Do you ever feel like you aren’t where you’re meant to be? You have put loads of effort into figuring out what you want to do and who you want to be, you’ve put tons of work into getting there, you’ve taken risks, you’ve prayed, you’ve waited patiently for the stars to align., but despite all of this work and effort and faith, you’re still puttering along while other people zoom up behind you, pull out, and overtake?

I understand. It’s so frustrating to feel like you’ve got something to say, but no one is listening, that you are ready to lead, but no one is following, or that you’ve got something to sell but no one is buying. It’s hard, in other words, not to have influence when you feel you’ve got something to offer.

Influence can sound like a ‘dirty’ word in some circles. We have a certain distrust of people who want power, but we should think about influence as a more complex concept. Influence is the power to affect things, the power to effect change. Not having influence is extremely frustrating. Think about the person who makes a proposal in a meeting, but gets interrupted and ignored. Think about the frustration of filling up the work suggestion box in a workplace that won’t even supply adequate drinking water but having nothing ever responded to. Think about the person who stands up to a table of peers making hurtful comments about immigrants in their neighbourhood, only to have them get up and walk away. Think about the people trying to adopt, waiting powerlessly for a phone call. These are not fictional examples. When things feel out of your sphere of influence, it’s really, really frustrating.

I was frustrated at work yesterday. We had training in the morning to improve our teaching skills, but so much of what was taught is really difficult to implement within the system we work in. I’ve tried to influence the system because I’m passionate about teaching, but it hasn’t made much difference.  I stayed behind to talk with the trainer, who gave me some ideas for working within the system and encouraged me to remember all this in years to come, when maybe, just maybe, I will be the one with the power to effect change.

It’s frustrating, but this post isn’t about how to get more influence. It’s about how to make the most of the times when you don’t have it.

The last time Aaron and I had this conversation, we were on a road trip. “Sometimes,” we said to each other, “it can feel like we’re not allowed on the motorway.” If speed is influence, in this analogy, then there are times and places in our lives when we’ve felt we’re like learner drivers who aren’t allowed on the motorway. We’ve got the accelerator, but we’re not allowed to push it.[1]

We asked ourselves what the advantages could be that position, and how to make the most of it, and this is what we came up with.

Speed is awesome, but it’s also dangerous. If you make a mistake when driving at speed, you are much more likely to crash your car. You don’t have much time to correct, and you’re surrounded by others driving at speed. If you do crash at speed, you do yourself and your vehicle a lot more damage than if you crash going slowly. You also run the risk of doing others a lot more harm if you mess up while driving at speed.

I was reminded of a scene I saw on a documentary. Some drunk drivers had been pulled over by the police, and they were angry. They shouted and cursed at the policemen and women, mouthing off at them. The next shot was an interview with one of the policemen, who was asked what he thought of the scene. “It’s hard to be attacked for pulling them over” he said, “when we’ve basically saved their lives.”

Influence can be very similar to speed. When you have influence and you make a mistake, you’re much more likely to crash and burn. You’re under a lot more pressure, and everything you do is a lot more public. You don’t have much time to correct, and poor decisions are much more likely to do serious harm to both yourself, your ‘vehicle,’ and others around you. When I think of some of the people I know who have been publicly humiliated, messed up their marriage, their careers and their lives, by not being ready to handle the influence they were given I realise that being given influence prematurely is a bit of a curse, really. I realise that for some people being pulled over and having influence taken away from them can even be a lifesaving act.

Of course, none of that means we shouldn’t desire influence, any more than that a driver shouldn’t desire speed. If the heroes of this world hadn’t had influence, they wouldn’t have achieved what they did – obviously. I think though, that whether or not you and I are ready for more influence than we’ve got, the analogy can help us make the most of the place that we’re in. If someone hasn’t passed their driving test yet, as frustrated as they might be, the best they can do is practice their driving over and over again, so that when they finally do get their license they can expertly handle the speed. The analogy breaks down, of course, because we don’t get influence by passing a test, and it is not a limited thing like speed on the motorways is – but that is all the more reason to apply the principle. The more you deal with your rubbish now, the better placed you will be to handle influence when you get it. Do you procrastinate like crazy? Do you care too much what other people think of you? Do you treat your body badly – eating crap and sleeping too little? Are you blindly competitive? These kind of things only get more destructive with more influence.

If you’re feeling like you aren’t where you’re meant to be, think about how you can make the most of where you are. Do the inner work that may just save your life in the future. Each frustrating day can be taken and turned into a foundation stone for a beautiful future. Maybe one day you’ll look back from a place of influence and thank your younger self for all the work you did to pave the way to your future today.

Image by Pixabay user PDPics

[1] For my international readers, in the UK, when you turn seventeen you’re allowed to apply for your provisional driving license to drive a car, which allows you to be behind a wheel on public roads while you learn. You have to have someone with you know has a full driving license who is willing to take the brave position of front-seat passenger while they teach you. You are not allowed on motorways and you have to stick a big ‘L’ on your car to let the world know you’re learning. Once you think you’re ready, you take your test and if you pass, the ‘L’ comes off and the accelerator goes on.