How To Get Unstuck: When You Can’t Control The Outcome, Focus On Your Input

The score takes care of itself

Too often in our lives, we are faced with outcomes that are entirely outside of our control. We can’t control the people we work with and for, and the choices they make. We can’t control the responses to the work we do, to the words we write, to the things we express and share. We can’t control the way people treat us, and the way people answer us.

That lack of control is increasingly constricting and anxiety-producing. We have given up so much of our lives to technology, to the people we engage within our relationships — to give up more control feels like a sure way to lose ourselves and who we are.

Input vs. Outcome

Our focus is almost purely on the outcomes of our lives. We obsess over those outcomes before we even begin creative or professional projects. We panic and worry about the reception to our work when that work is still in the theoretical stage — IE before we’ve even fucking tried. That overemphasis on the outcome has a particularly negative impact — it denigrates work and removes any value it has on its own, divorced from how people perceive it.

A piece of software does not derive its worth from how many users it has. Its worth depends on how it was made, how it runs, how clean and beautiful the code. Its worth is innate and inherent when its creator has invested themselves and a small piece of their heart into its inception.

In short, you don’t have to sell it successfully for it to be good. It can be good purely by your investment of blood, sweat and tears. It can be good because it does what it is intended to do, and it does it well because you took the time to do it right.

The same is true of any other activity. It’s the input that matters.

In his book The Score Takes Care of Itself by former SF 49ers coach Bill Walsh, he talks about the importance of every single action taken by every single member of the team, from the groundskeepers to the athletes themselves.

“The culture precedes positive results. It doesn’t get tacked on as an afterthought on your way to the victory stand. Champions behave like champions before they’re champions; they have a winning standard of performance before they are winners.”

You can’t set out to win. That’s not a tangible goal that can be broken down and attempted. All you can do is identify each of the steps it takes to be a great writer, a great artist, a great founder or a great investor, and take full, unflinching responsibility for those steps.

What is your responsibility?

Your responsibility lies in owning the things that must be done. You don’t get to make excuses if you want to be good at something, if you want to achieve something of worth.

The issues we can control are directly related to our actions and our words. I am in no way saying we shouldn’t address the issues that cause us stress, pain, or make us uncomfortable at work, but I do believe that for many people, addressing those issues through the filter of the outcome could lead to some very unproductive choices and a level of stress and helplessness we may not be comfortable with. 

I’ve observed that the places where you can find clarity on this issue are most often related to your technical output. In other words, technical decisions. Often, this doesn’t relate to what you create at all. It relates to what you make, what you say, what you write, what you share. It’s about what you do. When you use your work to express yourself, to create, to deliver or share your vision, you are often confronted with the reality of the limitations of language, and the ways that the world presents your message to others. You have to own that. You can’t blame someone else for it, and you can’t shirk the responsibility you have to reach for the best version of it.

How do we make our input better?

Outcomes in life, work and love are often unpredictable. When we think about control, it’s only natural to focus on the inputs, or what we do, how we act, what we say, how we think, what we write, and even who we’re with. 

We find ourselves forced to focus only on the process. Do we speak as well as we should? Do we engage in the work in the best way we can? Is the work complete? Does the timing fit what we expect? When our input is ignored, when the outcome is far from the way we expect it to be, it can be terribly frustrating. But it’s not the end of the world. We can still find pride in knowing we made what we set out to make.

This is an opportunity for feedback and reevaluation. If we can learn to separate the outcome from our input, we can go back to our next task with more confidence, more creativity and increased awareness of what went wrong. 

I’ve been writing my blog since 2008, and as you can imagine, the majority of those contributions are now dormant. The moments I had spent preparing a post, researching a topic, crafting a message and drafting the words I’d written, have mostly served to build a collection of rusted out graveyards littering the internet. And yet, I still believe I’m an author. Why?

Because my input is there. My work is there. Writers write, and I fucking write. I sit down with a notebook or a laptop every day and I put down a series of words in the order of my choosing, and I do it to the best of my abilities. If people don’t read it, I’m still a writer. If people ignore me, I’m still a writer. When all that matters is your input — and you manage that input with care — the outcome will either be there or it won’t, but you’ve done everything in your power. 

And the score will take care of itself.

Joan Westenberg is an award winning Australian contemporary writer, angel investor, communicator and creative director. She is the founder of branding and PR firm Studio Self. Her approach to messaging, communication and semiotics has built her reputation as a writer, and she has been named as one of the leading startup voices in Australia by SmartCompany.

Her writing has appeared in The SF Chronicle, Wired, The AFR, The Observer, ABC, Junkee, SBS, Crikey and over 40+ publications. Her regular work can be found on Pizza Party, a blog about creativity, culture and technology. Joan is the creator of Transgenderinclusion.com, an open-source workplace inclusion hack.