Steer with a Light Hand

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Getting where you want to go in life takes subtlety at least as much as it does power.

Forcing It

It seems, as a culture, we’re in love with speed, power and excess. Sometimes more is the right answer. Businesspeople like to say that they “throw money” or “throw people” at a problem, and this can work. But there are other problems which don’t yield to more, bigger and faster. Many complaints I see as a therapist fall into this category. I take pride in my ability to help my clients find the right levers to solve their problems, not so much with greater effort, but with greater efficiency and discernment of what actions make the most difference.

I once heard a tale of the danger of using power over finesse. Several years ago, I spent some time paragliding. Paragliders are cousins of parachutes, that are meant not for skydiving out of aircraft or other high places, but for gliding off hills and cliffs in much the same way hang gliders do. The main difference is that, unlike hang gliders, paragliders have no rigid parts and rely solely on air pressure generated by forward motion to keep the wing inflated. A series of thin lines connects the wing to the harnessed pilot, whose weight stabilizes and turns a scant few pounds of limp fabric into a long, thin, pressurized airfoil. The entire contraption — harness, wing and sundries — can be packed in a large backpack and carried by one person.

Being such light and delicate craft, paragliders require a soft touch to fly properly. This is in stark opposition to parachutes, which are smaller, stubbier, and tougher — built to absorb the shock of opening suddenly and arresting a 122 mph plummet from terminal velocity. Parachutes require much more forceful inputs to steer than paragliders, so a skydiver learning to paraglide calls for a major readjustment of how much strength to use in maneuvering the wing.

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So the story goes that an experienced skydiver came to learn paragliding, and on one flight the pilot thought he might have located a pocket of rising air he could ride like a soaring bird. As he turned to enter the area of lift, in his excitement, his skydiving habits reasserted themselves and he yanked hard on the control toggle. But instead of the quick turn he would have gotten with a parachute, the wing leaned all the way over until it was sideways and then almost upside down, with the wing underneath him, at which point the tension on the lines between pilot and his wing vanished. The air pressure holding the wing rigid slackened, and he fell back into the collapsing wing itself. The depressurized wing wrapped around him, tangling and preventing any hope of recovery. He fell to earth, blinded by the streaming shroud of his own wing, dying on impact.

My purpose is not to be morbid or to portray paragliding as a dangerous sport. What happened to this man was a shocking and rare event in a sport where safety, caution, and patience are drilled into every student pilot. My point is that we don’t always have an intuitive understanding of which situations call for more brute force, effort or stubbornness, and which require discretion, sensitivity and a light hand. Sadly, choosing power over discernment can backfire in many different contexts.

Learning Subtlety

The use of naked force and power is easy to see. It’s showy. It’s loud. It’s also quantifiable. If your car has 300 horsepower and mine has only 200, then it’s not much of a debate who has the more powerful car. Learning to be subtle is more difficult, but the analogy to steering can help.

Many beginning drivers tend to over-control a car’s steering at first. They think they need to use more muscle and turn the wheel farther than they actually need to do to change the car’s direction. When a car moves slowly, this isn’t much of a problem, but at speed, steering becomes more about pressure on the wheel than actually turning the steering wheel. Once this is understood, a student driver learns to steer by pressure alone.

Before making a big change in life, sometimes it pays to make a small change and see what happens. Small changes are cheaper, require less effort, and are more likely to be maintained over time than total overhauls of lifestyle. And although we often dream and long for dramatic change, sometimes a subtle shift can be just as satisfying. If a sedentary person starts walking, or a dissatisfied worker takes a few extra breaks or does their job in a slightly different way, these changes may be all that is required.

Steering with a light hand also requires patience. A number of craft, most notably boats, respond slowly to steering or lag behind control inputs. Turn the rudder a bit, and nothing seems to happen. The temptation is to turn farther to get things moving in the right direction. But because of lag, by the time you see the effects of the over-steer, you might already be trying to turn the other way to undo the over-steer, wondering why that’s not working either. Beginners often zig-zag along a course until they learn to be patient and watch for the full effects of their actions.

Another dimension of over-control is quantity over quality. Modern schooling is replete with a blizzard of worksheets, to be completed both in and out of class. While repetition and practice are crucial for learning, the temptation to believe more is better drives students to exhaustion and discouragement. Some learn negative lessons: how to rush through assignments with poor quality either to finish faster and retain some of their free time or simply to get through the onslaught. Beyond a certain point, more worksheets lead to less learning.

All too often, people begin working winning plans, but don’t stick with them when results fail to appear at first. Changing one’s deep-set beliefs, habits and predispositions is a game of months and years, not of days or weeks. While it’s a mistake to “stay the course” indefinitely, most people (and I count myself among them) tend to change course or give up long before they’ve taken time to see the true fruits of their labor.

Self-criticism can also be associated with brute-force change methods. If we’re unaware of how much of a change we need to make, if we’re not mindful of the lag time between our steering inputs and our metaphorical change in direction, then some people will jump to the conclusion that they’re too weak (unable to exert sufficient force), or just a failure.

Change in life, as in sailing, is cumulative. If the bow drifts just a degree or two in the same direction, it will turn all the way around before long. In life, if we can change a little bit at a time, but in the same direction, then dramatic change can be ours without sudden, violent and often damaging effort.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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