shirts, jeans, and little else, we were unprepared as the chilly torrent hammered down. It was no contest as soft theory met bare-knuckled hard reality.
With the inevitability of a wave washing into shore, the enthusiasm faded as the filth that comes with neglected crowds began to accumulate. After two days of this, as a general paranoia swept through the wet, shivering, drug-addled horde, my friend John and I got out of there. We left before Jimi Hendrix had taken the stage. It was that bad.
As we headed home in my beat-up wreck of a car, listening to the radio, we were reminded of Vietnam, racial unrest, and political deviousness. And beyond those negatives, we both worked graveyard shifts in a paper mill, and as we drove north, exhausted and depressed, any joy we experienced at Woodstock was within a narrow sliver in time.
Excerpted from WORK THE SYSTEM by SAM CARPENTER Copyright © 2009 by Sam Carpenter. Excerpted by permission.
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