The Art of Strategic Surrender Article by: Joe Caruso

“The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it,” said Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D., and it’s a statement that’s as true today as it was then. We, as well as everyone and everything around us, are in a constant state of change, and yet, change is what most of us fear most in life. It’s our thoughts about change, however, not change itself that cause our problems. And our fear of change is directly related to our need to maintain the illusion of control.

Our fears and insecurities make us feel as though we need to win each and every battle we face. Yet even the greatest military leaders of all time would tell us that this approach is the surest way to lose the bigger war. The key to the happiness, success, and power that we’re looking for is to learn how to identify which battles are truly winnable and which aren’t. What can we control and what do we have no control over? Then spend our precious time and energy only on those things we can control. I call this The Art of Strategic Surrender.

How many people do you know who are clinging to unproductive ideas and attitudes, dead-end jobs, or moribund relationships simply because they fear what might happen if they just let go and moved on? What we’ve got is known, even if it’s less than ideal; what we don’t have is the unknown and, therefore, fraught with danger — or so we think.

What we really need to figure out is twofold: whether what we’re clinging to is really within our control and, if it is, whether it is actually serving us well. If the answer to either of those two questions is “no,” then we need to let go of it.

The truth of the first part of that statement was demonstrated to me very clearly when I was a sophomore in high school. I very much admired our Spanish teacher, Mr. Garcia, who was strict but fair, with a great sense of humor and enormous patience for his less-than-linguistically-talented students.

One day, for some reason that was a mystery to us, he was late for class. The door was locked and all 28 of us were waiting for him in the hall when someone got the bright idea to jam the lock with the point of his pencil just to see what would happen when Mr. Garcia finally arrived. But if this wise guy thought he’d blow his stack, he was about to be bitterly disappointed.

When he got there, Mr. Garcia apologized for being late and proceeded to try to fit his key in the lock. When he realized it was jammed, he simply put away his key, took out his Swiss Army Knife, and began whistling quietly to himself as he worked the lock. He got it open in no time, let us all in, and started on the day’s lesson as if nothing had happened.

Admiring his cool and wondering what he was really thinking, I approached him after class. “Señor Garcia,” I started out nervously. “I felt bad about the lock being messed with today.”

“These things happen,” he shrugged.

“Well, the reason I bring it up is that a lot of us were really surprised you didn’t get angry. In fact, it didn’t seem to bother you at all. So, I’m curious, were you just covering it up or were you really as unfazed as you seemed to be?”

“That’s a good question, Joe,” he replied. “But, you see, I have a rule in my life that I always try to follow. When something happens to me, it falls into one of two categories: Either I can do something about it or I can’t. If I can, I need to gather myself together and do what I can. If I can’t, then I need to accept that and focus on something I can do something about.”

Mr. Garcia had made a clear distinction between things he could control and things he couldn’t, and he used that distinction as a context for everything he faced in life. In effect, he’d defined the power of letting go. By doing that in this situation he’d also found his power as a teacher. He’d won the respect of the class and taught me, personally, a valuable lesson that would serve me the rest of my life. His distinction became a powerful context for me to use in even my most unhealthy and out-of-control times. In fact, his advice may have helped to save my life. Three years later, I was diagnosed with cancer. As I was struggling with the ravages of chemotherapy, I applied Mr. Garcia’s advice to virtually every symptom, pain, and side effect. And in those times when energy seemed like a luxury, it was invaluable in helping me accept what I couldn’t control and bring what little energy I had to what I could.

Taking the Plunge

Imagine for a moment that you’re in a rowboat a mile from shore when the boat springs a leak. The bottom is quickly filling with water and the boat is about to sink. At this point you have three choices: You can stay with the boat and surely drown. You can jump out, abandon the boat, and swim for shore. Or, you can jump out and swim for shore, dragging the boat along with you.

Put in those words, the third choice sounds pretty ridiculous. But that’s exactly what many of us do. We slog through life dragging along outworn ideas, false assumptions, and relationships that we’ve outgrown or worn thin, and all the while we’re exerting a lot of effort. If you can picture all that stuff as so much useless baggage, I bet you’ll also be able to see that it’s no more than dead weight that’s keeping you from moving through life as effectively as you would if you just let it go. In the sport of ballooning, it’s ballast, or dead weight, that keeps the balloon on the ground. Once that ballast is jettisoned, the balloon begins to soar. Your own dead weight may take many shapes and forms — including people and dead-end relationships. If you let go of it, your hands will be free to grab opportunity when it arises.

It’s difficult to let go of anything we define as valuable. Many people, for example, have trouble throwing things away. My advice to these people is to throw away everything in their desks, closets, garage, and so on that they haven’t used in more than two years. But even that seems too difficult for some. To those people I suggest lovingly wrapping all those same items, carefully labeling the boxes, and storing them away so that after they die, their kids can throw them away.

That example may seem like something of a joke, but I use it simply to illustrate the fact that so long as we define anything as being in any way valuable, it’s difficult for us to let go of it. That’s why it’s so important for us to clearly identify the cost of whatever it is we’re holding onto. What does it cost us in time, energy, money, unhappiness, anxiety, and so on? We need to find a way to understand how the things we’re holding onto might be preventing us from getting something else we really want.

Whether I’m speaking at a convention, to senior-level managers, to employees, or to a volunteer group, I always try to point out the responsibility we all have for making sure that the cost of having me there was worthwhile. I do this in a number of ways. First, I ask the participants to estimate the cost per hour, based on their salaries, of gathering everyone in that room. I then remind them that I’m the only one who is actually doing his job at the moment. In addition, I ask them to consider what I call the “opportunity cost.”

The opportunity cost is the total cost of all of the opportunities we’re all missing by being in that room. While I realize it’s not possible to actually measure that cost, the suggestion helps people to recognize how expensive the meeting really is.

What I do with the participants in those meetings is very much like what we all have to do when we know we need to let go of something. We need to begin to evaluate the way we define that “something” with relation to what it costs us. Only once we recognize how expensive it is in terms of opportunity cost will we truly understand whether or not we can afford to hold onto it for the sake of habit, sentiment, or even old time’s sake.

By the same token, it’s also helpful to imagine the value of having what you want and realizing how good it will be to bring whatever that is into your life. For example, if you want to quit smoking, you might weigh the value of lighting up against the value of living to see your grandchildren. In other words, do everything you can to understand as fully as possible that the expense of your current reality may well be more than its worth.

Learning and mastering the Art of Strategic Surrender is invaluable in helping us learn to find the happiness, success, and fulfillment we’re looking for in our daily lives. I also suggest that it’s the smart person’s answer to that age-old adage, “You can’t win ‘em all.”

Learn more about Joe Caruso or his powerful audio program The Principles of Authentic Power. To book Joe at your next event, call 1.800.550.3506.