The Joy of Feeling In Control and Out of Control: The Merlin Works February Newsletter:

“Traveling with a four-year-old boy is like transferring a serial killer between prisons.” —Jim Gaffigan

If you have a preschooler, then you know this genius thing they figured out about school drop-off. Some amazing teacher figured it out a long time ago, and it’s spread like wildfire, so that it’s the standard practice at just about any school you go to (and we’ve been to three in 5 years). It transforms tearful drop-offs into quick and joyful exchanges. Are you ready? Here it is:

Let your kid push you out the door.

That’s all it is. Instead of saying goodbye and trying to get away while your little one is clinging and crying, they have a big smile on their face as they push you out the door. Like both hands, a shove and slam that door behind ya.

Why is this so effective, and what does it tell us about human nature?

It changes the story from “Mommy is leaving me!” to “I’m making Mommy go.” It’s the toddler version of “You can’t fire me, I quit!”

This trick changes the “locus of control.” Charles Duhigg discusses this concept in his newest book, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. The book is all about what will “separate the merely busy from the genuinely productive.”

Duhigg sums up the idea in an interview with Business Insider in 2016:

“Locus of control is whether someone believes they have power over their destiny. What psychologists have found is that there’s two types of locus of control: there’s an external locus of control, which is when I believe that the world has influence on what happens to me and the choices that I make, and then there’s an internal locus of control, which is when I believe that I’m in control of what happens to me, and that I have full authority and control over the choices that I make.

“People who have an internal locus of control believe they have the freedom and the ability to make their own choices and to determine what happens to them, and those people are significantly more successful in life.

“Which makes a ton of sense, because if you’re the type of person who believes you have agency, that you have free will and that you have the resources to make choices, then you end up being more motivated, you end up making better decisions. You are not simply reactive to what life throws with you, you are proactive, and that’s highly correlated with success.”

When you feel like you have control—whether you actually do or not—you feel more motivated and happier about your life.

And control is a big reason I am in to improv. When I tell my love story with improv, it usually goes like this: In improv, you are in control. You are the writer, director, actor, and (most importantly) the casting agent. You get to play the parts you want to play, tell the stories you want to tell, and say the lines you want to say. But at the same time, you are also out of control, because you are making it up on the spot with other people. Anything could happen and you don’t know what’s coming next. This contrast is one of the things that makes improv so fundamentally satisfying. Good improv is like surfing—or what I imagine surfing to be like. You feel like you are riding high and in control, when you are actually just responding to the wave. The wave is not responding to you.

From my point of view, when I am performing from a script, I am much more out of control. All I can do is choose how to say the lines, how to move, and how to feel. I’m a puppet, putting on a performance to help execute someone else’s vision. I’m guessing most actors would feel the opposite, since in scripted work they can prepare as much as they like until the feel completely in control of their performance.

Just this week I was teaching Improv 201, challenging students a few months in to their improv journey to start scenes as specifically as possible. It was gratifying to see them start to shape their own scenes. I saw a rare and fabulous scene between a lonely little girl and a polite but frustrated housekeeper. And this was created with no suggestion, just completely from the players’ imaginations.

That feeling of riding the wave…of sculpting the improv scene…of pushing your mommy out the door…it can give us a feeling of control in a world that is steadily seeming more and more out of control. And it gives us a sense of agency that will hopefully leak into the rest of our lives, motivating us to make better choices.

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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One comment

  1. Leila said:

    Love it!!

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