I was a big fan of the X-Men comics growing up, and thought that having a cool mutant power like moving objects with my mind would be pretty sweet. So naturally, I spent some time practicing that elusive skill.

My efforts centered around trying to get leaves to fall from tree branches or specific blades of grass to move, and as I accumulated hours of practice, there were times when I thought I succeeded!

Of course, I eventually realized that I had no gnarly mind control powers, and it was just the wind that moved the grass and leaves…but it took me a while to figure this out.

A similar illusion of control occurs in performance situations as well. Meaning, there are times when we think we have controlled something that we actually don’t have much control over. Like whether we win the approval of an audience, whether we get a good review from the local music critic, or whether we win over an audition panel.

What is this crazy talk you say?

Well, we like to think that we have absolute control over these key outcomes, but in truth, our control is oblique, or indirect at best. And when we devote our limited attentional resources to things we don’t fully control, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot and setting ourselves up to experience a lot of frustration.

So…what do we control, anyway?

Four levels of control

Level 1: Audience approval, winning a competition or audition

Generally, our thoughts go to outcomes – like whether we gain the approval of people we respect, or whether we win or lose an audition.

Much as we’d like to, we can’t directly manipulate others’ thoughts and opinions. Besides, they often don’t match up well with how we perform anyway. Sometimes we feel great about our performance, but get a lukewarm reception. Other times we feel horrible, and others love it.


Level 2: Playing our best

Hmm…so if we can’t control how others think, perhaps we should just focus on doing our best? After all, if we play our best, it maximizes the likelihood of winning a job or gaining the respect of our peers, right?

That’s better, but this isn’t something we have direct control over either.

Our hands might be cold and sticky. Maybe we don’t have a great reed. The acoustics might be horrible. Temperature changes could wreak havoc on our instrument.

Double argh!

Level 3: Getting into “the zone”

Ok, fine. So if we can’t just decide to play our best and will ourselves to have a peak performance, perhaps we should just focus on getting into “the zone,” or that state of flow where things feel easy and effortless, as if we are in control without controlling anything, and we sound great?

After all, getting into the zone maximizes the likelihood of playing our best, which in turn maximizes the likelihood of favorable outcomes, so maybe this is the key?

This is better still, but getting into the zone isn’t something we have direct control over either.

Like those infuriating magic eye pictures, the harder you try to get into the zone, the less likely you are to get there.


Level 4: Control the controllables

So what else is there? What can we control?

Quite a lot, actually.

We control our breathing, the release of key muscle tension, whether we have a clear intention, what we choose to focus on, how we recover from mistakes, etc., etc.

The problem is that these key behavioral and attentional factors seem so small and trivial in the grand scheme of things, so we feel that it’s not enough and yearn to control bigger things. Yet if we nail these key details, we maximize the likelihood of getting into the zone, which then maximizes the likelihood of a great performance, which in turn maximizes the likelihood of a favorable outcome.

Make great waffles

It’s a lot like making really great waffles (ala The Greatest Waffle Recipe Ever).

You’ll notice that the recipe calls for separating the egg whites. Sheesh, how much of a difference could that make?

The recipe also suggests mixing the dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately before combining – which means one more mixing bowl I have to wash. Is that really necessary?

But as I discovered the last few times I tried to cut corners on this recipe, these are the small, but crucial factors that represent the difference between awesomely crispy, chewy waffles and waffles that quickly become soggy as they cool down.

Stated another way, these are the key controllables that make all the difference in the world.

The one-sentence summary

“It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” ~John Wooden

Question: What are the key controllables that seem to make all the difference in your performances? I suspect it may be slightly different for each of us – but perhaps there are common themes? Leave a comment below…